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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.



What’s the Value of ISO 9001? January 25, 2016

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Quality, strategy.
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Earlier tonight I called in to listen to a presentation given at my local American Society of Quality (ASQ) chapter meeting about some of the changes in the ISO 9001 specification in the new 2015 version. I thought the speaker did a great job. He’s a consultant who makes his living helping companies become ISO 9001 certified and preparing for audits. He highlighted the differences in the new version of ISO 9001, and provided some useful tips about how to prepare for the updated requirements.

I don’t think he intended to do this, but he also made me question the purpose of ISO 9001 certification, and specifically whether it’s worth the time and money and effort.


Competitive Advantage and Quality June 11, 2014

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Quality, strategy.
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I learned a lot when I got my MBA, and it was well-worth the time and money spent, but when I think about it now there are only a few concepts and themes that have really stuck with me. One is Michael Porter’s writings about the two primary sources of competitive advantage: cost and technology.

If you compete on cost, you’re supposed to be constantly looking for ways to reduce your internal expenses and cost of sales, eliminating waste, and improving productivity and throughput so you can offer customers a market-leading price for your product or service. If you compete on technology, you’re supposed to be constantly innovating, identifying un-met or un-expressed customer needs, and developing and delivering market-leading solutions that meet those needs before your competitors do, which usually allows you to command a price premium. Some companies try to do both at the same time, applying their cost management efforts on operations and market fulfillment, however companies that fail to focus their strategies will fail to compete.

This is pretty simple view of competitive advantage, which is probably part of the reason why it’s so well-known and memorable, but it makes intuitive sense, at least to me. I see examples everywhere. Some retailers and consumer electronics companies aggressively drive out cost in order to be able to offer low prices (Walmart); others use technology to create an experience that encourages customers to pay more (Starbucks, Apple). I believe that Walmart and Apple are equally innovative, the difference is what advantage the innovation is supposed to serve.

Where does quality fit in? Can a company compete on quality, and what does that look like? Attention to quality can support either the cost or technology strategy. The cost benefits of improved quality should be fairly obvious, including reduced expenses due to scrap or rework, internal testing and inspection, and post-sales support and warranty. These costs are not always measured and tracked, but they’re real. The hard part is understanding the relationship between actions that save money today and the risk that those actions will lead to additional cost in the future, such as buying cheap parts that fail in the field.

Quality supports the technology strategy in two possible ways. First, there’s a timeliness issue when you compete on technology; you have to get there before your competitor does. A focus on quality during product development will mean faster time-to-market. It’s important to note that product quality should match customer expectations. It doesn’t have to be perfect; customers can be pretty forgiving when your offering is technically superior, and especially so when the market is still new.

Second, a reputation for high quality (whether deserved or not) enhances the technology strategy and helps sustain a premium market price. We tend to think of technology in terms of advanced features and performance, but quality should be considered one of those dimensions as well.

Companies may not deliberately set out to compete on the basis of quality, but quality should definitely be considered an element of either the cost or technology strategy.

What Will You Do With the Time You Save? May 7, 2014

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Management & leadership, Process engineering, strategy.
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When laptops and cell phones and remote access first emerged as an option for office workers a lot of folks tried to justify the incremental expense by arguing that they would be so much more productive as a mobile worker, no longer tied to a specific cubicle. Some even tried to calculate an ROI based on quantitative estimates of labor cost savings or higher efficiency. The arguments all seemed to be based on the idea that we would be able to get so much more done by feeing ourselves from the constraints of a physical office. I suppose we really are getting more done. Mobile technology has become the standard for the majority of knowledge workers and we don’t think twice about the cost of the hardware or worry much about the security of remote access.

Lately I’ve been reminded of those claims of the higher productivity of mobile workers because of the current interest in lean production and business process improvement. One of the reasons that some people cite for resistance to these kinds of changes is the fear that it will lead to layoffs because fewer people will be needed to manage the new processes. We hate being overworked, but apparently some believe that it comes with job security.

First of all, there’s no job security at a company that’s rife with waste and inefficiency. Unless you’re a legal monopoly, competitors will figure out how to operate more efficiently and eventually your higher expenses will make you un-competitive and unprofitable.

Second, why does it have to be a choice between inefficiency and layoffs? Why would anyone assume that higher productivity automatically guarantees workforce reductions?

I’m not naive, I know this does happen. If you have five buyers in your purchasing department and you figure out how to get the same work done with four people, then you have one more person than you need. But, that’s a narrow way of looking at the issue. You have one more person than you need for that job, but you also have one more person that can be assigned to a different job. In many cases there’s some other part of the organization that’s starved for resources (assuming the skills are transferable), or a project or strategic initiative that hasn’t been able to get off the ground (including further process improvements).

