Archive for October 2012

Transforming Organizations: Hit the Heart

When I was ten we moved across town. I spent the first lunch hour locked in the bathroom of my house. I hated my teacher, Mrs. Hansen. She gave me detention for looking out of the window. I had no friends. I was in a new neighborhood, new house, new room and now new school. I had made the change but I had not transformed. I hated this new life and simply was not going back to school.

We are all faced with change. Companies change regularly and leaders are judged by their ability to visualize change, outline the steps to get there and then execute. The measure of success is numeric: cost reduction, headcount reduction, revenue increase, deadlines met. But how do you measure whether the change is embedded? Will the organization resist the new processes and thus limit the benefits?

Changing requires both doing something different and thinking differently about things. A good leader must bring the heart around.

  • Listen to the organization – Create working teams, feedback sessions, training opportunities and design sessions to make sure that the organization is on-board and has skin in the game.
  • Incorporate input – The listening is not just for show. If you want to get to the best solution for change you need to take input onboard. The best ideas come from a diverse organization. The best performing organizations are diverse.
  • Communicate progress – Do this in more than one way. Write newsletters. Send emails. Have coffee or tea meetings and open it up to questions. Show up in person wherever possible and let people vent, contribute and question.
  • Celebrate success – Often when moving fast it is easy to forget to recognizing the good stuff along the way. It is tempting to wait until the end even if you do remember. Not wise. The heart needs to be moved along with the process and organization changes. You will actually accelerate change by stopping to recognize the good stuff.

My first day of 5th grade was not a disaster after all. I did stay after school but in doing so met my best friend. Mrs. Hansen was very strict but ended up being my favorite elementary teacher. My friends and I bike-hiked to her house the following summer to meet her new baby daughter. Mrs. Hansen became a mentor.  I was not a fan of the move across town but ended up loving our house, neighborhood and school after going through my change of heart. What changed my heart was relationships and experience over time. Putting that language into work terms this looks like engaging people in the change with honest interest in what they contribute to the process.

Things do not change, We do
~ Henry David Thoreau

Product Actualization: Bento Box or Potluck?

During the many trips to Japan I’ve made over the years a bento box for lunch is common sup. Everything is neatly presented and fits into its section. There are many flavors but they don’t run together. Stuff stays where it is put because the box is compartmentalized. Sometimes there are familiar looking little finger sandwiches made out of white bread and what could be tunafish or chicken salad. Sometimes there are creatures of unknown origin. Always there is a neat lid that can be used to tidy up at the end.

It would be lovely if launching and ramping a product was like a bento box. If only we could keep things from blending together. If only the bad things could be ignored in their little compartment and eventually sent away with the lid on top. In the world of new product development, supply chains, manufacturing and logistics, stuff runs together.

As an operations executive I see the organization’s bias to keep things organized, separated, clean. Let the development team work their problems. Don’t slow them down. Let the marketing team think about product roadmaps and forecasts. Don’t second guess. Customer service can deal with quality issues in the field. There is no time to get to root cause with an angry customer on the phone. Just ship them a new one. But alas, without the messy cross-functional conversation and real-time data exchange the results are non-optimal. Sometimes the results are disastrous.

The international economy fluctuations have made the job of forecasting consumer goods next to impossible. I’ve worked hard in a previous position to shorten lead times to allow for faster reaction to changes in demand. But that wasn’t good enough. The breakthrough took place with a move to design the product so that we could postpone differentiation. The work was upfront with the design and marketing teams to design for postponement. The payoff is that a few “assets” could be built into many end products to meet localized needs. The result is less inventory, more availability, better customer satisfaction, lower lead time.

Potlucks are a messy, yummy, eclectic, out of control smorgasbord. When a manufacturing organization puts on a potluck it is the best darn eating you can find. There are typically dishes from all over the world. The tastes mix together on your paper plate…with any luck.

Product actualization done well is more like a potluck. The lines blur and true concurrent work happens naturally. Customer data is vigorously collected and then it flows freely to the cross-functional team. Manufacturing partners are brought in at ideation. The development team thinks about how to design for postponement. Marketing is working alongside the other functions to anticipate the localization needed and to make the product configurable as a last step. There are blurred borders and no compartmentalization and the result is a much more successful business.

