Dog Piles

At my work we have a pathological fear of dog piles. While presumably no one likes stepping in a real dog pile, and the credibility-stain of these metaphorical dog piles do not scrape off as easily.

There is a good series of articles on “black holes” in businesses, and if you read the CIC’s newsletter “To Your Credit” you may remember an article on black holes. The article raises a lot of red flags that you should pay attention to. Black holes are defined as “an area of an organization where, unbeknownst to management…undesirable activities occur (or a lack of desirable activities occur) in abundance, both of which destroy organizations.”

“Dog piles” might be defined as the occasional but serious lapse in process that occurs in an otherwise healthy company. If allowed to grow the dog piles could eventually form a black hole.

In our company’s first dog pile, the root cause was an ERP system implementation, followed closely by a very busy period. Some orders were shipped, but due to a system problem were not posted when shipped, and were piled up to be dealt with later. The impact turned into millions of dollars in under 15 days. Accounting was watching daily sales, and noted that though we were half-way through the month, we were only 10% through the month’s budget. We looked through every desk, and found a big pile of orders marked “to be fixed”. We figured out what was wrong and assigned people to fix each order. We then fixed the process in the system.

Our second dog pile related to shipped orders awaiting proof of receipt.  When an order was delivered by one of our remote sales people, the Customer Service Desk simply put the unmatched orders in a drawer until the signed BOL was received from the sales people. The sales people were storing the signed BOLs in their trucks, but not sending it to head office, so paper was building in two places that no one could see! Management didn’t know until the inventory count turned up a lot of discrepancies. It was not a big dollar amount and was resolved by more training, but it was a lesson to us to pay attention to the harder to see parts of our business.

Dog piles happen usually because the fix requires a bit more effort and the work is put to the side “until there is time”. Like black holes, proper engineering of processes and management attention to detail makes all the difference.

A key red flag is when there has been a recent change in staff, system or process. As with most complicated systems, when you make a change to that system, some part of the process is likely to get missed. New or junior staff, and sometimes senior staff, think nothing of building up a bit of paper to be looked at “later”, and they may not realize the downstream impact that may have on the department or company.

Noticing the problem is management’s responsibility, and that can happen because someone mentions something, you notice a pile of paper, or your routine reports are telling you that something isn’t right. You should know your department’s procedures and know what procedural success looks like in your routine reports. If things look weird then you need to find it and fix it. Your credibility depends on it.

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