Michael Scott's second rule of business
When you read that seemingly bizarre title, a few questions may have sprung to mind: who the hell is Michael Scott, what is his second rule of business, what does it have to do with anything that’s in this magazine, and finally, why should I care? If those were your questions, I’ve got some good news for you because that’s exactly what I’m about to answer. If not, bear with me, it will all make sense in a minute.
For those who don’t know him, Michael Scott is a famous regional manager of a company that distributes paper products in the town of Scranton, Pennsylvania. He is well-known for his unique management style and while he is widely regarded as an incompetent manager, every now and then he’ll say something exceptionally clever or give genuinely sound advice, even though he’ll usually misquote, mispronounce, or mix up words and expressions. Whenever there's a lot going on in his mind, it may go "a mile an hour" instead of the usual "a mile a minute". Or he might go on the record and say that he’s not “superstitious but a little stitious” when it comes to explaining a possible curse in the office after he ran over a coworker with his car in the company’s parking lot. I almost forgot, he is also a fictional character from “The Office”, a popular TV sitcom that depicts the everyday work lives of the company’s office employees.
One storyline in the series involves a unilateral mentorship between Michael and his protégé Ryan Howard, to whom he eagerly shares his secrets to success in business. His second rule is quite an interesting one and should give us some food for thought:
Adapt. React. Re-adapt. Apt.
The millennials among the readers will immediately reminisce over a similar inspirational quote from Bear Grylls that became famous among meme makers, who have made some hilarious jokes around the quote “improvise, adapt, overcome”. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that Michael Scott’s unorthodox second rule of business refers to flexibility, that one should not just be a bystander to changing circumstances, must take matters into their own hands proactively as well as repeat the process as often as necessary. Applied to the world of information technology, this sounds an awful lot like agile and lean methodology. The same principles that caused such a stir with the leadership and management of this industry could leave a similar mark in other areas in business as well. A different approach towards management may be advised, as some traditional methods can no longer cope with an ever-increasingly complex and changing world. Embracing uncertainty and change may turn what is usually interpreted as a threat in a SWOT analysis, into an opportunity that may pay great dividends over time.
Agility in business scheduling
Let’s use scheduling as an example. Planning in an agile organization, whatever that means, sounds like a handful, and could even be construed as contradictory. The dynamic nature of the agile mindset doesn’t seem to fit in extremely well with the traditional interpretation of planning. The good old adage that one should make a plan and stick to it conjures up the image of the waterfall project methodology, agile’s arch enemy. However, it is the waterfall methodology that comes closest to the definition of a plan, which Webster’s dictionary formulates as “an orderly arrangement of parts of an overall design or objective”. The keyword in this definition that distinguishes agile from waterfall is the ‘orderly arrangement’. In complex and volatile business environments, it has proven difficult for project managers to think of everything up front, and even if they somehow miraculously manage to do that, there will be unforeseen circumstances along the way, like customers having another change of heart, unexpected delays in delivery, key people leaving the company, etc. The fundamental concept that underscores the agile mindset is the approach towards change and the delivery of the work at hand. Plans should still be made and there still should a clear set of goals. Agile assumes an incomplete and imperfect world where things aren’t entirely clear upfront and might not remain the same. As such, one should expect change and must be nimble enough to change course without too much hassle. This sounds simple enough, but actually, this is easier said than done. Meticulous planning without the rigidity is difficult and it often ends up as a chaotic mess with vague targets that are impossible to measure, missing deadlines, scope creep, overspent budgets, and more.
On a side note, there’s nothing necessarily wrong with traditional methods like that. Advocates of agile methodologies can be quite condescending towards people who stick to more traditional methods that are no longer considered to be hip or even true. When they hit the mainstream, buzzwords like agile, digital transformation, pivoting, etc. lose all meaning. Business is not a science and there are no universal laws that define how a business should be conducted. There is no quick fix and embedding a flexible mindset as a core value in an organization is a gargantuan task and few, if any, will ever reach that state of nirvana. Not that this is necessary of course - or even possible as there is a tremendous amount of luck involved in success, which agility can do little about - because it’s okay for some things to remain static. Planning fits that bill on many occasions, but it can also be used to obtain a competitive advantage when you can adapt to changing circumstances faster and better than your rivals.
Turning uncertain circumstances to your advantage
There are few other industries in which this agility becomes more apparent than parcel delivery and courier services. During Microsoft’s Inspire 2021 Keynote, FedEx showed how they managed to swiftly ship thousands of COVID-19 vaccines through its vast network and how they were able to comply with the many requirements (like temperature) in which to store and transport those vaccines. Their highly automated infrastructure is robust enough to cope with unforeseen circumstances, like diversions, due to severe storms on flight routes, and although delayed, the vaccines will arrive in the state specified by the customer. Were it not for this, the vaccines would have been rendered unusable due to temperatures high enough to break down the genetic material mRNA.
