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.