Tag Archives: Asking Questions

“I Fight for the Users!” – What Tron Taught Me about Serving Customers

A Review of the Movies

In the Disney movies Tron and Tron: Legacy, the character for whom the movies are named famously declares, “I Fight for the Users!” In the world those movies create, the Tron character is passionately loyal to the humans who designed and use the computer program. It’s been a few years since Tron: Legacy came out, so here’s a short clip to remember the movie:

Tron - UserYouTube – Tron Recognizes a User

Toward the end of the clip, Tron (also known as Rinzler) sees his opponent bleed and realizes that his opponent is a user (human). Because of his loyalty to users, Tron refrains from killing the human. At the end of the movie, Tron sacrifices himself to save the humans from being killed:

Tron - I fight for the UsersYouTube – Tron Realizes He Fights for the Users

The reason I’m fascinated by Tron’s loyalty to the users is that my supply chain should have equal loyalty to the customers. In all our efforts to fight waste and inefficiencies, we should boldly declare, like Tron, “I Fight for the Customers.” For some reason, however, I often ignore or stop paying attention to the voice of the customer and find myself fighting against, instead of for, the customer.

Voice of the Customer and Putting Away Christmas Decorations

A poignant example of ignoring the voice of the customer happened recently while I was putting away my home’s Christmas decorations. The Christmas lights are especially time-consuming to neatly organize, so I instead gathered everything into a giant ball and stuffed it into a plastic bin. I just wanted to get done as quickly as possible, so I told myself,” I’ll deal with untangling this mess next year.”

However, this is exactly what a good supply chain shouldn’t do. I’m creating a local optimum (putting away my decorations as quickly as possible) that will cause pain to my customer (in this case, me in 11 months). Since I am my own customer, I know the voice of the customer quite well. I remember untangling the lights just weeks before, and I know exactly what I should do to please the customer. I don’t though. Since it’s a hard task and it pays off now to just throw everything into a box, I do the minimum to get the job done when I could increase customer satisfaction.

“I Fight for the Customer”

This same type of local optimization occurs every day along the supply chain. As we get busy or deadlines get scrunched, we naturally reduce the effort we put into pleasing our customers. Whether it’s our internal customers or the end consumer, it’s easy to forget that how we stack a pallet or design a product can negatively affect our customer down the line.

Each day, I need to repeat “I Fight for the Customer” throughout process improvement and Kaizen efforts. As you and I battle inefficiencies and reduce waste, we should have the same natural instinct to stop what we’re doing when it threatens customer satisfaction. For example, I can reduce airspace in packaging boxes, but as soon as my product’s quality is compromised from being too tightly packaged, that’s the blood that should force me to rethink my initiative.

The Empty Chair at Amazon.com

In the early days of Amanzon.com, Jeff Bezos, CEO and customer service champion, reserved an empty chair at all important meetings. He told his team that the chair was reserved for the most important person in the company – the customer. He asked everyone to imagine the customer was sitting there and to keep her in mind in throughout all their decisions. Later, Bezos hired someone to sit in the chair and passionately represent the voice of the customer. This practice helped to guard Amazon against any initiatives that didn’t help its users, and kept everyone’s thoughts centered on who kept them in business.

How Can I Better Fight for the Customer?

What ways can you better proclaim “I Fight for the Customer” in your supply chain? Here are some questions to consider:

  • Do I have adequate channels that bring the voice of the customer to me?
  • Do I frequently review how process changes affect the customer?
  • Do I address both the external and internal customer experience in all major meetings?
  • How can everyone in my organization feel closer to our customers?
  • How can I prioritize initiatives more closely to fit customer needs?
  • How can I better share my voice, as well as my customers’ voices, with my vendors?

By bringing the customer back into focus with your daily efforts, your organization can better solve the needs of those that keep you in business. Building the resolve to fight for the users of your product and services will result in a more loyal and pleased customer base.

Getting Started with Big Data in a Small Business

Data Analyst Sheriff Badge
Better data leads to better decisions, especially in supply chain and operations. Unfortunately, most small businesses don’t have enough analysts (or any at all) who can comb through databases to provide data-backed recommendations. In fact, that number crunching responsibility often falls to the operations team, who may not have much experience analyzing big data. Perhaps you are in a similar position. You recognize the need for more data in your decisions, but accessing that information seems a bit daunting. If so, then here are three easy levels of data-crunching proficiency that will help you earn your data analyst sheriff badge.

