Problems are Doorways to Opportunities

Since the start of 2021, semiconductor chips, which are used in cars, trucks, computers, and smart-phones, have been in short supply.  Supply has been so short that automotive companies have shut down assembly lines and consumer electronics corporations have delayed roll-outs of new products. 

Bloomberg reported in its September 22, 2021 Supply Lines newsletter that the gap between “ordering a semiconductor chip and delivery is still growing.” 

But four years before in 2017 (see chart above), it was already taking at least 10 weeks to deliver a semiconductor chip from time of order.  So, while businesses in 2021 anxiously wait up to 20 weeks for their chips to arrive, why were industries tolerating long order-to-delivery times of up to 10 weeks in the first place?

The dictionary defines a problem as an “unsatisfactory situation.”  It is a “state of difficulty that needs to be resolved.” 

Many of us equate problems with crises and disruptions, that is, we see a problem only when it hurts us such that it becomes urgent to address it. 

Hence, we tend to avoid them or try to resolve them as quickly as possible.  The fewer problems we have, the better, we usually say. 

The dictionary, however, also says it is a “a question proposed for solution or discussion.” 

Problems can be doorways to opportunities, in which if we think of them that way, we should seek them out and solve them for the ideas that would benefit us. 

Enterprises and even governments are scrambling hard in 2021 to fix the semiconductor chip shortage that has crippled factories and caused supply shortfalls of many products, from cell-phones to computers.  Most saw the problem when order-to-delivery lead times extended from 10 to 20 weeks.

If enterprises in 2017, however, proposed the “question” of shortening the supply lead time of 10 weeks, and found a solution, would industries be undergoing a crisis in 2021?  Wasn’t there a way to bring the number of weeks of lead time down to 4 weeks or even less? 

It was obvious that since 2017, company executives had accepted the 10-week order-to-delivery cycle and adjusted their inventories and production schedules to cover for the waiting time.  Executives managed the 10-week lead time into their financial forecasts.  The 10-week lead time was not considered a problem. 

If one enterprise in 2017 had seen the 10-week lead time as a problem rather than as an acceptable fate, and in the process of “discussion” found a “solution,” one wonders how much of a competitive advantage that enterprise would have in 2021. 

It’s never really worthwhile to ask “what-if” questions especially after the fact of a crisis.  But in the process of problem solving, as a question becomes clearer, it would have been likely that a solution would have addressed future adverse situations. 

As companies see their businesses compromised by the semiconductor shortage of 2021, it becomes more sensible to seek out the problems and pose the questions for “discussion” and “solution.”

For the pain many had been experiencing in 2021, it would have been worth it if they had only sought and solve problems then. 

It’s never really good to dwell in the past unless we learn something from it. 

About Overtimers Anonymous

When Increasing Capacity Becomes a Priority

One Sunday morning, a homeless woman at a traffic intersection was approaching cars and begging for alms.  Some drivers give but most don’t.  But the woman persists anyway; she shows a sign saying she’s homeless and asks for money for food. 

I thought as I observed the homeless woman:  if the government could spend so much setting up facilities to quarantine patients infected with the CoVID-19 virus, couldn’t it also spend a little more to house the homeless who roam the streets?  At least the government could provide a place to sleep and some food and water to homeless people even for a brief time so they’d be able to find work or resolve whatever issue that brought them there in the first place? 

The frequent answer to such a suggestion is a lack of resources.  The government would say they don’t have the budget to provide such for homeless people. 

How then were they able to provide for CoVID-19 infected people?  That’s different, a government person may say.  It was a national emergency and the virus is dangerous and life-threatening. 

But isn’t being homeless and without food dangerous and life-threatening too? And at this point, the government would not pursue the argument.  With a wave of a hand, they’d just say there is no justification to provide the resources. 

Not only governments but also enterprises hesitate to provide resources even when the demand would be there.  Executives would cite limitations in budgets or capital.  They would prefer that the operations spearheading supply reach their points of maximum capacities before asking for any investment in additional capacities. 

And even if they are at that point of maximum utilisation, executives would require proof that operations are also at their highest efficiencies.  Executives by common practice, will want an organisation to exhaust all of its means before considering any investment in additional capacities. 

If executives can avoid investing in new capacities, they will.     

This is why factories run flat-out to supply products before companies realise they need to build new production lines.  This is why airlines wait until flights are overbooked or ticket counters turn away passengers before they add new planes to their fleets.  This is why some restaurants don’t expand their dining areas or hire new staff until they see patrons waiting for tables or walking away because they couldn’t get a waiter to serve them.    And this is why internet companies don’t install new equipment until they see slowdowns in downloading speed or backlogs of subscribers. 

It doesn’t occur to many enterprises that investments in additional resources should ideally happen before operating limits are reached. 

