Pass the buck

November 26th, 2007

Shake those cobwebs out of your head and try to imagine this:

If we are pretty well sure that we shipped something and the customer says they didn’t get it, then we have to go beat up the trucking companies for compensation. Only we are too busy getting beat up by other customer who want us to (attempt) to ship them their orders.

Now, anything that’s worth doing is worth getting someone else to do. I was in one project that attempted to map out how we get an order from a customer and get paid for fulfilling it. . . the transaction went through so many hands, both inside the company and then to contracted agencies, that we never really did quite figure it all out. But I got a nice polo t-shirt.

So of course when Acme realized it was losing a lot of money because nobody was held responsible for MIA freight, it decided to: outsource the claims! Of course. We decided to use the Mafia collection company. (Fictional name.) But it turns out that Mafia does not bother with claims less than, oh, let’s just make up a number and say ten thousand dollars. Most claims are filed for a few items. The volume of claims is such that in total, Acme has a lot to lose in not pursuing the blame-the-trucker claims, but the individual claims almost all fall beneath Mafia’s radar.

Supposedly, Mafia passes along all small claims to the Shrill collection company. But persons in Acme contacting persons in Mafia get very disinterested replies to the smalls claims. Something on the order of, “Oh, you are holding your claim in your right hand. Try holding it in your left hand, and go to the back of the line, and when it’s your turn again we will see what we can do for you.”

Pop quiz, class! Does Shrill company return money to Acme? Do they care about our claims? Do they ever even see our claims? Does Shrill Inc. even truly exist?

The real problem here goes right back to that project I was in about how we get paid. Since nobody at the site of shipment tracks, tabulates, or ever–ever!–knows about the actual end-customer payment for a particular shipment, anything we say we shipped is income to our plant. It is presumed income. The sale has been made, the cash received, move on, move on, don’t stand around gawking!

If the shipment is outright returned, that’s a debit. But it’s kind of like throwing a fastball around a world–eventually it hits you in the back of the head, but you have no idea where it came from. Because usually returns are repackaged by the service center before they get to our plant, and they are always cleaned up of any and all shipment information and looking like ordinary product by the time we see them again at shipping.

But if the shipment is just MIA, someone else (I don’t know who) has to take the hit. Probably the same entity that takes the hit for claims that can’t be adequately answered by the shipping site, or that are valid but have been previously adjusted for by the shipping site (because claims can come in months–think even quarters–after the time of shipment, and we still entertain them).

Think about what this means for the factory. We say we shipped the product. Customer says he didn’t get it. Okay. Assuming we don’t tell the customer to get lost and never come back, than no matter what happens, we will still have to:

  1. Build more product
  2. Ship more product
  3. Get “paid” for shipping more product

If we just kind of do nothing and the customer gets sick of waiting and orders more, the above applies. If we graciously concede, the tools don’t magically come back so the above applies. If we go beat up the trucking company and get some money back, the above still applies. And those steps above are all anyone at the factory cares about.

Now, it takes time to investigate a shipment claim. I know. I’ve wasted enough time on it. In general, for what I in particular do, it takes the most time to investigate the claims worth the least amount of money. Checking if we shipped an entire pallet of product is easy. Checking to see if we shipped one tiny little bitty part (we have tens of thousands on hand)–well, that’s impossible but there are thing down there in that range that can be checked, with enough time.

Actually talking to someone on the phone so that you can complain that they didn’t perform a service they were already paid for–yep, that takes time, too. Lots of time. Nobody’s in a real hurry to return the calls that say, “You may already have lost a thousand dollars. Please call me back so I can bill you for it.”

Let’s pretend they do call back. Get ready with your conclusive evidence that they did not deliver the product (all 200 items of different kinds, mind you–nobody argues that they delivered 198 items, it’s the last two we’re arguing about). First at your disposal will be the delivery receipt, available online, which 95% of the time shows a signature from a customer employee along with the statement that the shipment was recieved in good order. Oh, wait. That might not help.

We had one claim for an entire pallet of missing product that was signed received in good order. The claim was from another branch of Acme! And they kept pestering us about it, too. We would say, “Uh, you signed for it. It weighed hundreds of pounds when it left. Go ask the guy who signed for it where it all is.” And a couple of weeks later they would ask if we had an answer yet.

It’s hard to blame the customer. Freight comes all bundeled up in mish-mashed heaps without good marking. Checking to see if it is all there would be like making the mail man wait on your doorstep until you read all of your mail. In the case of freight delivery, its actually possible to do. . .but it takes some really tough gumption.

