Unwarranted cynicysm is hard to find

April 26th, 2008

Two of the most notable changes made by the A-Team were imposing a strict separation of duties between assemblers and material handlers and the sharp increase in the number of material handlers. They felt we would gain more efficiency by not letting the assemblers more so much as an inch away from their posts to get their materials, and they felt we could reduce inventory by storing it in more places as long as we stored as little as possible at the point of use. Neither of those ideas made much sense, but plant management made it quite clear that these corporate illuminati were not to be questioned on any grounds.

The same plant management has just required the reversal of both of these improvements, melding some material handling functions back into assembly and eliminating a handful of positions altogether. All of the positions eliminated were under P.B., the manager of material handling, and all of the positions moved into assembly belonged to P.B. M.B., the manager of assembly, gained people while P.B. lost people. But M.B. argued with P.B., wanting to choose which of P.B.’s employees he could subsume into his department.

M.B. also chose this Friday morning, just before the daily production meeting, to page P.B. to tell him one of the assembly lines was down for lack of material. It wasn’t, but while P.B. was busy checking on that M.B. gave one of P.B.’s employee’s a thorough questioning about P.B.’s departments–more than this employee had any responsibility for. I have not been so furious in a good long while. Along with S.B., M.B. seems to be paying very close attention to anything that may be an oversight or error in the operation of P.B.’s departments. Now, as far as it concerns S.B., I have never seen anything much in his theory or practice that I could commend; but, although M.B. has rubbed me the wrong way on several previous occasions, his basic philosophies have not struck me heretofore as gravely wrong. If he is engaged in a calculated take-down of P.B., as he seems at this moment to be, then he has a low character indeed.

That would be somewhat ironic. Not in any concrete way, but in realizations of both good conduct and bad conduct. One of the things I have observed most often in M.B. is his ability to keep laughing; when things are going very badly, such as a critical machine breaking down, he shows signs of being upset and tense. But he quickly bounces back and is shortly cracking jokes. This is a crucial survival mechanism. To keep laughing, to keep yourself at a comfortable distance from a situation that is not, in the big scheme of things, really all that bad, will prolong your days and make them more pleasant.

I just get a sneaky feeling he also uses joviality to disguise his more pointed machinations.

What use is book learnining in the real world?

April 19th, 2008

At a meeting on Friday afternoon, P.B. introduced to some of the supervisors a template for creating work instructions. I regret that I once again demonstrated my talent for being an obnoxious questioner. I questioned whether there was really the political will to accomplish the arduous work of creating and maintaining a comprehensive set of documents, pointing out that none of the staff (except the brand new personnel manager) were present and that similar “mandatory” audit programs had been waved around ineffectually in the past.

The intent of my questioning was to provoke a show of force, as it were; to secure a credible guarantee that benign or callous negligence would not be permitted to stop such a program once begun. But the effect of my questions was more to heap scorn on the idea that such a program, once conceived, could ever by carried through by Acme.

My skepticism has warrant, and if P.B. had been presenting to an audience inclined to be sympathetic toward him or to his idea, then my broadside might have rallied the troops. One or two present did react to my questions, with some annoyance, but these were not in a position to affect the adoption of this program in the most critical area, the “shop floor” (production area of the factory). The three mid-level managers present mostly kept quiet, and if I am permitted to guess their thoughts, they had no animosity towards P.B.’s proposal but felt that my insinuation that it would all come to naught was much more on track. Thus my fearless questioning likely provided a means for them to confirm themselves in their belief that it was a pointless charade, and harden them against any further progress.

The senior management at Acme has demonstrated repeatedly that they have not the fortitude to stand by a principle of good management that does not produce immediate results. Many proven useful management concepts have been introduced at Acme, and floundered when some competing interest intervened. For instance, the idea of preventive maintenance, of inspecting and repairing equipment on a schedule so that the equipment does not fail and become unavailable at a critical unplanned time, has been bandied about, but it always disappears when some customer starts screaming for an expedite and we have to run the machines non-stop. Most often, concepts which have some benefits and some drawbacks are introduced incoherently, and compete with each other for attention until they are all supplanted by a new wave of initiatives. General extinction is the more likely outcome of uncontrolled natural competition, after all.

But let us leave aside the unhappy ecology of Acme for a moment. Should anyone in any place expect to reap positive results from disciplined use of a work documentation program? P.B. certainly believes so, from his past experience at a different manufacturing facility that was bought out and reformed to much more contemporary manufacturing processes. He says that in this factory the work instructions are available with a few keystrokes on computer terminals throughout the plant, and all employees must audit one work instruction each month, with the result, after initial start-up, that the ongoing changes are minor, since the process has not evolved much since the last revision.