Simplicity follows complexity. Business is messy.

The Fullness of Lean

Quality concepts have come and gone. Have we finally arrived at what will stick as the right approach? Or is there an extra ingredient needed to pull off Lean Six Sigma success?

Once upon a time in a manufacturing plant that no longer exists I led and evaluated Quality Circles. This was a line worker driven concept to engage all in the concept of continuous improvement. If you added up all of the on paper savings, millions upon millions of dollars were saved just in our little division. Reality was something less but we did have breakthroughs and it did improve full buy-in to the concept that quality was everyone’s job. Later, when I worked at a robotics company in the late 1990’s I brought in the concept of “demand flow” which was a precursor to “lean”. However, the Toyota Production System (TPS), the mother of all things lean, was conceived and implemented before I even started working in manufacturing. The idea of driving out muri, mura and muda (overburdening, inconsistency and waste, respectively) was the basis for the process work that went on during the second half of the last century at Toyota. TPS translated to Just In Time (JIT) and Total Quality Control (TQC) for companies in the 80’s. When I took over at the robotics company in the 90’s we combined Demand Flow and TQC to drive improvement. The concepts at that time focused on pulling product through the process based on demand, used “takt time” to balance stations in order to avoid queues and used signage to clearly mark what was to happen along the way. Making these changes helped us reduce inventory by 30% in the factory. In addition, we increased our on-time delivery and reduced lead-time. TQC was still in vogue as a term and our statistical quality control kept quality steadily improving.

Then came Six Sigma. Over the first decade of this century the concepts of Six Sigma took over the language. Measure, use data and statistical analysis to improve, teach the concepts of data driven problem solving by training green and black belts who in turn would bring “Sigma” language and action into every nook of the organization.

And today we put it together. What is refered to as “Lean Six Sigma” is the culmination of lean concepts, statistical quality control, and the data driven improvement cycle of Six Sigma.  Lean Six Sigma is what you might call the union of the sets: Lean U Sigma.

But with this definition there is a risk that we will leave out a few other more subtle concepts from the Toyota Production System that should not be forgotten. Let me call them out:

1. Respect for each other and what each party offers to the work. Each participant in the work (including partners) has a voice and a responsibility.

2. Teamwork – The whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Work together. See #1.

3. Learning organization Invest in people.

4. Long-Term Vision – Do the right thing for the organization in the long run. Don’t solve only for short-term gain.

These four softer descriptions could be simply termed signs of good leadership. I conclude then in saying that the fullness of the concept of “lean sigma” requires excellence in leadership. Leadership is the caulk in the cracks of all of these concepts that have come and gone over the years. Without the caulk, the walls will quickly crumble. I’ve seen it happen.

Not the cry, but the flight of a wild duck, leads the flock to fly and follow.
Chinese Proverb

Transformation is a Tactical-Strategic Combo

 I joined the company at a tumultuous time. The bad economy of 2009 caused this business to literally stop incoming shipments of product because inventory was building up. Ah, but then the customers came back and getting back to full speed was a long and painful process. Our major partner had closed down lines and they were slow to hire and ramp up their material flow. In the words of my sales counterpart, “you get me anything and I can sell it.” Problem defined.

To add insult to injury our contract manufacturing partner had a performance meltdown prior to my arrival. They were unpredictable in their delivery because of shortages and quality glitches. The cause of much of this was pull-ins within long leadtimes, in some cases as long as 24 weeks. Changing that was part of the eventual fix. But it shouldn’t have been a crap shoot when we were going to get product.

The staff working on the issues was scattered and unfocused. The prior administration was focused on future strategy which wasn’t all bad but the boat was sinking while the captain was plotting a course to the Bahamas.There was no future here without some short term triage accompanied by some systemic changes.

