Tag: Agility

Lean Resources On Demand

On Demand

As people we have grown accustomed to service on demand.  The internet, fast food, service stations, 24 hour convenience shopping, medical services, video on demand, and so much more are available almost instantly.  Of course much of this is made possible by the latest technologies and electronic gadgets that bring the world to our finger tips at the push of a button.

Imagine if your business could experience the same level of accessibility to resources as we seem to have with the outside world in our personal lives.  Perhaps 2010 is the year to redefine how the systems and processes in your organization can emulate the “on demand” level of performance we have become accustomed to in our private lives.

Lean Resources

We predict that the year 2010 will see more specialization of service providers as companies continue to review their essential functions and resource requirements.  Although outsourcing has been a topic of discussion over the past few years, it is now becoming more prevalent as companies continue to review their organizational structures in light of declining sales and diminished profits.

The economic downturn did not limit its impact to the manufacturing sector or, more specifically, the automotive industry.  An article was recently published in our local news papers announcing the layoff of several news anchors and support staff from various television and radio broadcast stations.  Of the reasons mentioned for the restructuring, reduced advertising revenue was among them.

The Next Step

What are these people going to do?  Where will they find gainful employment in a declining market?  Are these skills no longer required?  The short answer is that their services are still required.  The problem is that one single company cannot afford to retain their services on a full-time basis.

As people affected by restructuring efforts, the best solution may be to start your own company and market your specialized skills or services.  While your former company may become one of your clients, it is possible that other companies are also in a place where they simply cannot afford to keep full-time staff to support their current needs.  Companies typically do not share resources with other companies; however, they do contract services to common service providers.  Syndication is widely used in broadcasting.

Using our personal lives as an example, we do not have our own full-time doctors, lawyers, real estate agents, auto mechanics, electricians, plumbers, and so on.  We simply hire these services on demand – only when we need them.  The focus of re-organization strategies today is to decide what services are essential to protect the proprietary nature of the business and those that could be outsourced as an on demand resource.

For the entrepreneur, as an individual entity serving multiple companies, your area of specialization can be developed and refined beyond the limits that may have been imposed by your former employer.  To explore this further, we will discuss several examples to develop the application of this concept.

The Possibilities – Examples

We all use computers in our daily lives just as you are while reading this article.  Clearly, someone was responsible for creating this wonderful technology and is presently working on the next generation computer or software program – whether we think we need it or not.  As individuals, we are immune to the multitude of tasks that this may entail.  We simply continue to enjoy the results.

Microsoft and Apple are continually developing new software capabilities and applications.  It’s common to hear, “There’s an APP for that.”  Even as these new products are released, areas of specialization evolve.  The next time you are browsing your way through a book store, look at the number of books written on Excel alone.  Books are available to teach you how to perform a variety of tasks including Dashboards, Business Applications, Charting, Pivot Tables, and even customization and advanced applications using Visual Basic for Applications (VBA).  The specialization model is further supported by the number of applications that have been developed using Excel as evidenced by the thousands of products and services available on the internet alone.

Although most companies may have a self-proclaimed Excel expert, most do not keep a full-time Excel specialist on staff.  It would not be uncommon to hire an Excel specialist to develop an application for your company.  As an independent solution provider, the Excel expert can continue to develop and hone their programming and development skills above and beyond what any person or company may need.  This in turn will result in more efficient and advanced functionality than any one company would be willing to afford.  Click here to visit our trusted Excel Web Resources.

One of the concerns at Research In Motion (RIM), creators of the BlackBerry, is finding the talent required to support their current technology.  The advancements and specialization required is beyond that taught in our universities and colleges.  This area of specialization has reached such a level, that only RIM is able to manage their product line.  It is expected that these essential services must be developed and retained internally and further enforced through their hiring contracts that are most certainly rife with non-competition and confidentiality clauses.

The medical field presents another excellent example of how increased specialization has evolved over the years to offer solutions, or cures, that otherwise would not be available today.  Today, the family doctor may just as readily refer you to a specialist and not fully diagnose your condition personally.  Even the field of dentistry has an evolved hierarchy of skills and specialization as do many legal practices.

Affordability

While we continue to enjoy ever-increasing enhancements and benefits to the products and services available to us, innovative ideas continue to surface into unique niche markets.  Because of the mass market appeal, products and services that are available to us as individuals could not be afforded otherwise.  Naturally, the same can be said for business.