At the height of the CoVID-19 pandemic in New York City, USA, in late March of 2020, the US Navy dispatched the USNS hospital ship, Comfort, to assist the city’s medical services. 

New York was low on available beds and staff to treat a surge of CoVID-19 patients.  New York City welcomed the Comfort, with its 1,000 beds and trained medical staff.   

But instead of helping, the Comfort would only take non-CoVID-19 patients.  The US Navy thought that by taking in patients not infected by the virus, New York could free up space in their hospitals for the CoVID-19 patients.  The Comfort’s beds were also spaced closely side by side so in the first place, the ship could not enforce social distancing for CoVID-19 patients.

The Comfort ended up treating 20 patients at its first week as New York’s hospitals continued to struggle with crowded wards and weary staff.  After so many weeks of sitting idly by hardly utilised, the Comfort departed New York City. 

The story of the Comfort was a lesson for leaders, if not an eye-opener for executives.  One should not wait till an issue becomes extremely urgent before acting.  

But nobody did learn.  Nobody did realise.  Many executives of governments and enterprises have forgotten the story of the Comfort. It has been relegated as one more passing tale of the pandemic era.  Meanwhile, wave after wave of virus infections months after the story of the Comfort have led to overcrowded hospitals and more deaths due to patients unable to be admitted for treatment.   

We shouldn’t wait till the last minute before deciding we need more capacity.  It isn’t complicated to calculate how much more we need if we can see the rate of  growing demand and anticipate when our resources will no longer be enough. 

I gave money to the homeless woman that day but I saw more homeless people begging on the street corners the weeks afterward. 

We still haven’t learned. 

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

Weather Forecasting vs. Demand Forecasting: A Case of Different Expectations

This Photo by Unknown Author is licensed under CC BY-NC

Meteorologists predict what the weather will be like, whether it be tomorrow or the next few hours. 

Demand forecasters predict what customers will buy and how much, whether it be next week, next month or next year. 

When a weather forecast is wrong, we don’t hold the meteorologist accountable.  We may grumble about the inconvenience caused, but we won’t condemn him or her. 

When a demand forecast is wrong, some executives hold the forecaster accountable.  Some condemn him or her. 

We recognise meteorology as a science.  It uses data like barometric pressure, temperature, and wind speed.  A weather forecast is based on hard data and usually isn’t too far off from what really occurs.  We can excuse the meteorologist if it rains at 7:00am instead of at the predicted hour of 6:00am. 

We don’t recognise demand forecasting as a science.  We see it as a management art mixed with some mathematics using historical data.  If the forecast is off by as much as a margin of 10%, we see it as flawed.  We believe the forecaster could do better even if there is a lack of hard data. 

Weather forecasts for the next 24 hours are more likely to be accurate than predicted conditions in a week from now.    

A demand forecast of how much of an item will be sold tomorrow is no more accurate than for a prediction of how much will be sold on Wednesday next week.  The margin of error of how much customers buy tomorrow versus forecast usually is similar, if not more, than the margin of error next week. 

We pay greater attention to the forecast of a typhoon’s path in the next hour than the forecast for the next day.   We care more what’s the weather going to be like this morning than what will be happening later tomorrow.    

We pay more attention to a demand forecast at the beginning of the month than one towards the end of the month.  We care more for what we think we will sell next month than what we will sell this month, especially if this month is almost over.  We clearly can see what we will be selling this month as it nears its end so we’d find an updated forecast for the current month as not really useful. 

We accept the outcome of the weather, never mind if the forecast was right or not.  We can’t control the weather after all and meteorology looks complicated as it is.

We see demand forecasting more as speculation and something we can influence.  If demand forecasts turn out close to the outcomes we want, we celebrate and praise the forecaster.  If things turn out not what we want, we find faults in the system and in the performance of the forecaster.

Meteorologists push to improve the science of their forecasting by investing in technologies and state-of-the-art equipment such as satellites and sensors. 

Enterprise executives push demand forecasters to be better in their predictions with hardly any investment in science or technology.  The most enterprises will do to improve forecasting is to expand market research and customer surveys. 

We adapt our behaviours and plans to the weather forecast.  We prepare our raincoats and umbrellas if the forecast is rain or we wear lighter clothing if the meteorologist says it’s going to be hot.

We insist demand forecasters revise their numbers and marketers influence customer preferences if we don’t like the sales predictions.  Executives believe the adage, “we don’t predict the future, we make it,” applies to demand forecasting. 

Forecasting is an activity that should as much as possible be based on science and hard data.  But it can never be fully accurate either for weather or for market demand. 

Yet, we treat each differently. 