When an organization or situation calls for a dramatic overhaul the answer is a combination of tactical and strategic work to be done simultaneously. Here are some combo pointers:

  • Fix the immediate holes in the process with attention to detail but engage with suppliers and partners at a high level to set expectations for future change.
  • Measure ferociously to track progress while determining what success looks like. Make your goals public and celebrate as they are met.
  • Focus personnel in a laser-like way. Take the unessential off the of table. Assess the team’s abilities to execute but also determine what longer term action is needed. New talent infusion? Coaching for current staff? Often there is a need to reorganize to better match the work with the available talent.
  • Identify the root causes by engaging with partners, suppliers, staff, management and peers. Ask why five times. Don’t assume that the simple answers are the right ones. Often the real root cause is more engrained in the organizational behavior. Consider what the long term vision should be for the organization and incorporate the fixes into the future state. Don’t do that alone. Use the brains of the team.
  • Celebrate the success along the way. It is worth saying again. Say thank you to people as things transform. Pull away from the daily progress to make sure that the end state is a true transformation. Don’t stop at good enough.

The end of the transformation journey described at the start ended with a contract manufacturing partner rated the highest of all in the business, full product availability (apparently the sales organization couldn’t actually sell everything that they got) and an organization filled with strong, empowered employees. Systemic changes included a new SAP planning module, a metrics dashboard with weekly reviews and a 30% reduction in leadtimes.

A good leader leads people, not transformation. Change is hard for organizations because it feels like an uncontrollable outside force. Make it an inside force by harnessing the energy of your team.

“Change is the law of life and those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future.”

—John F. Kennedy

Pink Technology

At Stanford’s recent StartX Demo Day eighteen start-up companies presented their great ideas. Of the presenters, only one was a woman. Of the businesses only two were women founded. One of the two is Maykah, founded by three Stanford grad students. They have come up with a simple toy: a buildable dollhouse complete with working circuits. The product, called Roominate, was funded to goal on Kickstarter in five days. These three women were in the minority at this startup day at Stanford but they got my full attention. I am all for “pinking up” technology.

Connecting girls to fun, techie toys is a good way to get them hooked on science at an early age. Perhaps it is as simple as connecting what girls do naturally with the technical natures of those things.  My friends and I played with trolls and matchbox cars and created grand villages in the dirt with bridges and roads and houses. (Civil Engineering?) We rescued baby birds and tried to nurse them back to health. (Biology? Medicine?) And I loved to sew and cook because I could visualize something and solve problems. (Mechanical Engineering?) Little did I know that those were signs of technology attraction that would lead me to degrees in engineering and a career to go with it.

The statistics are not going in the right direction folks:

  • In 2009, the percentage of undergraduate degrees from engineering schools that went to women was under 18% of the total, a 15-year low, according to the American Society of Engineering Education. It was about 21% in 2002.
  • Women are more attracted to engineering disciplines such as biomedical and environmental engineering than computer science because the social aspects are higher. While 44% of environmental science majors and 37% of biomedicine majors were women in 2009, just 10.5% of computer-science graduates from engineering schools were women, according to the American Society of Electrical Engineers. This isn’t a bad thing but can’t all of the engineering disciplines have a social impact? Shouldn’t they?
  • In the US, 18% of undergraduate computer science degrees were awarded to women in 2009, down from 37% in 1985.
  • In the US only 3.5% of women hold a degree in Engineering or Computer Science. The percent for men is 17.8%. (2009 statistics from Catalyst)

Some are saying that this is an issue of overall lack of good STEM education (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) in early years. Others are saying that young women are seeing the lives of their mothers and not wanting to repeat that life of juggling and pressure. I say it is because we have made technology seem too “blue”. Why don’t we talk to girls about the “pink” in technology? Why don’t we describe the creative aspects and the ability to make stuff and change the world? Why don’t we explain the doors that it opens? Why can’t we weave technology into the things that girls and young women do naturally?