Level 1 – Pivot Tables

If you need to analyze a large, pre-made table of data, then you should to start with a pivot table. Microsoft Excel’s pivot table tool is the data analyst’s faithful and reliable six-shooter. It can handle almost any problem a set of data brings your way. Pivot tables allow you to transform a set of data into an easy-to-rearrange and organized summary grid. The grid of information it produces helps you quickly find patterns, trends, and outliers. In fact, when you hear the words “slice and dice,” you should instantly think pivot tables.

Pivot Tables in Excel

Most people I’ve met who have yet to use pivot tables just don’t know how to start. The easiest way to learn is to just jump in and play around with one in Excel. You can find lots of good online tutorials and videos that will get you up to speed with pivot tables in less than 15 minutes. For example, here’s a seven-minute YouTube video that does a great job at walking through the basics: Microsoft Excel Pivot Table Tutorial for Beginners – Excel 2003, 2007, 2010

Once you feel comfortable manipulating data someone else has provided, then you can take the next step and access the data yourself.

Level 2 – Database Queries

For many small businesses, the challenge with data often lies in how to access your own database. Depending on your accounting  or ERP system, the exact technique will vary. However, you can usually access most small business systems easily through Excel’s Microsoft Query tool. For your exact system, run a web search for “how to access QuickBooks database in excel”, replacing “QuickBooks” with your own system’s name. Most systems will have an ODBC driver, which basically means it has the ability to be queried by outside programs such as Microsoft Excel.

How to Access your Database if it has an ODBC Driver

If your system uses an ODBC driver, then the query process is straightforward. In Excel, go to Data > From Other Sources > From Microsoft Query

Bringing Data Into Excel 1

A list will appear of available databases. Choose the one you want to query and press OK. Below I chose the connection for our Sage 100 database (formerly known as Sage Mas 90 or 200). If you don’t recognize the name of your database, you may need to search the web a little more.

Bringing Data Into Excel 2

Next, you’ll want to select the fields and tables you want in your report. You’ll need to pick fields from tables that are linked together in order to pull the items correctly. It may require some trial and error, as well as some research into how your database is structured.

Bringing Data Into Excel 3

After selecting the fields, the query wizard gives you a few options to filter and sort your data. However, you can access more advanced query options by manipulating your query in the Microsoft Query program. On the last page of the Query Wizard, select that option and press Finish.

Bringing Data Into Excel 4

Inside Microsoft Query, you can add additional filter criteria, table links, and column labels.

Bringing Data Into Excel 5

Once you’ve fine-tuned your query to just what you want, click the “Return Data” button (the one with an arrow pointing to a door by the “Save” button). This will bring the data you’ve selected back into Excel.

Once I learned how to access our company’s database, I began running dozens of queries each day. This helped tremendously, and I learned a great deal from the data. However, I eventually reached the limits of what Microsoft Query could offer. To go further, I had to learn a bit of Structured Query Language, or SQL (pronounced “sequel”), to get the answers I needed.

Level 3 – Advanced Queries with SQL

For some strange reason, I was more eager to learn French in high school than computer code, despite the fact that I query databases much more frequently than I ask which café has the best baguette. Luckily, SQL is very easy to learn (there’s definitely no conjugation or verb tenses).

Although Microsoft Query and Microsoft Access have great query-building interfaces, knowing a bit of SQL can empower you to do much more. SQL functions allow you to manipulate or summarize data as you pull it from the database. SQL also will allow you to make advanced links that might give you data hard to get at any other way. Accordingly, even a little SQL will quickly empower you to more efficiently and effectively get the answers you need. SQL is also the language you’ll use to connect your database with most outside SaaS modules and programs. Knowing SQL can help make implementing such add-ons much easier and cheaper.

The best part of SQL is that you can learn most of what you need to query big data in an afternoon. I recommend Sams Teach Yourself SQL in 10 Minutes. Each lesson actually takes about 10-15 minutes, and after about twenty lessons, you’ll know everything you need to build advance database queries. The book also starts at the very basics, which is great for operations people like me who don’t have a computer science degree.

