Workflow: 'Unsung Hero'

Dec. 21, 2004
Lockheed Martin executive cites process-improvement potential.

A pressing concern for many manufacturers today is how to ensure a meaningful payback from their spending on information technology (IT). One of the keys, stresses Bob Gilbert, is sound development of the business case for each investment. "For instance, it is possible to buy a solution for a given business problem that is the Cadillac in its category -- one that has more bells and whistles than you can shake a stick at," says Gilbert, who is manager of manufacturing systems at Lockheed Martin Corp.'s Tactical Aircraft Systems unit in Ft. Worth. "But the question is: Will all of the bells and whistles add value? And the answer, in my experience, is no." The challenge for management, he asserts, is to determine which IT solutions will add value and which represent overkill. One technology that can have a "tremendous payback," Gilbert observes, is workflow management -- software systems that automatically route documents and notifications to people who must perform various sequential tasks or issue approvals. Although workflow mechanisms often are embedded in enterprise-level systems such as enterprise resource planning (ERP) or product data management, external packages also are available for use with processes that are not defined in an enterprise system. "Because a lot of processes are left unattended, there is often a need for an external use of workflow," Gilbert points out. For example, the Lockheed Martin plant, which makes fighter aircraft including the F-16 Fighting Falcon, uses a workflow solution from Action Technologies Inc. to manage its quality-assurance (QA) reporting process. By implementing the Action Technologies software, the plant converted its QA reporting from a paper-based process to a computerized process. "We now have absolute control over quality-assurance reporting -- and that has given us a lot of benefits," Gilbert says. "The payback was very rapid." There is another major benefit. In many cases, implementing workflow mechanisms forces a company to define processes that may not have been well understood. "In defining a process, what happens is that people often say, 'My goodness, this step in the process is totally unnecessary.' They begin to see opportunities for process improvement," Gilbert points out. "Workflow not only provides an opportunity to permanently encase a process definition that is going to be used by people, but it also gives them an opportunity to see the process and to find opportunities for improvement." With such mechanisms people get into "real process reengineering," he says. "I think workflow management and workflow-management mechanisms are the unsung heroes of technology today." Lockheed Martin's sprawling Ft. Worth complex, which experienced a 39.7% productivity improvement over a five-year period, has a manufacturing-resource-planning system that earned accolades under the U.S. Navy's "best manufacturing practices" program. A planned conversion to an ERP system -- SAP R/3 -- is expected to provide a further boost. For one thing, it will replace some of the plant's legacy systems that require costly support programs. "I'm looking forward to being able to decrease the support that we currently devote to several of our legacy systems and using those skills and money to do new things," Gilbert says. "I think ERP systems have enormous potential. But it is a matter of how you implement them. You have to understand the mechanics of how those systems are implemented before you actually implement them. "ERP is an invasive solution. It spells change everywhere. And people are often resistant to change. So you have to do a lot of things to help the end users want to participate in the change process. One of the things you have to do is to help them understand the solution."

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