Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The Iron Rice Bowl

It is often said, the beauty of standards is that you have so many to choose from. The irony of this statement is, of course, there should only be one standard. But we often find, as I have in many prior situations, that standards are local and sometimes not known, understood or even followed.

Standards lead to efficiency. There are countless examples of equipment, software and business process where the variety in place lead to unnecessary complexity, difficult interactions and rework. But this applies to more than just IT. People will tend to develop their own "standard" process unless they are provided documentation or training. Even then, they are likely to add their own special twist and perpetuate its use by handing it down to the next person who will perform the same task or job function.

Once, while automating the "standard" process for starting a new project, we encountered Louie, the keeper of the job numbers. Louie's job was to maintain the book which listed the identifying number of every job the company performs. Louie has the privilege of assigning the job numbers and so every project eventually came across his desk so he could open the book and allocate the next number. Louie designed and owned this process.

Everybody along the way had a "standard" way of initiating the work that had to be done in their particular department for the new job to get underway. Whether it was the scheduling of manpower, purchasing of materials, preparation of documents or management approvals, there were a myriad of steps using various paper and electronic means to enter and process the same data.

The process was riddled with many forms in duplicate or triplicate which were physically passed around the office and often copied, annotated and then stored in multiple locations. As you can easily imagine, this was a cumbersome and inefficient way of alerting each department about a new project. Forms were misplaced, incomplete or contained old information. Time was lost as they moved around and often information was inaccurate, incomplete or inconsistent from one department to another.

We saw an opportunity to streamline this process and set about identifying the key steps, data elements and reasons behind each. If I had a nickle for every time I heard "because that's the way we've always done it" I could have retired years ago. A new, more rational process was designed and approved by management.

The process was then automated from start to finish using imaging and on-line forms with drop down menus limiting choices and having the intelligence to display those fields which were relevant to the different departments. One set of forms with one set of data living in one physical place meant everyone always had the latest and most accurate information and could get it at any time from any location.

The story has one twist. Perhaps you are familiar with the expression that someone has an iron rice bowl? This means they have their position or seat at the table forever. No one can take it away.

It seems Louie had an iron rice bowl and so the entire automated process still had to grind to a halt so Louie could open his (physical not metaphorical) book and allocate the next job number.

Perhaps the ultimate irony was that someone had to enter this job number as Louie was not technical enough to do it himself.

Captain Joe

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