Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Realtrac: A Comprehensive Approach to Improving Our Performance

At Realtrac headquarters, we’ve recently decided to improve the invoicing process in our software. Much like our users, we talk with our customers on a daily basis to stay current on the state of their businesses. We also get feedback on their needs to determine how we can best help them succeed. We've honed a few practices that have helped us deliver the highest quality manufacturing ERP system around - and we wanted to share some of those ideas with you.

Once upon a time, most users of the Realtrac Performance ERP system had relatively small and simple shops. Many were made-to-order shops, so when an order for a certain volume of a specific part came in, our users would fire up a new job, build the parts, then ship them directly to the customer. Nice, clean, easy.

Thankfully, many shops using Realtrac have grown and prospered, and many have much more complex invoicing needs. Our shops not only make-to-order, they also make parts for inventory. They may have multiple locations working on the same part, or they may buy parts and services from other sources to combine into a final product. And, while the Realtrac system is flexible enough to support all of these options, we know we can do better.

The key point of this little blog post is that we here at Realtrac are constantly asking the question: "How can we make our product better? How can we make things easier? As we know (and I'm sure most of our customers do as well), merely saying "we constantly challenge ourselves and welcome critiques of our processes and product" is a lot easier than actually embracing that philosophy.

Quite simply, for a lot of workers (Realtrac development nerds included!), it's not always easy to balance the pride in a product with remaining humble and open to suggestions. Through trial and error, we've found some approaches to help improve the quality of our product, and we thought these kinds of ideas might help our existing and hopefully future Realtrac Performance ERP users.

* Start with the end goal. Don't solely focus on the specific flaw or detail.

When we notice a flaw in something, be it the Realtrac software or a widget being produced on the shop floor, the most common reaction is to immediately begin the attacking the issue. While we absolutely want to address the issue, it's important to first identify our goals. What exactly are we trying to achieve by fixing the issue?

So, specific to Realtrac, we knew we could improve the process of invoicing and shipping separate parts – namely, pulling finished items from inventory, reselling other goods from our inventory, and pulling parts from active jobs for shipping. But instead of focusing only on that specific issue, we took a step back to examine a larger question: Can we improve the overall process of invoicing and shipping, regardless of how simple or complex the invoice is? If we can actually improve other, more common scenarios - let's go for it!

Instead of simply pointing a finger at a single employee, process, or workstation, this approach gives everyone a chance to review the whole system to look for other added benefits. Since implementing this approach, we’ve received much more buy-in across our company, plus we get all sorts of unintended benefits we may not have gotten if we’d focused only on the individual problem itself.

* Make it safe to question existing processes and systems.

Like many Realtrac users, we're a relatively small company. Everyone in our organization pitches in and helps each other out across traditional "departments.” Members of our technical staff contribute as pre-alpha and alpha testers of new software. Developers go to trade shows to meet customers, learn about their needs, and answer the occasional super nerdy question from a hardcore ERP user. Our sales team writes requirement documents, outlining improvement requests from their customer base.

This environment makes it easy for anyone to ask questions or make suggestions. Still, this idea is easier to say than to implement. And, within an established organization, it can be difficult to figure out where to start, or how to effectively establish such a policy.

Realtrac is lucky. In many ways we run like a very small startup, so we are inherently open to the idea of open suggestions.

From our experience, one approach to kick starting this environment is to start from the top-down. We've met with owners who call a quarterly or semi-annual company-wide meeting, during which they give a general overview on the past work period ("We met our quality goals, great work!"; "We missed too many shipments, we need to figure out ways to meet out deadlines", etc...) and present an overview of the upcoming period.

A Realtrac team member recently attended one of these meetings. During the meeting, the shop owner mentioned they were looking for ways to improve the quality of their productions: the scrap rate was too high, and something had to change. The owner asked everyone to brainstorm ideas, write down a two or three sentence solution, and the best idea would get a day off or a small thank you gift.

The employees on the floor are quite often not only experts at their jobs, but many have a wealth of information about what else is going on inside the company. They are the "eyeballs on the streets" for the owner. Most employees genuinely want the company and the individuals within to succeed. So, the first step to opening up communication starts with the ownership and management staff asking for help, then implementing the quality ideas that arise.

* It's more important to compliment good work than to note poor work.

Everyone expects that when they produce poor quality work, they are going to get called out for it. Quite simply, the manufacturing world (and the ERP manufacturing software world) is too competitive for companies to simply provide substandard product to their customers.
So it's expected that when there are flaws, those flaws will be identified, addressed, corrected, measured, and, once proven fixed, documented.

But what's more important, both in manufacturing and in software development, is to note the good work more frequently than the bad.

There's as much, if not more, to learn from examining a process that produces high quality work than a faulty process producing flawed work. If something is working, why did it work? Ask the employee what they did to “over-deliver” on the product. Ask he or she what your coworkers can do to achieve the same great results. The answers will be surprising and immediately beneficial.

As a simple example, when we began rewriting the Realtrac Performance ERP system in anticipation of what would become the tenth release, we started with the most basic of tasks: Figure out a way to display active, open jobs in a list. It turned out to be deceptively simple.
We knew we wanted an easy, intuitive way for users to search, organize and browse their jobs. We wanted search results to be immediate, as the speed of finding data is of top importance to our users.

After much experimenting, we discovered a way of searching that lets a user search based on any and all of the job criteria, with the results automatically updating in the grid. Reactions to this new technology, both from our existing user base as well as brand new users, were so strong, we knew the system would be quite successful.

We wound up adopting the same technologies for Estimates, Purchase Orders and Invoice searches. When an idea works, we take that idea, and, where possible, adapt it to other processes.

Hopefully you can use some of these ideas in your business!

Remember to keep an eye on our blog, website and social media feeds for the announcement of our upcoming invoicing functionality. 

Realtrac has already helped many companies become extremely successful (including one shop who won a 2014 IMTS Top Shop award), so we're excited about what our existing and future users will achieve with our new and improved Realtrac functionalities!

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