Friday, April 25, 2008

How to get better ideas... and more of them!

Here is advice from Wired Magazine on how to improve your brainpower.
- Have a learning plan. Think about what you need to know and focus your efforts on the highest value information that is easiest to learn.
- When memorizing facts, mix them up and set timers to randomly distract you during your memorizing.
- Regular aerobic exercise is vital... even walking works, and practice good breathing.
- Limit caffeine but keep a pretty steady stream of it in small amounts throughout the day
- Figure out and use your learning style, whether it be visual, kinesthetic, listening, or tactile.
Other comments follow the article links below:

Get Smarter: 12 Hacks That Will Amp Up Your Brainpower
1: Distract Yourself -- this is possibly a good approach for memorizing but seems hard to do.
2: Caffeinate With Care -- good advice; one cup of coffee a day followed by small, regular doses
3: Choose Impressive Information -- interesting idea... memorize useful and easy facts
4: Think Positive -- great advice for learners: a virtuous cycle!
5: Do the Right Drugs -- huh?
6: Juice Your IQ Score -- good advice that ties with 3 and 4
7: Know Your Brain -- exactly how does this help?
8: Don't Panic -- right on... how do we not panic? If you do, know your IQ plummets.
9: Embrace Chaos -- mix up things to make them somehow easier to remember.. counter intuitive.
10: Get Visual -- for visual learners, a big YES
11: Exercise Wisely -- breathing and aerobics... the brain uses a disproportionate amount (20%) of the oxygen in your blood, so improving your cardio-vascular system will help your brain.
12: Slow Down -- good advice for improving reading comprehension, but practice at reading quickly does work, so aim for the optimal: 500 wpm according to the article.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Titanic Mistake

This photo of the Titanic under construction comes from the NY Times article describing a recent discovery concerning the sinking of the great ship. The Titanic was designed to be unsinkable, yet it sunk on its maiden voyage. The discovery shows why the Titanic sunk from striking an iceberg, and why it sunk so quickly, taking so many with her.

In the article, reported by William J. Broad, research by Jennifer Hooper McCarty and others shows the cause of the disastrous sinking was faulty rivets located in the bow. A transition from iron rivets to steel rivets was underway in shipbuilding of the times, and steel was the newly preferred, stronger material. Steel rivets were used in the areas designers felt it was most needed, in the main hull, but not in the bow nor stern. Iron rivets were specified, and there were shortages. A lower grade iron rivet was used in the Titanic, as demonstrated in samples recovered from the ship. When compared to standard wrought iron, there is up to three times the inclusions, or trapped slag, in the iron. Inclusions make the steel weaker, providing fracture paths for failure propagation.

How could this be? This was a premium luxury liner of the time and there were cheap rivets? It is a story of a crisis with seeds in decisions far removed from the chilly arctic where the Titanic lays today. In an earlier post, I described a model for a crisis with an adverse outcome:

- An initial problem, often minor in isolation, that goes uncorrected
-A subsequent problem that compounds the effect of the initial problem
- An inept corrective effect
- Disbelief at the accelerating seriousness of the situation
- Generally, an attempt to hide the truth about what is going on while an attempt is made at remediation
- Sudden recognition that the situation is out of control or “in extremis
- Finally, the ultimate disaster scenario involving significant loss of life, financial resources, or both, and ultimately, the recriminations.

* Initial problem: material shortages. There were three huge ships being built at the same time and materials and labor were in short supply. Iron rivets were substituted for steel and used in the bow.

* Subsequent problem compounding the initial one: the proper iron rivets were not ordered (due to a shortage?) and the ones received had inclusions, weakening them. They came from smaller forge shops not normally used by the shipbuilder.

* Corrective Effect: There was none that we know because the iron rivets were not tested and found to be weaker than required. The Board of Trade stopped inspecting iron rivets at the time, deciding they were a mature technology and the focus went to steel.

* Disbelief at the accelerating seriousness: this had to occur the night the Titanic hit an iceberg. Due to the weaker rivets, the Titanic literally fell apart at the seams in the bow, allowing water to rush in and sinking the ship faster than anyone could respond.

* The final disaster scenario: the sinking of the Titanic with all the loss of life and property associated with it.

Interestingly, denial and recriminations persist to this day. When asked about the research findings, the shipbuilder, "Harland and Wolff, after its long silence, now rejects the charge. 'There was nothing wrong with the materials,' Joris Minne, a company spokesman, said last week. Mr. Minne noted that one of the sister ships, the Olympic, sailed without incident for 24 years, until retirement. (The Britannic sank in 1916 after hitting a mine.)"

The Titanic rests at the bottom of the Atlantic, with six slits in its bow. The slits replace seams once held closed by iron rivets, and the slits stop where the steel rivets hold the seams together still.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Total Productive Maintenance

Many companies implementing lean manufacturing work on improving their equipment uptime. When equipment breaks down or stops, it injects variation into the process causing downstream inventory fluctuations and quality problems. When eliminating variation, eliminating machine downtime is a key step. One way to address equipment down time is through implementing Total Productive Maintenance, or TPM. TPM is a systemic approach to maintenance with the goal of maximizing overall equipment effectiveness, OEE. OEE is the product of availability, quality, and performance. Availability is defined as operating time divided by planned production time. Quality is defined as good pieces divided by total pieces. Performance is defined as the number of total pieces per unit operating time divided by the ideal run rate. OEE is the product of these figures, availability x quality x performance. One of TPM’s objectives is to increase OEE, thus reducing systemic variation in the process.