No matter what the next step is, each of these levels will help you to make data more accessible for your company. With more data, you’ll quickly be making better, fact-based decisions to meet your goals and improve your supply chain.

Three Silver Bullets to Solve (and Raise Red Flags on) Nearly Every Supply Chain Fire

This past Wednesday, I was presented with a problem. “Alex, your team needs to unpackage, relabel, and repackaged 10,000 of these items by noon Friday.” The product needed a warning label that we just barely learned was required by law. Running on our smallest possible staff, my team suddenly had a mountainous challenge before us that years ago would have kept me up at night worrying. However, I slept just fine because I knew we could handle the challenge with one of my three secret weapons. In fact, I’ve learned that I can solve nearly any supply chain fire with one or more of three things:

  1. Air Freight
  2. Temporary Workers
  3. A Rotary Drill

I initially put together this list as a joke. Executives would approach me with a problem, to which I would reply, “it’s nothing air freight, temps, or a rotary drill can’t solve,” and suddenly the stress of the problem decreased. I still don’t completely rely on these three silver bullets as the solution to any problem. However, with these three tools, my team has conquered surprisingly large amounts of fires that our small supply chain faces.

Perhaps more importantly than taking the stress out of emergencies, these three silver bullets also serve as a signal that our processes have room for improvement. Throwing money at a fire through expedited freight and increased payroll is a sign of deeper problems. Nevertheless, when 10,000 items need to relabeled in the next 36 hours, I need to solve the immediate blaze with whatever I can before backing up to prevent future sparks.

Silver Bullet One – Air or Expedited Freight

Silver Bullet One - Air Freight

Air freight is a needed miracle in modern supply chains. When problems arise, switching to faster shipping can save the day by cutting lead times from distant suppliers significantly. Those precious extra days can help capture last minute sales opportunities and help avoid expensive stock outs. Recently my company learned that one of our products was scheduled to ship to twice as many retail stores than originally planned. We had purchased inventory according to the original forecast, which would be insufficient to meet the new demand. However, by air freighting in product that was just finishing production in China, we were able to fulfill the order and capture the extra revenue. The higher shipping costs took some margin, but the ability to prevent three or four weeks of stock outs was well worth the cost. Realizing that I have an expedited restocking option has helped me reduce my safety stock and keep my company’s inventory investments smaller.

Another problem I often face is large customers needing product before we have it. We’ll tell customers that the launch date for a product is May 15, but then the customer will send a purchase order for an April 25 delivery. We often push back, but sometimes the customer will simply cancel the order if we cannot meet the date. Enter air freight again to save the day.

Although air freight can help your company get through a variety of tight spots, it’s not a good habit to constantly use it. Each time we’re forced to use air freight, it’s an expensive red flag telling us that we need to improve our systems, vendor performance, or customer relations. Nevertheless, expedited freight is an excellent tool to combat supply chain uncertainty.

Silver Bullet Two – Temporary Workers

Temporary Workers

When emergencies blaze out of control, we instinctively call in reinforcements. Dealing in consumer products, I’ve had countless experiences of relabeling, repackaging, and reworking product days or hours before it needs to ship. Often the rework could have been easily avoided months ago from simple communication or error proofing. However, problems slip through insufficient safety nets, and suddenly I’m flying to an offsite warehouse to oversee emergency rework for an urgent order.

Some time back, we had a large promotion ready to ship to one of our top customers. It was in our offsite warehouse prepared to ship the next day. As I reviewed the pictures of the product to confirm everything was good to go, I noticed some unfamiliar labels on the carton. I inquired for more detail and found that although the outside carton labels were correct, the inside product had incorrect barcodes. Over 70,000 products needed new barcode stickers put on them – and they still needed to ship within the next day or two. I jumped on the next flight and assembled a team of 18 temporary workers to help. We quickly created a system to move through the pallets and relabel the products. It was August, and the heat made me sweat almost as much as our looming deadline. However, thanks to my 18 new friends and my assistant who made sure I ate and took breaks, we were able to complete the project in less than 24 hours and ship the entire order on time.

