Treat and Trick

October 31st, 2007

Forgive the title. I know I shouldn’t be making easy, thoughtless puns on crass holidays, but judge for yourself when you have read.

At the end of every month we are substantially shy of our shipping quota, and at the end of every month the shipping manager asks for any available help from the rest of the plant. Perhaps one time in six we actually see people in response to our requests.

Today, looking at how far we had to go to reach the quota, and what our rate of shipments had been the previous day, I noted in a report on our status toward goal that we would not make it without additional help. I expected to see few if any people come down to help. I also did not think we would really need any help, inasmuch as it seemed to me that the majority of shippable orders were shipped. I figured product completed today our normal crew could handle. About noon I thought we were surely going to run out of orders. And midway through the afternoon, when we really were just about to run out and have to send all our unexpected help away, orders came pouring in.

This was a result of the assembly areas finishing off their work, and sending it to us late in the day.

Originally the shipping manager said we would work 10 hours, starting at 6am and leaving at 5pm so employees with kids could enjoy Halloween. About half the crew came in at 5 am (myself at 5:30) because of the work we had outstanding from the end of work on Tuesday. There we were, late in the afternoon, surrounding by people who had been rousted from their normal jobs to help us. Several members of plant staff were there. We had an abundance of orders to process.

The problem is that our shipping area is not meant to handle a much larger crew than we usually run. Two or three extra people we can accomodate. But the more extra people, the more specialized the skills really need to be. Can you run the shipping terminal? Can you operate a forktruck? Can you operate the stretch wrapper? Can you even pick tools without making serious errors, and will the person who is packing your order know enough to catch your mistake?

What began as a sane day, just us shipping folk shipping out what we could for the end of the month, turned into a madhouse of shippable product, clueless help, and management scrutiny. I was the last to leave (because I had to send of the final report) at 7 pm. Most of our crew 15-30 minutes earlier.

And the production manager had the chutzpah to ask me why were going to be able to ship all of the orders (that had dropped late in the day), and why we weren’t changing our process to accomodate the last-minute production that happens every month. Talk about backwards! Why isn’t production fixing their issues so we can ship at a sane pace all month long?

So we had an unexpected treat in all the extra help. But it had a fishook inside of it.

Holiday cheer

October 28th, 2007

Instead of the Scary Guy coming back and telling us who’s been naughty and who’s been nice, we are now going to host a newly-formed Acme A-Team. The team will be in our plant starting November till just before Christmas. Officially they are here to jump start our transformation to a modern, Lean factory. Unofficially, they are taking names. Woe to those who do not find favor in the eyes of the Lean team.

These kinds of teams are not unique to Acme by any means. People who now work for Acme have seen, or even been on, such teams operating in other companys. They have seen these teams identify who is hindering progress and who is helping. They have seen the hinderances fired, without warning. They have seen factories truly transformed into more profitable, more efficient, more effective facilities.

I am trying not to let my hopes get up. I can imagine Acme, with its demonstrated level of competence at executing good theory, brining in an A-Team that will fire the wrong people, or slap some hands and let be, or spend the better part of two months constructing grand theories of how things ought to be done right, but not enforcing any of these ideas, so that once again we are abused with a perverse form of a good idea.

But the amount of time they will be in the factory gives me some hope. Can they really spend a month and half in our plant without noticing certain patterns? Can the sycophants really ply their art so long? It’s hard to imagine that high-paid people could waste nearly two months in a place without making a real difference. Maybe they’ll just say that we’re all hopeless and shut the plant down.

I would hope the A-Team notices and deals with events such as this week’s assasination attempt on P.B. To remind you, P.B. is in charge of all material handling, including receving and shipping. Technically he and I work for the same person, the supply chain manager; for the most part, you could say that I work for P.B. At any rate, I think we work well together.

