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Manufacturers who embrace the need for change recognise that the investment in a Business Process Management (BPM) system can pay a handsome reward, capable of supporting frequent changes or updates

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Manufacturing IT Expand Lean manufacturing with MES

May 3, 2017

A recent study by an industry analyst has illustrated that the use of Manufacturing Execution System (MES) by industry leaders has accelerated their Continuous Improvement program. The feature discusses on how Lean leaders leverage MES to support and enhance Lean initiatives.

Until recently, most of the foundations of the Lean movement were based on manufacturing and process improvements from the 1970’s, a time when automation and software applications were in their early, nascent years. The past 20 years has witnessed tremendous leaps and advancements within these disciplines. Until recently, the thought of using software in support of a Lean project was simply unheard of, having no place within the collective Lean circles. But, that thinking has now changed. The following section discusses in detail on how Lean leaders leverage MES to support and enhance Lean initiatives.

MES: A system to enable change

One key to success in deploying and sustaining Lean can be found in a manufacturer’s ease and ability to actually change a process. Static processes can’t support the implementation of new best practices to remove waste as part of a Lean program. Processes are implemented at one plant but not across multiple departments and geographical locations will at best have limited benefit in reducing waste across the organisation.

The challenge to overcome is not what processes should be changed, but which can be changed, and stay changed. When evaluating possible process improvements, it is easy to write them down on a white board and achieve agreement to implement. And, with some effort, it is often possible to initially run these process improvements manually, testing the new process and evaluating if benefits can be achieved, at least in the short-term. The challenge is getting people to embrace and adopt a change after the Lean implementation project manager or outside consultant has left, after the Lean project focus has passed. Add to this challenge a manual process, and it is easy to see why so many Lean initiatives fail.

Try to implement a process change across different locations, and the complexity and challenge increases exponentially. A change in process impacting multiple plants – beyond the visibility of a plant manager’s daily routine – might never ‘stick,’ especially if the responsible party for success can’t see that the process has not been permanently implemented. It quickly becomes obvious that manual process improvements don’t work effectively, even more so when implemented across a global operations environment. The solution is to automate a process improvement, removing the ‘friction’ of human reluctance to change.

If the complexity, programming or other skill required to change a business process is difficult, then the impediment to change is the process management system. Often this process may involve multiple systems, equipment vendor user interfaces or even complex XML or other web-based programming. Alternatively, manufacturers who embrace the need for change recognise that the investment in a Business Process Management (BPM) system can pay a handsome reward, capable of supporting frequent changes or updates. This system must be easy to use (or else it offers no benefit over existing static system), without the need for complicated programming by outside consultants or IT personnel, which may not be available at a moment’s notice.

MES + BPM = Sustainable Process Improvement

A winning approach to Lean is one that spans all dimensions of the manufacturing enterprise, encompassing the entire value stream, from ordering through manufacturing to cash received. MES systems ‘touch’ every area where a Lean program might impact an operations process, so therefore have the capability of being an ideal solution. But, the MES system must be capable of easily supporting process change and execution, while automating Lean process improvements.

Leaders select MES systems that span the entire suite of operations processes, amplifying the potential benefit of such a program. The ability to infuse an organisation with embedded, automated business processes enables MES to address one of the most challenging aspects of manufacturing operations management and Lean – the enforcement and continued adherence to defined processes. (Refer Table 1)

MES systems utilising an effective Business Process Management (BPM) framework best support the implementation of new Lean processes, providing control and monitoring of existing and new processes to ensure timely execution and conformance. Phrased differently, while Lean techniques provide the methodology to optimise business processes, MES systems that leverage BPM provide a highly competent “systems infrastructure” to implement Lean efficiencies, sustaining them on an ongoing basis.

Leveraging IT systems with embedded business processes ensures operations consistency – across multiple functions and locations – for actions performed by personnel, equipment and facilities; reduced variation is a key tenet of Continuous Improvement programs. Figure 1 graphically depicts the performance benefits over time when business processes can be embedded within IT systems, when compared to the manual execution of the same tasks.

Streamlining the process of instituting change and refinement lets manufacturers achieve greater success. More improvements can be implemented – rather than merely theorised – helping drive an efficient, successful Lean program. There is no longer an acceptance of ad hoc business processes. Processes are deliberately planned and standardised to reduce waste, save money and create quality products and services. Processes are immediately, consistently implemented, and most importantly, these processes are sustained over time.

Paper Kanban vs. e-Kanban

Kanban Cards are a standard component of traditional Lean programs, as a signaling system that utilises cards to signal the need to move materials within a manufacturing or production facility, or signal the movement of materials from an outside supplier to the production facility.

