Survival of the Most Adaptable

be like water

I read an interesting blog post about the responsibilities of companies to change their views of the phrase “survival of the fittest”.  This article is about corporate social responsibility and the ways that we interact with nature.  While I think it is a great post, I would like to talk about the same concept, but on a level that is more for the manufacturing middle-management folks.

Let’s interpret the phrase “survival of the fittest” to be “the best at adapting”.  In business that means flexibility, versatility, and nimbleness.  But how can we influence these factors when we are a cog in the big business machine?

  1. Strategic development of a process model that allows for smaller runs and higher flexibility.  As an Operations Leader, you have the ability to influence how you design your department.  Most companies are looking for the big runs, fewer changeovers, and highest volume.  But what if you could create a section of your department that is specialized at small runs, reduced inventory, and high-speed turnaround?  Could you provide a service to customers at a premium?  Could you handle frequent changeovers as a matter of course?  Check out QRM.  This methodology might be able to help you get started with something.
  2. Stop focusing on reducing changeover time and start focusing on eliminating minor stops.  Let’s look at a typical production line.  If you run a product for 16 hours with equipment speeds of 20 cases/minute you should see 19,200 cases at the end of that time.  But it takes you 20 hours to run that amount.  Then you have to perform a 2-hour changeover to the next product.  Most companies want to reduce changeover time because that is downtime where you are making zero units.  But the changeover has to happen.  Even if you cut the changeover time in half you only saved 1 hour.  But it took you an extra 4 hours to run the product.  Cut that in half and you save 2 hours.  Minor stops on a line can result in huge hits on efficiency.  Quicker runs equal more capacity for new volume.
  3. Slow down to speed up.  It sounds like taboo, but Maintenance groups will tell you that if you run your car at 9000 rpm you won’t get as far as if you run it at 3000 rpm.  But that is exactly what we do to our production equipment.  We run it to the max and shorten its life and Mean-Time Between Failure (MTBF).  This not only increases downtime and Maintenance costs, but it also reduces the machine’s availability for more volume.  Conduct a constraint analysis on your line and set the limiting machine to at least 10% below its maximum rate.  You will see a smoother run and a more predictable life of the equipment.  Remember, it is about cases out of the door, not units per minute off of the filler.
  4. Set goals for management and supervisors that reward flexibility.  It is a difficult thing to do, but try setting department KPIs around how you manage the department, not how much volume you push through the door.  You may have to create a set of KPIs that you track internally and still publish the ones that upper management wants to see.  Think about how the behaviors of your team will benefit your business and create metrics around those behaviors.  It will take some thought, but you will have a better performing system out of the deal.
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Project Management Gone Awry

mistakes

One of the nice things about being American is that the government always gives us an opportunity to learn from their mistakes.  It doesn’t matter your political views, government is messed up.

So with the latest fiasco with Obamacare (or the Affordable Care Act, if you prefer…but Obamacare is so much easier to say) we can see how the website rollout was a poorly managed project.  Let’s do some inferring and see why.

A project is really about syncing three things: Scope, Quality, Time.  Let’s look at how these things are interconnected and how we can make sure we observe some basic understanding of what to do.

The scope must not have been well defined for the website since the major issue was that too many people were trying to log on at once.  This should have been projected as a risk during the definition portion of the project and a mitigation strategy designed.  Now, I am not a web designer or network engineer, so please forgive the errors I may state and feel free to correct me if you have knowledge in these areas.

The system should have been designed to manage the peaks of the users.  The traffic should have been projected and then doubled.  I know that some of the States had their own systems and that needed to be factored in as well.  But there are mathematicians that can help with the statistics.  There are design criteria for the servers and workflow processes.  Some users could have been given a “sorry” message rather than having their information lost when applying for healthcare.

Obviously, the timeline was not reasonable since the website clearly wasn’t ready.  This should have been a pushback to the White House.  Another option would be to cut back the scope or quality of the site, but since that was probably not a good option, they should have delayed the start.

