Tag Archives: system integration

Is the COO Irrelevant?

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

I read your book, Outbound Air, again.

And I was thinking there might be a conflict with trendier/newer business models. A lot of companies seem to be pushing flatter structures and mixed function work-groups. So there isn’t really a role for COOs as say, the CEO’s internal quarterback

My understanding is that COOs exist to corral the various functions i.e. highest timespan
while the CEO is dealing with strategy, major threats etc.

So does the timespan model change for these flatter-structured businesses where the COO is supposedly irrelevant?

Elliott’s response to a similar question goes like this –
“I hear these things, and I just have to ask, who is kidding whom?” It is not that the role of the COO disappears, but it is certainly different.

Small Organizations
First, many organizations (small ones) are not level (V) organizations in the first place. Indeed, many companies are level (III) organizations, so they have production, supervision and a CEO, who really plays the role of a level (III) manager. Nothing wrong with this small company, the CEO can make a wealthy living out of it.

Growing Organizations
As the company grows, the level of work will necessarily increase to level (IV). There are multiple functions (systems) inside the company that must be integrated together. Again, the CEO in a level (IV) company will play the role of the integrator. In a larger, more mature company, this would be the role of the COO.

Maturing Organizations
In a level (V) company, the CEO must leave the integration role and truly focus on strategy. Without an effective COO at level (IV), the CEO will necessarily be dragged down into the weeds (back into integration activity). And, as long as the CEO is doing work at level (IV), the company will not grow, likely grow and contract in fits and starts, never effectively integrating their multiple systems. Yes, it is possible to have a dysfunctional level (IV) organization.

Digital Technology
Over the past two or three decades, technology arrived. Indeed, computer systems (note the word system) supplant many level (III) functions. MRP and ERP software systems, in their algorithms, require very specific steps in specific sequences, level (IV). The algorithms were created by some very smart teams who created systems and system integration in a variety of disciplines.

However, with effective technology implementation, the managerial work changed. So, let me pose this question. If we have a technology platform that serves to move data between multiple functions in the company, integrating those functions together, a level (IV) role, then what is the work of the COO?

Here is a hint. Work is decision making and problem solving. In the presence of an effective ERP system, what decisions are left to be made and what problems are left to be solved by the COO? There is an answer to that question.

Your thoughts? -Tom

The Struggle for Emerging S-IV

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

It took a long time, but our company has grown. Our business model is a distributor, it’s all about supply chain for our customers. Because our business model is driven by the logistics of incoming and outgoing material supply, we recently promoted our warehouse manager to VP-Inventory Control. For us, it was more than just a change of role title. Our warehouse manager took us through re-binning our inventory, bar coding SKUs, RFIDs on serialized product. He is a really bright guy. But his promotion to VP-Inventory Control seems to have gone to his head. With his new-found power, he has emerged as a prima-donna. In our executive team meetings, he believes that inventory control should be the deciding factor in every business decision for the company. If he keeps this up, he is going to get fired.

Indeed, the move from a Stratum III (S-III) inventory manager to an (S-IV) is a dramatic change in level of work.

  • S-III – System (creates the system, monitors the system and improves the system)
  • S-IV – Integration of multiple systems and sub-sytems (attention to dependent systems, interdependent systems, contingent systems and bottlenecks)

The focus at S-III system level is internal. We demand each of our systems be efficient, profitably leveraging its resources for maximum output. Your inventory manager did just that with a bin system, bar codes and RFIDs. Kudos.

The focus at S-IV is integration. With an internal focus on inventory management, his new role is to assist in the integration of inventory with all the other systems in the company. It is no longer a matter of profitably leveraging resources for maximum output, but optimizing output with the other systems in the company. It is a matter of how one system’s output (reinforcing system) is impacted by another system’s output (balancing system).

This requires the focus for the new S-IV to transition from internal to external. You don’t have a prima donna personality conflict. You have not clearly defined and communicated the new role, nor its differences from the prior role.

You also skipped a step. How did you know if the inventory manager was ready for these new accountabilities? You didn’t. You blindly promoted and now you have a bit of a chocolate mess. The step you missed, prior to the promotion, was assigning S-IV project work, coaching and evaluating the output. Team members should NEVER get a promotion. They earn promotions by successful completion of project work similar or identical to the work in their new role. -Tom

Finger Pointing Between Functional Departments

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Any advice as to how to align all members from multiple cross-functional departments into one purpose; create an efficient, streamlined process that assures that communication, documentation and actual product flow is executed efficiently?  We are specifically a design firm, but our revenue comes from the products manufactured from our exclusive designs.  So, we have mature internal systems in each department, but the transitions of work flow from one department to the other sometimes break down, so there are logjams, finger-pointing and sometimes, general chaos.

Much of the answer is in your question.  Let me pick out your key words.

  • Purpose
  • Efficiency
  • Flow

Let me add three more.

  • Balance and optimization
  • Authority
  • Accountability

What you have described is the classic transition from Stratum III systems to Stratum IV system integration.  It sounds like you have done an adequate job of creating multiple internal systems, that are efficient in each of your workflow disciplines.  It is the integration of these systems that is giving you fits.  Let me take a stab at listing some typical systems in this flow.

  • Market research system
  • Design system
  • Prototyping system
  • Approval system
  • Production system
  • Finished goods inventory system
  • Marketing system
  • Distribution and logistics system

Each of your internal systems likely works well within itself, but now you are experiencing balance problems between your internal systems.  It is not sufficient to have a great design system and a great production system.  If you have a weak prototyping system, your designs will get stuck on paper and never make it to production.  You may have a great marketing system that creates consumer demand, but if you have a weak finished goods inventory system, your products will never find their way to distribution.  Your weak systems will be doing their best and your strong systems will be finger-pointing.

So, that’s the problem.  What is the solution?  This is a Stratum IV issue, where someone needs to have end-to-end accountability.  Some companies attempt to solve this problem by creating a role called product manager.  The product manager would be accountable for tracking each step, likely creating a Gant chart of product progress from one function to another.  While this role gathers necessary data about the status of a single product in the chain, it still might only document that the product is stuck.

That is why this is a Stratum IV issue, one of balance and integration.  The S-IV manager (likely a VP) would be accountable for examining each system for capacity and handoff.  This is not looking internally at the mechanics of a single system, but the interaction of each reinforcing system to each balancing system.  It is not a matter of having one or two high performing functions, but having all functions able to keep up with each other, optimized for capacity.  No single system manager will have the authority, nor likely the capability, to do this work.

And somewhere in this integrated whole system, there will be a constraint.  There will be some limitation in a single system which will drive the cadence of all the systems working together.  The hat trick is identifying and placing that constraint strategically.  Typically, this strategic constraint will be an expensive resource, too expensive to duplicate (which would double the capacity of that system).  The identification, selection and placement of the strategic constraint, and then subordination of all other systems to the strategic constraint is the work of the S-IV manager.

With this integrated system design, then the work of documentation, handoffs, communication and feedback loops begins.  Most companies get this backward and have a communication seminar without balancing the systems for total throughput.  You can imagine that this communication seminar makes everyone feel good, but nothing changes in throughput, the finger-pointing continues.

For more reading, start with Eli Goldratt’s The Goal and Peter Senge’s Fifth Discipline.