Do We Really Need a URS?

Recently, I attended a conference where an information technology (IT) manager, in his presentation, stated: “We don’t need those heavy documents that consultants write.”

“Are you talking to me?” I wondered. As an MES and vertical integration specialist, I write “heavy documents” all the time. At customers’ sites, I talk to management and users of the future “Manufacturing Enterprise Solution,” not to be confused with the traditional “Manufacturing Execution System.” During interviews, I ask them what they expect the new MES to do and which improvements they’d like to see compared to the current situation. I write this all down in a User Requirements Specification, or URS, that typically contains 50 to 100 pages.

Possibly, some end-users put this document somewhere on a shelf where it “rests in peace” under a thick layer of dust. But at the supplier’s site, it is actively used. My colleagues are always very happy with the information. They are the ones who have to develop the specified MES and its interfaces. The better a customer’s processes and requirements are described, the easier it is for them to build something that really fits. In the end, this leads to a successful solution and happy customers.

The IT manager’s remark made me aware of the need to explicitly explain the purpose of the URS. “You are not going to read or use it yourselves,” I tell customers. “But the supplier is. It is extremely important that the supplier really understands your processes and your needs. They are going to use it as a basis for developing the solution. This way, you do not have to answer the same questions over and over again. Of course—hopefully—they will still ask questions. But these will be ‘better informed’ questions. It will speed things up.”

I also explained this to the management of a research company for which I did an extensive MES requirements analysis a few months ago. The users of the future system are highly educated people. For the acceptance of the new situation, it was especially important that they were given the opportunity to express their needs. When the document was ready, I said to the project leader. “Now, we are reaching the next phase, and the document is finally going to prove its value.”

“Yes, you are saying that all the time,” he answered. “But in my experience, the URS does not only provide value for the supplier. The whole specification trajectory has been very important for ourselves. It helped us to understand what we find important and what not. The interviews and the workshops gave us better insight into what we need. We had many discussions during the URS phase. But finally, we all agree.”

Eye opener

This client opened my eyes. A URS is not only a document that explains to the supplier what is expected from him. The URS also reports the important decisions that users took, and it reflects the internal agreements at the end-user’s company.
   
It is a pity that people complain about the “heavy documents” that consultants write. They should realize that those documents are not goals in themselves. They are a means to realize solutions that are fit for use. True, an MES project consists of many specification phases. It can take quite a while before the users get to see the first screens. Actually, many engineers would also prefer to start writing code right away, especially if the deadline is on the horizon. As long as they are still thinking, they feel like they are not really working. But let’s not forget: a solution that is well thought through will be ready faster, and it will be more successful in the end.

Bianca Scholten, bianca.scholten@ordina.nl, is a Principal at IT integration firm Ordina Technical Automation, in The Netherlands, and a member of the ISA95 committee. The White Paper “IT or Engineering…Which of them should support MES?” is available at www.ISA.org .
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