Not to mention that the trucking companies have little disclaimers like “claim must be filed within one business day, per statute something or other, etc.” I might hear about a claim within 24 hours of the customer’s reciept. And maybe, if you take a really long shot, maybe I even determine that this problem was not our fault within the 24 hours. But there is no way that Mafia corp. begins pursuing the claim within 24 hours.

So, with that mountain to climb, how much do you think Mafia corp. has to be paid to make a profit chasing other people’s claims? I’m thinking that as soon as the trucking company hears that Mafia is not an actual customer of said trucking company, the rest of the claim just fades into the ethereal music of the spheres. . .nevermore to trouble the mind of a mortal.

Obviously, there must be a little more traction here than I imagine, or Mafia corp would not even exist. Still, it must take some effort. And that must cost some money. So out of what we actually even refer to Mafia–remember, that’s only the shipments where we don’t admit any wrongdoing and the customer doesn’t admit any wrongdoing–taking from those the claims that Mafia wins, within the value caps set by trucking companies for uninsured freight, cutting out a piece to pay Mafia corp with profit, how much money do you think returns to Acme?

I am not given to understand that this is unique to Acme. I am inclined to think it is pretty common for a global company–not necessarily any company with international orders, but probably any company that styles itself “global,” and tries to achive the upside-down pyramid of maximum cash flow with minimum overhead, so called.

Never fear. Mafia corp is disappointing, so we may well switch to some other claims handling company.

A parable

November 18th, 2007

Not much to say about the past week. I did keep up with the claims as they came in, and I spent Saturday dispatching the remaining backlog. But as the second (or third?) week of working overtime to quell the claims came to a close, my capacity to continue doing so waned. on Thursday and Friday I closed the log I was making of how I spend my work hours without ever having saved it. A couple of times I got very muddled trying to address a claim, and while they are almost always tricky, there was nothing that exceptionally tricky about those. I am not sure I can stay mentally effective for 10-hour days weeks on end.

The A-team, while certainly changing some portions of our operations, does not appear to be taking any kind of serious look at the underlying culture, or the root cause of why we were unable to change ourselves and they had to be sent in.

I’ll close with a parable, a true story but also an illustration. Probably any factory has a certain amount of airborne oils, but when you have older equipment, not designed for tidy operation and leaking at the seams to boot, there’s grime to go around. Although my actual workspace is in an office area, the compture will develop a visible layer of grime around its vents in a week or two, which I absentmindedly rub off with my finger. But the walls, the floors, basically every surface not touched simply accumulates grime.

The carpet gets the worst treatment. Early in the year we rearranged the furniture, and the places underneath the shelter of desks were shocking in their difference. Not that the carpet was never vacuumed–well, when I arrived I don’t know when it last was vacuumed. But I vacuumed it, I asked around why it wasn’t vacuumed by the janitorial contractors, and it has been vaccuumed on and off ever since. The besetting gray couldn’t be touched by a mere vaccum cleaner, though.

So I made mention of it, how filthy it was and how bad for morale, and how a carpet that filthy was not worth having. And I and fellow complainers were promised a new carpet. In January. Or February. Or March. Sometime in the first quarter of 2007, for sure.

Of course, no carpet actually ever was presented. So perhaps a month or two ago, some enterprising coworkers decided to rip out the old carpet, figuring nothing under it could be worse than the top. Underneath was a layer of glue, still tacky in some spots and worn to powder in others, a nasty yellow color. We shrugged our shoulders and said, “Yep, no worse than the carpet.”

But it did attract some more attention from outsiders, who seemed to think it actually was worse. More promises of carpet. More, “What, nobody got the carpet yet? I thought I asked so-and-so to take care of it.” Finally the manager, not technically the person designated for that level of renovating decision, called in some contractors, got some quotes, and ordered carpet.

I was there when the winning bidder said, “Please have all the stuff on the desks boxed so we can keep the stuff with the desks it belongs to.” So we did that, as asked.

We came in the next Monday and found a new carpet in the office and the office out on the shop floor. Not being a mover, I don’t know how they contrived to get those heavy desks out there, their boxed belongins, computers, and miscellany untouched. The doorway was barely wide enough to get the desks through–no knuckle allowance–and they were so heavy that ordinary dollys couldn’t maneuver them. I and one of the crew wound up hauling them through by hand, and it was about all I was up to.

