Category Archives: Systems

The Danger of Missing Stratum IV

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From the Ask Tom mailbag –

We have silos. Everybody is in a power struggle. We used to have a great reputation, but I think we outgrew it. The company seems lopsided. Sometimes sales outstrips our ability to fill orders, so some of our sales orders turn into back orders, some of our back orders turn into canceled orders and some of our best customers defect to the competition. Other times, production outstrips our ability to sell, so our finished goods don’t get sold, they stack up in the warehouse. The warehouse gets full, so we rent another warehouse. We carry inventory so long it turns obsolete and costs to hold, eat up our profit. We are like a monster machine. Just read a book by Ken Blanchard Be a Silo Buster. Do we really have to bust up the company and start over?

With all due respect to Ken Blanchard, you created those silos for a reason. Do NOT bust them up. You need efficient, profitable internal systems. It is not a matter of busting up silos, it is a matter of integrating them together. This is a classic example of a company growing into Stratum IV. This is similar to the chaos we see in Stratum II companies, but on steroids. This is not a few individuals stepping over each other. This is whole departments, internally focused, head down, nose to the grind stone without care or consideration for the other functions in the company.

But, the fix is not to tear them down. The fix is integration and requires capability at S-IV. This is not finding the constraint in a single serial system (S-III), but understanding the impact of one system on another system (S-IV). This is not root-cause analysis, but systems analysis. We have reinforcing systems and balancing systems. This requires, not serial thinking, but parallel thinking.

This is not multi-tasking (because humans cannot multi-task), but truly seeing the dependency, inter-dependency, contingency, and bottle-necks that exist among out multiple systems and sub-systems. This requires a parallel state of thinking. Two specific things to look at –

  • Balance of each system output, optimized to its surrounding systems output.
  • Handoff of work product from one system to the next system as work output flows through the organization.

Sales has to be optimized to production. There is no sense selling inventory that cannot be produced timely to the sales order. There is no sense producing finished goods that cannot profitably be sold timely to the market. The output of both systems has to be optimized so they work in sync. Reinforcing systems and balancing systems.

A department, head down, will work to their own internal efficiency. The state of their work product may be incomplete or carry a defect for the next stage in the work flow. Work does not flow up and down in a department. Work flows horizontally through the organization, output handed off from one department to the next.

  • Marketing hands off to sales.
  • Sales hands off to estimating
  • Estimating hands off to contracting
  • Contracting hands off to project management
  • Project management hands off to operations
  • Operations hands off to QA/QC
  • QA/QC hands off to warranty
  • Warranty hands off to research and development
  • Research and development hands off to marketing, and so the cycle goes

Each handoff must be inspected and improved. This is the role at S-IV.
To read more on system constraints, theory of system constraints, The Goal by Eli Goldratt.
To read more about reinforcing and balancing systems, The Fifth Discipline by Peter Senge.

The Danger of Missing Stratum II

The Danger of Missing Stratum III
The Danger of Missing Stratum IV

Impact of HR at S-III (System) Level of Work

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

I read your post yesterday about HR at different levels of work. I am stuck at S-II. How can I make an impact at S-III? How do I get the company to understand why this is so necessary?

Most companies see the HR role at S-I and S-II as necessary only because they are mandated by law to keep track of that stuff (compliance). By definition, administrative processes do not directly add value to the product or service experienced by the customer.

But, there is a silent switch at S-III where Human Resource systems begin to add value. It is not that most companies don’t see it as necessary, most companies don’t see it at all. They are blind to it. The only time they respond to it is when they find themselves suddenly short-handed.

Here is the prescription to have HR impact at S-III (system) level of work. Get out of your office and meet individually with each functional manager. Here is a list –

  • Sales manager
  • Marketing manager
  • Contracting manager
  • Project manager
  • Operations manager
  • QC manager
  • Warranty manager
  • R&D manager

Ask them these three questions –

  1. What is the output created by your (function) department?
  2. What roles and how many people do you need to do that work?
  3. What will change in a month, six months, a year related to your work output and the people you need?

Go back to your office and write up your notes, one page per function. Put these is a tabbed 3-ring binder.

Have another meeting with each manager, show them the one page and ask three more questions –

  1. Describe each role on your team, what problems do they have to solve and what decisions do they have to make?
  2. What does each of those roles cost you in compensation?
  3. How long does it take (lead time) to find candidates and train someone to be productive on your team?

Go back to your office and write up your notes, one page per function. Put these in the tabbed 3-ring binder.

