Quality Improvement in Manufacturing: Relief for Operations Managers

December 4, 2019 · 13 minutes
By Tina
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Fall has begun. For Europe, operations are now resuming from the extended production breaks.

The population of Mykonos will probably drop by more than 20% from this summer. Most importantly for ThroughPut, manufacturing, and logistics operations in the industrial world are about to pick back up until Christmas. 

ThroughPut has kicked off an incredibly busy period with deployments across various factories and facilities. It’s an incredible period for the company.

We are privileged to be tackling problems from the biggest canals to supply chains that extend to Mars.

Every day, companies share new throughput supply chain planning and optimization opportunities at massive scales that make everything during my Oil & Gas career seem comparatively minuscule both in terms of impact and consequences.

From where we were a year ago, we have easily 10xed as an organization, have support from the inventors of “Throughput Management”, and that’s not even our biggest announcement. 

I have now spent just as much time being a startup founder as I had to be an operations manager. Reflecting back on my previous career as a Geo market Oil & Gas Production Manager, I see a lot of parallel battles I still tackle today as an Entrepreneur.

It’s like the job description never changed, but the title and settings did. When I got the Production Manager role, I remember texting the engineer that recruited me about how it was  “the only role I didn’t want”.

Considering she had been in a similar warzone Operations Management role, she laughed and agreed when I said: “it’s kind of like running a startup.”

I would say Oil & Gas Operations Management was a lot harder. Nothing was really in our control, and we had to make it work with existing teams & existing resources in our existing situations (during invasions, offshore on a ship, knee-deep in Oklahoma mud & the usual). 

It required physical, mental, and social aptitude, fit for my 20s. 

However, Entrepreneurship has brought its own challenges; namely, convincing people about the bigger picture. The opportunity to free up operational waste through data can liberate and enrich the lives of the bottom economic 50% globally is a bold mission.

Ultimately, however, Entrepreneurship also operates with certain rules, and a brand of conservatism from decision-makers that would make Oil & Gas managers blush, especially when it comes to Silicon Valley investors claiming to be bold and risk-taking. Seems like disruption stops where IT meets OT.

Maybe that’s where technology disruption’s bottleneck currently lies. Fundamentally, Operations Managers and Entrepreneurs are fighting the same battles to do better for their companies and better by their people.

Success is a team sport, which often does not account for the individual sacrifice partaken to get there.

Your company is only as great as the people that embody the mission of your organization and its capabilities. What that translates into for both the Operations Manager and Entrepreneur is extensive people management and incredibly long working weeks without any public accolades for it.

Keeping this in mind, I wanted to write a blog to highlight how every Operations Manager is ultimately an Entrepreneur in the making. I hope this post may inspire other Operations Managers to take the same leap into Entrepreneurship I made 4 years ago when I realized “if I can do all of this in a given week, what’s preventing me from doing this with fewer constraints and bottlenecks?”  

So here are my top 5 picks on how Operations Managers and Entrepreneurs are fighting the same battles: 

Quality Improvement in Manufacturing

1. The Fight for Talent

I still remember the time the HR manager called me to the office from some part of the Arabian Desert for my promotion review, and asked, “Ali, what do you need to make this new operation successful?”.

Without hesitation, as a 26-year-old, I demanded “my engineers, my supervisors, my lawyer, and my accountant”. I had even prepared a list of districts of who I wanted and why. We had just come off another hydrocarbon discovery, and I wanted to leverage the momentum in my favor.

I wanted to assemble the best team to make it happen, to break more records, etc. “If you want these results, then I need these resources,” were my exact words, after some statement along the lines of “needing to be reborn”. I wasn’t fighting for me.

I was fighting for my next team. And of course, getting any of those flagged people never happened, though HR probably identified some high potential employees thanks to my above-and-beyond dream team initiative.

They ultimately left the organization for top-tier MBA programs, top consulting firms, and became CEO Entrepreneurs themselves.  Back in the real world, I set up my new team to execute without me, creating a training system to empower newer younger employees.

The dream team never was, but the reality did sink in: bigger districts got first dibs on the best talent, regardless of “the pitch” and confidence levels. Coming to the startup world, the fight for talent is essentially the same.

Ultimately, every startup founder wants the best engineers, marketing leaders, salespeople, and fundraisers for their specific space. The vision and mission go so far, as ultimately people have bills to pay and personal responsibilities.

