From green screens to results - how North American Lighting changed supply chain planning with Plex

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed May 24, 2017
One PowerPlex '17 keynote highlight was hearing from North American Lighting's Judy Nagy on using Plex's new supply chain planning functionality. Offstage, Nagy proved just as outspoken, giving a memorable tale of of moving from "pre-sales great" to actual great - and the type of collaboration and project management it took to get there.

Nagy at PowerPlex 2017 keynote

At PowerPlex 2017, several folks joked to me, "You have to interview Judy Nagy - she's the one that convinced Plex to acquire DemandCaster."

It's never that simple, of course. Jokes aside, a customer is never responsible for a vendor's acquisition. But when someone is repeatedly referred to as a "firecracker," that does make me went to interview them - and I got the chance.

Nagy, who is General Manager at North American Lighting, also had plenty to say on how to drive the culture change such projects invoke.

Green screens aren't a great recruiting tool

This story goes back five years. Replacing North American Lighting's ERP system became an imperative:

I knew that we needed a new ERP system, because ours was implemented in 1993. Like I used to say as I was going through this, "How many of you - raise your hands - are using cameras or phones from 1993?" Obviously, no hands would go up. I go, "Yet, we're using software from '93."

Green screens aren't good for luring talent:

How do you think that looks to young people who come off the street? Green screens. They've never seen anything like it. And I said, "This is a problem."

Nagy began her research, garnering support from executives and getting their referrals as well. It was North American Lighting's audit firm that first said to Nagy, "You ought to look at Plex." Mike Kramer from Plex also reached out to Nagy around that time. Four years ago in Grand Rapids, Nagy went to her first PowerPlex, to kick tires for herself. She was surprised:

I'd heard of Plex in '95, and I thought it was like a little niche player. I was like, "Eh. It's probably not going to work for us." But when I went to Grand Rapids. I was blown away by what Plex had become. I said, "We've definitely got to look at this."

Nagy didn't skimp on due diligence - it took her a year to go evaluate options and chart internal processes:

I diagrammed every process and identified pain points in the process. Then I quantified all that. Then I dollarized it.

The Plex decision - supply chain planning was a must

Eventually, it came down to two finalists, Plex and SAP. SAP had one advantage over Plex - they had a PLM tool:

Plex didn't have that, but I felt we could go from 28 systems, which is what we had, down to two, which would be pretty good.

There was still a huge obstacle for Plex to overcome: deep supply chain functionality was a dealbreaker. The good news for Plex? They already had a partnership with DemandCaster. That worked for Nagy: "They brought that in and we loved it."

From "pre-sales great" to go-live

Judy Nagy
Nagy at PowerPlex

This was October 2015, nine months before Plex would acquire DemandCaster. But it wasn't all gardens and roses. Nagy dropped a classic line: DemandCaster looked great in the demos, but for North American Lighting's needs, it was "pre-sales great." Translation: lots of fine tuning ahead, more than Nagy had bargained for:

It's great now, but it took us over a year to get it where we needed. It wasn't really integrated yet... there was a lot to do.

It took a lot of work to get beyond "pre-sales great" to "working great." Along the way to go-live, Nagy's decision was validated when Plex acquired DemandCaster:

We were thrilled by that, because we were like, "All right. Now one throat to choke. Let's go."

The first plant went live in April of 2016, but that was with Plex ERP only. The planning part was still a work in progress:

Our planners dealt with it, because they had been dealing in green screens. They were used to pain... It was a lot of work arounds.

So was it a good day when she could flip the switch on Supply Chain Planning?

Yes - oh my goodness. I was even happier when our last plant went live this February. That was my happy moment.

Results - "it's probably 100 percent better"

I asked Nagy if she observed benefits in the new ERP system, even while the planning part was still getting sorted. Visibility was the first big win:

Our old system components would come in the door. We'd mold them. We'd metalize them. We'd assemble them. We'd slap a shipping label on them and ship them out the back door...  We were always running out of components. Everything was out of sync... There was no WIP (Work in Progress) tracking.

With Plex now, we put so much automation on that floor. Touch screens, keyboards...  The people that do follow it, they know where everything is all the time. It's a beautiful thing.

You may have noticed something unusual about the last quote: "The people that do follow it." Yep, that's the culture change thing. That's been Nagy's other big mission: take plants live, but get the people bought in. There is a core of features being used, but extra features have to be requested by each plant.

Now that the planning system is live, how does it compare to the green screens?

It's way better... Right now, it's probably 100% better... The planners love to see the whole system. They like to see, "When did purchasing request the components? Where is it along the process? When did they arrive?" They love to see the MRP in there. They can see everything, soup to nuts, all the way through.

Nagy classifies the benefits of Plex into three areas: serve customers better in a era of "ever changing needs," maintain minimum safety stock quantities (which North American Lighting can now do with dynamic calculations), and reduce obsolescence ("Now, because we can see our inventory, we can do better in managing that.")

The wrap - advice on change and ideation

I asked Nagy for advice on managing change. Are there any magic bullets other than communicate, communicate, and communicate?

Yeah. Recognize fear. When you see fear, recognize it and deal with it. Address it immediately.

Yes - but how?

We used an iterative agile approach, where we iterate through the software making it better and better until we get it where we want it. Then, we paralleled. I did this through all eight plants.

Paralleling two systems for a month or more is no cake walk, but it sure makes for a good go-live:

It's really heavy lifting. By the end of that whole thing, now we're ready for go-live weekend. We do our physical inventory. Then all we do is shut off the old system. The fear level goes way down, because they've been doing this for a month.

The work isn't done. Nagy told me about an issue they are pushing through Plex's Ideation system which will enhance weekend planning. Once Plex is done with their full MRP integration with DemandCaster, Nagy expects that to be behind them - and she'll be up to "150 percent" in her before/after Plex scale. But for now, their floor is connected to their back office, with accounting, purchasing, production control and planning all integrated.

It's rare for me to hear a customer so blunt about the problems they've faced. Plex has the confidence to put Nagy on stage for the same reason she agreed to appear: because the co-innovation means sticking through the tough parts. And: each result validates the effort made to date.

Nagy knows they are going to need an agile system for the times ahead. We talked briefly of the impact of autonomous vehicles, smart lighting and so on: "We're going to be all over it," vows Nagy. I have no reason to doubt her.

End note: readers should note that Plex continues to offer DemandCaster as a standalone component. When purchased as part of Plex, it's called Supply Chain Planning.





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