Cat and mouse

January 6th, 2010

One of the managers–one of those types who likes to monologue–was telling me that when the plant manager comes to the daily meeting, everyone is posturing to make themselves look good, by making other people look worse if necessary. He said it becomes a useless meeting where everyone is tearing each other apart, and that he and other managers had tried to explain this to the plant manager.

I had to think of the time for a few months when it seemed like the plant manager had quit coming to the meetings and was no longer interested. The other managers were rarely seen, and the meeting devolved into little more than a handshake on the day’s work, with some friendly (or not so friendly) put-downs thrown in.

This is not the first time I have heard that the plant manager has no business in a meeting about the day to day operations. But I think he can only afford not to be there when someone else is going to take care of the business for him. Somehow it still seems to require the plant manager emphasizing that their are customers who want their orders shipped before people become really eager to solve problems. People may point fingers more when he is around, but they volunteer a lot more, too.

So this is when we say that the plant manager needs to work on his management team. But we say this after a year of multiple general layoffs that included the elimination of two management positions and the firing–sorry, sudden resigning–of another. And even aside from the volatility of these changes, we are speaking of the great gamble: whether you can get someone better than you have now. When ordinary budgetary approvals are going two and three levels up, and you are located far away from attractions for the business elite, it is no small thing to speak of improving the caliber of your management team.

He laughs

December 30th, 2009

There’s a guy at work who laughs every day. Not at any particular time, he just finds something worthy of laughter, without fail. People laugh too much are annoying, but there is plenty of absurd stuff going on and most of the time I would say he has every right to laugh. But I am hardly ever laughing along with him.

I think he’s got it right. Laugh more, stress less. Not that he never gets mad about anything, but if you can laugh you will let off some steam and not poison yourself so much. One of my brothers laughs a lot about the insanity at his work–at least, when I talk to him; maybe at work it’s different.

But laughter is a hard thing to practice. At least, the healthful kind that actually relieves stress is. Even if you can stop, reconsider, and see the humor in a situation, it is too late to laugh about it.


December 29th, 2009

I don’t know what to say when nothing goes wrong. Nothing went particularly right, either; it was just a good day without much drama.

Well, I guess there was plenty of drama for the guy that ran into one of the steel posts that keeps the roof up. Did a pretty good job on it. It’s not dented, it’s bent. That guy was down in shipping when I bumped into a post, too. Heh. He beat my high score.

I thought of something cynical to say. My colleague who is on vacation, T.B., is going on her honeymoon this week. It’s been a few months since she was married, which was a few years after she decided to marry her man, so it doesn’t have quite the weight you might first think when you hear “honeymoon.” But nevertheless it is a honeymoon and it does involve reservations. Our esteemed manager tried to get her to reschedule her honeymoon so that he could be off this week, as, with another team member out, we would be shorthanded.

Incredibly, T.B. stuck to her guns. (My boss’s boss and I agree that if you ran T.B. over with a bus, she would thank you.) In the end, our manager and the other team member split the week; he’ll be back tomorrow to cover for C.T.

And T.B.? T.B. was at work today. Yes, on her vacation. Yes, on the week of her honeymoon. To complete some inane online training so that she could check the box on her year-end evaluation. Because she couldn’t find any other time to do it.

Most evenings, she is doing her normal work (that she can’t find time to do during the day). When our boss notices her online, he warns her that she will not be paid for her time. And then he lets her work.

This concludes today’s meditation on whatever is good, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely.


December 28th, 2009

We are now in the end of the year. This is by definition the mother of all panic weeks for the year.

Only it’s not. Look, don’t tell anyone I said this, but between last week and this week this is the slowest I’ve had it in a long time. All year, seems like. There is probably some heroic thing I am supposed to be doing to make sure Acme doesn’t leave one penny on the table, but when I look around me what I see is that most people are too busy to give me work. I get to sneak off and do something I want to do.

I didn’t quite get to realize this dream today because I am substituting for someone who is on vacation. The only emergency I had today came from that corner. Covering for TB kept me busy enough so I couldn’t do more than open my pet database and tweak a few things. My only regret, though, is that I felt too guilty to make my pet project a higher priority. Surely at the end of the year there is some revenue-generating horse I am supposed to be flogging… it’s the worst time to be indulging in optional projects with dubious payoff somewhere down the road.

