Let’s build a house

Let’s build a house.

We don’t know anything about how to build a house. But other people have built houses! How hard can it be?

So to build a house let’s think about houses. We don’t need to actually look at any existing houses because we live in houses. How could you have a more expert opinion than than?

We’ve thought about houses for a while and now we have a fairly comprehensive idea (we think) of what a house should have, all the components and whatnot, written down on a napkin. Done with planning! Next, we build the house.

Now we could hire people who build houses for a living to build this house. We could. But they’re expensive. We could even hire their individual contractors to do the work. But they’re expensive too! Let’s do the whole thing ourselves.

So we start building the house. And progress is slow. But everything seems okay until we hit a snag. The foundations we poured are the wrong kind of concrete and are literally flaking away and falling apart. The concrete mix (which we guessed at, because who has time to read the concrete guide?) needs to be redone. But through process of elimination eventually we arrive at a decent mix that doesn’t fall apart right way, even if it’s not up to any kind of building code. It took quite a long time and was a pain in the ass, but if we ignore opportunity cost we probably (maybe) broke even vs a contractor.

We keep doing this. Each component of the house is slowly, painfully erected. Lots of mistakes. We tear down maybe more than we build. The results are never really satisfactory. Every once in a while a random person walks past and says “hey, why don’t you have an atrium!” or something like that. And we nod sagely. What a good idea! Let’s do it! And we pull out another napkin and go to work.

Eventually, some years, maybe decades later, we arrive at the finished product. It’s definitely a house of sorts. It sprawls more than we’d like, bits are always falling off, it’s unsafe, and not really a pleasure to live in. But it’s our house and we built it.

One day a house builder visits. He takes one look around and says, “This is one of the worst built houses I’ve ever seen!” He gives us some building tips, trying to save us from the inevitable implosion, but we don’t listen. He’s so negative! Why hasn’t he praised our accomplishments instead of harping on our flaws?

Stockholm syndrome for our own problems

I have a garden that wraps around the perimeter of my backyard. It’s been a bit of a chore to keep going. For most of this spring and summer it was a a patch of waist-high weeds drowning out all the perennials I had planted in years past. There were some fairly hearty ferns in there, and a few hostas as well. But even they were being drowned out by these weeds.

This is a fairly well-solved problem. There are interventions, certain things you do, to take care of gardens.

But I never seemed to do any of those things. Why not?

By the time I decided to do something about the weeds, they had not only taken over the garden but had started migrating into the grass as well. And to be honest I felt pretty bad about this. I would go out into the backyard and feel pretty lousy about all these weeds.

So I pulled them all out. It took a fair amount of time but I felt pretty good about it. Thing is, the weeds were back in a week. So I pulled them out again, and the next week they were back, and the plants weren’t recovering, and the gardens looked pretty terrible. Every time I pulled out a weed I would feel good, and every time it would grow back I would feel bad… and so the cycle goes on.

I like to think of this cycle as a sort of Stockholm Syndrome for problems. I got so hooked into working hard at pulling out weeds that I never had time to really sit back and think about why the weeds were growing in the first place.

Until one day. I got so sick of pulling out weeds, of spinning my wheels with this whole garden thing… I was ready to trash the whole idea and just throw down some grass seed.

Until I sat back and looked at what I was doing. And I felt pretty dumb, because what I was doing was dumb. I was fighting weeds, but I wasn’t fighting why weeds. I wasn’t asking the question that would have cut my workload by 90%.

I’ve seen people get so deep into this cycle they never take that moment to step outside the problem and take a look. They beat themselves and other people up for not working hard enough or being smart enough or whatever. I mean, I could have thought to myself, Dan, you’re so lazy. Look at these weeds! You should work harder to get rid of them. You’re not doing your job, man!

But my job was stupid. And of course eventually I would have stopped doing it altogether. And so the weeds would grow waist-high until next year when I got frustrated about my shitty backyard and started all over again.

Now, this all seems fairly basic stuff. I mean, I laid down some mulch, made a boundary that separates the garden from the grass, 90% of the weeds stopped growing, and when I go into my backyard and weed the garden it’s just a few things here and there.

Gardens are fairly easy that way.

But what about at work where things are more complicated? Sure, you could genuinely work with a bunch of idiots who just can’t do their jobs… but it’s it more likely that you have a problem you just haven’t sat down and taken a look at.

My garden problem was that I had a lot of exposed dirt, and weeds like to grow in exposed dirt. I had a lot of grass in my garden because there was nothing to stop the grass from crossing the grass/garden boundary. Until I fixed those problems I was stuck in that cycle of weeding.

The mulch I laid down and the stones that separate the grass and garden do their jobs wonderfully and have the added benefit of looking good. Now when I sit out in my backyard I don’t think, “Boy that backyard looks terrible, I’m doing such a bad job of keeping that garden clean, I’m lazy and need to work harder!” Instead I think, “Hey, that looks pretty good. Not perfect, but pretty good.” And I don’t feel bad about myself or my backyard. There are improvements to be made, but they’re incremental instead of revolutionary. The hard part is over because I found the root cause… and then fixed it.

