Archive for April, 2009

Manpower Planning

April 27, 2009 by Roger

Science Meets Voodoo

One of the most daunting tasks that I’m regularly faced with is Manpower forecasting and planning for all of our various project efforts.  It seems like everyone always needs to know the facts relating to our human resources…”Do we have enough staff available to take on this new project?”  “How many calendar weeks will this project require?”  “What’s the estimated labor cost?”  “How long will this project take if we put a small team on it?”  “What kind of labor budget do we need to include in this new proposal?”  These are just a few of the staffing-related questions that tend to bubble up around here on a regular basis.  And we are not unique in that aspect.  These questions really apply to EVERY business at some point or another.  And make no mistake about this:  If you are not able to consistently answer these questions for your business within a very small margin of error, you are in big trouble!  Bids will be incorrect, projects will be late and/or over budget, personnel will be overworked, and most importantly, your company’s financial picture will quickly head to the red-ink zone.

First, let’s look at the science involved in the manpower planning process…

There are a couple of scientific tools that I use that I have found invaluable for manpower forecasting. First and most important is the use of reports from historical data. If you have access to data from previous similar jobs, it’s very easy to utilize as a guide for your current efforts. This data includes hours charged to previous jobs sorted by sub categories, calendars days required to complete tasks, as well as individual skill sets applied to the work. If you have this sort of data and can assemble it in a report format, you will find it invaluable to apply to current projects. The second tool that you must have is some sort of manpower modeling device to layout the requirements of your project. There are a number of different ways that you can model human resource requirements. One of the simplest and an old favorite of mine is a spread sheet with resource requirements and availabilities cross-linked. Microsoft Project also has the ability to load and model your resources within a project schedule. It’s a little complicated, but it does the job if you take the time to learn the software. There are also a number of other commercial software products out there that do the same thing.

And then we have the Voodoo…

While there is a large amount of science that you can apply to manpower-planning in today’s working world, the black-magic or gut-feel factor will always be present. This less-scientific side of the game often includes a project manager’s intuition, experience, instinct and occasional dumb-luck. The guys that are good at manpower-planning manage the Voodoo side of the process as well as they do the scientific side. Just don’t ask them to teach it to you, because they probably cannot. It’s just too opaque.

Adaptability is another key part of being able to accurately forecast and deliver the appropriate number of personnel to make-up a successful project team. Once things start to fall away from the plan (and it WILL fall away from the plan sooner or later) the trick is how you adjust. Some tricky projects may require adjustments every day, so a Project Manager has to literally keep a pulse on things every day. Anything less will come back to haunt you before you’re through….trust me on that one!

So if you’ve chosen Project Management as your career path (or if it chose you), then you’d better figure out a way to forecast, plan and track your manpower resources on every job, every day. And you better have a scientific process that covers all of your bases, as well as an open mind for the Voodoo side of things….Stick with this gig long enough and you’ll develop your own manpower planning process to get you through your projects. And if you don’t develop something that works, chances are you’ll be doing something else real soon!

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Disruptive Technologies and The Innovators Dilemma

April 16, 2009 by Scott P

I recently read the book The Innovators Dilemma by Clayton Christenson. I would not call it entertaining at all, in fact, I thought it was pretty good sleeping aid. That being said, I found the information and the subject matter extremely interesting. The book is based on the idea that very well run companies who are paying attention to their customers, investing in continuous improvement, and treating their employees well can suddenly and almost inexplicably fail and often go completely out of business. The amazing thing is that the very things that managers are doing “right” are frequently the exact things that cause a company to fail.

Christenson uses the disk drive industry as a study model. He says that biologists often study fruit flies because their life span is only several hours. Therefore they can study multiple life spans in a single research study. He claims that the computer hard disk drive industry is the closest thing in industry to a fruit fly. (Yes, I also found that amusing.) There are other industries that were studied as well. The author pointed to examples in the steam shovel industry, the motorcycle industry and the retail industry as well as others. He also introduced the term disruptive technology.

The claim is that a disruptive technology or idea is one that is less attractive in most areas than similar existing ones. Let me point to the 8 inch hard drive. This was a mature product. Manufacturers were continuing to improve its capacity and performance. They were responsive to their customer’s needs and invested in research. When the 5 ¼ inch drive came upon the market, the manufacturers existing customers (makers of main frames and large servers) had little interest in it. It had lower capacity and lower performance and was more expensive. Managers looked at this new disruptive technology and said, “Why would anyone want that, and why should we invest resources into it?”

