Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Value-Added Data Entry

Customer service regularly gets a bad rap.  We seem to expect it to be bad, much like college dormitory food; no matter how tasty the dish, it must bad, just because it came from the dorm kitchen. 
So a good example of customer service deserves some kudos plus a chance to learn. 
A complex piece of family business required us to wire some money recently via Western Union.  I set up the transaction on their web site and received a preliminary confirmation number for the transfer.  But the web page instructed me to call a toll-free number to complete the transaction.  A little befuddled by this, I nevertheless dialed the number.  As I expected, a recorded voice greeted me and then asked me to punch in the confirmation number, which I did. 
To my surprise, after only 10 seconds of elevator music, a live person greeted me, by name, before I said anything.  She then explained briefly why I needed to call, which made sense in the context.  She asked a couple more questions and we were done. The business was completed the next day. 
How did this work well?  Western Union was prepared, technically and operationally.  Their systems took my simple confirmation number and tied it into the screen viewed by the person answering the phone.  It all flowed seamlessly, added value and was very prompt.  Someone thought that system through well.
Nice job Western Union.  You teach us a good lesson. 

Sunday, April 26, 2009

So what DOES an engineer do?

My colleague April recently served on a panel presentation by practicing engineers for high school students and their parents at the engineering college of a nearby university.  Along with the usual questions about engineering education, qualifications and test difficulty, several wanted to know "What does an engineer do anyway?"
A Civil Engineer on the panel explained her job was "to make sure buildings don't fall down" which meant she spent all of her time at the computer, crunching equations.
An Industrial Engineer explained he too spent all of his day at the computer, making sure all jobs were well-planned for efficient use of labor.
Attention then turned to April, also an Industrial Engineer.  Ever the diplomat, she acknowledged there was technical work which required time on the PC.  "But," she added, "the great part of my job is the amount of time I get to spend on the shop floor with our associates, improving processes." 
The other IE bristled and shot back a comment to the effect "real engineers don't go on the floor." 
His company is also in deep financial trouble. 
Coincidence?  Perhaps.  But illustrative of a productive culture.
Keep on learning. .

Monday, April 13, 2009

Trimming Value at the Margins

About four years ago, I wrote about my "jugban" system, a simple container-kanban system I use to replenish the distilled water with which I clean my contact lenses each morning. 
This evening, I stopped by the local grocery store to refill the recently-emptied jug in two-jug system.  I put my money in the water dispensing machine and it fed a gallon into my jug.
Well, almost a gallon. 
Well, actually, only about 90% of a gallon.
I've used this same machine for a couple of years.  Yet, over the past six months, I find that I gradually get a little less than what I got the previous time.  To the point now it is quite noticeable.  The price has stayed the same.  But is this just a drift in the controls in the machine?  Or is the machine operator trying to improve his/her margin by dialing back the volume?  The machine stated it had been serviced just a week ago.  But did anyone check the calibration??
The water is not a big deal.  But the simple drift, the simple loss of value made me wonder if the owner was also cutting corners on the filtration system or the reverse osmosis membrane. 
What I could see (volume of water) made me wonder about what I couldn't see (microscopic quality of water). 
Am I doing any of the same things?? 
Made me wonder.  I hope it makes you wonder as well. 
Keep on learning. 

Friday, April 10, 2009

What price sophistication?

A guy in our local network of Lean companies told me of an interaction he had recently with an exec at his company.  In short, he was tracking the short-term status of one inventory item which had been giving them fits.  To do this, he checked the inventory level at the close of business each day and wrote it down on a sheet of paper to see the trend.
The exec saw this sheet of paper and became quite agitated, bewildered why he didn't use a particularly unwieldy piece of software the company had.  My inventory-tracking friend didn't know quite how to respond and the awkward interaction concluded, unsettled. 
This story reminded me, strangely enough, of Occam's razor.  A 14th century philosopher and friar, William of Occam is said to have first postulated this "razor" (olde-speak for "rule of thumb") to guide decision making.  Translated in numerous ways, it essentially says "when confronted with multiple solutions to a problem, choose the simplest one."  
We have more tools for data and communication than any generation has ever had.  Properly used, they are awesome and speed good decisions. 
Properly used.
Often, a simple pen and paper is all we need to solve a problem.  That's what William of Occam had.  And we're still talking about him. 

Saturday, April 04, 2009

The Chain

An overnight storm caused a power outage which really messed up our network server recently.  As the IT guys scrambled to restore digital sanity as people arrived at work the morning after, I was surprised at the resultant atmosphere. 
Folks emerged from office and desks disoriented, even angry, frustrated.  The network, the email, the Internet connections; all so ubiquitous and seemingly necessary that their removal fundamentally altered the work environment.
Fascinatingly, people began to talk.  Even this seemed hard, though.  The face-to-face discussions, unplanned and unplugged, were all new.  And strange.  Some adapted poorly.  Some adapted well. 
The effective found the day invigorating.  A gear-shift, one which stimulated creativity.  The less-effective made excuses behind it, even began finger pointing.
Are we so chained to our laptops we are unable to function without them?  Are our collective conversational skills so dulled by our addiction to keyboard we can't talk?  Is our ability to make good business decisions blunted by this dependence to spreadsheets?
It all made me wonder.