Feb 28, 2008

Introduce ignorance, says Power magazine editor

I found this anecdote today in the December 2007 issue of "Power" magazine:

When searching for the cause of a failure, we often overlook the obvious. This is especially true for formally educated technologists—we relish the thought of digging into nitty-gritty details and exploring all kinds of complex possibilities. But what we should be doing is purposely introducing ignorance—asking the simple questions first. One failure specialist (I love that job title!) tells this story:

I accompanied a fellow worker to one of our sulfuric acid plants to help rebuild one of its waste-heat boilers. Barney was much more experienced than I was, and had been coming to the site annually for a long time—these waste-heat boilers had been rebuilt once a year for the last 20 years because of sulfuric acid corrosion. I respected Barney greatly, as did all site personnel.

The next morning, we met with an equally respected team of corporate metallurgists who had also been coming to the site annually, as well as the plant’s reliability engineering staff. I learned that once per year, these experts would get together to try to get more life out of the boiler tubes. They had tried just about every metal they could think of.

I looked around the room and noted that while individual members of the group had changed from time to time, the collective team of experts had inherited all the folklore and tradition from their predecessors. Their biases were obvious to me, so I started asking some simple, straightforward questions. They answered my questions politely, but they were clearly annoyed.

That night, I came right out with it and asked Barney, “What causes the boiler tubes to corrode?” He flashed me a disgusted look and said, “This is a sulfuric acid plant. Acid is made in the boilers. Boiler tubes and sulfuric acid don’t mix well. So don’t ask such a stupid question.”

The next morning, we met with the plant manager. Still troubled, I blurted out, “I just don’t understand why anyone would design a boiler with tubes that will corrode in one year!” Barney could have shot me. But the plant manager was wide-eyed. “You know,” he said, “I’ve been wondering the same thing, but I didn’t want to sound stupid. Our other sulfuric acid plant isn’t having these problems. Sure, we begin the acid-making process in the boilers, but there’s not supposed to be acid until after those tubes.”

Encouraged by this exchange, I called my boss at the home office and suggested that we conduct a full-blown root-cause analysis. He liked the idea so much he flew to the plant site to personally propose the project. When he was explaining the proposal, my boss said that “only the truly ignorant can ask the questions that lead to discovery because they don’t know enough to be ashamed of themselves.” Then, he looked at me and said, “We’ve got one of the most ignorant people imaginable right here!”

The proposal was accepted, and the study pinpointed as the cause of failure a dew point problem, not a metallurgical one. When we verified our hypotheses, we moved the affected tubes one foot behind their original location. It worked! In fact, we eventually changed the tube materials back to their original, less-expensive specification.

The team of experts had looked at this problem for 20 years! They were brilliant in their field, but they made two of the most common mistakes in problem-solving. First, they tried to solve the problem before they looked at the evidence (some have described this as a medical problem called “premature evaluation”). Second, they failed to introduce ignorance. To help break what often can be a thin shell of understanding, you must intentionally pit ignorance against expertise.

I find it so hard to ask the stupid question. When my son was in high school he was even in a class where anyone who asked what the rest of the boys considered a blatantly stupid question had to put a quarter in the pizza fund. I hope there were no sensitive people in the class, but your average teenage boy thought it was great fun. Even without paying a fine, we all wanted to have the right answer or the insightful question. We need to reward people who do ask the dumb question, not roll our eyes. Besides, we probably didn't know the answer either.

[Hey - have you tried using Google notebook? It was great for saving this little story and finding it later - it even links to the source page. An icon stays in the corner of your browser so you can open it quickly, then close it up. And you can park it on your iGoogle home page. I'm getting to be all Google, all of the time.]

Feb 26, 2008

Microsoft - thanks for noticing!!!

