Category Archives: Systems

One Most Important Thing

“What’s the one most important thing you do?” I asked. “In a year’s time, looking back, what one thing have you done that has had the most impact on your company?”

Kristen was thinking. She had some stuff up on her walls, some recognition plaques, a framed letter from a customer. “I don’t know,” she started. “My highest contribution? I guess it’s just making sure my people are always busy and not wasting time. That’s what managers do.”

“No, on your team of 19, you have two supervisors, that’s what they do, keep people busy. What is the most important thing you do?”

“I guess I never really thought about it. No one ever asked me, or told me. In fact, when I got promoted last year, the only difference is that I go to management meetings once a week. I spend the rest of my time dealing with problems and issues. Who is arguing with whom? Who wants time off? Why someone is constantly running behind? Why things don’t come out right? Motivating my team? I stay pretty busy doing all that.”

“What would you have to do differently, so that you did none of those things?” I challenged.

“Well, there’s no way. The people I have on my team just wouldn’t be able to get along and stay productive without me in there.”

“So, what would you have to do differently?”

Out of Sequence

“I’m having a tough time with my team, struggling to meet the project expectations I set for them,” Sheila explained. “It seems they have different interpretations of the project deliverables, a bit of confusion, making it difficult to nail down accountability.”

“So, tell me what you told them?” I said.

“We had a team meeting about the project, making the message consistent to everyone on the team, so, I’m not sure how people got off track. I’m not even sure how what they are thinking, I just know each of them has a different take.”

“How so?” I pressed.

“It looks like everyone started at a different place in the sequence. This is a linear project with specific steps, one after the other. But, one person is starting on step three and another on step eight. They told me they were trying to think ahead, so when we got to that step, it would already be done.”

I wasn’t skeptical, but wanted to more detail. “And, the problem is?”

“Step three depends on the outcome of steps one and two, it’s a dependent step. We might even be able to skip step three depending on how steps one and two turn out.”

“And, I am sure you clearly described this?” I smiled.

“No, I just assumed the team would figure that out,” she explained.

“So, if you had to do the meeting over again, what would you, as the manager, do differently?”

A Process and a System

From the Ask Tom mailbag:

What’s the difference between a process and a system?

A process is the way we get something done. A process is a shift from the haphazard, often the backbone of a discipline or a set of instructions. A process can take the form of a checklist, often has an order or sequence to its steps, like do this first, then do that.

A system is more robust than a process. A system has a defined start and a finish. A system also has a series of steps, but there are different relationships between the steps. In a system, some steps can be done at the same time (concurrent steps). Some steps depend on other steps to be completed first, before the current step can begin (dependent steps). Some steps run at different speeds and can bottleneck other steps (constraints). Some steps may only be required under specific conditions (conditional steps). Some steps may loop back to previous steps and repeat (iterative steps). A system looks at specific conditions, finds the similarities and, by treating them the same, produces a consistent outcome. A system looks at specific conditions, finds the differences and, by treating them differently accommodates a range of variables.

Looking at levels of work, a process may more accurately be used at S-II, while a system is more likely required at S-III.

Where is Engineering?

“Where is engineering?” Sam repeated.

“They never come to this meeting,” Mary replied. “They said it wasn’t a good use of their time, that all we ever talk about is production schedules and complain about the status of our catch levers. They do send someone to this meeting about once a month, but they never say anything, except that they are working on the catch levers.”

Mark, from marketing spoke up. “I do remember them saying they had just about fixed the problem with the catch levers and wanted to talk to marketing about some new packaging, because the new catch levers are going to require a bigger box.”

Larry, from legal, piped in. Larry was always playing on his iPhone during these meetings. “I think I found the name of the company that is competing with our unit. They are located on the west coast, with a distribution hub about 50 miles from here. The Google map of their distribution hub looks like a warehouse with some trucks in the yard. Big trucks. No wonder we didn’t know about them. But, here’s the thing, they have a patent filing on…it looks like our unit, but without catch levers. Their patent is on a sealed unit that doesn’t open.”

