‘Can you spare me an hour this week please?’
Anna calls Stephanie Wong and explains what she wants to talk about. They are similar in many ways but not too many. Stephanie has found that strangers who visit her on mysterious missions usually involve more work and more work is something she can happily live well without.
Steph, as she prefers, comes from a mixed British and Singaporean family. Her early days in Singapore gave her a taste for all things Chinese plus the ability to read and write both Cantonese and English with ease and fluency.
Steph has the same high cheek bones as Anna but a much more rounded face and slight almond shaped eyes peeking out from her very straight, deep black hair.
Her desk is inconspicuously positioned in the corner of a large room where most of her team work. The door to this general office bears the engraved label ‘BarCode City’ under a very large barcode image. Every desk has a barcode on it in just the place a name might normally be and Anna correctly guesses that the team have worked out a way of translating their names into barcodes just for fun. She thinks, as she crosses the room, that they really ought to get out more. Then she thinks she really ought to get out more – at least they all seem to share the same little jokes. She has started to realise that this project management stuff that took her out of her previous team can be a lonely, maverick kind of existence.
Anna brings Steph up to date with the e-Trolley pilot project.
‘Oh right, I saw the thing about the CEO in the bath – very, err, unusual I must say. So you are running this pilot project to test out the idea of a super slick trolley that saves people time and bother at the checkout. Right so far?’
‘Spot on’, says Anna.
‘But what has this all got to do with me?’
‘The idea is that customers using an e-Trolley can scan their own purchases and go straight to a speed checkout where the trolley will update the till with their list. IT are planning on bypassing the checkout scanning of each item and passing a complete list to the till so that it can check prices with your database and present them with a complete, priced bill.
‘The first part is to check if you see any problem with that?’
‘Not yet. Assuming that as far as our pricing database is concerned the till will request pricing information and bulk discount structures in the usual way, it should make no difference at all. At this stage in the process our database is being used to supply information only and is in ‘read-only’ mode. So as long as IT is happy we should be happy too. I would like to be kept in the loop in case we spot any problems.
‘But you said the first part – I assume there is at least a second partto come?’
‘Ah, yes,’ says Anna, not quite sure how to drop this particular bombshell, ‘it is about weighing.’
Steph shifted in her seat and drew her eyebrows together in a perplexed and vaguely suspicious kind of way, ‘now you’ve got me interested.’
‘Well, we are quite concerned about the number of people that might steal goods by simply not bothering to scan them. The idea to control the level of theft is that we build a weighing mechanism into the trolley so that we can check that the goods weigh approximately what, in total, they should weigh. We think this means accessing a database of item weights including their packaging.’
Anna decided she has gone far enough and leaves Steph to think this over. It doesn’t take long.
‘But we don’t have that information in the system….. apart from bulk purchase items like fruit and veg that get weighed in the store we just don’t know how much a can of beans weighs.’
Anna thinks ‘why is it always a can of beans?’ Aloud she says, ‘I understand that, but could we know how much a can of beans weighs? And a can of spaghetti? And a packet of rice?’
‘Right now, no, we couldn’t. It would be a non-trivial business to know such a thing.’
‘I thought it might be tricky. You don’t have information from transport or packaging or anywhere?’
‘We have information on loads but they are mixed up with loads of different types and sizes of goods and with pallets and cardboard boxes and crates. No, that will not help at all. I don’t think I can help you with this. Maybe there is another way to reduce theft. Now I have to get on with some other….’
‘Hang on a moment please. I am a bit stuck with this and I need some help. You see, I have been given the job of running a pilot so there are no decisions at this stage. I plan to get a few e-Trolleys built and run a pilot scheme in a few stores.
‘At the end of the pilot I am supposed to deliver a report to the CEO outlining the implications of a full roll out across all of our stores. That report has to talk about risks, costs, customer reaction and changes to our own organisation to make it all possible. This issue of theft and weights has been, if you’ll excuse the pun, weighing on my mind for some time. I’ve got Mike Rovone telling me daily all about weighing devices and all the problems he has and I just cannot see a way through.
‘Please could you explain to me how the barcode process works at the moment so that I too can understand the size of the problem?’
Steph stares at Anna for a moment and sees a helpless child inside the tough exterior. ‘What was that about changes to our organisation?’
‘I think everyone expects that the full roll out might imply changes to way we work in a number of areas – check out, security, your area…’
Steph gets interested in the possibility of managing a much bigger team with the increase in authority and responsibility and pay that should follow. Steph is an ambitious person. Anna hoped that Steph was ambitious and this was all going to Anna’s plan.
‘OK, OK – this is how things work in barcode city. I’ll keep it simple and avoid technology so we can see where we get to.
