Time for Value Added Engineering

Ford Adopts Focus Time – Detroit News

By Andy Wagner:

I have blogged before on the inefficiency of multi-tasking and the virtues of more single-piece flow in the engineering environment. Judging by this article, it looks like somebody at Ford Motor has been listening.

“Here’s a novel idea for Dearborn: Ford Motor Co. is giving its engineers two days a week to do nothing but engineer. That means no meetings, no design reviews, no other distractions — just designing new cars and trucks.”

In his last years prior to retiring from Ford, my dad probably complained more about the endless meetings than any other single aspect of the company. After 37-years, he had his share of complaints, so that’s saying something.

It seems to be endemic in companies that manage by results instead of managing by process, that they are endlessly meeting and reporting out. In my experience, every report out two-levels up in the organization, requires a separate meeting with the leaders one-level up to review what’s going to be said. Instead of focusing on getting the work done, getting the right resources in place and taking down barriers to execution, emphasis is put on pretty charts and status report after status report.

I speak out at work about the ratio of value add to non-value add in terms of our meetings and project tracking specifically, but its a difficult case to make. The meetings allow our managers to feel like they are involved and “doing something” to move projects forward. This is particularly necessary when so many of them are located remotely. Often they underestimate the cost of tracking spreadsheets, databases, and PowerPoint.

What should they be doing? Much like lean on the factory floor, engineering managers need to understand their team’s process. They need to understand how things are functioning as a system. Why does it take so long to perform an analysis? Because information isn’t available. Why not?

The status of this or that project is not significant. The function of the department as a whole is. You might have to get into the weeds of a specific project in order to understand the failures of the process, but it’s important for management to understand that receiving a weekly status update and responding with exhortations to do better is not leading. Finding the wasteful patterns across the organization and rooting them out systemically, managing the means of performance, not the results-that’s where leadership shines.

From what I’ve heard from my dad, Ford has had meeting paralysis for several years now. Two days per week to focus on the job at hand could be a great relief at the working level, and a definite morale boost for a white-collar work force that’s been decimated by lay-offs and defections. If the folks in Dearborn are lucky, ‘focus time’ also represents the beginnings of a culture change to an environment where adding value to their product is more important than being perceived as adding value.

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Andy Wagner works for a major aerospace company. Andy blogged here from 2007 to 2010.

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