Sam surveyed the room. “Thirty days ago, this company was hitting on all cylinders. Every department was spinning perfect. Our marketing click rates were up, sales were increasing, production throughput was stellar, inventory was moving, returns were normal. Every silo in this company was performing as designed. Except for the catch levers. How did we miss that? Where is engineering?”

The Hidden System Defect

“So, you all agree on a path forward,” Sam continued. “This is your problem to solve. We have everyone in the room. Marketing, sales, customer service, production and accounting.”

Marketing began. “We are very proud of our pay-per-click ad campaign. We are delivering more leads at a lower cost than last year and total marketing costs are under budget.”

Sales stepped up. “We have more leads, but our closing ratio is down, way down.”

Production was next. “We know that sales are sluggish. We had finished goods back up on the production floor, so we had to find room to store the excess inventory. Lucky, we found on old warehouse that the real estate group was trying, unsuccessfully, to sell. They were happy we took it off their hands, so that’s where we put the inventory.”

Accounting, always cheery, gave the next report. “Yes, putting that warehouse back in service helped our balance sheet, eliminated a non-performing asset. We saw our holding costs on the inventory were going up, but, that is to be expected if sales are sluggish.”

“There is still a problem,” Sam declared. “Individually, you all, each of you is doing a good job in your respective departments, and I am glad that I didn’t see any finger-pointing. And, we still have a problem. Sales are still sluggish.”

Customer service, Mary, who had been quiet the whole time, finally spoke up. “I was looking over our customer satisfaction surveys yesterday, in preparation for this meeting. We have been getting EXCELLENT responses, especially in our return department. The problem is, we have triple the responses, meaning we have triple the returns. So, in addition to sluggish sales, our product returns are up.”

Sam probed, “And? Why do people say they are returning?”

Mary nodded. “I know this sounds silly, but our customers are saying they found a substitute product with higher quality from another company. And, its a company I never heard of before. We have always had a problem with one of our catch levers, it’s been our biggest customer complaint. This new product doesn’t have any catch levers. It’s designed differently.”

It was Sam’s turn to nod. “So, our sluggish sales and inventory problem looks like it may be a design problem. Why isn’t anyone in here from engineering?”

Excess Inventory

The good news was that we stumbled on the problem early. Sam arrived in Corina’s office about two minutes after the phone call.

“I thought something was up when I saw the excess inventory down here a couple of weeks ago,” he reported. “I figured there must have been some snafu in shipping that was causing a bottleneck, and I had some fires somewhere else, so I hoped that shipping would figure it out on their own.”

“We figured it out,” Corina chimed in. “We put the over-production in the Fifth Street Warehouse, so we could keep working around here.”

“But, I thought we sold the Fifth Street Warehouse,” Sam interrupted.

“Almost. But I talked to the Real Estate Department and they hadn’t had any serious offers, the listing had just expired and they were actually glad that we needed the space to put the inventory.”

Sam looked especially troubled. “Corina, I need you to gather the data, the real data on what we have in the warehouse, and your current production rates. We need to do some thinking about this.”

Utilization of Resources

“Come on, I think you are splitting hairs,” Corina said. “Everyone knows that the goal of the company is to make money, and the goal of the plant floor is to make as much product as efficiently as possible.”

“Is it, really?” I asked.

Corina stopped. She was trying to be defensive without being defensive. Rarely works.

“Has there ever been a time,” I continued, “where you were doing such a good job on the plant floor that you produced more than the company was selling?”

“Oh, all the time. We always produce to the sales forecast that Joe puts together. And his forecast is always wrong. I mean, right now, is a good example. If you had been here last week, you would have seen stuff stacked up all over the place. We even had three semi-trucks in the parking lot loaded with finished goods.”

“Where is it all now?”

“Well, there was a warehouse that we were trying to sell. I got lucky and found out in time to stop it, so we moved all the excess inventory there. Now, that’s utilization of resources.”

“Who knows about this?” I probed. “Does Sam, your VP of Ops know?”

“Yeah, he was down here a couple of weeks ago and saw all the inventory. He looked concerned, but I told him we were working on it. When he came down a couple of days later, I had all the stuff taken care of. He looked relieved.”

Our conversation became quiet.

