Tag Archives: Traffic Lights

On a Mission ?

In my LinkedIn profile I mention under “Experience” for the period 2002 to 2016 :

“On a mission to take out the work to transform data, of which the steel industry has plenty, into information that will allow decision makers to come to informed decisions. This includes fighting a losing battle against those who think it’s OK to use Excel spreadsheets (of whatever flavour) for business reporting. Also on a mission to fight corporate amnesia by storing useful information in the Strip UK Wiki.”

Although this might create a vision of a knight in shining white armour in some people’s head, the reality is rather more mundane. It meant that I basically wrote my own job description and decided which jobs were worth taking on. I may have had a generic job description as a member of the PEGS, Technology or Operational Research team, but that had precious little to do with my actual day-to-day activities.

So on what grounds did I decide whether a job was worthwhile ? First of all, the request had to come from someone who I had decided was trustworthy not to waste my time with frivolous requests, e.g. a request for an entry system that is never used. Obviously, any first-time user would be given the benefit of the doubt, but if I noticed that you made me do work that was in essence wasted, you would go down a peg on my list of things to do.

Secondly, since there were always more requests than I could possibly handle, I would have to rank them into a list of importance for the business, whilst at the same time making sure that smaller jobs that could be done in a few hours didn’t have to wait forever until the bigger jobs had got out of the way – the latter could otherwise well never happen.

But most of all I was attracted to jobs that would free up people’s time from manually collecting data and creating Excel-based reports. To me there’s no greater horror than seeing someone spend two days a week on producing a weekly report to fulfill a request for information from higher up. To me that’s a waste of 40% of a person’s working life, time that could be spent more fruitfully by doing something about a problem rather than finding out exactly what the problem is, or whether there really is a problem.

The best sort of job is when you have a fruitful relationship with someone who may not understand the ins and outs of IT, but who realises the potential of using web-based systems, not only to free up people’s time, but to achieve things that paper- or spreadsheet-based information systems can never achieve without a lot of blood, sweat and tears.

The traffic light systems that set me off on this labour of love was only the start of such a system, but it gave the flavour of the type of job I decided was worthwhile pursuing for the rest of my career. But that’s the subject for a future blog.

Did I Make a Difference ? (Part 2)

Coming down from the high of my work at Iscor wasn’t as bad as it sounds, although in hindsight it turned out to be a step back on my career path (see 1989-1999: The Lost Decade). While my work at Allied Steel & Wire may have been worthwhile in the here and now, the company clearly earned its reputation of “being run by accountants who wouldn’t know what to do with a metallurgist if their life depended on it”. As metallurgists we were not part of the overall strategic decisions, merely filling in where our specialist knowledge needed to be added to existing processes, mostly as trouble shooters.

My impact as QA manager for the Contistretch department was at least somewhat more substantial than being a metallurgist at the Tremorfa Bar Mill, being in charge of the testhouse as well as having put in place the QA manual to run it. Who knows whether this could have been a lasting legacy if AS&W had survived, but seeing as it didn’t (and since I don’t even know whether the Contistretch process is still being used), chances are that the QA manual was binned together the company.

This was then followed by my move to Tinplate R&D, and since this was also part of my lost decade, I can’t claim to have shone in my capacity as Team Leader for can performance. It took me a long time to even find some direction in my activities, and even if the PACS Centre had survived the merger with Hoogovens (which it didn’t) there wasn’t much for me to be proud of. Victories were small in number and often overshadowed by the feeling of relief that we got out of a tight spot rather a sense of achievement.

That’s why the move to Ebbw Vale was such a relief – finally I felt that I was doing something that fitted in with what the production process needed, the imprimatur coming when the Process Development Team survived the first cuts intact. It didn’t for the last year, but I managed to then become involved with the whole traffic light set-up, even though it was doomed to be a short-lived victory. This was the second time in my career that I clearly made a difference to the proper working of the plant.

After this high, the move to Llanwern was again a bit of a climbdown, although not of the same magnitude as after Iscor. After all, here was an environment that wanted to take the traffic light concept and bring it into the world of web-based information systems. But somehow it did not reach the same level of impact as it had done in Ebbw Vale.

Still, it got me into a role where I could bring information that had previously languished on mainframe screens and Excel spreadsheets into databases and the intranet, and gradually it changed some people’s minds of what could be achieved if some type of information is at the tip of your fingers rather than having to be delved out of the archives in a laborious fashion. The success was never complete, since there were always pockets of resistance amongst those who favoured “sophisticated” spreadsheets, or felt that the dissemination of IT-based information should be left to the “professionals”.

Over time my reputation grew locally and spread from there throughout most parts of Strip Products UK (and sometimes beyond), so here I could safely say that for the third (or maybe fourth) time in my career I made a difference, even though the difference I made was at the local level rather than through all echelons of the organisation.

