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A Practical Reason for Moving Beyond Smart Part Numbers

During a process review session this week, I got involved in a terrific conversation about Smart Part Numbers. You know what I’m talking about – those cryptic SKU identifiers so popular with the folks in the warehouse, on the shop floor, in production planning. There is logic and structure to the characters and the numbers, structure that codes identification and classification details onto those bin labels.

We are having problems with item WC1-644-A019910

Oh, that’s because the trim press is down in building A

Smart Part Numbers serve as a handy shorthand – you, the observer, may not understand that WC1 obviously refers to Trim Press 43, and the 4 in 644 (no, not that 4, this 4) meant it was in building A, and the 4 (yes, that 4) indicated it was a fast moving product. Your understanding doesn’t matter, the folks on the floor know what they are saying to each other.

Scherbius 1928 patent
... wrapped in an enigma ...
This is why it is so difficult to dissuade the organization about the need to eliminate Smart Part Numbers. Sure, the data base architect and the query / report developer can detail all of the technical overhead introduced with this approach. It doesn’t matter – all of our internal processes and communications rely on these patterns and codes. (and besides, I don’t understand all of your techno mumbo jumbo).

Ah, but the local GM came up with a breakthrough insight. He is relatively new to the company, and did not “grow up with” the internal codes and special language of the legacy Smart Part Numbers. His point – we have to see this from the viewpoint of our Customer.

Our Customers have no idea what the Complicated Part Numbers mean, or how we use them for our internal process flow. In fact, the Complicated Part Numbers are a hindrance for the Customer – locating the right products and finding the right parts in our catalog, or decoding the bill of lading or the invoice we send them.

To our Customers, our Complicated Part Numbers are our own brand of techno mumbo jumbo.

To drive out the reliance on Smart Part Numbers, all areas of the business (customer service, operations, and IT) need to work together to define streamlined material handling processes and technology-enabled, attribute-based part number lookup solutions to deliver the same operational efficiencies. A learning process, a big change for many organizations – but the key insight that triggers the need for this effort – seeing ourselves through the eyes of our Customers.

Of course, if the Voice of the Customer is not a driving force in your company, you may have deeper problems …

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. I agree in most cases smart part numbers do not make any sense or contribute to cents for a business. As you mention there is a need to meet internal requirements and external customer requirements in regards to part numbers. However there is a definite need for a form “smart part number” to meet internal business needs. When you purchase a Blue Ford Mustang for example you do not have to know the complicated 100-200 digit codes that describes all the components and options that make up the car. Color, Interior, engine, etc. These are all codes that are specific to that model that are important for the shop floor and warehouse. In addition when we assemble to order or engineer to order often even the ERP software will create “part numbers” from options selected. In some cases the ERP software took into consideration and described part number as “mustang” but had associated (smart part number Or classification code) describing the custom options for the part number. So If a company does not choose to seperate part number from classification codes or cannot do so with the Software ERP application they use. The only other alternative is a forced customization to get what is really needed – the “customer part number” vs the internal “smart part number” this cross reference is the key to meeting all business needs. Surprized when ERP system are implemented and this question is not given the indepth analysis and consideration it deserves.


    1. Ah, actually I agree with this concept – the shorthand of the part number works on the factory floor, so why not “create” or “compute” a Smart Part Number, based on the attributes we want to “encode”, and print that for internal documents.

      And Dave, your last point is key as well – an important nuts-and-bolts thing to work through when going through Requirements, but often overlooked.

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