My, how you've grown

August 19th, 2007

Progess is always much slower than desired. I don’t feel I have much to report on when I say that we have used the new process for checking claims this week. None of the pickers liked it at all. Some were obviously rebellious. Technically, they have every right to be; I am not anyone’s supervisor. P.B. is their manager.

However, I had talked about this process with P.B. and with his deputies, and sketched the outlines in a departmental meeting. I was dismayed by the frank resistance from the pickers and the initial lack of support from P.B., who, based on the complaints of the workers, wanted to review what it was I proposed to do. He had never gone over it in detail, although I sent him the plan, invited him to discussions, and generally gave him every opportunity to ask for further details or outright veto.

However, when P.B. did review the plan he agreed it met our needs and gave it an official sign-off. For this first week, we replied to claims in a 24-hr period by following a process, rather than a streak of free time to freestyle through them. This is more significant than it feels to me.

In the same vein, my former boss came through the department and remarked that every time he stops by things look better. Credit that to P.B. It is like when long-lost relatives come visiting, and tell all the children they’ve grown tremendously. It doesn’t look like much progress from the front lines, but it adds up over time.

Although I have been pushing this forward an inch at a time while managing to juggle all the other things that come up so far, a new priority has been assigned to me that may be the one more thing that topples this effort from its place in my schedule. Before leaving on a week and a half of vacation, my boss tasked me to investigate and reduce a backlog of items that I already have reason to suspect has built up due to systematic reasons, choices in the way those items are handled through our system that causes our system to think we do not have enough when in fact we do. This is cause by letting our projected demand run ahead of our projected supply, so the system thinks it has to reserve our current supply and won’t dole it out to sales orders.

In other words, if I am right, it is a problem I am already aware of and can’t fix because I don’t have the stature to contramand the decisions that caused the problem; nevertheless, I am tasked with the “solution.” That could effectively divert me from fixing what I can fix to running circles around what I can’t budge.

Speaking of which, our office had the privilige to particpate in a conference call in which we were told that we would be required to implement a new process for orders going across a particular border. We will need to ship these packages as if they are leaving with our small-box carrier, then put them in a big box and ship them with a large-freight carrier, who will take them across the border where the small-box carrier will break open the box and finish the delivery.

This will require special software and quite possibly its own computer, scale, and label printer; no effort or real interest was shown in whether this could be made compatible with our existing softwared. It will occur in spite of the fact that we are already struggling in our site to meet all the different special requirements of various high-profile customers; it will occur in spite of the fact that we have a dubious relationship with the large-freight carrier specified, in spite of the fact that it severely complicates shipment tracking for the small packages that are being big-boxed. It will happen without any consultation with the IT department beyond “make this work.”

It will be done because some bean-counter figured it will save money.

And if there weren’t such things as friction, gravity, and human error, it would work out great.

Clearing the ground

August 12th, 2007

A week ago, the plan was:

1. Set up at least a basic database to keep track of shipment errors
2. Begin new pick/pack/ship flex program to check shipments
3. Use dougnuts to bring home the program

We didn’t accomplish exactly any of those things. Still, the best-laid plan changes as soon as it gets underway.

I may have cheated a little even putting number one on the list. I think I already had the basic database set up to keep track of number of lines picked (line items on sales orders). I did some twiddling with the data side of it, but not really anything significant until late Saturday when I set up a routine to capture inventory data that will help other projects besides the shipment error reduction. I figure if I accomplished something in overtime, it’s only half a victory at best, because the point is to find a solution other than living in the office.

But most of Saturday was spent cleaning up old claims so that the new system can start from zero. Notwithstanding overtime principle above, this is forward progress in the direction planned. The supervisors of the line pickers are on board.

This next week is going to be a major challenge. We have to try to get Accounting to sign off on a new way of handling the inventory discrepancies. We’ve had dysfunctional process since the previous supervisor left, due partly to the restructuring of the department and the redefinition of the roles. We’ve tried different things at different points during the year and we haven’t set up a seamless process yet. There’s a little communication problem between departments, too, because Accounting keeps asking us for suggested solutions and then mostly telling us that we can’t do what we’ve suggested.

This will probably be the showdown week. Make that this week’s agenda:

  • Continue to implement new claim investigation process
  • Agree on reconciliation process with Accounting

For better or for worse

August 5th, 2007

I’ve been thinking for a while that it is not good for me to only report bad news. The last bit of this post by Michael Yon, about rebuilding Iraq, clinched it. If I am talking about work, I am most often talking about how Acme, or the managment of Acme, or the other departments in Acme, are insurmountable roadblocks to fixing the problems we are having in our particular Acme factory.

