When Idle is Not Necessarily Bad

A chief executive officer (CEO) of a large corporation was touring a manufacturing facility.  As with all CEO’s touring a factory, he had an entourage of executives accompanying him as he walked and shook hands with workers on the production line.

As he strolled through the facility’s main line where the most important manufacturing processes took place, he noticed a uniformed operator sitting idly on a chair with his hardhat over his eyes. 

The CEO asked the plant manager accompanying him what the operator’s job was.

The plant manager answered: “That man, sir, is our annealing oven operator.  He watches the oven’s gauges and adjusts the temperatures when needed.”

“I’m sorry for you having to see this man just sitting there doing nothing,” the plant manager said apologetically.  “I’ll go tell him that he should be working.”     

“No, you don’t need to do that,” the CEO replied.  “The operator is doing precisely what we want him to do. Just by the fact that man is sitting there doing nothing, it means that the annealing line is operating smoothly.”

The CEO then approached the operator who quickly got up when he saw him coming.  The CEO shook the worker’s hand and said, “You’re doing a good job, keep up the good work.” 

What do we do when we see a subordinate worker doing nothing at his work-station or desk? 

Some bosses scold their employees for just sitting around.  Some bosses would chide supervisors for not assigning more tasks to employees.  A worker who’s not working is not productive, a boss may say.

On one hand that may be true especially if the idle worker in question had deadlines to meet.  But in most of my experiences, it would be the opposite.  The idle worker would actually be the most productive.   

Like the operator the CEO noticed, idle workers may have no problems to fix.  The operator had already set his equipment and did all the adjustments needed.  He had done his job making sure the annealing line wouldn’t fail and there would be no issues in the quality of items being processed.  He would of course check the gauges now and then to make sure everything is all right. 

We sometimes think that idle workers should be doing something more.  If we see an office worker taking longer coffee breaks than usual, we’d somehow try to think of giving more work to that person to make him more productive.  If we see other workers sweating away while another is just sitting around, we sometimes get the first impression that the idle worker doesn’t have enough work. 

Some bosses believe workers are just too lazy to find other better things to do or problems to solve.  We sometimes conclude that workers in general lack initiative or a sense of ownership. 

So, we try to push workers to be creative problem-solvers.  We command them or offer them incentives to take the initiative to find improvements for the workplace.  Creative ideas are starting points for higher productivity, after all. 

But we have to beware that there are pitfalls to forcing workers to find and solve problems.  Workers might end up finding and solving problems for the sake of it; they’d just identify stuff that seem like problems but aren’t.  Trivial issues that don’t offer any benefits would just be reported.  We would end up back to square one:  just finding work so an idle worker won’t be idle.    

In my experience, many idle workers are veteran workers who have by experience learned how to do their jobs so well they end up with extra time on their hands.  Because these veteran workers have accumulated much wisdom about their jobs, it has often become a good idea to assign them as mentors to younger, less experienced workers.  Veteran workers can be the best mentors. 

And more often than not, we don’t have to ask.  Veteran workers who have stayed long at their jobs usually volunteer to train their peers.  We managers just have to reinforce this by recognition and praise, by showing genuine appreciation. 

Veteran workers also have many ideas for improvement.  Rather than forcing upon them assignments to find and solve problems, it usually is a good idea to just ask them first, informally.  Questions like, “what do you think this factory needs to get better?” or “what’s your opinion about laying out the office differently?”  usually generate some interesting eye-opener responses from veteran workers.

True, some veteran workers wouldn’t offer much at the start.  And most of the time, that’s because there was some bad history involved.  A manager before you didn’t appreciate the veteran worker for a previous suggestion or a manager simply ignored an idea a veteran worker offered. 

This is where investing in listening comes in.  When one can make a veteran worker open up, one may be pleasantly surprised by the treasure trove of ideas and knowledge that come out. 

At that point, the veteran worker is no longer idle. 

