Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Even Subject Matter Experts don’t have all the Answers

indjection molding Don’t underestimate the value of asking questions of the people that operate a process on a daily basis, even if you are a Subject Matter Expert (SME). Countless times I would go out to the factory floor and find technicians and operators violating fundamental rules while trying to keep a process running. The initial reaction is to immediately stop them. In reality, they are keeping the process running daily even while breaking widely understood industry standards and practices.

Before I set to tell them everything they are doing is wrong (I don’t really do that), I ask a lot of questions about the situation:

  • what are they doing?
  • why are they doing it?
  • what symptoms exist at the time that “require” their action?
  • are the symptoms always the same?
  • how often does this happen?
  • do they do the same thing every time to correct the situation?
  • do the other technicians and other shifts do the same thing?
  • are there other industry accepted alternatives?
  • have they been made aware of alternatives and are they comfortable with them?
  • does the “accepted” practice even work?
  • what is the result when the “correct” process is used?

Most of the time they know what they are doing is wrong, at least on some level. Odds are they are doing it because it’s a recurring problem, and the practice keeps production going. It is all to easy for a SME or engineer to say a practice is unacceptable and walk away without working with the front line people to find an acceptable alternative that works both theoretically and under the less-than-ideal real world conditions they are working under.

Often the answers to the questions provide valuable information about the root cause of the problem they are trying to work around. See my related post about Questions Lead – Answers Follow for more information. Theory is great in the classroom, but in the real world there are many other factors that have to be considered to derive the true solution to a long standing problem. Questions are an often overlooked problem solving tool, especially when it must be administered by someone who is supposed to be “the expert”. Don’t let your expertise get in the way of your ability to effectively solve problems. With that different perspective and the help of the regular process “operators”, I have witnessed significant long-term improvements even in areas where I had no prior knowledge or expertise.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Business Improvement – Put on Your 3D Glasses

3d-no-glases Many CIO’s from top performing organizations say their  ability to impact the success of the business hinged on their having personal experience in Operations in addition to their knowledge of Information Technology.

It is not enough to just have IT and Operations people on the team. They also need to be able to see and understand things from each other’s perspective in order to maximize each other’s strengths.

3d-glasses Make sure everyone has their business and technology glasses on to see the clearest path to improvement.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Project Failure - Just Set It and Forget It

ticker photo courtesy sxc.hu user: cybersnot Improvement projects are always at risk for project slip and subsequent failure. It is necessary to be tenacious about communication and countermeasures to prevent. One of the most dangerous times is after initial release of new tools, software, or processes. Communication and feedback are most critical here. It is often easier for people to slip back to the old way than pick up something new – even if you perceive the new way as being easier. Don’t just walk away, even if it looks like a slam dunk.

There are two ways that resistance to the new process show up:

  1. Vocal communication
  2. Silent death

In the case of vocal communication, make sure to pay close attention to the concerns being voiced. They may sound like complaints, but they are really the ticket to success. If you can address their legitimate concerns, people will hop on board and bring others with them.

If all things are quiet with a lack of feedback or communication, proactively look closely for the presence of warning signs. Hesitating to uncover silent concerns and put countermeasures in place quickly will drastically reduce the momentum needed to get the best result. That is how so many corporate initiatives become “just another corporate initiative”.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Problems with off-the-shelf Lean Learning Tools

Creating Lean learning tools for a mass public almost goes against the principles of learning through development. It is very difficult to find the simplest starting point for a learning tool that is applicable to the widest audience. The best learning tools break the concept down to the simplest form in the context that it will be applied - and using local terminology. No two organizations are alike so the conditions are always going to be different. For this reason, the learning experience will not reach its full potential with off-the-shelf learning tools.


Production Pacing Indicator Example

Even a simple display, like the one above, of a target vs. actual production count with red/yellow/green color indicators raises numerous questions:

  • should pausing the elapsed time be allowed (like for during breaks and lunch)
  • if paused, should it recalculate target based on total running time only
  • should stopping automatically clear the display or retain it until restarted?
  • should the counts restart every hour or be cumulative?
  • what should be used as a target: pcs/hour, pcs/shift, pcs/day
  • should the target rate be fixed, or allow adjustment throughout the shift?
  • how often should the display update?
  • should the color change be based on mathematical rounding of the target/actual calculation?
  • Should it round up or down?
  • Should it display the actual percentage to target or just the colors?

