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The Human Connection in Manufacturing: Bridging the Gap between Operations and Supply Chain Management with Tom Pierce
Episode 315th May 2023 • The Manufacturers' Network • Lisa Ryan
00:00:00 00:28:12

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Lisa Ryan: Hey, it's Lisa Ryan. Welcome to the Manufacturer's Network podcast. I'm excited to introduce today's guest, Tom Pierce. Tom is the President of Integrated Information Systems with decades of experience; Tom brings a unique perspective to solving complex problems in integrated business planning, cost and schedule analysis, and cross-functional collaboration.

His ability to combine human intelligence with innovative software solutions makes him an invaluable resource for those in the manufacturing sector seeking to improve efficiency, streamline operations, and drive sustainable growth. So Tom, welcome to the show.

Tom Pierce: Thank you so much, Lisa. It's a pleasure to be with you.

Lisa Ryan: Share a little about your background and what led you to do what you're doing now with integrated information systems.

Tom Pierce: Certainly. I'll cover the mountain peaks. I took my one and only one computer course in seventh grade. That would've been about 1972. After that, I never took another course. I was self-taught and was fascinated with how computers and technology can help solve problems. It was a side interest for a very long time. Then, I went to college on an Army ROTC scholarship. On my first day of reporting for duty, they plucked me out, seeing my math major, knowing that I loved computers.

I was on an analysis team and did simulation modeling for the Army missile maintenance, ammunition, and logistics. After I left the Army, I started working for a defense contractor, developing logistics models for the Army. From there, they put me in with a defense manufacturing facility in Louisville, where I help install an MRP system.

That was over 30 years ago, and I'm still helping maintain that MRP system through all its variations and improvements. Seven years in, I quit working for the defense contractor and went out on my own Because I didn't like how my employer treated my people or clients. So I hung my shingle, and we've been in business and will have our 30th anniversary this summer. We have loved supporting everything about the manufacturing and finance piece within the defense industry and a significant client, a major defense contractor. I've been blessed to fall in with many subject matter experts that have guided my career. I was a programmer/analyst. I live on the slash. I am naturally an analyst who knows how to program, so I got bilingual that way. It is a huge opportunity to be embedded with the people who use the software I've written and some of the software I analyze and critique.

Lisa Ryan: Right off the bat, you brought up an interesting point. You left one employer because of how they treated you and your people. You don't have to go into immense detail, but what were some of the biggest mistakes they made that caused you to leave? And then how are you turning that around for your employees to create a workplace culture that keeps them?

Tom Pierce: Thank you for asking that. That's one of the most important things about what it means to be in business for me. Anecdotally, during one of the most critical demonstrations we had been developing for two years, we fried a computer getting ready to do a demonstration for a room full of 300 Army generals.

One of my newest employees came to work for me from Toys-R-US. He was brilliant but could have made a better impression. He volunteered his brand new 486. Another one of my employees drove it down for five hours so we could use it, and we could use it, but we fried his monitor.

The employer refused to reimburse him for the monitor we fried. Later on, I was denied a request to give my employees raises. I was denied permission to throw them a Christmas party; a stellar recommendation would produce a 2% raise that the bonuses were in the range of, maybe enough to buy a new suit. The words and deeds didn't match. The final straw was when it was time to renew the contract with our Navy customer. They raised their rates tremendously because they knew the Navy had become dependent on us in that area, creating a tremendous amount of stress, budget, personnel, all that kind of stress that I didn't need to deal with.

So I undercut them by 40% and won that contract away from them. As a result, I retained many critical people, and employee retention, family, and team building have been a massive part of our success.

Lisa Ryan: It sounds like they were, picking up pennies and leaping over dollars because a little bit bigger raises the price of replacing that monitor or the monitor. It's not like they even had to give 20% raises. But how much money did they lose to make employees feel valued because they didn't do these little things well? And in a market where it's so important to find people and then treat them well enough so that they stay. People need to realize that it's not all about the money. Money plays a part in it, and sometimes you've got to spend a little money to save a lot.

Tom Pierce: One of the most authentic expressions of appreciation; put your money where your mouth is. But there are undoubtedly many ways; they need to be consistent. The money, words, and behavior must match your value to the people doing the work.

Lisa Ryan: You and I were talking a before the show. Not only do you have military experience, but you talked about, but you have a pastoral ministry, then you have the application software. How have these experiences shaped your approach to solving complex problems that the manufacturing industry is dealing with?

Tom Pierce: I used to think I suffered from a dissociative identity disorder or something like that. I have a hat rack with many different hats, but in recent years, they've emerged more. I've started to see how even the seminary education, I'm only half joking when I tell people that what I learned in seminary is more applicable to business than it ever was to church ministry. The problems are not dissimilar. The difficulties of trying to get people to work together well, whether they're volunteer or paid, whether they're clients or employees - the human dynamics. I understand you have a bit of background or emotional intelligence yourself.