By now, you should see the pattern of these questions and the construction of this human resource system. As the HR manager, you are making this system visible to each functional manager, so they can see it. You have also established a series of meetings that will continue (forever) where you will ask questions and begin the execution of this system. Your next meetings will consider these questions –

  • If you expect work volume to increase (or decrease), given the lead time for training, when do we need to begin a recruiting effort?
  • How will we describe the role in a job posting?
  • How will we include the necessary elements in a role description?
  • What are the key areas in each role, critical role requirements and output in each key area?
  • What questions will we need to create to use in candidate interviews?
  • Who would be valuable members on the hiring team?
  • What will the onboarding process (orientation, training) look like?
  • Which manager will be accountable for the output of this new hire?

Write up your notes, organize them into the 3-ring binder (your HR system) and EXECUTE. What you have created is a system called workforce planning. There is no magic fairy dust to this process, just a little (hard) work. -Tom

Whose System Is It?

“You were right,” Byron admitted. “I took a look at the system. The ten percent reject rate was caused by a small burr on a threaded plastic part. The part didn’t seal right and the cylinder wouldn’t hold the pressure.”

“So, your team could have worked harder, stayed longer, given it all their might and the reject rate would have stayed at ten percent?” I floated.

Byron nodded. “I was sure it was the team. I am actually sorry I yelled at them. They just seemed down in the dumps, lackadaisical, you know, unmotivated.”

“Why do you think they were down in the dumps?” I pressed.

“Probably my fault. They were, in fact, doing their best. I thought their best wasn’t good enough. I was too quick to lay blame. In the end, it was my fault. I ordered some surplus parts from another vendor. Our original supplier was so good, we only sampled one in a hundred parts in receiving, they were always good. The new vendor parts had a 50 percent failure rate, but the samples we pulled, one in a hundred, didn’t pick up they were out of spec half the time. It was the system that allowed the failure rate.”

“And, whose system was that?”

Byron almost choked, but managed to get it out. “Mine.”

Somewhere in the System

“I know I am accountable for the output of my team, but we still have a ten percent reject rate. If my team would just try harder, the reject rate would come down,” Byron protested.

“Really? Just try harder means what?” I asked. “You told me your team was doing their best. Are you telling me, now, that they are not doing their best?”

“They seem a little down, discouraged. I know I have been on them. We need a 100 units of production each day and with a ten percent failure rate, that means we have to run 115, on average, to get our 100. If they would just try harder, they would get there.”

“I am going to make an assumption,” I said. “I am going to assume that your team shows up every day to do their best. If your team is doing their best, then there is something else in your system that is causing the failure rate. You are a smart guy. Get a big white board, draw out your system, get your team together and find it.”

Why Would They Skip a Step?

“What do you mean, I see things that my team cannot see? If they would just look, they would see it, too,” Max pushed back.

“Max, you are a manager. You are responsible for creating all the systems that people follow. You know more about how things work and how things go wrong. Give me a short list of things you see, that your team doesn’t see,” I asked.

“Short list?

  • Sometimes, we get parts in from our vendor that have a slight defect. If we use that part in our assembly, when we get to the end, the unit will fail a pressure test.
  • If we skip the pressure test, the units get boxed and sent to customers, who install defective units. Their first call is to the salesperson, who gets an earful from the customer.
  • If the salesperson gets three customer phone calls complaining about defective units, the salesperson loses confidence in our ability to make a quality product. He stops selling.

Should I go on?” Max quizzed.

“Why can’t your production people see that?” I prompted.

“I guess they can’t put the dots together. From the time we get that first defective part, to the time the customer complains could be three months time. And when the customer complains, we still have to track down the problem, then reference our production codes to find out when the units were actually produced. It might take another week just to track down the problem. There is too much disconnection for my production team to follow. They just know they get yelled at for skipping a parts-inspection and a pressure test.”

“And, why would they skip a parts-inspection?” I wanted to know.

“Funny, the team was actually proud of their assembled output that week. We were in a bind for a large order. It meant overtime and a team bonus for 50 extra production units that week,” Max lamented.

“So, let me understand. You design all the systems out here, including the bonus system for exceeding production quotas in a shorter period of time? And you wonder why the team skips steps, to get their bonus?”

Operations and Command and Control

“If only life and business were that simplistic,” Scott said. “If you work in operations then your job is about commanding and controlling the time, labor and technical resources towards an agreed output. For the jobs in operations, your vision makes sense. But, I think it is only a functional perspective, not a universal one.”

“You seem to think that operations is all about command and control,” I replied. “It sounds a bit mechanical. Tell me more.”

“Operations is operations. Pretty cut and dried. We have defined processes inside efficient systems. Line up the people, line up the machines, line up the materials. Pop, pop, pop. Predictable output. Yes, it is a bit cut and dried.”

“If that is all there is to it, then why don’t we have robots do all our work?” I probed.

“In some cases, we do,” Scott raised his eyebrows in a subtle challenge.

“Yet, even in the midst of defined processes and efficient systems, even in the midst of robotic welding machines, we still have people engaged in operational work. And in that work, as defined as it is, aren’t there still problems that have to be solved and decisions that have to be made?”

