How To Prepare For When Moving Day Turns Into Groundhog Day

The good scenario: Your product has become so successful that you need to build a new, additional production facility to both increase your production and allow for better coverage of another market area.

The more common scenario: You want to move your current production facility to a place that can run with lower overhead, utility, and manning costs.

Either way, this should be a piece of cake. You’ve already refined your process, determined which equipment works, and have built up a knowledge base at your current facility. All you have to do is use the current plant as a model for the new plant, and you’re done.

Then you hit the on button at the new plant, and find that you can’t make any product. Or it isn’t in spec. Or you start seeing way too many people complaining of complications and body stresses and strains you’ve never seen before. If you’re lucky, it seems like you’re repeating the same mistakes and headaches that you moved past long ago at the old plant. If not, you’ve seemed to have moved backwards. And to top it off, you don’t even have Bill Murray around to make it funny. What happened?

To put it short, you treated the project to build a new facility as if it were as simple as running a copying machine. But even copying machines get jammed. The mistakes I’ve seen:

1 – Garbage In, Garbage Out: Moving to a new location likely means changing raw materials to a local source. It might be “just as good”, but it will be different. Impurities matter, not only the level, but their makeup. I’ve seen projects spend millions trying to react to the fact that they were originally designed for a different feedstock, only to end up as a complete write-off a few years later.

2 – You Can’t Copy What You Don’t Have – Your documentation isn’t as good as you think it is. Yes, you have all the original files and specifications for each piece of equipment you bought when you built the first plant decades ago. But you didn’t update the files as frequently as you updated the equipment. As you expanded the business, you had to work around the pinch points in the design, and slowly rebuilt the plant. Off-shift maintenance got sick of always repairing the drive that constantly failed, so they upgraded it on their own. Your operating procedures soon developed shadows that resided only in the heads of those who used them.

3 – I Used The One Labeled “Abby Normal” – Since brain transplants have been perfected yet, you have to rely on Knowledge Management to get the years of experience built up in the heads of all the employees at the original plant into the heads of the new plant. Take the frustration of training one new employee in a plant of veterans, multiply it by the number of employees, then multiply it by, I don’t know, say 1 million, to see how hard it will be to get an entire new crew up to speed. If it’s an expansion, you might get a few people at the old site transfer over and act like a starter dough does when making sourdough bread. If your shutting the old plant down – be ready to have some bad information passed along by your employees on their way out the door to the unemployment line.

4 – We can build it faster, stronger. We have the technology – Why copy something when you can improve it? Because nobody ever thinks that their “improvement” has a cost or trade off. Soon, you can find yourself in a shootout between the “experts” who are tied to the methods of the old plant and take offense to the thought that the new guys just waltz in and tell them they’ve been doing things wrong all their lives, and the new guys who can’t credit the team that is being replaced with having any common sense – after all, if they knew what they were doing, why is this project going on at all?

5 – You Can Lead A Horse To Water… – Lastly, and it always is considered last in these projects, is getting your customers to accept the new facility. Nobody wants to deal with change, especially if there is no real upside to them. You’ve moved production to save costs, but your customers won’t see that money, they’ll just see the hassle of having to audit and approve the new site. And deal with the supply headaches your startup hiccups give them. And if you don’t think your announcement through completely, you’ll find out too late that you sold your old facility down the river in an effort to generate customer buy-in (“We are building a new state-of-the-art facility to ensure quality production that we haven’t been able to in the past”) and burnt any bridge back to return production to the way it was when the startup goes even worse than I’m expecting.

I’m not saying you have to stay where you are today – you probably can’t. But you have to treat a copy-cat project as seriously as a new design development.


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, 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, 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.

How Do You Respond When The World Comes Crashing Down?

Every day has it’s hassles and troubles, and every third day had a “unique” “catastrophic” problem. For me, today was the third day.

