Wolf! Wolf! Wolf!

January 6th, 2008

The week before Christmas I was told by our multi-site IT manager that we had to upgrade our shipping software. This piece of software has no data validation and an inadequate interface that requires us to adapt fields for different uses on different shipments. Because the software does nothing to alert users to errors and because of the “Do this unless that” nature of our user instructions, every time we train someone new to run the software we experience a miserable period of errors surfacing when it is too late to fix them. But this same multi-site IT manager had gone to bat to get the software upgraded before and struck out; a particular hack critical to our use of the software was no longer supported, and nobody felt it was worth addressing.

Now I was told we had to upgrade, even though there was still no way for our crucial piece to be upgraded. Carrier rate changes were coming up that were not offered in a format compatible with our software. Upgrade, or stop using your primary freight carrier. How soon did this magic have to be worked? About mid January, I was told, so even though everything appeared to be headed straight toward a disaster that would require us to write down by hand every shipment, I didn’t panic. There was still time to investigate.

An hour or so later, the story changed. This upgrade must be done no later than December 31. It had to be done before the end of the month, before the end of the year, in that crucial period where if anything goes wrong the plant manager will personally lead the entire plant down to shipping to “help,” irregardless of whether the influx of people would necessarily help in a disaster like the loss of shipping software, because there is nothing more important at the end of the year than shipping everything we legally can.

Which is why we had already been bargaining and threatening and pleading with carriers to come in Saturday and Monday, December 29 and 31, when most other companies were going to be enjoying a holiday weekend. Depending on who within these companies you talked to, the answer was either yes or no. And no matter what, the rule from the plant controller (Accounting cheif) was anything that gets processed as a shipment must leave the property, and I don’t care if the truck doesn’t show up; it has to go.

Already fretting about whether trucks would actually show up, when I heard that we were facing a good chance of not having shipping software, I did panic. I told everyone in the office to panic too, for good measure. After all, when IT tells you that you can’t upgrade the software and still have it work, and then tells you that you must upgrade your software or it won’t be legal, and Accounting tells you that everything must be accounted for properly or it won’t be legal (and your job may be forfeit), and your boss’ boss says everything must be shipped (or your job may be forfeit), well, panic at least sets the right mood.

The IT guys and I decided to try the upgrade on Friday the 21st and see how it went. Filled with profound philosophical and religious thoughts on the ultimate meaning of life, we backed everything up and close our eyes and pushed the big red button. The software that we couldn’t upgrade was upgraded. Would it still talk to our main factory software, or was the hack broken beyond all use?

It worked fine. Absolutely fine. It still looked like the same program and worked like the same program. Unfortunately. I was left wondering why the IT guys had always said that we could not upgrade and the office was left wondering why I didn’t take a chill pill.

It’s basically the same story with the A-team, who were were told were a team of ruthless experts who would see through all our lies, catalog all our inadequacies, and fire top management and anyone else who stood in the way of righteousness and progress. Actually nobody lost their job, the team struggled to implement changes that had as many drawbacks as benefits, and within about two weeks after they left plans were already circulating to completely rework their processes.

Or when, on the last day of the month, one of the order printers went down. There are two printers and they have to work in tandem; one prints picking papers and one prints packing papers. We use some goofy paper that is half label, half plain, and always getting jammed, and this day we had the Big Jam that incapicated one of our key printers. Although all month long we assumed we would be racing around frantically busy on the last day of the year, it was actually a dull, slow day, without much being built or many orders for what we had; still, the loss of a printer was threatening to cease our operations completely. These two printers are not interchangable with any other model used in the factory. However, there was one of the models that had previoiusly been used collecting dust in the file room, and it was pressed into service will a fuser kit was ordered. It worked like an old, retired printer would work, badly, but it worked, and life went on.

Or at the end of the day, when we had a line of very large boxes and our small-package carrier’s truck was almost full. The aforementioned pleading had secured a promise for service on Saturday and Monday, but on Saturday the truck had only been removed from the premises so as to satisfy our controller’s understanding of Sarbanes-Oxley requirements. Our packages were still on the same truck when it was dropped off on Monday, and if it hadn’t been an eerily slow end of month, there would have been a huge disaster. As it was, it looked like several of the 100+ lb boxes were not going to get on the back of the truck, and we were considering emergency options (like taking a couple of pickup truck loads to the consumer terminal–if it was open). I had not succumbed to full panic, but I was definitely in a state of exitement as I stormed to the front office to get pictures of the inadequacy of the truck to use as proof the next time we were pressured, nearly blackmailed, into shipping when no carriers wanted to take our freight. And of course, they all fit. If there had been one more package that size, it would have gone (against regulations) in the front of the truck, and if there had been six or so that didn’t fit I am not sure what would have happened. But they all fit.

Likewise, when I found out on Wednesday, December 19th that we had to create value stream maps of our processes by January 4th, to be used to guide critical decisions of the team that would replace our obsolete factory-wide software with the Oracle-based replacement, it appeared to be impossible. Due to the slow end of the month I was able to create something I thought adequate, or as adequate as could be expected given how inappropriate value stream maps are for transactional processes (VSM’s are designed to find dead spots in physical processes) and how little time I had. VSM’s are meant to be built from on the spot observations, which take a lot of time to gather if you are going for the entire shipping process–so my data was crude estimates.

There are a couple of more stages to this documentation, but the other teams in the factory that are supposed to be mapping out their processes show little concern over the deadlines, or the detail and accuracy of their work. We all know, even me, that this information is going to be little used; yet I still incline to view this as a critical chance to prevent even just one or two monstrosities from masquerading as features in our new software. Although our work now might be just for show and tell, the larger undertaking is something we will live with for years, not forget as soon as it is done. So it is a cause for legitimate concern, right?