We see meteorology as a science and though we may be frustrated by its sometimes inaccurate moments, we adapt to what the meteorologists forecast, even if the forecast is for the next 60 minutes than for the next day. 

We see demand forecasting as an approach to be performed with high accuracy and its predictions and outcomes consistent with enterprise goals, especially those pertaining to revenue.  We expect the organisation to change market behaviour and not the other way around.

Forecasting the weather is a science.  Forecasting demand is performance.  We accept and adapt to what the weather forecast is.  We insist that the demand forecast should always be correct and in step with our objectives. 

Forecasting is about predicting what the future will bring.  It can never be 100% right.  Yet, we expect differently depending on what we forecast.  This is because there are things we think we can influence and things we know we can’t. 

We can’t change what the weather will be like tomorrow but we can change what customers will prefer. 

The trouble is we sometimes bark at the wrong tree.  We try to influence the forecaster when we should be trying to influence the market. 

About Overtimers Anonymous

Why We Need to Define the Bigger Problem*

“Houston, We Have a Problem”

When Apollo 13 astronauts reported an explosion on their space module, NASA’s Houston Mission Control contemplated on continuing the mission and land on the moon.  It was only when NASA realized that the problems were life-threatening that it was decided to abort the mission and to have the astronauts return to Earth safely. 

We tend to define problems by its symptoms and how it affects our agenda.  NASA had an agenda to get Apollo 13 to the moon and at first stuck to that mission even with the reports of an explosion and the resulting problems. 

We apply this thinking in our daily lives. 

If we get sick, the first thing we look for is medicine to relieve pain and discomfort.  

If our car won’t start in the morning, we look under the hood to see if there is a quick fix.  If we can’t find any, we hail a taxi or find a ride via Uber or Grab so we won’t be late to wherever we’re going.  Car repair comes later when we have time or we delegate it to someone else to do the fixing. 

We try to solve problems with remedies and quick fixes that as much as possible won’t interfere with our agenda.  We almost all to often react to problems as obstacles that are to be removed or bypassed via the easiest means possible.

Hence, when it comes to problems, we all too often seek solutions as soon as possible.  

We classify problems as either big or small.  A small problem has an obvious and easy solution.  A big problem needs figuring out, planning, and allocation of resources. 

But sometimes a problem, whether big or small, is part of a bigger problem that may not be apparent. 

A bigger problem may be a root cause for the smaller problems or a flaw in a system that has yet to be detected.  It can also be an opportunity which is manifesting itself in a changing environment.

For example, a small online retail business that is experiencing steadily growing sales has hired more people to meet the growing demand.  The head count has grown to a point where preparing the payroll has become more time-consuming and complicated.  The business owners, in response, install a customized payroll system and train clerks to run it.  After a while, the business owners notice the overhead costs are going up so they engage an accountant to streamline the budgeting and charging of expenses.  Profits do grow but the accountant’s reports show rapid increases in the costs of rent, insurance, and electricity.  The business owners hire a consultant who recommends renegotiating the contracts for rent, finding another insurance provider, and buying a more efficient air-conditioning system that uses less electricity.

Finally, the business owners realize that their business is just getting too big to manage on their own so they form a partnership with an investor who infuses capital and hires professional executives.  The online business becomes a bigger company that grows tenfold in succeeding years

The online retail business company addressed problems as they came but wasn’t aware of the bigger problem until it became apparent.  The business was just getting too big to manage.  

Solving the bigger problem begins with a fuzzy situation.  The online retail business is getting too big.  That’s a fuzzy situation.  It spurs questions.  Why is it getting too big?  What makes us say it is getting too big?  How did it become too big? 

Answering the questions from the fuzzy situation provides information about the problem behind the fuzzy situation.  The information becomes the springboard to clarify what the problem is all about.  The online retail business is getting too big from the higher sales.  The organization has grown in head count.  Costs to accommodate the higher head count such as rent, insurance, and electricity have gone up.  The business has hired more people to manage the head count. 

From the information gathered, the business can then begin to define the problem.  Defining the problem does not necessarily mean identifying a cause or an issue.  One should avoid the pitfall of jumping to a conclusion such as, in the online business example, saying that the the business has become unproductive because of the higher head count.

Defining the problem requires asking in-depth questions.  How can we manage the business better in lieu of higher sales?  How might we become more productive?  In what ways can we reduce costs? 

The online retail business selected the first question:  how can we manage the business better in lieu of higher sales.  The owners chose this question as the one that defined the problem based on criteria.  That criteria come from the business owners’ mission, goals, and strategy.  The online business wanted to be a fast-growing company with high market share and revenue within five (5) years.  Hence, the owners chose the question “how can we manage the business better in lieu of higher sales” as their problem.

