How To Sell Software Systems To Your Company

A few months ago, I wrote a column about the old-fashioned level of automation in many plants. After publication, someone asked me, “Isn’t that a bit outdated that there are factories that aren’t yet using any automated information systems?”

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For a moment, I started to doubt myself. Do I only visit laggard companies? Is there a much more modern industrial world that I’m not aware of? I tried to remember all the companies that I’ve worked for in the past few years. Big names from the international steel industry, food producers, pharmaceutical plants—all examples of companies where operators fill in paper forms, planners plan in home-built Microsoft Excel applications and production managers have weekly discussions with controllers and logistics managers about the differences between the physical stock levels and the administrative stock levels.

Why is it that executives who use personal digital assistants (PDAs) and navigation systems don’t do anything to modernize the level of automation in their factories? I decided to pay special attention to this.

One of my customers is starting up a manufacturing execution system (MES) selection project. I pointed out to the general manager that it is important that his people make enough room in their agendas so they are available for the interview sessions. “Yes,” he sighed. “And we have ten more of such projects.”

At another company, I coach the information technology (IT) manager in describing the information exchange between the production department and the office. For him too, it is difficult to find the time for this study, although he finds it very important. Moreover, he thinks: “What I’m doing now—this description of the factory’s processes—should actually be done by the production manager.” But that production manager is also drowning in optimization projects.

Who’s responsible?

In many companies, it is not clear who is responsible for production information systems, and that’s why this subject is the first to disappear from the agenda. I used to think that I had to convince production managers and IT managers about the advantages of such systems. Production managers don’t need to be convinced. Every single day, they feel the pain. And IT managers understand that something needs to be done. Do you know whom we do need to convince? The general manager and the chief financial officer (CFO)!

I know a company where employees understand this concept. They have just finished a successful implementation of a plant dashboard. The system provides insight into the current status of orders and the amount of labor hours spent per order. Now, they are extending it with overall equipment effectiveness (OEE) functionality. The business analyst told me that they had not defined an extensive business case before the start of the project. “But then, how did you convince the executives?” I asked her. “It was my charm,” she laughed. Then she explained that the pain of the old situation was not only felt by the production department, but also by the financial department. Sometimes, they sent the invoices months after a product had been delivered to the customer, because they hadn’t yet received all the required information from the factory floor.

The CFO is the boss of this department. And he’s also the one who decides about investments. And the best is yet to come; although the project originally was meant to ease the pain of the financial department, the production employees discovered how the system could be extended to make their lives easier as well.

So that’s how to sell systems like MES and dashboards: the first implementation should focus on the information needs of the CFO. The rest will follow naturally!

Bianca Scholten, bianca.scholten@task24.nl, is a Principal at IT integration firm TASK24, in the Netherlands, and a voting member of the SP95 committee. Her books “The Road to Integration; a Guide to Applying the ISA-95 Standard in Manufacturing” and “MES Guide for Executives: Why and How to Select, Implement and Maintain a Manufacturing Execution System” are available at www.ISA.org.

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