Bridging The Great Divide

July 13, 2007
Plant operations depend on their companies' IT departments to help operations run smoothly, but too often there's a general distrust between the two organizations because of cultural differences. Like a marriage, the healing begins with communication.

Two critical departments within manufacturing organizations -- the plant floor and the information technology (IT) department -- are worlds apart these days. The main driving factors are language barriers, misaligned goals and resistance to change. While these challenges seem to mirror the difficulties that often follow globalization, a cultural rift exists closer to home than many might think.

It's a problem that's become increasingly visible as manufacturing operations have become more automated. In the early days of computers, IT serviced large mainframe units that were used for non-plant-related functions, such as finance, sales and order entry. As computers became more affordable and sophisticated in the 1970s, the plant floor began utilizing the technology, forming two, sometimes three separate organizations -- IT, engineering and electrical -- that had their own computers, says Peter Martin, vice president of performance measurement and management for industrial automation provider Invensys plc.

As a result, different departments within one organization were using similar technology, so manufacturers began converging the groups. This caused apprehension among the departments because they feared such knowledge sharing could lead to job losses.

"We have organizations that evolved out of very different mindsets and very different technologies that end up being somewhat scared to death of each other because they're afraid that they're going to lose their jobs to the other group," Martin notes. "That's not necessarily the best cultural environment to develop a collaboration approach across the organization."

The division can become even more noticeable when companies are trying to implement continuous improvement programs. A major mistake many manufacturers make is deploying lean without getting IT involved. This can contribute to what Symbol Technologies' Kevin Prouty refers to as the "lean dip," or stagnation of continuous improvement progress. "IT becomes your friend when you have to start collecting data," says Prouty, senior director, manufacturing solutions, for the Motorola Inc. subsidiary.

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Dow's Collaborative Journey

At the same time, the IT group is oftentimes resistant to participating in kaizen events because they think that "lean" translates into "job losses" or believe their jobs are merely a support role rather than a strategic position.

Manufacturers that have successfully overcome these integration challenges have done so through cross-training, team-building efforts, definition of common goals and simple communication.

Role Playing

At Dow Chemical Co., changing the perception of roles was a major part of the chemical giant's ability to bring IT and manufacturing together. Prior to 2001-2002, Dow's information systems specialists worked in strictly defined roles, whereas plant workers executed jobs across a spectrum of responsibilities, according to Didier Martin, senior program manager, information systems for Dow. IT also was more focused on providing standardized technology and support, while manufacturing may have had more cutting-edge IT needs than what was available in a standard offering. Complicating matters even further was the fact that Dow outsources 80% of its IT work, making the organization's workforce more unstable than what manufacturing is used to seeing.

"When you say, 'I'm going to outsource a lot of this,' then that begins to challenge the organization," says Margaret Walker, Dow's vice president of engineering solutions, technology centers and manufacturing and engineering work. This meant IT had to become more flexible in its dealings with the plant floor. For instance, if an IT project impacts a large group of employees, IT will engage in more change management than they would in a smaller deployment.

Effective change management helps make wide-scale implementations less painful, according to Bruce Weinberg, CFO and COO at leather furniture maker American Leather. This means making sure employees understand what the changes are and how they're going to impact their jobs. "There are all kinds of issues, and people have to be managed through that change and what change to expect," Weinberg relates.

Teams In Training

About two years ago, American Leather began replacing a legacy ERP application with an Oracle suite to operate its financial back-end. Roughly one year later, the company expanded the project to the plant floor where it replaced an old automation system. Team training helps to bring the two organizations together and smooth the transition during such implementations, Weinberg says.

For the Oracle project, team meetings at American Leather included not only IT personnel but also the vice president of operations, as well as consultants and plant workers. This ensured that the business side of the company was driving the change instead of IT.

"It should be a business project, not an IT project," Weinberg says. "But in most environments, IT ends up running it because everybody says it's a big computer project, and I don't know how to do anything with it." Instead, American Leather built IT as an enabler. "IT isn't here to tell you how you need to run your business. IT is here to enable what your requirements are," adds Weinberg.

IT should already have some idea of operations' needs during meetings because most American Leather employees receive at least some training on the plant floor. Similarly, the IT department at lighting fixture manufacturer Acuity Brands Lighting, a business unit of $2.4 billion Acuity Brands Inc., is included in business strategy meetings.

"We're a part of that process, so we're constantly listening and understanding what things they want to do that will require our resources," says Pat Quinn, vice president of information systems and technology for Acuity Brands Lighting.

Acuity's IT personnel bring lean knowledge to the meetings because they practice the methodologies in their own organization. In fact, when the company installed a new phone system, the IT department held a kaizen event prior to implementation. During a week-long kaizen process, which included representatives from the call centers that would be affected and the phone system provider Dimension Data, the company mapped out the future state of the call centers and developed a standard template for each area.

Likewise, end users throughout other departments within the enterprise are included in the implementation process. "They don't code, but they're part of the code and construction effort and the testing, and they're signing off all the way through," Quinn explains.

Trust Is A Must

Another way Acuity's IT department builds trust with manufacturing is by offering the end users an acceptance survey prior to going live. The questions help gauge the users' general feelings about the technology before moving forward. Once the survey results are in, IT uses a baseline of green for "good to go," yellow for "needs work" and red for "no-go." In the case of a red result, IT will retrain employees to make sure they're comfortable with the system.

IT looks for progress in a follow-up survey to determine whether to move forward with the implementation. If, for instance, most of the red indicators are moved to yellow, and yellow then changes to green, IT might decide the system is ready to go live. If they're still in the red, IT will continue to work with plant employees before progressing.

For Dow, trust is established by determining common goals. Work teams composed of IT and manufacturing representatives discuss the issues they're facing so they can come to an understanding of what is their ultimate objective. The work teams also comprise individuals who have backgrounds in both manufacturing and IT, according to Walker. Prior to taking on a role within the work teams, project leaders interview prospective team members to make sure they have the qualities that will enable an effective partnership between the two organizations. In other words, "Does this person have enough of an open mind and open spirit to work together and bring people together rather than separating them?" Walker says.

The interview questions focus on whether the candidates have been exposed to many different environments and how they handle conflict. Many employees who qualify view the experience as an opportunity to expand their work skills and advance within the organization, says Didier Martin. "It also benefits Dow by bringing in these different skills," he says. "So you want to grow, and that's how you grow and build a strong organization."

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