“Well, yes,” he nodded.

“So, inside a process you describe as command and control, there is still discretionary decision making?”

Scott continued to nod.

“So, it’s not all neat and pretty,” I said. “Not all tied with a bow. In fact, some days, the work gets downright messy. Even mature processes are subject to variations in material specs, worn machine parts, delays in pace. Command and control short-changes the discretionary judgement required to effectively operate a well-defined system.”

Inspired by a comment posted to Responsibility, Accountability and Authority

Not Enough Time

“I gotta get something off my plate,” Adrian shook his head. “I am so busy, I just don’t have time to get everything done.”

Busy?” I asked. For me, busy is a code word, a clue, that there is a mis-match in level of work.

“Yes. Busy. I get here early to catch things up from yesterday, make some headway on one of my projects, but about 7:30, the chaos begins.”

Chaos?” I asked. For me, chaos is a code word, a clue, that there is a mis-match in level of work.

“Yes. Chaos,” Adrian replied. “Unsolved problems from yesterday. Yesterday’s decisions delayed until today. It hits my email, it hits my text messages, it hits my phone, it walks through my office door.”

“So, you think you have a problem?” I clarified. “And, if you could get something off your plate, you would have more time? And if you had more time, you wouldn’t be so busy? And if you weren’t so busy, there would be less chaos?”

“That’s it,” Adrian agreed.

“Then, why did you start coming to work so early?” I probed.

“Because I was too busy during the day. There was too much chaos during the day. I couldn’t get anything done,” Adrian was frustrated with his circular problem.

“So, you came to work early to get more time, but you are still too busy and there is still too much chaos? Do you think not-enough-time is really the problem.”

The Go-Go Stage

“That which does not kill you, makes you stronger,” Jim Dunbar grinned. “Our momentum told us we were not likely to die, at least not in that fiscal year,” he said. “We were invincible. So, I signed a lease on the second plane.

“Passenger loads picked up, and I had to hire more people. And that led to a predictable stumble. There was no rhyme or reason for the way we did things. We survived on our tenacity, but our tenacity began to fail us. My wife described our behavior as improvisation. Invincibility and improvisation make for a toxic cocktail. We over-promised, extended our thin resources.

“I remember our first overbooking. We had more passengers than seats. I looked at my schedule, figured we could make the run to Denver, flip the aircraft around and come back for the other group. For some reason, we thought the stranded passengers would wait the four hours. But, a weather system moved in. In spite of our promises, we never made it back, and missed another flight leg with a scheduled full plane.

“To say we flew by the seat of our pants was an understatement. But, at the time, I figured that my team practiced for months. We successfully flew one plane, how difficult could it be with two planes?

Excerpt from Outbound Air, Levels of Work in Organizational Structure, by Tom Foster, now available on Kindle, soon to be released in softcover.

Outbound Air


“I am really proud of my team. We worked overtime to get that project finished. Whatever it takes. That’s my motto,” Roger said.

“Was the customer happy?” I asked.

“You bet. They were jumping for joy. They didn’t think we could pull it off,” he replied.

“I am glad the customer was happy. You also know you blew the budget on this project. I know the customer is happy, because we paid for their project to be completed. And we burned out the team in the process.”

“Yes,” Roger protested, “but we got it done. I am really proud of the team and how hard they worked.”

“And the next project on the schedule starts today. This is one with a good margin in it, but I don’t see your team working on it,” I observed.

“Well, no. They were here until midnight last night, so I told them we could start late today.”
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Where’s the Problem?

“I don’t understand,” Abby lamented. “I have been working with the sales team for the past six months. We had an increase in sales volume almost immediately. But, after three months, sales began to trail off. I have all the data, here in front of me. The team is making the calls, following the process, but we aren’t getting the orders we expected.”

“What feedback do you get from the sales team? What are their reasons?” I asked.

“That’s the worst part, they just want to blame someone else,” Abby was mildly irritated. “They are blaming the shipping department, of all things.”

“What about the shipping department?” I pressed.

“The sales team says the shipping department isn’t doing their job according to the delivery schedules.”

“And what does the shipping department say?”

“Seems like everyone is in blame-mode. The shipping department says they can’t get orders out of the production department. And the production department is blaming everything on a machine,” Abby replied.

“Tell me about the machine.”

“It’s old and only goes so fast. Work stacks up in front of it, but we can only get so-much output, and it’s running three (8) hour shifts. We would buy another machine, but we have no place to put one and it costs $250,000.”

“Let’s look at the sales orders placed in the first couple of months of your program. What is this list of back-orders?”

“That’s what the sales people are talking about. Their sales orders turned into back orders and their back orders turned into cancelled orders. Now they can’t seem to get new orders.”

“Tell me Abby, how might you be able to connect a slow machine to orders, back-orders and cancelled orders over a six month period? Think about how one system impacts another system.”