As the participants surface these questions relative to the decisions that were made in creating the off-the-shelf tool, it will do two things:

  1. the participant’s learning or application of the learning may be inhibited by their experience with the tool and its “limitations”.
  2. participants may question the validity of the tool because they see more “problems” with it, than benefits.

Do any of the following sound familiar?

  • “It doesn’t do this…”
  • “It doesn’t do that…”
  • “It won’t work here, because…”
  • “How does it handle this situation?”
  • “Can you do that with it?”

Statements like those above distract the participants from the learning experience.

The best tools for learning are the ones that are created and customized specifically at the point of use, in collaboration with and for the participants engaged in the experience.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Group Agreement vs. Executive Order in Moving Initiatives Forward

photo courtesy sxc.hu user creationc Executives have the job of setting the strategies and objectives for an organization to meet/exceed their corporate goals. The managers and front line people further down the organizational hierarchy are responsible for making it actually happen.

  • Can an organization move forward with only an executive directive? Sure, some can.
  • Will it be as effective without group agreement? Not likely.

The less group agreement you have, the more likely the initiative will be point optimized in each of the organization’s vertical silos. The maximum effectiveness is achieved when the optimization takes place horizontally across departmental or functional boundaries. Group agreement is fundamental to that process.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

You Might Have the Wrong Plan If…


You might have the wrong plan or approach to solving a problem if:

  • The leader or project owner comes into the problem solving meeting with a list of action items already formulated and starts delegating them to the “participants” in the meeting.
  • People are talking negatively about the plan in their cubicles or around the water cooler and no one is stepping out as a spokesperson for why it is the right plan/approach.
  • Groups of people are openly showing resistance to change.
  • The attendance at the status meetings declines every time the group meets.

You are on the right track to a good plan if:

  • People eagerly start listing activities that need to be accomplished and volunteer to take care of them (following through).
  • People in the participant group are heading off resistance from others without escalation to the project owner or leadership.
  • People have a sense of pride and ownership of the process they have a hand in crafting.

This is most applicable when the problem at hand crosses departmental and/or geographic boundaries and would be best solved using true employee involvement from a cross-disciplinary team.

* I’m obviously not an artist so please cut me some slack on the cartoon.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Using Data to Refine Perception

If you find yourself saying the following:

I don’t need to spend time putting a measurement system in place to tell me what I already know. I’m living the issues every day. I know where the problems are and what to do to fix them.

Shark photo credit to Stock Exchange user: lumix2004You might be in a situation where perhaps you should reconsider your position. Sometimes it is necessary to collect data for other reasons - like convincing others.

Three indicators that investing time collecting data might be worth the investment:

  1. People say they agree with you about what the problems are and what needs to be done to fix them, but their actions are to the contrary. [persuasion via demonstration]
  2. When the same problems keep recurring despite having a process or countermeasures in place to prevent them. [verification]
  3. Other problems keep getting all the attention and resources from the leaders and your peers, despite your recommendations or insistence otherwise. [proportional prioritization – magnitude/scale]

Perception is reality. Data is an effective tool to influence perception in order to provide an opportunity to improve the reality.

* Note: Statistics can be [mis]used or misunderstood to support almost any theory like the relationship between shark bites and ice cream sales. I don’t mean for you to use data in a deceptive way just to influence others to support your position. Make sure the data and your understanding of the situation match - checks and balances.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Pattern-Based Process Improvement

blown glass pattern Pattern-based process improvement is a practical method of making improvements where an exhaustive analysis and re-engineering exercise is prohibitive. The process consists of looking for patterns to identify key characteristics of a process that might provide valuable insight about opportunities to improve the process. A prerequisite to finding patterns is having data or information available for review.

Real world example

Objective: Improve how parts are scheduled across manufacturing work centers to reduce late orders and unnecessary expediting.

