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Are You Looking For Root Cause, Or Someone to Blame? August 15, 2016

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Management & leadership, Operations, Process engineering, Quality.
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When I worked as a quality manager in my first career I was often required to investigate quality failures to determine the cause. There were times when it was pretty easy to figure out, but in an uncontrolled business environment it can be hard to identify a simple dependent relationship between cause and effect. There are usually multiple contributing factors. Sometimes a small thing (the cause) can become a big thing when it’s overlooked (another cause).

Most of the other managers I worked with didn’t have much patience with the complexities of root cause analysis. They wanted a simple, actionable outcome: this is the cause, and if we eliminate this cause then this problem will never happen again (right?), so let’s eliminate the cause. The people who were impacted by this quality failure want answers, and they want to feel confident that the business has taken decisive and effective action. They don’t want to endure an extended period of uncertainty and exposure to risk while the business figures out what to do in order to prevent re-occurrence.

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Quality Decisions in Hindsight July 25, 2016

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Management & leadership, Operations, Organizational dynamics, Process engineering, Product design.
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For the last several years there’s been at least one high-profile case of quality failure that captures the attention of the business press for months at a time. Since late 2015 and early 2016 we’ve been watching to see if air-bag supplier Takata, iconic auto maker Volkswagen, and fast food chain Chipotle will survive their highly-publicized quality missteps. There’s always a lot of apologizing to the public, and a commitment to conduct internal investigations to identify and eliminate the causes of field failures. Senior management and boards of directors scramble to regain the trust of their customers.

I’m not at all surprised by the frequency of these events. What surprises me is that these events don’t happen more often. We should expect to continue to hear about similar catastrophic quality problems from otherwise reputable companies despite all the talk about six sigma and customer satisfaction, and despite all the investments in quality improvement programs. It’s the nature of business.

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How Much Quality Training Do You Need? July 18, 2016

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Management & leadership, Operations, Quality.
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OK, not everyone needs to be a Six Sigma Black Belt, but what elements of quality training should be provided to everyone in the organization?

When I worked at Hewlett-Packard in the early 1990s, senior leadership in our business unit attended a week-long series of six sigma classes at Xerox. When these HP folks returned they were provided with training materials and required to teach their direct reports about six sigma, and those direct reports were required to teach their direct reports, and so on all the way down the organization to people like me.

At the time, quality was not really part of my official responsibilities. I worked at a desk, creating product marketing programs for an internal supplier. The six sigma training was interesting to me, but I didn’t see the relevance to my daily work. What I remember most about those classes was how we were supposed to organize routine meetings, including assigning roles during the meeting and being clear about the objectives for the meeting. I don’t remember anything that seemed directly applicable to the quality of our output as a business unit, or the quality of the work artifacts that we produced as part of our daily responsibilities. It just didn’t seem relevant.

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Is This The Right Problem To Work On? July 11, 2016

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Management & leadership, Process engineering, Project management, strategy.
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The ability to prioritize and focus is widely praised as a characteristic of successful business leaders. There are too many things to do, and not enough time or resources to do them all, much less do them all well. Leaders have to make choices, not just to determine how they spend their own time, but how their teams should be spending theirs. This is the definition of opportunity cost: when we consciously choose to do this instead of that, we forgo or at least postpone any benefits or gains that might have been achieved otherwise.

One of the most common choices that we consider in business is between short-term operational goals vs. longer-term strategic change management. Some people talk about the challenges of “building the plane while flying the plane,” or “changing the tires while driving the bus.” Both of these metaphors emphasize the difficulties of keeping the business running and generating revenue under the current model while developing and implementing a new business model or strategic direction.

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Formulas Without Understanding February 22, 2016

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Education, Management & leadership.
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I’ve just started my second year teaching courses in supply chain management and operations management at two local universities. It’s been a long time since I was a teaching assistant as a graduate student, and my time outside the academic world has taught me a few things about educational objectives and what students really should be learning. One of the things I’ve noticed in my business classes is a tendency of some teachers and textbook authors to focus on formulas that give a “right” answer. I think that’s a mistake, and when we do that we’re not helping business students or their future employers.

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When You Neglect Operations February 1, 2016

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Management & leadership, Operations, Process engineering, Quality.
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A few months ago I heard that one of the companies I used to work for decided to shut down a business unit. I wasn’t surprised, but some people might have been. They had a diversified product line and a hard-working sales force that maintained a high level of demand. Large customers were excited about the new products under development. The supply chain was well-established. What went wrong?

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Why Should a Supplier Work Harder For You? September 22, 2014

Posted by Tim Rodgers in International management, Management & leadership, Quality, Supply chain.
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A recent LinkedIn discussion addressed the question of the best strategy for dealing with poor supplier performance. A lot of the respondents seemed to advocate a punitive approach, either threatening the loss of future business if performance doesn’t improve, or combing through the terms & conditions in the contract for enforcement language. I’ve always thought that there’s a lot of similarity between managing suppliers and managing subordinates, and I wonder if some of these same people threaten their teams with punitive actions when individual performance doesn’t meet expectations.