We also recognize that one of the impediments to change is the significant investment that is already committed to support the processes and systems that define the current infrastructure.  Secondly, the funds to upgrade to an entirely new process or system are likely not available, especially in today’s economy.  Lastly, not all business need advanced levels of support or services and in some cases could never afford the level of performance they provide.

The price of upgrading is clear even in the simplest of operating environments.  Even today we continue to find older versions of Microsoft Office products such Excel 2000 or Excel 2003.  Although it took a while to adapt to the Microsoft 2007 environment, the enhancements and added capabilities were well worth the effort to upgrade.  Legacy software versions actually complicate the process of software development due to the programming overhead required for version specific compatibility.

As areas of specialization increase, products and services are becoming more affordable.  Companies that offer these services are creating unique venues to deliver their products or services with continually improved capabilities and options.  Even companies that could never afford an in-house ERP system may find a cost-effective solution using on-line services.  Some of the latest versions of major ERP systems provide all the amenities of real-time reporting, telecommuting, remote access, supply chain management, purchasing, on-line support, and so much more.

Summary

Clearly, using outside services that specialize in a complementary area of ability to your business can only result in a win-win outcome.  The specialist provides more knowledge and experience than your company could ever afford to learn and, as a company, you are able to focus on your own areas of expertise that in turn can only improve the products and services you provide.

As individuals – professional, skilled or otherwise – you may find that your talents are required and still very much in demand.  While companies must keep essential resources to protect the proprietary nature of their business (intellectual property and tangible assets), they are still able to use external resources to support their efforts.

From this perspective, we can learn a lot from small businesses that do not have the luxury of hiring full-time staff.  They may never afford to support traditional infrastructure often found in larger companies.  Small business entrepreneurs focus on their core areas of expertise, their essential products and services, and retain the services of outside specialists on demand.

Companies will continue to look for opportunities to embrace outside services – on demand resources – allowing them to focus on their core business activities.  While this may seem contrary to the traditional lean tenets, we would argue to the contrary.  Professional and skilled resources can save your company a significant amount of time and energy and will substantially reduce the learning curve required to integrate system and technology solutions into your organization.  Their experience is priceless.

Until Next Time – STAY lean!

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Lean Breaking Through Paralysis

Welcome to 2010!  We wish all of our visitors the very best of success in 2010.  Now that 2009 is behind is really behind us, we can start looking forward to the opportunities and challenges ahead in 2010.

Page Updates:

As regular users of Excel we are always looking for excellent and trustworthy resources to help us in our day to day operations.  We just added two new links to our Excel Web Sites page that present high quality, user friendly, content.  We encourage you to visit these links to learn more about Excel.  If your interests include VBA, you will find that our selected links serve as an excellent forum to serve your needs.

Lean – Breaking Through Paralysis

Significant initiatives, including lean, can reach a level of stagnation that eventually cause the project to either lose focus or disappear altogether.  Hundreds of books have already been written that reinforce the concept that the company culture will ultimately determine the success or failure of any initiative.  A sustainable culture of innovation, entrepreneurial spirit, and continual improvement requires effective leadership to cultivate and develop an environment that supports these attributes.

When launching any new initiative, we tend to focus on the many positive aspects that will result.  Failure is seldom placed on the list of possible outputs for a new initiative.  We are all quite familiar with the typical Pro’s and Con’s, advantages versus disadvantages, and other comparative analysis techniques such as SWAT > Strengths, Weakness, Alternatives, Threats)

A well defined initiative should address both the benefits of implementation AND the risks to the operation if it is NOT.

Back on Track

The Vision statement is one starting point to re-energize the team.  Of course, this assumes that the team actually understands and truly embraces the vision.

Overcoming Road Blocks

The Charter:  Challenge the team to create and sign up to a charter that clearly defines the scope and expectations of the project.  The team should have clearly defined goals followed by an effective implementation / integration plan.  The charter should not only describe the “Achievements” but also the consequences of failure.  Be clear with the expectations:  Annual Savings of $xxx,xxx by Eliminating “Task A – B – C”, Reducing Inventory by “xx” days, and by  reducing lead times by “xx” days. 

Defining Consequences:  Competitive pricing compromised and will lead to loss of business.  This could be rephrased using the model expression:  We must do “THIS” or else “THIS”.  It has been said that the pain of change must be less than the pain of remaining the same.  If not, the program will surely fail.

