16 June, 2009

Remembering Former University of Charleston Business Professor, Susan Hitt, with - What Else? - A Case Study

The Following Case Study Is Offered In Memory of Professor Susan Hitt Who Helped Me Become A Systems Thinker

Several of my LinkedIn discussion forums are asking why there are so many managers who aren't systems thinkers, who can't see systems. Why there are so many managers who treat symptoms instead of curing the disease that causes the symptoms?

“If only they studied Deming” say some. I agree. Managers need to study Deming.

“If only they would read Goldratt” say others.

"If only they took some management theory courses from Susan Hitt" I recently said.

Professor Hitt loved to assign “case studies”, an assignment type familiar to all business majors, so for all my systems thinking online friends out there I have decided to write a case study of my own in memory of my favorite University of Charleston business professor, Susan Hitt, who passed away 8 May 2009 at the young age of 56.

Professor Hitt encouraged my tendency to see relationships between seemingly unrelated things or events, to see connections that weren’t obvious to everybody. Professor Hitt loved it when I used analogies from theology or music or even from movies to solve or describe business problems.

Professor Hitt taught me that logic is logic and that there isn’t some secret or special kind of logic for business and another kind for everything else. She taught me trust my reasoning power and to follow the logic trail wherever it led me.

But business problems are not solved by logic alone because most business problems have something to do with the human element and Professor Hitt was at her best when she lectured about “Maslow’s hierarchy of needs”, “The Hawthorne Effect”, the “Western Electric” studies, “The Pygmalion Effect” and how business management is not primarily about managing inventories and numbers but about managing people. Professor Hitt was a little bit psychologist, anthropologist and sociologist. I remember thinking she’d make a great boss.

Professor Hitt had a lot to do with teaching me that it was OK to think. And even to think differently.

She taught me it was OK to notice when smart, well-educated managers did dumb things.

Perhaps most importantly, Professor Hitt gave me a license to question the data that I’m being served up, to ask where it came from, who had opportunity or reason to “cook it”, to question why we measure A and not B and to indulge my INTPness, my tendency to question everything, to analyze everything.

So, systems thinkers and others, the following “case study” I offer to you for your amusement, and trenchant analysis in memory of my late business professor, Susan Hitt, who had a lot to do with teaching me to see and think in systems.

I’d like to thank Dr. Anna Parkman for breaking the bad news of Professor Hitt’s death to me and for giving me a pre-blog “sanity check” of the words I wrote about Professor Hitt.

To see Professor Hitt’s online obituary, go to: http://www.therecorddelta.com/V2_news_articles.php?heading=0&story_id=2342&page=74

Would Professor Hitt Call These Online Retailers "Systems Thinkers"?

A certain "online retailer" ships books and DVDs and other merchandise from a huge "fulfillment center". Think of the fulfillment center as a shopping mall where thousands of personal shoppers find the merchandise consumers order, pack it and ship it.

The corrugated boxes in which orders are packed and shipped are manufactured onsite in what the online retailer calls a "Meta farm", so named because the machines that make the boxes are built by Meta Systems. There are half a dozen or so Metas in the Meta farm. Each Meta is preprogrammed to make a specific size carton. Each machine requires an operator to keep it filled with corrugate and glue, to clean out the occasional "jams", and to idle the machine when boxes of that size aren't needed. Corrugate and glue go in one end, a finished carton comes out the other. As finished cartons exit the Meta, they travel down a short conveyor where the Meta operator transfers the cartons to a much larger serpentine conveyor that carries cartons of all sizes from the Meta farm past the various packing stations where "personal shoppers" are waiting for the right size boxes in which to pack and ship orders.

Along the full length of the serpentine trolley dangle hundreds of swaying, color-coded "trolleys". Each Meta operator waits for his color trolley to clank past and on it he places the prescribed number of cartons. An orange trolley may get 3 cartons of size A, a green trolley may get 4 cartons of size B and so on. As long as the machine operators always place the the designated number of their size cartons on the trolleys that correspond to their carton size, the online retailer knows they will always make cartons in approximately the right proportions every day. During periods of low order volume the serpentine conveyor runs slowly. When order volumes are high the conveyor speed is increased.

I like to think of the serpentine conveyor as a kind of algorithm or formula that, when sped up and slowed down according to order volumes, is designed to distribute the right number of cartons, in the right proportions no matter whether order volumes are high or low.

When order volume is high and the serpentine conveyor is moving rapidly, it's all that a Meta operator can do to keep his Meta supplied with corrugate and glue, keep the machine jam-free, and load boxes onto his colored trolleys as they speed past his Meta. In fact, during periods of very high volume, the machine operators fall behind on carton production. During the time it takes to load a stack of flat corrugate into the baler or clear a jam, dozens of his colored trolleys can speed by him.

There is no redundancy in the Meta farm. If machine A is out of corrugate or jammed., production of Box A ceases because nearby machines cannot be retooled to make cartons of size A.

When packers don’t get enough boxes, orders pile up around them. When this happens, management sets up an elaborate alternative distribution system. Using temporary staff, management shuttles boxes , by hand cart, directly to the packing area. After the machine operator clears his jammed machine or gets it filled with corrugate and starts making boxes again, a temp worker grabs these boxes and stacks them onto a pallet. When the pallet is full another temp drags the pallet by handcart to the packing area to the waiting packers. Depending on how many machine operators are falling behind in production, there could be as many as half a dozen or so temps collecting, shuttling and delivering boxes.

Systems thinkers have already defined the issue here and have have rendered a verdict on whether or not the online retailer’s management is making the best use of their temps and whether their ad hoc carton shuttle solves the core problem.

The “case” I’ve described here is not fiction. I have accurately described how a real online retailer manufactures its own cartons onsite, how it distributes these cartons to the people who pack them with orders and ship them and how this online retailer’s management deploys temp workers during periods of high order volume when the packers aren't getting enough boxes.

If you are a systems thinker, you already know if this online retailer’s management are systems thinkers or not. You quickly defined the core or root problem. You rendered a judgment about this online retailer’s ad hoc shuttle distribution system and whether or not they are making the best use of their temps.

For the rest of you, here are some “discussion questions” that may help you decide if the online retailer’s management handles periods of high order volume correctly:

1. During periods of high order volume, what, exactly, is the root or core problem that needs to be solved?

2. Does redeploying temp workers to their ad hoc carton shuttle system address the core or root problem? If not, is there a way the temp workers could be deployed that would address the core or root problem?

3. Would Professor Susan Hitt call these online retailers systems thinkers?

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