Change you can see

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.

One response to “Change you can see”

  1. […] _uacct = “UA-1202685-1”; urchinTracker(); Map of the Ethereal Land The Ethereal Voice Front Page – Politics – Money – Knowledge – Art – Food – Fun Masthead About Change you can see By Chicken Man | October 7, 2007 – 3:19 pm Posted in Category: Front Page, Money 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 Click Here to continue reading. […]

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