Category Archives: Management Practices

How To Make Project Meetings More Efficient and Productive In One Simple Step

Short post today. One simple step to take to keep project meetings short, effective, and productive:

Have one person in attendance whose main function is to interrupt conversations as they derail with a quick “Shut The Fuck Up.” It needs to be someone who has some respect among those in attendance, but probably not the most senior person at the meeting, as he will be the most frequent target of the comment.

Whenever a project update meeting drifts into group design – “Shut The Fuck Up”

An impromptu recounting of the history of the building the project is going to be located erupts – “Shut The Fuck Up”

The 2 hour conversation you had last meeting about a trivial point starts revving up again – “Shut The Fuck Up”

Discussion on a topic continues (or more accurately, replays) after a decision has been made – “Shut The Fuck Up”

Someone dithers for the tenth time over a decision they were supposed to give a definitive answer to months ago – “Answer Now, Quit, Or Kill Yourself” (This task is not as simple as just repeating four words, or else a Furby could do it – if Furbys still exist)

Why yes, I did just come back from a three and a half hour project update meeting, why do you ask?

PS – The person you assign this task to must also a)be protected by enough of upper management AND the people who actually do work so as not to be fired immediately; and 2)be independently wealthy so that they don’t starve when a) is not enough.

Damn Dirty Hippies With MBAs

Maybe I’m just hanging around the wrong end of the internet again, but every time I turned around this week, I found another life coach or revolutionary thinker argue that the path out of the current economic slump is to focus on taking the freedom afforded by not being tied down to the old corporate structure and through new social networking systems and transforming yourself into a knowledge worker. It’s all about creating a presence through free content, and coming up with revolutionary ideas that will turn the world around. It worked for Amazon.com, it worked for Google, it works for Apple, so it should work for everyone.

Great, but I need to eat.

I don’t mean that in the way I usually would – that I need to make some money now to pay for my necessities in life. I mean that in a more basic way. I mean that I, and you, and Malcolm Gladwell, and even Seth Godin, need someone to make food. And cars, or buses, or bicycles, or some other transportation device. I need someone to make some shirts and underwear too. Electricity would be nice, as would clean drinking water being delivered to my house through a network of pipes. And maybe some laundry detergent and soap.

Perhaps it would be good if not all of these items were made in another country, for safety, security, ethical and practical reasons.

And yet, every blog post I see, and almost every business/management/self-improvement book on the shelves, is acting as if the creation of these tangible, physical goods is something for the history books. I think the implicit argument is that all these “small”, “petty”, “trivial” issues can be handled by the masses in Indonesia or Uruguay or Baltimore. I’m not sure, because these issues aren’t even addressed, as if every writer takes it for granted that of course the shelves at the Kwik-E-Mart and Trader Joe’s and H&M are going to stocked, much like a 5 year old or a dog takes it for granted that their parents or owners will have food in the pantry.

I’m not saying that everyone needs to be employed or engaged in providing the basic neccesities of modern life. I want books, and magazines, and theater, and TV, and TheOnion.com, and revolutionary thought, and public intellectuals, and all the rest of the cake and circuses. But I’d like the big (and small) thinkers of business and technology and management to recognize that they want the basics as well. Shoving the hard realities and needs aside for an underclass to take care of probably isn’t going to work out too well for anyone. Just ask anyone who read The Time Machine, or saw Wall-E for that matter.

World Class Project Management – A Guide To Making Bad Project Teams Worse

For the past several months, I’ve been a technical expert advisor to a project team for a new installation. If I thought management programs and fads were a waste of time before, my experience with “World Class Project Management” (WCPM) has made me rethink my position on management consultants as members of the human race.

In addition to the typical split of a large capital project into front-end, design, construction, and startup phases, with milestones and gateways along the process, WCPM includes “Value Improving Practices” (VIPs), in order to formalize the development of ideas to reduce project costs (supposedly based on life-cycle costs). These VIPs include Process Simplification, Energy Optimization, Design-To-Capacity, and Value Engineering among others. Each of these concepts are good, in fact necessary for good project design and implementation.  Developing rigid processes to implement each is asinine at best.

Today, I sat through an 8 hr meeting to cover Value Engineering. The meeting consisted of getting all the principals involved in the project design in the same room, with a outside facilitator trained in “Value Engineering”. The group then went through the Piping and Instrumentation Diagrams for the entire project one by one, to come up with ideas of how savings could be found in each area of the system. Then, when an idea came up, the group would start to discuss it’s merits, until the facilitator would interrupt and say this meeting was to come up with ideas only, which we would rank in priority at the end of the meeting to develop action items around.

Problem the first: Any time someone is more focused on the process and organizational rules of a meeting than in the actual project the meeting is about, that person needs to die.

Problem the second: This project team is similar to almost every work team ever – they don’t really need to be encouraged to sit around and spout out ideas without ever coming to a final decision on any of them. They’ll do that with their last dying breath if you let them.