Your Problems Are Not All Internal

“I thought we had everything firing on all cylinders,” Manny explained. “We had the perfect customer offering, at the perfect price point, with the best quality. Suddenly, market demand just tanked. Over the past three months, our backlog disappeared and our order forecast is a disaster.”

“It’s not enough to get everything working on the inside (internal systems),” I said. “We also have to look outside. There are external systems, like your market, that will hit both revenue and bottom line. And even if you get your market right, there are other external systems you have to pay attention to –

  • Market (external system) – consists of your customers, your competitors, your suppliers. Sometimes there are incremental changes, sometimes major disruptions.
  • Regulation (external system) – most companies pay taxes, but there are other financial regulations, tariffs and fees. Environmental regulations in terms of prohibited materials, impact fees and unknown liabilities.
  • Finance (external system) – we go to the bank in search of a loan and think the bank should loan us as much as we have the ability to repay. The bank has other ideas called covenants, internal ratios (internal systems) that have to be maintained. It’s an external system with an impact on how you internally organize. Finance can take the form of lines of credit, term debt, stockholder investment, private equity. All external systems.
  • Labor (external system) – usually impacted by unionization and unemployment statistics, more recently impacted by governmental intervention.
  • Technology (external system) – technology has changed the way we work, the things on our desk, the way we communicate, attend meetings. Most importantly, technology as an external system has changed the way we make decisions and solve problems.

So, when we look at our perfect internal systems, we also have to look at the imperfect external systems in which we operate.

Killing a Neighboring Function

“And operations does it absolutely perfect, every single time?” I asked.

Roberto exhaled like he was going to speak, but stopped. “Okay, you got me. I know it’s a trick question.”

“If operations does it absolutely perfect, every single time, then you have no need for Quality Control?” I smiled.

“We measure reject rates, but they have been pretty good, in fact, on a down trend,” Roberto replied.

“But your customer service call counts remain high. What’s up with that?” I wanted to know.

“That’s where we really put our energy. We get very high marks on our customer service. We put resources where we need them.”

“So, is there a correlation between low reject rate and high volume of customer service?”

“If you ask our department managers, they are very proud of their statistics. In fact, our customer service manager just asked for more budget because they are doing such a good job.” Robert’s turn to smile.

“There’s a connection,” I said. “When you look at integration inside a company, you can’t look at a high performing single function. You may find that a high performing single function is killing its neighboring function. And, you may find a problem in one function by looking at what’s happening in another function. You can get profitable by focusing on a single system, but you can’t scale until you look at all the functions together. It’s about total system throughput.”

Work Moves Sideways – Release and Pace

“It happened again,” Peter grimaced. “We just got a large order with a tight deadline. We went to expedite the order and turns out there are projects stuck in the middle of our system.”

“What do you mean stuck?” I asked.

“I mean stuck,” Peter replied. “We run a just-in-time shop. We don’t order materials until we have a project, and some of those materials have lead times, so we have a bit of coordination to do. If we have a material with a three day lead time that we can’t schedule that project for tomorrow.”

“So, what’s the problem?”

“Supply chain. We know we will have the material in three days, so we release the project to the floor so when it’s time for those materials, the materials are there. Until they’re not. We found out that material is out of stock from our supplier with a three week lead time, not three days. But the project is already on the floor. Without the material, the project is stuck. And, it’s big and heavy, stuck in a staging area waiting on material. We can’t move around it, we can’t move over it. It’s stuck. Now, we have a highly profitable project, lots of gross margin that we can’t start because the other project is stuck on the floor, for the next three weeks.”

“How often does this happen?” I wanted to know.

“With supply chain the way it is, more and more,” Peter shook his head.

“What have you learned so far, about what to do and what not to do?”

“Well, for one thing, never release a project to production until we have all the materials in hand. That will keep things from getting stuck. Also, a couple of workstations are very quick and sometimes get ahead of themselves, pushing out too many assemblies, stacking them in the way. The guys in that work cell are so proud of their output, they don’t see they create a problem. I think we may have to idle that process during portions of the day so things don’t stack up. Weird that I would have to tell that team not to work so hard.”