Raising money helps attract and retain that talent, but every phase of the startup requires a different skill set and type of member. Meanwhile, the big Fortune 500s and better-funded startups loom for the talent you have, to build the operations they want, all while other CEO founders are asking you to join them. 

Early on, startups must make it work, and get to the threshold fundraising point where the talent equation flips.

Like smaller operations in a large Fortune 500 asking CFOs for budgets to increase top and bottom line, your operation must first become relevant before getting additional love from the community. 

The startup and operation ultimately become the manifestation of the team’s existing skillsets and output capacity planning. To get better, you must attract the missing pieces or invest in training. Otherwise, your team’s skillsets will become your growth bottlenecks.  

2. The Fight for Money

During the downturn, when oilfield operational expenditure budgets were so tight, I would just put things on my own credit card to keep operations going and deal with “breaking procurement policies” later. 

Like many operations managers, I would approach my financial controllers, promising that we could “make it work” if we were given expenditure flexibility to make minor fixes. It didn’t matter how many hydrocarbon discoveries were involved, and what my last district’s revenue growth rate was.

Dealing with a new financial controller meant a clean slate, meaning nothing to justify Return on Investment until my new local track record was established. Entrepreneurship was and is no different.

The number of jobs, defects, cash conversion cycle, and output targets from operations were flipped to other metrics to hit for investment into ThroughPut. Instead of looking for funding in one organization, entrepreneurship required looking for investment across multiple cities, states, and ultimately countries.

Ultimately, when ThroughPut grew to include team members with a track record of over 10 exits, the funding came with it. The fight to improve outputs for Operations Managers and Entrepreneurs is a daily battle.

Both groups know that more money can lead to more output, but the bottleneck operation remains at the top: how do you convince financial controllers the ROI in the future of a small significant investment, today?

This ultimately differentiates the Operations Managers and Entrepreneurs that get their teams the resources they need to succeed, and those who move on to other factories and startups.

The most incredible thing is that statistics point to most investment decisions to be impulsive both in operations and entrepreneurship, regardless of frameworks that fail the majority of the time.

Ultimately, I continue to struggle with why financial controllers who just don’t listen to operational needs, when the situation is being reported from the frontlines about actual needs. 

3. The Fight for Time

For Operations Managers, Entrepreneurs, and some Tesla owners, we eventually learn that not all fires can be extinguished. There just isn’t enough time in the day. So the best thing to do is to focus on the costliest recurring problems that prevent desired outcomes: bottlenecks.

Managing two-country operations simultaneously undergoing invasion, a recession, layoffs, an industry downturn, job program changes, movement of hazardous materials, and security incidents taught me firsthand that even if you can work 20-hour days, you can’t resolve every situation and prepare for the next situation.

Learning to focus on bottlenecks is the only way to maintain sanity. To deal with firefighting operations, Production Management taught me how to eliminate the variability and variety I had in my life, and ultimately simplify it to prepare me for a greater entrepreneurial cause.

I had to simplify my diet, dress code, hobbies, and even day-to-day activities. A lot of what I thought was “life” was essential, a luxury.  Trips to places like Iraq during 2015 made me realize how little people had, and how 90% of the world was in that state. 

Don’t get me wrong. I made sure I did everything I ever wanted in my 20s, but to be dedicated to our big bold cause to free up $10 Trillion for human capital, I had to simplify life to increase my own capacity.  

Compared to Production Management, I have had a wealth of time as an Entrepreneur. However, understanding the fight for time has made entrepreneurship more urgent.

The only real metric that ticks for an Entrepreneur are the burn rate. Personally, I believe that if the Entrepreneur and the mission are alive, then ultimately it will work. One of the biggest challenges for the “fight for time”, is getting everyone else to move at your pace.

Drum-Buffer-Rope is a concept that the Theory of Constraints made famous. Running a startup is about getting your customers, investors, and team moving at the same pace.

Navigating the enterprise on both the Fortune 500 and startup side requires incredible patience, while you are expected to operate at startup speeds from non-industrial types. The “fight for time” gets more difficult over time.

The startup exponentially has less time to execute on its core mission before the venture saturates out.

We do so little with our time on Earth. For the average lifespan, we spend the first 21 years in school, the next 10 building careers or starting families, and the remainder 30-40 paying off mortgages and raising families.

Considering we sleep 1/3 of our lifetimes, we really only have 5-10 years to do what we want. And our remaining lifetime reduces exponentially every day, even if we are healthy. The real fight in my life is with time. There just isn’t enough time in a lifetime to try everything.

