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January 10, 2017

Any Idiot Can Make A Plan

by mikediliberto

A man famous to all of us around him for his razor-sharp wit, my father often uses his humor as a vehicle for imparting business knowledge.

“Any idiot can make plan” he said “it’s the good managers that know what to do when things don’t go according to plan”

It was good advice that has since driven a lot of the work that I’ve done throughout my career.

I once visited a factory that, like many factories in China, had wall its emblazoned with professional looking quality control processes and production work instructions.  While on their production line, I remarked to the production manager that while the team had good work instructions they were failing to follow most of the steps outlined.  He told me that those instructions were for regular production runs, but since I was demanding a shorter lead time, those instructions could not be followed without sacrificing the delivery date.  Undeterred I pressed further “Ok, that’s fine, so what process do you follow for urgent orders?”

Blank Stare.

“How often do you have expedite orders that force you to skip your process?” I asked

“Just about every order is a rush order” The manager replied while staring off into the distance

I’ve since found this exact same situation at countless other suppliers, demonstrating the responsibility that we have to help our suppliers develop processes that truly work for their business. Process needs to be more than just something in a binder we show customers during an audit; it has to accomplish the goal of making our output better.

Almost all of my project plans contain boxed areas labeled “for emergency use only”.  Within these boxes is the alternative plan for each step of the process.  For example, normally we would develop prototypes at our facilities in China and ship to customers; but if we need to shave off a week of development time, our “accelerated plan” is to have the salesperson come to China to work with the engineer directly.  A further four days can be saved by having the salesperson bring the prototypes back from China as their checked baggage (a few of our staff are are on first-name basis with the customs agents in the pre-clearance lane at Los Angeles Airport!). Many steps have similar accelerated  processes.

Peter Drucker once said that the only results that really matter are the ones that are measurable from outside of the organization.  As a manufacturer the outward measure of our success is whether or not we shipped our goods on time.

I’ve worked with lots of project managers that start projects with gantt charts and plans that leave little room for the challenges that inevitably arise during a development project.  “What happens when the customer rejects your prototype?” “What if they don’t like the color?” I poke holes in the plan not to embarrass them but to help plan for our success.  One reality that I sear into our employee’s minds as early as possible in their careers with us is that no matter what, our delivery dates never change.  We know when we start.  We know when we need to be done.  Everything else in the middle is negotiable.

Our plans are fluid, and indeed I believe that all successful plans must flex rather than break when tasks and dates shift.  It would be easy to mistake this fluidity for lack of planning, but to do so is to misunderstand our methods.

I’ve seen so many projects go badly, and early in my career at Circuit City I was at the helm for some of those bad outcomes; there truly is no better teacher than experience.  Like a flash flood, project failures are often the result of pent up issues that finally come to light when you get a call that shipments are three weeks behind schedule.

“What?!?!” you exclaim into the phone on the other side of the world. “What happened?”

Well, we placed orders to our supplier late, Because the purchase order from the customer arrived late, which was late due to the first two prototypes getting rejected, and we had only budgeted for one prototype, and the development took a week longer than we expected, and…..well you get the picture.

When I was younger and in much better shape, I used to run track and field. Our coach would always tell us to “win the race in the middle, never at the end”.  His plan was simple: spend the first third of the race warming up, listening the our bodies and the environment, hit the gas in the middle third but be ready to change if conditions warrant, and the end of the race is just cruise control. If you’ve executed the first two thirds right then the rest of the race is just maintaining the lead you’ve already established.

Our project management methods are strikingly similar.  Warm up, hit the gas and deal with change, then cruise to the finish.

So how do you do that? A few steps that I use during the “warm up”

First, Look at each section of the project and ask two questions:

  1. Is this timeline realistic? For example, do you always approve a powder coat match on the first sample or do customers typically take two or more rounds to make up their mind?
  2. Is there any opportunity to buy time? Development engineering may take ten days between work and feedback to the sales team and customer; could you cut it to five days if the salesperson or salesperson and customer were at your engineering office in person? A few thousand dollars in flights and hotels now is good insurance against hundreds of thousands in air freight later.

Second, make changes to reflect the answers to the questions above.  Put in realistic time. Add in the “For Emergency Use Only” sections around the “expedited plan”.

Lastly, remember that you have to be able to trigger the expedited plan early enough for it to make a difference.  Lots of people panic when the project is actively failing;  it’s harder to show the urgency when failures are not yet apparent.  For lack of a better term I will say that we encourage our people “panic early”

So…

  1. Make realistic timelines
  2. Document how “expedite plans” will flow if used
  3. Be ready to panic early

Then the rest is just the cruise to the finish.

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