To continue setting the stage, let me also reprise the role of a planner. A planner does not directly oversee the purchasing of parts or materials, nor does a planner directly oversee the application of labor to develop the components into the product. Basically, a planner’s job is to be aware of all the complications, constraints, and problems arising in the areas of supply, demand, and capacity, and manage them to produce the most effective production schedule possible.

Unfortunately in our plant, people (inclusive of the planners but also the production force) are much given to the habit of gaming the system, for instance by printing out paperwork requesting material be moved before it is ready to be moved–to have parts moved from stock to assembly when assembly is not ready to build, or from machining to stock when the parts are not done being machined. Then they sit on the papework until such time as the parts are ready, whereupon they produce the paperwork and complain at the next available opportunity that P.B.’s people aren’t moving the material in a timely manner, and that the paperwork has been sitting around unfulfilled for days.

This kind of basic dishonesty is almost an acknowledged fact. I say “almost” because nobody stands up and says, “I know you all are doing this and, hey–just keep doing it, I don’t care.” Rather you will get wry looks and behind-closed-doors admissions. But the people who ought to say, “I am your boss and if you lie to me I will fire you,” haven’t.

So on one fine morning this week, at our daily finger-pointing blame-shifting meeting, one of the planners says to the collected bunch that he could be building those tools which are so needed, so past-due, if only the material were pulled. Given that we have a 100% Effort project on to reduce that backlog, says this planner, why can’t P.B. pony up and get him the material he needs?

On this particular morning, by the way, the plant manager is in attendence. Usually he is not, and so he misses a lot of the profanity and degredation that goes on there.

P.B. does not argue the details. He happens to check every night and see if there is a backlog of work his people were supposed to do, but he does not mention this. He says only that he has put as much manpower as he can afford to toward helping that line. The planner insists, reiterating that given what a priority this is for the whole plant, P.B. ought to be doing more to help. Can’t give you more help without hurting someone else, says P.B. Take from someone who is lower priority and give to me, says the planner. Someone will have to tell me who the lower priority is, says P.B. So the planner turns to the master planner, P.B.’s nemisis you might say, and says, “Can you please help him figure out his priorities?”

Now after the meeting is officially over, P.B. has a little talk with the planner and explains that there wasn’t any work last night, so if the planner has a sudden crisis it would be much more polite and professional to speak with him about it personally, rather than presenting to everyone as if P.B. is willfully negligent.

Then, after that, P.B. went around and found out that of the 22 orders the planner said were waiting to be pulled from stock, 0 were ready to go. Yes, for every single order there was at least one part which had insufficient stock or a quality problem. P.B. checked with the area leader in the stockroom and at the assembly line. According to them there was no problem and had been no problem.

Next thing you know the plant manager was calling P.B. on the carpet for his uncooperative attitude, and P.B. had to explain to him all those pesky details.

If nobody else can take note of such unethical and unhelpful behaviour, and do something about it, perhaps the A-Team can. We shall see. But it may be a long two months.

Abbreviation of fatigue

October 21st, 2007

I have been getting more requests from more people for different reports–which orders absolutely must ship today, which important customers are about to get really upset with our performance, other things of that nature. I’ve told everyone that it reminds me of getting the women and children off the Titanic. In other words, triage implies disaster.

The effort to improve response on customer claims has fallen almost completely apart. Mentally I have advanced what could be done; I’ve found more ways to semi-automatically gather more data. But turning theory into reality has been interrupted, largely by above requests for reports.

i don’t feel like thinking any more about it. Plus the details get steadily more personal and more incriminiating and i don’t know how far down that road I want to go on a public blog.

Forecast, Supply, Demand, Recriminate

October 14th, 2007

Some of our products are made exclusively for certain high-profile customers. In these kinds of arrangements, the customers are expected to forecast ahead of time what quantity of product they will need. The forecast does not have to be precise down the the last unit, but it does have to be in the right range by a hundred or so, because it can take a long time for all the necessary components to make their way from Russia, China, India, Korea, England, and Mars.