I’m not a psychologist, but I’ve always been suspicious about the long-term effectiveness of threats. A supplier who works to avoid negative consequences may achieve a minimum level of performance, but probably not much more than that. If you expect your supplier to represent your interests when you’re not actively observing their performance, you have to provide a reason for them to do so. What’s in it for them? An ongoing relationship with future business? That assumes that the supplier actually wants or values your business, which is not a given, and that you are sincerely prepared to switch suppliers if you don’t get the performance you expect.

Two important questions to consider before threatening to switch suppliers are: (1) What is the switching cost, including the risk to current production? and (2) Is switching suppliers really going to lead to higher performance? Regarding the latter question, there’s an assumption that the supplier is the cause of the poor performance. Before changing suppliers you need to be confident that the same performance problems won’t be repeated elsewhere.

A supplier is more likely to behave as a partner if they get something more out of the relationship than money for services rendered. So, what do suppliers want? Here are some examples:

  • Large, well-known customers that they can use in their advertising to attract new customers. This is especially valuable for smaller suppliers that are looking for revenue growth.
  • Technical capabilities that can be leveraged to other customers. If the customer’s requirements drive the supplier to develop new technology, or higher levels of quality or throughput, then the supplier will be able to attract other customers.
  • Entry into new markets. Suppliers that focus on specific markets (e.g., consumer electronics, semiconductors, automotive, aerospace) are at risk due to economic and demand cycles. A diversified portfolio of customers and markets provides more stability.
  • Predictable demand for better asset utilization. Suppliers are just like any other business: they like being able to confidently plan into the future. This is so important that some suppliers are willing to give a discount if the customer is willing to commit to use a fixed level of their capacity over a period of time.

Most suppliers operate with very small profit margins, and if they are in a position to choose their customers, they have to consider the cost to service each customer. If you can’t give them a reason to value your business, then you shouldn’t be surprised or disappointed if they don’t go the extra mile.

The Danger of Quick Fixes September 17, 2014

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Management & leadership, Process engineering, Quality.
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I think it’s fair to say that most people make better decisions when they have more time. With more time we can collect more data, consult with people who have more experience, and weigh the alternatives before choosing a course of action. In the specific case of problem solving, we can propose alternate root causes and perform experiments to verify the cause before implementing a solution. This kind of disciplined approach helps ensure that the problem doesn’t reoccur.

The thing is that in business we rarely have enough time, or all the time we wish we had. All of us make daily, small decisions about how to spend our time and resources based on external priorities and internal heuristics. Some of us have jobs in rapidly-changing or unstable environments, with periodic crises that need management attention. Unresolved situations create ambiguity in the organization, and ultimately these situations cost money, and this cost creates pressure to do something quickly. There’s an emotional and perception component as well: it “looks better” when we’re doing “something” instead of sitting and thinking about it. After all, “you can always fix it later.”

Of course “fixing it later” comes at its own cost, but that’s often underestimated and under appreciated. It’s tempting to implement a quick fix while continuing to investigate the problem. It takes the pressure off by addressing the organization’s need for action, which is both good and bad. The danger is that the quick fix becomes the de facto solution when the urgency is removed and we become distracted by another problem. The quick fix can also bias subsequent root cause analysis, especially if it appears to be effective in the short term.

Please note that I’m not suggesting that every decision or problem solving effort requires more time and more inputs. I’m not advocating “analysis paralysis.” We’re often faced with situations where we have to work with incomplete and sometimes even inaccurate data that may not even accurately represent the true problem. Sometimes a quick fix is exactly what’s needed: a tourniquet to stop the bleeding. However, corrective action is not the same as preventive action. If we want better decisions and better long-term outcomes, let’s not forget that a quick fix is a temporary measure.

Teaching Students and Managing Subordinates August 29, 2014

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Management & leadership.
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Last week I finished teaching a class in project management at a local university. I’ve always planned to spend my time teaching as an adjunct professor after “retirement,” and this extended period of involuntary unemployment has given me the chance to pursue that plan a little earlier. It was a small class, only ten students. I enjoyed it thoroughly, and I think I did a pretty good job passing on some knowledge and maybe inspiring some of the students. I’m looking forward to teaching this class again sometime soon.

While reviewing the homework assignments and papers to prepare the final grades I’ve been thinking about the different kinds of students in the class and how they remind me of some of the different employees I used to manage.

1. The “literalists” are the students who really internalize the grading rubric and do exactly what was assigned, no more and no less. For example, this is a class that requires participation in on-line discussion threads between the classroom sessions, and the students are graded according to how often they post, including posting early in the week (instead of posting several times in one day). This is to encourage actual discussion among the students. The literalists do the minimum required number of posts, but miss the point about engaging with other students. They’re like the employees who want to know how their job performance will be measured, including what it looks like when they “exceed expectations,” but fail to understand how their performance fits into the larger picture. They don’t have the inner drive to learn more or contribute more, and they’re unlikely to exercise leadership, unless it’s something they’re going to be “graded on.” In class, they’ll get a good grade, but I wonder how valuable they’re going to be to their future employer.

