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

A Letter to the IE: More than Ever, We Need to Lead the World to Productivity

:

Dear Industrial Engineer*          

The year 2020 ended without a happy ending.  The SARS-CoV-2 virus had not gone away.  It continues to be a global threat going into 2021. 

Political and enterprise leaders have done all they can to defeat the virus. 

There was hope. 

Thanks to record-breaking world-class collaboration efforts, vaccines have become realities and are on their way to inoculate millions.  We are grateful to the scientists, engineers, health-care professionals, executives, and numerous support personnel who have done so much and continue to do so.

But there was frustration. 

The pandemic, however, had spread to every continent, including remote Antarctica.  It continues to infect and force governments to restrict movement and distance.

We have become more lonesome and insecure.  Some of us had pushed back but to no avail.  The virus retaliates without discrimination.  More had gone sick.  More tragically had passed away. 

Throughout the war against CoVID-19, we industrial engineers have been conspicuously left out.  We don’t really know if it’s because leaders are ignorant of what we can offer or if it’s because many executives think they have enough expertise.   Whatever the reason, we could have done more. 

Most of us industrial engineers are hard at work in different careers and jobs around the world.  Many of us have made big differences to the enterprises and organisations where we are employed or engaged. 

But for whatever we have done, whatever we continue to do, it hasn’t been enough. 

Long before the pandemic, productivity growth has been on a decline.  The gap in productivity year-to-year between advanced economies and developing nations has widened.  Disruptions ranging from natural disasters to socio-political upheavals had taken a toll on enterprises.  Growth has been curtailed.  Many enterprises, notably small businesses, have lost ground in competitiveness. 

The 2020 pandemic hit global productivity when it was already down.  It’s the culmination of its decline.  And we have felt the impact like a hammer driving down on the nail. 

We need to do better.  We need to make our world more productive.

Productivity is a misunderstood measure.  Unlike financials like profit, sales, costs, and cash-flow, it is not easy to describe productivity in one metric.  Economists try to do that by defining productivity as the output of a person; but doing so makes it incomplete and inaccurate. 

Productivity is delivery versus consumption; how much one delivers correctly to customers against how much resources and time are consumed in doing so.  Productivity requires direction.  What are we delivering, how many or how much, how close to what customers want, and when?  What are we going to use to make and deliver, how long it should take, how it will be conveyed, and with how much support?   It’s not efficiency which measures how fast we’re going; it’s more like velocity which measures how much nearer we are to our objectives given the resources we spent.

Productivity drives value.  It connects to the priorities of the enterprise.  It’s what gives us industrial engineers purpose because we’re in the best position to understand it and improve on it.  Productivity is our watchword. 

In an age where supply chains and operations are in the midst of crisis,

we find ourselves in an unprecedented position to make a significant difference. 

I don’t suggest a political campaign or a public relations drive.  We just need to demonstrate.  We don’t need to debate our proficiencies; we have the skills.  We know what we have and what we can contribute

How we can show what we got can be summarised in four approaches:

First, Point Out Problems and Volunteer to Fix Them

We shouldn’t wait to be assigned.  We should point about problems, make visible opportunities, and offer ideas and solutions.  In short, we should be proactive, i.e., act on our own without waiting for someone to tell us about problems.  We know more than a lot of people when there’s a problem. 

Second, Drive the PDCA Cycle

We should drive the Plan-Do-Check-Act (PDCA) cycle, the basic process of carrying out solutions.  What many people don’t realise is that it’s a cycle, not a model for a one-time project.  We don’t stop after implementing a solution; we seek opportunity for something even better.  It’s why we also call it continuous improvement.  PDCA is a wheel that we keep spinning to keep productivity moving and growing. 

Third, Stand Up and Be Heard on Strategy

Keeping the PDCA cycle spinning requires leadership.  We are those leaders.  Our superiors are our audience.  Feedback, justification, and assertion are therefore essential.  We should have a say on strategy because productivity depends on direction.  It doesn’t just ensure the PDCA cycle keeps spinning but  that we spin the right cycles; we address the problems that are most important. 

Fourth, Promote Productivity

As industrial engineers, we promote productivity.  No one else will.  Not the economists, not the post-graduate business administration executive, not other engineers.   It’s us because our education and experience have us focused on productivity more than anyone else. 

Productivity has become a forgotten term in the decade of 2010 to 2020.  Its growth has fallen by the wayside.  It is on us to remind everyone about it, show how important it is to the viabilities of enterprises and competitiveness of organisations, and reveal its potential in the fight against disruptions, especially versus seemingly insurmountable ones like the pandemic. 