If the customer sells far more tools than anticipated, they will ask us why we are not sending them more product and what is taking so long. We will try to find a polite way to tell them that parts are harder to make than promises. If the customer does not go over the forecast and we are still unable to deliver the planned quantity for some reason–a quality issue, let’s say–than the customer will want to know what’s going on and why they shouldn’t order the next lot from our competitor. We will try to find a convincing way to tell them it will never happen again and to make up for it without making another committment that maybe we won’t be able to keep.

If both of these things have happened with regard to the same customer, only different products, then when the sales people who get paid for making promises talk to the production people who get paid for making tools–but not too many unneeded tools–then the marketing people will ask why we did not meet their unrealistic promises, and we will ask why they made promises that broke the rules for what we could keep, and then they will ask how they are supposed to make promises we can keep if we are aren’t going to keep the promise they made that did follow the rules. And the marketing people will suggest that we get closer, more reliable sources for our parts, and we will say we’d love to do that but we’d all get fired for choosing the higher-cost provider, and then the marketing people will say that’s fine we’ll just lose the customer. And people will use naughty words.

And then the people in charge of getting the components in here on time will ask me to put together reports showing how naughty the sales people were in placing and changing orders, and also on how bad we really did measured by the official and agreed standards versus the arbitrary sales promises. Also the people who are responsible for building the tools once the parts are available will point out and emphasize all the times when the tools were built but did not get shipped, so the plant manager will ask me to put together a report showing the specific reason why each item did not ship and also to fix the problems while I am at it. Most of those reasons will wind up being rules that people in another part of the business made about what days we can ship to what foreign countries and whether we can ship part of the order or must ship the whole thing at once, but none of that seems very relevant to the production people who just want to ship the hot potatoe.

Then I will tell everyone that I can make a report that will tell them anything about any order at any time, only it will take several days to complete. And my boss will say, “Good, have it done by lunch. Just kidding.” And I will wonder if he has any idea what size kid that is. And I will go back to my desk and there will be a message from one person wanting me to cancel an order that is in the process of shipping and a message from another person wanting me to ship an order today, urgently, for an important customer. Also there will be many more things like that so that at the end of the day, or rather half an hour after the end of my shift, when I am shutting down open programs, I will come across one and say “What is this?” And then I will remember, “Oh yes, that is the report I was supposed to finish before lunch. Well, tomorrow I will really concentrate on it.”

To Boldy Go Against All Advice

October 14th, 2007

Great innovators are the ones who do what everyone said can’t be done. Columbus. Orville and Wilbur. Einstein. Edison.

Great idiots are the ones who attempt to do what everyone said can’t be done. Since they are so much more common, their names are less famous, though a good historian could name a few (shame on me). Small-time fools expire in the moment of their own education, but the great and powerful fools can leave rows and rows of gravestones as tribute to their innovation.

Since the matters of Acme are not martial, an outcome of actual gravestones will hopefully be avoided. The powers the be have decided to close one distribution center, consolidating it with another. However unpleasant, this could be simply a wise business decision. But the one they choose to close has been the control center for a number of plants, and I have heard mainly good things about it. I visited the site myself and thought it was in excellent working order. The center they are consolidating into I have never personally seen, but I have not heard anything about it about it in particular. From as much I am priviliged to know, therefore, it seems possible that scores of wage workers are losing their jobs because the other warehouse is closer to corporate bigwigs.

Why should I take the most cynical interpretation of inconclusive data? Because of first-hand experience. At our site a certain manager is tearing out our existing inventory storage architecture to install a new system. Nothing wrong with the idea of doing that. The problem is when you dislocate inventory without giving it any kind of official new location, so that it exists in a limbo that depends for its coherence on the care and good keeping of temporary wage workers. Add to this that your new system, while in place physically, also does not have systematized locations with processes for adding, deleting, changing, and reassigning locations. Add to this that your new system, of plain racks, is not getting adequately funded to buy purpose-specific racks. Instead there are ominous rumblings about reusing existing beat-up, repurposed, mismatched racks.