At some point, a smart project leader has to realize that any financial and operational gains made by coming up with more and more alternatives is more than offset by the losses of delaying making a decision and running with it. Make a wrong decision, and two things will happen – the owner of the installed system will work around the problems, or a modification will be made. But progress will be made. 90% perfect and completed is better than 95% perfect and delayed and over budget due to delays and a sped up construction and startup period because the corporate mandated end date is a mandate.

Shut up and get to work already.

Your Job As First Line Supervisor – Tell Everyone They’re Wrong

Recently, I’ve had to think about how to summarize what my style of leadership/mentoring/motivation/supervision is, and after going through all the tasks and projects and fire-fighting, I realized much of it came around to the same basic concept – acting as a go-between for many different groups, and telling each one that THEY are in the wrong.

I’m not saying that I’m always right, or that I’m even arguing my own point in these, merely that the role of first line supervisor is to get each person they interact with to be working at their best.

A new project is being installed – it’s the operations supervisors role to push the project engineers to make the equipment easily usable and safe and push them to take the needs and wants of the operators into consideration – which they won’t want to do because it cost more money and makes their goals more difficult. Conversely, when I’m introducing the project to my operators, I have to sell them on the extra effort they will need to take to use the equipment, and justify the engineer’s intents and decisions when they operators complain about not being listened to. Half of the role is an advocacy role for both sides, the other half is determining where the compromise between the two groups should be and getting them both to that point.

The quality lab reports that the current production is out of specification for some parameter. If it isn’t a trivial problem, you can guarantee what the first thing you will hear is when you walk into the control room: “The lab screwed up”. And when I head into the quality lab: “Those operators don’t know what the hell they are doing.” You can’t agree with either of them – the fact is that either area could be the problem, and you need to convincingly tell both that they are in error, that the other group needs to be believed, and that they need to recheck their entire system. If you let a “Yeah the lab/operator is always screwing up like this” out of your mouth (or even make the thought appear on your face), you’ve let on potential source of the actual problem off the hook, and you better hope that you guessed where the issue was correctly. That expired reagent or leak in the heat exchanger isn’t going to be found if the responsible party is sitting at their desk continuing to bitch about the incompetency of everyone else.

It’s not about crossing the line into dishonesty, or being a prick, or shutting everyone down. It’s about being the conduit between groups and teams that usually don’t have a kind word to say about one another.

How Long Can You Stay “Lean And Mean”?

From today’s NYT:

But whether growth in manufacturing indeed spells new jobs throughout the economy remains a question. Mr. Shapiro, the MFR economist, argues that companies have become permanently lean, mastering the art of producing more with fewer people — a trend with staying power.

When I started reading the paper this morning, I thought I was going to write about everyone’s seeming case of collective amnesia, where everyone forgets that manufacturing and industry almost always picks up every January as they have to make up for the depleted inventory they ran down for tax purposes in Q4, when the paragraph above jolted me to a stop. Because the short sighted thinking articulated in it makes the Baby Jesus cry.

I currently work at a small production facility. And I love a lot about that fact – instead of being stuck in a corporate engineering role for GloboChem, working for a smaller organization means that I get to/have to get involved in every aspect of the business. I need to know who the sales people are talking to, and be ready to provide them with technical support. I have to understand the operating procedures, the inventory system, and the accounting system for when things go wrong, and that knowledge gives me a better insight into what projects would really have a positive impact on the company as a whole, rather than focusing only on my narrow assigned focus, and end up robbing Peter to pay Paul.

But in the current economic reality, a lot of companies cut past fat and into bone. At this point, if somebody leaves the company, or is even out for an extended absence, either their duties get ignored completely until a replacement is hired, or those duties get parceled out to those who are left, which pushes something off their radar. (Yes, there are still some people at every location who could take on extra duties, usually a LOT of extra duties, but we all know that he won’t, and that for whatever reason/incriminating pictures he has, the company won’t get rid of him either, so let’s do what we do at the office, and pretend he doesn’t exist)

This can work for a while, in fact this can work for a very long while – as long as the company is willing to just tread water and remain where they are today. But the first tasks that go are those that will build your company’s future – the developments, the new products, the step-changes in productivity and applicability to your customers. If your crew is running on all cylinders just to get the product out the door, you might be able to brag to your shareholders about your productivity, but there’s a new guy in your rear-view mirror about to overtake you. And he’s leaner, and isn’t carrying the weight that comes with existing customer demands.

Sleep tight.

Maybe Continuing Doing What You’ve Been Doing Is WHY You Are Failing

The Wall Street Journal had an article yesterday about a plan for General Motors to move their remaining plants from a 2-shift to 3-shift operation (subscription may be required for the full article). Putting aside the horrible reporting job on the story (I think a headline “Obama mandated make-work program doomed to failure” would have been less biased than the naysaying tone throughout the whole article), the comments made by the sources for the story gave some insight into how corporate practices fossilize, and how a change-resistant mindset affects how data is reported and reviewed.

The specifics of this change are that currently GM is running their plants with two shifts of production, and leaving the graveyard shift for maintenance and restocking, but will switch to three shifts of production. The GM representatives cited in the article claim this will help the efficiency and productivity of the assets, while the third party sources claim that there is no way that this could be beneficial due to the unique nature of auto manufacturing.