In the political environment, you have to pay attention to what is promised to the people.  The web site designers should have been regularly communicating with the President (their Sponsor) who in turn is communicating to the people (the Stakeholders).  The President and system designers should have been on the same page with timing, capability, and expectations so that everyone understood what was going to happen.  If it would have been stated that the site could only handle so many users, it would have been better received when there were issues and the corrections could have happened immediately.

Lessons…

  • Clearly understand your objectives and create a comprehensive scope.
  • Listen to your Sponsor.
  • Predict the needs of the users.
  • Communicate, communicate, communicate.

As with Leadership, Project Management boils down to communication.  Communication of expectations, progress, and reality.  We all want an optimist to lead, but reality has to be part of what is communicated.  People can tell the difference between hope and reality if you give them the information to distinguish between the two.

The Value of Steady Eddie

steady eddie

We don’t really talk about playing to other’s strengths.  But as leaders, that is what we must do.  It is that ability to think like someone else and to understand his strengths and weaknesses that makes a good leader.  But knowing how far to stretch people and when to bolster their abilities is a delicate dance.  When we focus too much on putting people ‘out of their comfort zones’ or creating ‘developmental plans’ is when we basically create a negative environment, no matter how positively we try to spin it (“I’m here to help you get better”).

Cue the “Steady Eddie”: the guy that comes to work every day to do the same job and goes home happy about it, that supervisor that has been a supervisor for 20 years and doesn’t really want that management job, that person that does a good job day in and day out.  This person usually has no desire to move out of his current role, nor does he care too much about changing things up.  There is usually a small sense company loyalty closely knit to a sense of entitlement.

My thought is that every leader can use a good Steady Eddie.  Steady Eddie is a guy from whom you can learn the technical aspects of the job.  Steady Eddie usually has the respect of his team simply because of his knowledge of the job.  Steady Eddie knows crap when he smells it and can give you a perspective of the culture (although it can be a tainted one, so be prepared to take it with a grain of salt).  Steady Eddie is also the guy that can train future leaders on the how-to’s.

However, don’t expect stellar performance from Steady Eddie.  Usually he is happy to go home as soon as the day is done and he doesn’t want to step out of his comfort zone very often.  That’s manageable, however, since you aren’t expecting him to grow leaps and bounds.  Steady Eddie can be the constant in the department, but that also can mean a resistance to change.  This is usually accompanied with statements like “well we used to do it like this and I don’t know why we ever stopped” or “we’ve tried that and it didn’t work”.

In today’s society we often discount Steady Eddie and say that if he can’t change then we don’t need him.  He is so knowledgeable we expect him to take on more work and be a natural leader.  But understand that you can test the waters and see if Eddie is willing to do these things.  If not, it doesn’t mean that he can’t be a part of the team, but that his growth is limited and that change will come more slowly for him.  This is when you play to Steady Eddie’s strengths, that is when you will see Eddie stand up to the plate and hit a homer while most days he is a base hit.  Give Eddie something in his wheelhouse and watch him work.  You will get a good job done quickly.  Put him too far out of the comfort zone and Eddie will suffer, and so will your team.

Fraudulent Leadership

pointing-fingers

Have you ever been in over your head?  There are times when we are put into situations that we are not prepared to handle.  It is how we respond to these challenges that either affirms our leadership skills or exposes us for the phonies we truly are.  Which are you?

Phonies

  1. Hide their faults.
  2. Compensate for inadequacies through intimidation.
  3. Stop trying.
  4. Forget how to learn.
  5. Treat others as underlings.
  6. Pretend to know everything about everything.
  7. Think they are the most important person in the room.

Leaders

  1. Talk about their fears with trusted friends.
  2. Seek advice from mentors, coaches, and peers.
  3. Surround themselves with people who know more than they do.
  4. Set goals, personal and professional, to close gaps.
  5. Build bridges and tear down walls to expose weaknesses within themselves.
  6. Find something to learn every day.
  7. Focus on people, not power.

It’s okay to be in over your head.  If you are never in the deep end you won’t learn how to swim.  A little panic can be a great motivator.  Use it, don’t be paralyzed by it.  People will respect you more when you can admit you need help.  It is better for you and the team to acknowledge your shortfalls and try to work on them.