Do you like to put stuff together in the kitchen to make the best dessert ever? Do you even care if it turns out since the process was as fun as the outcome?  Did you build houses, villages and characters as a young girl? Did you make up stories that went along with your creations? Do you visualize the future? Were you interested in the Curiosity Rover as it landed on Mars? Do you wonder if someday people could go there? Would you love to have the latest phone with all the capabilities that brings?  Do your parents ask you to set up the TV to record or play a DVR? Do you love having your friends at your fingertips on Facebook and texting? Can you tolerate math as long as the teacher is good? Are you willing to learn abstract concepts if they can be connected to the real world?

Ahhh, then you are a great candidate for a career in technology.

Let’s consider how we can make technology “girly”. It isn’t all that way but there is a pink underside to it that doesn’t show itself often enough.

Manufacturing for Dummies

Acmestartup has a breakthrough security product. The software bits have lovingly been stuffed in a white box server platform and volumes have been manufactured at a reputable contract manufacturer who just so happens to have designed the basic server. These initial beta boxes will be sent to early adopters of this new breakthrough product. First impressions are everything. It matters what they think. These first users will be the evangelists and the potential investors of this nascent company. Alas, when the product arrives it doesn’t work. What could possibly go wrong? How hard is it to customize an off-the-shelf server and load software and firmware. Apparently it is hard enough that the CEO of Acmestartup has made the resolution of this manufacturing problem his number one priority. When he should be worrying about the next great security algorithm, he is losing sleep over why the box shows up dead on arrival.

Startups and small companies are all about the product and customer and should be. In the same way that these small companies should get professional public relations, accounting and legal advice, these companies should be getting professional manufacturing advice. Some engineers have both development and manufacturing experience but not many of them have ramped products to volume nor have they had to choose partners, negotiate contracts or set up manufacturing processes.  And even if these engineers have had manufacturing experience is it good to divert attention away from the critical path of product development and maturity? When in doubt, hire a professional. Here are a few key pointers for those not in the field.

1. Pick the right manufacturing partner – The right partner has a focus on small companies and they have a good reputation. Ask for references. Talk with your start-up peers with similar products. Make sure that they have some local presence. Don’t rely on a company that is only in asia. You need help close to your development team. Ideally your partner should have some local manufacturing, not just reps close by.

2. Put together a cracker-jack virtual ops team – You probably can’t afford to hire all of the elements of a dynamite operations team but you can piece together experts through consultants and through your contract manufacturing partner. Make sure your collective team is thinking about purchasing, planning (and the systems that go along with the purchasing and planning), customer service, assembly and test, quality, metrics. Yes, you are small and volumes are small but all of these elements could stop you dead as you are ramping.

3. Put a manufacturing geek on the team – Do this early. Embed them with the engineers. Think about the component suppliers and final assembly process early. If possible, have your contract manufacturer supply someone to sit on your team. It is not too early to design for manufacturing if your intention is to supply a quality product to the customer as quickly as possible. Don’t design, build, ship crap, recover or try to recover.

4. Kick the hell out of the product before you ship to a customer –  HALT is Highly Accelerated Life Testing. This test will vary temperature, vibration, voltage levels until the unit fails. In other words, add variation to the process ahead of shipping. If you plan to ship your product any distance, make sure that you know what the product can withstand in terms of temperature and vibration. In addition to HALT testing, if you have multiple suppliers for a component, vary what you load on the board or use in the product and see if you can make the product fail. Ship the product across the country to your mother. See if it arrives ok and have her set it up. This works less well if the product is for the enterprise or for the construction industry but find the analogy (ship to your buddy in an IT department).

5. The devil is in the details – The small things are what get you. This is true for all companies but is particularly dangerous for smaller companies without the resources to recover. Don’t forget about customs, import taxes and regulations. Don’t ignore documentation, labeling, packaging. Watch out for long lead times for components…all it takes is one part that you can’t get fast enough. And finally, consider how you will repair and/or upgrade your product. What is your “reverse supply chain”?

While all of these considerations could seem obnoxious when you are working on a product that solves man’s or woman’s most pressing problems, they can stop you in your tracks or at the least will slow you down enough for the competition to catch up. So, consider manufacturing as a competitive weapon when launching your business. Seamless ramp coupled with highest quality at no cost to time to market should be the goal. It can be done. You aren’t a dummy!