Evaluating, Building, (Rebuilding), and Completing Projects

Microsoft Access Image via Wikipedia

"Failure is the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently”

Henry Ford

Being that I’m a LeanCor onsite at a major manufacturing customer, it’s necessary that I need to be a pretty punctual guy. Give me a project to complete, and I’ll have an outline put together by this afternoon, a first revision done by the next day, and a presentable conclusion in a week. Needs to include some Excel charts, maybe a pivot table or two? No problem.

Want some PowerPoint flavor? I can drop and add objects with the best of them.

But I uncovered a unique problem about a month ago that taxed my ability to do the above things. It wasn’t the lack of usable data to populate my summary. It wasn’t even a computer issue that I could blame IT on. It was simply the fact that I was required to use a piece of software that I had very little experience with, and quite frankly, a little hesitation due to the fact I would need to to coach myself on its use without any assistance from an experienced user.

Also, I almost forgot to mention, I realized that I had the above problems after volunteering to complete this rather complicated analysis. And I also agreed to have it done by a specific date in the not too distant future.

To describe how this happened, I need to explain my standard process of completing these assignments, which has been successful for me over the last several years:

  • Identify the problem
  • Document the process that is expected to be needed to solve the problem
  • Assemble the needed inputs
  • Execute the process
  • Evaluate and refine the output into a presentable format

So after taking some time to clearly articulate the need to myself, I sat down to draw out the process on a whiteboard. Everything was going very well until I found the need to compare and exclude certain records in separate Excel databases that were both of considerable (several thousand lines) size. It may have been because of a trip I took to observe our engineering department earlier in the year, but regardless of the reason I decided to take a leap of faith and give it a go using Microsoft Access. I’d always wanted to learn the tool given my proficiency and knowledge of the limitations of MS Excel, so I bought an Access book that had a lot of great reviews and decided to sit down one night to pickup on the finer points of the program.

Unfortunately, that book was about three inches thick, and because of that I was unable to glean the knowledge. I tried sifting through to find the specific sections that would give me the information necessary to put together my analysis, but due to the multiple variables and associations in the database, there was just not enough time to look into every topic and then try to figure out how they all related to each other. Strike one.

Figuring that I’d exhausted the time that I had available to allocate to book research, I turned to my next best source of Access knowledge – a friend that owed me a favor. We went out, grabbed a bite to eat, had a couple of beverages, and started on the task of loading my tables into a new Access workbook out of an Excel database. Unfortunately, once we got past the point of loading all of the pertinent information, I found out that we had exhausted the limits of his expertise, and I was on my own again. Strike two.

At this time I was feeling more and more resentful of Microsoft in general and Access in particular. Nonetheless, I gritted my teeth and cleared my calendar, determined to make the program work by blunt force if nothing else.

I sat for hours trying to navigate tables, queries, associations, and the all too common error message. I was getting nowhere fast, and my frustration began to build with every keystroke. Finally, I gave up, called it quits, and called the guy that I promised to show the final results to.

The conversation went something like this:

John – I can’t finish this, I don’t understand Access.

Jake – Where are you at with it?

John – I’ve been trying to create this association, I’ve done it, but I can’t export it to Excel. If I can’t do that, then how can I possibly finish the rest of the project in Access?

Jake – Why don’t you copy your result and paste it into Excel? The comparison is all that you needed access for, do the rest of the project in a program you’re comfortable with.

John - …

Jake – John?

John – (Bangs head on desk)

Jake – Hello?

John – (wincing with the pain of someone who missed the obvious) – Yes. That should work. I’m going to go sulk in a corner while finishing this project up and will have it to you in the morning.

And sure enough, the next day I changed direction, put the revised information back into my pet program, and had the analysis complete within a couple of hours.

Looking back over the past couple of days to evaluate where I went wrong, I realized that I had a fatal flaw to m

y approach – the inability to recognize that I could revise the plan that I had initially put together. I was assuming that I would need to do the entire project in Access, when in reality all that was needed was a basic query result that could be exported into a familiar program. Deep immersion into Access could wait for another day, at a measured pace.

The moral of the story is that sometimes even the best laid plans need to be audited for efficiency. At the moment that I got stuck I should have evaluated the time that I had remaining to finish the project, the expected complexity of the original plan, and any other alternatives to achieving my goal. Instead, I wasted countless hours on a fruitless exercise, only to go back to the program that I should have been using in the first place.

While I will continue to use the same 5 steps listed above in order to take on new challenges, there will have to be awareness that sometimes the prepared plans for a task can’t be finished in the time allotted. Similar to pulling an andon in a manufacturing center to avoid passing on a defect, these cases involve stepping back to find the root cause of a problem, analyzing for inefficiencies, taking time for correction, and finally finishing the task by producing a product that meets or exceeds expectations –

utilizing one of several other methods not previously considered.

Written by John Szoke, Lean Logistics Manager at LeanCor


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Posted by LeanCor Supply Chain Group

LeanCor Supply Chain Group is a trusted supply chain partner that specializes in lean principles to deliver operational improvement. LeanCor’s three integrated divisions – LeanCor Training and Education, LeanCor Consulting, and LeanCor Logistics – help organizations eliminate waste, drive down costs, and build a culture of continuous improvement.

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