Posts Tagged ‘logistics’

on computers and me, part six

This is turning into a saga, but there is more in me yet, so on we go, or at least, on I go.

One of the curious things about strategy is that it is almost always wrong. You might have a plan as to where you want to be and what you will look like, in a business sense, in 5, 10 or however many years, but everything is changing around you and you haven’t got a clue as to what the other buggers are up to.

My dilemma was that I was running a national distribution centre that had been designed in 1969 and fully opened in 1973. Almost nothing had been renewed or replaced, nor had anything of any value been added since and much of the original kit was life expired, or no longer needed. The computer system that had gone live in 1989 told us what we had, what was on order and what we needed to send out. It could also do the standard stock analysis stuff, but nearly half of the 26,000 stock lines we held did not operate to normal stock turn rules, so that was of little help. To know where anything was we had to resort to clerical records.

But we were a logistics business and there was a plethora of products on the market to help such operations and it was to that market that I turned. Yes, we were special, unique and all that crap, but to me we were a big shed and we brought stuff in at one end, fiddled about with it a bit and sent it out the other side. It was that simple, and so my first 5-year strategy, 1990-1994 was to put us up with the best logistics operations. (These are empty words, but I had an idea to sell. I probably even said we were going upper quartile: There were a lot of plonkers around who couldn’t understand plain English).

What I had in mind cost money; half a million pounds on computers, software and some associated kit, about another third of a million on infrastructure and mechanical aids, so I called it one million for no other reason than when you go to the corporate well, the more you ask for, the more likely you are to get it. I knew the system well and was known to the Board Member for Finance, the man who ultimately held the purse strings, but I also had a secret weapon, well not really a secret, just something that everybody in my end of the corporation saw as a weakness; about a third of my workforce were due to retire over the period of my plan. All I had to do was to show that my proposals were going to make us more efficient and run with less people. They were going anyway.

I got away without involving IT in my choice of software supplier and, by buying a package off the shelf, the hardware too. I was lucky that the senior IT person that I should have deferred to was a coward and elected to turn a blind eye. He was already stung by my criticism of the way that he had run the 1989 implementation and felt that if what I did worked, he could take some credit, and if it failed it would have been all my fault. He was sharp enough to know that what I was buying was a proven product, so why bother?

I had left my first wife in 1989, and the Berkshire Belle and I became a couple personally as well as professionally. Perhaps she thought that I needed keeping an eye on. We made a dynamic duo and had a few spectacular falling outs, some stage managed for effect, others quite genuine, but we got married along the way (and are still together). The place got transformed: We had computer terminals on the new forklift trucks, new racking, bar codes all over the place and would, in the next phase, have gone into RFID tagging. We were exploiting the possibilities that computers and allied technologies could bring us and, because of what we were doing, attracting new business that we could not have hoped to have won the previous year.

It was my swansong though, at least as far as playing with major computer projects was concerned. I had barely finished the second 5-year plan, 1996-2000, when corporate changes, one of which I had instigated, did me out of my own job. Sunshine promises were made, but I had no faith and jumped ship. Just over a year later they split my old job into two and, whilst some of what I had planned was implemented, it all went very wrong. I didn’t gloat; too many of my old team, including the Berkshire Belle, were still there trying to survive the new regime.

I wasn’t entirely done with computer systems though, for I was using the emerging technical products. I was now completely location independent, and my new role was to manage several headquarters properties, so there were things like access control, CCTV and similar systems to install and manage. My new team used CAD systems to plan office layouts and we installed video conferencing and all sorts of whizzy stuff in meeting rooms. My latest laptop had satellite access to the network, no more searching for a LAN connection or hooking up via ‘phone or dongle, I could just log in from almost anywhere,

There is one computer story from that era that must be told though. We were bidding to manage the properties of a client in a far-flung part of the UK, and, in conversation with the person doing the buying, they mentioned an interest in having some way that users could report faults, book meeting rooms or other services from their desktop or laptop. I knew of at least one system that did just that and so, with the client coming to see one of our sites for a visit, I faked up just such a system. It was not complete but had two or three working functions and we showed it to the client when they came to see how we worked.

