Archive for the ‘Human Factors’ Category

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Ask any heavy user of Pivot Tables in Microsoft Excel and they will tell you hundreds of stories on how they wasted time, effort and money creating other versions of Pivot Tables from the ones they already had.

For example, say you are analyzing how much time each agent in a customer support call center for Symantec Anti-Virus products or Intuit Tax or Accounting products is spending, resolving issues with the software products they support.

The Call Center is interested in monitoring and making sure that agents resolve issues over the phone, keep the customer happy, but at the same time do not spend more than say 15 minutes per call on any issue. So it slices and dices Agent-wise times and then drills down to Product Type and sees if that particular agent has any more problems resolving issues with Product X Vs. Product Y.

On the other hand, the company is interested in seeing how Product X and Product Y support is going, and so it drills down to Product Level totals and if needed then drilldown to an Agent level.

You would think that with the same data, creating these two pivot tables would be easy. Not so with just Excel spreadsheets alone. When data sets are huge, doing any kind of reorganized reporting takes days and even weeks manually.

Enter a lot of Drag and Drop Business Intelligence solutions that you can just drag and drop columns and the system instantly recalculates the totals and shows you the reorganized reports. Recalculation takes time and computing resources since they will have to redo the totals if the columns are interchanged for proper slicing and dicing.

Now watch this video about In-Memory Analysis from Jaspersoft.

This Commercial Open Source Software from Jaspersoft, makes it even simpler and easier, by doing all the calculations on the fly, In Memory. Multi-dimensional Cube Operations in dealing with slicing and dicing is very compute intensive and in-memory calculations make the whole thing fly faster.

You would not think that such technical arcana have little to do with cutting waste in money, time and resources but with the right technology, you can achieve a lot of your Lean Improvement goals, as well! After all if you are spending time creating the reports rather than acting on them to put in course corrections, you are wasting time, money and resources.

Don’t use a lot where a little will do – Proverb


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No day passes in anybody’s life without contemplating AT LEAST ONCE some user interface on a computer that confused you and wasted your time!

Studies have shown that the 80/20 rule applies to software also. You use only 20% of the features 80% of the time and as such those are the ONLY features you may need to see in a user interface for you!

What we absolutely need are Lean User Interfaces! If someone adds up all the time they waste every single day looking for something or scratching their head wondering about to get something done on their computer, it would add up to years over a lifetime!

The above video shows something that is a step towards that but we need more approaches that observe what you use in software on a daily basis and adaptively tailors the user interface just for you!

Software developers quite often think FEATURES while users are thinking HOW DO I DO SOMETHING!

The above YouTube video is one step closer to making user interfaces adapt to the end user. It zooms the screens based on how close the user is to the screen.

Email is probably the most time wasting computer software any of us use. If only they come up with better user interfaces for email so that we don’t go on wild goose chases on our own computer!

Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works! – Steve Jobs

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Producing Business Intelligence has always been thought of as a linear process where, you have at the beginning of a the BI process, all the data, then it gets cleaned; then you populate your data warehouse and then you do your reports. The reports are then of immense use to you!

Hardly works in real life! In fact, truly useful Business Intelligence lies in Excel Spreadsheets and skunkworks projects within companies in many departments. Yes. There may be a central Business Intelligence effort, but frustration with getting precisely the information they needed at any time in the forms they need, has always been the achilles’ heel of many BI efforts within companies, especially larger ones.

I ran across a novel way of thinking about this whole process. What if you just had all the data sources available to you somewhere and you assemble in the form of a flowchart, your own unique Business Intelligence mashup including Geographic, Demographic data as needed? What if you could just drag and drop these components on the screen and you get the new kind of mashups you need?

SRC is a company that makes a product called Alteryx that enables this kind of Business Intelligence.

What is interesting about this product is that it first of all, it serves customers better! Consumers of Business Intelligence for the most part do not know ahead of time all the different kinds of Business Intelligence they need and what data needs to be collected and stored in the first place.

Add to it, the waste of human effort, and time spent on monolithic Business Datawarehousing, and Business Intelligence efforts. This is not to talking about waiting for IT resources to free up to work on  the precise kind of reports you need for your work!

By making it easy for consumers of Business Intelligence to do a lot of the assembling and analysis themselves, it makes for a Lean form of Business Intelligence effort within the company.

With the amount of Geocoding, Demographic and other location-related data available for many countries in the world in great detail, tools like these enable a Lean form of Business Intelligence, cutting a lot  of wasted efforts within large companies. For small and medium sized companies that do not have large IT departments, of course, something like this is a natural!

You can observe a lot by just watching – Yogi Berra

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My credit union doesn’t want me to come in and bother them if I have a check to be deposited in my account. If I have a scanner at home and access to the Internet, I can just deposit my checks from home!

It saves me a trip to the bank, time, gas and the opportunity to do something else useful. For the bank, I am doing all the work. They don’t need me showing up at the branch needing time on their part to do the work I can do from home.

Chase Begins Converting Its ATM Fleet to No-Envelope Machines reports Bank and Technology. You can now deposit up to 30 checks in one go along with cash also in a Chase ATM.

They are trying to do away with Deposit Slips and that’s a great Value-added improvement for consumers as well as a lean improvement for banks.  For the consumer, they get a scanned image of the check in the receipt as well as money that is available sooner because the intermediate step of somebody at the bank manually opening these envelopes and processing them is totally eliminated.

Businesses seem to be benefit even more because they don’t need to write a big deposit slip with thirty or forty checks each time. The ATM can just easily scan it all and print out a receipt with all the images.

