Can you WFH & Walk?

This is the second guest blog from Craig Lukasik , an MBA supply chain graduate from the Poole College of Management’s supply chain program.  In this thought piece he debates the value of work from home programs vs. being there in person… keep ’em coming Craig!

IT work, now and then

These days, it is “cool” to be a techie. Jobs come with perks, including nap rooms and free gourmet lunches. Celebrity entrepreneurs, like Mark Cuban, talk about how they are learning to write code. Back in the late 1990s when I started getting paid to write code, this was not the case. I often found myself in windowless rooms, basements or chilly server rooms wrangling data or writing code. However, from early on in my career, my managers ensured that I was exposed to the real action: where the business value-add activities took place. I walked factory floors at Prestolite in Ann Arbor to see how the ERP system for which I was contributing programming code played a part in the convergence of IT with humans working with machines and parts to produce finished products. When I worked for Richard Helppie’s Superior Consultant Holdings Corporation, while between programming assignments, I shadowed an industrial engineer who was helping to redesign an Emergency Department’s (ED) physical layout; we watched the flow of doctors, patients and nurses. We asked questions like: “why are the doctors not using the stations intended for note-taking and instead are walking down two hallways to take their notes in empty offices?”; it turned out that the note-taking station in the heart of the ED was a place where doctors were exposed to all sorts of noise and other distractions.

Being a good programmer had a lot to do with understanding software architecture, APIs, etc… But being a better programmer meant understanding the world in which the software was actually put into practice. 

Views from the catwalk

Ford Motor Company’s F-150 has been America’s best selling truck for 46 consecutive years. Looking at the finished product with your eyes barely conveys the awesome complexity of the supply chain involved in bringing it to life. To get a better sense of the convergence of the F-150’s supply chain into its finished product, you can take a stroll on the catwalk that hovers above the assembly line as part of the Ford Rouge Factory Tour. The public can tour the plant and walk above a large portion of the assembly process. You can see Kanban in action as workers pull components from bins and perform their specialized task in a step of the ever-rolling line, while overhead displays help orchestrate replenishment. You can get a sense of the optimized flows of humans, robots and parts. And, maybe, if you look closely, you’ll spot opportunities for improvements in the process, in the safety measures, or in areas where automation has not yet taken hold. Consider whether or not you would see such opportunities by looking at charts and graphs…

The gymnast’s turnaround

Alan Mulally was figuratively and literally a gymnast (at least during his time at the University of Kansas). After taking over the reins as CEO of Ford in 2006, he famously transformed a culture with deep-rooted divisional fiefdoms that hindered communication, reporting, efficiency and agility into a new era of quality, efficiency and innovation. A disciplined engineer by training, he did not solely rely on charts, facts and figures to drive organizational change. He used his eyes and made sure that the leaders saw the firm’s operations in a certain, methodical way. For instance, he built trust through transparency by using simple visual tools (like color-coding for status)

Once Mulally brought divisional leaders together to a conference room to look at a pile of hood prop rods for the various cars and trucks that Ford manufactures. The prop rods all looked different. They were from different suppliers, made of different materials, had a variety of costs, and had different internal staff dedicated to their role in the supply chain and assembly. He did not send a spreadsheet in an email to make his point. He had the leadership team look at the rods on the table and aimed for them to understand that “this kind of variation is costly but doesn’t matter to consumers.”

Mulally performed organizational and operational gymnastics, starting with a junk-rated company, and ending up being called “The Savior of Ford”. Mulally understood the power of seeing and of showing.

“Gemba”, say what?

In the 1970s, Japan rocked the automotive world by mass producing high-quality, fuel-efficient vehicles at highly competitive prices. The Toyota way eventually swept across the industry, and a new jargon (and mindset) made its way to Detroit, with terms like Kaizen, Kanban, and Genchi Genbutsu. The Gemba Walk made its way into automotive manufacturing and other industries, such as Overhead Door and at the COVID-19 vaccination center at Mount Morningside Hospital in New York City. “The literal translation for Gemba (現場) is ‘the real place’ and in business it refers to the real place where value is created, such as the factory floor.” These tools are not a magic bullet; a Harvard Business Review study found that MBWA (“management by walking around”) decreased performance, on average, in a hospital setting

I used aspects of the Gemba Walk to help design a software system for lab technicians at a major national laboratory. When the CDC needed help to track the variants of the SARS-Cov-2 (“Coronavirus”) across the USA, I helped build a system that enabled lab technicians to efficiently select and route the appropriate samples for the genetic sequencing process, a step that comes after the COVID PCR test. I went to the lab, watched the technicians, observed the physical flow of humans and materials in the lab and talked with the people involved in the process. I was able to see (and measure) aspects of the process that I was tasked with automating. I made observations that I never could have made through video calls or emails.

Can you WFH & walk?

Software practitioners (developers, designers, architects, UX engineers and product owners) are continuously building and refining systems for robotics, assembly lines, labs, logistics, warehouses, shipyards, and other industries. “Agile” software development is a common methodology (and has some roots that are tied to Toyota-inspired manufacturing practices). Agile facilitates frequent, structured communication, but the product owner often serves as a proxy for the actual business stakeholders. He or she may communicate with slides, diagrams and customer “user stories”. However, as the value chain is communicated through the various parties (product owner, architect, etc.), the real-world value chain (what does the assembly line actually look like when it is in full swing) can become distilled and distorted.

Executives and senior managers are keenly monitoring the Work from Home (WFH) phenomenon. The U.S. Census Bureau is tracking WFH trends. Academics are analyzing WFH. Celebrity executives are flip-flopping on WFH. Productivity is questioned. But, are we asking the right question? Can you WFH and walk?

It is clear that IT and non-IT professionals prefer WFH… So companies are in a bind: force in-office work or find some middle ground. A.P. Moller – Maersk, “an integrated transport and logistics company”, lists job vacancies on their website. When looking at their IT jobs, you will struggle to see a mention of “Remote” or “Work from Home.” And you will also see vacancies, such as this Lead Software Engineer that have been open since May of 2022.

Will technology fill the gap?

A startup named “Gemba” is hoping to solve this vexing problem using Virtual Reality (VR). A Global Newswire article from January, 2023 describes Gemba’s origin story:

“Gemba grew out of executive training company The Leadership Network, founded in 2013 by CEO Nathan Robinson and Chairman Victor Lewis. Through its collaboration with global giants like Toyota, Tesla, Google, BMW and Amazon, senior executives from non-competing companies have been able to visit their state-of-the-art factories and facilities to see best practice in action as part of an executive Gemba masterclass.”

We’ll see if technology will allow techies like myself to continue to work in our pajamas while getting the benefits of a Gemba Walk. In the meantime, executives and senior managers may want to consider scheduling on-site Gemba walks. Just don’t forget to supply a gourmet lunch, a foot massage, and some nice swag.

About the Author

Craig Lukasik is a technologist who thrives on using technology to enhance business outcomes and fuel innovation. He obtained his MBA from NC State’s Poole College of Management Jenkins MBA program in 2009 and his B.S. in Computer Science from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, in 1997. He has worked in a number of industries: automotive, pharmaceuticals, wealth/family office management, real-time derivatives training (investment banking), and even had a stint at the American Kennel Club as a consultant. He enjoys creatingsoftware system architectures, building data pipelines, and writing code.