They chose us as their new supplier and asked for that software package as part of our service. No problem, the supplier of the real thing was happy to make a sale, and we are talking about a £10k order for them here. A check list of system hardware requirements was sent to the client, and their IT people confirmed that all was in order. We were ready to take over from the previous suppler and the software company flew a couple of their people in on the Friday afternoon to install and set up the programme. I was strolling up the path to my front door that evening when I got a call from the installation team: The client had no LAN to run the system over. I know now that I will never have heard everything, there will always be a new one somewhere.

Over the twelve years that I spent managing commercial property estates I came across many computer systems, but they were all ones that I inherited along with the buildings. My days of specifying, designing, programming, buying, implementing or whatever were over, and I was also disillusioned with being a suit on a salary. In a stunning display of strategic foresight, I walked out in the Spring on 2008 and went freelance. What was I saying a while back about strategy? Within five months the business world was in a tailspin, the clients I saw myself working for weren’t hiring and the freelance market was awash with people who had been made redundant.

In the next part I’ll talk about surviving that and how computers came back into my life.

on inventory counts

At work we have just had one of our periodic stock counts and this triggered a memory from just over thirty years ago. It was the beginning of April and I had just taken over my first significant operational command; three warehouses on one site plus part of the office block alongside. I had just over 350 people working for me and, just to add some spice, the computerisation of the operation went live on the morning that I took over.

It was not a great start because the computer system had been poorly specified and it ground to a halt halfway through the first morning, partly because the results of the stock count over the weekend were still being input. By the afternoon we had the first results back from the data input and whilst two of the three product categories we about right the third was showing us a little more than £30M over the expected figure.

One of the problems when you count stock is that the unit that you are counting may not be obvious. For example take a item that comes in boxes of 200 and where 56 such boxes constitute a full pallet. What does that full pallet get recoded as? 1, 56 or 11,200? My own team would have known the answer, but the annual stock count was always done by a professional team of valuers to ensure probity and so errors were always possible. The discrepancy of £30M was going to be down to either an error in the count unit, how that had been interpreted for data input or just an input error.

We set up a report to run on overnight processing (that’s how it worked in those days) and called it a day. The next morning we found that our friends in IT had not checked the paper level on the computer room printer and it had run out about 20% of the way through the report (these were the days of the piano lined paper reports). My colleague the Finance Director had assigned his Chief Accountant to assist and my head of the product category was leading from our side as we searched for the discrepancy, but with so little of the stock report available they were a little hampered.

After lunch things improved when we found one error and got the discrepancy down to £22M. The IT team told us that processing the report that we had asked for and printing it would take 10 hours and so we shut the computer system down again and set it running the report in mid-afternoon, this time with a new box of paper. Then I got the call to go and see the MD…

My colleague the Finance Director, I’ll call him Dick, had decided to duck any blame and dump it on my team, so when I walked into the office there he was looking smug and there were a few of the other senior managers around the table to watch the new boy get shafted. The MD was apoplectic and wanted someone fired. He was a bully, but iike many such people he was also a coward and he was frightened that, if this was a genuine overstock, his neck was on the block. I was the new kid in town, but I needed to fight my team’s corner and to show that whilst I was a new arrival, I hadn’t just come in on the turnip cart.

Looking around the assembled faces I could have suggested that the Purchasing Director might like to see which of his team had bought all of the excess stock, if it did exist, but there was no point in starting a new fight as they all knew who had convened the meeting and why and so I decided that as “Dick” had tried to drop my team in the smelly stuff I would have to take him on.

Smiling, I asked if Dick was happy that the previous year’s count had been accurate. He was so I proposed that, if we did have all of the extra stock, the additional purchases must have been made since then. He agreed again, but slightly hesitantly. I asked if had he not noticed any unusually large invoices, for his team would have been invoice matching against deliveries before paying the bills and the sort of value we were talking about must have stood out, surely? After all, such invoices would have been at his level of authority to sign off. Was it not also the case that we would have gone over budget and would he not have picked up on that at the time? Perhaps if he could remember any such event it would help us to narrow down where the problem was. Blood drained from Dick’s face as the MD switched his ire from me to him.

