Breaking Through The Data Bottleneck on the Path to Growth

By - Martin van der Roest

I recently visited a small soap and personal products manufacturer and had a chance to walk thru the operations with the founder/president.  The president started the business in their garage and it had grown into a 2,000 square foot facility over several years.

 The president has an engineering degree and background and this was evident in the way the operations were setup … very clean, organized and methodical.  There were specific areas to take in raw goods, mix the various components per a secret recipe, cure, prep, package and store.  There’s a lot more that goes into making soap then you’d think.  I was impressed with all the “moving parts”.

 As we were wrapping up the walk-thru we came past a large dry erase board.  It was filled with all sorts of notes.  Things to do for the week, product runs and status, employee schedules, raw goods to order, etc.  Effectively it was their dashboard of activities.  It was chock full of information. 

 During the course of conversation, it was becoming clear that the team was maxed out.  So much so, that the prospects for more business were not necessarily welcomed.  In part, there were concerns about having others learn the “secret” formula if production capacity had to increase.  Additionally, it was also a matter of tracking the activities and schedules of about 20 different product lines.  This included order-points for raw materials, adjustments in recipes to accommodate custom orders and corresponding labeling/packaging, and the impact on tooling and associated maintenance.

 My sense was that if there were any barriers to growth, it would be the management of data.  More importantly … the creation, processing and delivery of actionable data.  In other words, would it be possible to have a virtual dry erase board? 

I asked if they were familiar with product lifecycle management or enterprise resource planning solutions.  They were not.  Spreadsheets however were used extensively.  So they knew what and how data needed to be treated.  However, it was just another manual time-consuming task that as the business would grow, so would the complexity of the spreadsheet.

I have to think there are 1000’s of similar businesses.  Entrepreneurs that have the smarts, vision, passion and a willingness to risk.  But where do you go or what do you ask to ultimately tackle a data management challenge?  You don’t know what you don’t know.

 The good news is that search engines are ubiquitous.  If I was the owner of the above operations and found myself challenged by the growing number of data variables, I might start using search terms such as … “how to manage product data”, “product information management techniques”, “managing production sequences”, or “bills of materials management” for example.

 What’s my point?  As solution providers, it could make sense in some cases to suspend the use of industry terminology and simply speak the language of the stakeholders.  Use real expressions of real challenges.  No one really cares if it’s called PLM, ERP or ECM.  And more importantly, focus on driving a solution that enables opportunities for growth.