The Plan:  An effective implementation strategy requires a time line that includes reporting gates, key milestones, and the actual events or activities required.  The time line should be such that momentum is sustained.  If progress suggests that the program is ahead of schedule, revise timings for subsequent events where possible.  Extended “voids” or lags in event timing can reduce momentum and cause the team to disengage.

Focus:  Often times, we are presented with multiple options to achieve the desired results.  An effective decision making process is required to reduce choices or to create a hybrid solution that encompasses several options.  The decision process must result in a single final solution.

Consequences:  As mentioned earlier, a list of consequences should become part of the Charter process as well.  Failure suggests that a desired expectation will not be realized.  It is not enough to simply return to “the way it was”.  The indirect implication is that every failure becomes a learning experience for the next attempt.  In other words, we learn from our failures and stay committed to the course of the charter.

Example:

Almost all software programs are challenged to sort data.  We don’t really think about the “method” that is used.  We just wait for the program to do it’s task and wait for the results to appear.  At some time, the software development team must have chosen a certain method, also known as an algorithm, to sort the data. 

We were recently challenged in a similar situation to decide which sort method would be best suited for the application.  You may be surprised to learn that there are many different sorting algorithms available such as:

  1. Bubble Sort
  2. Quick Sort
  3. Heap Sort
  4. Comb Sort
  5. Insertion Sort
  6. Merge Sort
  7. Shaker Sort
  8. Flash Sort
  9. Postman Sort
  10. Radix Sort
  11. Shell Sort

This is certainly quite a selection and more methods are certain to exist.  Each method has it’s advantages and disadvantages.  Some sorting methods require more computer memory, some are stable, others are not.  Our goal was to create a sorted list without duplicates.  We considered adding elements and maintaining a sorted “duplicate free” list in real-time.  We also considered reading all the data first and sorting the data after the fact.

The point is that of the many available options, one solution will eventually be adopted by the team.  Using the “wrong” sorting method could result in extremely slow performance and frustrated users.  In this case the users of the system may abandon a solution that they themselves are not a part of creating.  While a buble sort may produce the intended result, it is usually not the most efficient.

Another aspect of effective development is to document the analysis process that was used to arrive at the final solution.  In our example, we could run comparative timing and computer resource requirements to determine which solution is most suitable to the application.  Some algorithms work better on “nearly sorted” lists versus others that work better with “randomly ordered” data.

Engage the Team:  The team should be represented by multiple disciplines or departments within the organization.  Using the simple example from above, the development team may create a working solution that is later abandoned by the ultimate users of the system due to it’s poor performance.  The charter should be very clear on the desired expectations and performance criteria of the final solution.

Creating a model or prototype to represent the solution is common place.  This minimizes the time and resources expended before arriving at the final  solution for implemention.

Vision:  Leadership must continue to focus beyond the current steps.  A project or program is not the means to an end.  Rather it should be viewed as the foundation for the next step of the journey.  Lean, like any other initiative, is an evolutionary process.  Lean is not defined by a series of prescriptions and formulas.  The pursuit and elimination of waste is a mission that can be achieved in many different ways.

Management / Review

Regular management reviews should be part of the overall strategy to monitor progress and more so to determine whether there are any impediments to a successful outcome.  The role of leadership is to provide direction to eliminate or resolve the road blocks and to keep the team on track.

Breaking Through Paralysis

The objective is clear – we need to keep the initiative moving and also learn to identify when and why the initiative may have stopped.  Running a business is more than just having good intentions.  We must be prudent in our execution to efficiently and effectively achieve the desired results.

Until Next Time – STAY Lean!

Seasons Greetings

This year has been filled with many new experiences, hard times, great times, and many opportunities for learning.  While some may prefer to see this year pass sooner than later, 2009 is hopefully a year that presented many new opportunities and even greater challenges.

As lean practitioners, we learn to appreciate failure from a different perspective than most people would enjoy.  The focus is not the failure itself, but rather the causes and events that lead up to the failure that are significant.  To those who reflect on this past year and consider the many successes, we also suggest basking in some of the learning from the failures.  Learning what not to do is often the hardest and most costly lesson of all.

Of course, understanding our successes is of equal importance.  The objective is success by design.  Understanding the reasons for our success serves to confirm the effectiveness of current practices.