Will it stand the test of time ? In the long run that’s rather doubtful, but how long the long run will represent is harder to gauge. During my last months prior to retirement I still had to deal occasionally with systems that I had developed nearly 15 years earlier, so inertia could well mean that some things survive as long as new requirements can be accommodated. On the other hand, if a break-up happens and Strip Products UK is sold off, or if a merger with Thyssen-Krupp shakes up how we do IT at the local level, then existing systems could well disappear.

But I suppose that’s just the name of the game. Nothing lasts forever.

From Metallurgy to IT, Part 3

When I joined Allied Steel & Wire, PCs with the precursors of what would become Lotus Smartsuite were already in place. As far as I can remember, there was this black front screen with 6 applications on it – the three I can remember were Lotus 1-2-3 (the WK1 version), Lotus Freelance, and Corel WordPerfect. The latter replaced a word processor application called Samna, which everyone agreed was a dog, WordPerfect clearly being the superior of the two (and of the other word processors I encountered over the next few years).

This remained the situation during my time at Allied Steel & Wire, although we went through the various versions of Lotus products (towards the end we were at WK5) and in 1994 there was also something new in the shape of Microsoft Office (at the time clearly inferior to the Lotus products). We also started to experiment with shared drives for commonly accessed folders.

Then I moved to British Steel, took a step back by having to get to used to AmiPro instead of WordPerfect, but with the introduction of Lotus Notes for internal emails. The can performance team for which I was responsible also started experimenting with Finite Element Analysis (FEA) for predicting can performance in crush and bulge tests based on the geometry of the can. But that’s how far it got at the time – the internet was still a foreign country, and Lotus Notes email accounts were still issued sparingly.

Then came Ebbw Vale, and there I got to know a piece of software called Focus Six from Information Builders. Specifically designed to extract data from a variety of data sources, in our case mostly from the mainframe and the Data Warehouse. It helped in setting up the primitive version of traffic lights we designed for use in Ebbw Vale’s last year, with automated extractions being saved into WK1 files, which could then be linked to update charts in a Freelance file. Primitive but at the same time a great time saver.

The use of Focus Six brought me in contact with the strange world of mainframe tables and their less-than-well-known data structures and content, and was a first step in what was to follow. Towards the end of Ebbw Vale’s life, people were encouraged to retrain, with the financial assistance of ELWa (Education and Learning for Wales), an opportunity that I used to do a distance learning course in Java. But that’s a story for the final blog in this series “From Metallurgy to IT”.

The Miracle of Ebbw Vale

Of course, Ebbw Vale Works has been closed since 2002, but I was there for the last 3-and-a-bit years, and especially the last year proved to be quite exhilarating, especially considering that this was a plant about to shut forever.

If I remember the chronology correctly, the first cut in manpower was announced in October 2000, followed by the announcement of closure in February the next year. For a while I was trying to find employment in Trostre, Ebbw Vale’s sister plant, but no dice. So I contacted Ian Hobson who is now Director, Mills in Strip Products UK, but at the time was the Operations Manager in Ebbw Vale.

This led to a meeting where Ian, Malcolm Davies, Matt Stait and myself hammered out the principles of what later would become known as “Traffic Lights”. This system arose from the fact that we would have to do the data gathering without the assistance of an office of 15 clerks, so that at least we would have some control over what went on in the plant.

The Traffic Lights system basically looks at a small set of key parameters with which to evaluate the status of various pieces of kit, as well as the quality of the products that were produced by them. Updates on how the plant was doing were sent out twice a week and discussed in a weekly steering group meeting. Even though this is nowhere near as advanced and sophisticated as the later web-based versions, it was amazing how having information at the tips of your fingers could change the way you can manage the plant.

Clearly this was only one tool that made Ebbw Vale in its last year the best performing plant in Corus Packaging Plus (the name for Corus’s tinplate business). As a matter of fact, having only a skeleton staff to work with turned out to be a blessing in disguise. It meant that there was no dead weight, no special projects, no self-promoters or hangers-on, only a small number of middle-aged men who knew how to do their job and were dedicated enough to show the world that even in their last year they were not yet past their best.

Add to this that Team Leaders all of a sudden were given real responsibility and were linking directly with the management of the plant without the intervening layer of middle management. It’s easy to understand how a middle management layer could make them feel cut off from where the action really happened. It could also mean that the message gets lost or changed, either accidentally because of the filtering in the middle management layer, or on purpose because the latter have their own concerns and priorities.

It’s something I have seen happen in Port Talbot with events like the white collar review, where people who I deemed to be hangers-on and non-achievers actually managed to worm themselves into the selection process as selectors, thereby safeguarding their own positions. Fortunately, no such thing happened in Ebbw Vale, either because these same people would not want to remain with what was clearly a lost cause, or because the selection process was carried out more ruthlessly.

The result ? Ebbw Vale still closed, but when Marjan Oudeman visited the plant a few months before closure, and seeing how what should have felt like a dying place actually outperformed the rest, she is said to have exclaimed “Oh my god, we’ve shut down the wrong plant!”

You couldn’t ask for a nicer epitaph – they should erect a stone memorial with that message on it somewhere where the plant has been.