Add to this that your whole new theory of inventory management, sending to the assembly lines the exact quantities and mixes required to complete the scheduled work, is falling apart in every way; the schedule doesn’t hold up, the assembly lines build when there is nobody around to resupply them (which requires either an excessive buildup ahead of time or a lag after the fact, or simply shuts down the assembly), and that the supplier-owned inventory manager is under such strict orders not to release extra inventory (by the same manager) that material handlers cannot get enough parts out in advance of the assembly line’s need for them.

Add to this that the nominal manager of the stockroom said, “Don’t do this thing this way.”

Add to this that everyone involved in the actual physical and transactional processes said “Don’t do this thing this way,” and only the people who hear only the pitch that “this will reduce inventory” are excited about it.

Add all that together, and what do you get? A fool or a hero. Time will tell.

Change you can see

October 7th, 2007

Acme, the international company, has been making changes, divesting from some product lines and investing in others. The changes have been occuring all year, but they are now looming over our site, my Acme. It is verly likely that things will be running differently by the end of the year. Will it be by our choices, or corporate intervention?

It has always been obvious that we haven’t been fully or effectively implementing the modern production theories that we talk about. But we were pointedly told that we talk to much and accomplish too little. Now the prevailing feeling seems to be that we will make changes, even if those changes are advised against for reasons of sanity and efficacy. One of the doctrines of the Lean revolution (and it may be as much a return to previously discovered principles as overthrow of existing doctrine) is that resistors must be removed–those who do not agree with Lean thinking must not be allowed to impede its progress. But if you have people who do agree with Lean principles, and advise against a change because it goes against those same principles, you might want to pay attention–not just rush ahead because somebody somewhere did something like it and it looked good when they did it.

I am vague in part because of my attempt not to trespass to far politics, ethics, and business etiquette. Perhaps I can give an example of another industry’s use of Lean principles to help make sense of the concepts.

There’s a sandwich franchise in our area which has, in relatively recent years, changed its ordering process so that rather than choosing a specified sandwhich off the menu and then requesting alterations to the recipe, the customer can see all the possible sandwhich ingredients and specify any of them in any combination through the ordering process. You start with your choice of bread, then pick meat and cheese, then choose whether it be toasted, then choose vegetables, and finally condiments. Sandwich shops have always allowed a ‘hold the mayo’ approach to customization, but this has taken it one step further, making all the ingredients of the sandwich plainly visible to the consumer, and soliciting the customer’s preference at every step.

The workflow has also been arranged so that rather than a single server taking care of a customer’s order the entire way through, the sandwich is passed in a straight line from bread to condiments. The process can be attended by one, two, or I suppose as many as four or five servers–all that changes is how often the sandwhich is handed off. This allows more flexible staffing. Continuous work flow and training for flexible job coverage are key Lean concepts–and so is providing exactly the product the customer wants, rather than a comittee’s best-guess offering.

Further, the ingredients used are quantitized in an efficient and flexible manner. Rather than having a large chunk of meat or cheese which is cut up all at once, or haphazardly as needed, each ingredient is neatly placed in a container that accomodates a fixed quantity. This allows the shop owners to better track which items are used; it allows servers to quickly, efficiently, and cleanly select needed ingredients; and it limits cross-contamination by having specific and obvious places for each item.

It is almost certain that this sandwhich shop schedules its employee work hours to match demonstrated demand peaks, that it orders its raw materials not by schedule, but based directly on what was previously consumed, and that items which are not proven popular will not be stocked for long.