I think that, once established, the maintenance of such a program is feasible, although not so painless or simple as P.B.’s recounting might suggest. The challenge is the discipline to impose the requirement on a resistant body of employees, and maintain a high level of active enforcement through the first three to five waves of revisions, as major discrepancies between theoretical and actual job practices are sorted out. Relevant to this, where P.B. saw such a program implemented, a temporary workforce was brought in to take care of the documentation, and their employment was extended indefinitely to maintain the resultant documentation. Acme is currently looking to cut manpower, and cut deeply.

The question then must be, is there any value in such documentation to justify the expense of maintaining it? Is not the best work done by craftsmen who have years of accumulated lore that cannot be translated usefully to sheets of paper?

I concur that a craftsman cannot be replaced by a book, and years of experience will always add to an employee’s ability to perform the job. But looking off so far in that direction ignores what is happening now. The generation who worked for life in an industry is retiring from factories across America, not just our local Acme. Craftsmen are increasingly unavailable. Temporary workers, the answer of the day to the problem of fluctuating workforce needs, know nothing whatever of their jobs. White-collar office workers across Acme are entering their jobs ignorant of who they need to work with and what those people do; a recent warehouse consolidation has increased the volume of e-mail I get that is misdirected or inconsistent with business practices. Some of these have told me that they are inventing their jobs one step at a time, which I was doing myself about 15 months ago.

A substantially incomplete or obsolete set of documentation is worth far less than documentation that is detailed and up to date, so much less that it is not worth any half-hearted efforts to maintain. If the resources won’t be available to maintain the documentation, the question of creating it is moot. But the cost of doing without complete documentation should be weighed as well. Foremost is lost productivity, and along with that increased defects and (depending on the nature of the work) injuries. There are basically two ways to pass along knowledge on how to perform a task, apprenticeship or documentation; in the modern American employment system an employee leaves a position abruptly, with only a short time to train a replacement at best, and the effort to minimize labor costs means there is also minimal redundancy. This means that whenever an employee finds a new job or has unexpected health problems, or retires or even takes vacation, their job must be performed ad hoc by whoever is their sudden replacement.

Documentation could never capture all the complexities of my job or any other job, and can never reach that touted ideal of enabling anyone to come off the street and immediately perform my job as well as I did. But it might enable them to complete all the critical functions on their very first day, and it could well reduce their learning time in half, or less. And constantly-reviewed documentation provides a mechanism of critique to improve my job even while I am doing it.

One of the supervisors present at the meeting remarked that implementing a documentation program would require greater organization of the work areas, so that there could be a meaningful written reference to the location of necessary tools. This speaks volumes; clearly labeled organization is one of those fragmentary Good Management Practices that has been talked about as long as I have been at Acme, and was even the focus of one of the previous mandatory participation initiatives that was never really enforced by anyone more impressive than myself, at the time a temp in the office. If the management were to actually put weight behind this documentation program, it would drive people to make their work process simpler and more repeatable just for the ease of documenting it. Furthermore, it is an admitted but uncontested plague in Acme that people in all steps of the production process are using their own methods for completing their jobs; and different people filling the same job are using different methods. The engineers have specified one way for making a part, and the machinist on first shift is using a different method. The second and third shift machinists are each also using a different method, and there is no settled and enforced opinion on which method is superior. A machinist might be using a different tooling to run the job faster and think that he has outsmarted the engineers, but he may also be making more scrap parts because of the tooling’s inability to maintain the part specification.

If asked to choose between a craftsman with a lifetime of experience and a neophyte with an instruction manual, all wise people would choose experience. If your actual choice is between a craftsman you can’t keep and instruction that you might be able to buy for the neophyte you will wind up with, the instruction manual takes on a whole new appeal.


April 12th, 2008

A week ago, or around then, P.B. messaged me that there was a person who needed light duty work, and he was going to utilize this person to help me catch up on claims. Technically, P.B. is not the person to do that; I report to K.K. But K.K. doesn’t care if someone else takes care of problems for him. I was on the phone, and probably doing at least one other thing, and I believe I answered P.B. “k.”

Then about a day later I got an e-mail from HR instructing me that this person was right-handed and could not use their right arm for an extended period of time. Well, what can you do if you are right-handed and you are supposed to keep your right arm at rest? The feeling I got from HR was that perhaps this person was not so seriously injured, but of course, nobody said so.

It turned out that someone else had already claimed this person’s time for their menial labor. Acme uses a constantly shifting byzantine array of paper to show visually to the ordinary plant worker the condition and direction of the factory. It is estimated that only 50% of degree-bearing Americans can understand the information conveyed by these systems after they have been trained, so the benefit to the average factory worker remains dubious; but it part of the current state religion so it cannot be questioned. So it took a few days for this chap to get the hang of what he was supposed to do in this lowest of low jobs.

