The Metric Death of the universe

February 16th, 2007

If an action generates no paperwork, did it happen?

There are many actions taken every day in Acme that do not generate paperwork, but they are the illegal immigrants, the crucial illigitimate pillars of our factory. Anything which does not result in some numeric aggregate does not officially happen.

I am supposed to work 7 am to 4 pm. But there is a daily meeting at 7:40 which requires fresh information from a report that takes me 30 – 40 minutes to generate and about 10 minutes to transcribe to the set of whiteboards. Yesterday I did not put the finishing touches on this report until 4 pm.

Meanwhile I was busy. I canceled order line items which, unbeknownst to the computer system, could not be sent out. I investigate open work orders that should have been receieved at the shipping department long ago, but did not thus appear on the system. I interpreted a string of obscure e-mails, the result of which was to find that our factory was obliged to cancel some large overseas orders that were in error through no fault of ours. This took most of the day due the ambiguity of the e-mails concerning what needed to be done by us in particular, and not one of the countless other recipients of the e-mail.

I had to investigate misshipment complaints from customers, personally recieve the work orders for some special tools for special customers, collect data on why other tools would not ship on time to another special customer, participate in a conference call to express my ignorance of the cause for the aforementioned delay. I did not have time to see why an odd 475 parts had not gone out to one of our sister sites.

None of this work has a measured effect. None of it, then, happens, in the full sense of the word. You can tell for yourself that all that business is snipping out problems that have come full bloom. To justify the resources to nip those problems in the bud, I would need to have each problem fully measured and its impact translated to dollar amounts.

It is as if I am too busy beating out flames to judge the number of square feet burning, or the dollar value being consumed; and while I can easily reach the fire department on the phone, they decline to come to my aid unless I can give a rational measure of my emergency.

Six Sigma is part of the problem, I think. The program stresses measurement and statistical analysis. I assent that if we always address a problem by the guidance of instinct, we will probably spend more effort to accomplish less than if we understood the problem and dealt with it systematically. Any problem that occurs as an interruption to the daily work could very well be dealt with best with the precision of Six Sigma.

But my situation is one of neverending problemsolving–firefighting, as we say–and in such cases it seems prudent to make great changes with the best faculties at hand, and save finessing with precision instruments for a time when breathing is permitted.

There are about three ways to look at it: either my situation is objectively not as bad as I think, which is not likely based on the general concurrence of more experienced persons; or it is relatively not as bad as I think, which is very likely based on the nonchalant ignorance or cynicysm of more experienced persons; or the situation is headed toward black disaster, which in falls halfway between the other two in probability.

The heroes and legends of Lean production or the Toyota Production System consistently speak of taking direct, immediate action when the situation is obviously bad, and relying on clever measurements only when things appear at the surface to be well off.

But when you cannot beat a problem unless you measure it, and are too busy fighting the problem to measure it, you are not positioned to succeed.

It takes one man to run a factory

February 9th, 2007

This morning at Acme we had some parts that were run wrong on the machine and needed to be fixed up. This already is a disgrace according to the standards of Lean manufacturing. But it was worse because K. D. wasn’t at the meeting to promise that he could fix them, and nobody else knew what to do with them.

As L. K. said disgustedly, “What are you going to do when that man retires?”

Well, we will find out soon enough. K. D. retires end of June. But we can already guess what will happen. We will continue to run bad parts, but when nobody knows how to rework them they will simply be scrapped. The kind of skilled reworking that K. D. does, all day, every day, cannot be taught in a short time and cannot very easily be found for hire.

Let us imagine that we could have K. D. mentor someone in the four or five months we have to work with. Still we can safely say that all is lost. The job I had now came to me when one person resigned and another retired, both long-time employees, both giving plenty of notice. I got a few days training. Then it was another full month before I was actually hired and on the job. We have been feeling the effects of that graceless transition over this past month and a half.

In my former role, as a temporary employee, I maintained a report that we used every day, and I was the only one who knew how the report worked. There were several things that I was relied on to accomplish for the daily functioning of the plant, things that I had to maintain myself or train others in after I took my full time position. But I was I temp; I could have disappeared at a moment’s notice.

Acme is not a Mom and Pop operation. Acme is international. Our little piece of the Acme pie is not the best and not the worst. But it will become a little worse this July when K. D. takes his leave, and we can no longer fix the mistakes we make.

I realized

February 7th, 2007

My job in the shipping department at Acme is to monitor the flow of product to customer and raise alarms when problems arise or there is potential for improvement.

I actually spend my time at Acme compensating for the problems that have already happened, for water that has flowed under the bridge and now must be scooped up in a bucket and carried upstream. To extend the metaphor, I have one problem which is pretty much the hole in the dam that is letting the water out. In my first month on the job I did what is in the scope of my job, to wit, identifying the problem and proposing a solution.

The necessary authority to execute such a solution is not mine, so in the several weeks since I have made my proposal I have basically run back and forth with buckets full of water.

I put something like 56 hours of overtime in two weeks trying to reign in the problem as best I could. February arrived, the person who has the authority to make changes was finally hired, and I realized that I could not be the “change agent” that the Lean books talk about, the one who comes in at a time of crisis and forces everyone to reform their self-destructive ways.

And I realized that if I could not make the change, and if nobody made the change, then my job from now on will be to run the water back upstream. To constantly nip at the buds of the problem, and leave the root alone, is such a futile destiny. It reminded me of nightmares I used to have. As a little boy I had a recurrent dream of walking alone in a store down the aisles, and some very large and ominous monster walked down the aisles looking for me. I never knew quite where he was. I knew he would find me if I stayed still, but I also might run into him around any corner.

The other dream I had a few times involved climbing high into a tree and falling out. I fell in terror toward the ground, closing my eyes at the last minute. I had a sensation of impact, and then bounced back into the air higher than before. And fell again, still terrified. And bounced.

I have had other dreams in my life that upset me, but I have decided that those are just “bad dreams,” to be forgotten on waking. A nightmare is some unpleasantness that you cannot escape, that you are doomed to repeat.

This week I am a little more optimistic about our chances for filling in that hole in the dam, a little at least. But I have glimpsed the life of so many people who hate their jobs. At Acme, a number of people have told me to leave while I’m young.