October 29th, 2009

The recession is over. This is how I know:

  1. Certain product lines that died when things got bad are picking up. Now that we finally have our sales forecast adjusted to a realistic level, it’s too low. Customers are getting exceptionally long lead times for items they waited until the last minute to order. No plan, no components; no components, no tools.
  2. After spending about nine months on the ground, as far as work is concerned, I have flown twice within two months’ time. Not for any particularly good reason either time, and especially this last time. The travel restrictions are easing (unofficially).
  3. We are hiring. Temporary workers. Just for November and December.

While I don’t seriously beleive that all the world’s troubles are behind us–and might even suggest that nothing is more dangerous than a bomb that hasn’t gone off yet–if you a reporter you may feel free to report this a conclusive absolute proof that we have had a total recovery.

Losing count

October 28th, 2009

Today we completed our physical inventory (first count) in record time. Tomorrow we will find out if we completed it with record accuracy or not.

Our inventory control is gradually improving–I think it is. I didn’t run into any pallets where every half the boxes were opened with some indeterminate quantity removed, or any area that basically amounts to a gigantic industrial-sized junk closet. But the ideal of having an actual count for every item still remains a dream.

Some parts weigh in the thousandths of a pound. Actually I think some were in the ten-thousandths. Some weigh several pounds a piece. You can scale count the smaller parts but you have to get a large enough sample size to meet the sensitivity of the scale counted out by hand.

A stray staple can throw off a part count. A breeze on the scale can skew it. The plastic bag holding the parts can weigh as tens of parts, easily; if the count of pieces inside the bag is not marked (and how knows how accurately) by the supplier, we have to come up with some way of identifying the number.

Take a roll of stickers, for example. I personally weighed a complete roll of stickers that I was told numbered five hundred, and then another partial roll that came up as 155. But this certainly gave the wrong count of stickers. The equation would be:

R + (W*X) = Wx
R + (W*Y) = Wy

where R is the weight of the cardboard tube, W is the weight of 1 sticker, X is the count on the first roll and Y is the count on the second roll. Wx is the total weight of the first roll and Wy is the weight of the second roll. But the method we actually used to count assumes:
W*X = Wx
W*Y = Wy

Does it really matter? Shouldn’t we just keep enough buffer on hand of these tiny parts so that ten, fifty, or even 200 piece discrepencies don’t matter? Well, we are not going to be 100% accurate so we do need to keep a buffer stock. But without any good way to keep track of where the actual count is headed, all you do is gradually eat up your buffer without knowing it. And then you shut down your production for lack of an item that costs fractions of a penny per piece. It’s happened. More than once.

After we finalize this inventory count we are supposed to begin a cycle-count program on all stock to help us better track our counts. This may help, especially if it drives us to improve our control so that I can’t pretty much pick any 10 square feet of the assembly area and pick up a half dozen parts off the floor from under benches and racks.

Death wish

October 27th, 2009

Today I got into all kinds of trouble. The smell hasn’t reached me yet but I know I stepped in it.

Last week I was approached by someone who does not work for my boss. This person was concerned about someone who does work for my boss, and wanted to know if everyone who works for my boss is as miserable as said acquaintance. To which I could glibly answer “yes.”

The questioner was very concerned about the friend and said that a major change of personality had gradually taken place coinciding with the change in supervisors. I do not talk to this coworker regularly but what I have heard substantiates at least that this colleague is not happy. Like me and the other colleague I have talked to. The last one of the four of us is more cautious and timid and the type that will please at any cost, but I would feel comfortable saying this last wouldn’t own to any special appreciation for our boss.

Bad bosses can be a fact of life, and as far as bad bosses go I don’t rank mine as exceptionally bad. But we all used to report to my boss’ boss. And neither my inquiring friend nor I think that he would be comfortable knowing that we are all unhappy. But who can tell him that we are all unhappy? My friend was sworn to secrecy. But I have a feel for the mood of the team independent of this intelligence.

So here are some things to never do. Never speak on behalf of your coworkers. Never go to your boss’ boss without having first addressed your boss. Never bring up a subject because a friend of a friend said that something bad was happening which the friend won’t own up to. And now I have done all that.