The anchor of our IE vocation is productivity.  It’s our unwavering principle we base our accomplishments on.  It is the flag we wave amid disruptions and difficulties. 

Let’s get going. 

About Overtimers Anonymous

*I had suggested we change our titles to supply chain engineers.  😊

Acknowledgment:

Alistair Dieppe. 2020. Global Productivity: Trends, Drivers,
and Policies. Advance Edition. Washington, DC: World Bank. License: Creative Commons Attribution CC BY 3.0 IGO.

How Important Productivity is to the Value Chain

The fast-food restaurant drive-thru I go to every Sunday morning hasn’t been serving the liquid creamers that accompany the coffee I order with my meals.     

At first, they said the creamers were out of stock.  A week later, they said they can only serve one (1) creamer instead of the two (2) that should come with every coffee order.  Finally, they substituted the coffee creamer with a non-dairy powder cream in a sachet. 

The fast-food company saved money in all three (3) instances.  They saved when they served coffee without any creamer or with just one instead of the usual two.   They also saved when they started serving the powdered creamer in sachets as the liquid creamer is more expensive.   

The fast-food company can claim savings but did it deliver value? 

In his seminal book, Competitive Advantage,[1] Michael Porter introduced the value chain, a representation of a firm’s “collection of activities that are performed to design, produce, market, deliver, and support [the firm’s] product.”

Value is the “amount buyers are willing to pay for what a firm provides them.”  The typical strategy of the firm is to create value that “exceeds the cost of doing so.”  According to Porter, value is the key to competitive positioning.

The fast-food company normally served two (2) 10-ml cups of imported liquid creamer with every coffee order.  It was something I look forwarded to and expected whenever I went to the fast-food company’s drive-thru.  When the fast-food drive-thru stopped serving the creamer, I was not happy.  I felt I was no longer getting my money’s worth from my coffee order.

Bundling two (2) 10-ml creamers and two (2) packets of sugar was standard for every coffee order, according to the drive-thru attendant.  Unfortunately, the fast-food drive-thru no longer had the stock and substituted the creamer with a cheaper sachet of locally produced non-dairy powder. 

The fast-food company apparently thought substituting the imported creamer with a cheaper local product would be no big deal.  The management of the fast-food company probably didn’t believe its customers would buy less of its coffee, even with the downgrade. 

The cost of all the activities in the value chain must be less than the price of the product.  The difference between the price and the cost is the margin.    Enterprise executives tend to cut costs or differentiate their products to maximise margins. 

The problem arises when customers like me perceive a lower worth of the product as a result of the enterprise’s cost-cutting.  Perceived lower worth leads customers turning away from the enterprise and opting for alternatives from the competition, resulting in lower demand for the enterprise’s product.    

Many enterprises see-saw between cutting costs and differentiating their products as they struggle to maintain their products’ profit margins.  When they see costs going up, some enterprises buy cheaper materials and services.    When they see demand slowing, they spend more for product development and advertisement of their product’s features.  In either case, the enterprise ends up losing customers or spending more than it should.    

All functions in an enterprise make up its value chain.  Whether it be purchasing, marketing, logistics, sales, manufacturing, finance, accounting, human resources, information technology (IT) services, legal, public relations, research & development, etcetera–every department and individual play a part in delivering value for the enterprise.  Every one in an enterprise contributes.  There is no exemption.  If the value chain is to be competitive, everyone has to work and to work together toward the common cause of maximising the margins of the enterprise’s products. 

Every part of the value chain must be productive.  Productivity drives value. 

Productivity is output over input.  In the value chain, productivity is the output as delivered and accepted by customers versus how much was inputted in doing so. 

That means whatever function we work in, we must deliver output that would benefit the enterprise’s product margins.  Our performance, no matter how seemingly small or irrelevant, contributes to the value chain. 

Some of us equate value chains with supply chains.  This is wrong thinking and it is detrimental to an enterprise’s productivity.  Whereas the supply chain’s basic functions like purchasing, manufacturing, and logistics directly add value to a product, roles such as legal, human resources, marketing, sales, engineering, information technology, and research & development (R&D) are just as equally important. 

Human resources professionals hire talented people to staff the enterprise’s organisation.  In-house legal counsels ensure products are compliant to local laws and regulations and defend the enterprise’s products’ intellectual properties.  Finance executives ensure the capital needs for products.  Marketing cultivates ideas for R&D to develop into reality.   

A condiment such as a coffee creamer may seem trivial.  For value chains, nothing is trivial.  Every detail and process have a bearing on how a product’s value chain will bring worth to customers. 