Companies like FedEx are behemoths and advanced automation is indispensable to operate on such a vast scale, but even for smaller organizations, moving from static planning to dynamic planning can make a significant impact. This is where we at Dime, an ISV that develops and distributes software for the Microsoft Dynamics product suite, try to offer a helping hand. A graphical resource and project management solution such as Dime.Scheduler is a modest attempt to visualize operations and allow dynamic planning through an intuitive user interface.
Everybody who has ever had to submit a support ticket with a major (software) company – or called the customer support of any big company for that matter - will feel the pain when a support agent redirects you to one of their coworkers in the next line of support. After painstakingly having explained the problem to the first agent, the second agent will make you do the same thing all over again so they can jot down their notes on God knows what system, only to conclude – two weeks, a few more support agents, and a heap of e-mails later – that what you’re asking is not supported or that there’s nothing they can or will do about it. That’s a lot of wasted time and an extraordinarily expensive – but highly effective - way to make your customers like your company less.
The power of data visualization
Slow responses, poor internal alignment, lost time, and lower morale are just a few consequences of poor planning. Any attempt to improve that is a major win. The reason for developing a tool such as Dime.Scheduler, above all, was to visualize planning. Indeed, some of our customers buy the product mainly for its visuals, which makes it so much easier to gain insights on the schedules of their technicians, equipment, vehicles, production lines, and more. Visualizing data helps us to understand data, which by itself is difficult to interpret without some serious cognitive effort. Good luck detecting bottlenecks in the next production batch or intercepting double bookings in a fleet of hundreds of vehicles when you don’t have the support of some tool or technology.
While visualizing the current state of your planning is crucial, a planning tool wouldn’t be much of a planning tool if it hadn’t had at least some capabilities to do something about those bottlenecks. In the modern age of computing, software can already make a lot of suggestions to resolve those planning issues, if it is fed by accurate data to prevent GIGO or ‘Garbage In = Garbage Out’. Data silos are still paramount, and they are truly detrimental. Having a centralized system and a centralized planning tool, can prevent waste like duplicate bookings, delays, missing materials, incomplete timesheets, incorrect invoices, unfinished jobs, no-shows, high unnecessary overtime, excessive status meetings and so many other subtle annoyances that hinder your organization’s growth. This is another area where Dime.Scheduler shines: its integration with central back-office systems such as Microsoft Dynamics 365 Business Central. A planning tool that is not integrated with the rest of the technological ecosystem is more useless than the ‘g’ in ‘lasagna’.
Supercharging your ERP with add-ons
Centralized systems such as ERP software are a great attempt to let the entire organization work with a single version of the truth, but it is practically impossible to create a ‘one size fits all’ solution. Enter companies like Dime that create specialized software as add-ons to ERP systems such as Microsoft Dynamics 365 Business Central. Dime.Scheduler is an example of such an add-on, and it extends the capabilities of said back-office system with an advanced resource and project planning tool. Add-ons like this hook into the system and manipulate it to automate and facilitate business processes. Dime.Scheduler’s goal is to enable agility in the planning department, to maximize output and optimize customer and employee satisfaction. When a tool breaks down or colleague calls in sick, this could be a logistical and administrative nightmare, but with tools such as Dime.Scheduler, the planner can focus on customer experience and look for a solution, given the availability and ability of the other resources in the firm. Additionally, all of it is integrated, which makes it very efficient. When a planner makes a change, it will not go unnoticed in other departments that need to generate invoices or need to make purchases to fill up the warehouse’s stock.
In essence, add-ons to ERP systems are the ERP’s counterpart: they are specialized software that aim to tackle a particular business challenge, as opposed to trying to support all major business processes. With add-ons, ERP systems can be supercharged, and companies can assemble their own ecosystem that can truly support their unique way of doing business. And, because the center of gravity in the IT department remains in the ERP system, there is little need for brittle and complicated plumbing to connect the various systems. For example, in the case of Dime.Scheduler, which is very popular among service management companies, often other (mobile) add-ons are acquired that provide powerful capabilities for the agents in the field too, to end up with an end-to-end experience that supports both the planners and the agents in the field. Without this inherently integrated architecture of ERP systems and their add-ons, enforcing new or enhanced business processes and the adoption of new software would’ve been a lot riskier.
Optimizing time and resources is a very efficient way to do more with less. By treating time and people, machines, and other resources as precious (and therefore, expensive), you can get more things done without necessarily having to make risky investments that affect the entire organization. It can be as simple as acquiring an integrated planning tool such as Dime.Scheduler but more often, there are bigger fault lines beneath the surface of the company that needs addressing. Either way, any attempt to improve the planning will expose another challenge that could well go beyond the capabilities of a mere software application. That’s when the real challenge starts, and the organization will be put to the test as to whether it is as agile as it claims to be.
This article appeared originally in the September edition of SPOTSi-Schlau Magazin.Back to news
Hendrik Bulens is Managing Partner at Dime Software and leads the Dime.Scheduler product team. His many years of experience as a consultant and passion for business and technology have helped shape Dime.Scheduler into what it is today and define where it is headed.