One day he showed up, having something like an hour to spare before he had to go, to help with claims. Late afternoon tends to be the busiest time of day, as everyone in the country suddenly remembers those items they wanted us to ship and starts clamoring for it to happen today. But there was nothing for it; he would never be able to help without being trained. And if you ever turn away offered help, it means you do not need help. I do, so I had to take this help however it came to me.

On the first day we managed to pretty well get through the process of how to open up a claim. It did not help that I started showing him on one computer, then found it did not have adequate access, and had to switch computers and adjust the instructions. But he took notes, and seemed to retain his understanding of a concept once it was grasped (not true of everyone I have guided on computers).

It was several days before I saw him again, owing to his other assignment and various medical appointments. We were able to continue the learning from where we left off without too much refreshing, and I was able to introduce the concept of checking the count, checking the weight, and checking adjustments to the count. We even got so far as actually going out on the floor to check the count.

I’ll say one more time that this guy is not doing too bad at learning. He doesn’t get something the very first time and he is not a good intuitive guesser, but he does grasp concepts and retain them days later. I think I could train him to do the entire job of checking claims and he could do it well, given time. But if he is only going to be working odd hours when he is not needed elsewhere, until his light-duty prescription wears out, well, it will be tough to turn any kind of profit. Review the following quotes:

“I have good eyes, but they are slow.”

“I have trouble spelling words. I was real smart in high school, but I don’t read and write much any more.”

“I’m not used to switching back and forth between windows like this, it’s going to take me a while to get the hang of it.”

Yes, it does take him a bit to read through text, he makes frequent typos, and the job requires nothing if not switching back and forth between windows. But most disheartening are his exclamations of success. “Ah! I understand!” he says, of the convention for labeling the carousel locations. But there’s a completely different convention for the big stacker racks, several wild exceptions in the peripheries of the stockroom, a different convention for the assembly lines, and, because of sea-changes that are in progress, different rules for different lines, and even a whole new location naming convention with which I am not yet effectively familiar. To be able to find one part is much different than to being able to find any part. It took me months to learn what I know, and I am not an expert, and of course now things are changing.

Or explaining the form in Microsoft Access, again the evolutionary product of a year of occasional efforts; it’s a complex form, to accommodate the complexity a claim can have (shortages on multiple items, multiple items received marked as one item, unidentified wrong parts, checking by weight, by count, by paperwork, etc.) Yes, it is quite fair to call it a complex form, hard to understand and even confusing; I have never had time to really polish the user interface. But I had to make the darn thing. It’s doing so much more now than anything did when I started; it automatically refreshes the information from the shipping software, automatically fills in a number of fields necessary for recordkeeping, assists in the calculation of correct shipping weight, and generally gives some structure to the murky process of analyzing a claim for validity. In my perspective, seeing how much is now being offered, it is dismal to think that there is still a steep learning curve and no way to get occasional help.

This chap on light duty is not best suited to helping me with the claims on short terms, but even people more familiar with computers and shipping can’t drop in and go with the claims. To get the job done properly requires someone who can dedicate time to it on a regular basis.

Loading a truck

April 5th, 2008

About a year ago P.B. instituted a policy that the truck drivers were not to load their own trucks; only Acme personnel could use the forklifts and load the trucks. I no longer remember the nominal reasons, much less whether they made sense. I think it had to do with legal liability for the truck drivers’ safety and the condition of our shipments (if the freight was damaged, was it damaged by our material handlers or by the trucking company?).

When we were bringing a new person on the second shift who had only just been trained to operate the forklift, I was present after hours on one occasion when the supervisor had already gone home, and I carried out the policy by refusing to allow the experienced truck driver to load his own truck, and making the trepidatious new forklift operator load the truck. The driver lounged sardonically on the roller racks as the operator slowly and hesitatingly went about the work.

Shortly after that time I went through the Acme certification process to operate forklifts. I have used the license on occasion, once running a pallet with a particularly tall load into a support pillar and breaking the pallet. It was not an exceptional beginner’s mistake, but I bring it up to underscore the fact that being allowed to operate a forklift does not make one proficient at doing so.

As the last day of March drew to a close, the workers had already put in their required 10 hours and were trickling out. We came to the point where only the supervisor, the manager, the second-shift worker, and one voluntary stay-over remained. The manager is not licensed to drive the forklift. The second-shift worker was running the last batch of small packages through the shipping terminal, and the volunteer was wrapping up pallets of tools that had been cleared to ship late in the day by the plant manager and were now a priority to ship. Ordinarily we use less than the entire trailer on any given truck, but circumstances at this end of month had given us so much freight that one (or two?) of our carriers had to bring two trucks. One of the carriers had just arrived.

