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3D Printing and the Production Ramp August 8, 2016

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Process engineering, Product design, Quality, Supply chain.
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Yes, 3D printing is great. Incredibly intricate designs that have been virtually impossible to fabricate using traditional subtractive or injection molding technology can now be realized. The range of plastics and metallic materials that can be printed continues to grow. The falling prices for commercial printers makes them economically feasible for a variety of applications, including rapid prototyping and on-demand manufacturing of replacement parts for field repairs. The technology will continue to disrupt existing business models and help develop new ones, and I’m following all of this with great interest.

I’m especially interested to see how 3D printing will change traditional manufacturing, particularly for mass production. It’s one thing to build a single product that meets design and performance specifications, but it’s a different challenge to consistently make the quantities of products that are required to satisfy a larger market over an extended period of time at a cost that enables a profit. At some point I expect that established manufacturers will adopt 3D printing as a replacement for current fabrication technologies such as injection molding for some applications, however there are still significant cost and throughput advantages with the older processes.

Here are a couple of considerations:

  • Will the prototype design created using 3D printing still work with the volume production plan? Or, will it have to be re-designed to meet the manufacturer’s requirements and capabilities? A change in the fabrication method means re-visiting the discussion about design for manufacturability.
  • Are the materials used for the 3D printed prototype the same as those that will be used in the final product? What does that mean for functional and reliability testing of the prototype? Are those results still meaningful?

Again, it’s going to be interesting to see how this space develops.

Can Business Process Variability Be a Good Thing? October 6, 2014

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Process engineering, Product design, Quality.
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At least once a month I see an on-line discussion that starts with someone taking the position that companies who focus on operational excellence using six-sigma or lean techniques are doomed because they can’t possibly be innovative at the same time. There seem to be several assumptions in this argument: (1) all companies must innovate in order to compete, (2) innovation in operations management somehow doesn’t count, (3) application of six-sigma or lean in one area of the business means that you can’t innovate elsewhere, and (4) innovation is inherently incompatible with six-sigma or lean. As you can probably guess, I don’t agree with all of those assumptions, and I’ve written about this previously in the context of design and product development processes (see Innovative Design vs. Lean Product Development).

I’d like to explore this a little further. We can quibble about definitions, but let’s assume that six-sigma is about reducing variability and lean is about eliminating waste. In the world of business processes, strict application of these techniques would mean strict adherence to standard processes, measuring the performance of these processes, and continuously improving them by finding and eliminating sources of variability and non-value-added activities. Should lean and six-sigma be universally applied to all business processes? Can some variability and “waste” actually be good for the business?

I think it is. Look, if you care about the result, and you need the result to be predictable and consistent, then you need a process. Innovation, however, isn’t predictable, by definition, and I can’t imagine constraining creativity with a process. If you’re not open to consider different ways of doing things, then you’re not going to be very good at anticipating or responding to disruptive changes in the market or competitive environment. You’ll be constrained by the current process and business model. Continuous improvement is good and necessary, but sometimes you have to throw out the old to make room for something new and better. There are many, many examples of businesses that became irrelevant because they focused entirely on improving a process that proved to be outdated and inflexible. The businesses that thrive are the ones who balance process improvement with process innovation.

Where does process innovation come from? Often it comes from people who are modifying existing processes to meet their needs, perhaps without any authorization. Instead of stamping out variability and enforcing conformity, we should be trying to understand why these changes are being made and why the existing process isn’t working. I’m not saying that we should allow everyone to do whatever they please, but we should recognize that innovation requires experimentation, and that means allowing for differences and variability.

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.


Cutting Back on Training and Development April 21, 2014

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Management & leadership, Organizational dynamics.
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A lot of organizations have been cutting back on employee training and development programs, especially since the start of the recession in 2008-09. I remember my early days at HP in the 1980s when the company supported a wide curriculum of internally-developed courses, and later contracted with professional trainers to deliver specialized material. Those days are long gone. I’m not convinced that the cost savings are really that significant, but this seems to be an easy target during times of expense reductions. The ROI on employee development has always been hard to estimate with any confidence, and “we’re doing OK” with the people and skills we already have. “We don’t need more skills and training, we just need to apply the skills we already have.”

