Category Archives: Problem Solving

Some Takeaways from the E2Open sponsored SCM World Collaborative Execution Study

SCM World recently released a study on Collaborative Execution (defined as two or more parties working together to improve supply chain performance by continuously solving real problems with better information), focussed on Speed, Innovation and Profitability, overseen by Kevin O’Marah, and sponsored by E2Open that had some rather interesting, and in a few cases, surprising results. First off:

For suppliers, collaboration is primarily a means by which their customers share demand information, with 73% strongly agreeing this is a key aspect of collaboration.

For buyers, an overwhelming 83% believe collaboration revolves around the supplier sharing availability information (e.g. capacity, lead times, etc.).

In other words, both sides agree that collaboration centres on information sharing and, furthermore, the study also found that,
both sides need visibility and want a dedicated problem solver

This means that the primary barrier to collaboration between most supply chain partners is the fact that companies struggle to share information effectively, with 54% seeing lack of data visibility across trading partners as a perennial problem. Furthermore, the next biggest barrier was speed of issue resolution, with almost 50% agreeing that this was a barrier to effective collaboration. (In addition, 92% agree that quick problem resolution is part of good collaboration.)

But the most surprising result of the survey was that trust, governance, and benefit sharing were not the biggest barriers to collaboration, as commonly suggested, but the ability to connect trading partner information flow, insure quality of information, and synchronize that information for quick problem solving. (For example, almost one half of respondents felt granularity of data was a problem, speaking to the quality issue, and almost one half of respondents saw timeliness of information as a problem.) This says that, for the most part, it is not lack of desire, trust, or willingness to collaborate that is the problem, but a lack of technology to enable collaboration. (And this is a shame, considering that such technology has existed in more than adequate form for at least five years now for even the largest of multi-nationals with the most complex supply networks. It may take some effort to get used to some of the technology, which is only now maturing on the usability front in some cases, but how much of a barrier is it really to spend a few days learning a technology that is going to cut your issue resolution time in half and decrease your risk substantially?)

Given that:

  • collaborative relationships were more cost effective,
    55% of respondents agree
  • good collaboration minimizes risk, and
    75% of respondents agree
  • learning is faster in a collaborative environment
    70% of respondents conclude that the rate of leaning increases by at least one-and-a-half times

Acquiring the technology that your organization needs to take collaboration with your trading partners to the next level should be a no-brainer. (Especially since the last finding means that any operational metric targeted such as inventory days, total landed cost, cash to cash cycle time can be expected to improve one and a half times as quickly as would be the case without collaborative execution. Thus, any appropriate technology acquisition is going to give you a very quick ROI.)

The only other point of interest was the not-so-surprising result that management by exception it seems is still not part of a “truly collaborative” trading partner relationship for a substantial number of companies. This would indicate that collaboration, even among market leaders, is still not very mature. In a mature relationship, each party trusts the other to do what they do best and only gets involved when a deviation is detected or an idea is devised to improve the process or product. But still, it’s nice to know that both buyers and sellers do not see trust as a barrier to collaborating for mutual gain.

You Can’t Solve a Problem You Can’t Identify …

Nor can you solve a problem that won’t admit exists. Industry Week recently ran a great article on Surfacing Problems Daily that pointed out a harsh reality: the culture of many organizations dictates that they only face problems that they know how to address.

But if you only face problems you know how to solve, the problems you don’t know how to solve grow and fester … until, someday, they paralyze you. But it doesn’t have to be the case. You can recognize the problem as soon as it becomes apparent. Even if you can’t solve the problem right away, the sooner you begin to address it, the sooner you are likely to come up with a solution.

So what can you do to improve? According to the article, you can:

  1. Assess the Current Condition
    and make sure you know what to do when you see a problem.
  2. Develop a Mechanism
    to insure that the problem is properly recorded and tracked.
  3. Establish Non-Monetary Incentives to Surface Problems
    to insure that they are identified and recorded.
  4. Define How Leaders Should Respond
    since workers will not surface, track, or even acknowkledge problems if the leaders don’t support the initiative.

And make sure that you understand the nature of problems … as old ones get solved, new ones surface. It’s a never ending cycle.

Want a Productive Supply Chain Organization? Buy Some Cots!

The Mexicans were right all along. If you want top-notch productivity from your people, you need to allow them a siesta. It doesn’t have to be a long one, a half hour will often do, but it’s critical to if you want to maintain top levels of productivity for the entire day.

As highlighted in a recent HBR blog on why companies should insist that employees take naps, research has demonstrated that nappers outperform non-nappers. When Dr. Sara Mednick of the University of California had her test subjects practice a visual task at four intervals over the course of a day, she found that those who were allowed to take a (60 to 90 minute) nap, sustained their performance level while those who didn’t performed increasingly poor as the day goes on.

And it has been known for years that when pilots are given a nap of just 30 minutes on long haul flights, their reaction time increases by 16%. In comparison, non-napping pilots experience a 34% decrease in reaction time over the course of the flight. That’s a 50% advantage in reaction time for the napping pilot, after only 30 minutes of rest.