Background: A supervisor of a manufacturing facility schedules orders on a number of similar manufacturing work cells. He normally uses the following information to create the schedule based on his experience, a few rules of thumb, and some light calculations:

  • order due date
  • current schedule of orders on the work cells (capacity vs. loading)
  • change-over time (the  time it takes to change the machine to accommodate a different component part or assembly)
  • order quantity
  • estimated production time (time it takes to process the parts through the work cell)
  • physical size and shape of the part on order

Method: The supervisor uses intuition based on a large number of observations to make decisions (Bayesian statistics) when creating the schedule. The idea behind pattern-based process improvement is to begin to quantitatively blend the supervisors experiential knowledge and Bayesian intuition with the data to create standard work that improves the predictability of the scheduling process.

Start by looking at the historical data about how the work cells were scheduled in the past. This method works best when the data is in a spreadsheet or database so the data can be looked at from several angles. Sort and group the data multiple ways looking for patterns or trends – good and bad. How much you can learn from the exercise depends on how much information is available and how valuable that information is. For example:

  • Are there part sizes or size ranges that are commonly scheduled on certain work cells more than others?
  • Are there work cells that have more downtime, more change-over time, more schedule changes, or expedites?
  • Is there a pattern to size vs. quantity or quantity vs. work cell?

If you can find a desirable pattern or a trend, determine if it is possible to create a rule that would make the pattern a more consistent part of the standard scheduling process. If the pattern is associated with a negative result, determine if there is a way to detect the pattern early, or eliminate its presence completely. It is important when using pattern-based process improvement, the output of the process is monitored carefully to fully understand the effects of the change. Sometimes changes introduce new issues. This should be looked at as an iterative improvement process, not a “set it and forget it” tactic.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Blood Donation Delays Trickle Away with Lean Methods at Red Cross

While donating blood yesterday, A Red Cross administrator described a few ways they were implementing Lean methods to improve the donation process - for both the donors and the workers. Some highlights follow:

Big self-qualification poster at the entrance that can save a potential donor time waiting in line to sign-in and read the comprehensive qualification manual just to find out they can’t donate because they are on antibiotics, or travelled to Africa recently. About 12 common disqualifying reasons are listed.

Red Cross Name Tag Red or Green name tags indicated if the donor is a first time or repeat donor. That can sometimes be an indicator if they might have more questions or they may not be familiar with the process.

in-use Ready, In-use, and Open signals to indicate to the workers when the donor is done with the computerized screening questionnaire, or the screening area is occupied or ready for another donor.

Work area re-layout to minimize worker walking distances, but still maintain confidentiality.

The administrator I spoke with was very positive about the improvements which indicates she believed the methods would allow them to better serve the donors while making their jobs easier as well.

“In other areas where they have implemented these changes, they have trimmed 10 to 17 minutes off a
blood donor’s process.”

According to the August 2009 Central North Carolina Red Cross newsletter

I ended up waiting 45 minutes to get my blood drawn even with an appointment, so there is obviously room for improvement, but it was encouraging to see the progress. This was a mobile team so they have several other challenges to overcome that frequently slow or hinder progress:

  • every day they work with a different team of people coming from neighboring counties and states
  • they have to tear down and rebuild their work areas daily, sometimes multiple times per day
  • located in different venues with different floor plans, sizes, and entry/exit paths

Just knowing they are working on saving time for donors shows respect and makes me feel better about the Red Cross.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Data Tells a Story, but are You Reading the Whole Story?

spc_chart Eighteen years ago I learned an important lesson about the intersection of data and people. The data alone rarely tells the whole story.

The engineering manager was preparing his weekly report for the staff meeting. He asked me, the intern, to investigate a SPC (Statistical Process Control) chart gone wild and summarize my findings. The chart graphed several “critical” dimensional characteristics of a headlight reflector for one of the highest selling vehicles at the time. This was a simple task.

Injection molding is a complex process, so the machines were instrumented with several sensors to monitor and record important process parameters. I strolled down to the production floor control room and pulled up the historical data from the data acquisition system for the previous week. I saw a dramatic change in several readings which were consistent with the dimensional hiccup on the SPC chart. Based on the readings and my knowledge of the injection molding process, I could predict which process settings were probably changed by the technician.

