Friday, April 25, 2014

Inspiration is in the Cards


“Inspiration can come from the most unexpected places.” One needs only to google this truism to be barraged with overwhelming evidence, but I will add an example by relating my personal story below.

My particular “Eureka” moment happened on a lazy Sunday afternoon while my son Christopher was attempting to teach me and my wife the game of Pokémon. For those who may be unacquainted with this franchise, Pokémon (a contraction of “Pocket Monster”) is a very popular trading-card game that is based on the 1996 Pokémon GameBoy video game created by Satoshi Tajiri. As my son laboriously explained the general rules and subtle nuances of the card game, and I equally laboriously tried to understand said instructions, I suddenly recognized a similarity between elements of this game and project-related staffing challenges frequently faced at work.

For example:

·         In Pokémon, you are limited to the cards that are in your deck. At Alpha, we are limited to the staff comprising our development team.­

·         Prior to actual gameplay, players first need to construct their deck of cards, deciding which victory condition the deck will focus on to win the game, and how it will best achieve this success. At Alpha, we structure and staff our departments to support the planned development activities and overall long-term strategies of the business.

·         Individual cards contain relevant data for the specific Pokémon, such as types, strengths, weaknesses, energy, skill levels and compatibility with other types, just as individual development staff members have their own disciplines, strengths, weaknesses, special skills, experience and compatibilities.

·         When building a deck in Pokémon, players try to make the card types complement each other if possible; balancing their cards using synergies between the cards that will help each other – for example, Water and Electricity are good companions, as are Fire and Grass. At Alpha, we attempt to pair up team members that have demonstrated success when working together, as well as try to separate those who may not be so well-matched.

·         Pokémon players attempt to build a deck that will minimize weaknesses and maximize strengths. At Alpha, we try to assign team members to the types of projects they are best at, and strive to staff the project teams with an optimal mix of experience and skills.

·         And finally, in Pokémon, once you’ve played all the cards in your deck, the game is over – there are no more cards to play. At Alpha, once all the team members are assigned to their allotment of projects, there are no more resources available to take on new projects, at least in theory.

Although all of the above comparisons were interesting and hinted at potentially fun possibilities, it was that last bullet that excited me the most – the physical absoluteness of being out of cards – which I felt could really be exploited to the benefit of the organization. You see, like most corporations, Alpha was challenged by having more projects to work on than available resources to do the work. Also, like most corporations, it was very difficult to say “no” to a customer, and thus equally difficult for the development team to say “no” to a project without an impactful and unambiguous indicator of over capacity. I have always been a little jealous of the manufacturing side of the business, as they have a plethora of lean tools to implement in order to plan, pace, control and communicate. Manufacturing has the regular heartbeat established by Takt; the smoothing of production via the Heijunka box and Kanban cards; the stoppage of the line and signal of a problem triggered by the Andon cord. Where were all of the neat tools for the product development half of the business? Where were our Takt, Kanban, and Andon cords? We were being constantly pushed, where we would much prefer to pull.

Now, I suddenly found myself literally holding the answer in my hands with the Pokémon cards. If only these cards represented the various engineers, designers, program and product managers, testers, technicians, manufacturing and quality engineers, and other personnel that made up core project teams. I imagined dealing out project teams until all the cards were spent and my hands were empty – how much clearer and absolute of a signal could there be than that! I pictured the raw power of the senior management team having to physically pluck cards out of competing projects if they wanted to insert a new project, with the obvious impacts and implications immediately visible on-the-spot! My imagination was getting the best of me as I started to think of the possibilities. Could I incorporate individual career development onto the cards – training, skills assessment, experience level? Would an analog to purchasing a “booster deck” of Pokémon trading cards be the utilization of contractors, term employees and/or outsourcing? Would it be better to use actual photographs or more fun to come up with artistic renditions of team members? It was evident by this time that my mind was elsewhere and I wasn’t going to be a very fun Pokémon opponent, so I bribed my son with some PlayStation time and escaped to Staples and Canadian Tire for supplies.

The next day I shared the idea with the Leader of Continuous Improvement and Director of Program Management at Alpha. Both immediately saw the potential, so we started working on a conceptual prototype. Gradually, the initial card-based idea evolved and grew into a total visual resource management system including:

·         large whiteboard “spreadsheets;”

·         magnetic default project trays color-coded by product family and project complexity;

·         product family based decks of cards individually colour-coded by discipline;

·         transparent card-overlays for identifying lead engineers, unrequired team slots and understaffed conditions;

·         a quarterly calendar section;

·         and additional magnetic pieces for indicating important dates, project status and performance-bonus targets.

Since implementing the Engineering Pokémon board, we have witnessed a substantial decrease in the problems faced prior to implementation, including less shuffling of resources and priorities, fewer incidents of overloading or over-multitasking, and a near elimination of “under-the-table” or “back-door” projects. Additionally, the Engineering Pokémon board has become a show-piece for factory tours, as well as acting as the new “water cooler” in that small groups tend to coalesce around the board and discuss project-related issues. As my cubicle is just adjacent to the board, this has provided to me the added benefit of keeping a pulse on various programs and an early-warning-indicator of potential troubles brewing.

Insightful words from guest blogger, Steve. Read his bio below:

When Steven Pratt is not busy by being inspired by one of his six children, he spends his time as the Director of Engineering, Power Systems for Alpha Technologies Ltd (Alpha). Steve obtained a Bachelors and Masters of Mechanical Engineering from Stevens Institute of Technology, and holds over 40 issued patents. He is a registered Professional Engineer in the state of Florida, Motorola and ASQ certified Six Sigma Black Belt and has participated in numerous Lean Sensei facilitated in-house Lean training programs at Alpha. Steve has led and is heavily involved in internal kaizen projects. He has successfully applied Six Sigma and Lean tools and principals to enact positive change throughout his career.

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