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When CIOs and IT managers start wondering about how to effect Lean Improvement and cut wastes in their departments, the big possibility is lying right under their very own noses – Software Licenses!

Many large companies, and even medium sized companies these days, have volume licensing with companies like Microsoft. When a new employee joins, quite often there is a new PC and all desktop software like Office and sometimes diagramming tools, graphic design tools and project management software may be installed on this machine, each one taking a license off the approved list of licenses that company has with the vendor.

Unfortunately, the ugly, unspoken truth of many companies is that when the employee leaves, the disk is formatted and the PC may be recycled for another employee with installation taking one more license all over again!

With hardware it is even worse. Of course, 5 year or even a 3 year old computer hardware is hardly useful but the amounts of money spent on buying new hardware while another department is cutting back on employees and freeing hardware is often is not considered carefully.

Many large companies are implementing Asset Management software that can reclaim and reuse hardware and software wherever they can and that’s a very useful Lean Improvement project that one can undertake.

In fact there are many vendors like Redbeam that can serve even smaller companies cut waste in IT departments, especially on Hardware and Software that need not be spent money on!

Make less, buy less, use less, throw away less. – Akiko Busch


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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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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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Many a well-intentioned organizational change effort has been derailed by human beings!

Ask any of the large corporations that have spent millions and millions of dollars in ERP software the last two decades, only to find that the implementations were struggling to stabilize and work properly. All that money may just have been flushed down the toilet!

Checkout this story that documents well known ERP disasters at even companies like Hershey, Nike and HP that are supposed to be good places to work! – 10 Famous ERP Disasters, Dustups and Disappointments .

Many of them failed for many disparate reasons,  but one common thread among many of them would be failure to get buy-in from end users, and their inputs in trying to adopt the new way of doing things!

Therein, lies a very important lesson for many a Lean Improvement effort – Failure to get buy ins from end users!

When you change the way something has been done in the past, you are disturbing the steady state of many human beings involved in that process.

In ERP systems, the warehouse clerk may be used to doing things a certain way, and may be that’s all the skills they have to do, and care to do. Unless that person’s buy-in is obtained in the beginning or somebodyelse who will provide you that buy-in is brought in, the whole effort has a lot of potential pitfalls!

The warehouse clerk likes doing his work by filling out a paper form and is quite comfortable with it. Now you introduce a totally different way of doing things like fill out an online screen on a computer, they may not like the way it is done for whatever reason. It could simply be a case of “they didn’t ask me what I thought about this change”. They may be trying to sabotage the whole effort when no one is looking!

This is the Achilles Heel in not considering the Change Management, Human impact aspects of Lean Improvement upfront, before the analysis and redesign of the mechanical aspects of a process. If a certain person is likely to lose their job because of the improvement, it will be very difficult for that person to accept with happiness, how it is helping the company improve its bottom line. There is nothing in it for him, except bad consequences. On the other hand, if that person is convinced that they will be moving on to bigger and better things after the improvement is in place, they may be persuaded to enthusiastically engage in managing the change.

Lean Improvement is not just about cutting waste and doing things in a better way. It is also paying attention to ALL the factors BEFORE the effort is taken up so that the effort itself is successful.  What’s the point in undertaking an effort in cutting waste if that entire effort turns out to be a bigger waste of time, money and resources?

Failed ERP implementations are great instances for learning valuable lessons for planning and executing Lean Improvement efforts!

People are very open-minded about new things – as long as they’re exactly like the old ones – Charles F. Kettering

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Suppose a Customer Service agent throws all Handle Time metrics out the window and helps a customer shop their web site much more thoroughly or stays with the customer till the problem she was facing with the product is fully addressed, the customer truly happy!

Now is that a lean operation? Has the customer service agent wasted his time doing all of this?

It depends, I guess. If you are selling Gizmo X that uses Techno Y technology that no one else in the world sells, may be a lot of wasted time. Where else is the customer going to go get Gizmo X?

This hardly happens in the real world. There is always competition – if not directly, indirectly! For every Razor scooter sold online, there are hundred other brands in scooters, another hundred other options that are indirect competition.

But service, word of mouth, excellent sincere service are the ones that make a business thrive. That’s where being lean may really mean keeping the metrics flexible when you have to.

Make no mistake, Lean and Six Sigma insisting on consistent service without too many variations is still the best way to go but there are always outliers or exceptions for which you need to throw the book out the window and let common sense take over! And there needs to be formal way in the company to recognize what these outliers and exceptions are and an approved way of handling them!

Often, silos within companies are forced on to employees by upper management and metrics within each silo rules! If customer service is measured only by Handling time for each call, they will do things only consistent with that. But if there is a way of properly identifying outliers and exceptions and making them part of regular measurement and rewards, a positive environment is created for the company overall to do well!

Six Sigma has its own way of ensuring that customers have a positive, consistent experience with the company. Calls are handled within 15 minutes, waiting time on hold on the phone is no more than 10 seconds, etc. Six Sigma by minimizing the variation or the Standard Deviation in these metrics ensures that customer can expect a certain kind of service and that does not vary from agent to agent or from problem to problem. This is also important. But overemphasis on this will ensure that outliers are not handled properly! There are stories of call centers where agents, in order to meet their handling time metric on the phone, are known to suddenly say on the phone “Hello, Hello, Can’t hear you properly.” and hang up the phone so that they can meet their handling time metric!

Quality in a service or product is not what you put into it.
It is what the client or customer gets out of it.


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