Over the past couple years we’ve been doing battle with the False God of the Almighty Algorithm. This initially stemmed from a conversation with the owner of a small manufacturing company that insisted he needed to implement a complex MRP system in order to be successful. As we demonstrated, after using lean manufacturing methods to dry up inventory and reduce cycle times, running down to Staples to get a visual MRP system… a whiteboard… can be the best solution. Not convinced? I can point you to many small companies and even a couple in the $100 million range that use it for all shop floor management.
Well after many months of retreat, and even battling among themselves, the false gods have opened a new front: document and compliance management software.
Many of us have worked in companies with huge documentation and compliance management infrastructures. Whole departments of people doing nothing except processing SOP changes, fixing typos, and revving drawings. Then those documents need to be printed, distributed, and especially in regulated environments the down-rev documents must be collected and destroyed. Some larger companies should probably invest in forests in order to maintain a stable supply of paper. How many times have we had to wait weeks for something like "watter bath" to be corrected to "water bath" and how much time, effort, and reduction of value to the customer was involved?
Then there’s the compliance side of things. NCMR’s being generated left and right, routed, processed… all "managed" by yet another group living in a cubicle-town. Numbers must be assigned, observations filled out, routed to have corrective action added, then implemented, then verified, and then the document is finally closed. In most cases the corrective action is something along the lines of "retrain the damn operator" so obviously the problem keeps recurring and recurring (now that’s a redundant statement in itself!). The same convoluted and excessively managed process is applied to CAPA’s, supplier NCMR’s, internal and external audit observations, and customer complaints.
What a mass, or morass, of paperwork nirvana! A whirlwind! A snow globe! You know you have a problem when you have titles like "documentation control specialist," "document expeditor," and perhaps even people dedicated to printing and collating.
So what’s the solution? Almost invariably it’s "we need software." Some massive collection of interlocking modules to manage operating procedures, forms, and all sorts of compliance documentation. All paperless, all seamless, moving concurrently instead of serially. NCMR’s could be processed so much faster, documents could hit the shop floor so much quicker. All for probably around a quarter million bucks.
Yeah, right. Just like ERP/MRP implementations are always on budget, on time, providing exactly what was expected. And it will be the same process you’ll want to use for the next decade, otherwise "modifications" and "enhancements" will be required. The false god rears his ugly head again.
Automating the management of a problem is not managing the problem.
What would happen if you didn’t have NCMR’s, customer complaints, and CAPA’s? Or if your process documentation was so simple, so visual, that changes were rare? Impossible? Really? Are you really attacking the root cause of problems, or are you simply perpetually retraining the operator? You’d think after a couple dozen retrainings you’d realize that there might, just might, be something wrong with the process instead of the operator. Otherwise perhaps you need to look into the root cause of a pathetically poor hiring process. Don’t have time to look into the root cause? Strange… you somehow also have a quarter million to spend.
Instead of dropping a quarter million on yet another massive software system, how about investing in true improvement. Dedicate some people to true root cause analysis and kaizen. Create a culture where repeat problems are simply unacceptable, where an operator is empowered to call a root cause emergency, where the swamp is drained of wastewater so the underlying problems can be found.
Then accept the pain of managing the few remaining documents, NCMR’s, and such as a good thing. A little pain can be a good reminder. It keeps you on your toes, always trying to find a better way. Just like the ease of a $20 co-pay keeps many people from making the lifestyle changes needed to improve their long-term health, a chunk of beautifully-designed software can keep us from improving the underlying issues in our operations.
Identify and attack the problems, keep it visual and simple. You may realize you don’t need to worship the false god. Be strong.