Like many businesses, global child car seat and stroller manufacturer Britax Group sees advantages in exploiting lean manufacturing techniques. The problem: how best to reflect lean processes such as kanbans and pull-based scheduling within its ERP system.
“We have some lean processes in place within our Australian and European operations, but there’s no real support for them within our existing Microsoft Dynamics AX 2009 system, which limits our ability to leverage what lean manufacturing might deliver for us,” explains Ben Hancock, the company’s Fort Mill, South Carolina-based group head of ERP.
And yet, he adds, he and his team had become aware that a more recent version of Microsoft Dynamics AX—Microsoft Dynamics AX 2012—did indeed contain support for lean manufacturing.
But how exactly did that support work? Would it be compatible with how Britax envisaged using lean manufacturing? How adaptable and configurable was it? What lean-specific reporting options were available? And how would it help Britax’s manufacturing management to roll out lean techniques across the company’s global operations?
“We realized we had a lot of questions, but few answers,” sums up Hancock. “The problem wasn’t that there wasn’t information available on lean support within Microsoft Dynamics AX 2012—it was that we wanted to know, in detail, how it would work for us, and within our own manufacturing environment.”
As it turned out, a meeting with eBECS at Microsoft’s Dynamics user conference, Convergence, which took place during March 2015, was to provide a way forward.
eBECS, it transpired, was not only intimately acquainted with the lean functionality that was built into Microsoft Dynamics AX 2012, but also offered a two-day ‘lean assessment’ consulting engagement, where eBECS personnel visited a manufacturer’s plant, and built a lean-enabled proof-of-concept, using Microsoft Dynamics AX 2012, that the manufacturer could use as a reference point when deciding if—and how—to adopt lean manufacturing.
“Within the business, the eBECS proof-of-concept was an easy ‘sell’,” recalls Hancock. “We needed lean manufacturing, and the eBECS assessment and resulting proof-of-concept was a logical starting point. We saw it very much as a way of educating our team in lean concepts, and exploring how those concepts would work within Microsoft Dynamics AX 2012.”
And even though Britax had had no prior commercial relationship with eBECS, Hancock was very clear as to why the eBECS proof-of-concept was the way to go.
“The more we thought about it, the more it made sense,” he observes. “Importantly, for instance, it was eBECS’ own lean functionality that Microsoft had built into Dynamics AX 2012. So fairly obviously, as the original developer, no one would know it better. Plus, as might be expected, eBECS had an extensive track record of implementing lean manufacturing within Dynamics ERP environments.”
In short, he concludes, the decision was very straightforward.
“We needed answers—and it looked like eBECS was where to go to get them,” he sums up.
Accordingly, in late April, McCormick and an eBECS lean manufacturing consultant arrived at Britax for an intensive two days of discovery, training, and process mapping, culminating in the building of a small proof-of-concept demonstration system, using Britax’s own products, modelled with its own data.
“The first morning, we worked backwards through the manufacturing process, understanding what was going on, and talking to Britax manufacturing people, and exploring how pull-based processes might work—which was the reason we were moving through the manufacturing process backwards, of course,” explains McCormick.
Then came an afternoon of brainstorming and education, mapping the Britax manufacturing process onto hypothetical lean transactions, and exploring how Microsoft Dynamics AX 2012 might reflect those transactions.
“The whole idea of this stage of the project was to see where lean made sense, and where it didn’t,” sums up Hancock. “It was soon pretty clear, for instance, there were definite advantages to lean processes in our short lead time replenishment items—packaging, plastic ‘shells’ for car seats, and materials that were on daily call-off. These were currently on MIN-MAX inventory control systems, and there looked to be a definite inventory reduction possible by moving to pull-based scheduling.”
Finally, working collaboratively together, the team built a small Microsoft Dynamics AX 2012 test system, highlighting how representative order flows could be handled.
“We think of it as a ‘scale model’—something that we could use to further our own thinking, once the eBECS experts had finished and gone home,” explains Hancock.
So where is Britax now on its lean manufacturing journey?
“Better informed,” explains Hancock, simply. “The project was very much about fact-finding, and modelling and exploring, and we know now that we need to do further work before we can go to the rest of the business with our recommendation.”
eBECS’ McCormick concurs, emphasizing that the purpose of such lean assessment projects isn’t to sell lean manufacturing, but to simply point out how it might work, and where it might deliver benefits.
“The idea is to leave the client in a better position to make the right decision,” she sums up. “Yes, the project is a success if the client decides to adopt lean manufacturing, but it’s also a success if they don’t. Our job is to show them what lean manufacturing means, and how it could work for them in a Microsoft Dynamics AX 2012 environment.”
“In two days, we covered an immense amount of ground,” concludes Hancock. “On our own, we couldn’t have done it in two weeks, let alone two days.”