MES Top 3 ‘watch outs’

Google ‘Manufacturing Execution System’ and you’ll get “An MES is software designed to optimise the manufacturing process by monitoring, tracking, documenting, and controlling the entire production lifecycle”. So far, so good.

However, it then states, “An MES improves quality control and increases uptime while reducing inventory and costs”. Oh dear. No, it doesn’t do that at all. People do that.

This is where a massive gap opens up between what we are being sold, and what gets delivered. It is a gulf that manifests as disappointment, cost, time and failure. It is a gulf which none of the highly sponsored MES pitches listed in Google even acknowledge, let alone address, so let’s try to offer some insight here!


  1. What problem are you trying to solve?

This sounds simple, but it is the most important question you can ask. It could be that you want, or maybe are required by technical compliance legislation, to provide robust product tracking. This in turn is linked to having a ‘paper trail’, or the digital equivalent, to enable auditable traceability and effective recalls (at worst), or to accumulate product or process specific data to enable further analysis (financial or otherwise).

This is a different to wanting to ‘go paperless’, although you might end up in the same place. This is different again to the problem of reducing production costs, or improving quality, or reducing working capital, or downtime, or understanding and increasing product margins.

Being clear about the problem (or problems) you are looking to solve can not only help define the scope, but also ensure alignment of expectations. More than that, it will provide you with a more solid basis for selecting the right solution. For example, bear in mind that every IT provider will tell you their solution will reduce production costs. That’s codswallop. Their solution might provide more timely information, for people to act upon (to reduce costs), but it’s the people who will do the actions, not the system. This means that the MES is only a part of the solution, not the solution! The MES will not alter a single, P&L measurable outcome (other than a capex hit), so if this is your objective – a positive bump on your P&L – the IT bit is but an enabler at best, and if done poorly a new, more complex obstacle. This makes choosing the right solution partners so important.

  1. Who are your solution partners?

Scoping your problem well means you can better scope the solution. Clearly, there’s a technical or IT element, so your MES implementation partner needs to possess the products and skills, but what about operational know-how?

Most IT people have no experience of shop-floor operations. They rarely get exposure, and often don’t know how to converse with operators. So what? Well, for starters they will need to elicit requirements. Easy enough, except the people they are gathering requirements from almost certainly don’t know what best practice is, or have any vision of what good looks like, or could look like. It’s a classic case of the blind leading the blind. At best you’ll end up with something that someone saw somewhere else, which again is almost certainly not going to be competitively advantageous. This will be reinforced by the IT providers’ bias to installing something they’ve done before that requires minimal effort, and your own team’s bias towards minimal disruption.

In any event, you’ll need to allocate internal resource to implementation. This is true even if you work with an external operations specialist. Has this been factored into the equation?

Additionally, there’s a world of difference between “installation” and “usage”; a world of difference between changed technology and changed behaviours. The operations expertise is crucial to bridging that gulf.

And what of those specialists? You’ve been bold and wise enough to recognise the need for extra bandwidth and expertise – after all, your team has a day job – but how many operations specialists know about IT? Furthermore, how many truly appreciate the differences between installation and usage? Ask them this very question. Examine exactly how they will bridge the gap. Their answers will be an education, and both help you plan implementation and decide who you want alongside you.

  1. Integration

Finally, to the MES software itself. No doubt the provider will be keen to talk about benefits and simplicity, how great the package truly is. This may be true, but it’s not where your project pain or success will come from.

More important will be how the MES will integrate with your existing or future system plans. How will data sets be linked, how will they be validated to avoid multiple versions of the truth emerging? What help will your partner provide to whatever IT resources you have on prem to integrate the MES into the wider IT landscape?

Critically, how will the data gathered through the MIS be collated, be presented, and be useful for insight – rather than just information? How should the information be used? How will the MES integrate to your Target Operating Model (TOM), and improve it?  Remember, the MES will (hopefully) capture data and make it available for use, it will not reduce cost, increase uptime, or OEE, or margin. Your people will (should) do that by using the information as part of your TOM.


Many companies are rightly currently considering developing their MES to cope with increasing complexity and economic pressures, and the MES undoubtedly has to play a vital part in this. By paying attention to these 3 core aspects, you will certainly improve your chances of success.

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