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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.

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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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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.

Is Your Company Really Committed to Quality? February 11, 2014

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Product design, Project management, Quality, Supply chain.
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In a recent post I wrote about suppliers who claim to be committed to quality, but may not actually behave that way. Before getting too carried away with improving quality in the supply chain, it’s probably a good idea to understand your own company’s commitment to quality, although I see nothing wrong with holding your suppliers to a higher standard. It may seem impressive when businesses highlight quality as a core value, something that’s published on their web site and displayed on their walls, but is that just for show?

I’m not necessarily suggesting that there’s anything hypocritical or underhanded going on here. You may be able to  measure the quality of products and services against an objective standard, but it’s a lot harder to assess an organization’s commitment to quality from the daily actions of its employees.

Why is this worth knowing? It’s one thing to respond to quality issues after they occur, but if the business expects its employees to proactively make decisions that avoid quality issues, then the employees need to be calibrated with examples of expected behaviors. Also, if there is a separate quality function within the business, those people need to be able to match their effort to the expected results, particularly if the actual commitment to quality is less than advertised. In that case the people in the quality function will find themselves constantly battling with other functions (and possibly senior leadership) that don’t have the same priorities or sense of urgency.

The company may have framed slogans and quality awards in their lobby, but here are some questions that can help determine how serious they are:

  • What stories do people tell about quality? Are there any incidents from the company’s past that illustrate the commitment of senior leadership?
  • Has the company ever proactively initiated a product recall or major field repair at significant expense? How about a line shutdown that delayed shipment? What happened afterward? Was there finger-pointing and recriminations, or was this treated as an important opportunity for continuous learning and commitment?
  • Has the company ever delayed the scheduled release of a product or service to address a late test result?
  • Is there a regular review of customer-reported quality issues? Are engineering and development teams required to allocate time for improvement of previously-released products or services?
  • What is the attitude toward people who bring quality issues to light? Are they ignored, or brushed aside, or are their inputs valued and appreciated?
  • What’s the relationship with regulatory and certifying agencies and 3rd party auditors? Does the company spend weeks sweeping issues under the carpet to keep them hidden, or is this treated as an opportunity to consult with independent experts?
  • Is quality considered to be an external customer standard that must be met, or is it considered to be an internal imperative to reduce cost and increase throughput and productivity?

If quality is something that is managed as an afterthought, then no one should be surprised when quality crises happen. It’s just not a priority. However, if the company has a strategic quality requirement in order to compete effectively and maintain profitability, then they have to make sure that everyone understands their contribution to quality and behaves accordingly.

Focus on Projects, Not Jobs January 24, 2014

Posted by Tim Rodgers in job search, Organizational dynamics, Project management.
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I’ve been doing a lot of professional networking these last few months, particularly since my most-recent transition from the corporate world. I’ve met a lot of new people, and re-connected with many former colleagues. Everyone wants to know how the job search is going, and what I’m looking for in my next job. The more I think about those questions, the more I wonder whether I’m really looking for a “job.”

Yes, I do want to be compensated for my work, and I prefer having some degree of stability and continuity in my work life, and (like most folks, I suspect) I have associated those things with a full-time position that doesn’t have a pre-determined end date. In other words, a job.

Lately, however, I’m starting to believe that there’s really no such thing as job security, at least in the traditional sense of staying with a single employer for an extended period of time. At-will employment seems to be the norm these days as companies emphasize staffing flexibility over long-term commitments. Those who have been laid off complain that there’s no loyalty any more, but I think that cuts both ways. More employees seem to be accepting this new reality, and getting laid off doesn’t have the same stigma that it did before.

If there’s little assurance of a long-term relationship with a single employer, any security is derived from the varying market demand for your skills and experiences. A career is a series of jobs, or maybe even just a series of projects. The company has a need, you’re hired because you’re the right fit for that need, you work until the company doesn’t have that need any more, and then you’re available for the next opportunity (which might be at the same company, but more likely, not). If your skills and experiences are in-demand, you won’t have to spend much time “in transition,” although you may have to be willing to relocate.

