Solving Problems, Cultivating Ideas Together

I worked for Procter & Gamble Philippines in the late 1980’s.  I was a production manager who oversaw the food packing lines of the company.  As production manager, I was invited at times to join the food brand team meetings led by marketing managers, who were responsible for their respective products’ success. 

P&G is famous for its brand management approach.  Introduced in 1920’s by Neil McElroy, who later became P&G’s president, brand management focused on individual products rather than the overall business.   Every product would have a brand manager who would be accountable for its market share and profitability. 

The brand managers of P&G formed teams represented by different functional members from all over the company.  These included people from product design & development (PDD), finance, sales, market research, and manufacturing. 

For the two (2) food product brands, my senior manager boss of food manufacturing was the member of both brand teams but the brand team at times would invite me to join meetings in cases where they needed some technical input. 

Brand managers delegated problems with their ideas to respective team members to solve.  PDD, for example, was charged with solving product design issues.  Finance was accountable in forecasting profits and presenting costs.  Sales made sure they got customer orders and that the product was distributed in all trade segments and geographic markets. Manufacturing was expected to provide time and resources for PDD’s test runs of product prototypes and to ensure volume targets were met when the product was launched. 

Brand managers would press brand team members to solve problems especially when there were tight deadlines to meet.  The careers of P&G brand managers depended on the successes of their ideas; failure was not an option.

This caused some friction between departments in which brand managers had to work harder to get supportive commitments from team members.  Some did and became successful.  Some didn’t and they left the corporation.   

One factor to why brand managers were unsuccessful was that they overly delegated problems to team members, to the point of blaming them for failures.  These brand managers misplaced delegation with teamwork. 

As much as there may be individual inventors who bring their ideas into realities single-handedly, successful idea-creators see the need to work with problem-solvers. 

Ideas and problems are not mutually exclusive.  Neither idea nor problem is worked on separately.  Problems are not obstacles to ideas and ideas should not be seen as unpleasant disruptions that lead to problems.

We should welcome both ideas and problems.  Ideas are the “a-ha’s”, the insights that are foundations of creative concepts.  Problems are the challenges that can provide us opportunities. 

When we encounter problems while inventing from an idea, we should try to seek opportunities from them, as much as we may try to overcome them as obstacles.  Problems can lead us to better ideas, as much as ideas can lead to problems. 

Team leaders therefore should not delegate as in pass problems with accountabilities to other team members.  Telling a team member to do a job and to do it correctly or else is not delegating; it definitely isn’t teamwork. 

Delegating is about entrusting and empowering a team member to do a job rightly and excellently.  It doesn’t exclude the compelling need to work with people. 

When an idea for a new product is created, a brand team should cultivate it together.  Team leaders and product design experts should tinker with new product ideas together.  Leaders should study profitability with finance experts together.  They should plan roll-outs to the trade together with the field sales people.  And they should test products and observe production runs together with manufacturing. 

The key word is together.  Teams are there together for a common purpose and when it comes to ideas and problems, they should tinker with them together to attain success. 

About Overtimers Anonymous

Why We Need Engineers

I spent fifteen (15) minutes one morning pounding several pills into powder.  The powdered pills are medicinal supplements for my pet cat, to fight against liver ailments. 

One of my cats tested for high SGPT, an enzyme when found high in a blood test, indicates problems with the liver.  The vet prescribed the cat needed one tablet of liver supplement a day.  But since I found it impossible to force feed the cat with a tablet, the vet said it was okay to crush the tablet into powder and mix it with the cat’s food. 

The vet gave me the prescription and told me in what form I can give the pills to the cat.  She didn’t tell me how to do it.  That’s for me to figure out.  I used a kitchen hammer to crush the pills, put the powder in a bottle, and sprinkle close to the prescribed dosage on the cat’s food every morning.  I crush as many pills I can altogether to avoid having to use the hammer frequently and save time. 

The vet prescribed; I administered.  The vet tells me what’s needed and I do the work of planning and implementing.  And this essentially is a small-scale example of what spells the difference between scientists, doctors, & executives and engineers.  The former group formulates; the latter makes it work. 

Sometimes, however, the former group of scientists, doctors, and engineers believe engineers aren’t needed in some cases.  The former people try to work things out by themselves in the hope of saving time and money by not engaging the latter, the engineers.  Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. 

And when it doesn’t, it can be disastrous.

A beach house in Florida was seen the only one left standing and intact after a hurricane.  The owners foresaw the risk of storm surges and invested in a super-strong foundation and superior construction materials.  The owners wanted a strong house on soft ground on a beachfront.  They invested in engineering to make their house withstand the risks.  It paid off as seen from the picture. 

Unfortunately for the beach house neighbours, it didn’t turn out so well.  They obviously didn’t engage engineers when they built their houses.  They lost their homes as a result. 

Enterprises & organisations don’t need engineers for every problem.  We can agree with that.  Many problems can be solved by common sense.  Many problems aren’t engineering related.  Many are rooted in economic, legal, and personnel issues. 

There are problems, however, engineers are in the best position to solve. 