Ahh, the Story is developing.

I went out to the machine where the parts were being made and checked the Process Deviation log to verify my predictions and see if the technicians documented any changes. For the most part they did, and I was correct in my analysis of which process settings were changed. I also verified the gage at the quality check station was calibrated and working properly; it was.

I summarized my findings in a report based on data I collected in the control room, the shop floor, the quality check area, and the SPC chart. Unfortunately, I was missing one source of data from my findings... the technician who made the changes.

When the manager’s weekly report came out with a small reference to the Dimensional problem, the 2nd shift technician was upset because he felt like he was being unfairly criticized for deviating from the standard approved process and for causing the problem. He left a “See me” note on my chair.

And now the rest of the Story

The technician “kindly” explained to me that the reason for the dimensional problem was that the mold, which is normally water cooled, developed a crack in the steel that caused water to pour out of the mold (bad). Normally the mold would be taken to the tool room to get repaired, but the part it was making was for one of the highest selling cars and the other duplicate mold was already in the tool room for routine maintenance.

In order to keep the mold cool and maintain a safe work environment (no water all over the floor and machine), they ran compressed air through the water lines. This required numerous changes to the machine settings to keep the dimensions in the functionally acceptable range. The dimensional variation was much different from normal, but was still acceptable for assembly and to the customer.

Now regardless of whether or not it is consistent with best practice to run the mold in the non-standard condition, it was obvious the technician was doing his best to work in the interest of the company. Unfortunately, by neglecting to check with the person responsible for making the process changes, my report left the impression the technician was just not doing what he was supposed to do – something others might assume to be evidence of bad intent, laziness, or some other negative trait. This could have been avoided by applying the following advice:

“In order to understand why somebody does something, you’ll find the answer faster if you look for what’s right about their behavior, rather than what’s wrong.”

Craig Henderson

The above quote was taken from the presentation Nobody Likes Bad Change by Craig Henderson. This is a philosophy that has guided my work since that day - long ago.

Friday, August 14, 2009

“Cash for Clunkers” - a Typical Sales Campaign?

monster truck A caller on the radio was commenting that the “Cash for Clunkers” program should have included used cars because the people with the least fuel efficient cars can’t afford a new car - even with a $4500 credit. I don’t know if that statement is true or not, but it got me thinking about the real objective behind the program.

Was the program designed to:

  • get the worst offending gas guzzlers off the streets (environment/ecology)
  • incentivize people who planned to buy a new car, but were waiting for one reason or another to buy now to shore up the Automotive sector and consumer confidence (quick temporary sales increase)
  • provide a unique opportunity to someone who normally could not afford a new car (grow the market)
  • a combination of the above
  • none of the above

One had to meet specific qualifications to take advantage of the program, so was this program designed like any other marketing/sales campaign that targets one or more specific demographics to improve the likelihood of meeting the objective? Should it have been?

Regardless, the advances in technology and availability of data, as a partial owner of the automotive sector, provided the opportunity to use data mining and fact-based analysis to determine the optimum market to target to achieve the program objective. The charts below are an example* of a few types of information that could have been used if this program were treated like a typical sales campaign using data mining to determine who to target and how.

Cluster Descrimination for Demographic Comparison

Naive Bayes Attribute Profiles for Profit Categories

Naive Bayes Attribute Characteristics for High Profit

* The charts are prepared from customer and sales data from a fictional bicycle company, AdventureWorks. The objective of the data-mining in the charts was to determine the characteristics of a customer and their purchase patterns that indicate the probability for a high profit sale.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Remembering a Friend

This post is dedicated to an old friend and former co-worker that passed away. Jim wrote this poem about me that I have carried in my wallet for the last 13 years.


One day in May
in the year of 1993
came a young man
with Zach and Christy.

Still wet behind the ears
but out to make his mark.
An lo and behold
he comes to our industrial park.

He tackled every job
with great diligence.
eventually we decided
he had some intelligence.

We sent him to Atlanta
for some additional training.
Lunch at the Three Dollar Cafe
really caused some eye straining.