It doesn’t stop there.  The problem may be defined more sharply over more information and thought.  The problem may become “how might we increase sales without incurring higher costs?”  Or “how might we expand our product lines without having to hire more people?” 

It is when the owners settle on a specific question that they would have defined their problem. 

*originally published on February 8, 2019 on LinkedIn

About Overtimers Anonymous

The Path Towards Becoming a Supply Chain Expert Begins with Basic Competency

Sometimes identifying a problem is not in observing what’s going on; sometimes it’s noticing what’s not there.

In my blog, “Where are the Supply Chain Experts?”, written last March 2020, I wrote there were no supply chain experts seen working side by side with business and government leaders in solving supply issues at the height of the CoVID-19 pandemic. 

As media reported issues regarding shortages of medical supplies and consumer goods, we heard no real solutions to the problems.  And as government executives encountered obstacles deploying vaccines, there was no supply chain professional managing proper and efficient distribution. 

There may have been much talk about supply chain issues but there was little in the way of supply chain solutions coming from supply chain experts.

Not that there aren’t any supply chain experts.  There have been numerous podcasts, blogs, and testimonies on the subject but most if not all the supply chain professionals were really just broadcasting opinions.  There wasn’t much in the way of seeing them together with leaders or the leaders even mentioning any of them at all.* 

Simply put, despite the attention, nobody is putting weight in people with supply chain expertise.  Hardly any supply chain professional is in the limelight, even as the global CoVID-19 has brought on the most traumatic economic disruption in history.

There are several reasons which I believe why we don’t see supply chain experts taking the lead in solving major supply chain problems: 

Reason #1: Supply chain people are operations people and operations people are not expected to go out and interact with the outside world.   

The paradigm of operations people is to focus on what’s going within the workplace, that is, they focus inward.  Except to buy or deliver or hire a contractor, operations people don’t really interact with the outside world.

That essentially had been my upbringing in most of my supply chain jobs.  I concentrated on my department, my workplace, the processes within that were assigned to me.  Emphasis was always on what was going on within operations, not without.

Any interactions with the outside world were initiated mostly be people who were not in operations.  Operations people did not initiate such things and I don’t think many do so up to today.

In other words, operations people, especially supply chain professionals, are proactive in what happens within the four (4) walls of factories, warehouses, and offices.  We were not asked to improve the connections enterprises had with vendors, customers, and 3rd party providers.  Executives emphasised performance measures, not relationships.

Reason #2: There aren’t many supply chain experts in the first place. 

Many entrepreneurs are not supply chain professionals and many executives aren’t either.

That’s one reason maybe why we don’t see many chief supply chain officers.  There aren’t that many experienced supply chain managers in the first place. 

It’s not that the leaders don’t recognise the importance of supply chain management even to the extent of having it as an equal in the echelons of top management.  It’s just that there are very few managers with supply chain experience. 

When I say experience, I don’t just mean experience in logistics or manufacturing.  I mean experience as in synchronising operational functions and interacting with customers, vendors, and 3rd parties in procuring, transforming, and moving merchandise from sources to customers.  How many people do we know have this kind of expertise?  Chances are not a lot. 

Reason #3:  Supply Chain education is relatively new and not widespread. 

Many people aren’t schooled in supply chain management.  We can’t blame them for that; supply chain education is relatively new, as in it’s a course that only has been around for only 30 years or so, unlike finance and marketing which have been around for more than a century (longer perhaps).  And supply chain management as a concept and application is still evolving.

Coupled with that are the ones who teach supply chain management.  There aren’t that many supply chain teachers, at least one would call qualified to teach, one who has experience in various supply chain activities.  

Many supply chain courses teach specific subjects that tie in general operations management topics such as inventory management, production planning, transportation management, and operations research.  The trouble is many of these courses don’t tie in the topics together to teach how the supply chain functions as a whole.  They don’t offer the connectivity that illustrates how supply chain operations work together from end to end.

At the same time, supply chain education isn’t really uniform from place to place.  Some schools link supply chains more to logistics while others stress transportation and purchasing.  Some don’t even teach manufacturing’s connection to the supply chain, treating it separately even as it shouldn’t be.  There’s really no formally standard course for supply chains as one would see for law, engineering, or business administration. 

The people graduating from any supply chain management course from the 1990’s to the 2020’s aren’t therefore fully educated in supply chains.  They’re just graduates taught with a hodgepodge of individual courses related to the subject, which in itself isn’t the same from one school to the next, from one teacher to another. 

These make the diplomas and certificates some supply chain schools issue open to doubt.  A certificate or diploma in supply chain management thus testifies to a school’s brand of teaching, not necessarily one that is generally applicable in any industry. 

When it comes to bringing supply chain management to the forefront and developing it as a prominent field that addresses present-day issues via the three (3) aforementioned reasons, what should be done? 