If you save money as a result of process improvement, you can choose to put that money in your pocket, or you can invest it elsewhere. Yes, you can reduce expenses by cutting headcount, but did you consider using those resources to help increase revenue, or accelerate time-to-market, or improve quality?

Certainly you shouldn’t expect much support for changes that lead to higher productivity if it’s understood that there will be layoffs as a result. I don’t remember big layoffs when we implemented mobile technology. We found more work to do.


How Important Is Industry Familiarity? April 17, 2014

Posted by Tim Rodgers in job search, Organizational dynamics, strategy.
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I’m once again “between jobs” and “in-transition,” and I’ve been spending a lot of time looking at job postings. Every position seems to emphasize the preference or requirement for applicants with industry experience. It’s easy to imagine that many applicants are immediately eliminated from consideration without it.

I understand why familiarity with an industry is valued in a candidate. Different industries are characterized by different combinations of suppliers, internal value delivery systems, channels, competitors, and customers. People who work in the industry understand the relationships between these elements, and that understanding is an important consideration when setting priorities and making decisions. It takes time to learn that in a new job, and people who already have the experience don’t need to go through a learning curve and theoretically can make a more-immediate impact.

Industry familiarity doesn’t seem to be something you can acquire through independent study and observation; you have to actually work in the industry. This means that your preferred candidates are likely going to be people who have worked at your competitors, or possibly your suppliers, channels, or customers, depending on how broadly you define your industry.

This leads to a question I’ve been puzzling over: what are the unique characteristics of an industry that are true differentiators? What really distinguishes one industry from another, and what is the significance of those differences when considering job applicants?

In my career I’ve worked at a defense contractor, several OEMs in the consumer electronics industry, a supplier to the semiconductor manufacturing industry, and most-recently a supplier to the power generation and utilities industries. Different customers, different sales channels, different production volumes, and different quality expectations and regulatory environments. Some of the suppliers were the same, but most were different. Some produced internally, and some outsourced. Some of these companies competed on cost, some on technology. My modest assessment is that I’ve been successful in all of these industries.

Industry experience provides familiarity, but is industry experience an accurate predictor of success in a new job? What skills are really needed to succeed, and how transferable are a person’s skills from one industry to another? Could a unique perspective derived from a diversity of experiences be more valuable than industry familiarity? These are the questions that should be considered when writing a job posting and evaluating applicants.


Adding Value With Less March 13, 2014

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Management & leadership, strategy.
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One of the most common complaints I hear from managers and individual contributors is that they never have the resources they need to get the job done. The schedule, deliverables, or both are impossibly unrealistic because they’ve been denied the budget, the hiring authority, or the access to the internal staff that they really need. When they fail to achieve their objectives, it’s because upper management (or whoever has the authority to approve their requests) got in their way.

In fact, they’re probably right: upper management may have been directly responsible for refusing their request for more time or resources, but were they given any reason to do otherwise? People often present these decisions as an equivalency between results and resources. “I can complete this if you give me that.” But, have they presented a convincing argument that supports that equivalency? Have they presented other options, or explained the risks of operating with less-than-adquate resources?

Put yourself in the perspective of the person who controls the resources. Their best-case scenario is that you will be able to do the job within the schedule with no additional cost beyond what has already been budgeted. There’s going to be some natural resistance to any request for more resources (or at least there should be if they’re managing within a budget), and the burden of proof is on the requestor.

The mistake that people make is framing this as a binary choice: either they get everything they ask for, or they’re doomed to failure. As a manager, I’m generally open to multiple options. I want to know what can be done, and what the risks are, at a variety of “price points.” I want to brainstorm about pros and cons, priorities, and alternatives that may not be obvious. It’s this kind of collaborative problem solving that leads to better decisions and adds value in an organization. It also helps the team understand and appreciate the constraints that the business is operating within, which builds commitment. Finally, making tradeoffs and learning how to get things done with less are important skills that strengthens the organization.

Something New: A Personal Web Site January 6, 2014

Posted by Tim Rodgers in job search, Management & leadership, Process engineering, Project management, Quality, strategy, Supply chain.
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Over the last few weeks I’ve been busy working on a personal web site that I  launched on December 25. My intention is to provide more depth about my expertise and accomplishments than what can be inferred from a two-page resume or a LinkedIn profile. This has been on my to-do list since 2012, and we’ll see how it’s received during my current “in transition” phase.

It’s been an interesting exercise, reviewing my work history and classifying my methods and results in a series of PowerPoint slides. One nice thing about getting older is that you start to figure out what you’re good at, and how to focus on those strengths. I can see common threads running through the projects in my career; an emphasis on cross-functional collaboration, strategic business alignment, and performance measures. I’ve been repeatedly attracted by opportunities to identify improvements and lead change initiatives.

