Monday, May 31, 2010

Another month comes to an end

Another month comes to an end and there's little blogging to show for it. I've simply been too busy to devote time to writing here.

My economics course has come to an end and the exam is next Wednesday. I'm revising, but not that thoroughly. I think that I know the material well and much of it is common sense anyway (at least, common sense after having finished a course in the subject).

I saw the Tom Hanks film "That Thing You Do" the other day and thoroughly enjoyed it. Of course, the subject matter does talk to me. All the way through, I was waiting for the moment when the manager screws the band but that never happened. The entire financial scam element was missing from the film; the innocent band members enjoyed the largesse showered upon them, never realising that the costs would be borne from their earnings. Maybe then they would have been slightly more careful with their money.

The IMDB page has a very active discussion board for the film. There is even a thread discussing how the title song changes throughout the film. One thing missing from the discussion: the closing chord in the early versions is different from the closing chord in later versions.

I'm listening at the moment to "A parcel of Steeleye Span", a three cd compilation of "their first five Chrysalis albums". I thought that I knew some of this material quite well, but I haven't heard it for about 35 years and my memories have faded somewhat. To be honest, I prefer the two previous B&C albums (with Martin Carthy and Ashley Hutchings) - their starkness plays in their favour. The entire package cost only six pounds, and I hope that some of that money finds its way to the group as royalties - although maybe they still haven't paid off the advances for these records.

Reading material is yet another Eliyahu Goldratt book, "Necessary but not sufficient". This book is about a company which has developed and sold an ERP package, making it close to home. How much does such a program contribute to the bottom line? Fortunately, that's not a question which I've often been asked, although the book does provide a few answers.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

It's not luck ... and much more on business problems

As I have previously written, my lecturer in Organisational Behaviour suggested that we read a business novel called "The Goal" by Eli Goldratt. Eventually the penny dropped and I ordered the book. After reading it, I came to the conclusion that every MBA student should read it, even though at times the book seems antiquated. I have also recommended to people in one of the companies that I support that they too read it. It transpires that there was a plant manager who worked there only for a short while who also recommended the book and even read extracts to his managers.

After rereading the book a few times, I decided that it was time to read its sequel,  "It's not luck". Despite USA Amazon promising a delivery date somewhere in June, the book actually arrived about five days after having been ordered (rule #1 in business: always outperform one's promises). As usual, I read it far too fast to absorb too much, so I'm going to read it again in the next few days, taking it slower and trying to think about what is written.

As a novel, it's far less successful than "The Goal", although there is a clearly defined protagonist (Alex Rogo) and a problem to be solved. Although this is touted as a sequel, there are several tools used by Rogo whose source is never explained. These are clearly tools derived from the Theory Of Constraints, Goldratt's contribution to management studies, but their derivation is not described in the same way as in "The Goal", which made the early chapters somewhat frustrating. Maybe there is another book which is a true sequel to "The Goal", or at least a true predecessor of "It's not luck".

One of the more charming aspects of "The Goal" was how Rogo's private life provided several examples which eventually became paradigms for his industrial success. In "It's not luck", Rogo uses the new business tools for solving problems in his personal life; whilst this might be more realistic, it is less engrossing as a novel. Writing management books as novels is definitely a good way of enabling the brain to absorb what are sometimes complex issues. I shall be on the lookout for more such books.

After finishing the book and reflecting on how I can use the ideas presented within, it becomes clear to me that I am too low on the corporate level - or at least, not in a chain of command post - to do very much. Even though I work for what is essentially a holding company which is running three or four different companies, our scale is much much smaller than the companies discussed in the books. Actually, this smaller size should be to my advantage as there are fewer levels of beaurocracy and I have a direct line to the company's president.

My problem is more that I think on too low a scale: I think mainly about computer problems and how I can solve them, not on the corporate strategic level. In order to solve this problem, I am studying for an MBA; the final course - strategic planning - is supposed to give me the necessary tools and vision.