I believe education should be the starting point and the very first step should be to establish basic competency among candidates for the field. 

I define basic competency in supply chain management as where one is familiar with operations, can at least see how to tie them in altogether towards overall optimal performance, and where one has the ability to plan, organise, direct, and control supply chains both in the day-to-day and strategic perspective. 

Basic competency would be the foundation.  Experiences afterward would be the building blocks that would develop the manager’s proficiency. 

Both the education in basic competency and the experience one gains should not be inward looking but focused on the relationships and connections between parties and links within and outside the enterprise. 

It would be a wholly new approach to some entering into the study of supply chains.  But I believe it would be worth it.  Many of the challenges we see in supply chains are precisely occurring in relationships and connections between functions and parties inside and outside enterprises. 

Where can we find the teachers or just even the mentors?  Because there are not many of them, many aspiring students would be left on their own to look for and put together the bits and pieces experiences would bring. 

But even as they may be few, there are those who can at least help new managers attain that basic competency.   I’d like to think I can be one of those teachers given the knowledge and insights I gained from close to 40 years’ experience in the field. 

*[President Joseph Biden of the United States led a “summit on semiconductor and supply chain resilience” in April 2021 in which the President discussed  with chief executive officers (CEOs) how to tackle supply issues particularly in semiconductor chips.  No prominent supply chain expert was seen stepping up to address the issue].     

About Overtimers Anonymous

What is a Manager, Anyway?

What is a manager?

That was the first question the group of line managers asked me. 

I just got hired by as a management trainee at a consumer goods company and was on my first month at its Manila manufacturing facility, going through orientation. 

I was required to undergo a qualification test with senior managers to assess how familiar I was with the company’s personnel manual, which detailed policies and benefits for employees.  The session with the line managers was a practice or “mock” qualification before the actual test with the facility’s top executives. 

Even after reading through all the manuals and memorising human resource policies and procedures, I was stumped.  I didn’t know how to answer the question.

“Do not guess!,” one line manager said, who happened to be a 25 year veteran shipping manager in the company.  “Apparently, you do not know what a manager is.” 

And right there, I failed the mock qualification test and had to go back to studying and finding out specifically what a manager is. 

Some will say a manager is a leader.  And that would not be the right answer.

Some will say a manager is a supervisor.  And again, the answer is no. 

A search on the internet will show varying results: 

A manager is a person who is responsible for supervising and motivating employees.”

A manager is an individual that supervises both activities and people within a given organization. In other terms, it is the person in charge of overseeing things that to get done.”

A manager is an expert in his or her field and is a support system for employees.”

“manager: a person who has control or direction of an institution, business, etc., or of a part, division, or phase of it.”

“manager: a person responsible for controlling or administering all or part of a company or similar organization.”

Words such as “responsible,” “supervision,” and “control”, however, don’t provide a complete picture of what a manager is. 

After my disastrous failure at the mock qualification test, the shipping manager approached me and said, “check the Philippine Labour Code.”  I did right away and this is how the Philippines labour law defines a manager:   

(m) “Managerial employee” is one who is vested with the powers or prerogatives to lay down and execute management policies and/or to hire, transfer, suspend, lay-off, recall, discharge, assign or discipline employees. Supervisory employees are those who, in the interest of the employer, effectively recommend such managerial actions if the exercise of such authority is not merely routinary or clerical in nature but requires the use of independent judgment.

ref: Article 219 (m), Labor Code of the Philippines, DOLE Edition, 2016

In later conversations, the line managers said that the Philippine Labour Code was a starting point to knowing what a manager is.  They said:

Managers are representatives of the business.  They have the mandate and authority to make and enforce policies, and to hire & fire people. 

But more than that:

Managers are expected to muster resources to deliver results but what makes a manager different from everyone else is that they have responsibility over people

The late Peter Drucker, famous management guru, said it best when he said:

Management involves getting people to work toward the objectives of the enterprise.

A manager doesn’t just handle resources; a manager isn’t a manager unless he or she has people working for him or her.  

When the line managers met me again for a retaking of the mock qualification, I was able to hurdle the definition of what a manager is.  At the same time, the line managers taught me an important lesson.

You can’t manage anything until you first understand what your role as a manager is.

In a world where enterprises outsource work to third parties and oversee operations from far-away offices, defining what a manager is can be debatable and complicated. 

I don’t really believe a manager is one until he or she directly handles people, as in person, face-to-face, restrictions such as pandemics notwithstanding.  One can have one, two, or a team of a hundred working for him or her.  The point is management when it comes down to it, is all about getting people to work for the goals you as a manager and the enterprise who hired you have set. 

Defining what a manager is the very first step in any enterprise endeavour. 

And in the field of supply chain management, for instance, the most important word is the last one. 