We are presently working on new discussion topics for the new year.  Overall Equipment Effectiveness has been one of the core topics over the past year and more recently our focus has shifted to problem seeing and solving.  We are evolving into a culture where AGILITY is quickly becoming one of the defining traits of today’s successful companies and new businesses.

Intelligent metrics demand effective and efficient measurement and analysis to be used in real-time.  By our definition, an Agile company is one that already understands and demonstrates lean practices.  A truly agile company is now looking at metrics to dynamically lead and manage the business, responding to events and developing strategy in real-time.  Their agility is demonstrated by the speed of execution and their continued list of successes as a result.

We have been developing some new spreadsheet templates that we plan to release in the new year.  The free downloads page and sidebar widget have proven to be a great success.  To achieve greater functionality, we will be using VBA (Visual Basic for Applications) in some of our future releases.  We have learned that Excel has a few limitations (and the odd bug) that require the use of VBA for our applications to perform as intended.

We are looking forward to 2010 and remain optimistic as the economy begins its slow recovery.  We will likely have a few more posts before the year ends, but knowing that some will soon be traveling or breaking early from work, we would like to wish all of our visitors best wishes for the holiday season.  We look forward to an exciting new year in 2010.

Until Next Time – STAY Lean!

Agility Through Problem Solving: a Model for Training and Thinking

We tend to use analogies when we are discussing certain topics, introducing new concepts, or simply presenting an abstract idea.  Analogies are intended to serve as a model that people understand, can relate to or identify with, and, more importantly, remember.  Our challenge is to identify a simple model that can be used to teach people to identify and solve problems – a core competency requirement for lean.

We have learned that teaching people to see problems is just as important as teaching them to solve problems.  Our education system taught us how to use the scientific method to solve problems that were already conveniently packaged in the form of a question or modeled in a case study.  Using case studies for teaching is typically more effective than traditional “information only” or “just the facts” methods.  (The government of Ontario is presently considering a complete overhaul of the education system using case studies as a core instruction method.)

The effectiveness of any training people receive is compromised by time – the retention span.  Our school systems are challenged by this at the start of every school year.  Teachers must re-engage students with materials covered in the last semester or topics covered prior to the break.  In business we may be too eager to provide training at a time when current business activities are not aligned for the new skills to be practiced or exercised.  A commitment to training also requires  a commitment to develop and routinely exercise these skills to stay sharp.

One of the fundamental rules of engagement for lean is to eliminate waste, where value added activities are optimized and non-value added activities are reduced or eliminated.  Although it may appear that we have identified the problem to be solved, in reality we have only framed the objective to be achieved.  We understand that the real solution to achieving this objective is by solving many other smaller problems.

The Sudoku Analogy – A Model for Finding and Solving Problems

A favourite past time is solving Sudoku puzzles, the seemingly simple 9 x 9 matrix of numbers just waiting for someone to enter the solution.  The reasons for selecting and recommending Sudoku as an introductory model for training are as follows:

  1. Familiarity:  Sudoku puzzles are published in all daily newspapers and numerous magazines and they have become as popular as cross-word puzzles.  Most people have either attempted to solve a puzzle or know someone who has.
  2. Rules of Engagement:  the rules of the game are simple.  Each standard Sudoku puzzle has 9 rows and 9 columns that form a grid of 81 squares.  This grid is further divided into nine 3 x 3 sub-sections.  The challenge is to enter the digits 1 through 9 into the blank spaces on the grid.  Every row, column, and 3 x 3 sub-section of the grid must contain one and only one of each digit.  We refer to these as “rules of engagement” as opposed to “framing the problem”.
  3. Degrees of Difficulty:   Sudoku puzzles are typically published in sets of 3 puzzles each having varying degrees or levels of difficulty.  Each level typically requires more time to complete and requires the player to use more complex reasoning or logic skills.  The claim is that all puzzles can be solved.
  4. Incremental or Progressive Solutions:  Sudoku solutions are achieved incrementally by solving instances of smaller problems.  In other words, the solution builds as correctly deduced numbers are added to the grid.  New “problems” are discovered as part of the search for the final solution.
  5. Variety:  every Sudoku game is different.  While some of the search and solve techniques may be similar, the problems and challenges presented by each game are uniquely different.  Although the rules of engagement are constant, the player must search for and find the first problem to be solved.
  6. Single Solution:  a multiple number of solutions may appear to satisfy the rules of the game, however, only one solution exists.  Learning to solve Sudoku puzzles may be a challenge for some players, however, even seasoned Sudoku players can be stumped by some of the more advanced level puzzles.  To this end, they are ever and always challenging.
  7. Skill Level:  Sudoku puzzles do not require any math skills.  Numbers are naturally easier to remember and universal.  Letters are language dependent and the game would lose international appeal.
  8. Logical:  deductive reasoning is used to determine potential solutions for each empty square in the grid.  As the game is played, a player may identify a number of potential solutions for a single square.  These final solution will eventually be resolved as the game is played.