All of a sudden Dick was backing away from blaming my people and agreeing that the problem was either a stock unit error or one of data input after all. I could have gone on to suggest that, in the latter case, that was his fault too as the data input had been done by his team, but the initial crisis was over and it was agreed that we would review the situation the next afternoon. I had made my point.

The next morning we had the full report that we needed and found the main error in minutes. By the end of the day we had found a few more and were within 0.02% of where we expected to be, and all of the errors were due to data input bar one where the wrong stock unit had been used. No-one got fired and I went on to enjoy three good years in that job.

We got the computer system working too, I later married the lady that the MD was threatening to fire and, all these years later, we are still together.

I like happy endings.

on fake news

I am not one for conspiracy theories and am fully aware that news media are not, in this day and age, unbiased so I treat anything that I read or hear from them with as open a mind as I can. If something interests me enough then I try to triangulate and get bearing from other directions and try to form my opinions accordingly. I was, at least, taught at school to try and think critically and that side of my education was refreshed as I worked my way up the greasy pole of management through three decades.

An example of something that is puzzling me at the moment, and it is an area in which I have a professional interest, is a claim that I saw recently that we have lost over 100,000 lorry drivers from the UK job market.

Now I know that some drivers from EU countries have left due to the UK leaving the EU, but 100,000? This just does not gel with what I see and hear around me. There are not loads of trucks parked up with no drivers and when I talk to immigrant drivers they will admit that some of their compatriots have gone home, but not in any great numbers.

There are issues in terms of recruiting and retaining drivers within the industry; poor pay, nowhere to park for statutory breaks, poor facilities and, for those not directly employed, the costs of retaining their licence. Even getting a licence now is a problem because of a ridiculous EU regulation that we have not struck from the statute that prevents someone going directing to an articulated truck licence (you have to take a rigid truck test first and then move up to an artic) effectively pretty much doubling the cost of a licence.

But the media channels are reporting a shortage of drivers as a problem of us having left the EU and so that is what the person in the street believes when they see an empty shelf at their local store.

I will refrain from banging on too much about these things; there are plenty of other examples and you may well have favourites of your own. It seems that the media are either trying to make a political point or are just looking for ways to sex up a story and think that we are all too stupid to challenge them, or maybe it is also just the echo chamber effect; to give their readers news biased to the way that they want to hear it.

Sad really, but the truth has become what you want it to be and that is dangerous. Orwell’s 1984 might have come late, but I think that it has, perhaps, caught up with us.

a rant on panic buying

One of my current jobs is in the retail food sector where we are seeing, in the first two hours of trading every day, greater transaction numbers that we see in the same time on the heaviest day before Christmas. Read more…

outsourcing: getting it right

At an industry forum last week we were posed the question; has outsourcing shown rel long term benefit? s the first panellist began to answer I was framing my own response as yes, I think that it has. Read more…

musings on how the office can survive into the future

There still seems to be a view that we provide buildings; offices, hospitals, warehouses or whatever and that people come to these places to do things there, and in the case of an office there is a view that we no longer need them, that the technology of today makes many jobs independent of a traditional office base. That is true in some cases, but the problem with most of the arguments of that principle is that they treat the building and what goes on in it a separate entities. Read more…

to plan or not to plan

“We need a plan” is a fairly obvious statement before you start any endeavour and with a decent plan in place there is little excuse for not succeeding; “I love it when a plan comes together” I think Hannibal Smith used to say in each A Team episode, but what about when a plan goes off the rails, or if you don’t have a plan? Read more…

teaching is a two way street

This week I will be wearing my logistics hat again as I am running a warehousing and materials management course and will re-visiting the delights of standard deviations, calculating point loads and similar mathematics along with the more practical side of what mechanical aids to use for various applications. Read more…

Trick or treat? Some skeletons from the closet…

Keeping up my Halloween tradition of talking about things that went bump in the night, here are a few more oops moments that I learned from. Maybe they will help you avoid similar mistakes. Read more…

how hard is it to deliver decent customer service?

Back to customer service this week and a trio of unrelated incidents that have got me thinking about this again. Read more…