About Overtimers Anonymous

Three Questions Every New Manager Should Ask

Every new manager should always ask three (3) questions about an operation he or she will be in charge of:

  1. What does the book say should be happening?
  2. What do the people say should be happening?
  3. What is really happening? 

Chances are each answer would be totally different from the others. 

What does the book say?

The “book” in this case is the manual, memo, policy, or rule.  What does the book say how an operation should be run? 

What do the people say?

The “people” are the workers running the operation, your boss, and your peers whom you work with.  They’re the men and women on the ground who know their jobs as well as those co-managers who think they know more than you. 

You could also pose the same question to support staff like the inspectors & maintenance technicians, or to foremen and supervisors who oversee the workers.  But I’d put more weight to what the people who are on the front-line say since they’re the ones who are right there doing the job itself.   

What is really happening?

This is what is actually happening which comes from witnessing the operation itself. 

Most of the time the answers to each question differ greatly.  What the book says would differ from what the people you work with say and either would differ from what is happening in real life.

When a new manager notes the different answers, it provides a starting point on how best to manage the people and operations she will be in charge of.  It will lead to more questions like:

  • Why isn’t the operation doing what it’s supposed to as per the manual?
  • Why are people saying differently from what is actually happening?

The idea isn’t to catch people and find fault.  It’s to know what real problems underlie the jobs people are doing and the systems that run them. 

The three (3) questions provide an opening into understanding what those challenges and difficulties are. 

Case in Point:  Production at a Refrigerated Margarine Packing Line

As a new manager of a refrigerated margarine packing line of a multinational consumer goods corporation, it was my job to make sure production would always be maximised.  There was high demand for the corporation’s refrigerated margarine brand at the time and I had to make sure production was in full swing.

I noticed, however, that production per eight-hour shift never was more than 700 packed cases a day. 

I went to check the work styles of the margarine’s operators.  I had the three (3) questions in mind:

What did the book, the company’s manufacturing manual, say? 

The manual said employees must be on the production line at the very start of their shift and can only leave their work-place during breaks and only at the end of their shift.  During their work-time, they must be working and packing to meet output as dictated by the production schedule.

In other words, employees should be working throughout their shift except during breaks. 

But if they are working throughout their shift, then based on time & motion studies, they should easily exceed 700 cases a day.  So why weren’t they?

What did the operators say?

When I asked the operators how come they weren’t exceeding the 700 cases a shift, they said that is the maximum they can humanly do.  Each case is heavy and packing them isn’t as easy as what the manual says. 

When they pack a refrigerated margarine case, they said they have one person scooping up the margarine bars and putting them into a corrugated container.  A second packer tapes the case and stacks it with others on a pallet.  A third person who is also the operator of the production equipment moves the pallet to cold storage adjacent to the packing line and then provides a new pallet for the packets to stack new cases. 

What was really happening?

When I went to discreetly observe the packing operation (I would observe from a spot where they wouldn’t see me), I noticed that there’d only be one operator on the packing line.  The other two wouldn’t be there.  In fact, whenever I observed the operation, there will always be only person doing everything:  packing, stacking, and moving the pallets. 

On the swing shift (afternoon to evening) and graveyard shift (evening to early morning), there would be no production operation for the last two to three hours of each shift.  As in no one present on the production line. 

When I confronted the crews about this, their first answer was that the other operators were on break when I was observing only one person on the line.  When I countered that it wasn’t the designated company break time, they then said they took turns on breaks so that they could run the machine straight without having to turn it off and on again. 

When I asked how come there was no operation for the last two to three hours of a shift, they said they were making up for the break-times they didn’t use up from going straight during the shift.

Finally, when the employees realised they weren’t making sense, they finally said:

Some years ago we were paid on incentive.  We were given a quota of 700 cases a shift.  If we exceed quota, then we will be paid extra.  But the company decided two (2) years before you the manager came to scrap the system and raised every worker’s salaries to make up for the lost incentive.  We at the refrigerated margarine line, however, felt no longer motivated to produce more than 700 cases per shift.  And rather work throughout a shift, each of us operators took turns packing the items on the line.  Each of us would really be working only two (2) hours a shift.  After six (6) hours, when we reached the “quota” of 700 cases, we would all go upstairs to our locker room and rest until quitting time. 

For the succeeding months afterwards, I worked with the refrigerated margarine crew in this regard.  I didn’t outright succeed in getting more production per shift but I did change how production schedules were done and did organise the crews into teams that worked on reducing downtimes.  Productivity actually improved despite the ongoing practice of producing only a fixed quantity per shift. 

Asking those three (3) questions:

  1. What does the book say?
  2. What do the people say?
  3. What is really happening? 

helps managers see what’s happening from three (3) different angles. 