In practice

We recommend introducing the team to Sudoku using an example to demonstrate how the game is played.  It is best to discuss some of the strategies that can be used to find solutions that eventually lead to solving the complete puzzle.  The Sudoku model will allow you to demonstrate the following ten objectives:

  1. Look for Options:  The solution for the problem to be solved may consist many other smaller problems of varying degrees of difficulty.
  2. Break down the problem:  There may be more than one problem that needs to be solved.  Every Sudoku puzzle represents many different problem instances that need to be resolved before arriving at the final solution.  Each incremental solution to a problem instance is used to discover new problems to solve that also become part of the overall solution.  This may also be termed as progressive problem solving.
  3. Multiple solutions – One Ideal:  There may be times where more than one solution seems possible.  Continue to solve other problems on the grid that will eventually reveal the ideal single solution.
  4. Prioritizing:  more than one problem instance may be solvable at the same time, however, you can only focus on one at a time.
  5. Focus:  Problem solving involves varying states of focus:
    • Divergence:  Expand the focus and perform a top-level search for a problem from the many to be solved
    • Convergence:  Narrow the focus on the specific problem instance and determine the specific solution.
  6. Test and Validate:  Every problem instance that is solved is immediately verified or validated against the other squares on the grid.  In other words the solution must comply with the rules of engagement.
  7. Incubation:  some puzzles can be quite difficult to solve.  Sometimes you need to take a break and return later with a fresh eyes approach.
  8. Action:  There is no defined or “correct” starting point.  The first problem instance to be resolved will be as unique as the number of players participating.  No matter where you start, the finished solution will be exactly the same.
  9. Tangents:  when entering a solution into a square, you may notice other potential problems or solutions that suddenly seemed to appear.  It is very easy to digress from the original problem / solution.  This is also true in the real world where “side projects” somehow appear to be the main focus.
  10. Method:  There is no pre-defined method or approach to determine what problem to solve first.  The only guiding principles for discovering the problem instance to be solved are the rules of engagement.

Lean companies train their teams to see problems and break them down into smaller problems with solvable steps.  Sudoku demonstrates the process of incremental or progressive problem solving.  Even with this technique it is possible to enjoy major break through events.  There are times when even seasoned Sudoku players will recognize the “break through point” when solving a puzzle.

Solve time is another element of the Sudoku puzzle that may be used to add another level of complexity to the problem solving process.  Our objective was not to create a competitive environment or to single out any individual skill levels whether good or bad.  Lean is a TEAM sport.

In Summary:

Sudoku solvers are able to hone their skills every day.  Perhaps Sudoku Masters even exist.  Imagine someone coming to work with the same simple focus to eliminate waste every day.  Although there is no preset solution, we are able to identify and consider any number of potential problems and solve them as quickly as we can.  The smaller problems solved are a critical part of the overall solution to achieve the goal.

Most professional athletes and musicians understand that skills are developed through consistent practice and exercise.  Repetition develops technique and speed.  Imagine a culture where discovering new opportunities or problems and implementing solutions  is just a normal part of the average working day.  This is one of the defining traits that characterize high velocity companies around the world.

Truly agile companies are experts at seeing and solving problems quickly.  They discover new opportunities in every day events that in turn become opportunities to exercise their problem seeing and solving skills.  Crisis situations are circumvented early and disruptions are managed with relative ease – all in a days work. 

The next time you see a Sudoku puzzle you may:

  • be inclined to pick up a pencil and play or
  • be reminded of the time you were inspired by the game to solve problems and reach new goals or
  • simply reflect on this post and ponder your next break through.

Until Next Time – STAY Lean!