The truck needed to be loaded and I was licensed to do it. But I didn’t want to. Steering the forklift forward or backward is no big deal for anyone who’d driven–although forklifts are steered by a single wheel in the back, and do not turn like a car at all–but remembering to do the up and down with the forks can be difficult. When you are loading a truck you typically aren’t moving up and down much: you need to get low enough to get the forks into the slots in the pallet without actually being on the floor, when the forks would hit the support slats, and without being too far up so that you clip the top of the pallet or spear the freight. Then you just need to lift the forks up enough to keep the load from dragging, and, if you are so inclined, from slamming into the bottom of the truck as you negotiate the ramp that slopes down into the back of the truck that is sloping up. The simplest way to pack the truck as tightly as possible is to let the pallet down all the way to the floor as you approach your final position so that you can push it until it touches the pallet behind it; otherwise it is too easy to have the pallet lip onto the one behind it as you try to set it down. With your forks going up and down within about one foot of space, it is not obvious if they are at the right height or not.

Then there is the matter of loading the trucks. They are, as you well know, long rectangles, not much more than two pallets wide. Given an empty trailer, it is no big deal at all to drive into it and drop the pallet. The tricky part comes when you have to get the pallet far enough to the side to leave room for the other pallet. That is still not too hard except when you put the pallet down a little too much to the middle and you need to adjust it. You might be able to do that with the lateral movement in the forks (they can slide to the left and right), but you might already be at the end of your play that way. You might have to bring the forks up against the side of the pallet and nudge it over. Remember that the entire time you are in a long rectangle. Once you get to the end of the truck, where the leveling ramp is coming down into the truck and there is the concrete of the dock along the slope of the ramp, you can very easily get yourself in spots where you don’t seem to be able to turn your forklift without smacking either the front or the rear of the forklift into something–the flimsy sides of the truck, the freight, the concrete of the dock jutting out behind you.

So I did not do a very manful job of taking initiative. I approached the supervisor and said, “So, one of us should probably start loading the trucks, huh?” And rather than volunteering herself, she said “Yep, grab a forklift and go for it.” Darn.

As I loaded one of the trucks and got to the end of it, I asked the voluntary stay over if he wanted to finish it off because I wasn’t sure I could handle it. He said “No, it’s easy,” so I went ahead and finished it off, but having made this pathetic request out loud I was all the more conscious of the stares of the truck drivers and their imagined criticism. The trucker had already suggested I stack some of our pallets on the pallets he already had, and I declined, since I often get the messages that come back about goods damaged in transit.

Once I had his truck finished, the next trucker offered to take over loading for me. But that, you remember, is against the rules, so I declined his offer. Again I felt more self-concious about my lack of polish, and to make up for it, and just to try to hurry an unpleasant end to a late day, I was going as quickly as I could manage. Faster than I felt comfortable, because the jolts and bangs the forklift made going up and down ramps (forklifts are made for flat surfaces and don’t manage slopes well), and as the forks hit the floor, and as I jerked the forks up and down with my indelicate touch on the control levers, all got on my nerves. The soggy cord hanging from the truck door spraying me with brown water ever time I slapped through it did not help the ambiance.

When this trucker told me, with the authority of a brusque sensei, to stack the shorter pallets of our freight, I did not argue. I paused momentarily, debating whether to refuse, but decided that I would do it because these truckers carry our freight far across the country and across many docks where the freight is moved from one truck to another, and basically, if he would stack the pallets, and some point they were going to be stacked. Having an idea of what was in the pallets, I judged it not too risky to the freight to stack them.

He told me to place the stacked pallets on the right side of the truck. Many roads are domed, so that as a truck is driving along the road it leans slightly to the right. This is to shed water off the road, but it also means that freight will generally tend to tip to the right, so it’s better to put loads prone to tipping against the right side of the truck.

This is a general rule, and the possible exceptions explain the pallets of damaged freight that sometimes come back upside down.

This truck was mostly empty, and I filled it and had begun filling the second truck when my haste caught up to me and I brought the forks in over the top of the pallet and punctured the boxes of tools on the bottom. It was one pallet out of 19 and pulling the order off for later was not an option, particularly at the very end of the month (and of the quarter). So I had to consult with the manager and decide the best way to remedy the situation, and as I was doing that someone from the receiving dock took over loading the trucks, and I was off the hook for the rest of the evening.

Even though there are some situations loading a truck that are tricky, there is nothing so difficult that it would take long to master with regular practice. But at the end of the month, with a lot of extra freight that must all go, and already being late, and having impatient and experienced truckers on hand, it’s too much to be any fun for a novice forklift operator. And I don’t do really well under pressure.

But when all is said and done, I got my license so that I could help out in that way, and I am glad I did it. Not everything I am glad to have done was fun to do at the time.