I couldn’t think of a way to tell my boss that everyone is miserable and fed up with attempting to get through to him. But that’s a pathetic excuse and my boss’ boss will not buy it. He will tell me to go talk to my boss.

How to put this nicely

October 26th, 2009

I didn’t know why I needed to travel there before the trip, I didn’t know why during the trip, and I don’t know why afterwards. I was dreading it but now I’m happy I went because I got to do no work and talk to people and eat at expensive restaurants without paying. (Apologies to family members who don’t get it.)

It’s not quite true that I did no work. At some points it was very nerve wracking. But more often it was surreal. Here’s the trip in a picture: I was asked to come down by my boss, and the trip was coordinated by one of his colleagues, because someone at The Big Place asked for help. Something was wrong with the intracompany orders going between The Big Place and The Center of the Universe. So we were all there together at The Big Place: Me, my boss, and his colleague G.J., and L.M. from the Center of the Universe, and sundry appointed people from The Big Place.

Nobody knew why we were there. G.J., my boss, L.M., and the highest-ranking representative of The Big Place were to various degrees engrossed in their laptops. Nobody knew why we were there. I can forgive everyone except my boss who told me I was needed there and was completely engrossed in his laptop the entire time.

Now that meeting was only the first reason why he had called me there. The second reason was unrelated and we had a meeting about that, too, myself and G.J. and my boss. And after that one he actually told me that he had paid no attention during the meeting so let’s have another one. Remember, he’s the one asking me to come there and authorizing the expense of hundreds of dollars for each of: my flight, my rental car, my lodging, and my overtime.

How can I put this? My boss….challenges my preference for viewing things rationally.

Oh, are you wondering why we all went to The Big Place? Haven’t heard? Two hours of asking questions revealed that they had no lack of understanding what they were supposed to do or how to do it, they just didn’t want to take the time and the ownership.

And it fell to me to diplomatically ask questions until this became evident. Yeah. Me. Diplomatically.

Go figure.

Borrowed Time

October 16th, 2009

Today I am still working. I have come home and I have done some things for myself but now I am back, connected by VPN to the corporate network and remotely accessing a PC hundreds of miles away. My boss has been asking and asking when I am going to get this fixed and if it works yet and if we should just scrap the whole project. I think mainly he wants to have something that works when I am there next week and we are talking to the important manager who is questioning the results the current late-shipment analysis is giving him.

Here’s how this works. First, it takes a long time to run. Yesterday when I ran it, it took over two hours. I changed some things so today it takes only about half an hour. When it does something wrong I do not usually know where along that half-hour cyle things went wrong. I have to investigate.

Investigating something requires sustaining and modifying a hypothesis. You pretty much have to do this in your head. If you could write everything down you would already have the problem fixed. But if you are formulating a possible explanation of what went wrong, you have to keep in mind why you think this might be the problem, how you are trying to test it, and, as you test ideas, what you have already shown to be false.

This requires concentration. In other words, you can’t do it when your boss is asking you to help out someone who is buried in work hundreds of miles away (in the other direction), and other people are asking you to guarantee doubtful things that it is your job to make certain (expedites), and people are calling you on the phone asking you to sound certain about doubtful things (intracompany orders). In other words, it is pretty hard to do any work at all on the late shipment analysis while I am at work.

Not that I haven’t tried; not that I haven’t made progress. But it is hard to make much progress when your re-test cycle takes that much time; it’s hard to jump right on it and try the next idea and hard to keep engaged long enough to try more than one or two ideas each day.

And on Monday I leave. So Friday, I work.

A Nightmare

October 15th, 2009

Yesterday I heard something awful. But let me start at the beginning of the story.

Once upon a time L.G. lived in another country on another continent. He worked for Acme and Acme appreciated his work. The company decided to bring him over to the USA to work in the plant that I am now at. L.G. got an engineering management position. Acme liked his work, and shortly they gave him responsiblitly for the entire plant.

In the space of two more years Acme gave L.G. responsibility for manufacturing operations around the globe, including China, France, India, and Russia. For about four years L.G. held this position. But then something odd happened. L.G. took the position he had before. He came back to lead our plant once again. What did this accomplish? Well, it put a buffer between himself and his former boss, I.D. A man who used to report to L.G. was now his boss, and reported directly to I.D.