In addition, it appears that the bank has eliminated fraudulent transactions where someone deposits their own checks into their own accounts and if that bank allowed withdrawals immediately, got the money out!

Great example of a Lean Improvement in check processing that is a win-win for everyone, except perhaps for the people not needed anymore to process these transactions at the bank!

Any general statement is like a check drawn on a bank. Its value depends on what is there to meet it.  –  Ezra Pound

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Zappos, the online retailer threw out all metrics for its Customer Service Organization. Customer service representatives stayed with a  customer on the phone, till they are happy, even if it takes hours and hours. Throws out all kinds of Six Sigma variation reduction goals out of the window. But that’s exactly what helped them build a new company in the midst of hundreds of other competitors and helped sell their company for billions to Amazon!

Check this article out about their now, legendary service! – Expediting delivery of WOW customer service Zappos Style.

Advanced Decisioning for Process Excellence is an excellent article by James Taylor that argues that for process excellence incorporating flexibility and advanced decisioning in people, helps reduce process complexity and make them simpler.

He says that processes become convoluted, complex and difficult to manage just because they don’t incorporate complex decision making capabilities with the people doing the process.

Brings us back to empowerment also. In addition to having the knowledge about how decisions could be made by people, they also need the power to make those decisions and make them stick. If the customer is on the phone and wants a full refund, throwing that person into another part of the process where another person may be involved in that decision just aggravates the customer. If that person is empowered to make those kinds of decisions themselves without any kind of authorization from anybody else, that makes the process a lot simpler and wins a customer for life, possibly, and also word of mouth recommendations from that person.

However, many automated parts of processes with rule engines and such may not have this flexiblity and so while they may be efficient in execution, they may not have the same effectiveness of a person satisfying a customer and increasing word of mouth sales.

Do the right thing. It will gratify some people and astonish the rest – Mark Twain

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Finace and Accounting processes in a company belong to a whole class of non-value adding activities, if you really think about it. They are needed by the regulatory authorities, shareholders and other stakeholders that have business with the company but for the life of me could not think of one way in which it adds value to me, the end customer.

How Ford Motor Company does its Finance and Accounting function has very little to do with the value it is adding to the Ford car I am thinking of buying!

It is interesting that even large companies like Dell and Cisco spent time thinking about how to make the Finance and Accounting function leaner.  

What they found was interesting. They unearthed lots of unnecessary processes and wasted human effort in all of their financial forecasting and regular accounting functions.

The surprising result of all of this is the elimination of a lot of unncessary reports.

As anyone who has watched the movie OfficeSpace and/or worked in a middle management or lower position in any company, we all know the reports we need to fill out periodically that we were convinced wasn’t going to be useful to anybody within the company.  

Time wasted in useless reports so satirized in OfficeSpace that people have designed coversheets for Initech T.P.S Report as a joke! IniTech is the fictitious company that features in the movie.

But seems like wasted human efforts and unnecessary reports are a reality in the world of Finance and Accounting and companies have found a lean approach to eliminating them!

But if you have not seen OfficeSpace yet, do not miss it! It’s widely available on DVD!

There’s no business like show business, but there are several businesses like accounting. – David Letterman

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As a long time, intense student of Toyota Production System, and Toyota news in general, I can make some guesses as to where they went wrong.

Continuous Process Improvement can indeed go wrong some time and the Toyota troubles prove this in good measure.

First of all, the accelerator pedal going out of control in Toyota Camry’s was finally traced to a software problem and the fix is really a software fix! Here’s an excellent note on this – Toyota’s lesson: Software can be unsafe at any speed .

In the never ending quest to increase mileage and decrease fuel consumption, Toyota apparently replaced a completely mechanical system with one that was software driven and electronic.

The older Toyotas used to have a mechanical cable running from the accelerator pedal to the fuel injection system. They replaced this with a pedal that was mechanically disconnected from the fuel injection system but made local contact and sensors picked up what the pressure on the pedal was. This was electronically translated into increasing or decreasing the fuel injected into the engine to vary the speed.

Of course, this kind of fuel system achieved the fuel efficiency goals but what they overlooked was that when it comes to software, there is no such thing as 100% tested and bug-free software. With excellent coding discipline and extensive testing, you can approach the high nineties in % of bugs rooted out, but never 100%!

That’s probably what got them!

Of course, even newspapers reported that Toyota knew about problems and never ackonowledged them.

Beyond this there has been a lot of confusion about some of the parts manufactured in Japan, not having defects but those manufactured in Europe and the US having problems.  Just given the different ways way Toyota operates in Japan and outside Japan, there is a very real possibility of this being true!

In Japan, Toyota operates with parts suppliers very closely as this paper observes –  The Key Strategic Suppliers within Toyota’s Global Supply.

Toyota literally sends its people inside the suppliers’ operations, spend months and years teaching them the Toyota Production system and helping them achieve the quality tolerances they need to ensure a high level of overall quality. Most Toyota plants are near each other since Japan itself is a small country.

However, parts for the Toyota/GM factory in Fremont, CA comes all the way from plants in the Mid-West or South in the US. Not the same proximity, is it?

However, as this paper concludes at the end, an open question is still how this mode of operation works in different countries because of cultural differences and distances. My guess is that outside Japan, Toyota may not have the same degree of closely working relationships they may manage in Japan.

This becomes all the more important when you cut costs. Tighter tolerances, cheaper and cheaper parts and distance of the supplier to the manufacturer may only compound problems in the future, if not now.

Something to remember when doing lean improvement – What pressures are you placing into the whole execution chain? Can they snap somewhere in between.  Good things to ponder!

Everything we do has consequences.  – Dennis Potter

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