I’ve already written blog posts here about some of the topics, but now they’re illustrated in more detail on the web site thanks to PowerPoint. I’m sure I’ll tinker with it in the coming months, adding some new content and tweaking the slides.

Here’s the link: http://timwrodgers.wix.com/timwrodgers. Let me know what you think.

Getting People to Care About Quality December 4, 2013

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Management & leadership, Quality, strategy.
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Quality sounds like something that everyone will support on principle, unless you have a saboteur working in your midst. It’s probably safe to assume that no one is deliberately acting to produce a defective product or service. The problem is that everyone makes daily decisions that balance quality against other considerations, whether to save money, or meet a committed date, or keep the factory running. We tell ourselves that quality is free, but even in highly-evolved organizations it doesn’t happen without deliberate effort. The challenge to quality professionals is helping people understand how good quality contributes to the business and thereby provide a more useful basis for decision making.

Here’s a little not-so-secret secret: all decisions in for-profit businesses eventually come down to how to bring in more revenue while controlling expenses. If you want people to pay attention to quality, talk about money.

For better or worse, this is a lot easier after the cost has already been incurred. If you have to spend more money or time because of scrap or rework, or you have to repair or replace product at the customer, or you’re liable for warranty or other contractual post-sale costs, everyone will be interested to know how it happened and how it can be prevented in the future. After some investigation you may identify the cause or causes, and you can recommend actions to eliminate them. Of course those corrective actions will have a cost of their own, and you will have to determine if there’s a net gain.

All of that is based on the assumption that there’s a 100% probability of that bad thing happening again if you do not implement the corrective action, and a 0% probability if you do. If you want to get more analytical you can estimate those probabilities based on engineering analysis, historical trends, or just good old-fashioned judgment, and then apply a de-rating factor to the cost. This is where an FMEA analysis is useful, along with early prototyping and testing to check those assumptions about probability and impact.

Here it’s important to note that there are indirect costs of poor quality that are harder to factor in to this calculation. For example, even a single incident at a key customer could cause a significant decline in future revenue if it affects brand reputation. Low-probability yet high-severity events are also problematic.

Of course it’s generally harder to look ahead and assess the unknown probability and impact of a quality risk that has not yet been encountered. As long as the bad thing hasn’t happened yet, it’s easy to underestimate it. This is what causes organizations to reduce cost by using cheaper parts or removing design safeguards or eliminating quality checks. They’re saving real money today and implicitly accepting the uncertain risk (and cost) of a poor quality event in the future. Again, if you can say with 100% certainty that this bad thing will happen without specific actions being taken, then your choice is clear. Unfortunately there are many choices that are not clear, or even recognizable.

Are you really willing to spend whatever it takes to prevent any quality problem? Of course not. Managing quality is managing risk, and looking for ways to assess and minimize that risk while under pressure to reduce cost now. It’s not very satisfying to say “I told you so.”

Change Management and “Moneyball” (Movie Version) December 1, 2013

Posted by Tim Rodgers in baseball, Communication, Management & leadership, strategy.
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The other day I watched the movie “Moneyball” again and was reminded of a few important characteristics of successful change management. Brad Pitt stars as Billy Beane, the general manager of the Oakland A’s baseball team, an organization struggling with a limited budget to develop, attract, and retain players.

Some background:

At the beginning of the movie we learn that before the 2002 season the A’s have lost three of their best players who have signed more lucrative contracts elsewhere. Beane is trying to figure out how to replace these players, and more generally put together a winning team within the financial constraints imposed by ownership. After a chance encounter with a low-level analyst from a rival organization, Beane realizes that he cannot compete if he builds a team using the traditional ways of assigning value to players. Almost out of desperation, he decides on an unconventional strategy based on the emerging science of sabermetrics. He immediately faces resistance from his experienced staff, specifically the field manager and scouts who are unconvinced and in some cases actively working against the strategy.

Ultimately it’s fairly happy ending: despite public criticism of Beane’s decisions and early disappointments on the field, the A’s have a successful season. At one point they win 20 straight games, setting a new league record, and they make the playoffs, but lose in the first round. Beane is offered a significant raise to leave the A’s and join the Boston Red Sox  where he would have the opportunity to apply the same principles with a much larger budget. Beane declines the offer, but the unconventional strategy has been seemingly validated.

The movie focuses Beane’s underdog status and uphill battle during the season, and I’m sure some of the real-life events have been changed for dramatic effect. Regardless of whether they actually happened or not, there are several scenes that illustrate elements of successful change management.