Then something strange happened again. After less than two years L.G. decided to leave Acme. He decided this very suddenly one week after a visit from his boss. In fact it happened that in the time I.D. held his position, everyone two levels down from him at some point suddenly decided to leave Acme.

L.G. was the last to go. Shortly after that I.D. suddenly decided to leave Acme.

Meanwhile L.G. got another job working for Superhero company. It was a state or two away from where he worked before but it was a job with at least as much responsibility as he had here. It was the kind of job where he could choose not to relocate his family because he could fly back all the time to see them.

And yesterday I found out that Superhero company hired I.D. for a position up the chain from L.G.


October 13th, 2009

Today was mostly meetings. That means I have little to write about.

One of the meetings was “Next week we will tell you what you have to do for plant-wide physical inventory.” That’s great. Next week I am not in this state. So let me ask some questions. “We are still working on that. Next week we will have it figured out.”

My boss wants to know either today or tomorrow where this late shipment analyisis is going. I told him I hadn’t had much time to work on it. So within the next 30 minutes he gave me something to do all day Thursday and Friday. Okay. But now please don’t ask me where my project is going, because you already made that decision.

We also had a meeting where we asked the customer service folks, the ones who answer phones and talk to customers, not to expedite orders that don’t need to be expedited. And then we (by “we” I mean my boss because I didn’t know what he was going to commit us to today until he did it) promised that for every order we would do everything we could do to find a way to ship it. No, not every order; about 80 to 90% of the expedites that I see.

An example would be checking for the necessary item or component as contained in some other item. On our system, this means using one screen to run the list of where the item could be used. This will include items that are hardly ever or never made. Oddly, it will also almost always include the same item several times. I am not quite sure why. But you must mentally drop the duplicates out, or repeat your work. You need to use a different screen to check whether there are any of these various items actually in stock.

If I am going to do that for 80% of my expedites, that pretty well takes care of my flexible time. But I have the lightest load of expedites of anyone on the team. I don’t know what my team-members were thinking when our boss said we would do this for most expedites, but I can guess. I wish he had asked our opinion before he promised it publically to everybody.

Permission and responsibility

October 12th, 2009

Today I resolved:

  1. Why a tool could not be received into stock as finished. Someone had mistakenly gotten the impression that a whole line of tools was discontinued and had merrily set them as such. Nobody in the building knew what was going on, initially. I referred the matter to the guy who is supposed to manage that line of tools because somewhere, sometime, I learned his name. (Note: I have not yet succeeded, about a month on, in getting the guy who is supposed to make a certain component obsolete to do so. Such is ying and yang of the universe.)
  2. Why the system still thought it could drop intracompany orders for a part that had more allocation than stock on hand. Hundreds of pieces had been written off and the allocation had been left high and dry. But there were still as many pieces left as were allocated on this particular intracompany order, so it still got through the logic. And no, it was not a problem with the new program I am responsible for that is meant to make intracompany orders easier.
  3. Whether we could ship a nut, bolt, and washer from our factory to a customer, or whether it would be necessary for us to buy the parts, put them in a baggy, and ship them several states away to a warehouse before they could ship. It was not enough to ask the planner of the “assembly” order why it was scheduled to take so long (December). I had to follow up and specifically tell him that we actually had the nut, bolt, and washer in stock; so could he please release the order? And I had to make sure that they did in fact ship to the customer, and not on an intracompany order.
  4. Why we were so often finding it necessary to adjust intracompany order picked quantities and our inventory on hand, and why the intracompany orders wouldn’t ship. Actually I am blending in bit of a problem from last week into this one. But anyway it was intracompany orders. And no, it wasn’t a problem caused by the new program for intracompany orders that I am responsible for, although that program was used in the perpatration of the crime. Equal parts user error and a really failure-prone systems process. Too complicated to explain further.
  5. What we were going to do about a really important, nay vital, critical, crucial requirement for shipments going directly to any overseas location; which said requirement we had never heard of before and didn’t entirely understand; and that, in conjunction with a shipment that was to go directly overseas which was absolutely hotly needed to ship today. I said to just ship it the way we have been. (Please send the bail money now. I didn’t realize customs laws were so serious.)
  6. Why one of the locations that should have been on my report about expedite requests across the division was not on the report. There were actually some smaller ones that were also missing that I didn’t notice. I am the sole officially reporter on expedites in the division, the only one capable of figuring out how to turn the data into information, but nobody told me when they changed the name of some of the locations on the system and thus broke my reporting process. It was not hard to fix. It was just puzzling to discover.

