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Mobile ERP apps could put managers on the shop floor

With mobile ERP apps, managers could become more involved in spotting shop floor opportunities and quickly resolving problems.

Management by walking around (MBWA) is a popular form of managing people where a manager literally walks around the shop floor to see what's going on. The theory is that employees are likely to report only some problems while others, especially those that start out as minor issues but could potentially escalate into major problems, might go unreported until it's too late. By walking around, an alert manager might detect these seeds of future disruption and initiate preventive measures to stop them from becoming serious.

Lean manufacturing has a similar process, called a Gemba walk (gemba or genba means "the real place"), in which management visits the plant floor to look for waste and opportunities for improvement.

Like many other lean practices, Gemba and MBWA are what might be called acoustic processes, purposely independent of technology. You might even say they operate counter to technology. By applying manual, physical processes, you might be working around technology systems. Nevertheless, Gemba and MBWA can be effective early warning and process improvement techniques outside of what the system is tracking -- providing insight earlier than established data collection provides and below the threshold of monitoring programs or processes.

Walking around is all about seeing activities and results in context -- in real-life situations. Part of that real situation is the plan, schedule, priority and status of the work being done. Observations made while walking around a shop floor can have more meaning when viewed in the context of the plan and schedule, as well as the physical reality.

Enter the mobile device

In many shops, work instructions and priorities are displayed on shop-floor devices, but not always. And you don't want to be tying up those devices with MBWA-related investigations and interfering with the production and reporting processes. Enter the mobile device.

The smartphone and the tablet have become tools that virtually everyone has with them all day, every day. At first, these tools were dedicated to personal uses -- Web surfing, personal apps, email and playing music. Business use only included email and perhaps some Web access for business purposes. Now, however, ERP developers are rolling out phone and tablet ERP apps that provide access to the ERP system itself -- schedules, job status, inventory balances and transactions, order information and more.

Managers and supervisors are no longer tethered to their offices and desktops if they want to track plant floor activities, monitor status, or investigate the history and cause-and-effect of problems. Granted, some of this may be a bit less convenient on that small screen, but it's certainly more immediate and interactive when it can be done on the plant floor.

Mobile ERP access can proactively and reactively support MBWA. On the proactive side, an alert sent to the mobile device could direct the walking manager to an area of the plant where things are not going quite as planned. Or a search on the mobile app could lead the manager to the work center with the biggest backlog, the one that is behind schedule or overdue to report, or the one that is ahead of schedule. Further analysis and action could ensure that the next jobs will arrive on time to meet the earlier-than-planned availability of the equipment.

On the reactive side, when the walking manager discovers a potential opportunity or problem, he can use the mobile device to investigate the issue, look for a potential effect, warn downstream resources of potential delays or schedule changes or update the system with new information so everyone is aware of the problem.

We are in the early days of mobile apps in the plant, with limited access and capabilities, but the number of apps is growing dramatically. As devices become more mobile (think wearables), everywhere, anytime access to ERP information will become more prominent and more useful.

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