I do not subscribe to the doctrines of ignoring the problem, or pretending the problem has less effect than it does, or pretending that we are in the process of solving the problem when we are not. When searching for some good news to report on today, my first thought was that we had met our goal for cost of goods shipped this month–actually that we met the goal before the end of the month, and the goal was increased, and we still exceeded the revised goal. But there are two flaws in this good news. First, we in shipping have very little influence over the cost of goods shipped. We must have an order and the product before we can make a shipment. An order without product is not a shipment. A product without an order is not a shipment. A better goal would be shippable over shipped, the percentage of what we did do against what we could have done.

Second, we received no congratulations, thanks, or recognition for exceeding the last-minute goal. Instead we had a meeting on Friday to discuss why we hadn’t shipped more of the past due orders. We have lots of orders and lots of product, but unfortunately they don’t correspond. The backlog of orders, like the cost of goods shipped, is only slightly influenced by the shipping department.

People in Acme have reported trivial or incidental occurrences as victories, but that is not the kind of good news I am looking for. I want the kind of good news you can put in the bank, not the kind you buy at the cosmetics counter. It ocurred to me that good news is a little like money, in that you don’t usually get it without working for it. There’s enough bad news to go around, and more to spare, but everyone has to make a little good news of their own.

Last week, I thought I had. Shipping errors have been increasing, and P.B. and I have been at a loss to come up with a remedy that does not require more people or a better software system. One idea that we have kicked around for about half a year is to require that a separate person pick and pack each order, so that two sets of eyes check each order. But when someone has vacation or a sick day, we often are down to just two people picking and packing. If either of them happens to be faster than the other, you either have wasted capacity while the picker waits for the packer to catch up (or vice-versa), or you get rid of the rule and let the fast guy pack his own orders.

The solution popped into my head one evening: include the final step, running the package through the shipping software, in the loop. By including all three functions of pick, pack, and ship, and by using two packing stations, it is to keep rotating people so that nobody has to go over their own work (in picking and packing; in shipping, the order is boxed and can’t be checked anyway, so it is fine to ship an order that you have picked or packed).

I was very excited about this idea and wanted to tell everyone about it, but I was diverted that day because that’s when I found out we had to give an accounting on Friday for why we didn’t ship more orders. But diversions and demoralization will always come. They come every day, in fact. So either I concede to the demoralizations and diversions and I either quit or become depressed, or I must plan to overcome or ignore the diversions.

Easier said than done? Of course. But it is the only choice. Either (a) avoid those bad things by leaving, (b) solve them all and do the productive work, (c) take care of only the diversions, (d) take care of only the productive work, or (e) combine (a) and (b), as it were, by ignoring some of them and solving others, as required. (a) is not currently my choice, and (b) is impossible. (c) and (d) are not tolerated by my superiors. P.B., and anyone who has succeeded as a manager, has sometime succeeded in doing what has to be done in the way of emergencies and diversions, while still getting some real work done. That doesn’t dimish the size of the present task. P.B., who has succeeded as a manager in previous jobs with similar challenges, a man with more maturity and experience, more confidence, and more diplomacy than I have, is wearing down in the face of this challenge.

I don’t know the full measure of the man; I don’t know if he will continue to wear down, or if he will bail out, or be run out, or if he will regroup and overcome. I know I certainly won’t manage to accomplish progress without his close participation, and also of at least S.B. and S.D. But I know there won’t be any good news to speak of unless we do come together, measure our performance on things we can control, and make some changes–even if they aren’t the biggest and most effective changes that we can dream up.

So I would like my future posts to be about what we have done, not just what was done to us; and I hope that with that goal in mind, of reporting here on me instead of them, it will help to keep me focused on accomplishing what I set out to do.

Current plan:

  1. Set up at least a basic database to keep track of shipment errors
  2. Begin new pick/pack/ship flex program to check shipments
  3. Use dougnuts to bring home the program

I am a little uncertain about the last item. Something about it strikes me as kitschy. The idea is to use bring in the same percentage of “wrong” donughts as we have wrong shipments, or a translated percentage (for example, a two-percent mis-ship rate could be translated to two wrong donughts, rather than two percent of a dozen). This lets the workers know that we, the office people, are paying attention, and it lets them see, in a relateable way, how good they are doing. I like that. I don’t like the element of condesension, touching on bribery, or really the institutionalization of tainted pleasure like the doughnut.

I need to accomplish at least the first item this week. Hopefully all three, but I am mindful of diversions.

Check back next week.