The problem was that the customers for this new idea had not yet been found. The makers of small desk top PC’s were just coming over the horizon, and they loved the little underperforming overpriced orphan, so a few manufacturers started making them. As research on the smaller drives advanced, they began to approach and eventually surpass the performance of the larger drives. Suddenly they were attractive to the main frame and server manufacturers. Like getting hit with a surface to air missile, the big manufacturers were not prepared to compete in the new market and were shot out of the air. They never saw it coming, as the saying goes.

There is a solution fortunately. When a disruptive technology comes along that shows some promise, create a spinoff company. Make it self sustaining and self ruled. The new company must not be shackled to the traditions and “corporate culture” of the parent. The trouble is that large companies have big appetites and lots of traditions and expectations. In order for a $100 million company to grow 10 percent, they have to have $10 million in profit. A $100 thousand company only needs $10 thousand. A small company can afford to put resources into less mature technologies that a larger company could not.

Imagine yourself as a well trained competent and concerned manager. Of course your bonuses are based on the performance of your division. A well respected engineer comes to you and says, “I have this great idea. Take a look at this.” You look at “this” and agree that it is a great idea. You ask him, “What is the market for this idea? Who do you think will buy it?” He says he does not know exactly, but that some one would certainly want it. You say, “What do you think our annual sales would be if we made them?” He says that he is an engineer and has no idea, but it is a great idea. Because you respect the engineer, you take it to your sales people who talk to all your existing customers about it. Of course your existing customers have no interest in it. How much of your department resources are you willing to invest into this “great idea” that could otherwise be spent on improving existing products with accurate sales projections and known customers? (“Duh, I dunno” is not an acceptable answer.)

That’s it in a nutshell. Disruptive technologies come along all the time. The disk drive scenario played itself out about four times within ten to fifteen years. Hydraulic excavators replaced steam shovels with a nearly identical script although the time line was greatly stretched. Little Japanese motor bikes nearly wiped out the large American road bike industry at one point. By the way, how many large retailers have gone out of business or sold out to competitors in your life time? Think about it.

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Using Creative Thinking Every Day to Solve Problems

April 9, 2009 by Bryan

Who has heard of the acronym TRIZ?  Until a few months ago, it would have meant nothing to me except as four nicely arranged capital letters.  Honestly I still don’t know what the terminology of the acronym is because it is derived from a Russian phrase meaning “Theory of Solving Inventor’s Problems.”  I do, however, have a basic understanding of the principles of TRIZ and how to apply them.  TRIZ is a bunch of principles that can be used to solve any problem that you may encounter.  This applies to work, home, play, or anywhere else.  TRIZ was developed by G.S. Altshuller, a Russian, as a means to solve problems.  There are 40 TRIZ principles that can help you out.  You can Google TRIZ to find out more about TRIZ and its uses.  For now, I am going to relate a recent example where we have used the principles of TRIZ.

We are currently in the design phase on a fairly large machine.  Space and cost are issues with this project.  The machine will be building parts that have a very defined manufacturing process with many steps.  For us, we have mimicked the original process as best as we could.  Our machine started out with 3 dial tables, with each one costing a sizeable chunk of cash.  After laying out the machine and realizing that we had many open stations, we decided to change the order of operations, cleared this with our customer, and placed a particular operation up closer to the front of the process.  This allowed us to remove a dial table from the machine saving us some much-needed real estate, and a bunch of money. 

These principles have become a part of our culture here at Setpoint.  I am quite certain that when this decision was made we were not intentionally applying a TRIZ principle, even though we did.  The principle we applied was Merging.  We took a similar process and placed them side-by-side.

There are many more examples of where we solved a problem by applying a TRIZ principle on this project.  What we have learned is if you get to a place where you are stuck, pull up the TRIZ principles on the net and go through them one by one and see if one of them will help solve your problem.