Traditional ‘paper-based’ Kanban programs typically operate within a single facility, so the use of ‘on-site’ ordering queues makes perfect sense. Distribute your operations across several different locations – coupled with the use of third party outsourcing vendors – and the use of a paper-based Kanban system starts to fall short.

Once again, the implementation of an MES system can quite effectively address this shortcoming, providing an e-Kanban signal when inventory levels should be restocked, or when a production process is ready for the next raw material. An advanced IT system can be integrated across all areas of operations, from production to warehouse to quality assurance, ensuring idle inventory levels are minimised, or even eliminated, adding yet more functionality to an integrated MES system.

Measuring Performance Improvement

You don’t have to be a Lean guru to know that some sort of tracking and reporting system is necessary to help identify where a best practice might exist, as well as what quantitative benefits might be obtained from implementing a process change.

Performing quantitative measurements on operations performance can be an excellent way to locate future performance improvements. A comprehensive reporting system can be established to summarise operations results and highlight areas for improvements, such as comparing one plant’s performance to another, or to the entire industry average.

Once again, a well-conceived and implemented MES system can accomplish this task, providing a platform for consistent performance measurement, tracking the operations statistics most relevant to your achieving the highest possible performance. As was true of implementing new global best-practice processes, a global system for measuring Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) can amplify visibility to enterprise operations performance, quickly highlighting those business processes not delivering the desired results, as well as those setting a new standard for operations excellence.

MES: Fueling the Quality Control Machine

Traditionally, quality management applications were implemented separately from ERP and MES, but today manufacturers have adopted a more holistic approach that considers quality an integral element of core business processes versus a bolt-on strategy.

Management of quality control in a Lean manufacturing system is critical. In a Lean environment, the management of quality control shifts from an inspection-oriented approach to defect-prevention. This means inspection at every phase of the production process, from material purchase, delivery, inventory and supply to processing, as opposed to the conventional inspection process conducted at the beginning, during, and end of the production process.

In order to best support quality control, data collection and reporting processes are needed to identify a starting point for improvement and track progress as processes are refined. Many companies conduct data collection and reporting manually in an off-line system (typically Excel) which generates waste in terms of time and effort, and also introduces opportunity for error.

MES offers employees, supervisors and plant management visual real-time dashboards focused on Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) that can be used to monitor the whole corporation, lines of businesses, functions or processes, with the ability to drill-down on any data point for the details.

These systems can also notify users immediately when out-of-control conditions occur, so process owners and process specialists can capture the root cause for corrective action or for best practices implementation. This empowers the people who do the work with the right information to identify problems and take appropriate corrective action.

Lean = Green

Sustainability goes beyond “doing the right thing” and being a good steward to the environment, it’s also key to competitive advantage, cost reduction and customer satisfaction. Manufacturers understand that as the cost of materials and energy continues to increase, these costs become an even larger component of total costs, currently up to 70% or more depending upon the industry. They must adopt effective sustainability strategies today.

Implementing Lean manufacturing is one way manufacturers can enable sustainability across all the various business processes. The focus of improvement programs can be expanded to include and embrace sustainability themes, including the adoption and application of Lean tools and techniques to sustainability improvement projects. Lean manufacturing can help identify overall requirements and align need to capacity, thus ensuring production lines are optimised, energy is maximised and raw product fully utilised.

This emphasis on sustainability contributes to Lean by improving overall organisational performance and efficiency. While there does exist synergistic relationships between Lean and “green” programmes in general, in particular, sustainability efforts focused on waste elimination offers significant benefits for Lean manufacturing.

Sustainability programmes tend to be enterprise-wide initiatives, impacting processes spread throughout the enterprise. Therefore, when selecting an MES system, criticality of support for implementing and updating global best practices should be placed in the highest importance. Lastly, as the Green movement is still in its early years, best practices for sustainable operations are still in a state of change. As a consequence, be sure your MES enables rapid process changes to keep up with the ‘sea of change’ currently underway within the sustainability / Green movement currently underway.


Today, MES is now recognised as an essential component of Lean manufacturing success in today’s world of complex global supply chains, ever-changing product mix and greater demand volatility. Yielding the benefits of continuous improvements, reduced waste, improved response times as well as sustainability initiatives, MES has been adopted by Leaders in Lean, integrating the needs of the real-time plant environment with the transactional environment of business systems.

MES supports the application of Lean best practices while adding value to Lean initiatives, encompassing processes that span across multiple areas of operations. By efficiently establishing and maintaining business processes (ideally through a framework of BPM) and the collection of operations data throughout production, the supply chain, warehousing and the execution of maintenance management programs, a more cost-efficient Continuous Improvement program is possible, saving time and resources to further maintain and optimise operations performance within the business.

Image Gallery

  • Figure 1: Embed BPM in your MES and IT systems for Sustained Process Improvement

    Image: Dassault Systemes

  • Table 1

    Image: Dassault Systemes

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