On whose authority?

The Big Mean Scary Guy is gone. Let’s call him Vice-Admiral; he was not an Admiral but he was a vice, and it gives a vague premonition of his stature in this global, multibillion dollar company. The rumor is that Vice-Admiral was told not to get on the plane for the trip he was planning. This transpired while the Vice-Admiral was here, in our town, inside the plant he had threatened to lock up with his own hands. There were a few poignant days as the rumor circulated around and settled in.

The termination of his employment came as he was wrapping up one of those theatrical events wherein the top brass show that they have a strong connection with the common man by working alongside him. Of course the common man mostly continues to do the work as the attendents of the honorary present a bounty of colored charts and expert opinions, but I digress from my point.

The Vice-Admiral had been keel-hauled by a congregation of distributors for the way our promise dates and delivery dates fluctuated independently of one another, so that while our promise dates were near our delivery dates were far, and vice-versa. To rectify this malady the Vice-Admiral had instituted an absolute policy of set lead times, so that we would not ship anything before we promised it and would not promise anything before we could ship it. The lead time was to be long enough that we could ship no matter how high the waves or strong the winds. In the course of events we still found several kinds of calamities severe enough to prevent us from meeting this lead time, but the general effect was to promise the product much later than we ordinarily needed to ship it, and to refuse to ship it sooner (on pain of our lives!).

Whatever song had been sung at that august gathering of distributors, the clamour raised by customers in general as we refused to ship product we had in boatloads (because our set lead time had not yet elapsed) reached into other branches of the Admiralty. The Vice-Admiral himself was persuaded to some moderations of the policy, first reducing the set lead time and then even granting better dates as the inventory allowed on the most popular items. This latter policy, I have recently learned, he condemned as contrary to his express directive, not admitting to any part in the discussions that had lead up to it.

May you trouble these waters no more, Vice-Admiral.

In keeping with this policy on lead time, all manner of new processes and reports were invented to support shipment by our promise date. Our manufacturing software allows for three dates: The date the customer wants the order, the date we say that we will ship the order, and a third date that actual schedules the supply chain. This third date, which I will call the schedule date, can be aligned to either of the other two dates. Before the Vice-Admiral reinvented our business, it was aligned to the customer’s date, which was generally the same as the date of order entry. This paid no heed to how long it actually took us to manufature the product. For example, if a widget takes three weeks to manufacture, you could wake up in the morning and be three weeks behind schedule because the customer ordered a widget last night. Scheduling was impossible.

Under the Vice-Admiral’s new rules, the schedule date was aligned to our set lead time, which (one hoped) always gave us enough time to manufacture. But by nature of it being a fixed amount of lead time, if we happened to have the widget in stock already the customer still had to wait three weeks. And our inventory levels are readily visible to a large number of our customers.

If you have not already deduced this, the Vice-Admiral’s replacement wants to replace all the sails and rigging and go right back to using the customer’s date. This reverses everything we have been fighting for over six bloody months; remember that our ship’s Captain was one of the casualties. Many of the crew are reluctant to take up the new Vice-Admiral’s wishes before they are expressed in a ironclad command.

There is a third way. We can continue to tie the schedule date to our promise date, but allow our promise date to fluctuate as our supply situation warrants. This tempers the evil of the promise dating heading east while the delivery date heads west; while we might still miss our original delivery date, they will at least tend in the same direction. It also removes the evil of refusing to ship to the customer while stock languishes on the shelf.

The one flaw in this compromise solution is the factors considered in floating the promise date. Certain considerations, such as scheduled work orders, are not necessarily reliable data in our system. In short, if we accept this floating logic we will miss significantly more of our promises than we do currently, and since we have been getting only a passing grade on our promise dates as it is we are terrified to make that change.

It is necessary and proper that we do. Then, we feel the pain of the problems with the system and we have constant motivation to improve. Remaining with our set lead time lets the customer in for a larger share of the dissatisfaction and allows us to be happy while they are disgruntled. If our grades drop but customers complain less we are in less real danger than we are if we have perfect scores and unhappy customers. With low scores we will face constant questioning from the admirality; with high scores and unhappy customers we risk sudden death.

My day ended today after my regular work hours as I watched the Captain and the First Mate decide to cut our set lead time in half for certain spare parts that our suppliers are supposed to ensure are always in stock. I argued as best I knew how for the floating promise, as described above; but who am I?