Neither answer may necessarily be the right one.  The idea is to reconcile them all and identify the problems that underlie each one of them. 

About Overtimers Anonymous

A Guide to City Zoning; an Example of Management Organising

I asked the water company engineer why his company was digging up the street in front of my family’s house for the second time in a few years.  He answered my question with a frown and a sigh. 

“I have to install new pipes because of that new building,” he replied as he pointed at the high-rise residential structure just a few meters across the street. 

“When we at the water company improved the pipes here a few years ago, we didn’t plan for that building.  But now, because of that high-rise, we have to install bigger high-pressure pipes that will be able to supply water to all the floors of that building.”

“It’s very frustrating,” he added.  “All that work a few years ago for nothing.  Why couldn’t the city just follow their zoning laws?” 

I live in the City of Mandaluyong, one of several cities in the National Capital Region or NCR.  The NCR is the highest populated and urbanised place in the Philippines.  In 2017, Mandaluyong City updated its Zoning Ordinance Map in line with its Comprehensive Land Use Plan.  The CLUP laid out how the city was to be divided in terms of where residential, commercial, and industrial areas would be, as well as spaces for institutions and parks. 

There are essentially two (2) major zone groups:  residential and commercial, coupled with other categories: urban renewal area (URA), institutional, parks & open spaces, cemetery, and utilities. 

Residential zones, those designated with an “R” classification, are exclusive for structures for homes and living spaces.  No buildings, structures, or land are to be used for commercial purposes. 

Commercial zones, those with a “C” classification, allow for use of land and structures for business. 

Sub-classifications per zoning category allow for building height and density. 

In residential areas, an R-1 zone is limited to “single-family, single-detached” buildings.  An R-2 zone allows for “low-rise single-attached duplex or multi-level buildings,” while an R-3A zone includes high-rise structures exclusive for multiple family dwellings although it may include low-, medium-, and high-rise residential buildings that are “already commercial in nature or scale.”  An R-3B zone allows for high-rise buildings up to 18 storeys. 

For commercial areas, C-1, C-2, and C-3 zones differ in the size of buildings and number of establishments per structure.  Central Business Districts (CBD) allow for “large-scale office, commercial, business, financial, leisure, and high-rise residential and related uses.”    Mixed Development Zones are for “mixed residential, retail shops, offices, leisure industry, and support commercial activities.” 

Mandaluyong City’s Zoning Ordinance doesn’t have industrial zones, which some other cities do. 

The city has a Zoning Administrator to administer and enforce the ordinance.  Complaints and appeals related to the zoning ordinance, however, are brought forth to the Local Zoning Board of Adjustments and Appeals (LZBAA) in which the city mayor is chair and consists of executives and officers from city hall. 

The purpose of having a zoning ordinance is to organise how land is used within the city.  It’s a guide which the city established to avoid problems such as traffic congestion and urban blight.  Via the CLUP mentioned above, its intention was to specify what parts of the city can be used for residential and commercial uses, as well as for institutional needs, special purposes, and parks & greenery. 

The key word is organise.  Zoning is the excellent manifestation of the management function of organising, one of the four basics in which the other three are planning, directing, and controlling. 

By organising the city’s lands for what they can be used for, city hall executives can plan how to bring more prosperity to Mandaluyong while balancing security and convenience for their constituents.

The high-rise condominium tower the water company engineer pointed at on our street was clearly not supposed to be there, as per the zone it is in, R-2.  Yet, it’s there, a monstrous tower overshadowing our neighbourhood that somehow got built despite the rules against it. 

Somehow, the high-rise developer was able to skirt the ordinance and build his building in our R-2 neighbourhood.  It was what forced the water company to change the pipes, which wasted the improvements it made a few years before. 

With zones, a city can plan its infrastructure accordingly.  One can lay out how much power, plumbing, telecommunications, road, and sewage capacities each zone would need.  Commercial zones would need wider streets and sidewalks for heavier traffic, for instance.  Residential zones would maybe need more street lights and efficient sewage piping. 

City hall politicians are often under constant pressure to revise zoning ordinances to accommodate developers wanting to build bigger buildings or heed residents clamouring to protect their peaceful neighbourhoods.  In many cases, both developers and residents challenge zoning rules in which there would be plenty of cases on the LZBAA’s list.

Zoning is part and parcel of urban planning and management.  It brings organisation into a city or town and helps leaders plan their respective districts’ infrastructures.  It helps leaders decide when violations happen or when developers push for exceptions. 

Despite whatever pressures developers or residents put on political executives, zoning serves as a superior model for organising, that basic function of management we sometimes take for granted. 

