The Opinion Page
News and comments about the issues facing today's SCM and Inventory Management professionals.
My apologies to my loyal readers for not having posted on this blog for quite some time. I have been very busy working on two exciting projects: first, I am helping to set up a new small business which covers the spectrum from creative thought to manufacturing to final assembly to carrying the product to market. The second is that I am writing a book - who knows if it will ever be published.
Both projects are incredibly challenging, but both bring to bear many if not all of the skills that I have developed in the past thirty years. My knowledge of inventory and asset management, including forecasting and demand management, drew me towards the first project. Since there is very little resource to invest in technology, we are challenged to build solid fundamentals of procurement and inventory management into the business from the start. But the level of risk is very high - much higher than anything I have seen before - and as such one needs to be flexible from an operations standpoint. Forecasting is very helpful, but one never really knows the direction a new business will take. I feel a little like Gandalf leading the Fellowship of the Ring into unknown territory - we are all very skilled, but in spite of our rigorous preparation we know not what lies ahead of us. I am also very appreciative that my career has exposed me to many business families: from the shop floor to the warehouse to the marketing department to sales to merchandising to visual merchandising to technology to Finance to accounting to advertising and promotion. It has truly equipped me to be able to put all of the pieces together into a largely cohesive unit, understanding the interrelationships within the business unit.
Writing the book frequently takes me back to lessons learned in Mrs. Ferguson's Grade 10 English class at Lorne Park Secondary School. She, in large measure, taught me how to write. How to construct a sentence, how to vary the rhythm of the piece, why spelling is important, and developing a decent vocabulary are all aspects that come into play when writing. Writing, unfortunately, is becoming a lost art due to advances in technology, and there are negative ramifications in business communications. With the book, the joy is in the creation, not necessarily the publication.
Deming's 13th Point advises us to "Institute a Vigorous Program of Education and Retraining". This is critical both for the business entity and for the individual. This is especially true in the 21st Century environment, where technology, as indispensible as it is, changes so rapidly that it is almost impossible to keep up. Some new developments should be ignored, some need to be adopted right away to achieve competitive advantage. Five years ago, Twitter barely existed; now it is ubiquitous. In the 1980's Sears Canada was on the leading edge when we introduced an internal communication system called "PROFS" - it was an early version of something called "email". In 30 years, email has become an essential part of commerce and individual communication in both Developed and Developing worlds. In order to survive, we need to constantly improve and learn.
I have, for many years, been an advocate of APICS, who has occupied a leading position in offering continuing education in Operations Management. There are many such educational services providers in a broad variety of disciplines. In SCM in Canada, many Universities and Colleges have joined independent educational service providers such as CITT and PMAC in offering post-secondary accreditations and degrees in SCM, OM, and Logistics. Take advantage of these offerings in the field that interests you most. Or, take a course in something from way out in left field.
Dr. Deming has said: "How do you help people improve? What do you mean by improve? I would say that I find a general fear of education. People are afraid to take a course. It might not be the right one. My advice is take it. Find the right one later. And how do you know it is the wrong one? Study, learn, improve. Many companies spend a lot for helping their people in this and that way. In arithmetic, geography, geology. learning about gears.
"You never know what could be used, what could be needed. He that thinks he has to be practical is not going to be here very long. Who knows what is practical?
"Help people to improve. I mean everybody." (from Mary Walton's "The Deming Management Method")
So, get out there and learn stuff. Adopt a learning culture in your life and your business. Nestle Canada, for example, was (and might still be) very good at this, building such a requirement into their annual HR Review Cycle. Build knowledge into your personal and business tool kit. Your prospects for growth will improve immeasurably.
Dr. Deming's 12th Point speaks to the issues of employee empowerment, the necessity of recognizing and dealing with employee discontent, and encouraging managers to allow employees' true talents to shine through into the firm's final products.
Dr. Deming observed that while managers in American companies were willing to work long hours and go beyond the call of duty to resolve complex challenges, many shied away from confronting "people problems." It was necessary, he argued, for one of management's top priorities to be identification of the root causes of barriers to pride of workmanship, and subsequent removal of those barriers. He observed that through obsession on production volumes and meeting quotas, workers were seen to be told to produce defective parts. Fixing the machinery that was producing the defective parts was, it seemed, too inconvenient.
I once worked for a leading Canadian consumer chocolate and confectionery manufacturer who allowed pride of workmanship from the front lines to shine through. The finished products were truly outstanding. When quality issues arose they were dealt with promptly, and often front-line workers were consulted to find solutions. We all took it personally when something went wrong. We were all proud of our product, happy to have our families eat our product, and pleased to mention the company name at dinner parties. It was a pleasure being employed by them.
Later in my career, I toiled for a different firm. I had over 25 years of experience in supply chain management by that time, had enjoyed considerable successes, and possessed two University degrees along with a professional designation in my profession that was recognized around the world. I was hired into a senior position in order to export my SCM expertise, critical thinking skills, and project management experience to the employees. The problem was that my managers had a vested interest in protecting the status quo. They had built the inventory control processes and systems, and would do anything to protect them. Changing the processes would have meant giving up power and knowledge to an underling. I had no such vested interest and quickly identified the gaps that existed in a very average system. Evidently, they took my criticism personally. I was called on the mat in the Director's office daily (sometimes hourly). Every action that I took was apparently wrong. I was told time and again that I just did not understand the system, and that I had better learn it. He even went so fas as to start correcting my grammar and vocabulary. I recall a protracted agrument over the use of the word "supplier" versus the word "vendor." The quantity of my output was simply below quota. After six months, they truly had me wondering if I actually had learned nothing in my life and career. It had a profound effect in me on a personal level. Thankfully, I eventually gave my head a shake. I knew better. They had purposefully erected barriers to pride of workmanship, and thereby frustrated and destroyed the motvation of a person who could have been one of their best workers. People who needed the job stayed with the firm. Thise who had brains, some courage, and marketable skills simply left.
Listen to your employees. Understand their concerns. Explain to them if they misunderstand. Treat them like humans instead of like instruments of production. Be willing to act in order to remove the barriers. You will find that this will help you to achieve a motivated workforce, and ultimately will help you to produce high quality output.
John Skelton is the Principal Consultant and founder of Strategic Inventory Management.