But the open secret of the business world is that things don’t get done until somebody breaks the rules. That’s also how things often get wrecked, too; discernment is worth more than three college degrees. You can’t walk away from your primary responsibilities, but if you’ve got them covered looking for more work is suicide. Seize the moment.

Playing with Legos

December 23rd, 2009

It was so quiet today I had to think of what I wanted to do most instead of what I needed to get done most quickly. I get nervous when this happens because I am thinking there is probably something I urgently need to do and I have just forgotten it.

I made it to the end of the day without any horrible recollections, so those fears brought forth nothing today.

I worked on a database. I love working on the design of a brand-new database. There are an infinite number of facts in the world; the trick is acquiring those facts, remembering them, and putting them into relationship with each other so that you can see the meaning of the facts. Brains do this; often they are so efficient about storing the information that the individual facts disappear completely and only the meaning, derived from the relationship between the facts, remains. Certainly my brain loses facts with amazing speed even as I accrue knowledge.

A database cannot make meaning, but it can greatly help the entire process up to that point. A database must do more than store facts; otherwise, it is just a scoop out of that infinite sea of facts. Some older databases sadly prove this point, able to do little more than store data in an orderly fashion and retrieve it when requested. To be of much value, a database must keep track of what has changed about the data and what has caused the changes.

But, as anyone who has tried to reason anything out knows, the question of cause can go on forever. In order to answer the questions people will actually ask you generally need a lower level, more detailed set of data than what they are asking for; this lower level provides the hooks and loops you need to link your facts together and pull out a story, a string of information that actually tells you something.

It is those hooks and loops that you must design into the database when you start. You have to look at the bits of data you will be able to collect, imagine what kind of questions people willl want to answer with the data, and think about how those bits of data will have to be hooked together to help answer those questions.

What makes this fun is not building all the little hooks and loops, but imagining as you do so all the questions you will be able to answer that nobody could answer before. As you work on it and think about it you start to realize how you might be able to answer important questions that nobody even thought to ask before. And that, of course, means that you are a genius.

Tangled Webs

December 22nd, 2009

Somehow I found some free time today so I chased one of my pet projects. I have been trying to suggest that if we gave our customers an incentive to schedule their orders (ask for them to ship at some point later than the time of order entry), it would relieve a lot of the problems in supply chain and production process.

Currently we experience experience spikes in demand, a “hockey-stick” effect where orders go zooming up a the end of the month and at the end of the quarter. So it would appear that the sales force is out there making bargains and cutting deals so that they can pump the numbers up before the end of the quarter.

I wanted to show how the company was losing money through this fireselling practice. But an initial check showed that our margins actually increased later in the month. This was so contrary to known reality that I knew something was wrong. I scrubbed out of the data orders that showed extreme markups (mainly due to bad cost data allowing the price to appear inflated). Then I broke the data down by type of product, looking for product with a premium margin that did not sell until the end of the month–at a higher margin than mainline product, but reduced from its nominal selling price.

Put simply, I spent hours trying to get the numbers to show the right answer, and I could not do it. For some product lines there is a slight dip in margin later in the month, but basically the variation is in line with what happens throughout the entire month.

I asked the planning manager why the numbers wouldn’t show what we both knew was true, and he said most of the bargaining at the end of the month is done on terms–how long after the order, shipment, or delivery of the product the customer has until they have to make payment.

Which is exactly the way we are trying to squeeze our suppliers so that we can pay for stuff only after we have already sold it on again, thus improving our cash flow.


December 21st, 2009

Today I told someone that I could not get the order they were chasing shipped any sooner and he replied that the customer he was helping was probably going to cancel the order. If you want a rule of thumb for when you should be worried about things, it is when the money at stake is more than your annual salary.

The first thing I did was call my boss. Well, his boss. When the wind starts blowing around that a big order is going to fly away he is usually the cowboy they send in to catch it. He told me to look up all the orders in the last three months on which we had shipped the part we now needed and see if any of them would sell the part back.

If the tools we make were airplanes, this particular tool would be the NASA space shuttle. It’s not really in the same class. It’s also showing its age, but where else are you going to get one? And how many people you know have some spare parts in their junk drawer? Two of the last three orders were for one piece and I figured those were a lost cause. The customers fixed their tool and that’s that for the part. But one of the orders was for five pieces. How often do you fix five space shuttles at once? I figured they must have bought some spares.