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The Setpoint Superteam

April 2, 2009 by MarkM

How many companies are there where the employees don’t consider themselves as simply “employees,” but view their role as “Teammate?” Sound funny? Recently, I sent out a company wide query to determine what “SuperTeam” means. Some of the responses might interest you:

  • “Group of knowledgeable individuals that meet together to brainstorm and solve problems. Superteam concept allows Setpoint to avoid repeating past mistakes and offers a diverse perspective on solutions.”
  • “. . . it pushes the design to be imagined/created up front before you start actually designing because the designers are all working together to try to work out the kinks and problems that you can find. The benefit that I see is that you are able to learn from each other because each individual brings a unique set of experiences to the table, so as the designers do more together they have more opportunities to see how to fix something because they are collectively looking at it.”
  • “I think the “super team” in this case mostly refers to the size. Examples would be “super volcano” or “Super Carrier”. That being stated, I truly believe that the sum of each individuals’ contribution to any endeavor, if every idea is at least heard, has the greater potential to be superior at completion, than if each individual were separate, even in their field of expertise. This seems to be the case over and over again.”
  • “The Superteam concept takes advantage of all team members’ knowledge, experience, and background without the constant overhead of having them assigned to the project for the whole time. The theory is that everyone’s eyes on a project will produce a product faster, cheaper, and with fewer mistakes.  Why not let everyone do their area of expertise only on each project, instead of each of us trying to do it all?” In other words, let Steve be the technical guru, and Roger could manage the administrative, schedule, budget and customer communications.  This would (and has) allowed Steve to forego all the administrative duties and have more time to spend developing concepts and designs with the team(s), and Roger would spend less time doing engineering tasks and focus on project management. In essence, what we have in a super team environment is a Project Engineer/Architect (Steve), and a Project Manager (Roger), with each able to focus on their expertise.”

 

So what does Superteam mean to me? Simply this: Using our collective knowledge to solve any problem.  I believe our design team at Setpoint has broken the stereotypical mold commonly used to solve design related problems.  One example is the office space we created that has unofficially been dubbed our “War Room.” It’s an array of white boards and markers, this is where we take our designs by storm. We break away from our confined world of 3D CAD and step in front of an expanse of white boards that allow instant creativity to roam rapidly in a visual and interactive way.  There is something energizing about gathering creative minds around a whiteboard and thinking on your feet, it’s proven to be a powerful and simple way to solve problems as a team.

One day as we were standing at the white boards sketching we thought, “Wouldn’t it be cool if we had a projector to throw some images onto this board? Then we could sketch right on the part.”  The best part of this story is that we didn’t just let this idea fall through the cracks, we made it a reality. We don’t have the red tape other companies have in implementing new and innovative ideas, another benefit of a small company. On another day, we invited all the assembly technicians into the war room and fed them lunch while we reviewed a concept of a machine that was something we had never done before. We wanted their input to find the hidden dangers lurking in our design concept before we proposed it to a customer, and their input brought some common sense to our table of wild ideas.

It’s this mentality of “Let’s bring in the assembly crew to get their input on this sub-frame” or “Let’s bring in one of our customers’ machine operators to look at how this machine actuates” that brings unity to the Superteam.

Synergy: (from the Greek syn-ergos meaning working together) is the term used to describe a situation where different entities cooperate advantageously for a final outcome. Simply defined, it means that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The essence of synergy is to value differences.

  • A dynamic state in which combined action is favored over the sum of individual component actions.
  • Behavior of whole systems unpredicted by the behavior of their parts taken separately. More accurately known as emergent behavior.

 

The other positive element that lies within the Superteam – is improved creativity. The Superteam idea cultivates friendships, fun, and good social dynamics. Creativity is CORE to Setpoints ability to be innovative and solve problems. Forcing solutions by relying on previous known methods will work, it’s how Setpoint has survived so long. However, creativity seems to flow better when we are relaxed, when we are happy, and when our minds are free to search for solutions by roaming. There is a time and place for both methods, but in years gone by I dare say the creative approach has been suppressed. The Superteam approach is to take the best of both these methods and balance them. It’s a matter of leadership, it requires an intuitive approach that can’t be learned in books. Like a coach who knows each of his players on an interpersonal level. This is where Superteam excels, optimizing the team members to let each player engage in their strengths to achieve the desired outcome on the project. This change toward balanced creativity has been gradual at Setpoint, but is now more and more common on each project.

They say a chain is only as strong as it’s weakest link. That may be true, but the Superteam approach is to ask, “Wait, why are we using a chain? Let’s use something better.”    That’s what sets us apart.

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