I arrived at work to find that due to some problem at the phone company, our plant’s connection to the internet was down. So – no email (fine, it’s a holiday week), no web surfing (even better). But, we run all our inventory and quality data through a centralized ERP, which means we couldn’t go through our normal methods of producing and shipping. And quickly, we found everyone in the office splitting into three groups:

1) The oblivious – those mostly unaffected by the change – who went about their day as normal. Most of this was good – the maintenance group had their work to perform, and understood that trivialities like work notifications and charging out equipment from the storeroom would be caught up with later, and support staff that couldn’t help solve the problem at least knew to keep out of the way of those who were overwhelmed. Some of this was disappointing – those who didn’t pitch in where an additional hand would have been helpful.

2) The problem solvers – Unfortunately, during the midst of the end of the year holidays, several of the usual suspects for this group were on vacation, but enough were around to get the job done. This is the group that every manufacturing facility depends on day in and day out. Those who know that although standards are a good thing to have, and you want to use the system as designed, that at the end of it, all that matters is getting the job done. Call another location to have them create the shipping paperwork that is needed and fax it over on the one phone line that isn’t tied into the VOIP system; figure a way to temporarily label production lots so that the process can run and that traceability is retained after the computer system is accessible again. (In one of my previous lives as a production supervisor, I lived for these moments. I honestly liked getting that phone call at 2:30 am notifying me that some piece of equipment was out of service, or that a specific raw material was not available. Having to struggle to quickly get the sleep out of your eyes while trying to reallocate all the remaining resources so that the remaining hours until the next day were productive provided a real sense of accomplishment.) The best few go around trying several workarounds for both the part of the problem that’s directly affecting them, and other people’s issues. Hell, even if the first workaround doesn’t work, nor the second, the fact that they are trying seems to do a lot of good to those who are struggling.

3) The problem – The group that insists that everything be done their standard way, or not be done at all. The people who everyone else at the facility work around so that their comfort zone isn’t infringed upon. Those who bitch and moan that everything was so much easier back before the current systems and point to the current glitch as proof. (Okay, we all do this last one – it’s just that some of us get the work done first, and then bitch).

Now, in an ordinary day at the plant, we all know which category everyone we work with fits into. There are those who DO work, and those who CREATE work for others. But every now and then when the chips are down, you’re surprised. Some people are just waiting for their moment to step up to the challenge. And some are ready to crack and bring everyone else down around them. Keep an eye out for both of these surprise groups – and remember them when things get back to normal.

Your Succession Plan – How To Ensure They Don’t Complain About You When You’re Gone (And Fix What You Do While You Stay)

With the current trend away from job security and loyalty between companies and their employees, you can pretty much be guaranteed that you won’t be doing your current job forever (I’ve also heard rumors of things called “promotions” that would remove you from your current position, but I’ve learned not to believe everything I hear). And while you may feel that once you leave your current employer you don’t care what happens in your absence, once you think about it, you realize that whatever gap you leave is going to have to be filled by the coworkers you left behind. The ones that were in the trenches with you, some of whom you like and respect. You don’t want to screw them over (even if you do want to see The Company crash and burn). And you definitely don’t want everyone complaining about the lurch you’ve left them in when some prospective new employer calls to check on your references.

So figure out what you do all day at work, and write it down. Develop documentation so that all the tasks you do to keep your ship running are known, and so that someone will be able to do them in your absence. Make sure that spreadsheet you kludged together to gather all the data your boss needs to give his monthly presentation to his boss has enough comments so that your replacement can use it – and then make sure that the spreadsheet doesn’t die somewhere that nobody else in the department has access to. Have everything prepared so that as soon as you give your two week’s notice, or are handed a pink slip, or cut the cake at your “Good Luck At HQ” party, you can send out an email to your manager and department making sure  that your knowledge and tools get passed along.

And even if you aren’t moving away, writing down what you do, how you do it, and why you do each thing will give you that needed perspective on your typical day. How many tasks do you do because they are simple and routine, but no longer add any value to your job? Is there a quicker way to accomplish the same goal? Or is it time to move some of these tasks off to someone else who needs the development?