Using temporary workers for unexpected fires is a clear red flag that upstream processes need help. However, as stated at the beginning of this article, knowing that calling in a few extra people can easily solve the problem takes much of the stress out of supply chain firefighting. Using temporary workers consistently may also be a sign that you may need more permanent additions to your staff.

Silver Bullet Three – A Rotary Drill

Rotary Drill

Originally not part of the silver bullet arsenal, a rotary drill in the right hands can solve major problems or inefficiencies in just minutes. It’s my weapon of choice with hands-on problem solving because of its versatility. With a rotary drill (and other tools), my team has built holders, pegs, product paths, and jigs that have often quadrupled production speed. Rather than accepting a process as just slow, a few minutes or hours of building additional tools, holders, or aids can skyrocket efficiency.

For example, as we manufactured one of our products, we needed somewhere to put the small raw materials before they were processed. Laying them next to the worker often resulted in a slight breeze blowing the very light material off the table. Additionally, the worker spent more time aligning the pieces on the machine than actually using the machine. Enter the rotary tool.

By creating a board with nails to put each piece on, we could drastically reduce the time it took to align the raw material on the machine. Putting it on a nail would allow it to stay aligned the entire time. The problem was that the nails were rough and would often snag the materials to create defects. Rather than complain and brainstorm different solutions, we just grabbed the rotary tool and smoothed down the nails. Suddenly, the entire operation was running smoothly, and much quicker than before.. Building small, creative tools – even if they’re not perfect at first – can save loads of dollars and hours.

Think While You Reload

As you remove the spent cartridges from your silver bullet six shooter, think about what could have prevented you from pulling the trigger. Every good Western movie needs a shootout, but the best supply chain cowboys I know avoid pulling the trigger altogether. Each time you resort to air freight or temporary workers think about how you could have solved the problem further upstream. The rotary tool may not raise the same number of red flags since it often helps create better processes, but sometimes I also use it as a last-resort solution that could have been solved earlier on.

A good way to improve is to hold a quick meeting each time you fire a silver bullet solutions. Five minutes addressing three questions could prevent future shots:

  1. Why were we forced to us a silver bullet solution to solve this fire?
  2. What could we have done to prevent this fire?
  3. What will we do differently next time?

A quick meeting with answers to these questions, combined with action items, will improve your processes and help you build up fire prevention measures.

What other silver bullet solutions do you have in your arsenal? Please share yours in a comment below, and don’t forget to subscribe to future articles.

Problems are Gold to be Treasured

Lean Quote Roundup

In his excellent book The Remedy, Pascal Dennis gives this beneficial advice on improvement:

“Problems are gold to be treasured, not garbage to be buried. Problems are the process talking to us, telling us where our management system is weakest. We need to use our stethoscopes to probe deeper, get to the root cause, and fix it. It we tune out problems, we’re lost.”

I love the mental image this quote produces. Treasuring problems is completely unnatural in most organizations. Problems in a business are like weaknesses in a sports team. A sports team’s fans don’t want to admit the team has any faults, but unless the team’s coach recognizes and addresses the weaknesses, they’ll never win the championship. Certainly, we all want to see our companies win, but we must be coaches, not just fans, to help them improve.

Problems are Gold to be Treasured

A healthy exercise to begin treasuring problems, and finding solutions, is a problem brainstorm. Gather your team around and spend 20 minutes listing all the problems and emergencies you have experienced in the last month. I like to use post-it notes for every idea so I can easily rearrange them, but a whiteboard also works well. Once you have a thorough list of problems, begin organizing them into main categories. “We ran out on item Z”, “we have way too much of item Y”, and “we had to expedite inbound shipments of item X” may all be grouped together into one category of “Inventory Management Problems,” or they may represent three different categories based on your circumstances. Usually, 80% of the issues fall into just a few categories, while the remaining 20% are outlying concerns.

The next step is to begin analyzing the common root cause of the problems in each category. I recommend the 5 Whys technique to dig deep into the problem’s origin. This will probably extend beyond the initial brainstorm meeting. A good analysis often takes an uncomfortable amount of honest thought and analysis. Often the instinct of self-defense drives us to hide problems. Focusing on solutions rather than blame can help break down obstacles hiding true problems.