Look, everyone is different and has different needs. I enjoy learning new things, and I like the feeling of accomplishment that comes from solving problems that need solving. I just need to learn how to be better at the transitions.

What Does Almost Done Really Mean? November 17, 2013

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Communication, Project management.
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About a year ago I earned a Project Management Professional certificate after learning the methodologies and structured processes formalized by the Project Management Institute. Almost all of my experience in project management has been in product development, and the PMP training provided a broader perspective on other types of projects. I was particularly intrigued and somewhat amused by the use of quantitative measures of project status based on Earned Value Management (EVM).

I can see why EVM would appeal to a lot of project managers and their sponsors and stakeholders. Everybody wants to know how the project is going and whether it’s on-track, both in terms of schedule and budget. They want a simple, unambiguous answer, without having to look at all the details. The EVM metrics provide project status and a projection of the future, in terms of the value and expenses of the project’s tasks that are already completed and still remaining.

The problem for many projects is that it requires a lot of planning and discipline to use EVM. Not only do you have to generate a full Gannt chart showing all tasks and dependencies, but you also have to estimate the cost and incremental value-added for each of those tasks. That’s going to be just a guess for projects with little historical reference or leverage. Quantitative metrics are generally less valuable when they’re based on a lot of qualitative assumptions, despite the appearance of analytical precision.

Whether or not you use EVM, everybody wants to express project status in terms of a percentage. “We’re about 90% done, just a little bit more to go, and we’re looking good to meet the deadline.” This kind of oversimplification often fails to recognize that the pace of progress in the past is not necessarily the pace of the future, especially when sub-projects and their deliverables are integrated together and tested against the requirements.  There’s an old saying in software development that the last 10% of any software project takes 90% of the time, which is one of the reasons why agile development techniques have become popular.

While I applaud the attempts to quantify project status, I would assess a project in terms of tasks and deliverables actually either fully-completed or not, not “90% complete.” For large projects it’s useful to report deliverable completion status at checkpoint reviews where stakeholders can confirm that previously-agreed-upon milestone criteria have been met. This binary approach (done or not-done) may seem less quantitative, but it’s also less squishy. The overall status of the project is defined by the phase you’re currently in and the most-recent milestone completed, which means that all of those tasks leading up to the milestone have been completed.

That still leaves the problem of assessing the likelihood of future success: will the project finish on-time and on-budget? At some point you’re going to have to use your best judgment as a project manager, but instead of trying to distill your status to a single number isn’t it more useful to talk about the remaining tasks, risks, and alternatives? Sometimes more information really is better.

Firing Customers For Profit November 7, 2013

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Management & leadership, strategy, Supply chain.
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Businesses large and small generally work diligently to satisfy customers, and they’re frequently reminded that the cost of acquiring a new customer is much greater than the cost of retaining an existing one. Unfortunately many of those businesses fail to appreciate that each customer has an incremental cost, not just to acquire, but also to manage. It’s possible that an organization can spend more money to support a customer than what they get in return, which is obviously an undesirable situation.

Early stage companies are particularly susceptible to this kind of trap. In their eagerness to turn their ideas into revenue, they will often incur hidden costs in order to customize products and services for each potential customer. Any customer who is willing to pay looks like a good customer. Geoffrey Moore writes about this in his excellent book “Crossing the Chasm” (HarperBusiness, 1991). The danger is that the company loses economies of scale, leverage and re-use efficiencies, and ultimately the focus that defined the unique profit opportunity in the first place.

Unprofitable customers or segments can be hard to detect. It’s easy to add up the direct material cost of a single product configuration, but you also need to understand how much time your sales and support staff spend with a customer. Does your purchasing team have to manage unique suppliers? Does your quality team perform special tests or inspections? Your indirect labor may be spending a disproportionate amount of time dealing with requirements and requests from customers who squeak.

Unprofitable customers are not necessarily bad for the business. Moore writes about segments with “bowling pin potential” that may be a net loss today, but enable the firm to establish foundational processes, move up the learning curve, and leverage and grow in the future. These loss-leaders have long-term strategic value, but it’s important to understand and assess the investment in order to ensure the expected return.