About Overtimers Anonymous

Cultivating Passing Thoughts into Aha! Moments

The late Isaac Asimov was a famous author who wrote science fiction stories (e.g. the Foundation series) and essays.  

In one such essay, The Eureka Phenomenon, Dr. Asimov writes how some scientists made great discoveries out of the blue.  He cites:

  • Archimedes who, while taking a bath, solved the problem of determining the volume of a king’s crown by simply dipping it into a tub of water and measuring how much of the liquid was displaced;
  • Friedrich August Kekule von Stradonitz, who solved the ring formula of benzene by dreaming about it;
  • James Watt who overcame a design problem with his steam engine after he took a walk in the park;
  • Otto Loewi who won the 1936 Nobel prize in medicine for his findings about the human body’s nervous system in which he wrote down key formulations after waking up in the middle of the night with ideas that suddenly entered his mind. 

Asimov doesn’t know “how often does this ‘Eureka phenomenon’ happen.”  But he suspects it “happens often,” that many of what people discover come about from “real inspiration,” a result of “thinking under involuntary control.”  We get “revelation” and “insight” but leaves it to the “mystic” how it comes about. 

“Eureka” is Greek for “I’ve got it!” which is what Archimedes says the instant he solves his problem with the volume of the king’s crown via the displacement of water. 

It’s also known as the Aha! moment and I believe it happens much more often than even Dr. Asimov realised.

I tested that idea for one day.  Whenever I had a thought that seemed to be an Aha!, an insight that just came to mind for no reason, I wrote it down.  On that day, I tallied three Aha! moments. 

I tried it again the next day.  I only had one.

The day after, I had none. 

Aha! moments, they seem, don’t come in consistent numbers and frequencies.  But I found to getting three in one day as already a lot.  On that second day I had only one Aha! but I was in a bad mood, so I surmise emotions may have a bearing on why I hardly had any that day. 

We all have our Aha! moments.  They are those insights that light us up at any time.  They more often than not are seemingly small and inconsequential. 

One Aha! moment I had was I felt people I know from a job a long time ago have forgotten who I am when I meet them at a reunion.  If I let the thought prosper, the Aha!  becomes an insight in how we as individuals choose whom we remember and whom we forget.  It becomes a basis of how we judge others and how we feel about ourselves.  The Aha!  became a discovery about how I think and maybe how others think as well. 

I and many, if not most of us, probably discard many of the passing thoughts that cross our minds every day.  We perhaps see many passing thoughts as worthless stuff that enter our minds out of nowhere while we’re focused on something else or just doing something out of routine (like riding a bus or playing games on our smartphones). 

Too bad.  As Isaac Asimov wrote in his Eureka Phenomenon essay, many of what we think as worthless passing thoughts may actually be potential Aha! moments that can lead to big ideas and discoveries. 

Some people would disagree with me.  A search for “passing thoughts” on the web suggested a similarity to “intrusive thoughts,” which Psychology Today warns as possibly negative and harmful.  Nevertheless, I’d like to think there’s a positive side to having passing thoughts and their potential to become Aha! moments. 

Many creative problem-solving consultants teach structured approaches to seizing those Aha! moments.  Messrs. David Rock and Josh Davis, Ph.D., for instance, preach having time alone, thinking positively, and looking inward as means to maximising the Aha! moment.   

Yet, many organisations I’ve engaged with don’t really apply much in the way of structured approaches to finding ideas or solutions, no matter how many workshops and seminars on creative problem-solving these organisations may invest in.    

In many cases I’ve witnessed, executives rely on on-the-spot solutions during meetings.  Or they hand off the especially complicated problems to task forces made up of department representatives and technical people. 

The task forces often then delegate the complicated part of a problem to one or two low-level engineers or managers, who then crunch numbers, experiment, or do surveys.  Sometimes the task forces hire contractors or consultants to study further whatever the problem is.   

When all the number-crunching and multi-thousand report writing are done, the contractors, consultants, or low-level engineers submit findings to the task force who then present their conclusions and recommendations to their executive superiors.  The chief executive officer (CEO) would then supposedly decide on the proposals. 