Cleanliness, order, workflow, minimum of stock, repeatable process, and responsiveness to customer–that’s Lean manufacturing. It is not Acme. Acme is aware of these concepts and makes motions in their direction, but it is at heart still convinced that manufacturing won’t pay unless you build a lot of whatever you can get your hands on. That means that all those secondary things like cleanliness, order, process, and yes, to an extent, even quality, are overlooked or downplayed when there’s a production crunch. It means we have more anxiety about meeting management goals than customer requests.

My attempt at reforming the claims process, previously mentioned, has struggled along, not without measure of success but wavering near failure. I got a call from the order management center asking for some redress to the dire backlog of claims. I dispatched a number of these on Friday, but the process needs reinvigoration.

Sadly, we had no noticeable improvements in August, as the claims went up. We began our reforms mid-August and did not see the numbers until late September, so it is possible that a more positive trend will settle in. Based on the incoming claims, I doubt it.

The main problem we’ve had with the new process is keeping people at it. All of us, myself included, feel more pressure to tend to open customer orders–next-day air shipment expedites of this or that, stop shipments on this, inventory corrections on that–to give much attention to old orders that are in some part wrong. Truthfully, from a customer perspective, the received order is an older customer order, really still an open order since never completed correctly. But claims sometimes come in that are months old, occasionally verging on years old; they are often for one or two missing tools out of a shipment of hundreds. Day to day expedites are always some frantic customer all hot to get something or other, usually being handed off to us by customer service agents who have been whipped up enough to call their way up the chain of command if we do not respond with alacrity. (Some of them do not need an outraged customer to call down fire from heaven on us. Some people are just hard to get along with.)

Knowing, then, that there is a probability that the claims are not urgent, and that if they are really urgent the customer service team will send them a new one regardless of what we have to say about the claim, it is hard to muster the same urgency for claims as for open orders.

Then too, the whole idea of having the order pickers check the claims is foreign to this company, and they have not embraced it. The supervisor of the spare parts pickers tends to do all the checking himself, since he can’t bring himself to make his people do it, and he is not competent to do the most important step, looking up the responsible party on the computer, by himself.

The claims are simply sent by e-mail, without a standard form (which makes database believers such as myself cringe), and the account now belongs to nobody in particular. By disassociating the e-mail account with one particular person, the claims no longer depend on that one person (myself) to be addressed. Like the workflow with the sandwich, this is advantageous in allowing more options for who will serve the customer at any given time. But it also is disadvantageous in that it is a little easier for everyone to ignore.

Fixing the process will require a number of things:

  • I must make time in my schedule to insure that all new claims are printed out, and all checked claims are reported back to the customer service center.
  • We must determine what process we will use to account for inventory discrepancies–we have an opportunity to start fresh having just completed a plant-wide physical inventory.
  • We must decide who exactly is responsible for checking claims. Is it the team leaders or the individual pickers?
  • We must clarify what priority the claims have. Do we only look at claims when all open orders are satisfied? Do we look at claims before all else?
  • We must standardize the information. The pickers cannot check the claims without a shipment number that I or another office person can provide.

None of these would be hard to accomplish as isolated tasks. The difficulty will be in managing any of them while trying to support P.B. in efforts to rationalize the stockroom by providing information on how much we have and how much we need and where it all is, at the same time supporting our boss K.K. in his effort to lead dramatic change in a short time by reorganizing the stockroom, in which he wants to know where all the parts are for all the products made in a given area (by the way that information is very tricky to extract with ordinary database queries), continuing to fend off the multidudes of special requests and mini-disasters, and coping with a new shipping policy that requires us to juggle freight among carriers based on weight as well as destination.

So improving claims is a task that occupies nobody’s full attention, holds no particular importance in the eyes of the management, and yet is a key symptom in our understanding and control of what is going on in the shipping department. It is neither unimportant enough to be neglected nor glamous enough to attract helpful attention. It is not my favorite project nor one that holds the most significance in the eyes of my supervisors, but among all the multitude of things I am involved in it is the only one for which I have the primary responsibility. If I want to be more than a fault-finding rat-racer, this is what I have to accomplish.