There are three phases to implementing TPM: the first phase is training people and gathering data, the second phase is to cure breakdowns and micro-stops (equipment stops less than 5 minutes), and the third phase is prevention of future breakdowns. Phase 1 involves collecting data on the current status of equipment uptime or OEE. It also involves training maintenance professionals and equipment operators in TPM philosophy and actions required. The best training results in a change in mindsets among the team. The team comes to realize the importance of the goal of increasing OEE and knows their part in doing so.

Next, the team works to implement curative actions. Here, equipment is brought up to par with new equipment, or better. All major systems are reviewed and upgraded, new or rebuilt components are installed to cure breakdowns. Data is collected on micro stops, and systems are put in place to minimize these small disruptions. This is where TPM makes the most impact, by measuring and addressing micro stops, capacity is uncovered and the manufacturing system performs closer to ideal.

Once downtime is reduced and equipment is running stably, a prevention phase begins. Here 5S activities (workplace organization) are key to maintaining the improvements set in phase 2 of TPM. Maintenance schedules should be established and reviewed periodically to ensure preventive measures are effectively supporting the new OEE. Here, too, effective teams review and revise their maintenance activities to ensure continued improvement.

Implementing the three phases of TPM sounds like a lot of work... or it should. TPM is an investment; it takes time, money, and expertise to implement. It pays dividends in improved quality, better delivery, lower inventory, and reduced need for capital. For the lean enterprise, TPM is a necessity.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Happy E-Day!

Today is E-Day, short for Engineer's-Day, a day of celebration at my Alma mater, the Colorado School of Mines. The fireworks shown are from the 1984 version of E-day, when I was a senior. E-Day goes back to 1927 when Mines held it's first E-Day. The celebration is steeped in tradition and pride, as shown from this quote from the Mines site, referring to the 2000 E-Day brochure: "One thing that has remained the same through E-Days of past, present, and the future, is the weekend starts with the most spectacular fireworks show in the state and ends with seniors graduating a month later to become the best engineers the world has to offer." There were only 65 graduates that year of the first E-Day, and they studied mineral engineering: Metal Mining, Metallurgy, Geology, and Petroleum Engineering.

Mines grew a lot over the years, and now is the leading engineering school for a wide variety of mineral engineering and related disciplines. I have always respected the intellectual rigor of Mines and its students. The depth and breadth of curriculum is impressive by any standard. There has always been a very conservative, traditional air about the school. Now I hear about a new program that was recently announced, a Minor in Humanitarian Engineering. This is surely a new Mines... one that is taking on new challenges this generation feels passionately about. Here, engineering students take design and humanities courses to prepare them to implement improvements or alleviate vulnerabilities in under served communities in the developing world. What a great way to get the best and brightest out there making a true difference.

I proudly graduated in 1984, and to commemorate, I pulled this photo off the Mines website: This year, to celebrate E-Day, we're hosting a get-together for any other alumni and their guests here in Western North Carolina. Click here for details. I hope to see many Miners!

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Reflections of a Leader... Updated

We live in the Information Age. We have Information Technology, Chief Information Officers, Information Security, Information Systems, and an Information Economy. The economy shifted away from the traditional manufacturing base that made America an industrial powerhouse. I remember as a child, while riding in our Chevrolet, listening to the radio and hearing he jingle: “GM, mark of excellence!” GM had over 50% of the American market for automobiles then, and things were good. Here is what Alfred Sloan, Jr., former leader of GM, said in his book, My Years With General Motors:

“It is clear from the events and ideas I have described that my generation had an opportunity unique in the history of American industry. When we started in business, the automobile was a new product, and the large-scale corporation was a new type of business organization. We knew that the product had a great potential, but I can hardly say that any of us, at the beginning, realized the extent to which the automobile would transform the United States and the world, reshape the entire economy, call new industries into being, and alter the pace and style of everyday life.” -- Alfred Sloan, Jr.

Fast forward to 2008... Let’s do a find & replace on this passage, replacing automobiles with computers, and let’s replace new with monolithic. Perhaps Mr. Jobs or Gates will write this some day:

It is clear from the events and ideas I have described that my generation had an opportunity unique in the history of American industry. When we started in business, the computer was a monolithic product, and the large-scale corporation was a monolithic type of business organization. We knew that the product had a great potential, but I can hardly say that any of us, at the beginning, realized the extent to which the computer would transform the United States and the world, reshape the entire economy, call new industries into being, and alter the pace and style of everyday life.

Today, computers and information play a central role in the economy, in business, in the production of goods and services, including automobiles. While GM led the way to building great wealth through large organizations with huge economies of scale, the computer ushers in an age of building wealth through information exchange. Economies of scale come from mass customization, not mass production. Successful, lean manufacturers know this and know how to use information to their advantage.
Lean manufacturers produce what customers order, not what the forecast says. Raw materials are pulled through the manufacturing operation, and oftentimes the supplier gets paid when the final product is completed. Automated replenishment systems ensure outages are a thing of the past. Often the lean enterprise is the only enterprise left, and American manufacturers have that message. But there is an area of lean manufacturing that remains a big problem for American companies, and it ties to information: it is their designs, they aren't lean.
For designs to be lean, they must support the lean manufacturing system. They must aid in automation, build in fail safe devices and features, provide for quick and easy changeovers (part to part, color to color) by being modular, be designed to an appropriate tolerance, and generate the lowest cost product meeting the design intent. Most American designs have a long way to go before they can meet these criteria, as "lean" is considered "just a plant thing" and not for design.
So as multinational corporate design centers open in China and India, I have a prediction. American designs will go the way of the American production: get lean or get out.