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Understanding Lean ERP
Part 5 of 6

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Lean Manufacturing, Basics, Principles, Techniques

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The User Interface

It is important to realize that, while the business logic layer relies on input from the outside world, in the final analysis it really is not af­fected by the type of input mechanism. In other words, the sales order entry clerk could be entering orders directly from a Windows-like screen at his or her desk, or submitting orders through an Internet Web site leveraging browser technology. As long as the data is interpreted to the business logic layer, many types of interfaces can be used. This inde­pendence will prove extremely important as the Internet matures and the ability to compete utilizing "e-commerce" becomes an imperative for all members of the supply chain.

Thus the final layer of our ERP system is the most visible to the user and is aptly named the "user interface." There are five fundamen­tal types of user interfaces currently available:

• "character-based" interfaces (ChUI)
• graphical user interfaces (GUI)
• Web-based interfaces
• data collection interfaces (DC)
• automated and external interfaces.

In a character-based environment, we enter data primarily through the keyboard of our computer. What we see on our screen is a combi­nation of words and numbers. We are prompted to enter required data by blinking cursors or other attention-getting devices. Character-based user interfaces have been the standard for many years and are still vi­able. The popularity of Microsoft Windows, however, has made the GUI interface the in-demand interface.

GUI is colorful and almost entertaining compared to its less flashy character-based sibling. The mouse augments the keyboard as the primary input device in a GUI environment when selecting choices from a graphically displayed list. While GUI interfaces are rapidly becoming the standard, many professionals note that fast-paced or­der entry and shop floor applications are ill-suited to the mouse-based operating environment. These applications demand a heads-down data entry mode that would be impeded by switching between the key­board and the mouse.

A closely related cousin of the GUI interface is the Web-based in­terface. With its roots in Windows Internet Explorer and Netscape, the Web-based interface looks much more like your Web browser than Microsoft Windows. Since a vast majority of business computer users will be Web-enabled by the year 2000, the Web-based interface may leapfrog the GUI interface to become the standard interface for the next computer generation.

Data collection interfaces include bar coding, optical scanners, and other types of nonstandard input devices such as pens, touch pads, and even voice recognition. A data collection interface leverages the fact that the input data already exists in machine-readable format, and thus can be directly transferred to your ERP system with minimal risk of data entry error.

Much like data collection interfaces, automated interfaces are de­signed to transfer machine-readable data from external systems directly to and from your ERP system. While EDI transaction processing is the most familiar and most well-defined interface, other interfaces could include financial and business transactions from other in-house sys­tems not encompassed by the ERP system (fixed assets, HR), bank reconciliation and cash management files, data passed to and from best-of-breed planning systems (APS, SCM, forecasting), and data devel­oped from or passed to DDE linked interfaces such as Word and Excel.

We believe that the strategic qualifiers for the user interface are usability and openness.

Obviously, for user interface tools to be viable, they must be us­able. However, in this context, we mean more than just simply getting the job done. The tools must be structured in such a way as to enhance both the productivity and the job quality of your employees. This means that the user interface must provide the right data, in the right format, at the right time to help your human resource assets make informed decisions and take informed actions. This also means that the user in­terface must be structured to reduce eye fatigue and repetitive strain and, where possible, to automate and simplify business processes.

"Openness" refers to the ability of your ERP system to accept and transfer data electronically. For an ERP system to be durable, then the interfaces to and from the system must be structured in a way to accept data in a wide variety of formats. This will allow the system to change and grow as your business changes and grows. We're not just referring to EDI here, but rather a set of tools and processes that allow users (not programmers!) to define and manage the automated interface of data into the system.

To Be Continued


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