I’ve never worked in an auto plant, and I don’t have access to their current cost structure or manufacturing KPIs, so I don’t know if this is a good decision or not, but the reasons given for why this will fail seem to be specious at first glance.

Going by the numbers in the article, GM is looking to add a third shift of production, and increase budgeted downtime (not clear if this is scheduled or unscheduled downtime) during the production by 20%, while still leaving 115 days a year down for larger maintenance or product line changes.

The three big reasons given for why this will fail:
1) The third shift is needed for needed maintenance and cleaning. “If running three shifts means you’re [producing] at only 60% of capacity, then you haven’t gained anything,” said Ron Harbour, publisher of an auto-plant efficiency report. (All quotes from the WSJ article linked to above)

But this calculation assumes that they are currently running at 100% of capacity whenever they are scheduled to run, and that nothing breaks down or works less than optimally during the scheduled production shifts. And since the change had an expected increase in downtime up front, I have to assume that the increase was accounted for in the cost-benefit analysis.

2) The third shift is prone to more job errors, leading to quality problems.

I hope to hell that GM already has measures in place to take care of that, since they are currently doing their maintenance on the third shift. This is a perfect example of that midlevel department manager that shows up at every meeting (and if you are real unfortunate, writes the report that heads up the chain of command) that only reports the details that support maintaining the status quo. If moving production to the third shift increases their errors, doesn’t moving some of the maintenance to first and second shift reduce their errors? (Not saying I buy that shift-to-shift error disparities have to be accepted and lived with, but you can’t say that the one has to be true without the contra-positive also being accepted)

3) Adding a third shift means making more cars, which means that if a model is a market bust, this will be a bigger problem for the company.

I can’t even follow this claim, which was touted as the biggest risk for the change. Reducing the idle time for equipment only increases the asset utility for each line, it doesn’t affect the product range for each line. And inventory management is what will drive the impact on the company in the event of any model losing sales, not the available rate of production for any model. The article acted like it was a big coup to get the GM representative to admit that if sales couldn’t support production then eventually downsizing of the workforce would have to take place, but that is already true and is a completely separate issue from this change.

The whole article just seemed to be the manifestation in print of the guy who has been around for 45 years and says “That will never work” to every proposal being made, not realizing that what is currently being done already isn’t working. If the options are between continuing to follow the current practices that are losing money and failing, and trying something that has both positive and negative affects that may work – yes, go ahead and see if there is a better, third way to do things, but eventually you have to take the leap and try something. Don’t let those with golden parachutes who only have to get the ship to hold together for a couple of more years before they can escape comfortably prevent the company from making the changes they need to make to remain viable in the long term.

When The Cat’s Away, The Mice Will Be King*

I know times are tough. I understand that all companies are trying to do more with less, and are cutting costs wherever they can. But I think that any chemical plant that is running a 24/7 operation that joins the current trend of replacing off-shift supervisors with lead operators is falling into a huge abyss of the type I wrote about yesterday.

The thought is that each plant is too top heavy with supervision and management, especially as automation advances result in the operator workforce slowly shrinking over the past few decades. So eliminate the shift supervisor, point to one of the board operators and call him  the “lead operator”, maybe pawn off some of the clerical/phone-in duties to the security guard (remind me to talk about out-sourcing security guards, or the elimination of them completely at some CHEMICAL PLANTS for another day), and see an immediate benefit in your cost center.

Remember that savings two months from now, when you have to explain to your boss why productivity has dropped, rework and off-spec production has increased, and you spend the first three hours of every morning trying to pick up the pieces of all the little problems that have accumulated over the past 12-16 hours. Realize you have to reorganize all meeting schedules, as Mondays are now completely shot. Keep an eye on all the leading indicators for injuries, but remember that most minor near misses won’t be known about at all, until it’s too late.

At the first plant I worked at, the department manager explained staffing to me the best I’ve ever heard it expressed: “You aren’t paying the operators to take samples every couple of hours and open a few valves. You pay them to be here that one time a year when everything goes wrong.”

This morning, I came in to work to discover that the main water line leading up to the street our plant is on cracked open (again), and that the plant was losing water pressure since 3 am, and would be down to nothing within the next 30 minutes. If there wasn’t a shift supervisor on duty at the plant, who would have made the immediate decisions of which production units to shut down, how to make sure we kept enough steam going through the plant to prevent freezing while making sure we didn’t run out of feed water for the boilers, act as a plant representative to the water company to pressure them to actually get out of their trucks and start working on the repair NOW, and ensure that provisions were put in place to maintain a safe working environment throughout the disruption?

If this problem occured at 2 pm, there will always be a dozen people watching over all these issues. But equipment always fails at 4:45 on Friday afternoon, utilities always go out 1 am in the winter, and the broken pipe will always crack between two departments, so that no operator is “responsible” for it. You need ONE person with knowledge, accountability, authority, and drive to be responsible for the entire site at any given minute.

*Answer once given by my father during a game of Pictionary.  Which is either a) kinda close enough to the actual adage, if you consider English isn’t his first language, or 2) an indication that if you think some of what I post is batty, that it just might be a sign of hereditary early onset Alzheimer’s.