At the moment I am engrossed with three different problems at work, two of which are championed by the president. One is an attempt to improve the throughput of one factory - or rather, reduce waiting time for orders before beginning production. I have done the necessary development work to enable this system to be implemented in our ERP program; that's actually a joke, as the ERP program can easily handle what needs to be done, and in fact was designed to work in this "new" way. This factory had implemented change after change in order to force the program to work in the way that they wanted it to work. My job was to maintain their way of looking at things whilst making the program more flexible. After a few false starts, I realised about six weeks ago that the solution was actually simpler than I had originally thought, and the implementation was done quickly. My problem has been convincing the factory managers to use the new system. The president has given his political clout to the change, but I am convinced that the managers are only paying lip service to the ideas and are not using the new system to its full potential.

The other problem is using an external program to perform design work. An ERP system whilst being flexible in certain respects is also very rigid: there is no such thing as a parametric bill of materials - yet this is exactly what is needed if one is building wooden tables, whose length and width can be tailored to the customer's needs. This external program is designed from the ground up to be parametric - but of course only replaces one module of the ERP program. Thus it is my job to 'glue' the two together.

This program does export several files, but it turns out that all of them bar one are useless. The only useful file - and it contains all the information that I need - is in HTML format, which is not the most conducive to parse. Suffering a lack of time, it was only on Tuesday that I managed to give serious time to the problem. It became obvious to me that I could read the HTML file with Excel and then save it as a CSV file, which made parsing much simpler. After about an hour, I had written a Delphi program which could parse the file and output a text file holding the bill of materials which could serve as input to the ERP program.

As it happens, on Wednesday was held a divisional meeting, and the subject of integrating this external program was raised. I was able to report on my progress, and pointed out that we had received a price quotation of 5,500 euros to do what I had done in one hour. On the basis of this, I suggested (somewhat tongue in cheek) that my salary should be "only" 4,000 euros per hour, but that I was willing to settle for 4,000 euros a month.

On Thursday, the implementation team had another meeting in which we attacked the problem of how the factory was going to integrate this external program. It soon became clear to me that there was a major problem that we had not considered, the problem of producing a delivery note from the ERP program. I don't want to go into details, because most of the problems derive from the way that this factory produces delivery notes. If I were Alex Rogo, I would change this system immediately, but on the other hand, it won't make any difference to our bottom line and so the change is not needed.

The needed insight was that writing a program that simply interpreted a csv file and exported the information contained in a suitable format was not enough. The program has to receive a certain amount of extra information and impart much more information to the export file. Writing the program won't be too difficult; what was necessary was the insight. The other members of the team seemed somewhat lost at what I was suggesting (although one caught on fairly quickly) and it took a great deal of persuasion and explanation before they understood the problem and how I proposed to solve it.

After the meeting I wrote a proposal which explains the problem and how to solve it without going into specifics. Then I went into very specific detail and explained - mainly to myself - how to implement my idea. I will have to put my money (or rather, my brain) where my mouth is.

Friday, May 14, 2010

The Fourteenth of May

On the fourteenth of May at the dawn of the day

With my gun of my shoulder to the woods I did stray

In search of some game if the weather proved fair

To see could I get a shot at the Bonny Black Hare

So begins the allegorical tale of a hunter - or more correctly, a poacher - who is not hunting a hare, a small creature that many mistake for a rabbit, but rather for a piece of feminine anatomy.

This bawdy tale came to my attention in 1971 when it was recorded by Fairport Convention for their sixth album, "Angel Delight", a rather mixed offering which suffered on the one hand by the loss of Richard Thompson but gained by the others trying their hardest. 

Around the same time, their cousin group, Steeleye Span, released a rather more sombre song which also mentions the 14th of May:

When I was on horseback, wasn't I pretty

When I was on horseback, wasn't I gay

Wasn't I pretty when I entered Cork City

To meet with my downfall on the fourteenth of May

This song, set to a chilling arrangement, was not about some flighty young girl, as the above words might hint, but rather about a young British soldier serving in Ireland.

In 1971, I was beginning to think that traditional folk was my kind of music, and I found it both strange and pleasing that two songs encountered within a few months should reference the same calendar date. As it happens, I can't recall any other song referencing any date at all, so this remains a coincidence. 

