Silver bullets and the Basics

Posted by on Jun 11, 2008 in Business, Technology

I met Don Swann, former Deloitte partner and currently principle of Don Swann Consulting LLC, on a Brand Velocity project in Irving, Texas. Don is one of the most productive and smart project managers that I’ve had the pleasure to meet. After one discussion regarding the “Business of IT” Don mentioned that in 1989 he wrote an article on the topic of Silver Bullets. He sent it to me and although the context is manufacturing the truths that Don shared in this article still applies today. Usually technology projects fail because of the “Basics”. What do you think?

Here is the full text:

Silver Bullets and Basics by Don Swann, CFPIM (published in The Magazine of Manufacturing performance, January 1989)

During World War II a breakthrough concept called Work Simplification promised to unlock the talent and ingenuity of the entire work force.  It’s premise-the hourly worker, as manager-was a radical departure from conventional approaches.  Many companies established programs that provided the work force with a vehicle to introduce their ideas for improvements, and to even implement those ideas.  The publicized cases describe tremendous improvements in throughput and cost performance.

Value Engineering surfaced about this same time frame.  A professional society of Value Engineers was formed to spearhead this rational and effective technique of designing the product to eliminate processing steps, features, or components whose cost exceeded their value.

We can identify other major innovative concepts that burst on the U.S. manufacturing scene over the years with the promise of revolutionizing the cost and effectiveness of producing goods.  You can probably add to the list of the techniques that were billed as the next great manufacturing concept.

There are other major concepts and techniques that have captured the imagination of American manufacturing.  We seem to have the idea that there is a magic elixir or a key formula that can be applied to yield optimal manufacturing performance. The advocates of each idea viewed theirs as the “Silver Bullet” that would allow manufacturers to shoot straight and kill all the bad guys.  And these concepts attracted (and are attracting zealots who are sure that their idea is the True Way.

There are some common characteristics that the Silver Bullets share:

  1. They have some impressive successes;
  2. They have some dismal failures; and
  3. Execution of basic, unglamorous tasks determines their success or failure.

An analogy that readily comes to my mind is the introduction of new formations in football.  The coach that finished 10-10 last years with the wishbone, switches to the Pro Set and still goes 1-10 seasons.  The company abandoning a failed MRP project to adopt a JIT approach will find that poor execution is very impartial-it will wreck either approach.

Consultants offer the opportunity to see a diversity of manufacturers, and to help clients to implement many of these different techniques or concepts.  And each of these concepts has validity in specific environments.  What we see, in case after case, is that the basics have to be dealt with, no matter how innovative the new concept.

For instance, accurate and controlled inventories are prerequisite for any inventory planning and control system.  You have heard this or read this observation a dozen times.  Yet time after time we see companies make substantial investments in new Silver bullets before addressing the basic problem that they have no idea of current inventory balances and have no control of inventory usage.  One of the basic objectives of these powerful systems is to calculate optimal schedules for production and purchasing.  Obviously, the questions of what, how much and when to produce and purchase, depend upon knowing how much is currently on hand.

Other basics are typically missing.  Bills of material are inaccurate.  Changes to the products and processes are uncontrolled and not communicated.  Scrap and substitutions are not reported.  Products are priced and sold before they are specified, designed and cost.  Silver Bullet tools introduced into these out-of-control environments will not perform properly.  Most of the Silver Bullets are logical, even “programmed” tools and approaches that depend upon inputs that are consistent and reliable.

When substantial improvements are achieved, we point to the Silver Bullet as the source of the gains.  In two major surveys of MRP implementations, less than 15 percent of MRP users claim to have reached “class A” status-they actually run the company using the recommendations produced by the MRP system.  The over 85 + percent of users falling short of class A status (including class D users-they showed, in a controlled environment, that the system had the capability to function, but no one was actually using the outputs) claim significant improvements in inventory turns, customer services, lead time, and other performance measures.  The gains have been attributed to MRP.  But if no one uses the system outputs, how can the system be the reason for improvements?

The improvements attributed to many Silver Bullets stem from the following chain of events:

  1. Silver Bullets demand consistent, reliable, controlled inputs;
  2. In pursuit of the Silver bullet, companies have to clean up their practices, specifications, and controls; and
  3. Once the company is executing the basics correctly, performance improves.

What does all this mean to the manufacturer who knows he must improve his plant’s performance, or his company’s performance?  We are in action-oriented society, and manufacturing managers are in positions of authority because they are take-charge decision makers.  A Silver Bullet has strong appeal because it is focused, concise, salable program that can championed and promoted.  A program to “clean up the basics” lacks the glamour of a Silver Bullet.

The solution?  Use the Silver Bullet of your choice as a rallying point to build enthusiasm, obtain funding and focus the plant as a team on achieving a specific goal.  But build into your program the necessary time and funding to perform the basics, because the success or failure of the Silver Bullet will probably depend on the same things, whatever its underlying concepts or breakthrough ideas. 

The Basics include:

  • Inventory control
  • Conformance to schedules
  • Accurate bills of material
  • Consistent, controlled, measured processes
  • Consistent, controlled, measured materials
  • Consistent customer service
  • Accurate costs

There are others.  The Basics that can wet the powder in your Silver Bullet are the ones that you want to address and correct.

The following sequential steps are a simple but realistic formula for correcting the basics:

  1. Measure current status-What are your inventory turns?  What is your line item inventory accuracy?  What level is customer service now?  Every subsequent decision that you make regarding the Basics should be targeted toward “improvement.”  You cannot determine if improvement has occurred unless you measure results.
  2. Establish correct procedures – People often do an inconsistent job because there has never been a definition of what should be done.
  3. Train the users-Procedures in a book do not change results on the floor.
  4. Measure compliance-If procedures are not followed; you need edits, control limits, alerts that indicate that procedures are being improperly executed.
  5. React to exceptions-When the edits (cycle counts, SPC trends, other exceptions) indicate the Basics are slipping, go the source of the non-compliance and confront the issues.

Maybe in the future we will have a new Silver Bullet with its own acronym, certifications and zealots that promotes the Basics (how about Basic Manufacturing practices or BMP?).  But with or without a separate label the sink or swim factor for successful Silver Bullets is Basics.

About the Author

Don Swann, CFPIM, is a partner with Deloitte Haskins & Sells in charge of the manufacturing consulting services covering the Southeast.  He works out of the firm’s Atlanta GA, office. Prior to joining DHS, Mr. Swann was with Owens-Corning Fiberglass as an Industrial Engineer Manager and Factory Supervisor.  He Holds a B.I.E. degree from Georgia Tech.

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