When Did You First Know?

Sometimes things go wrong. You fail to produce the quantity of product you need by a deadline. A shipment is delayed. Or something else happens that will lead you to disappoint your customer.

            Almost every company will try to learn from failure to prevent it from happening again. But it may be that most companies, in that effort to learn, ask the wrong question.

            I heard this discussed recently by Sanjiv Sidhu, founder and chairman of i2 Technologies, a company that makes supply chain software used by most major manufacturers.

            Sidhu was speaking at the Automotive News Manufacturing Conference. He said that when something goes wrong, the typical manager will ask, “What was the problem?” But the better manager, he contends, will ask, “When did you first know?”
            Think about that, and consider how well it meshes with lean principles. A basic lean concept is that, when there is a problem, the root cause should be identified and the problem should be solved at its point of origin. Implicit in that is the idea that the problem should be solved quickly. One of the advantages of one-piece flow is that problems and defects can be spotted almost immediately, rather than after completion of a big batch of production.

            But to solve a problem quickly, you first need to be aware of it. Your process, your flow of information, your visual controls all need to provide you with information as close to real time as possible so solutions can be developed quickly.

            And that’s why Sidhu is right. The ability to spot a problem quickly is in some ways a more important issue for your overall processes, or at least an issue to be addressed earlier, than your ability to solve a particular problem. So when a problem occurs, you should indeed ask when your key people first knew about it. If they should have known sooner, your process may need improvement.

            Sidhu, of course, has a vested interest in making this point; “visibility” is one of the selling points that i2 lists as a key benefit of its software.

            But that doesn’t mean Sidhu is wrong. And in fact, I found him to be an intelligent, articulate speaker with an excellent grasp of supply chain issues.

            So as you improve your processes, look at the flow of information as well as the flow of parts, materials and products. Evaluate your capabilities to spot problems early. Make improvements. That way, you will be able to solve problems quickly and not be embarrassed when someone asks, “When did you first know?


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