I had breakfast with a team of folks from one of the big enterprise software outfits while I was at the Lean Accounting Summit – they got to pick my brain on how to better incorporate lean into their ERP offering, and I got a free plate of bacon and eggs. I got the better end of the bargain.
While the prospects of them making the fundamental changes needed to really understand and support lean are slim, I have to give them credit for wanting to talk to me. They specifically looked me up at the Summit because of the reputation both Kevin and I have earned for being frequent and vocal critics of ERP, in fact, asked me point blank why lean advocates are so down on information technology.
My answer – it is not information or technology lean folks rail against – it is numbers. Far too often the two are assumed to be the same. In fact, lean is all about information. Having lots of it, widely disseminated, is necessary for success and to the degree technology helps accomplish this, so much the better.
The problem with most information systems is that, rather than empower people on the shop floor to make better decisions, they are used to empower executives, accountants, buyers and schedulers to make decisions far away from the scene of the action. They do so by attempting to boil the reality of the factory down to numbers, and thereby creating a theoretical picture of things. These managers and technicians then make critical decisions based on the theory of the factory, rather than the reality.
Not all numbers are bad or wrong. The customer ordered 26. The machine produced 31. Those are facts and make for important information. It is the derived information to substitute for the lack of facts that create the problem. Standards, budgets, forecasts, ratios, averages, and everything coming from the realm of statistics are dangerous, and describe theory instead of reality.
An old boss of mine had a plaque on his desk that said, "There are few things in life more tragic than to see your beautiful theories murdered by a gang of brutal facts." It was quite true, but the overwhelming majority of poor decisions are rooted in having made them based on such theoretical information. Bad management is too often rooted in holding people at the point of the action accountable for the gap between reality and the theory. Things didn't happen the way the forecasts, standards and averages implied they would – and it is the shop floor's fault.
There is nothing wrong with blasting the accurate, known facts far and wide throughout the organization. That is good, common sense management. It is plugging in calculated or derived numbers where facts do not exist, or assuming the few hard facts paint the whole picture that is wrong. This, of course, is why lean companies focus on making decisions at the gemba and empowering people closest to events. No computer and no arithmetic are good enough to define reality for people removed from the action, and attempts to overcome this basic principle, or management operating under the illusion of knowing reality from some remote location, lead to nothing but trouble.