We did our best to guide him
but couldn't stop his meeting fun.
His dress we tried to improve
but a belt to him was none.

He demonstrated great ability
in almost every area of exposure
but financial expertise was lacking
according to Chuckie's disclosure.

The decision to leave us now made.
We'll not try to change his mind.
We're sure he has made the right choice
and someone else has made a great find.

Farewell to him we must say
and put all our sorrows aside.
The loss will be ours for sure
but we'll just have to roll with the tide.

Just knowing you, young Mr. Willson,
has been an experience to behold.
The limit of your bright future
by only your mind is controlled.

We wish you the best forever
and hope you don't miss Alabama.
Go north young man with family
Back home again in Indiana.


Thursday, July 23, 2009

Healthcare Reform – Rewrite or Refactor?

Few people disagree that the healthcare system in the US needs to be reformed. How many people would agree about the best way to successfully accomplish it?

The article Understanding Healthcare Reform lists just a few of the elements of healthcare with links to several sub-categories within each of the following elements:

  • coverage
  • payment systems and costs
  • patient safety
  • health information technology
  • medical research

For me the article is a reminder of just how complicated the healthcare system is. When a solution is required of a large scale system like healthcare, one has to consider whether it should be completely overhauled - or refactored* piece by piece. Without the right approach to the problem, it is conceivable that the solution could create substantially bigger problems than the current system. Joel Spolsky, a contributor to Inc magazine and owner of a New York software company, summarized it best in Things You Should Never Do, Part I, in reference to re-writing a software program from scratch.

“It's important to remember that when you start from scratch there is absolutely no reason to believe that you are going to do a better job than you did the first time. First of all, you probably don't even have the same programming team that worked on version one, so you don't actually have "more experience". You're just going to make most of the old mistakes again, and introduce some new problems that weren't in the original version.”

If healthcare is to be reformed without the risk of creating more problems related to care, coverage, or cost, the system will have to either be refactored fixing one broken piece at a time - or piloted in a smaller representative area or areas and refined and scaled out until the system proves it meets everyone’s expectations.


* definition from wikipedia: Code refactoring is the process of changing a computer program's internal structure without modifying its external functional behavior or existing functionality, in order to improve internal quality attributes of the software, for example to improve code readability, to simplify code structure, to change code to adhere to a given programming paradigm, to improve maintainability, to improve performance, or to improve extensibility.

Healthcare and software seem like completely different subjects, but there are many parallels between large complex software programs and other large complex systems from other industries like healthcare.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Public gets Visibility into Government IT Spending

government IT spending dashboardThe government recently released the beta version of the IT Dashboard. It provides a level of transparency to the public which could help the general population to become better informed about the performance of Federal IT investments. The system meets many of the recommendations for effective dashboards in my past post Dashboards - Not Just for Cars, but as noted in that post, the dashboard itself has little value without a well-defined supporting process. The process, in this case, probably falls into the category of providing transparency to the public, but is not intended to be used as a “sense and response” tool by the agencies and teams managing the investments and projects.

An interesting and often common side effect of this type of dashboard is that despite any pitfalls that come as a result of being designed for public transparency only (see my post about Information dashboards), the ease of use and graphical nature often provides a view into valuable data that was either:

  1. non-existent before
  2. available, but in existing systems that are too difficult to use to proactively manage exceptions in a timely manner

As a result, the projects are managed better than ever before - even with ill-fitting tools. This phenomenon can enlighten managers to what can be possible if the same approach to providing visibility is focused on the control process.

I hope the Federal agencies have a user-friendly internal system that already provides visibility to these investments/projects at a level of detail that provides for effective management. However, if the amount of red on the graphs is an indicator, I suspect the internal managers and leaders can get a lot of mileage out of the using the new system to drive improvements. It has to get pretty bad to show yellow or red. For example, the cost graph only goes red if the actual cost is 40% or more over budget. The schedule is yellow if the average number of days late is 30-89 days.

Dashboards can be Designed for Information, not just Control

Not all performance dashboards are used for feedback and control. Sometimes an information dashboard is designed to provide details about a process or environment to an individual or group that is interested in the data, but does not have the capability and/or desire to directly impact the results. Some examples being a group of investors, a Board of Directors, or maybe a Federal compliance agency, like UL (Underwriters Laboratory).