So buy your employees some cots or some Barcaloungers (as the blog author suggests) and give your employees a half hour for a nap after lunch (or after dinner if they have to work late to participate in a call with your overseas location). Their performance will skyrocket.

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Lean Problem Solving: A Great Fix for a Down Economy

As clarified by Jamie Flinchbaugh of the Lean Learning Center in a recent Industry Week article on problem-solving through the lean lens, lean is about problem solving. It is the never ending process of solving the problem that prevents us from getting to the ideal state where every need is met on time and with zero waste.

When trying to solve a problem, it’s important to note that waste is caused not just by processes with major problems, but by processes with minor problems as well … and that minor problems add up and multiply the total waste. Sometimes a wasteful process will have a dozen little inefficiencies that multiply into one big efficiency. That’s why a lean approach is needed — it looks for deviations from optimal at every step of a process, no matter how small at each stage of the problem solving process.

Lean attempts to identify the purpose of a process in identifying the root cause of a problem, not just the intended end result. Consider the example of cycle timing marks in the assembly process brought to light in the article. Viewed through a traditional lens, the purpose is to help the operator keep pace and speed up if he falls behind. But viewed through a lean lens, the purpose is to identify a potential problem with the process. Work should keep its own pace and the lines should spot problems as they occur, not (well) after the fact. If a task is problematic, because parts don’t quite fit or machinery isn’t performing at spec, it should be immediately identifiable from the lag in cycle time and provide an immediate opportunity for quick intervention.

Lean also trains us to engage problems, and not assume that they will be addressed by others. Most organizations work in fire-fighting mode and allow a problem to select them, rather than selecting a problem and dealing with it. Other problems, of seemingly lesser importance, are dismissed as insignificant or “typical” and ignored. Resources need to be allocated to a problem as it occurs, not after the fact.

Finally, lean tells us that a solution is not a solution unless it makes the new way easier or the old, problematic, way impossible. Lean doesn’t force-fit a solution — it develops one that fits just right.

For more information on the basic problem solving process (which you should embed a lean lens into), see the following posts:

For more information on lean, see the following posts:

Build Your Credibility Too in 20 Minutes a Day

Not only can you increase your chances of success in 2009 in 20 minutes a day (see parts I and II), but you can also increase your credibility as well. As a recent article in e-Side Supply Management that outlines 10 Credibility-Building Tactics points out, it doesn’t take much to undermine your credibility in the workplace — and more often than not, you won’t even realize you’re doing it. But not only can you make a number of quick and easy changes to re-establish your credibility, you can also take pride in the fact that these quick and easy changes will build your credibility as well.

  • Think, don’t Feel
    Decision making should center on facts and trade-offs, not emotion. Think, don’t feel.
  • Sit at the Table
    Otherwise, you’ll never be viewed as an equal.
  • Don’t Apologize for Everything
    If you did what you thought was right for the company and did your best, you have nothing to apologize for. And you definitely shouldn’t apologize for meaningless minutia. Font too small? Chart too busy? Who Cares!
  • Don’t Be the Hired Help
    There’s being helpful and supportive … and then there’s being the maid or the administrative assistant. If that’s your job — great. But if it’s not, think twice about always volunteering for the meaningless minutia.
  • Attack the Issue, Not the Person
    If you disagree with something, do your best to identify the issue or the behavior without labeling an individual or group as responsible for it. State that the reports are useless, not that the creators are careless or haphazard, for example. And remember that even sometimes the smartest person will have the dumbest idea you ever heard. (And sometimes even on purpose … because we know that if we can’t come up with anything good, it’s often the worst idea that we can contrive that will inspire you to come up with something that is truly great.)
  • Use unequivocal language.
    No one likes a cowardly pussy-footer. And definitely don’t use language that leaves others with the impression there is a choice when there really isn’t. If your current supplier is inept, don’t say “we should consider whether we want to change suppliers”, say “we need to change suppliers now”.
  • Keep Your Inside Voice Inside
    Although it’s constructive to identify all of the risks associated with a various course of action before you make a decision, once you make a decision, don’t constantly fret about it. All you’ll do is wear everyone down.
  • If You Must Be Late, Don’t Be Disruptive
    Don’t add to the disruption of being late by offering an explanation, and definitely don’t ask to be brought up to speed. If your boss really needs to know why you’re late, wait until after the meeting and have the conversation offline.
  • Avoid Filler Words, Phrases, and D’Oh!
    Useless words such as “so,” “you know,” “anyway,” “um” and “er” that contribute no meaningful information will cause your audience to tune out, or, even worse, break out their “filler-word bingo” cards. Either way, the most you’ll be is amusement.
  • If You Don’t Know, Ask.
    No one knows everything, and no one with more than two active brain cells would expect you to. So don’t be afraid to ask once in a while … after all, the best way to be taken seriously is to ask some good, well thought out questions.