"An error has occurred" That's what it says in my iGoogle window where my hotmail messages are supposed to appear. I'm not the only person who couldn't get e-mail today - hotmail's been down for about 10 hours now, apparently since about 6 am EST. The problem is now being reported in news sites from the US, the UK, Ireland, and Canada. The earliest report I found on Google News was posted 6 hours ago on a North Carolina blog. Comments there are reporting trouble in Denmark, Portugal, Bulgaria, Pakistan, Singapore, Argentina. Could I leap to a conclusion that all 300 million users worldwide have been stuck all day? Various rumors say it has something to do with a server, which is about like saying "My car won't start." I don't really care.

It took Microsoft 6 hours, by my calculation, from the start of the problem to admitting in the news that anything was amiss. The gist of what they have to say is, "We're working on it."

Wouldn't you think Microsoft would have the courtesy to issue a press statement soon after the start of the problem and update it every half hour or so? I started checking new sites about an hour after I continually failed to get connected to Windows Live. Instead, it seems that even the bigger news services had to push their way in to get a statement.

I think it's fundamental to human psychology that, if we don't have control over something, we feel better if we at least get information. It's why the boss asks for reports. It's why you tell employees how the business is doing. It's why we call home if we're running late and someone's making dinner for us.

It's appalling that what amounts to a worldwide public utility can allow itself to be exposed to such massive failure, but it's worse that even the PR people must have been frantically working to solve the problem - else, why couldn't they have said what was going on?

One more reason to get a Mac and to move my e-mail to gmail. I'll let you know when I change my address.

Feb 15, 2008

Match product variation with demand

We went to tiny Fish Lake, Indiana, for a couple of days in our son's cottage. We didn't do a lot of planning about what groceries to take, and so had to stop in the tiny grocery store on Hwy 4 to pick up milk and orange juice, at least, before we settled in for the night.

Mike went in and many minutes later came back with a full sack of groceries. Far from being a backwoods operation with dusty cans and a few wrinkled vegetables, it was a gem sized to fit the needs of the community, and it included a full meat counter. I'd forgotten, but Indiana is the place to go if you like pork products.

The interesting process/product practice was this - instead of having inventory of both link sausage and bulk sausage in the display case, the store only had one type - bulk sausage. But...if you wanted link sausage, the machine for filling the casings was right there. The person behind the counter - in this case one of three young people who evidently were members of a family-run business - took your order and if you wanted a pound of link sausage, put it in the casing-filler, started it up, and made the links then.

It's not rocket science, as they say, but it's a practice you don't see very often. It's a matter of customizing the product as close to the time when the product variation is ordered as possible.

The sausage was pretty lean too. And tasted much better than the product Bob Evans can sell you.

Feb 13, 2008

Lean from the ground up

Last month, Dick Townsend and Paul Neblock, my friends at Kobalt Partners, arranged for me to visit Huron Automatic Screw Company (HASC) in Port Huron, MI. Ed Brooks, and brothers Warren and David, have been ensuring that this family precision machining company will survive global competition.

You can get threaded fasteners from a lot of places, so the Brooks brothers (sorry – no shirts for sale) are trimming costs and building a pervasive lean culture. The end customer for their parts is primarily the heavy truck industry, which has not been hit as hard as consumer automotive markets, so they have fared better than similar companies in Michigan.

Among other improvements like detailed attention to setup reduction and employee involvement and idea implementation, the plant itself is getting a makeover. “One of the outcomes from our strategic planning was a five-year facility and equipment plan.” Ed Brooks told me. “Last year we went through an energy audit with DTE, [the electric utility company] and they showed us some cost saving opportunities, especially lighting. So we contracted with a company that changed all the lights in the plant and the offices, to be more energy efficient and to improve the quality of the lighting. The difference was like night and day.

“We’ve been here since the 50s, and our building was built in three phases up into the 80s,” Brooks continued. “In the oldest part of the building, the floor was uneven and dirty, even though we tried to clean it with scrubbers and so on. So we made a commitment to replace the entire floor in that section of the building.”

Replacing a factory floor is not like putting do-it-yourself laminate over the vinyl in your kitchen. At HASC, they tore out all the old concrete and replaced it area by area. That gave them a more uniform surface and solid foundation, and then they added an epoxy coating. It’s clean so you can see oil spills and other signs of potential trouble. “Physically and visibly,” Brooks said, “it’s really helped upgrade the quality of the plant. It’s been a real project, and we’re not done.”

