Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Competing Demands

Many years ago, I was hired as the manager of a contractor operated maintenance facility. During my first week I found boxes of repair parts stashed under workstations and storage racks or laying in the isles of the parts room.

When I asked the repair technicians why these parts had not been added to the inventory and put in the correct parts bins, the answer was “we pulled the parts we need to fix the the stuff the customer needed right away and just left the rest sit till later”

As you can probably already imagine, “later” never came! Far too many of the parts left uninventoried had become critical need and repairs could not be completed waiting for parts that were under workbenches and storage racks.

My next step should be painfully obvious. Every nook and cranny, drawer and hiding place was emptied, the parts (and equipment waiting for repair!) were inventoried, placed in the correct storage location and the computerized inventory updated.

Predictably, the vast majority of EDP (equipment dead lined for parts) were cleared and the maintenance backlog that had existed for months magically disappeared. We also discovered serious overstocks of parts that were critically needed by other maintenance facilities that could be cross-shipped to clear long standing backlogs.

The point is not that simple good practices fixed a silly problem or that people taking the easy way out created more problems than they solved. The real point is that looking only at the short term issue, the customer needs this one piece of equipment by close of business, became a mind set that missed the bigger issue.

Yes, that customer might be screaming for that one piece of equipment today but, and it’s a critical but, if we didn’t return 1,200 units each and every month the entire operation ground to a halt at a cost of (in 1983 dollars) a quarter of a million dollars a day.

We can all come up with a plan to get that one critical piece of equipment repaired and back to the customer while still inventorying and stocking the newly received parts. The repair technicians, as they should be, were so focused on the single repair job they never looked beyond the immediate pressure point.

What about the manager who should have been looking at the bigger picture?

Trust me, the guy was very bright but he had been in the most high pressure, visible job the company had for just under two years and had become completely burned out. He was moved back into engineering and later to engineering management where he performed brilliantly. I always suspected that if he could have taken a month off, away from the daily pressure he would have spotted the same issues and solutions I did.

The years I spent as the manager of that facility taught me more about managing competing pressures and demands than anything before or since.

To paraphrase Kipling: If you can keep your head while all those around you are loosing theirs, you will make a great manager.

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