4. The fight for Customer Expectations

Whether Operations Management or Entrepreneurship, customers want their stuff better, faster, and cheaper at every iteration & cycle.

The realities to make that happen are a testament to why so many Silicon Valley companies aren’t profitable at IPO, and why so many Production Operations make pennies on the dollar. As an Operations Manager at a large Fortune 500, you have a brand and an established system to back you up. Customers already are “hiring the best” so expectations are clear.

If your company can’t do it, then well, who could? This is what allowed me to take on incredible pioneering projects that would not go to another supplier or services company. As a startup supplying to Fortune 500s, the expectations are even higher, thanks to procurement standards.

Currently, ThroughPut has an operational excellence AI product that helps increase output and enable better operations overnight. Even with that value proposition,  8 out of 10 times, enterprises want a specialized random task done first.

Meeting customer expectations sometimes comes with the territory of completing odd-ball tasks. Being realistic with Fortune 500 customers is hard as a startup. Sometimes, Fortune 500s demand projects are completed in weeks, when their own internal teams haven’t resolved the same problems for years.

In short, I find many Fortune 500s having unrealistic expectations from small startup companies. Chances are, if your army of engineers can’t do it with their resources, then expecting the same from a startup without equivalent support is a recipe for disaster.  

Yes, startups are disruptive and can achieve incredible things, but they ultimately need resources. Your Operations Managers would quit in a heartbeat if you told them to execute without their teams and the right resources.

So why would you expect the same from a startup? Most customer expectations arise from a failure to understand the capabilities of quality improvement in manufacturing, supply chain planning and operations, math, and science.

The world’s supply chain is probably permanently damaged due to unrealistic customer expectations. With bottlenecks constantly shifting, this fight is an eternal one. 

5. The Fight to Make their People Happy

Operations Managers and Entrepreneurs are ultimately people managers. They must be. They are entrusted with (or attract) teams to achieve organizational goals and purposes while balancing the human side of things.

It’s a super difficult task to make everyone happy and make a difference. Setting expectations is one thing. Setting expectations that people are happy with is a completely different thing. 

We know the feeling from picking sides on the playground where A) we were captains B) we were the last person picked. Nobody was a winner when we lost with the weakest player upset twice over, but winning meant even the weakest player had something to be happy about.

Ultimately managing teams is an exponentially challenging problem: the more people you have, the more relationships and expectations you need to manage. Every individual member has a dream or goal to achieve. In today’s industrial operations, people management is dynamic and real-time. 

To “make it all work” with forces that are outside of their control (budgets, HR, legal, etc.)  makes a win-win-win-win-win…. situation to be statistically impossible in both Operations Management and Entrepreneurship. 

The Hard Thing About Hard Things by Ben Horowitz tries to make people management more objective, but ultimately the suggested decisions are ones that no Entrepreneur would rather make. Often, Operations Managers and Entrepreneurs are directly at the bottleneck of blame in tough situations.

And at that moment, it seems like a lifetime of meeting outputs, keeping workers happy, and selflessness magically evaporates. At that moment, if the bottleneck cannot be overcome, then no one can be fundamentally happy. 

Happiness has become a first-world problem in both Operations and Entrepreneurship. Elsewhere, famine, hunger, economic inequality, poverty, illiteracy, and healthcare are still real-world problems. Any violation of happiness can have severe consequences for teams, outputs, and finances.

We see it in the media every day with protests, walk-outs, and strikes. The biggest challenge with happiness is the reality that it is unsustainable. Sadness and failure are part of life.

This metric of managing and consistently meeting happiness has created unbelievable expectations of the ideal operations manager or leader. 

The fight of our careers is ultimately keeping our teams and operations happy to realize their full capacity. That seems to be the prerequisite of the next working generation. 

Adding in meeting outputs, profitability, and other metrics to be met, the future of Entrepreneurship and Manufacturing Operations Management success appears to require machine learning to acceptably solve.  

So those are my 5 top parallels between the journey of Entrepreneurship and Operations Management to date. Somewhere, I hope an Operations Manager is reading this and saying “that’s it, it’s time for me to be an Entrepreneur” or an Entrepreneur is saying “wow, ops people might be strong fits”.

And if you are that person, you are welcome to ping me at info@throughput.ai with a “To Ali” subject line. There isn’t an e-mail I don’t read, being an ex-operations manager and early-stage entrepreneur. 

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