Yesterday I had a discussion with a manager from another plant where they had implemented a new, modern MES system using SAP a while ago.

Interestingly, the plant was doing worse since they replaced the old MES with the SAP. The old MES has less features and required more manual work. This also meant that people needed to cooperate and communicate more. As a result everyone on the team had at least a partial insight into the whole system. When something went wrong, the team would come together and troubleshoot the issue in a matter of days.

The new system automated nearly all of the work. It ran flawlessly when there were no problems. However, its efficiency came at the price of higher abstraction: it was harder for a human to follow how the software scheduled work orders. Production problems became harder to troubleshoot because people can no longer leverage their knowledge and experience.

The production work order backlog increased to levels that were deemed unacceptable in the past, and it became the new normal. To regain control, the people defaulted to maintaining a parallel system in Excel files that were emailed around. Objectively this means that the plant is doing worse with the new system.

I don’t recommend keeping old systems running, especially if they involve paper. I do believe that automation is always better, with the caveat that A) there is sufficient change management in place and B) the software is designed to server the users - not the other way around. The problem with “black box” systems, is that people don’t trust it and are therefore reluctant to use it (properly).