Oct 29, 2009

Reinvent now

I have a real reason for you to come to Detroit next week. There’s a supply chain workshop for the wind turbine industry going on (American Wind Energy Association and NextEnergy) and it presents opportunities you may not have thought of.

Leaving aside the question of whether wind is better than coal or solar better than gas, wind turbines are going up fast. Well, sort of fast. The wait for a turbine, I hear, is measured in years. A case where demand is greater than supply.

There are at least three hard-hit industries I can think of that should be jumping at the chance to go to this conference—automotive suppliers, machine tool builders, and companies like Caterpillar that build mining and construction equipment.

Just one turbine contains 8,000 components: metal parts, sensors, hubs, rotors, blades, shafts, and tower sections. That’s a lot of value added, and the turbine manufacturers aren’t going to do it all themselves.

So what capabilities do you have that you can leverage to enter the industry?

First, you need a record of building highly reliable products from design to serviceability. It’s no simple matter to repair a wind turbine, and catastrophic failures are not unknown. And achieving reliability requires lubrication systems, electronics, remote maintenance information systems, and other stuff I know nothing about.

Related to reliability is quality. Do you have six sigma expertise embedded throughout your company? GE is one of the big time OEMs, and they speak six sigma there. Auto suppliers have tremendous talent in this area, and if you need it, the industry has released a flood of talent. Find those folks now, before the improving economy absorbs them.

Wind turbines have some REALLY BIG THINGS in them. That’s where some machine tool builders and makers of big equipment should be looking, not waiting for their old markets to return. Really big parts require expertise in metallurgy, casting, forging, heat treating, welding, testing, and traceability. How about rolling 17-ton seamless rings more than 7 meters across. What about forging 18-ton shafts?

Know how to make castings? A wind turbine can use 10- to 25 tons of ductile iron castings, from less than 100 to more than 50,000 lbs each. A rotor hub can weigh 36,000 lbs and measure 15 ft in diameter. I don’t have to give you details of the extreme attention to metallurgy and casting quality required here. Forming parts from specialized alloys is not easy.

Castings large and not-so-large will need machining. What turbine parts are about the size of a vehicle engine block? Just asking.

Fasteners. 500 bolts per turbine, then pins, washers, studs—you name it. Need I say more?

The publicized call for suppliers doesn’t say they should understand lean, TPS, kaizen, continuous improvement, or six sigma. However, you can bet the companies with the strongest grasp of lean will be able to gain the edge. They should be able to make parts with lower cost and higher quality. They should be a source of manufacturability knowledge. They should be able to innovate in the area of materials and methods, transferring them from other industries. They should be able to deliver on time. They should be able to galvanize a workforce to achieve great things.

Money. OK. You need to invest in new capital equipment, make sure your software aligns with that of customers and vendors in the industry, redouble your training efforts, enter an industry that you don’t already feel comfortable in. And you’re tapped out. That’s where the AWEA conference and workshop comes in. It involves bringing the latest news from Washington, state economic development agencies, sources of information about tax credits. You can get a big gulp of information about the industry. You can meet potential customers and learn how they see their needs evolving.

In more news from Detroit, it looks like Zug Island (if you ever lived here, you’ll chuckle now) will clean itself up and become the home of a research center that could change the game. The vision is to develop a 15-20 mw turbine (current turbines are more like 1.5 mw). NextEnergy and a flock of companies, agencies, governments, universities and other organizations are looking for mega-money, and might just get it.

Crain’s Detroit Business says NextEnergy has talked with more than 1,000 auto suppliers about getting into the wind industry. I wish I knew what the outcomes have been.

States like Michigan are not going to be able to turn a switch and “retool” the economy. You’re going to do that. Innovative and adaptive manufacturing leaders are going to move up and build an industry. Question is, will you be with them?

Oct 18, 2009

It's broke and there's nobody to fix it.

There should be a special place in Hades for software engineers who believe users think just like they do. (Did you ever think "user" has a disdainful ring to it -- like somebody who uses drugs or uses people?)

If you found the culprit, I can imagine the conversation, "Oh, it doesn't work? Just do this thing with that. Did you..." Like you're supposed to know. Online help writers are no better.

If you're not making things simple enough for your mom or grandmother to understand, you don't know how to communicate. There's an app for that. Bring in a usability expert to review your work and teach you about how non-engineers think.

If you're not testing things to the bulletproof stage, you're not testing enough. There's an app for that. Bring in a reliability engineer to test your work and teach you about the principles of reliability.

Right now I'm in a sync Twilight Zone, trying to get my calendars to agree using PocketMac for BlackBerry. I uninstalled it and reinstalled it and it still churns on and on. Google Sync won't work either. It thinks my radio connection is turned off.

Software developers take note! I'll be Tweeting error messages that I either like or find incomprehensible. Try to learn something about ordinary people.

Oct 15, 2009

Capacity planning and community health

Are you thinking about getting a flu shot to protect against the ordinary seasonal flu, or are you distracted by all the talk about H1N1? People with flu symptoms in the coming months are going to test the capacity of the healthcare system. And why, if it's so easy to prevent? Not only do you protect yourself from being sick, but you eliminate yourself as an infection vector with the potential to geometrically increase the number of flu victims.

