"Sure, production scheduling software works well for many other companies. However, my job shop is so unique that switching to any kind of job shop software solution bears the risk of being a rather costly mistake."
If this comes into your mind when you think about scheduling, I can assure you that you are not alone. There are lot of concerns, talks and perceptions about production scheduling software and how appropriate they are for job shops. As valid as they are, I kindly ask you to also start considering the "cost of doing nothing" or the "cost of improvising".
With technology advancing at a rapid pace, there is some likelihood that facts which were true yesterday no longer are valid today. So from time to time you should rethink your concerns and reflect on which of them are still legitimate and which of them nowadays have become roadblocks to gaining competitive edge.
This blog post tackles six common myths about job shop scheduling software and shows how these myths sometimes hinder job shops from growing and meeting their customers' demand.
You started small, and you're a hands-on person. As such, you have a kind of "natural allergy" against all of these well-sounding consulting concepts and the overcomplicated production scheduling software solutions that come along with these concepts. Guess what? You have my full sympathy for this, especially as you have access to the most popular and widely used scheduling tool in the world: Microsoft Excel.
There is nothing against an Excel-based production schedule, and I am pretty confident that your Excel scheduler has some super cool well-fitting bells and whistles and has been serving your needs rather good.
Well, here are some observations I have been making while talking to many job shop owners around the globe: customers become more demanding in at least three ways.
In essence this leads to a situation, where job shops' schedules not only get more complicated, but also get way harder to manage and maintain due to a significant increase in schedule changes within shorter intervals.
An Excel-based scheduling system is great to make the first step into a systematic scheduling approach. But it typically fails to grow with the growth of your company and the increasing requirements of your customers. I have witnessed many situations, in which folks spent an insane amount of effort just to keep the (manual) Excel-based scheduling system current. So the reality is not that you have your Excel under control but vice versa. Your Excel system manages you.
Hmm. There is actually a lot of truth in this one. And part of this truth originates from the nature of the "typical" folks developing software solutions. These are super smart people who love solving the most complex problems with leading-edge code. It seems to be a matter of fact that they strive at providing a "perfect" solution rather than something that works more hands-on.
Hence, a kind of natural approach to a complex environment had been a complex software.
The other side of this truth originates, however, from you - the users of the software. If customers request (and insist on) having any facet of their individual complex environment reflected in a scheduling software, they get what they ask for: a mirror of this complexity provided in software code. And this is complex software.
I hope that you are not tired of reading a Steve Jobs quote every other day. Well, at least for this one I heard that he picked it up from Leonardo da Vinci:
Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.
There are an increasing number of software folks out there, who seem to follow this thought as a design mantra. As a matter of fact, one of the most popular current techniques for a new software development project is called the "minimum viable product" which originates from Eric Ries' book The Lean Startup. In a very nutshell, the idea of this technique is to start with the product that only contains its utmost core features to provide one core functionality; but in a way that it is already feasible, valuable, usable and delightful. In my understanding this is actually the best approach to build something simplistic, and yet powerful.
So if you looked at production scheduling software a few years ago, chances are high that you looked at APS (advanced planning and scheduling) software. This type of software had historically been developed with the aim of perfectly coping with the sheer diversity and volatility of the data which exists in a complex manufacturing environment. No surprise that these products are super powerful, but at the cost of being super complex as well. With the new trends happening in software development, I highly encourage you to have a look at production scheduling software again: for example, we started the development of our just plan it software with two ideas in mind.
So, you are the guy who developed this super-duper Excel-based production scheduling system? That means that you have been spending a relevant amount of your time managing this spreadsheet, inputting new data, updating it and communicating the new schedule with the folks operating the machines? You think that your in-depth knowledge about this Excel "beast" is why you are seen as a valuable employee in your organization? And you feel that this value justifies you working long (extra) hours to keep maintaining your spreadsheet that it continues to cope with the growth of your organization?
Truth is, an easy-to-understand visual job shop scheduling software will not make you redundant, it will make your job better. (Intelligent) software has been proven to be more than useful for taking over repeatable tasks and for making calculations much faster. Typically, these are tasks which are not particularly loved by humans.
Now imagine the following: Your boss calls you, and is super excited because he has this new request from a potentially big new customer. All he wants to know is when you would be able to get this job finished if you start with it tomorrow. Chances are high that now you have to make a couple of calls to the machine operators and ask them about the impact of this change to the schedule. Chances are also high that they don't pick up the phone, so you decide to go to the shop floor, walk around and ask the guys. In the meantime, your cell phone is ringing over and over as your boss needs an answer. Once you collected all information, it is time to update your Excel system and as this is a "boss order", you need to make 100% sure that all your manual entries do not mess this up.