It turned out that the company that bought those five pieces competes with the company that was threatening to pull out their order. And no, they didn’t have any spare parts left over. But they would like to know when they were going to get the new space shuttle they had on order.

Goosing the goose

December 18th, 2009

Today I was in two meetings about how great we did this year, one for the plant where I am physically located and one for the branch of the company I belong to… kind of equivalent to “my” plant. For the actual physical plant, we learned that we really turned our financial numbers around. For my organization, I have to confess what most caught my attention was an allusion to the project my evil twin did, a simpler project than mine but one closer to the director’s heart. That was pretty much what was mentioned as far as great work coming from our group.

But since these year-end reports about our situation were all glowing, one could ask if I shouldn’t reconsider yesterday’s evaluation that we are headed for a train wreck. I asked myself that. There is an argument to be made that our vice president this year listens to what we say about our situation, appreciates the significance of it, and will give us a chance to sort out our problems before ranting about how he is going to wrap chains around the factory doors himself.

Could be. Wouldn’t carry much weight even if it were true. But the financial numbers do some heavy talking. Will those financial numbers out-talk the delivery numbers?

I think not. I think the financial numbers can only serve to buy us some time. Someone is bound to make the argument that if we would only deliver on time the company would be making even more money and that will turn ears. It doesn’t matter if you earned me $100 today if I think I can get $200 tommorrow by cutting off your ears and selling them. Say goodbye to your ears.

Buy a bigger bulldozer

December 17th, 2009

Sometimes it feels like my job is pushing water. It’s easy to splash around and cause a distrubance, and if I push hard enough I can make waves, but shortly after I stop causing a commotion everything settles back down the way it was. But it’s not just my own little efforts. It’s the whole business. It’s been feeling to me like we are going back to where we were two years ago.

Two years ago, come April, this plant was named as a particular source of frustration to customers. One of the bigger projects that’s been undertaken to resolve that is shipping our tools to a central distribution facility several states away. If the company had wanted to treat the distribution center like a distribution center and make sure it was stocked with enough tools to last for two Christmases we might be okay now, but all that inventory is dead cash so everyone tried to trim the inventory down when the business got slow. Now in some cases it doesn’t look like we will be able to build orders we receive this month until February. And customers want it by the end of the month.

That’s just some stuff that still ships out of this plant. I don’t deal with the product shipping to the distribution center on a daily basis, but they are both our largest “customer” (as the immediate recipient of our products) and representative of our customers (as the shipping source for the majority of the orders that keep us in business). And they have name this plant as a particular source of frustration.

I don’t think people here have realized how bad this is. I think it will take a little while yet… maybe let’s say until April. But to me it is a doubly bad situation. End customers are still upset, but we hear less of it. Higher powers investigating customer complaints will question the distribution center, and they will just be told that this plant is not supporting them. We will effectively have two layers of upset customers who really don’t give a rip what may have caused our problems; they just know they aren’t getting tools.

And yet people around here still seem to think that the more models we can ship out of the distribution center (rather than directly from this plant), the fewer problems we will have.

Last Chance

December 16th, 2009

Business has been picking up. We got caught out by unexpected sales driven by desperate promotions, followed by major months-long issues with our supply of steel (almost as important as electricity). We’re behind the curve, and we have been hiring back some production people to help ramp up production.

I ran into one of those people on Friday. I was surprised to see her as she had been let go quite a long time ago, before the cutbacks had affected any salaried employees. There could be more to this story, complexities I am not aware of, but the effect of seeing someone so far back in the queue working again was to provoke the suspicion that many people earlier in line had turned down the opportunity to work here. And I doubt too many of them have jobs elsewhere.

I’ve been told before that statistically we are very competive in our pay and benefits for this area. And I’ve heard stories from the other manufacturing facilities that can make this place seem enlightened. I wonder if the lack of enthusiasm for returning to work for Acme should reflect on Acme’s reputation, or on the work ethic of the departed? I know some of the salaried people had every intention of running out the last drop of their unemployment.

The best thing I could make of it is perhaps this person had a good reputation and was preferred on the call-back. But this doesn’t line up with my understanding of the context of her departure. So I am pretty sure it is a bad sign one way or the other.