Usually, insight into a problem and the Aha! moments that come with them happen during a task force meeting or among consultants and engineers discussing the issue.   

But as much as it may happen with the task-force, consultant, or engineer, I’ve noticed quite often that such insights don’t really reach the executives, especially the CEO. 

Many of the presentations to executives I’ve participated or witnessed have resulted in a chief executive officer (CEO) making a decision that he had already made up his mind to make, sometimes even before the executive had engaged a task force, consultant, or engineer.

The executive in charge had his own Aha! moment and many times from personal experience, task forces and consultants’ recommendations came out as nothing more than confirmations or formalities adapted to what a CEO had already made up his mind on.  

Nevertheless, I believe we should not discount the passing thoughts that enter our minds.  I believe there’s value in those nuggets of thoughts that flicker once in a while in our brains.  I also believe many entrepreneurs and scientists had found success from cultivating passing thoughts into Aha! moments, and had thought further through to formulate breakthrough ideas and discoveries. 

I’ve been making it a habit to jot down as many Aha! moments that come my way of mind.  So far, I’ve gathered four in the last two days.  I’m looking forward to getting more in the immediate future. 

I just have to avoid being in a bad mood.  

About Overtimers Anonymous

Non-Moving Inventories: The Supply Chain’s Elephant in the Room

The phrase, “elephant in the room,” is said to have originated from a fable by Ivan Krylov that tells about “a man who goes to a museum and notices all sorts of tiny things, but fails to notice an elephant.”  It has become a favourite expression for an obvious problem or issue that for some reason gets muddled, forgotten, or avoided. 

Just about every supply chain has an elephant in its room and in many cases, it’s called non-moving inventory. 

Non-moving inventories are items that have ended up idle in storage or on the factory floor for extended periods of time.  Non-moving inventories can be raw materials, packaging materials, spare parts, work-in-process, or finished goods.  They are merchandise that were acquired or produced at a cost but have become unattractive in value.

Non-moving inventories end up as they are for a variety of reasons: 

  1. the enterprise produced more than what could actually be sold;
  2. items are defective, rejections, damaged, or were returned from customers;
  3. items are old, obsolete, expired, or discontinued;

Whatever the reason, enterprise executives would see them as one thing:  a nuisance that takes up valuable space and ties up working capital.   

But they are more than a nuisance.    Non-moving inventories are cash investments that went to naught, as they had lost their selling value.  They are blots to marketers who see them not only as visible failures of their promotional strategies but also as barriers to introducing new products. Some enterprises hold their marketing and sales executives accountable for non-moving inventories and would insist they lead in running them out before any new product is introduced. 

Non-moving inventories are potential threats.  When non-moving inventories grow in size or quantity, they not only become the elephants in the stock-room or storage facility, they also become risks.  An extreme example is when non-moving ammonium nitrate fertiliser exploded in a Beirut, Lebanon warehouse in 2020:  https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/aug/04/huge-explosion-beirut-lebanon-shatters-windows-rocks-buildings 

The good news is many non-moving inventories don’t end up exploding.  The bad news is that even if they don’t explode, they are a potential threat to the enterprise’s balance sheet and to its future growth. 

Despite their nuisance and threat, many enterprises take for granted non-moving inventories and instead try to get them away from their sight. 

A case in point: a large corporation that makes steel beams and heavy metal parts hired a chief information officer (CIO) to streamline the inventory system.  To appreciate the company’s products and materials, the new CIO toured the corporation’s main factory and warehouse which was just outside the city.  He noticed a huge pile of rusting steel products at a far side of the facility and asked what they were.  The plant manager who was his tour guide said the items were scrap. 

The CIO asked how come there’s so much of the “scrap?”

The plant manager said, “I don’t know. They’ve been sitting there for years ever since I was hired.”

When the CIO reported the “scrap” to the Chief Executive Officer, the latter was outraged. 