It’s ironic that many of these same organizations continue to invest in their physical assets through maintenance and upgrades but seem reluctant to do the same with their human resources. After all, equipment and facilities can’t leave on their own accord after you’ve improved them, while your trained employees can walk out and maybe join your competitor tomorrow (or, at least that’s the fear). Professional development has largely become the responsibility of the individual employee, and companies implicitly assume they’ll be able to replace anyone who doesn’t like that arrangement.

While there are lot of people available on the job market who can provide needed skills, this is a short-sighted decision that is likely to cost more in the long-term (turnover costs), inhibit opportunities for growth through innovation, and reduce overall performance because of lower morale. However, this is another example of saving hard dollars today in exchange for uncertain benefits in the future, and therefore I don’t see any significant change in the future.

Many employees will continue to take charge of their career growth, and many managers will help them by assigning “development opportunities” and special projects within the constraints of the current business priorities and budget. Some leaders and managers may take the initiative and organize informal brown-bag presentations to share knowledge and experience. I’m encouraged by local partnerships between some companies and local colleges and universities. Students, faculty. and the company can all benefit from summer internships and joint research projects, and employees can be encouraged to enroll in targeted degree or certificate programs with tuition that is at least partially-reimbursed.

The desire to develop and improve skills doesn’t go away just because companies don’t want to spend the money. Companies that find ways to invest in their employees and value their professional growth will surely benefit in ways that they may never be able to measure.

Fake It Until You Make It: Is Structural Change a Prerequisite? April 14, 2014

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Management & leadership, Process engineering.
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Change management is frustrating. It can take a maddeningly long time to convince the required supporters that change is necessary, and then more time to get everyone moving in the new direction. Then once the tipping point is reached it becomes a runaway train. When the benefits of the change are significant and well-understood by all, there’s a lot of pressure to get it done already without regard to process, or documentation, or training other “details.” It’s hard to manage expectations during this transitional phase. Can’t we just hold on for a minute while we get our act together?

Well, you could, but would you risk losing momentum and tempting people to revert to the old ways of doing things? Can change management succeed when it’s implemented on a limited basis without structural changes? Can you “make it up as you go along,” and firm it up later?

I don’t see why not. In fact, there’s a lot of value in this kind of launch-and-learn approach. It’s unlikely that you’ll be able to anticipate and plan for all the consequences of the change, and early experiences after the change is implemented will identify these improvements. For example, the change may impact processes and organizations that are infrequently engaged, and it might take time to discover that the change is more or less effective than you expected.

Consolidating the change and fully-integrating it into the system is still important and shouldn’t be neglected. I’ve seen many quality management systems and process documents that are completely out-of-date because they were never updated after the change. At minimum that’s a non-compliance on an external audit, but it’s also a potential source of confusion when new people try to figure out what the right process is.

Nevertheless, if the change is worth doing, then it’s worth looking into ways of implementing it quickly in order to realize some benefits, demonstrate some early successes, and build momentum.


What Are Individual Accomplishments Within a Team Environment? April 7, 2014

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Management & leadership, Process engineering, Project management.
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The other day I responded to a question on LinkedIn about whether performance reviews were basically worthless because we all work in teams and individual accomplishments are hard to isolate. It’s true that very few jobs require us to work entirely independently, and our success does depend in large part on the performance of others. But, does that really mean that individual performance can’t be evaluated at all?

If I assign a specific task or improvement project to someone, I should be able to determine whether the project was completed, although there may be qualifiers about schedule (completed on-time?), cost (within budget?), and quality (all elements completed according to requirements?). However, regardless of whether the task was completed or not, or if the results weren’t entirely satisfactory, how much of that outcome can be attributed to the actions of a single person? If they weren’t successful, how much of that failure was due to circumstances that were within or beyond their control? If they were successful, how much of the credit can they rightfully claim?

I believe we can evaluate individual performance, but we have to consider more than just whether tasks were completed or if improvement occurred, and that requires a closer look. We have to assess what got done, how it got done, and the influence of each person who was involved. Here are some of the considerations that should guide individual performance reviews:

1. Degree of difficulty. Some assignments are obviously more challenging with a higher likelihood of failure. Olympic athletes get higher scores when they attempt more-difficult routines, and we should credit those who have more difficult assignments, especially when they volunteer for those challenges.