There's a full range of human experience, whether you are talking about a military commander leading men into battle, men and women into battle, or a manufacturing facility, trying to go cross-functional skill sets and make sure everybody's collaborating or building a small business and keeping the team together, the human dynamics of understanding the value that each person brings to the table and how to pair them up. There's even a little bit of musical background. I was also a choir director, so getting the tenors, the basses, the sopranos, the altos, the drummers, and the guitars to all come in at the right time, and it's not unison, right?

It's the harmony that you're seeking. That's been a huge part of my experience. And lo and behold, it turns out computers have the same problem. Getting computers to communicate well with each other and to feed helpful information, manufacturing is an incredibly complex endeavor. Even the most straightforward small firms get all the functions, even speaking the same language. Here's a small anecdote. While I was pastoring at one time, I was pastoring three different churches simultaneously, three different denominations. The old saying of trying to get everybody singing out of the same hymnal was a real logistical challenge for me. It's not the dark red one; it's the right one, red today.

The human and computers, that true integration of shared information, shared intelligence and shared understanding applies to humans and computers equally well.

Lisa Ryan: It gives you the background because I often don't want to make a broad statement in IT and to work with computers, but it's not a position that screams human connection. Bring that combination of realizing that using your pastoral background to connect with people. See them as human beings and acknowledge their excellent work, making them want to work harder for you.

Tom Pierce: Absolutely. There's a surprising amount of overlap between counseling and consulting. You're advising people, seeking truth, and sharing wisdom in every way possible. It's a very similar field.

Lisa Ryan: Absolutely. In your experience, what are some of the most common challenges faced by operations and supply chain managers in the manufacturing sector?

Tom Pierce: I hate to oversimplify it, but to start with, I'll use the simple word gap. There are enormous gaps that are naturally forming, like an entropy thing. People are incentivized to make their bosses happy. If you're in a stove pipe organization, your supply chain people will be focused on what the vice president of the supply chain wants. Your operations people are going to be, and if there are good relationships or good collaboration at the highest levels, you end up with an entirely cohesive organizational structure. Sometimes they lean too heavily on software to solve other problems. We can get everybody to use the same software system. That'll solve all our problems. It doesn't be because they don't understand each other's language.

They don't develop trust, and the digital insertion in communication between humans makes trust more difficult to establish. It's harder to develop a trusting relationship with somebody you know only through email, Twitter, Facebook, or whatever than it is to sit in a room, talk, and collaborate. Some of the most valuable conversations in a business happen in the parking lots and in the hallways when people are reading body language, expressing full life implications of decisions, and collaborating holistically with each other. So you've got massive gaps between finance and production.

There's even a war between what you used in the introduction, the integrated business planning. Wait a minute, is that the same thing as sales and operations planning, or one led by finance? One led by production. Oh, do we need both? And supply and operations often fight with each other. Why don't we have the parts we need? Because you needed to order them sooner. You didn't give the specs. Quality lives on its island many times, so trying to get functional people incentivized to collaborate. People don't typically get bonuses. The results show good relationships with the other functions at the team level.

Lisa Ryan: If a person listening to this realizes that their communication strategies aren't that good and they need to integrate more collaboration between departments or people, what would be an excellent way to get the conversation started?

Tom Pierce: One of the simplest things that my son, who's worked for me for 15 years, Alex, added an innovation that I undervalued first and came to appreciate later. He started putting collaboration notes in every report. So if somebody from the supply chain gets a report, they can comment on it and save it. And that same note gets replicated to anybody looking for information about that appeal in line.

And he has expanded the use of collaboration notes, which has, in turn, sparked more phone calls and more text messages. We'll be in conference room settings and workshops, not reporting the status of an issue. But seeing what somebody has written in the notes, picking up the phone, writing an email, or setting up a side meeting immediately solves the problem before it has to be reported on getting that rhythm.

Most organizations are not set up to solve problems; they're set up to report them. And if you can get the momentum moving in the other direction where the purpose of the meeting is to solve problems, then you don't have to worry about the plan of action and milestones and whether the due date was met; solve it so that genuine working relationship.

Lisa Ryan: Are these collaboration notes a part of the software? Like when you were talking, I was thinking like people using Google Docs where everybody can go in and do the same, see the same notes when people are editing it.

Tom Pierce: That's the same basic idea, but Alex incorporated that, and pretty much every report and Excel is very commonly used, even for the people that hate Excel. He figured out the technology and the techniques to embed the collaboration notes in the Excel report. So you may be reading a report, but you can go in and type in save the note. The following person who opens the report sees the note saved in a shared database, but all the reports are integrated. You know the name of the company. We integrate the information systems so that the information is shared, and it's not meant to replace human face-to-face voice sharing. It's intended to facilitate it. I see here that you made this note. Can you tell me more?