The 5S team, that Warren and David actively participate on, has started to clean up and repaint all the machines, white and blue instead of battleship gray. That provides the visual opportunity to see where the leaks are coming from. Before, the accumulation of dirt on veteran machines would cover up problems. “It’s a matter of needing to make a commitment to that,” Ed Brooks told me, “because it’s easy to get caught up in the day-to-day operations and say, ‘We can’t afford to have a machine down for a week while we clean it and paint it,’ but we can’t afford not to do it.”

When Warren took me on a plant tour, he pointed out some of the effects of the renovation. One operator took cleanliness seriously. The whole area around his machine was spotless. Warren said that if anything dripped or dropped on the floor, he was there with a rag, immediately. Tracking dirt from the parts of the plant that haven’t been cleaned up is inevitable, but the operator was known to discourage anyone from setting foot on his floor.

Warren and I also looked at some carts used to move parts in and out of the plant’s first cell. Before the carts were added, containers were placed on the floor and manually lifted. Wheels wouldn’t have been possible, Warren told me, before the floor was replaced. Bumps and cracks would have kept the carts from rolling easily enough.

The company is strategically adding new equipment, including a Euroturn multi-spindle screw machine a year or so ago. A bar feeder is due next month. Automation only where it makes sense. Small and simple improvements where they make a difference.

“I’d like to think that the commitment that we’ve made, not only the 5S, but also the facility and equipment investments, indicates to our employees that this is a business that’s going to be continuing for another generation,” Ed Brooks told me.

Since everyone is well aware that lean is a journey that they’ve just embarked on, I’d give them pretty good odds that they will.

Feb 6, 2008

President's budget once again cuts funding for key skills training programs

The Workforce Alliance watches Washington's antics as they play shell games that affect manufacturing's ability to get the skilled workforce in demand today and tomorrow. They report:

On Monday President Bush released his FY 2009 budget, the last of his Administration. Included in the $3.1 trillion dollar budget were substantial cuts to many key education and training programs in the Departments of Labor and Education. Once again, the Administration has proposed to first cut funding and then block grant WIA and other related job training programs to fund Career Advancement Accounts (CAAs) - a proposal already repeatedly rejected by Congress.

I can tell you that Career Advancement Accounts sound good on paper - they help an individual who is being laid off, bought out, made redundant, or whatever, to pay for education and training to reenter or advance in a career. But the older WIA grants give more money to coalitions of companies, community colleges, and other organizations to provide the workforce training to companies that haven't yet closed their doors. In other words, do you want to spend money to keep people employed in healthy companies, or allow the companies to fail and then spend the money?

Additionally, training programs for youth, migrant workers, ex-offenders, and persons living with disabilities were significantly cut or eliminated. Education and training programs under the Department of Education also face deep cuts. While funding for Pell Grants has once again seen significant increases, Career and Technical Education State Grants (Perkins) face elimination, and Adult Basic Education sees no increase in funding. As at DOL, DOEd programs serving migrant workers, ex-offenders, and persons living with disabilities face significant cuts or outright elimination.

TWA's comparison of the Administration's FY09 budget request to FY08 funding levels indicates proposed cuts of over $1 billion (17%) to job training and related workforce development programs within the Department of Labor (DOL), and over $1.2 billion (69%) in cuts to vocational education and adult education under the Department of Education (DOEd).

To view TWA's preliminary analysis of the Administration's Departments of Labor and Education budgets, view historical funding trends, and state by state effects of proposed WIA funding cuts please visit the Alliance's Federal Funding webpage.

Feb 3, 2008

What's in our wallet?

Does this tax rebate thing mean we're going to borrow money from China to spend it on things from China? Meanwhile, people are homeless and hungry, kids aren't getting medical care, and we've got a war to pay for -- meaning that we've got to buy stuff in the U.S. to replace what gets destroyed? Sorry, but I don't get it.
Copyright @ 2005-2014 by Karen Wilhelm