2. Overcoming obstacles and mitigating risks. That being said, simply accepting a challenging assignment is enough. We should look for evidence of assessing risks, taking proactive steps to minimize those risks, and making progress despite obstacles. I want to know what each person did to avoid trouble, and what they did when it happened anyway.

3. Original thinking and creative problem solving. Innovation isn’t just something we look for in product design. We should encourage and reward people who apply reasoning skills based on their training and experience.

4. Leadership and influence. Again, this gets to the “how.” Because the work requires teams and other functions and external partners and possibly customers, I want to know how each person interacted with others, and how they obtained their cooperation. Generally, how did they use the resources available to them?

5. Adaptability. Things change, and they can change quickly. Did this person adapt and adjust their plans, or perhaps even anticipate the change?

This is harder for managers when writing performance reviews, but not impossible. It requires that we monitor the work as it’s being done instead of evaluating it after it’s completed, and recognizing the behaviors that we value in the organization.

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.

Why We Need Processes (and Recipes) July 7, 2013

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Management & leadership, Process engineering.
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I enjoy cooking, it’s one of my few creative outlets. I used to tell people that there’s some deep connection between cooking and my early interest in laboratory chemistry, and maybe there’s something to that. At least with cooking you can eat your mistakes, most of the time. I’ve learned a few kitchen techniques, and I enjoy trying new recipes, particularly if the ingredients are accessible and it doesn’t take too much time to prepare.

I typically follow the recipe exactly the first time I try a new dish or dessert. That’s because I assume the creator of the recipe has done some trials and determined that this is the right sequence of steps and the right balance and ratio of ingredients that will yield the best result. As I’ve gained more experience I’ve become more confident in my ability to adjust the recipe to match my taste. However I make a point of writing down my changes and the results of those experiments so I can reproduce the outcome instead of relying on my memory of something I prepared weeks or months ago.

Last week I was trying to explain to someone why we need documented processes at work, and why it’s important to edit processes. If it’s important to get a consistent, predictable result, you should find a process that delivers that result and write it down so you don’t have to rely on institutional memory or the work habits of an individual employee.

If it turns out that you’re not getting the results you desire, or it costs too much, or there’s collateral damage, then you should definitely stop using that process. That doesn’t mean ignoring the process and giving up on the benefits of consistency and predictability. It means editing the process, or possibly creating a completely new one that meets your needs. Either way, those edits should be based on an understanding of what isn’t working. It may require several iterations to find a better process, but as one of my favorite TV chefs likes to say: “Your patience will be rewarded.” The alternative is chaos.

Innovative Design vs. Lean Product Development April 17, 2013

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Management & leadership, Product design, Project management, Quality.
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I’ve been very busy focusing on my job search and some self-improvement projects, and unfortunately it’s been harder to find some time to address my accumulated backlog of topics. I regularly follow several group discussions on LinkedIn related to product development and quality, and lately a popular discussion topic is how to inspire innovation in product design.

See for example Wayne Simmons and Keary Crawford “Innovation versus Product Development” (http://www.innovationexcellence.com/blog/2013/04/12/innovation-versus-product-development/), and Rachel Corn’s blog “Is Process Killing Your Innovation?” (http://blog.cmbinfo.com/bid/87795/South-Street-Strategy-Guest-Blog-Is-Process-Killing-Your-Innovation?goback=%2Egde_2098273_member_229196205). The latter post quotes a former 3M vice president who says that Six Sigma killed innovation at 3M, apparently because 3M’s implementation of Six Sigma required “a full blown business case and even a 5-year business plan to get a new idea off the ground and into production.” The VP wonders: how do you institutionalize innovation without stifling it?

The conventional wisdom seems to be that product design is inherently a creative, right-brain activity that will fail or at least fall short if constrained by process. You can’t make art on a schedule.

I think this is a false conflict. I don’t see any reason why teams shouldn’t be able to conceive new designs within a structured and disciplined product development environment. Obviously the ultimate objective is to get a product to market, so at some point the experimentation must end, doesn’t it?

Six Sigma is about reducing variation. The lean movement is about eliminating waste. I understand that the early stages of product development may be wildly unpredictable and seemingly inefficient. Shouldn’t the latter stages focus on predictable outcomes, standardized processes, fast time-to-market, defect prevention, and efficient production?

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