About Overtimers Anonymous

Burning Platforms and How to Prevent Them

A proprietor who sells electrical products was experiencing a dramatic drop in sales.  He hires a consultant who comes from a large multinational corporation and asks him what can be done. 

The consultant suggests that the proprietor develop a vision, mission, objectives, and strategies (VMOS) for his business.  The consultant conducts a team-building session with the proprietor and his staff and for several days, they draft and formulate a VMOS.  When they finally finish with a fancy-worded VMOS, the consultant presents the VMOS to all the employees and stakeholders.  When the consultant went to collect his fee, the proprietor asks the consultant, “so when are we going to talk about my falling sales?” 

The phrase, “burning platform” takes its origin from a story about three (3) men on a North Sea oil rig that was on fire.  Two (2) men decided to jump into the icy waters while one (1) man opted to stay.  The two (2) men who jumped were badly injured from their fall but rescuers were able to save them.  The man who stayed on the platform died.  Management consultants have cited this story as a lesson that when faced with an urgent crisis, one should take risks and go for deliberate change.  Otherwise, if one does nothing, the business dies. 

The proprietor of electric relays was on a burning platform; his business was on fire in the form of falling sales.  The clueless consultant he hired didn’t address the urgency of the problem.  The consultant focused more on what he was good at from being an executive at a multinational. He ignored the crisis happening to the proprietor. 

Many managers complain about frequent “fires” that disrupt their daily routines and preoccupy their time and resources.  Some executives cite a variety of reasons for these “fires,” from lack of leadership to poor discipline.  The executives would form committees, hold strategy meetings, scold managers for poor judgment, or blame poor discipline among rank-and-file employees.  Whatever they prescribe, these executives would miss the point that there’s a crisis that urgently needs to be addressed.    

Crises, like burning oil platforms, don’t just go away.  True, a fire may burn itself out, but even if they did, they’d leave a lot of damage.  When there’s a fire, everyone either runs to put it out or runs away.  No person in his right mind would just sit there idly by and get himself burned. 

Unfortunately, many executives don’t know a crisis even if it’s raging in front of them.  It’s what we would call denial, a reaction inherent in human nature.   We deny and ignore a crisis to believe it is not happening, that there can’t be a threat. 

Most of the client firms I’ve diagnosed have burning platforms.  Some are big, some are small; but urgent crises nonetheless that disrupt operations, reduce sales, increase costs, and cause other problems.  Burning platforms are often fast-moving fires that eat away the insides of a business and challenge the cores of an organisation.

Managers of course need to address burning platforms.  The key is to know that there is one.  Sometimes, managers, especially high-level executives, don’t realise they have one.  The following are situational examples of burning platforms that executives sometimes ignore until it’s too late: 

  1. Treasury managers pointing out critical cash-flow balances and immediately urging field sales personnel to collect receivables from customers;
  2. Manufacturing managers alerting purchasing executives that their raw materials are running out because vendors didn’t deliver as scheduled;
  3. Logistics managers facing a shortage of trucks as senior marketing executives complain of empty supermarket shelves where new products are supposed to be;
  4. Information system contractors alerting the firm’s chief information officer (CIO) that the company’s data centre’s room’s air-conditioning has broken down and the IT system is in danger of shutting down. 

What should an enterprise do about burning platforms?  Put them out, of course.  What would it take to do it?  Everything that one can muster.  It is a fire!

  • One does not ignore a fire.  One works to put it out now and until it’s out;
  • And when we say out, we should mean really out, to the extent that whatever caused it won’t ignite again.  

The best solution against burning platforms is preventing them in the first place.  The means to do that is usually via having relevant and effective monitoring systems and risk management measures

It starts with having plans and policies that consider potential risks and include contingencies.   

These plans and policies should answer questions like:

  • What to do when customer collections are falling behind?
  • What’s the inventory policy when raw material stocks are running low?
  • What’s the plan when projections show not enough trucks next week to deliver orders?
  • What’s the backup plan in case the Internet server crashes? 
  • Who will take over, work from home, or substitute when members of staff are found to be infected with the CoVid-19 virus? 

Any plan or policy should have pre-approved procedures against pre-defined crises such that the organisation can immediately take action without having to go through time-consuming justifications to top management.  Of course, managers should always notify executives when a crisis is imminent and action should be taken. 

Common sense dictates that when there’s a burning platform, we either try putting it out or run for safety.  Sometimes, however, we deny there’s a burning platform crisis and we go about our business until we and our enterprises are consumed. 

Recognising the existence of a crisis is important but prevention is key to avoiding any crisis.  Plans and policies that take into account potential risks, build in contingencies, and allow immediate pre-approved action would help a lot in keeping any new crisis from getting too big if not stifling them at the start. 

We should never sit idly by when there’s a crisis and even if there isn’t one. 

About Overtimers Anonymous