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Columnist: A. Blanton Godfrey

Photo: A. Blanton Godfrey


Rethinking the Sequential Mindset
Organizations are just as capable as individuals at parallel processing.

A. Blanton Godfrey


The average American has raised parallel processing--often called multitasking--to an art form. Many of us watch the evening news while reading the paper, chatting on the phone, and talking with our spouse and kids. We keep recorders handy while mowing the lawn or gardening. We often read, watch TV or listen to music while exercising. Unable to add more hours to each day, we've decided to accomplish more by doing things in parallel. We've mastered this time-saving technique as individuals. So, why is it so hard for organizations?

Organizations' tasks are often scheduled sequentially, with one task suspended until the previous one is finished. Any delay sends slowdown ripples through a seemingly endless series of systems. Reports are created as sequential fragments, each section on hold until the previous one is written. Project schedules are routinely changed, always with an extended completion date. New products hit the market long after customers' interest has peaked and after competitors have claimed most of the market.

There are profitable exceptions to this inefficient practice. Some organizations have learned that tasks can overlap--and in some cases be done simultaneously--before coming together at prescribed points. New product development can take place concurrently in various design labs while skilled project managers oversee schedules, communications and shared standards. But this still seems to be the exception rather than the rule. Despite parallel processing's obvious potential for cutting cycle times, it remains an underused methodology.

The order, production, distribution and sales processes common to many businesses could greatly benefit from parallel processing. Here's an example of these typically sequential actions: A customer places an order for 1,000 units. The purchasing department then orders the necessary materials, and production is scheduled to begin when the materials are received. Once production is completed, the distribution department schedules transportation. When the customer receives the product, the finance department creates a bill and sends it to the customer. The customer is given 30 days to pay it, at which point the payment will be recorded.

The few organizations that have streamlined this process have enjoyed stunning gains. One oil company discovered that the amount of motor oil used by each service station was fairly predictable. Because most goods moved by truck, the amount of oil sold at each station varied depending upon the season, although same-month sales were quite predictable. So the company created sales models by station and scheduled more than half its deliveries without waiting for the orders. It then adjusted deliveries at the last minute to account for differences between predicted and actual orders.

During a senior executive management-training session, I raised the question of why another oil company immediately requested my money when I bought gas for my car but was willing to wait two months when I ordered a large quantity of fuel oil for my house. Oil companies require payment on delivery, either with cash or a credit card, for transportation fuel. They've become quite efficient at processing those credit charges (or have outsourced the business to those who are). However, when they deliver fuel oil, they usually leave a receipt for the amount delivered but not a bill. That's sent later, and the customer is given 30 days to pay it. Some companies have now established credit card accounts with customers and charge the account when fuel oil is delivered. Others deliver the oil and the bill at the same time.

Perhaps the most interesting examples of parallel processing occur in the large automotive and electronics firms capitalizing on their worldwide design labs, passing designs from lab to lab and taking advantage of the time differences. They're also requiring individual labs to assume responsibility for local customizations of product designs. For example, a design lab in Italy is responsible for European design aspects, both regulatory and stylistic, at the same time that labs in Asia and America are working on their tasks.

VeriFone was created with these principles in mind. Employees scattered throughout the world worked in parallel on proposals for Verifone clients, passing partially completed work electronically across continents. Customers--and competitors--were shocked by how fast the company could create a detailed proposal for implementing its credit card-verifying systems for a new location.

Fortunately, incorporating a parallel-processing philosophy isn't that difficult. The Gantt chart, that wonderful tool long used by project managers, can help us. Before scheduling the next sequential project, stop and consider which steps can be done in parallel. Can the graphics be designed while someone else is writing text? Can facts be gathered while charts are drafted, and the exact numbers added afterward? Can the pilot survey be done months before the exact wording of the questions are finalized? Can a basic model be launched to the target market before all its features are completed? With a little practice, companies can become as adept at multitasking as the people who work for them.

About the author

A. Blanton Godfrey is dean and Joseph D. Moore professor at the College of Textiles, North Carolina State University. He is the co-author of the recently published Modern Methods for Quality Control and Improvement, Second Edition. Letters to the editor regarding this column can be sent to letters@qualitydigest.com.