“They [his chief finance officer & chief manufacturing officer] told me that they got rid of that stuff many years ago!”, the CEO exclaimed. 

The CEO summoned the CFO and Chief Manufacturing Officer (CMfgO) and ordered a thorough audit. 

The CFO and CMfgO were furious at the new CIO for making them look bad for exposing the hidden inventories.  Within a few weeks, they drove the CIO to resign after they constantly hurled negative comments about him and refused to cooperate with him in improving the inventory system. 

As for the non-moving inventories, they continued to sit in that far corner of the company’s factory, where executives once again forgot about them.

For the steel company, the non-moving inventories would come back to haunt the executives.  This is especially true as the non-moving items would multiply in size and take up more space.  It would become a problem when the enterprise entered hard times and had difficulty paying debts.  Auditors would no doubt point to the non-moving inventories as where the company’s cash is tied up. 

How then does one get rid of non-moving inventories?  The answers are straightforward but can be controversial: 

  • Sell Them Even at a Loss

Sell non-moving inventories at the best but most attractive price possible.  If one can only sell them at scrap value, so be it. 

Some finance executives, however, caution against such drastic selling.  It’s one thing to convert non-moving inventories to cash; it’s another to sell them very cheaply.  Losses in balance sheets attract negative attention especially if an enterprise is publicly listed.  But if one wants to once and for all remove the elephant in the room, this is usually the number one solution, whatever the hit it will bring to an enterprise’s financial reputation. 

  • Throw Them Away

This is worse than selling at scrap value but sometimes it’s the next best option if the enterprise needs valuable space and the alternative is to pay dearly for more space. 

Throwing stuff away can also be a hassle given all the compliance protocols it might entail (e.g. environmental impact). But if the items are toxic or dangerous to carry for extended periods of time, the enterprise might not have much of a choice.

  • Salvage Whatever Can Be Recycled or Reused

Some enterprises would invest in salvaging what can be reusable or re-saleable from non-moving inventories.  It’s never an attractive option as it will often require significant expense in time, materials, and equipment.  But it can be a compromise in that salvaging non-moving stock may not result in a sudden hit to an enterprise’s accounting books.  It would also be an opportunity for enterprises to dispose items gradually while getting something back in return. 

  • Process the Work-In-Process (WIP)

Many manufacturing enterprises have work-in-process inventories (WIP).  They’re the stuff that lie between production operations, usually waiting their turn for the next step in a manufacturing process. 

Some manufacturers, however, keep their WIP waiting too long, sometimes too long that the WIP loses value from deterioration and expiration.  This happens when manufacturers don’t follow first-in first-out (FIFO), customers cancel orders while items are in production, or managers allow other orders to “jump the line” or move other WIP ahead of others. 

I’ve seen WIP stored in one place for more than three (3) years, hidden away in a dark corner of a factory, their values long written off by auditors who thought they were losses. 

Even if written off, WIP takes up space and represent poor management resulting in waste.  And even as operations managers may succeed in hiding and getting rid of them, poor manufacturing practices will undoubtedly result in more WIP time to time. 

The answer to avoiding non-moving WIP is to process them right away.  If they are no longer needed, then either the manufacturing manager should process them anyway, scrap them, or salvage some value from them.  Manufacturing managers should also have a policy to always process all the WIP within a maximum number of days, if not hours. 

The best way to get rid of non-moving inventories is to avoid having them in the first place.  Unfortunately, many enterprises are stuck with them, in one form or another.  Eventually, non-moving inventories become easy to spot as an elephant in a room would be.  They’d be that pile of junk, that stack of unidentified boxes, that pallet of dusty cartons, those drums behind the building, or that huge tank that managers have no idea what it contains. 

Any non-moving inventory will stick out like a sore thumb.  We may try to ignore them but they’ll grow into something larger and harder to afford if we let them. 

Let’s not let them.  Enterprises should get rid of them as fast as possible.  Teamwork with financial auditors and accountants would help because when one has to remove an elephant, one needs all the help one can get.    

About Overtimers Anonymous