Lisa Ryan: What are some other best practices for successfully implementing ERP systems in manufacturing businesses to help them to streamline their operations and improve efficiency?

Tom Pierce: Similar answer but a completely different angle on it. I've been a part of multiple ERP implementations, one at the beginning of my career and several SAP implementations. The classic approach is, by nature, fragmented. Let's get all the supply chain people over here. Let's get all the production control people over here, all the finance people over here. And to try to speed up the process, they think what they're doing is dividing and conquering. But in any organization, some essential lynchpin kinds of people function as translators between those functional areas, and those people can't be in both meetings. So you need to add your schedules to allow the people focused on a particular functional area to talk to each other. Have somebody from procurement in there. When talking to quality people, have somebody from protection in there. When you're talking to the finance people because they, the fragmentation of large organizations is one of the biggest rings. It is a sink of efficiency, motivation, and morale. It's a communication breakdown from the GetGo to the implementation process itself. They tend to fragment people. So try to get everybody involved at the same time. It might slow your schedule, but it pays off in the long term.

There are no surprises when everybody brings out their little separate hymnals. They're talking to each other, and they're pro potentially building relationships, which leads to friendships, which leads to them not leaving the organization willingly. One of the astounding, I can't quote the exact number, but there's an astounding number of people that leave the company; I remember I was like 30%. In a typical ERP implementation, 30% of the people will leave. Wow. Because the implementation process itself is so exhausting and straining on relationships, time and budget pressure, and everything else. And the people who leave first are the people that find the next job easiest, which tend to be your best people.

Lisa Ryan: Especially in the last three years, we've seen that people are making different choices with the pandemic. If they are miserable at their job, they're like, you know what it is? Life is way too short to stay somewhere I'm miserable. So that's how we start losing, keep losing our people.

Tom Pierce: Exactly. And the work-from-home phenomenon opened that door. I can sit here at my desk, and I've got a client in Mississippi that I'll be supporting for the next three weeks. I don't have to go; I used to drive to Mississippi once every month for ten years. I don't have to drive anymore. I can do everything from here that I could do Then, which opens the door for employees. It's more of an employee's market now.

Lisa Ryan. That leads us to the role of technology evolving in the manufacturing industry. How do you see that working in automation, data analysis, and integration with legacy systems?

Tom Pierce: Absolutely. I love the way you asked that because when I first started my business and chose the name, the problem was this new thing that appeared called a pc. Everybody wanted to use their PC, Windows, and Word Perfect document to create work instructions, but their PC couldn't talk to the MRP system's mainframe. One of the first innovations we built was the communication between the PC and the mainframe. The legacy system, integrating with the new technology, was the reason I called my company what I did 30 years ago. I thought it was temporary until Windows took over; I was wrong. Getting the computers to talk to each other has an equal emphasis on the people working together.

They go hand in hand. I've been fascinated with this latest surge of interest in AI, the chat GBT and everything. I see instructions advising people how to talk to your AI here. Here's a set of prompts you can use, and it reminds me of what it's like I've got six grandchildren, and so they're all four and under. You learn how to talk to your grandchild, and your grandchild learns how to communicate with you in two different ways. Dynamic, and it's funny. My four-year-old Christopher did not speak at a very young age, but he managed to express himself and communicate with body language and to point, and the first word he used commonly when we were out for a walk was way, yeah, I want to go that way, and he would point.

We teach each other how to communicate. We've got the same problem with people when Google was new. People had to learn how to talk to Google. How do I ask my questions to get the answers I want? That will continue to happen, but it will explode if you don't know how to talk to, communicate with, and convey what you want to this automated device. I joke with people that I'll believe AI is here for good when Alexa knows I'm mad at her. And she doesn't; she annoys me sometimes and doesn't pick up on the signal that I'm annoyed. But what I'm worried about is what happens when Alexa gets mad at me. That's a different problem, but emotional intelligence will find its way into our relationship with technology. You probably need to be older to remember, but it wasn't long after the PC boom that people threw their computers out the window in sheer frustration. It was the blue screens of death from the old days. They keep changing what happens when the computer freezes. But all of us get frustrated in working with technology. Technology is great when it works. We're going to have to interact with it more and more.

We're going to have to develop the soft skills of interacting. And if you are okay with me elaborating, one more stretch on that. I used to think of it as a humorous point; I'm not treating it more seriously. I'm a huge fan of automation. I hate asking people to do tedious work that the computer can do. So you'd come up with this whole flow chart of how this process feeds that process while you're asleep, and then people started saying, wait a...




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