Even when things were physically in place, it took a good while to sort out the cable connections. The office is a maze of discarded cables (I had three extra PC power cords and one extra phone AC/DC adapter when I was done), patched in wiring (a digital phone jack is literally just stitched into the side of a thick cable that truncates uselessly, and another thick cable sprouts from the wall with no termination whatsoever), dead cat-5 connections, and mislabeled jacks.

When the old carpet was torn up, we wondered if new carpet was really wise. But there are few kind of flooring cheaper than cheap carpeting, so when the manager had to chance a do-and-dare approach, he did not try for tile. I did mention to every contractor that we needed a fiber that would not trap the oil, but leave it free to be cleaned out.

By the time we had finished moving the furniture in, though, there were obvious grey-brown footprints over the blue carpet. When we had been asked, we choose a dark blue pattern mottled with tan and black. But that was offered by a contractor who didn’t win the bid. What we got was a somewhat lighter blue, and essentially a solid shade.

Once the desks were all back in I attempted to vacuum, but the footprints only got a little grudging lighter. The new-carpet fumes were going strong, though, so after heaving and hauling the office furniture over the new rug, staining it with grey footprints, and deducing my way through the perverse, inbred wiring, I got to go home with a headache from the fumes.

We finally got the new carpet we’d been asking for nigh on a year, and it was the most depressing day of the month.

Problems don't go away, they come back

November 11th, 2007

A while ago–a longer while than I realized–I outlined a plan to reduce shipping errors. At that time I promised to give updates and to stay focused on what I could control.

I’ve strayed from that worthy plan. It began to fall apart when the supervisor of the spare parts order pickers would not or could not have his people play their part, and check the stock counts. It continued to fall apart when I did not address the claims for tools which the supervisor of the tool order pickers had checked out. I would be busy all day and only notice them sitting there waiting to be addressed as I headed out the door at the end of the day.

The process crumbled a little more when P.B. did not review and print the claims. It fell apart completely when we had a plant-wide inventory, which reset our inventory accuracy and made it impossible to evaluate shipping errors by comparing a physical count to the current system count. Claims for shipments prior to the inventory needed to be evaluated by reviewing on the system adjustments made to the numbers. My area of expertise more than anyone else in the process.

Ironically, even as the process was falling apart, support and appreciation for it was growing among the workers. They have commented from time to time on its absence. It just goes to show why there is a need for managers, because a lot of people will initially resist an idea even if it is reasonably beneficial.

My great effort of overtime has only got me about half way through the backlog. This past week I pulled between an hour and two hours of overtime every day, but I was only dealing with the complaints that came in that day. And whatever other lose ends I was trying to tie up; but I kept those to a minimum. Sadly, to really deal honestly and completely with these claims, it takes time.

For instance, one claim where the customer said they had not received some items, I decided to first check the paperwork. When a customer says they did not receive an item at all, rather than the wrong item or the wrong quantity, often it has been overlooked by the picker and will be initialled as it should be; or it will have been missing at time of the pick, and will be zeroed off by myself or some other office staff, the person adjusting having forgotten to change the system.

In this case it was initialed and indicated proper shipment. So I went out to the assembly lines where the parts were and counted them, and found discrepancies not exactly in line with the claim. If I remember, rather than having extra parts (as we would if they had not actually been shipped), we had too few–although not in quantites exactly matching the complaint.

For some reason I decided to really go the extra mile and check in the spares packing area, where I found the parts, bagged, tagged, and ready to ship, but still in the plant.

That took a lot of time for a few measely parts. My pay for the time spent was almost certainly worth more than the parts. People have suggested that I shouldn’t spend so much time investigating the claims, just go with my first instinct and call it good enough. But the majority of the claims are cases where we at Acme have made a mistake. By waving off the individual problems as insignificant, we allow them to build up to a mass of mistakes that seriously affect our inventory accuracy (which directly relates to knowing what we are able to build) and our customer relations. I think it is worth multiplying the cost to the company of each misshipment, if it will help bring about corrections to the root problems.

But who’s to say my zealous investigation actually will lead to process improvements? I’ve already learned that it’s not wise to “teach them a lesson” by working overtime. When I’ve gone to my boss and tried to explain it, he has said, “Don’t try to do it all yourself. The other person (nominally) in customer service can help. The supervisor for tool orders can help. The highschool co-op can help. The manager of shipping and receiving can help.”

