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SAP – Look in the Mirror

I know, I know... I just wrote about SAP and complexity.  Just yesterday.  But leave it to SAP, purveyor of the most complex software solution for the simplest problem, to come out with a white paper today by Ian Alexander complaining about complexity itself.  Not only are they the false god of the almighty algorithm, they apparently also have remarkable timing.  Or perhaps the ability to time news releases is just another add-on "feature" of their software.  Call it "xNEWS."

The introduction to the article is stunning in itself...

While the world is spinning complexities into uber-complexities, distributed manufacturing assets are turning spreadsheets into origami and shop floor manager’s schedules into kitchen notes. Lean manufacturing priests say: “Do nothing, don’t systematize.” SAP couldn’t help themselves in creating SAP xApp Lean Planning and Operations (SAP xLPO), and since late 2006 the perfect plant concept has been digital.

One major reason why the "world is spinning complexities into uber-complexities" is SAP itself.  In fact, it's hard not to think of "SAP" as synonymous with "uber-complexity."  Just try to keep track of the number of "xApp" (application add-ons) talked about in this one article... xApp, xLPO, xMII... geesh!  And those are just the ones associated with the algorithms they added after acquiring Factory Logic. 

"Spreadsheets into origami and shop floor manager's schedules into kitchen notes?"  Pretty flamboyant writing... almost like us.  But why use all that when you just need a white board?  Ok, perhaps overly simplistic for some situations, but that's the problem with SAP and other ERP software... they systematize (apparently at the great chagrin of "lean manufacturing priests") waste instead of peeling back the onion to see how simple it really could be.  Rather amazing that a white paper trying to promote the new SAP lean manufacturing modules would take a swipe at lean manufacturing.  Or at least at priests.  Should Catholics and Mayans be offended? 

It gets better.  After comparing lean manufacturing to George on Seinfeld... hmmm... actually at the risk of making this a long post, I think I better quote those lines as well as I simply can't do it justice.  Here goes...

There is an episode of Seinfeld where Jerry and George pitch their show idea to TV executives. When they are asked what the show is about, George exclaims, “Nothing. The show is about absolutely nothing.” When speaking to someone in the lean manufacturing camp, you get this same impression. If you ask: “How do I schedule my factory more efficiently?” They will answer: “When the box is empty, you fill it up.”

True!  Is there a problem with that?  But Mr. Alexander sounds like he's being just a tad condescending to us knuckle-dragging shop floor cavemen.  Which becomes more evident in the next paragraph...

Lean planning is all about visualizing and reacting but when your manufacturing plants are dotting the global landscape from Georgia to Guangzhou, how can executives see what is going on? C-level executives swimming in those turbulent waters of global manufacturing face three distinct challenges in the management of a lean manufacturing facility. First, the inability or difficulty in seeing the current production status. Second, the inability or difficulty of measuring performance on the shop floor and third, the inability or difficulty improving overall execution.

All those flowery adjectives are making me nauseous. I wonder if this guy has ever even seen a shop floor.   Nope, doubtful, I just looked him up.  I won't go into all the miscongruity... lean, planning, reacting, plant in Guangzhou... pretty LAME.  Why in the world would you need an obscenely complex software program just to see current production status?    Why does a "C-level" exec need to micromanage the performance of an individual shop floor? 

If you need to coordinate boatloads of WIP on the high sees, then perhaps there's a need... but then you aren't lean.  If you haven't developed your shop floor folks enough so they can effectively manage a simple pull system to a couple key metrics, then you aren't lean.  Basic policy deployment or hoshin kanri can handle the execution piece.  In the end it's about people, smart knowledge people, not software.

Excel has a seven out of 10 stranglehold on much of the manufacturing world, according to Sami Cassis, product manager for SAP xLPO. So, SAP xLPO had to be spot on and it had to be user friendly. Cassis states, “You are not talking about developing software for an IT guy to use. You are talking about developing software that someone on the shop floor is going to use.

Too bad they don't practice what they preach.  As SAP chairman Hasso Plattner told us yesterday, "We don't talk enough to the real end users.  Even if we work intensively with the customer, we work with their IT department." 

Vivek Bapat, senior director of solution marketing for manufacturing, SAP, says, “What we are trying to do for our customers is help them bridge the gap between their enterprise system and the shop floor.”

Why?  I can name a large automaker, in fact the worlds most profitable automaker, which has no shop floor scheduling aside from electronic kanbans.  ERP is used for gross scheduling and tracking.  They're doing fairly well.

For years the lean purists said: “If you can produce a piece of software which adheres to lean philosophies and assists in the running of multi-global site manufacturing so we can scale and be lean, we’re interested.” SAP xLPO is here, lean purists, shining a whole new light on your factory.

Uh, not exactly.  SAP, heal thyself.  Uber-complexity is you.

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4 Responses to "SAP – Look in the Mirror"

  • Big Ben
    17 May 2007 - 9:00 pm

    Hey watch it SAP! My father’s a priest! Oops…

  • vic kingery
    23 May 2007 - 7:01 pm

    Kevin, with all due respect – I believe you’ve got some of your facts mixed up. First – Ian Alexander is not an SAP employee, do your homework – you may have much influence over many people – why would you take such a cavalier attitude toward facts?

    Second, the large automaker you mention DOES use it’s own proprietary software for heijunka. Check the facts. I believe the issue is sustainability and scalability of the lean processes.

    I respect your views and offer this only as an opinion from an open mind. I look forward to reading more of your opinions.

    Best regards.

  • Kevin
    23 May 2007 - 9:54 pm


    I appreciate the comments. I don’t recall saying that Mr. Alexander was a SAP employee, in fact the profile I linked to provides his actual background. However his article, as well as many others by him, are on the SAP website and obviously promote the company, therefore there’s at least a close affinity. Although he has an even greater love of flowery adjectives than I do, some of his other articles provide an interesting insight into specific industries.

    Yes Toyota has a combination electronic heijunka and kanban, and if you’ve toured one of their plants (such as Georgetown) you’ll immediately notice what a simple system it is. The system is a tool, an aid, not a control. There isn’t an obsession with linking and analyzing every possible source of data.

    And that’s my main point: too many companies look for systems to manage their complex businesses without first working to simplify their operations. Those systems then add an even greater layer of complexity, and often enforcing business processes to existing models, thereby constraining future improvement opportunities. Real or not, SAP has a reputation for that, and as I pointed out a few days ago even SAP chairman Hasso Plattner laments that fact.

    I am glad to hear from many readers that they are beginning to recognize the need for simplicity. Just today I had a two hour telecon with the president of a smaller ERP software company that wants to offer simpler, smaller, more flexible, more interactive, and more visual solutions. That’s the right direction to truly support lean.


  • Paul Boris
    19 August 2007 - 11:26 am

    Great point:

    “I am glad to hear from many readers that they are beginning to recognize the need for simplicity. Just today I had a two hour telecon with the president of a smaller ERP software company that wants to offer simpler, smaller, more flexible, more interactive, and more visual solutions. That’s the right direction to truly support lean.”

    I just stumbled across this post today, and find it amazing that manufacturing folks (the ones who work in and have run plants) get so passionate.

    I think you have fallen for the teaser on SAP’s Perfect Plant. It really has nothing to do with what SAP defines as perfection, but what that manufacturing concern, in conjunction with each of those sites, defines as perfection. This is new ground in some respects for SAP, but is creating a grass-roots takeover of the supply chain by the manufacturing teams (as opposed to the finance folks who used to run it).

    Dig in to the details around Perfect Plant. If you get in touch with the right resources, they will tell you is it ALL about simplicity. You might find something nice to say about SAP as well…