As with any dashboard, the general usability considerations outlined in my previous post Dashboards – Not just for Cars still apply. What makes an information dashboard different from a dashboard used for control and optimization can include the following:

  • May not be updated as frequently. (minimize information overload)
  • The criteria for “Normal”, “Caution”, and “Houston we have a problem!” are often more relaxed than a proactive control system.
  • The criteria used is often at a level of abstraction that provides basic, easily understandable information, but may not be meaningful to try to act on the information directly. It may be an aggregation of many inputs “Y = a + b + c + d” that would require further investigation by people that are closer to the inputs.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Coke Meets ‘The Jetsons’ with new Robodispenser

Coca-Cola recently announced a revolutionary new soda dispenser they will soon pilot in selected areas. See a great comprehensive article in the June 8, 2009 issue of Information Week magazine. It is a significant announcement for many reasons.

  • The Freestyle “Fountain” dispenses over 100 different beverages (sodas, juices, teas, and flavored waters) using thirty highly concentrated flavor cartridges.
  • The system uses RFID tags on the flavor cartridges to track inventory
  • The dispenser communicates with a central Corporate point-of-sale system and data warehouse via a dedicated wireless network recording quantity, types, time, and location of drinks sold

Customer Value

  • More choices
  • Special offers

Retailer Value

  • Inventory optimization
  • 100 choices in the same footprint as an eight to 12 drink dispenser
  • Information about sales patterns that can be used to provide special offers to the customers
  • Easier ordering process with recommendations based on ten day moving average of sales, cartridge inventory, and dispenser inventory.
  • Access to a portal with visibility to the consumption data and statistics that can be sliced and diced by cartridge, drink, dispenser, hour, day, week, etc.

Value to Coca-Cola

  • Faster, lower cost new product Research & Development, Market Research, product piloting and production rollout
  • Remotely adjust beverage formulas
  • Better understanding of regional customer preferences
  • First to market; four years in development
  • Better data to align supply with demand for Sales and Operations planning
  • Competitive advantage with offer of high retailer and customer value

When Information Technology is applied effectively in close cooperation with Business Operations, improvement initiatives offer opportunities for significant gains for all parties involved from the supply chain to the customer.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Debit Card Activation Improvement

credit card photo A colleague recently expressed his enthusiasm for another  Wells Fargo customer experience improvement. Your shiny new debit/credit card arrives in the mail, but before you can use it, you need to peel off the sticker and call the number navigating an automated menu to activate it. Who doesn’t put that off until the last minute? Wells Fargo has a new option – you simply insert your new card into the nearest ATM and enter your PIN. Voila! Activated. You still have the option to call or activate online, but if you use the ATM anyway, it is a compelling new “effortless” option.

It is hard to believe with the technology available, the concept wasn’t more widespread before now, but it shows signs that the banking industry is starting to put their technology to use to improve customer experience.

According to the 2008 Forrester’s Customer Experience Index (CxPi), in the Banking Industry Wells Fargo ranked third for “ease of use” out of the banks surveyed. The competition between a smaller number of increasingly larger banks brings welcome improvement.

Monday, June 1, 2009

One Strategy to Describe GM History in more than 11 Chapters

chevys photo credit: sxc.hu just4you Leading up to a likely bankruptcy, GM Executives have had to make numerous big decisions recently about restructuring to maintain its future viability. Closing a large number of dealerships was one of the chosen strategies. In order to make smart decisions about which dealerships to close, the leaders would need two things: selection criteria aligned with the scope of the goal and a lot of data that links key performance indicators to dealership locations.

Despite the media reports of “successful” dealerships tagged for closure, the selection process is not likely as simple as just picking the bottom 40% of dealerships from a list of annual sales. Some accounts have described the targeted dealerships as “under-performing”. Under-performing is relative condition, especially in a huge organizational network implementing other significant changes that will impact dealership performance in the future, such as eliminating entire Makes (Pontiac) with multiple product lines.