The concept of listening to problems as the key to improvement has many other applications outside of business. Rather than ignoring problems with ourselves or relationships with others, we can instead use a stethoscope and learn the real reason for the trouble. Ignoring problems rarely leads to real and meaningful solutions. However, the reward for investing the effort to learn and enact appropriate solutions highlights the value of problems.

What are your thoughts? Add your comment below or subscribe to future posts.

The Three-year-old Why Technique

Giant problems often appear to need giant solutions. However, honest analysis and investigation usually points to something small that nobody thought of. This small oversight upstream often results in the fire downstream. For example, thousands of products can have an incorrect barcode because the packaging designer didn’t have a good proofreading process. While the giant solution of relabeling all the products may be needed to fix the immediate problem, a two-minute process upstream could avoid future problems. To find the root cause of an emergency, I often use the 5 Whys technique, which helps get down to the bottom of what caused the current problem by asking “why?” repeatedly. However, I think most companies need another technique to catch problems before they turn into emergencies. I call this method the Three-year-old Why Technique.

Profound Questions by Three-Year-Olds

Girl Asking "Why?"

Whenever I talk with a child age three to five, I usually hear several “Why?” questions. From reading a couple online articles about the subject, I’ve learned that this behavior is most likely children’s method of both learning and capturing attention. However, the part of this behavior that always surprises me is the profound questions that children stumble upon simply by questioning everything. “Why do I have to sleep?” “Why can’t we eat grass?” “Why do we eat with forks?” These questions likely helped neuroscientists, biologists, and anthropologists earn tenure by publishing deep scientific responses. These questions also leave me with a much different question of myself: Why don’t I still ask ‘why?’ question? Most likely, my sense of wonder and curiosity has taken a back seat to the demands of meetings, action items, and everyday operations. Yet, when I am able to take a few minutes to ask, I usually stumble upon an opportunity to improve.

Relearning to Ask Why

One time that many of us ask a great deal of questions is when we start a new job. Trying to learn the duties of a new position is stressful, but the questions I ask often highlight opportunities for the department to improve. Each ‘why?’ question gives my manager an opportunity to reflect on the answer and validate the reasoning. Without fail, I eventually receive an answer that I love to hear: “I’m not sure why. That’s just the way we’ve always done it.” To a process engineer, this is the low hanging fruit to improve the company. But how do we find those golden answers? In order to find improvement opportunities before problems erupt, you must ask questions without a reason to ask. This is hard, especially with a long To-Do list of urgent initiatives. Perhaps stepping back every hour or two and asking, “why am I doing this?” is the easiest way to get started. Eventually, it will become a habit of questioning processes and decisions. As many parents of three-year-olds will warn, the key is to always be optimistic and never become annoying.

The Goal Answer

The goal of your questions should be a response such as “I don’t know. That’s just the way we’ve always done it” or something similar. Alternatively, there may be a logical answer, but the circumstances have changed. For example, “Why do we use this supplier?” “Because when our company started four years ago, they were our neighbors and were willing to give us great credit terms.” Loyalty is important, but if your company has moved across the country and you need better prices, it’s probably worth some analysis.


The following is a table of questions I’ve asked before that may help you start thinking.


Possible Improvements if Answer Unknown

Why do we use this specific supplier? Opportunity to save money, improve service, or improve quality
Why is our warehouse organized this way? Opportunity to improve efficiency or capacity
Why do we track this data on a spreadsheet and not in our database? Opportunity to improve information sharing
Why do we have our garbage picked up (or another service) so often? Opportunity to save money
Why don’t we look at this data when we make decisions? Opportunity to increase customer service, efficiency, or quality
Why is everyone in this meeting? Opportunity to maximize people’s time

Final Thoughts

Now, I do not recommend just questioning everything all day. Too many questions can sometimes hinder us from moving forward. I certainly don’t advocate questions to stir up commotion. Rather, I believe questions are an underutilized tool in a quest for solutions. Start asking a few unprovoked questions and see where they lead. Reach for quick wins with the limited time you have. The most rewarding questions fireproof processes so they’ll never erupt into emergencies, which will give you more time to improve your processes. If you find you just don’t have time to ask “why”, perhaps you can consider adding a three-year-old to your staff.

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Image: © Vladacanon | Stock Free Images & Dreamstime Stock Photos