Lean and IT – Is the Cold War Ending?

The most dedicated lean believers have traditionally been pretty skeptical about information technology. But if Doug Gregory is right, that may be starting to change.

            Doug is COO of Plexus Online, which produces on-demand manufacturing software. The company was founded by former members of the IT department of a manufacturer that went through a lean transformation, so they designed the software to support lean manufacturing, Doug says.

            For example, they offer an electronic kanban system, as well as a system for electronically tracking bar-coded physical kanban cards, called Scanban.

            (Personally, I have no experience using Plexus Online or any other manufacturing software, and I haven’t discussed this with people who have, so I can’t speak to how well it supports lean operations.)

            Apparently Doug and his colleagues were ahead of their time. When Plexus was first hawking its modules back in the early 90s, he says, people weren’t looking for lean software. “Somebody who’s fully embraced the Toyota Production System tends to not want information systems,” he comments.

            That certainly fits what I’ve heard from a variety of manufacturing executives over the past few years. As part of going lean, they talk about “turning off” their MRP systems, meaning they stop using them to schedule production. That’s because most MRP systems use a demand forecast, push system to plan production, rather than a lean pull system.

            And on the shop floor, lean tends to be about visual controls rather than IT.

            Doug notes that Plexus holds a patent on Scanban, and “I have never had to exercise or use the patent because nobody was really interested in it until the last three to four years.”

The people who did want software in the early days of Plexus wanted traditional manufacturing modules – so Plexus developed those for its product line. As Doug notes, “we aren’t able to sell someone into lean. Instead, we have to meet them at their point in the lean process.”

            Doug’s experience has been that those few companies who are furthest down the road of a lean journey are most willing to investigate what technology can do for them.

            However, he also sees a trend of greater interest in the lean aspects of the Plexus offerings. “The increasing curve, from my perspective, in the last six months to one year has probably been 10 times the number of people actually implementing a kanban rack or kaizen program or something like it,” he states. “In the past, they would buy it, but they would never really utilize it.”

            He adds, “I think there has been more talk than there has been reality. It’s only in the last few years that people are taking notice of the Freudenbergs of the world that have made their name through the lean technologies.”

            I hope Doug is right. (About greater interest in lean, that is. Whether Plexus and other technology companies sell more software is not my concern.) If we want to see rejuvenation of the manufacturing sector after years of job losses, lean is essential to achieving that. The more companies that embrace lean, the better.


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