Strategies like this one require careful consideration of a number of complex scenarios to minimize risk while maximizing the predictability and effectiveness. With over 6000 dealerships, it is unlikely that a comprehensive comparative review of each individual dealership can be conducted. More likely a review will be made of multiple combinations of aggregated key performance metrics like:

  • sales history by make, model, and region
  • forecast by make, model, region
  • volume vs. mix
  • up-sell/cross-sell statistics
  • profitability by new/used car sales
  • service labor vs. parts sales
  • warrantee reimbursement
  • dealership proximity concentration
  • years in business - short term vs. long term performance
  • customer loyalty
  • average vehicle inventory
  • regional demographics affecting future sales forecasts
  • seasonal sales variation

*I’m not connected to the details of the actual selection process; I am supposing.

The aggregated data will be sliced and diced, repeatedly applying a great deal of analysis, criteria refinement, and simulations before lines are drawn and lists of targeted dealerships are made. The actual data specific to the selected locations are likely plugged back into the equation to solidify the estimate.

Executing a strategy like this without the right process would be a monumental task carrying high risk of missing expectations. It is necessary to have:

  • strategy - clear understanding of the assumptions/expectations behind the selected strategy
  • process - a process to identify the combination of complex criteria that will yield the optimum result in the face of many significant, changing, and sometimes unpredictable factors
  • technology - a fast and flexible process to filter, sort, and aggregate massive amounts of demographic and performance data in any number of complex combinations and extrapolate that into specific dealership locations

Friday, May 15, 2009

Questions Lead – Answers Follow

One of the fundamental mistakes I have seen repeatedly that leads to the loss of expected impact of improvement to a business process is making changes based on individual observations, education, and experience alone. What is missing is asking questions of all the people impacted by a proposed change. The people that operate, support, audit, and reap the benefits of a process, collectively referred to as stakeholders for the purposes of this post, often have valuable knowledge about a process.
Processes are used to complete a task, or multiple tasks, repeatedly in a consistent manner. The nature of the repetition gives the local stakeholders many observations with which to build a mental repository of data about a process. There is one tool (often under-utilized) at everyone’s disposal that allows the harvesting of that valuable data. Asking questions will yield valuable insight about exceptional conditions, frequencies and probabilities of occurrences, pareto of key information, historical perspective, and trends. The information may not appear as reliable as data from a sophisticated electronic data collection device, but undervaluing it will certainly reduce the effectiveness of an “improvement”.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Dashboards – Not Just for Cars

dashboard photo The automotive dashboard is designed to quickly communicate important information and status without causing a distraction that could endanger the passengers or community. 

With the demand for increased productivity and the explosion of available information, dashboards are a valuable tool to utilize in the world of business.

A well designed information dashboard that will be used by multiple functional groups (e.g. Sales, Production, Engineering, and Quality) should provide the following:

  • Minimal information that communicates status (normal/abnormal, on-time/late, action required, etc.)
  • Meaningful information for the people that will be using it
  • Simple and easy to read visual indicators like colors or commonly recognized icons preferred over complex charts & graphs or verbose text
  • Ability to drill down into more detail, as necessary
  • Easy to access or hard to miss. If it is more than a click or two away, it may not be used.
  • Easy to update or automated. If the information is not current, it will not be trusted.
  • Ability to filter by functional role or responsibility

The dashboard by itself has little value. An information dashboard is simply a tool that is typically used to support a well defined process where the users understand and agree with their roles and responsibilities surrounding the process and use of the dashboard.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Resistance to Change is Avoidable


I just finished revamping my Church’s website replacing the mostly static pages with a content management system to provide additional features and make it easier to maintain and keep the content fresh. Initially I just used one of the included design templates while I was populating the content. The few people that had early access to the site before it went live were complimentary about the design for its clean professional look. As a result, I decided to use the template for the finished site.

The plot thickens…

After the site went live, I added a Poll to see how the members liked the new site. After spending four weekends and several weeknights on the website, I was dismayed to see someone voted “I do not like it at all”.