When the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared a pandemic stemming from the SARS-Cov-2, popularly known as CoVID-19, political leaders and executives instituted strict health protocols in their respective communities and enterprises.  Borders were shut; people were told to stay home; factories were closed; deliveries were delayed.

Shortages happened.  Hospitals ran out of supplies such as face masks and personal protective equipment (PPE).  Supermarket shelves emptied.  Undelivered perishable food was thrown away.  Factories didn’t get their materials or didn’t have enough workers to run production lines. 

And when vaccines became available.  No one figured out how to distribute them.  Executives made promises that they couldn’t keep especially when supply ran short.  Contracts were broken as national leaders of countries where the vaccines were manufactured decided to keep the limited supply for their own people. 

Leaders appointed czars and task forces.  But because they were mostly made up of doctors, scientists, politicians, and even soldiers, the appointees could only go as far as making manifestos and policies.  There was hardly anyone figuring out the planning and implementation of what these appointees wanted to do. 

Leaders and executives probably thought they just needed scientists and a few good managers.  They didn’t figure they needed the people who’d have the expertise to set up structures and systems to make their ideas realities. 

That’s what engineers do.  Make ideas into realities.  But many leaders don’t know that or haven’t accepted that. 

And that’s how managing the pandemic became one big tragic mess.  More than 300 million reported infections. More than 5 million people dead.  Billions of dollars and euros spent.  Millions of people out of work.  Thousands of enterprises closed, some forever.  And shortages and disruptions in supply chains continuing.

Scientists make formulae.  Executives develop policies.  Engineers build and help implement solutions. 

In many cases, many leaders deliberately forget the last sentence of the above paragraph.  And just like the beach house, the few who do remember are left standing while the others are swept away. 

About Overtimers Anonymous

The Devil is in The Details

I was reading the San Jose Mercury News one morning while staying with my brother during a visit some years ago at San Mateo, California, USA and I noticed that the front page of the paper featured a repair of a road culvert. 

The culvert, a canal by the side of a main thoroughfare, was eroding and needed repair.  The news article talked about what the engineers assigned to the repair job were going to do and it included a schedule of when a lane of the road would be closed. 

It was fascinating that a big city newspaper like the San Jose Mercury News would put a story about a problematic road culvert as its main headline for the day, much bigger than other national and international news. 

I then thought, “Why not?”  Why not showcase what the local government is doing about roadwork and how it would affect those who live in or near San Jose City who in the first place probably make up the majority of readers and subscribers to the newspaper. 

And why not write in-depth about the roadwork so that people will know the details, such as what’s the roadwork timetable and how it may affect traffic in the area? 

The devil after all is in the details. 

The idiom, the devil is in the details, points out the need to take into account the nitty-gritties of a plan or solution.  It describes what happens when we find it harder than we thought to implement an idea or execute a strategy. 

Some enterprise executives decide on solutions without considering the ramifications.  They would say they did especially if a task force that recommended the solution studied a lot about it. But given the fact we live in a complex world, there would often be something left out, something that the executives and managers didn’t expect.

When the Coca-Cola Company attempted to reformulate their flagship soda in the 1985, many consumers complained and rebelled.  Coca-Cola had done a taste test study that showed consumer receptiveness to the new formula but they didn’t ask consumers whether they’d buy it.  The new formula was a failure and Coca-Cola revived the old formula by calling it “classic.” 

When a multinational food corporation changed the plastic lids of its margarine containers to a cheaper material, it didn’t foresee how fragile the lids would be on the production line.  Many lids broke during packing such that the productivity losses overrode the cost savings.  The product research group who tested the lids ignored workers’ comments about the breaking lids, and instead passed the problem to manufacturing management. 

What the devil is in the details teaches us is that for every initiative we start, we should pay attention to the nitty-gritties that would be involved. 

A lot of times it has to do with logistics; 

  • A purchaser would buy tons of a commodity to avail of a bulk discount but doesn’t realise there’s no more space in the warehouse;
  • A wholesaler offers discounts for customers who buy at least a million dollars of goods a month but it turns out there aren’t enough delivery trucks when orders come in on the last day of the month;
  • A manufacturing executive directs a production line to run on three shifts to build up inventories of finished product but finds out aren’t enough pallets to store the items at the warehouse;
  • A laboratory manager requisitions for state-of-the-art testing equipment but doesn’t stock up on the imported reagents needed for the testing procedure that comes with the new machine, which results in delays in releasing products for shipment. 

Details always start small but mushroom into big issues when they are not addressed.  Experienced executives don’t ignore details and embed themselves into the issues before they get out of hand.   They take control and put things in control. 

No one has demonstrated this more than Amancio Ortega, the founder of Inditex, the brand behind Zara, which has 1,854 stores in 96 countries.  Despite being a multi-billionaire and retired, Ortega “has never bothered with an office.”  He “prefers to sit on the floor of Zara’s women’s department.” His daughter, Ortega Perez, who has emerged as an active Zara executive, emulates her father’s hands-on management style.  Ms. Perez, just like her father, very much manages the details of the business.  

It’s easy to have ideas.  It’s another thing to make them come true. 

Because the devil is in the details. 

 About Overtimers Anonymous

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