I have been following the recent developments around mobile device and operating system alignment between the mega hardware and software vendors closely, and was particularly intrigued by the move of ex-Microsoft Stephen Elop over to Nokia as CEO, and the publication of his memo about ecosystems (what could be more Microsoft than an ecosystem?). I then started to think about all these developments in the rapidly changing enterprise mobility space and just how it might affect today’s manufacturing businesses and ERP users.

Today, the majority of ERP systems that have been successfully adopted tend to feature what we could consider a traditional user interface (UI). That is, a menu style hierarchical navigation paradigm that supports a strict business process. It’s a UI approach that simply doesn’t allow end users to make a lot of changes, and typically restricts them to one process at a time.

If you look at which software providers are effectively selling ERP solutions today, global companies like SAP and Microsoft or local players like Monitor in Sweden or King Dee in China, it tells us that even now manufacturers perceive that traditional UIs are the most effective way to drive their business. Some of these same vendors are gradually introducing new ways of working and have set up methods to support them, but when it comes back to core back office features, traditional processes still rule!

In the Harvard Business Review article, “Decoding the DNA of the Toyota Production System,” the authors uncover the Lean manufacturing myth at car manufacturer Toyota. Anyone in the manufacturing industry will have heard or read about Toyota and how they are using Lean manufacturing principles, but this study focuses on why others often fail. No one has completely successfully implemented or copied their way of working. Why? Well, a number of things stand out in the report that support the traditional way of thinking about UI’s.

For example, every process must be governed by a very strict process, even in the smallest detail. If one worker on the assembly line needs to add four bolts to a car seat when it’s installed, the process must dictate in which order the bolts need to be added, the timing for the process, how many turns that should be made, and how much torque you need to apply. This is how Toyota can identify multiple measures within the assembly line so that they can improve the process. And this is where a new UI should come into play.

So if any ERP system can support a fixed process but at the same time allow you some slack, so that you can add the bolts in whatever order you want, it means that the manufacturer is essentially missing the whole point about performance improvement. If they don’t know which exact detail is causing an improvement or a failure they can’t become more agile.

This is extremely important to smaller manufacturers who need to be as effective and competitive as possible in their markets, and this is exactly where ERP vendors need to focus. Companies are in the best position to help manufacturers see clearly at a detailed level where they can improve, and we need to support them in that with a more effective UI.

This new UI needs to support the manufacturers need to be able to integrate several processes, and allow for rapid changes when required, as opposed to today where systems are either not strict enough or don’t allow users to make easy changes to single or simple processes.

With the introduction of tap screens on smart phones and portable devices such as the iPhone, iPad, Android, and Windows Phone 7, we are facing a new, rapidly growing UI paradigm. This gives us new possibilities about how screens can be created but also new challenges in what users expect to get out of them. It’s no longer enough to have an easy-to-use UI, it needs to be very easy to change a process, or add things to it in the same way as you add an app to the iPad.

Keeping the Toyota study in mind, as the goal of where most manufacturers want to ultimately be, but without having to spend billions of dollars to create a fully customized system, this is where packaged ERP systems should be able to help. Many, like Epicor, offer strong lean manufacturing support as standard, but a more fundamental change is needed in terms of UI to be able to do it all.

For example, many smaller job shops can do some of this, either through manual steps, supported by ERP functionality or because they have an extremely skilled production manager that can see (without exact measurements) what needs improving, but as soon as the business starts to scale, these improvements can stop and your business can lose agility and so competitive differentiation.

In the coming few years I believe that we will see a lot of interesting changes to UI’s and how you can drive process improvements through more effective UI’s. Early adopters and midsized companies will benefit the most because they have the most to gain, and it will make it easier for them to scale their company without losing agility and flexibility. With the types of UI supported by new rich Internet applications also coming to market this will become more and more evident.

Of course, one of the key challenges for any technology company in being able to bring this UI vision to manufacturers is making sure it’s not just easy to use, and encompassing of existing businesses processes but can help enable business process improvement through an intuitive interface that increasingly merges transactional and analytical processes, and lets users flex these to create improvements on the fly.