Change in Pressure

I've been thinking about change over the years. Obviously some things keep coming around. For example, about thirty years ago President Carter inaugurated the Voluntary Truck and Bus Fuel Economy Program in response to the doubling of the price of diesel fuel. This program funded breakthroughs in fuel efficiency for big rigs and buses, and here we are again, thirty years later.

Technology has certainly changed. But the impact is not from the technology itself. There is one overriding change in the last 25-30 years. You might think it is computers and you'd be partly right. You might think it is about software, networking or the Internet, and you'd also be partly right. It is indirectly about all these things.

To give you a sample of the greatest change, I want to recount some details from a few recent classes I taught. The first class was on maintenance planning and scheduling in Kingston, Jamaica. It was in the autumn of 2006, just before Thanksgiving. The attendees represented industries ranging from mining to resort maintenance and from government to food processing.

There were three women in the group (which in itself is a big change since 1977), and most of the attendees had college degrees (that would also be a big change since 1977). They were grappling with high energy costs (some things do seem to keep coming back) and an almost constant pressure to improve performance with fewer people and lower MRO inventories. I believe that the details of the pressure on middle management have changed, but there were pressures in 1977 to be sure. Anyone who says it was easier then was probably not in a leadership role then.

During the coffee breaks and meals people jumped onto their cell phones and called their offices, wives, girlfriends and, who knows, a few might have been talking to their bookies. A good number wandered over to the atrium where they could get a wireless signal and checked their e-mail and surfed.

The second class was on maintenance management in Singapore just a week later. The attendees were more skewed toward oil and sophisticated manufacturing. Attendees were from China, Malaysia, Vietnam and Singapore.

The single biggest complaint that this group discussed was the constant pressure to reduce the cost per unit of manufacturing. So the oil guys were struggling to lower the maintenance cost per barrel and the wafer guys were trying to reduce the maintenance cost per wafer. Everybody was trying to increase the yield of what ever their facility did.

The coffee breaks were the same as in Jamaica, with people running to use their cells and laptops. They were also sharing spreadsheets, and discussing various points about their home-brewed analysis of the data. One guy had a really cool report back in his office, and he had someone from the office e-mail the report to him. Using his jump drive he gave out copies to a few managers who saw a need and who thought they could use that approach. I also got a cool photograph of a stupid maintenance trick (which I collect and display—without names, of course).

Both groups seem pretty typical for the times. But is all this amazing technology the true fundamantal change in the way we do business? I'll give you the real answer in my next column—it's probably not what you expect!

To be continued...