  1. The other person in customer service spends most of her time fixing the endless problems with international orders, and glitches with orders not processing through the system correctly.
  2. The supervisor of tool orders, while potentially the “right” person to investigate misshipment of tools, has to spend the majority of her time helping to ship orders, or they won’t all get done.
  3. The high-school co-op that we used to have, who graduated from highschool and was staying on, might have been able to help somewhat. i had asked for her help before, but her primary responsibility was helping the other customer service person with the order processing, and my work would often get sidelined or delayed. That could make it even harder for me to figure out what was going on when I did have time to work on it. Furthermore, all that anyone besides me is able to do is the basic fact-finding. Checking on the “third possibility,” finding the key piece of data the customer service center forgot to include, deciding on ambiguous cases, and writing the actual response come back to me. Recently I used my technological skills so that most of the routine data is autmatically found by the system. All that’s really left is the finer decision making, that needs to be done by a permanent employee of the company. And they got rid of our trained, competent, available co-op and brought in a new one with no clue and little available time. I’ve got her helping by getting weights for the tools so that we can check the weight of outgoing shipments (our computer system does have weights for most of the products, but the weight is often wrong).
  4. The manager–it would be nice if he could help, because he is an experienced professional, knowlegable and appreciative of the right way to approach matters but seasoned enough to adapt to present realities. But he has his hands full with things a manager should be taking care of–personnel issues, major departmental changes, implementation of corporate policies, and so on.

I’ve tried sharing out different pieces of the task, as outlined in the beginning of this post and in previous posts on the topic, but it’s difficult to find others with the ability and authorization to handle key parts of the process. Then finding people with the time to do it, and the inclination to do the job well, approaches impossible. I don’t supervise anyone, so I can’t set their priorities to ensure the claims get due attention, and I can’t do more than ask them to do the job to my high standards. Like me, they are genuinely busy and have to deal with requests and prioritizations from people in the plant with a lot more authority than I’ve got.

Most of all, I’ve found that when you try to share out a process like this, even among well-meaning and cooperative people, if there isn’t a central authority comitted to seeing the process work well, it becomes a disorganized chain of work-in-process with no coordination, no clear communication, and hopeless delays. When I do it myself, I clearly understand what the facts are, I’ve followed up if there were any unusual symptoms in the claim, I’ve filled in whatever gaps were present in the claim, and even when I have not checked all the details I have a balanced sense of what details were overlooked and whether it is reasonable, considering the import of the claim.

“I have to do it myself to do it right” is a tell-tale of poor management. But, again, I don’t manage anyone. The person who manages me, and also has authority over all the people who might be able to assist in the process, uses the opposite motto and simply says, “Get somebody to do it.” Ultimately that’s not better management. Real awareness of the work, what it involves and how people are currently dealing with it, has to proceed delegation and the discipline or oversight thereafter.

How can I find my way out of this paradox? I doubt that I really will. For most of this past week I have been keeping a spreadsheet of how I spend my time. Detailing how time is actually spent is considered beneath salaried people, but I am doing it anyway. A motto on my boss’s wall says, “In God I trust; everyone else, bring data.” Hopefully this kind of log will give me more credibility when I say there is too much work for me to handle. There’s really no defense for “Somebody else can do some of that,” devoid of any real understanding of what people are doing. But I can explain how many of the tasks on the list I am either the only person who can accomplish, or in the best position under the circumstances.

The amount of overtime it is taking me to keep up with the current claims is not so excessive. It is comparable to the amount of time it used to take me commuting to and from work. If I decide that I do not want to be doing constant overtime, or if I am told to stop, I can look at this log and decide what will be eliminated.

For this first week, I can say that it’s a relief to know that these claims are not backlogged, waiting, building up customer irritation and a towering backlog (I still have the balance of the backlog I had let build up). And it is hard for me or anyone to count inventory to check a claim while the inventory is being used, so it the claims can be more accurately assesed during odd hours. But if I ever do want my full evening, something will have to give.


November 2nd, 2007

I sort of forgot I was enrolled in an on-line class. It is beneath my level in the subject matter and boring. But I should still finish the assignments so I can put it down as complete.

On the job training/learning is so much better. But if they are only training you in doing things the wrong way, is it really any better?

Way too much overtime this week, on top of a cold. Well, it will be way too much overtime after tomorrow. Bleh. But that procedure for logging and reducing shipping claims that I talked about has gone untended for over a month. I really have to get some answers back to the customer service center.

Not sure why I really have to. They can’t fire me. They don’t have much sway with my boss. But they are decent folks trying to do their jobs, which they can’t complete without my participation… and they represent the customer. All cheese aside, that should count for something.

I still don’t feel like working all day tomorrow, though.