I am not quite sure whether any of these things except the last is actually my job. I know I didn’t resolve what was wrong with the late shipment analaysis program I was supposed to have completely and uttery resolved by October 2nd. Or if not then than at least by July 31st. Oops wait… heh. Um. So anyway.

Oh, one more thing about the first thing. There are only two people in the plant who can change the status of an item and neither of them work here anymore. They got downsized or reorganized or opportunized or whatever it is that we call it. There is maybe a third person who can do it; also gone. There is still someone else who can do it–on vacation. Gone to a wedding. There might even be a fourth person–but gone. Another guy, the egineering manager, he might–except no, all he does is ask the guy who is at the wedding.

But! There is, actually, still one person in the plant–today! Who has the systems permissions to change item status. As long as you send someone else (who does not have the permission and also who is not me because I don’t have that kind of credibility, apparently) to show him how to do it.

You could poke your eye out

October 11th, 2009

(Note: this post was due Friday, but delayed.)

I received by e-mail notice that one of our plants in another country had experienced a near-miss. A hoist being operated had failed, causing the load to fall to the ground. The problem was that a safety stop that limited the highest (shortest line) point of the hoist had worn out because the hoist had been topped out on a regular basis, and then whithout this stop the tackle on the hoist had knocked into the anchor point on the hoist until that broke, too.

I think it is quite a good idea for Acme to communicate these safety incidents throughout the entire company. It brings home that all those hazardous things that could happen sometime do happen sometimes. Some time ago we heard that a forklift operator in another plant had knocked into one leg of some racking, and the failure of that one leg brought down the whole row in a chain reaction. We are not talking about retail store racking; we’re talking industrial racking with steel verticals bigger and stronger than the structural members of your house.

You know what? I’ve knocked into something on a forktruck before.

Just show up and save the day

October 8th, 2009

Today I fretted about what I was going to do more than a week from now.

The initial reason for my trip was to help another location learn how to manage intracompany orders. Intracompany orders are very tricky; you can do too much with them. For instance, if you order 100 pieces from me, I can confirm that will send you 80 pieces. From then on, all of my system reports and schedules will only show that I owe you 80 pieces. Or I can confirm that I will send you 500 pcs. And then that’s what I owe you; you do not have to approve it.

Now, if the system on your site thinks you need 100 pcs and I  confirm only 80, your system will automatically add a new request for the other 20.  But that gets into another whole bit on how request appear, show due, and automatically adjust both date and quantity, and I am trying to keep this simple. So back to confirming quantities.

The new supervisor in shipping has been confirming only what she currently has on hand to send. I told her she should stop doing that because (notwithstanding what I hinted at above) it was prevent the requesting site from getting what they really wanted.

Then the shipping supervisor had an order which was created for the express purpose of moving the entire quantity of inventory from our site to their site. Between the time the order was placed and when it was ready to ship, a customer sales order had been placed to take one piece. So then I told the supervisor that she should confirm the request for one less piece than it was originally entered for.

Intracompany orders are hard to explain, and the “right” way to do something depends on how you want to manage them. And we are trying to change several parts of the system, too. Trying to envision how I can best explain this to people I have never met before, and also best capitalize on this to get more useful documentation together for all the four or so sites I know of that are affected by this process, took a lot of my imagination and energy. Not to mention lining up the other things I am also supposed to accomplish on this trip.

The entire schedule may have to be re-done, though, because that site I am supposed to help hasn’t actually said which day is good for me to show up and enlighten them. I was kind of waiting for my boss to tell me that. I would have just asked them myself but I am not entirely sure who they are. And the day that I arbitrarily picked to be at that site, other people who are supposed to go with me aren’t available. So I will probably spend tomorrow too fretting about what I am going to do on the week of the 19th.