Last year was the first time I got a flu shot. It's inconvenient. You have to find out where to get one. You have to let someone hurt you. It's easy to procrastinate.

You don't know if you have to make an appointment with your doctor to get your shot. Do you go to the county health department immunization clinic? Can you get one at the drugstore or the grocery store.

What day is flu shot day? What time? What will it cost?

This year, Target created capacity and customer service by offering flu and pneumonia shots at their pharmacies. I called to ask when they'd be giving them, and the pharmacist said, "Whenever you want."

So today I went there, not wanting to trade viruses with hundreds of people at the AME conference next week. It was mid-morning and no other customers were waiting at the pharmacy counter. An associate responded to my request right away. It did take time -- I don't know how value-added it was -- to fill in a customer health questionnaire and for the associate to put the data into the computer. (You get to pick your own color container for any prescription medications so they don't get mixed up with those of other family members at home -- poka yoke.)

Once that was done, a fellow came around the counter to a little alcove partitioned off and we sat down on the two chairs that were there. He asked what arm I wanted to get the shot in, or if I wanted one in each arm. He talked very approvingly of me for getting the immunizations. It cost about $30 for each shot.

Yes, Target is accepting that they are paying a qualified person (nurse?) to stand around when there are no other customers for the shots. (Excess capacity) But by making them available at any time Target is better matching demand and leveling work than a site that is open once or twice a month. Target is providing a public health service that will keep more poeple well throughout the winter.

Do you think of capacity as something to minimize in every instance? Maybe some excess capacity would be an advantage in ensuring flow in your office or factory. Especially when it comes to people. Wrong-headed layoffs may be hurting companies more than they know.

Oct 13, 2009

HBS study of corporate silos

We know that organizations have silos that hamper the development of a leaner enterprise, but is there a way to quantify and understand what's happening within and across divisions and subgroups?

Harvard Business School postdoctoral fellow Adam M. Kleinbaum, and professors Toby E. Stuart and Michael L. Tushman took on the challenge by analyzing server logs of e-mails and calendars, publishing their findings in a working paper, "Communication (and Coordination?) in a Modern, Complex Organization."

They analyzed more than 100 million e-mails and 60 million electronic calendar entries over a three-month period in a 100,000-employee company--studying what Stuart calls the "soft wiring" of invisible social networks--and found that people tended to communicate within their own groups. "We were surprised by how little interaction occurs across three major boundaries: the strategic business unit, the organizational function, and the geographic office location," Stuart told Sara Jane Gilbert of the HBS Working Knowledge e-newsletter.

"Two people who are in the same SBU, function, and office interact about 1,000 times more frequently than two people at the company who are in different business units, functions, and offices, but are otherwise similar. Practically speaking, this means that there is very little interaction across these boundaries," said Stuart.

He also said that people tended to interact with others at the same level in the organization, making me think that higher management didn't communicate with operational managers much, which would happen in a leaner company. They also found that people mostly e-mail people they already talk to, supplementing personal relationships that already exist.

The exceptions: junior executives, women, and members of the salesforce were active in bridging silos. Stuart and his colleagues will be doing more work to try to learn why those people—and not others—play such important bridging roles.

Although the research doesn't try to answer why corporate silos are so difficult to tear down, Stuart hopes the data will help managers understand, pinpoint, and remove bottlenecks within their own organizations.

Oct 11, 2009

Root cause -- for real

I pruned shrubs today--they'd gotten so scary looking I probably should have left it until after Halloween. It got me thinking about root cause analysis. My shrubs are junipers, and I like them to look feathery and natural, so you can't just swipe them with electric shears. The goal is thinning. Ideally you analyze the growth of a branch, find where a leader and a smaller younger shoot is coming from and cut the long one. My goal was to make the shrubs smaller but preserve their natural look.

To do that, you have to be able to see the overgrown problem areas, then find what to cut. In this case, the juniper needles were so dense that I couldn't follow the overgrown tip of a branch back to where I should cut it, like I would if I were pruning lilacs.

What I had to do is cut the bits I knew I wanted to subtract and gradually expose the branch they were coming from. When I cut that, I got rid of a lot excess greenery and shorter, younger branches hid the cut.

I realized what I was doing was like continuous improvement. Sometimes in the workplace you can see where there is a problem, but you can't see its cause. How often is it a case where you also find clutter, dirt, and debris there? So the first action is to remove everything that is not needed and is just obscuring the problem. Maybe you realize you need more 5S workplace organization work.

With the continuous improvement attitude, you keep coming back and taking more and more stuff away, or eliminating obvious problems, knowing you're looking for the root cause. Each action gets you closer. Then you find it, correct it, and you're done.

But are you really done? Like yard work, you discover more problems at the worksite as you solve each one. You see the weeds. You see the tree seedlings that have taken root over the summer. You know that if you don't get them now, you'll have real problems next year. You see the small bare spots in the lawn that ought to have some grass seed. Gee, what was that endlessly repeated commercial about feeding your lawn in the fall? Would that produce an improvement you'd value?

So if you see a problem, but the reason for it -- its root cause -- is eluding you, you might try to clip away at the effects until you find it. That's not the only, or even the best way to find root causes, but it might fit a situation you're struggling with right now.
Copyright @ 2005-2014 by Karen Wilhelm