They were bound to clash.
On one side, information technology vendors are pushing the latest software packages that wire corporate functions together into grand, unified systems.
Their goal: Give managers a powerful tool to monitor and manage operations in ways they never could before.
On the other side are factory managers who have got the religion of lean production. With Toyota Motor Corp. as their benchmark, manufacturing managers reduce inventories, slash manufacturing costs and speed products to market by adopting a production system that relies mainly on simple manual controls.
The low-tech, color-coded kanban cards that machine operators use to order new parts are a familiar element of lean-production systems. Toyota, lean-production advocates note, uses information technology very sparingly in its factories.
In some cases, information technology staffs and lean-production managers lock horns over whose system should take precedence.
'The IT people haven't studied the manufacturing process and don't understand what is possible in the system,' said Jeffrey Liker, a University of Michigan professor and principal of Optiprise Inc., an Ann Arbor, Mich.-based lean manufacturing consulting firm.
So who has the right approach? In a way, both do.
Visteon Automotive Systems is using advanced software tools in its aftermarket distribution business and plans eventually to include manufacturing operations. But it is taking care to apply information technology only where it is best used, rather than trying to automate every transaction or process.
'There is no single answer for everybody,' said Timothy Evavold, global business process manager at Visteon. 'The key is just don't deploy what you don't need.'
The Ford Motor Co. parts-making operation is installing software from SAP AG and i2 Technologies Inc. SAP, of Walldorf, Germany, makes enterprise resource planning software that automates and links functions such as finance, human resources and manufacturing. Dallas-based i2 specializes in advance planning and scheduling software, a supply chain tool that helps managers schedule plant operations and smooth out production bottlenecks.
When implementing new software, Visteon involves front-line managers in the earliest phases, Evavold said. A common question: If I have to stop every 20 minutes to update the computer system, when will I get time to do my job?
Evavold concedes that Toyota has succeeded famously without a lot of information technology. But he notes that Toyota also has developed a predictable manufacturing system that lets suppliers schedule their production in a relatively stable way.
Outside of Toyota, most automakers and suppliers struggle with more uncertainty. Demand levels fluctuate, manufacturing processes break down and, under the lean production philosophy, production machinery is used to make a variety of parts in short runs. Factory information technology can be useful in managing this complexity, Evavold said.
Liker agrees that Toyota has 'created the ideal lean system throughout the supply chain,' and that most other companies are not at that level. But adding information technology intelligently to a production system that is a blend of lean manufacturing and traditional mass production can improve operations, Liker said.
'It's silly to throw away powerful tools because of simplistic views of either lean manufacturing or information technology,' he said.
Auto supplier Sharon Tube Co. installed i2 software to help it cope with a surge in demand in the past two years that was causing havoc with shop floor inventories. The software helped the Sharon, Pa., company identify a production bottleneck and reduce work-in-process and finished goods inventories by more than 50 percent.
But it takes more than a fancy new software package. Sharon Tube CEO Lee Hooper said the key to success was first getting information technology managers and manufacturing people to have confidence in each other.