The “Run SAP Like a Factory” Metaphor
The current SAP initiative to “Run SAP Like A Factory” may seem a little vague, but having a background as a process engineer in a manufacturing plant, I can assure you it makes a good analogy. If one thinks of factories as assembly lines where specific, defined tasks are done in a specific order to produce a standard result in the most efficient way possible, then you have it. Every completed product coming out of the plant looking the same, built the same way and passing the same QA test along the way means assurance that what customers pay for is exactly what they are going to get. Lines of workers, each tightening their assigned three bolts or assembling Piece A to Piece B, as an automobile or coffee pot comes together to emerge from the factory complete and ready for market.
Such analogies are never perfect. Consider a pineapple juice factory. Pineapples go in at one end and cans of juice in shipping boxes come out the other end to be sent all over the world. In between you’ll find ranks of highly specialized machines designed to carry out each intermediate task – trim away husks, crush the fruit, and so forth through the entire canning process. Multiple machines work together, automated or under human direction or some combination. The machines are complicated, probably not all made by the same company, and each step is precisely defined in advance.
This kind of factory is a model of efficiency but, if one part breaks down, the whole line has to stop or slow because, as a process, there’s no room for flexibility or process adjustment to compensate for problems. Changing any part of the line is a major engineering exercise and brings the entire process to a halt during the change.
As a model, that doesn’t fit IT very well because, in IT, change is constant. So the analogy fails in that respect. Constant change means you have an absolute requirement to be nimble and to stay strategic in managing change or adjusting IT processes in your organization. You might be operating a pineapple juice factory, but the CIO isn’t evaluated on the pineapple juice itself.
Where “like a factory” gains its power for IT is at a higher level, where you look at ROI as the resulting product. Your technical objectives are optimum efficiency in a reliable and highly integrated set of processes, where each software solution fits those before and after with precision, where nothing is lost and the output never depends on chance or other random factors. You’ll agree – that’s a fine ideal for an IT “factory.”
What’s more, it’s not only an ideal, it’s a mandate today – a necessary set of objectives in today’s complex SAP environments. The trick is to bring that state of efficiency and smooth operation to systems that are increasingly modular, serving data processes that become ever more complex as organizations grow and change.
SAP’s modular approach provides all the flexibility you need to assemble IT components and support your company’s processes, even though no two organizations are ever the same. But that’s just the starting point. Since change is constant, you’ll need to never compromise three core IT values:
- Improved Visibility, Control (policy enforcement), and Auditability
Rigid processes can work for a physical factory but in an IT infrastructure they’ll drag like an anchor. And there’s no need for them.
In the next few posts, I’ll discuss the role of each of these core qualities in maintaining your IT infrastructure where change control is concerned, while gaining the efficiency and reliability of running your SAP-based IT organization “like a factory.” Be sure not to miss them, because the values I’ll discuss can make the difference between success and failure when you set out to run an efficient, reliable, high-ROI information infrastructure.