1. A clear explanation of the new direction. In the movie, Beane leads a meeting of his senior staff to discuss plans for acquiring players for the upcoming season. This looks like Beane’s first opportunity to apply his new strategy, but he misses an important chance to align with his team. It’s clear that he’s the boss with the final authority, and it’s not necessary for everyone in the room to agree, but Beane could have taken the time to explain the new direction and acknowledge the objections. In later scenes, Beane acknowledges this mistake to his field manager who has been undermining the strategy through his tactical decisions, and fires a senior staff member who has been especially vocal in opposition.

The lesson: the team may not agree with the change, but they should be very clear about why change is needed. Team members should have the opportunity to raise objections, but once the direction has been set, their only choices are to support the change or leave the team.

2. Removing options to force compliance. Beane is frustrated by opposition from his field manager who gives more playing time to players whose skills are not highly valued in Beane’s new system. Beane stops short of giving a direct order to the manager to be make decisions that are more consistent with the strategy, and instead Beane trades these players to other teams, effectively removing those undesirable options. This is a variation of what is sometimes called “burning the boats,” from the Spanish conquest of the Aztec empire. You can’t go back to the old way of doing things because that way is no longer an option. As Beane replaces players, his manager has fewer opportunities to not follow the strategy.

The lesson: this seems like passive-aggressive behavior from both parties, but I can see how it can be effective. My preference would be to reinforce the desired change rather than take away choices, but if the old way is very well established you need to help people move on and not be tempted to return.

3. Giving it a chance to work. The A’s get off to a slow start and pressure builds on Beane to abandon the new strategy. In one scene he meets with the team’s owner and assures the owner that the plan is sound and things will get better. It eventually does, despite all the skepticism and opposition, and the movie audience gets the underdog story they were promised.

The lesson: even the best ideas take time. It’s absolutely critical to set expectations with stakeholders to help them understand how and when they will detect whether the change is working. Impatience is one of the biggest causes of failure when it comes to change management. 

Higher Value for Higher Priced Employees November 22, 2013

Posted by Tim Rodgers in International management, Product design, strategy, Supply chain.
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You can complain about it, but offshoring is not going away. Businesses will always look to reduce cost, and wherever there’s a significant difference in labor cost, that difference is going to attract interest. I’ve spent almost my entire career working at companies that have moved their supply chain and production factories to locations that have lower labor cost. For manufactured goods this savings must be weighed against other expenses to determine whether there’s a net gain, such as shipping costs and finished goods in-transit. For knowledge work where there’s virtually zero cost to instantly move the output from one part of the world to another (such as software), the advantage is even greater.

You can complain about it, but if you want to justify a higher cost of labor in one part of the world, you have to demonstrate that this labor provides higher value. The added cost must be offset by some benefit, ideally something that can be quantified. It’s important to distinguish between sources of higher value that are fundamental and relatively stable vs. those that can be eroded over time.

Here are some examples:

1. “We know how to do it here, they don’t know how to do it there.” Your design team, and factory, and supply base may be well-established in one location, but you’re wrong if you think that can’t be replicated somewhere else. There are smart, well-educated people all over the world, and it’s easier than ever to access their skills, especially for knowledge work. There will be training, start-up, and switching costs, and those will have to be evaluated against the steady-state labor cost savings, but it’s not impossible.

2. Cost of quality. This is related to #1 above. You may be able to produce output at a different location with lower labor cost, but does the quality of that output lead to additional expenses later, such as rework, field repair, and loss of customer loyalty? These can be addressed with specific improvement plans, depending on the causes of poor quality, and are not necessarily permanent conditions. As above, the costs to improve or maintain quality at any location should be compared with the labor savings.

3. Geography. This is an example of a more fundamental difference that may justify higher labor cost. Many businesses benefit from close physical proximity to their customers, enabling them to respond quickly to changes in market demand and mix without the burden of a long finished goods pipeline from their production sites. A hybrid approach is late-point differentiation where platforms are built ahead at low cost and later customized depending on the specific order. Another benefit of geography is co-design, where frequent, real-time interaction with customers leads to a better fit to their requirements. Some companies will overcome this one by using available technology to communicate with remote teams, or performing rapid prototyping locally to verify the design before shifting volume production elsewhere.

Note that geography can also be an overriding factor when there are political or economic barriers, such as regulatory or “local content” requirements.

My point is that if you insist on doing the work in a location with higher labor cost, you can’t assume that the corresponding value will always be worth the higher cost. Your survival as a business depends on your ability to identify, develop, exploit, and maintain a source of competitive advantage. Your choices about labor cost and geographic location should support your strategy to maintain competitive advantage, and that strategy should be regularly reviewed and updated to make sure you’re getting the value your paying for.

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