The fast-food company may dismiss my disappointment if it turns out I’m alone in complaining about a downgraded coffee creamer.  If a vast majority of its customers continue to consume the fast-food company’s coffee, then well and good, the enterprise would have saved money without any dent to its coffee’s perceived value. 

But if my sentiments are shared with many coffee drinkers who decide to turn away and find alternatives, then the enterprise would no doubt be strongly encouraged to improve the productivity of its value chain.  Perhaps it will study how better to source its imported creamer to ensure it will always be bundled with the coffee it sells. 

In the meantime, I decided to get my Sunday morning coffee from the fast-food company’s competitor. 

About Overtimers Anonymous


[1] Michael E. Porter, Competitive Advantage,  (New York, N.Y. : The Free Press, 1985), pp. 36-38

Ten (10) Examples Towards Building Better Supply Chains

For years, experts have cited the urgent need for supply chains to adapt and get better.  In 2005, Paul Michelman via the Harvard Business Review wrote:

“Threats to your supply chain, and therefore to your company, abound—natural disasters, accidents, and intentional disruptions—their likelihood and consequences heightened by long, global supply chains, ever-shrinking product lifecycles, and volatile and unpredictable markets.”

Fifteen (15) years later, amid a pandemic that has wreaked economic havoc, executives are hearing the need even louder.  Supply chains must become resilient and robust in a new normal of constant disruption.  Supply chains must change

Experts have urged enterprises to map their supply chains, identify risks, review their networks, and innovate via technologies such as robotics and automation.  But what does an enterprise do when it’s got the maps, identified the risks, and has the network review results? How does an enterprise innovate via technologies? 

We cannot just manage supply chains to make them better.  We need to build them. 

It’s like a house.  When we manage our houses, we do things like fix a leaky roof, replace lightbulbs, and unclog drain pipes.  But we can only do things ourselves up to a certain extent. 

When the job gets too big to handle, we seek experts.  Civil engineers help us replace the roofs and retrofit the foundations.  Electrical engineers help re-wire our electrical circuits. 

The analogy applies for supply chains as well.  We can manage supply chains only so much.  When we need to make significant improvements, when we can no longer just manage them, when we need to rebuild them, we’d seek engineering help.  The most qualified to do so are Industrial Engineers (IEs), or more specifically, Supply Chain Engineers (SCEs). 

How can SCEs help rebuild our supply chains? 

The following are examples:

  • Developing the Digital Supply Chain.   

With the advent of Industry 4.0, enterprises, more than ever, are investing in new technologies that marry data and process productivity.  SCE’s can help enterprises implement state-of-the-art technologies into their supply chains which will provide the means towards real-time operations visibility and automated process improvement. 

  • Setting Up Flexible Manufacturing Systems (FMS)

SCE’s can help integrate flexible manufacturing systems (FMS) into supply chains.  FMS is an alternative to traditional production systems in that it focuses on short-run small-lot-size manufacturing versus long continuous mass production.  SCE’s can build in flexible systems into supply chains via integration with logistics, production planning, and procurement. 

  • Improving Inbound & Outbound Logistics

Supply chain engineers can streamline the flow of goods coming into and out of storage facilities.  They can identify and ubblock bottlenecks, and recommend how manpower and facilities should be laid out such that merchandise can flow continuously and smoothly.  SCE’s can also study the economics of procurement and delivery practices that underlie their impacts on logistics flow. 

  • Simplifying Storage & Handling

Storage and handling are very high on the list of many supply chain managers’ preoccupations.  Enterprise executives don’t like them because they connote cost and they’re seen as not adding value.  But with the SCE’s help, enterprises can turn them into the assets they really are. 

  • Tuning Up Transportation’s Last-Mile Productivity

SCE’s can offer options that would boost the productivity of last-mile freight deliveries and services.  These include recommending changes in transportation structure, improving route planning & scheduling, and balancing loads maximisation with delivery turnarounds.

  • Perfecting Order Fulfilment

SCE’s can come up with order fulfilment systems that seamlessly connect anticipated customer demand with available-to-promise (ATP) inventories.  The goal is perfect orders: deliveries that meet 100% of customers’ service requirements 100% of the time.  

  • Factoring the Worker in the Workplace

Enterprises want efficiency but need to be mindful of the welfare of their workers.  Popularly known as ergonomics, SCE’s apply human factors engineering to improve labour productivity by adopting the workplace to the person, rather than adopting the person to the workplace. 

  • Re-Implementing Total Quality

It’s an old buzzword from a bygone era, but Total Quality still serves as an applicable approach to ensuring supply chains deliver what they’re supposed to.  SCE’s provide the in-depth tools and means to make sure processes work right the first time. 