I announced the sad news to my wife and she commented “I wonder who wouldn’t like it”? Understanding everyone has reasons for their opinions and often people have the same viewpoint, I responded that my teenage daughter was pretty vocal during the development that she did not like it. She was sitting in the living room hearing the entire conversation (with a grin on her face). My wife asked her in jest, “Did you do that?”. To our surprise, she DID. We all had a big laugh about it. She will forever be cursed by having my sense of humor.

The back story

Since 1999, when my daughter was young, she helped me on the church’s website. Whether it was suggesting a graphic or illustration, or a suggestion about the colors I was using, she often provided input that ultimately influenced the design of the website. This time since I used a pre-made template, I didn’t ask for her input. She thought the template was plain and boring (mostly shades of grey with only a little color sprinkled in) so she didn’t like it. With her influence the two previous designs had more color and character, but didn’t necessarily project the image of a church as large as ours, in a medium (web) that is currently dominated by professional graphic design.

The take-away

Any time one is introducing change:

  1. involve the people that will be affected by the change in the design and they will have a sense of ownership that will protect making change for the wrong reasons in the future.
  2. understanding the reasons for resistance to change will give you valuable insight into why the change might not work as-is without further consideration or development of countermeasures.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Experience with Great Product Tainted by Service

OK "Tainted" is too harsh. It was the only food related term that came to mind quickly. I recently celebrated a wedding anniversary. I decided to send an Edible Arrangement to my wife at her place of employment in lieu of flowers. The arrangement was very impressive. I was pleasantly surprised that it was larger than I expected. It was more unique than a bouquet of flowers. The product was great! My wife was 100% satisfied by the experience, which is the most important thing.

As a person that has spent an entire career in executing continuous improvement, there were two clear opportunities for improvement related to the service part of the experience.

The first is easily corrected. When the arrangement was delivered to my wife, it was delivered with a catalog and price list. If a flower shop delivers a bouquet of flowers, I am reasonably sure they don’t deliver marketing material to the recipient. I called Edible Arrangements and suggested that their delivery person should be instructed to leave the marketing materials with the office manager and express that it should not be delivered to the recipient. [update 2/25/2009: the owner called me back and he was the one who delivered the arrangement. He actually did tell the office the arrangement was to be delivered to my wife and the catalog was for the office. The office was responsible for passing on the catalog/price list.]

The second aspect with room for improvement relates to delivery orders only. The website allows you to select the following day for delivery, for which a nominal delivery fee will be charged. However, in several places on the website it expresses that delivery dates are not guaranteed. As a consumer, despite the warnings, we all expect our deliveries to be made on time regardless of the lack of guaranteed delivery. I called the following day to verify that it would be delivered that day. Again I was told that the delivery dates are not guaranteed, but Andrey was confident it would be delivered on time (which it was; it was even delivered according to my special request for a specific time to make sure she was still at work when it was delivered). That exchange made me wonder, how many times per year is the delivery not actually made on the requested date? If it was a small percentage, is it worth making every possible consumer be concerned about the delivery, just to prevent a handful from being thoroughly upset? From a marketing perspective how much is that concern worth? If a few people were upset by a lack of on-time delivery, it would probably put an adequate amount of pressure on driving to root cause the reasons for not meeting the requested date.

Support your local community businesses, and if there is room for improvement, tell them (nicely). It takes a lot of hard work, passion, and dedication to build and maintain a business in this economy. Most of the time, they want the opportunity to Wow us.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Punxsutawney Phil is let go with 6 weeks of severance

This morning in the parking lot on the way into our office complex, I had a short conversation with a local small business owner, Tom (not his real name). I was lamenting about the fact that 8 of the last 9 years (including this year), Phil (the groundhog) saw his shadow and curses us with another 6 weeks of winter. I wasn’t looking forward to a treacherous 30 mile drive to Auburn, Indiana in the winter weather the following morning. Tom commented that Phil should consider that in this economy, he could be replaced.

The underlying wisdom in the brief entertaining water cooler conversation into the building is that it is more important than ever to listen to the voice of the customer (me - wanting an early Spring). Fortunately for Phil, his heritage affords him a permanent position predicting the arrival of spring. The rest of us need to focus on the value our customers recognize in our work.