The black box


Where to begin? How to proceed? Go or No-Go? When to stop? Without the answers to such questions, any project or activity design will be very ineffective indeed. Asking these questions is one thing, filling in the blanks and providing a roadmap to follow is another. Finally, we need to follow the roadmap to arrive where we want to be and find ways to review and adjust our course every now and then. Plan the journey first and then follow the plan is the principle to follow. Process flow is an important part of management and process flow design is an art by itself. Entire theories exist about process flow and many design programs have been developed to allow for efficiency, be it for the production of goods, decision making processes or for traffic for that matter. Point of departure however always is to know exactly what the desired end-product is and how to get there. The process of how to get from the beginning to the end is often described as the “black box” because very few people know the precise details of the production process. And yet, the way in which the process flow is designed will determine whether or not the process is efficient and leads to the desired results. Planning, technology and skills are critical aspects of effective and efficient process flow and it is here where we often fail. Ineffective planning leads to inefficient use or even waste of resources, including workers, materials, time and money, while sub standard technology and skills lead to poor quality. The combination of poor planning and sub-standard technology and skills is disastrous.
Process flow is about one phase of a certain process flowing smoothly into the next, like in a supply chain or in a value chain. A chain is as strong as its weakest link so if one link breaks, the entire process is disrupted as is seen for example when a mechanical problem of an aircraft results in the loss of its entire freight, which consisted of perishable goods destined to Europe and could not wait to be transported.
The construction industry provides another example of what happens when phases in the building process are not well planned and coordinated. I visited a real estate project the other day and while entering some of the nearly completed mansions, the results of inefficient planning and coordination can be noticed immediately. The walls are plastered and painted before the plumbing and electric wiring is completed. As a result, the plumbers and electricians begin breaking the walls again to do their part. It is clear, that covering up the damage thus done will not be as smooth as it was before, while large parts of the walls are covered with hand and finger prints left behind by the workers. An additional paint job needs to be done as a result. The painters in their turn fail to free the electricity sockets while painting the walls, leaving the sockets full of spilled paint. I could go on, but the point is that a lot of time, material and money is lost unnecessary.
Now, I am no expert in farming, but I guess there is room for improvement in the production processes here as well. We are over hundred million people now, who all need to eat. The farming techniques of years ago will thus not be sufficient anymore calling for a change in planning and techniques, which need to result in more production per acre of land. Early preparation of the land and modern intensive farming techniques will help and planning-ahead is essential. And once you have a good plan, it is possible to make adjustments on the way, as the plan would include assumptions, risks and ways to mitigate those risks.
I’d like to challenge the reader to take a look at his or her own business and especially into the critical process flows of the business. Try and answer the following questions:
Are you clear about what the end result of your production process should like in terms of quality and quantity? As the business owner you should know exactly what your business objectives are.
Do you know the details of the process or is it a black box for you? You should at least have a basic understanding of the production process.
Is the process well designed in terms of efficiency and effectiveness? Is there much wastage? Does it take too long? Are machines and workers idle for much of the time? Is it expensive?
What can be done to make the process more efficient and more effective?
Now begin to plan for improvements and make the black box transparent.