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Expert Insight: The Supply Chain Technologist
By Mark Fralick
Date: Feb. 5, 2009

Logistics News: Successful Warehouse Management System (WMS) Integrations Require Left and Right Brained Thinking

 

Creativity and Discipline are Needed, and that is Rarely Found in One Person; True Cost of Poor Integrations can Last for Years


Great integrations of Warehouse Management Systems with other enterprise, legacy and materials handling systems call for both sides of the brain firing on all cylinders.

Integrations, it goes without saying, are tricky.Someone asked me last week what exactly that trick is. My instant response was “Well, there is no real trick, just hard work” - not very philosophic or insightful, but true nonetheless.

But the question did get me thinking. So, here’s what I’ve come up with.

Cost effective and robust integrations require two discrete (and seemingly opposing) ways of thinking: Creativity and Discipline. In fact, these two skill sets are also true for WMS implementation in general.

This, in my opinion, is why it is really hard to find a single resource that can do this sort of thing. Most people are either good at creative thinking (and not disciplined) or very disciplined (but not creative). I have met a few people in my travels that can do both, but they are rare enough that I can name them all off the top of my head. Here is why this is so important.

Creativity: Sometime integrations are simple and straightforward, but sometimes they are a bit like that story in Apollo 13 where you have to connect the round CO2 scrubber from the Command Module to the Square ones on the Lunar Module with some twine,personal articles and duct tape. Those guys at NASA back then showed incredible creativity under stress by coming up with a wild but effective solution. While our problems do not rival those of Apollo 13, my point is that sometimes doing integrations means thinking a bit “sideways.”

Often there are many ways to solve the problem, each with its own costs and risks. The key is to be open to solutions that may not seem as straight forward, but may be more effective. An example of this sort of sideways thinking when doing material handling interfaces might involve less of a straight-line approach and more of an “event-based” way of thinking.With this mindset, what is happening in the material handling system is merely a set of actions and events, so you can start to attach certain WMS actions on events raised by the equipment. Examples of this would be the idea of tying a component that looks for inbound work to the “event” of a drop off of a pallet,or tying the action of looking for outbound work to the event of a putaway in the aisle.

In this sort of situation you may not have an interface “program” per se – but an interface that is nonetheless robust and actually easier to maintain as actions (program components) that are tied to discrete events (crane arrived at Deposit location).

Discipline:This might be more accurately called “Zero tolerance for loose ends.” Sometimes this is a personality thing, sometimes it is learned. I, for example, cannot tell you how I disdain loose ends in my WMS projects or Integrations. But I do not systemically detest loose ends in my life; so, for me, this part of it is all about experience. But there are people that instantly see loose ends or are great at seeking them out. My old business partner Jim Hoefflin (now at RedPrairie) is maybe the best person I’ve ever met at this – he can smell a loose end a mile away.

Just being around someone like that for a dozen or so years gave me this instinct. So, I think it can be learned by those of us who less “left brained” than others. But the important point here is this: where cost and time can be associated with the creative side of the brain, robustness and general lack of shakiness is entirely about this intolerance of loose ends.

The requirement for Creativity and Discipline really do point to the right brain versus left brain debate. Can you get this sort of thing in one person? Maybe, but it is rare. The more likely situation would be that you’ll put together a team of people to take on an Integration or startup with the mindsets to cover both sides of the equation.

No matter the number of resources on a project, both sides of the “brain” must be represented in order for you to get the most robust and cost effective solution.

As a buyer of a WMS, your job is to ensure the vendor team you have for the integration effort has both creativity and discipline – and recognize that in some cases, you or your IT team may need to contribute some of either yourself.

One final note about the notion of cost effective integrations – it is a “total cost of ownership” thing. The real cost of an ill-conceived or poorly executed interface comes down the road in terms of the “care and feeding” it takes. These things can bleed hours of effort and cost every week in many cases if not done right. So, be creative in your approach – but button it up so it is absolutely air tight!


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profile About the Author

Mark Fralick writes about supply chain technology issues, and is a recognized expert in RFID, Service Oriented Architectures (SOA), Warehouse Management, material handling systems integration, and other technologies.He is also president of consulting firm ROI Solutions LLC, and prior to that Vice President of Architecture for RedPrairie. He is co-founder of Software Architects International, a successful Warehouse Management System (WMS) provider subsequently purchased by McHugh Software (RedPairie).

 

Fralick Says:


As a buyer of a WMS, your job is to ensure the vendor team you have for the integration effort has both creativity and discipline – and recognize that in some cases, you or your IT team may need to contribute some of either yourself.


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