Ask an Engineer: What's the Flavour of the Month for you?

Mar 14, 2011


This month’s question is actually from panel member Jim! His response, usually first, will be last this month for that reason :)

What's the "Flavour of the Month" in your organization? -- Jim


Corporate Slang Glossary:

“Flavour of the Month” (FOTM): Launched with great fanfare, management declares that everyone shall focus on this urgent new priority until… you don’t anymore!

Scott - Semiconductor Industry - Massachusetts, USA

For us, it's been taking LEAN out of manufacturing and applying it to
Engineering.  Upper Management encourages us to skip unnecessary meetings and push back on overhead tasks.  And then our direct managers tell us that it applies to *other* overhead tasks and meetings, but not theirs.

So, as usual with FOTM things, it's had no visible impact.  But we've kept it around for a few years now.

The other big push has been RAPID Decision Making but that's only helped solve one of the problems with decision making – analysis paralysis.  We still have the long standing tradition of anyone who's not happy with a decision challenging it and forcing another go-round on it (usually by a higher ranking manager).

Safety was mentioned an another possible FOTM (in my email explanation – Jam). That's one that we actually take so seriously it's a bit absurd.  We have a semiconductor foundry which has to be one of the most dangerous (at least chemically) factories around so some of the safety obsession is justified.  But trying to apply the level of rigor used in the factory to the office environment gets crazy.  For example, safety glasses must be worn anytime you're using tools - this includes using your leatherman's screw driver to turn the thumbscrews on the back of your pc.

Dan - Diesel Engine Manufacturing - Illinois, USA

I guess I'm lucky to be in our R&D division, as I don't see too many of the flavor of the month type initiatives. In the trucking industry, we're driven by government regulation (who wants to pay more for a medium or heavy duty truck if you don't have to?), so most of our changes are regulation-driven.

We are so far entrenched, actually, that we may as well be the anti-flavor! I mean that in probably both the best and worse sense of the word. My industry (as a whole) doesn't seem to make changes to the product unless there's either a) huge customer demand for it [We have started new engine lines based on this recently] or b) some sort of government regulation (which is the case about 90% of the time). This means technologies and processes don't usually get talked about until they're either a huge success outside the industry or that's the only way we'll meet some regulation. The flip side to this is that we're able to invest in technologies and processes that work as opposed to having a flavor of the month all the time. Or it just means that if we do have a flavor of the month, I'm not really exposed to it.

Thomas - Software Consulting – Singapore

My company has nothing like this. Right now all we focus on is refining our workflow to improve profitability. There is no room for extra BS policy. I know the sales and marketing departments do stuff like this, but they are technically considered a different company due to our corporate structure. The closest I can think of is a general "push to the cloud" in software development but again it isn't an issue in my current job. 

Dyson - Mechanical Technologist - Yukon Territories

Well Jim,
My boss has been at this longer then I've been alive, so needless to say he is a little crazy. Our flavor of the month is usually whether I'm being referred to as "Pouce Coupe" or some other silliness.
We do work with LEED crap, but it's usually foisted upon us by the client and not based on an in-house directive.


Johan: Software, Domotics Industry, Netherlands

I work at a small-ish (~30 employees) company barely out of the 'start-up' phase. The flavour of the month, if you can call it that, is professionalization. There's to be more emphasis on project planning, workflow analysis, issue tracking and other such things.

I'm not sure if this counts as a flavour because when I say 'more emphasis', I mean that as 'more than none'. There was virtually no project management, no project evaluation and barely any formal communication with customers.

So needless to say, I hope it sticks.

Angela – Sustainability Industry – Vancouver

My company is fairly big and has a lot of different groups, so there’s always a few FOTM-style edicts floating around at the same time.  “Back to Basics” was a big one being thrown around a year or two ago and still comes up. Right now there’s a big push for “Cost Consciousness”.  As you can tell from the comic, ‘Change Management’ is another big thing we’re going through right now.

Safety is important, and it’s always been a big deal for our company which has a heavy industrial component.  However, recently there’s been a FOTM-style push forSafety… for the Office, too!

 Bruno - Polytechnique - Junior Software Engineer - Quebec (OIQ)

 Well, our organisation has a strong reputation of over-planning things. We don't change fast, so we are kind of spared of the whole "flavour-of-the-month" phenomenon... unless we decide there is a "flavour-of-the-year" equivalent. Much code and many things were done in the wrong way in the past and it affects us today sometimes. That said, we are not spared of very temporary and intense focus on something special.
Nowadays, I'd say the business is really into fast decision making. Like I said in my introduction, our business decides very slowly: the decision process is very heavy. We have code reviews, organic analysis and too many meetings of any kind for the decision-makers, preventing them from making decisions fast.
Now we’re trying to spread the decision making process to many more employees and giving them more responsibility concerning these decisions. I don't mind, this allows me to make my own decisions on many aspects of my work for which I previously had to refer to my immediate superior or a more experienced colleague. That makes my job easier, so who am I to complain, right?

Robert - Oil and Gas Industry - Texas, USA

The "Flavor of the Month" was probably logistics. Now I say logistics but what I really mean is centralizing everything. For a bit of  background, where I work was organized in different districts, each covering about a 300 mile radius, and each district was ran independently with their own dispatch and resources.

When I was first starting they had a test location where they were taking a lot of districts and merging them into one super district where the logistics, ordering of sand, cement and other materials was handled by one dispatch team. This didn't work out too well according to everyone that I knew that was working in that area, however it saved the company money. So now they're implementing it everywhere else. All the smaller districts are being eaten up by my district, which while all the equipment will stay in their own yards, dispatching and scheduling and everything else is being handled by one central location. So the "Flavor of the Month" was logistics.

Jim - Cement Industry, Pennsylvania, USA

Here’s a story from my past.

Several MBA’s at headquarters gathered information from the company’s plants in thirty different countries.  They found that the plants are highly diverse in every respect.  That did not dishearten the MBA’s. They built spreadsheets and organization charts to model the ideal production department.    They visited a few plants in the nicer locations to validate their findings. They perfected their model.  They created the Production Cost Index, a single indicator by which every plant could be judged. Then the fun began. 

Top management sponsors kicked off a multi-phase program roll-out with seminars, glossy brochures, special logos, networks, and synergy.  Everybody got a golf shirt. Staff was on-boarded to ensure alignment and facilitate change management. Assistants to the newly-appointed Director of Production Cost Optimization sent frequent e-mails and made periodic visits to help the production managers in each plant.  They set up a program-specific reporting system so that the MBA’s could track each plant’s progress toward its ideal organization and costs.

Production managers learned that their costs were too high, their organizations were bloated, and their methods were all wrong.  They set out to restructure their departments and find people for the redefined roles. They got rid of the people who didn’t fit.  They sharpened their pencils and cut their budgets.

And there was progress.  In some plants, costs came down and the production managers were rewarded.  In others, costs went down and operations went off the rails altogether.  Some production managers resisted the changes, were branded as “too plant-centric”, and lost their jobs.  In a few plants, the model was implemented perfectly and costs went up.  One poor schmuck was overheard calling the program a “Stalinist” approach.  He disappeared altogether (but don’t worry, he resurfaced with a high position in a competing company).

The program went on for four years.  Production costs overall tracked the inflation rate.  The veteran production managers left the company.  The MBA’s got promotions. Top management declared victory and allowed the program to fade away.  The Production Cost Index was forgotten, except by a few.

Was it worth it?  I don’t know.  But I suspect that no story can have a happy ending if it begins “Several MBA’s at headquarters………..”.

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