Ever consider how your job would be if you could answer such questions with definitive confidence in minutes rather in hours? Well, this is exactly what a well-purposed scheduling software can give you. It can give you free time to grow from a "production planner aka Excel artist" into a "production analyst" or an "operations analyst". It would provide you with data about your production operations, alerts about jobs in danger of running late, information about bottlenecks and their utilization; in essence: it would deliver you insights that you can turn into knowledge to turn into process improvements yielding both effectiveness and efficiency gains. As a side effect, the proper visual scheduling software will help you reduce the risk of human errors; i.e. manually inputting wrong data.
To some extent, this is another facet of myth #2. The conventional (complex) advanced planning and scheduling systems are all based on leading edge and hence sophisticated algorithms ... helping you to determine an optimal production schedule taking into account minimal delivery times delays, minimal set-up times, maximum capacity utilization, production coefficients, etc.
As is true for any algorithm, it is true for production scheduling algorithms as well: garbage in, garbage out. There is simply no sense of feeding a cutting-edge optimization algorithm with highly volatile data. It will just not deliver the results that you expect, and that you pay for utilizing this kind of software: What is provides you is a result which is valid for the moment in which you started the scheduling run, but which might outdated momentarily due to the high data volatility.
Hence, the conventional production scheduling software vendors heavily urge you to invest into data quality. This has been a common best practice for at least the past 10-15 years, and hence I can truly understand you having this impression.
Again, back to myth #2. Software development paradigms have been changing quite significantly over the past couple of years. Here are two changes that have a direct impact on production scheduling.
First (see above), the idea not to initially build a comprehensive, and highly to over-engineered product, but to start with something that - by design! - is easy and fast to use. This forces both software vendors and users towards a "reduction to the essence", which in my point of view for a job shop is the capability to
See the difference? The above does not describe an optimization scenario; it describes a true scheduling scenario. With our just plan it software, we found a way to provide answers to these questions with demanding an also minimal set of data from our users.
Second, in the perceived perpetual circle of software ideally being deployed as standard product or being deployed as custom solution, we definitively now find ourselves in a phase of standard software products. The impact of this is huge: when you build a software solution, you de facto develop most of the software specifically for a bespoke customer (which is what the word "customization" expresses). So, working hand in hand with your customer (or even at your customer's site) chances are very high that you try integrating any of the customer's specialties into your software.
This creates software "monsters" that can only survive if they are fed with top notch data. In days where users demand less tailor-made software solutions, but easy-to-use software products which they even can operate and utilize independent of the vendor (like we all use to do with the apps on our smart phones), software vendors are forced to reduce complexity and are forced to build software that works with common data, rather than with individual data.
A few years ago, I would have agreed with this myth 100% - especially when putting myself into the shoes of the owner of a small to mid-sized job shop or make-to-order manufacturer. Similar as many other types of software, advanced planning and scheduling software originated from the needs of the truly big manufacturing companies. For the big guys, there is a huge monetary leverage from defining, implementing and maintaining a sophisticated APS system. This made them move early, and justified those throwing big bucks at software vendors to solve the respective issues. Consequently, here are some obvious facts about those scheduling software solutions that you might have looked at in the past:
I observed the above and purposely designed a job shop scheduling software from scratch: not trying to transfer something from the big guys to the small shops. But create something that fails when working in huge environments as it is purpose-made for the many small job shops.
In addition, I was thrilled by the idea of building a product (that works for everybody) versus a solution (that requires tedious customizing). This is especially true as virtually everybody told me building this would be impossible. Challenge accepted.
This let me decide for a visual scheduling approach rather than an advanced planning and scheduling approach, and here we are: with a job shop scheduling product that you can use starting at EUR 49.00 per month. Still not affordable?
Again: you are so damn right. The IT industry has been conditioning you to buy software licenses (as CD/DVD media), install it on servers you also need to procure, then hire IT specialists to install and manage the servers, then hire consultants to get the software fitting to your environment, then book courses to train your users and to pay high maintenance fees to ensure that nothing within this fragile system breaks.
What has been starting as another IT buzzword actually turns out to be the key enabler for making even complex software "consumable" by more organizations and people: this is the cloud. Just go online, register to a software as a service and start using it. There is no hardware to setup, no data backup and redundancy technologies that you need to take care of, no software to install and typically no customization projects. It's all self-service. With this, at least we decided to make use of this technological leap, and provide an easy time and resource scheduling software for SMB manufactures in the cloud. Say good-bye to setup hassles.
If these 6 myths have been preventing you from buying an advanced planning and scheduling system for your job shop, I congratulate you for having been bright in resisting the temptation. However, I would now like to encourage you to revisit this attitude, assessment and approach and have a fresh look at some of the software products that have been emerging recently. just plan it is one of those and you can get a first idea if it matches my assumptions by watching this introductory webcast.