Actually refusing to do business with a customer is extreme and could hurt your reputation, but consider ways to reduce the cost to manage a customer that isn’t currently providing a net profit or enables future profitability. The firm that fails to understand their “cost to serve” may find itself out of business despite many happy customers.

How Much Information Should a Manager Give To Their Team? February 4, 2013

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Management & leadership, Organizational dynamics, Project management.
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I’ve been pretty busy over the last few weeks focusing on my job search, interviewing for a couple of positions, and preparing for a possible teaching assignment at a local university. The evaluation process at the university included a 15-minute audition that was intended to provide some insight to each candidate’s presentation and facilitation skills in a classroom environment. Fifteen minutes is not much time, and during my lesson planning I decided to deliver a small packet of information, repeated and reviewed. I know from experience that there’s a tendency to overestimate the ability of an audience to listen and absorb.

This reminded me of something I read during my preparation for the Project Management Professional (PMP) certification exam last year. One of the topics on the exam was Project Communications Management, which included identifying stakeholders, and planning the communication processes necessary to keep them informed, according to their expectations. Project managers were encouraged to strive for efficient communication, providing only the information that each stakeholder requires.

I suppose the intention is to keep it simple and avoid the confusion and doubt that can accompany information overload, but I don’t think this is necessarily a good strategy. There are potential problems when the project manager is the only person who has all the information about the project:

1. You run the risk of  creating a dependency bottleneck, where one person must always be available to communicate status, resolve issues, and answer questions. This can be mitigated somewhat with easily-accessible project documents, assuming people know where to find them and are willing to use them.

2. Team members may be constrained by a narrow perspective that limits their ability to respond quickly or deal with ambiguity because they aren’t permitted to see the big picture. Surely the project benefits when the brainpower of all team members is fully-engaged. even at the risk of sharing “too much” information.

Look, I don’t think everyone needs to know everything all the time. I just think we shouldn’t be too quick to withhold information in the name of communication efficiency.

Decisions Based on Psuedo-Quantitative Processes December 28, 2012

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Management & leadership, Organizational dynamics, Process engineering, Quality, strategy.
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I’ve spent a lot of time working with engineers and managers who used to be engineers, people who generally apply objective analysis and logical reasoning. When faced with a decision these folks will look for ways to simplify the problem by applying a process that quantitatively compares the possible options. The “right” answer is the one that yields the highest (or lowest) value for the appropriate performance measure.

That makes sense in many situations, assuming that improvement of the performance measure is consistent with business strategy. You can’t argue with the numbers, right? Well, maybe we should. In our rush to reduce a decision to a quantitative comparison we may overlook the process used to create those numbers. Is it really as objective as it seems?

There’s a common process for decision making that goes by several different names. Some people call it a Pugh diagram or a prioritization matrix. A more sophisticated version called a Kepner Tragoe decision model includes an analysis of possible adverse effects.

These all follow a similar sequence of steps. The options are listed as rows in a table. The assessment criteria are listed as columns, and each criterion is given a weighting factor based on its relative importance. Each row option is evaluated on how well it meets each column criterion (for example, using a scale from 1 to 5), and this assigned value is multiplied by the weighting factor for the column criterion. Finally, the “weighted fitness” values are summed for each row option, and the option with the highest overall score is the winner.

At the end there’s a numerical ranking of the options, and one will appear to be the best choice, but the process is inherently subjective because of the evaluation criteria, the weighting factors, and the “how well it meets the criteria” assessment. It’s really not that hard to game the system and skew the output to provide any desired ranking of the options.

I’m not saying this is a bad process or that the result is automatically invalid. What I am saying is that this isn’t like weighing two bags of apples. The value of a decision analysis process isn’t just the final ranking, it’s the discussion and disagreements between the evaluators, which are obviously subjective. We shouldn’t consider the process to be an infallible oracle that delivers an indisputable answer just because there’s math involved.

I’m sure there are other examples of psuedo-quantitative processes that shouldn’t be accepted at face value. Leaders should question assumptions, listen to dissenting opinions, and check for biases. It’s rarely as cut-and-dried as it seems.

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