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Managing Data in an Offsite Construction Company (4/4)

Lauri Tuulberg, CEO
October 9, 2019
5 min read

And so we end up with the 4th and final (hopefully before it gets boring) article describing our data management systems at Welement. In this part, I will partly outline why we ended up using Microsoft Office 365 in our daily operations and in addition to this since in the last article a comment brought out a good point about the risk of over-complicating the software infrastructure, I will give my thoughts about the pros and cons of centralized vs. decentralized systems.

I must admit that at first the number of programs and applications might seem a bit overwhelming and this is an issue we have pondered about since the very beginning. Then again nobody is using all the tools at the same time and with the same level of depth. For instance, from a top-level management perspective, I am mostly using Pipedrive, Teams, Planner and occasionally a fraction of MRPEasy. The shop floor guys are using Teams, Planner and several PowerApps. And even our COO Ermo-Raiki, who is the main architect for most of the program settings and knows the system in more detail than anybody else, now has to go to Procurement or Production Preparation for specific information related to their field.

My point is that we are living in an age where new apps are springing up like mushrooms after rain, each solving a specific problem and some to problems that you didn't even know existed. A huge centralized software will never have this sort of agility and level of innovation (starting with UX for instance) which start-ups generally can produce. In this sense, the fact that Microsoft has been able to change itself is a bit of a conundrum and it remains to be seen if they can keep the momentum going. I know from experience when a larger organization is using software with a questionable value just because it has been this way for a long time and all the other departments have to constantly adjust their software decisions and processes accordingly. In today's changing business environment, a decentralized modular software infrastructure makes complete sense, because if one department needs to quickly adapt to changes, they are not jeopardizing the overall balance. In our case, if we would change for instance our CRM from Pipedrive to Dynamics or collaboration tool from Teams to Slack or move our cloud from Sharepoint to Dropbox, it does not affect our storage and production systems. If we would be tied to a huge ERP, all change management decisions would involve much higher risks and major cross-department impact factors.

Rock-Paper-App

No alt text provided for this image Digitizing data collection is great but we have always asked ourselves how much time it takes to use an app and input data compared to using paper. A while ago we used Device Magic for quality checks but because we took a readymade SaaS program we had to adapt and work around the system to make it work for our specific needs. The result meant that it took too much time to just navigate in the form (we are talking about minutes of course) and therefore it was a bit clumsy. Luckily again our size meant that we could quickly take a step back and briefly return to paper. Finally, about a year ago we created a simplified version of the quality app in Microsoft Powerapps which we have also used to create a tool for monitoring unexpected workflow stops and plusses and minuses for an ongoing project. If we add iAuditor to the list, it may seem a lot of different applications but again everybody is using their specific tool at a time and the connection with other members is through relevant data exchange. Binding this all together is Teams and although I admit that all of the systems have some small problems and sometimes seem a bit all-over-the-place, it looks like Microsoft is putting a lot of effort into their products and it is great to see it seems to be working.

Visualized Data

Random Dashboard. Source Microsoft

What the team is actively engaged with at the moment is collecting all this data together and using Power BI to visualize the information. We, humans, are inefficient machines and information visualization enormously helps us to quickly analyze and generalize data at a single glance. Our brain instantly begins to see correlations and almost unwillingly starts to predict trends when numbers are presented in a graphically compelling way. Although I would like to show screenshots of some of our dashboards with our realtime data, unfortunately, this is the openness line that I can not cross and hopefully, you can get the general idea from the example picture I took from Microsoft's page. It is quite straight forward that the main point is to help managers make strategic business decisions faster, but another really important aspect is being able to check the data on your own time and not having to bother people with reports. One of the most surprising examples is, for instance, the information we are gathering about production stops. In the beginning, we hypothesized that the main reason is CAM file errors and related machine stops, but what came out was that internal material logistics was just as important and much easier to manage. The real-time data collected through the PowerApp combined with PowerBI in a simple pie chart formation solved a lot of arguments and helped us generate an online kanban system using Microsoft Planner.

Business goals should pull digitalization I must again acknowledge that we as a manufacturing/construction company can probably afford the luxury of constantly testing out new applications mostly because of our relatively manageable size. Then again if the whole team is tech-savvy, knows how they want the systems to behave and what data needs to be exchanged, this ad hoc decentralized system architecture approach can be scalable. What I definitely believe is that data collection, like automation and digitalization, should never be a goal on its own but should always be pulled by strategic business goals and actual needs. These are all just tools to help people make better choices or simplify their work and at the end of the day it still comes down to the person using the tool. A means to an end. Oh, and what is the end? Maybe as Buckminster Fuller coined it - ephemeralization or more simply put:

"To do more and more with less and less until eventually you can do everything with nothing" By the way, if you are interested to know more about offsite construction and how we could help you with your next project just contact our team