For better or for worse

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.