2. On the other hand, the “generalists” seem to have a deeper understanding of the material, ask questions in class, and engage in the discussions, but don’t always turn in the homework, or turn it in late. They’re not going to get the best grade if I follow the strict guidelines of the grading rubric. They remind me of the rare employees who aren’t thinking only about how they’re going to do on their next performance review. Maybe they don’t care about external rewards like salary increases. They may be motivated by a desire to learn and grow and master new skills. These are the folks I used to really enjoy working with because they tended to take a longer view that was less self-centered. They could be inspired to take on more challenging assignments, including leadership positions.

3. The “strugglers” are the students who are really trying, but just can’t seem to get it. They turn in the work, participate in the classroom, make mistakes, sometimes get frustrated, and appreciate any help they can get. I like them because they try, and I look for ways to give them extra points for the effort. They’re not going to become project managers. This isn’t the right class for them, but they’re going to get through it, and I hope they find a different class or focus area that will be a better use of their talents and skills. I’ve managed people like that who are in the wrong job. Sometimes the organization can accommodate a change in responsibilities that will help these people shine, and if they can they’ll get a lot more out of these folks.

4. Finally, there are the “slackers” who don’t always show up for class, don’t always turn in the homework, don’t participate in class discussions, and generally aren’t engaged at all. They may or may not be aware of the fact that they’re not going to pass the class, and they may or may not care. When they get negative feedback and written warnings that they’re headed for a failing grade, there’s no response. I can’t “fire” these students, and there’s a limit to how much effort I’m willing to put into improving their performance. It doesn’t work if I care more about how a student is doing than they do. As with the strugglers, they will eventually move on to other things, but will they find something that inspires them? Do they have skills and inner drive, and what will it take to draw them out?

Anyway, as I said, these are some of my observations and comparisons. The classroom is a different environment than the workplace, and it’s unlikely that I’ll see any of these students again. The grade they get from this class or any other is not necessarily a reflection of how well they’ll do after they graduate or otherwise leave the university.

How Do You Know It Needs Fixing? August 22, 2014

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Management & leadership, Process engineering, Quality.
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We’ve always been told that “if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it.” In the world of statistical process control, making changes to a production process that’s already stable and in-control is considered tampering. There’s a very real chance that you’re going to make it worse, and at the least it’s a bad use of resources that should be committed elsewhere to solve real problems. That’s great advice if you have the historical data and a control chart, but how do you know if a business process needs fixing if you don’t have the data to perform a statistical analysis? How can you tell the difference between a bad business process that can’t consistently deliver good results, and an outlier from a good business process? How do you know if it’s broken?

We often judge a process from its results, an “the ends justify the means” effectiveness standard. If we get what we want from the process, we’re happy. However, we’re also often concerned with how the ends were achieved, which means looking at the cost of the process. This can be literally in terms of the time required and the labor cost, and also in terms of the organizational overhead required and the non-value, or waste, that a process can generate. A process that isn’t giving the desired results is obviously a problem that needs fixing, but so is a process that’s inefficient. You have to spend time with the people who are routinely using the process to understand the costs.

Sometimes we’re not clear about what results we expect from a process. Simply getting outputs from inputs is not enough; we also usually care about how much time is required, or if rework is required (the “quality” of the outputs). We have to look at the process as part of a larger operational system, and how the process helps or hinders the business achieve greater objectives. This is often our starting point for identifying processes that need fixing because these processes create bigger problems that are highly-visible.

Sometimes we jump to the conclusion that a process is broken because we get one bad result. This is where a little root cause analysis is needed to determine if there are any differences or extenuating circumstances that may explain the undesirable outcome. In statistical process control we refer to these as special causes. Finding and eliminating special causes is the recommended approach here, not demolishing the process and starting all over again.

If the process does appear to be broken, it’s important to distinguish between a problem with the design of the process and a problem with how the process is executed. A process can look great on paper, but if the assigned people are poorly trained or lack motivation or don’t understand why the process is even necessary, then they’re unlikely to follow the process. People are usually the biggest source of variability in any process. They also tend to blame the process as the problem, even if they’ve never actually used it as intended. You might think this can be solved by simply applying positional power to compel people, but it’s often possible to make small changes to the process design to make compliance easier, essentially reducing the influence of “operator variation.” Once again, you have to experience the process through the eyes of the people who are using it, what we in quality call a Gemba Walk.

It’s easy to blame “the process” as some kind of inanimate enemy, and there are surely processes in every business that can be improved. However it’s worth spending a little time to determine exactly what the process is supposed to accomplish, how it fits into the larger business context, and whether there are special causes before launching a major overhaul. Sometimes it’s not really broken at all.

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