  • Re-Defining Cost Engineering

To many enterprises, it’s a glorified clerical function that estimates job expenses and checks the billings from vendors and contractors.  But it’s more than that and SCE’s can show how cost engineering can not only tame the expenses but also provide competitive value for supply chains.

  • Pruning the Value Stream

Value-Stream Mapping (VSM) is the basic tool of Lean, and it tells us where the non-value added and value-added activities are.  SCE’s show how to optimise the value stream after we know the results of VSM. 

Enterprise executives have heard the need to reform their supply chains.  But they can do only so much managing them.  Enterprises would need the assistance of Supply Chain Engineers to build in better structures and systems. 

The ten (10) examples described above illustrate how SCE’s can help enterprises change their supply chains for the better.  And given the ever increasing clamour for change in these challenging times, we could use all the help we can get. 

About Overtimers Anonymous

Improving the Customer Experience and Gaining Higher Productivity

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

An automotive service centre in Manila, Philippines advertises that it opens at 8:00am. The doors actually open, however, around 8:15am.  Employees time in before and after 8am but pass through the washroom before heading to their desks.  A waiting client who would have arrived at 8:00am would probably be served earliest at 8:30am. 

The automotive service centre is part of a dealership that sells Japanese cars, vans, and motorcycles.  The dealer represents the final point of a Japanese automotive company’s global supply chain.  The Japanese company is heralded as a market leader but that view is far from the mind of the customer waiting for a half hour for one of its dealers to open the doors of its service centre. 

The Japanese owners of the automotive company wouldn’t likely be aware of the experiences of their Manila dealer’s customers. 

They probably wouldn’t know how customers felt for having to wait for 30 minutes.  And they probably wouldn’t know some customers would have to wait even longer because the supervisor who would decide on specific service requests hasn’t arrived yet. 

Many executives don’t know first-hand what their customers are experiencing with their enterprise’s front-liners.  They would rely on feedback, surveys, and statistics but they would hardly see the actual experiences of customers. 

Improving the customer experience can catapult an enterprise’s competitive advantage.  But it’s not only because customers will flock for the better service but also because when one improves the structure and processes that improve that experience, it uplifts not only customer satisfaction but the enterprise’s productivity. 

The automotive service centre has a competitor down the street.  The competitor advertises that its service centre opens at 8:00am but at 7:30am, the service representatives are already checking in customers and inspecting cars.  At 8:00am sharp, the service representatives are already interviewing the customers for their specific complaints and requests.  Service representatives provide the first group of waiting customers diagnoses and estimates within a few minutes.  The service centre would immediately begin work on cars as soon as the customers sign on their approvals.  Customers who were at the service centre at 7:30am for routine service checks would be checking out as early as 9:30am. 

The automotive competitor serves more cars than the one who keeps customers waiting.  It’s not because the competitor has more poor-quality automobiles that need fixing, but it’s because the competitor sells more cars than its neighbour.  The competitor does not keep its customers waiting and makes sure all the cars that come in the morning are served as soon as possible. 

Customers at either service centre may not be very loyal to the automotive brand they buy but they will remember their experiences.  This would have an impact on what automobile they will decide to buy in the future.

But more than that, the competitor has a higher productivity than the neighbour who opens late.  The higher productivity assures no backlogs in service jobs that would not only drive up expenses but also make it difficult to keep the customer experience consistent.

The competitor didn’t just add staff to engage waiting customers right away.  The competitor also invested in multiple maintenance bays to service more cars simultaneously.  The competitor also laid out the facility to have two types of bays: one for quick routine service and the other for longer, more complicated jobs. 

The routine service bays were closest to the facility’s doors so service attendants can move cars quickly to customers who can leave immediately.  The other bays were located deeper which made them closer to parts storage and special equipment. 

The competitor has seen the challenge for consistent customer experience and productivity grow.  Sales has gone up and down in recent months.  But because the competitor has made sure he has enough staff and bays, customers haven’t been complaining. 

The automotive service centre that kept customers waiting for 30 minutes, however, had obviously not paid attention to how promptly its staff reports in the morning.  And one could see there was no system of assigned bays or facility plan when it comes to maintaining customers’ cars. 

Companies are fickle when it comes to customer experiences.  Every so often they harp on it, but when times get tough, they sometimes forget about it. 

When one connects a consistently good customer experience with higher productivity, one can see the immediate benefits.  The intangible advantages of satisfied customers result in the tangible paybacks of having a productive work-place. 

About Overtimers Anonymous