Rethinking the Sequential Mindset
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
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.