‘We maintain a central database of all the goods we sell. Every item starts with a unique reference number which is of course reflected in its barcode. If you read a barcode like 9 781858 285771 we can tell you exactly what that item is.
‘Every item has a description theoretically in English although the shortage of space often make it very hard to recognise. We store a quantity which might be a weight, number, volume of liquid; something like 500grams, 6, 1 litre or whatever. Here, come round and take a look at the database.’
They crowd round Steph’s PC.
‘Next we store a goods category – general food, frozen food, loose food, stationery, clothing, personal products and so on.
‘We also store a price, a VAT rate, information on bulk discounts like the 4 for the price of 3 offers. Finally there is a link to the stock system so we know the turnover and stock levels of each item.
‘What we don’t store is the total weight of a can of beans.’
Anna has been listening intently, ‘You haven’t mentioned where the reference numbers come from.’
Steph explains this, ‘It depends. The number comes from the supplier, usually the manufacturer. The way they are transmitted to us varies a lot – some have direct electronic feeds, some have websites and some send us data files.
This is a continuous job as we take on new items, old items change, we drop items, we change suppliers, errors come to light – we have a team that does nothing other than keep this database up to date. And we don’t do pricing – that comes from retail.’
Anna asks again, ‘So, to store weights we would firstly have to change the database design and also have a whole new team of people, probably under your department, who weigh samples of everything we sell and enter the information into the database?’
‘That’s about the size of it. It could be centralised or it could be done at certain larger stores – not every store carries all items. There would be a massive job to do at the start as everything we currently sell would have to be scanned and weighed but after the initial exercise we would just scan and weigh new and changed items. This would at least double my team. Hang on, we would have to scan and weigh items every time their packaging changed as well.’
‘Do any of the manufacturers provide, or be willing to provide, us with the packaged weight?’ asks Anna
‘None at the moment, but some might. Look I would like to help but I don’t even have the budget to put someone on the problem to do some research into this.’
‘A budget is something I may be able to help with – have you got someone you could put on the job to find out what we need to know, if I can get the budget for you?’
‘Maybe, maybe. But I was expecting you to talk about RFID.’
‘Ah’, says Anna, I was coming to that. We are a long way away from having RFID tags on everything but it is possible to do an RFID scan and check that any RFID tagged goods that should have been scanned by the customer, have been scanned.’
‘We have been expecting someone to start talking about RFID soon any way so this will give us a chance to explore that as well. I’ll go for that. But what happens if this marvellous system rings an alarm bell – you know, it is all too heavy or there are hidden RFID tagged items. What happens in the store?’
Anna explains that no decision have yet been taken, ‘the chances are that there will be a random honesty check and these systems will secretly trigger a random check. The security guards and store detectives may have a button to pull the same trick. As far as the customer is concerned they will just be annoyed at being randomly checked but actually we can check whenever there is suspicion.’
Steph thinks, wait until the tabloids pick up on that story!
And so Stephanie Wong becomes committed to help with the project. She agrees to help Anna work out some costs and team sizes to provide and maintain the information the project will need. They later carefully agree the objectives of the exercise, the timescale and the expected outputs and deliverables. It is all very clear.
Anna therefore delegates this work to Steph and her department and does not get involved in the people actually doing the work within Barcode City.
A relatively painless discussion with her sponsor, Mike, releases some internal budget adjustments that more than cover Steph’s costs. The work Steph is planned to do gets amended in Anna’s bar chart to a single activity with the note that it has been delegated to Barcode City (S.Wong).
This is Anna’s test of the delegation process. She remembers from her briefing with Jason that she is delegating the work and the authority to Steph. It is up to Steph to get this work done within her own group. Steph understands what needs to be done and it is her role to deliver the outputs as agreed and to schedule. Anna should not get involved with Steph’s team unless invited to do so. Whoever actually does the work, and there may be one or many, will take instruction from, and report back to Steph. Steph will bring the whole feedback together and hand it over to Anna.
At this stage this is a planned delegation. Steph has a clear idea of when this work will be needed and that date is definitely in the future. It would not be fair to expect Steph to start straight away. In any case Anna makes clear that this work cannot start until the pilot project has been given the green light expected on 4th December.
Anna takes the precaution of confirming the discussion, the work that needs to be done and the timescale in an email to Steph.
Steph and Max and Anna have a meeting to discuss the IT implications and to sort out a few technical problems which results in Anna being happy with the weighing issue for the first time. It is a weight off her mind. After this meeting they enjoy a pleasant meal together. Max pays the bill without a thought which is good as Anna hates a tightwad. He is really careful with the coffee which is even better.
Thanks to Geoff Reiss for contributing this book