Today is, of course, the 14th of May, so the Fairport mailing list is full of wishes that our powder stays dry and that our ramrods never go limp.

Friday, May 07, 2010


As I mentioned previously, I am currently taking a course in Economics and I am enjoying it immensely. The first six or seven meetings were devoted to Micro-economics and since then we have been studying Macro-economics. This has provided the perfect backdrop to the economic crisis in Greece, and today, amongst discussion of the Keynes multiplier, deflationary and inflationary gaps, we also talked a little about previous economic crises in Israel and what is happening in Greece.

I fail to understand what the people are demonstrating about. Obviously, they want to retain their standard of living, but they also seem unable to do the work necessary to maintain it. 14 salaries a year? Retirement at 55? Who wouldn't want these things? The only problem is that there is no money to pay for these things, and if the Greeks don't go to work and improve their productivity, then there will be no money whatsoever.

Israel went through a painful period in the mid-80s when there was tremendous inflation (400% in one year). I remember presenting balance sheets, and there wasn't enough room in the pre-printed sheets to write the numbers as they had suddenly grown so large. A package deal was put together between the government, the employers and the workers; everybody had to crack down and suffer in order that things would be better for all of us. Two years later, Israel was well on the road to economic recovery.

The Greeks have to do the same.

I am currently reading a book called "The undercover economist" by Tim Harford. This is a non-academic look at various issues in economics and so can be recommended to anybody who has an interest in the subject but comes out in hives when presented with equations. The book itself is very interesting and well written (although the author seems to be at home equally in London and Washington DC, which is slightly off-putting to me), and I take great pleasure in finding the economic principles which I have been taught.

At first, I though that the book would be devoted to micro-economics - why does a cup of coffee cost as much as it does - but there are a few chapters devoted to macro-economics. I am sure that in the syllabus of the Edinburgh Business School/Heriot Watt University there is no mention of corruption and bribery being factors in a country's economy (the example used is Cameroon), and there is also an excellent analysis of China's economy over the past 60 years.  Whilst this material in no way will supplant the material being taught, it is a useful adjunct which casts matters in a slightly different light, and may even be worth a few marks in the exam - which I was reminded today is only a few weeks away.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

White coat syndrome

I've got ten minutes before I have to leave home in order to catch a train, so I thought I'd devote them to this blog. The last few weeks have been very heavy in terms of travelling - this week I've been out of my office four days out of five. While I am getting some work done during these days - meetings and teaching sessions - I can't get on with what I consider to be my primary work - programming - nor can I clear the administrative overhead.

One of the support issues from the past week reminded me of the White Coat Syndrome. A few months ago, when I was being diagnosed with essential hypertension (high blood pressure), my family doctor explained the phenomenon that people's blood pressure would automatically rise when they saw a white lab coat, or when they entered the doctor's surgery or simply saw the machine for measuring blood pressure. This syndrome is why the pressure is measured  three times, discarding the first reading and averaging the last two.

I have noticed a similar syndrome, which might be called the Support Syndrome. Someone tells me about a screen or report which they are trying to operate and that it doesn't work. If it is someone in my vicinity, then I sit next to them whilst they perform the same operation again, whereas if it is someone calling me on the telephone, then I ask them to perform the operation whilst telling me the exact steps that they take. I do exactly as they tell me.

99% of the time, the second operation succeeds! The people asking for support are always astounded, as if I have some kind of mental aura which charms the computer into doing what it is supposed to do. My theory is that my presence causes the person to concentrate more on what they are doing, and that the previous, failed operation happened because they didn't concentrate and/or read something on the screen. One would be surprised at the number of calls I have received about people not being able to log into the production database - because they didn't notice that another user's name appeared in the login screen.....

Last read: It takes teamwork to tango, by Russ King. Described as a 'business novel', it strikes me that there might be a little too much novel and not enough business in it. The book deserves a second reading, but I'm not too sure that it holds any lessons for me.

Must rush: got a train to catch.