I think I’ve belaboured the metaphor a but much. But you see what I’m saying.

At work on Friday we had these tools come back from a customer. When we started fixing the issue with this particular tool, we found another problem. We got everyone together and started to figure out why this tool was this way. And nobody could say because the paperwork wasn’t clear, there was no specification, the drawing and the work instruction were different, the order of operations was wrong, and the operators weren’t communicating with each other and passing each other garbage. They weren’t validating their work (because there was nothing to validate against), and so the customer got garbage that was made wrong in more than one way.

Now we could have spent a lot of time fixing just that problem (and we will, obviously). But we also have to acknowledge that this isn’t the first time this has happened. It’s the fifth… this week. And it’s easy to run around yelling at people and calling them stupid because no-one caught this mistake.

But that won’t fix the problem. It will fix A problem. But it won’t fix THE problem. It’ll just make everyone feel terrible, and some people who get yelled at will start hiding their problems and trying to sneak them out the door hoping that no-one will notice so they don’t get yelled at again. And then someone will yell at them because they’re stupid and sneaky and lazy… and the cycle continues.

In fact fixing A problem is pretty easy compared to fixing THE problem. That’s why THE problem has never been fixed. Because it’s hard and time consuming and everyone’s too busy working on all these problems that result from THE problem.

Someone needs to step back. Someone needs to ask the big questions. Take a good hard look at why we’re doing something, why that something is resulting in a bunch of repeatable quality issues, and then do something about it. Questions like:

Why are we making tools with no specification?
Why does the paperwork have the wrong order of operations?
Why is an operator adding a feature to the tool that isn’t called for?
Why did it leave the plant without anyone validating it?
Why is there no history we can look at to figure out what went wrong?

Which leads to another set of deeper questions:

Why is management sending stuff out to plant floor without proper documentation?
Why are operators accepting garbage paperwork?
Why are operators accepting garbage tools from the last process?
Why are operators not performing in-process checks?

And the answers are not really fun.

Management is more concerned with getting tools out the door quickly than anything else. If a tool is “rush”, a whole bunch of critical steps are often skipped. We end up having a bunch of napkins lying around with arcane notes on them. Maybe the napkin gets lost. Maybe someone drops some coffee on it.

Then when the tool comes around next time the guy making the paperwork doesn’t know enough about the tool to know that he’s producing garbage paperwork and sends out a workorder with incomplete information.

Operators know that it’s more important to ship than to do it right, so they do a bunch of guesswork (“Other tools that look like this tool have this particular feature that isn’t on the drawing!”) and kind of make something. They know this isn’t great so they don’t sign off the processes properly or at all and send it along to the next station.

The next operator also knows it’s more important to ship than to validate so he overlooks the issue (if he sees it all; the paperwork is garbage, remember), does his guesswork, and sends it along.

Eventually it ships and someone shreds the paperwork.

Then the customer sends back the tools, and the cycle starts again. The beatings continue until everyone does everything right 100% of the time.

Doesn’t that sound crazy? Who would voluntarily work like that?

But we do. And this isn’t just my workplace. This is a lot of places. The fixes are usually fairly easy. They just require some attitude adjustment, all the way down the chain, from management to shipping. Two sentences:

Don’t accept garbage. Don’t send out garbage.

Management has to do some work upfront. Operators need to know what they’re doing. They need to have specifications and and paperwork with the proper order of operations and instructions, all crystal clear. The operator needs the proper material, etc. If the inputs aren’t right, if the operator doesn’t have that, they don’t know what they’re doing.

And if the operator doesn’t have what they need, they should fire the whole thing back to wherever it came from. These inputs can be posted on a wall or on a queue or something so everyone knows, If I don’t get what I need, I’m sending this back. And when they’re done with their process, they sign off on that process and send it along.

If they send it along to the next process without something — in process check report, something isn’t done, something doesn’t look right… fire it back. Don’t take on other people’s problems. Send it back and it becomes their problem again.

This happens all the way down the chain. But it’s important that it starts with management. There needs to be a commitment to quality. Not getting stuff out the door for this particular set of customers regardless of paperwork quality and tool or process validation. A commitment to quality, repeatable quality. We have a different set of tools at our disposal to make sure those “special” customers get their tools when they want them. We have escalations for that.

Management’s job is to make sure we have the means and procedures and culture in place to do this. Not running out onto the plant floor all red in the face yelling at people for being stupid and lazy. If someone IS supid and lazy (and trust me, these people exist in spades) we also have the means and procedures to take care of that. This is what progressive discipline is all about, for instance. The end result is either you have a non-stupid, non-lazy person or you don’t have that person at all.

This seems like a lot of work. And it is, at the beginning. But it’s so much less work and stress and yelling and getting stuff back and fixing it and making new tools to replace garbage and running around trying to figure out what to run! In the long run the absolute chaos of everything being murky and unclear is far more counterproductive than the 1-time few hours (max!) of work per workorder it takes to do things right the first time.

It’s way easier to do the heavy lifting (mulch and stones are not light!) once, than pull waist-high weeds every week.