Simulation Expertise through Tours

This past weekend I had the good fortune to be invited to a tour of Ernst Conservation Seeds sponsored by the Soil and Water Conservation Society (SWCS). Ernst is a small company that raises and sells specialty seeds used primarily in seeding conservation areas like wetlands. But more on that in a minute…

One key to success in simulation is your ability to understand the systems being modeled. Education and experience both play an important role in this, but there is something else you can do that expands your knowledge base and is interesting – facility tours.

Facility tours (plant tours) offer a rich hands-on environment. In my experience, most are conducted by a domain expert (often an Industrial Engineer or equivalent) who knows both the facility and how to “speak your language”. Most will take you through the “behind the scenes” parts of their facility. I usually find guides to be both willing and able to explain how things work and discuss both their successes and their remaining challenges. These tours can be an incredible way to experience new things and get great new insights.

Where can you find tour opportunities?

The easiest way to get involved with these types of events and continue to enhance your understanding of systems is to participate in professional societies. The local chapters of groups like the Institute of Industrial Engineers (IIE) and the Society of Manufacturing Engineers (SME) are known for frequent facility tours. But don’t stop there. There are many other professional, industry, and technology groups like banking, healthcare, and plastics that offer tours.

Major conferences often have facility tours available as well. IIE usually has several tours available at their annual conference. Likewise some user groups and educational gatherings from major companies often include facility tours.

Ask your associates working in other companies if they could possibly arrange a personal tour where they work. If you are interviewing for a job, sometimes it may be appropriate to ask for a tour of their facility. And sometimes you can even find public tours like a beer or candy manufacturer (don’t forget the free samples :-)). Or simply get a few people together and organize a tour of your own to explore a topic you are interested in.

Don’t limit yourself to just your area of interest/expertise. Often you can learn even more from tours outside your comfort zone. You might question if I could learn things pertinent to my job by touring a small seed company like Ernst. Not only was it generally interesting, I learned quite a bit about their system as I toured their preparation, sorting and processing. I was particularly interested in their innovative work making biomass into a more effective fuel source (like a process to turn fast-growing native switch grasses into efficient fuel briquettes).

I take every possible opportunity to tour a facility. I encourage you to add frequent facility tours as part of your own continuing education and success in simulation.

Dave Sturrock
VP Products – Simio LLC

We Are Not Making Swiss Watches

Please bear with me while I mention three apparently unrelated topics.

I have a very good friend Harry who often offers me advice. Fortunately for me, the fact that I don’t want the advice has no impact on whether I will receive it. 😉 I have to admit that on those rare occasions when I have been accused of expressing some wisdom, it can often be traced back to conversations years ago with Harry. I always admired his ability to “cut to the chase” and identify what is really important.

For those born into the age of digital watches, it was not too long ago that most watches were completely mechanical with lots of moving parts. Expensive watches were made with high precision and featured exceptional accuracy. Less expensive watches were made to lower tolerances and did not keep time quite as well – every now and then they might need to be slightly adjusted to reflect accurate time. If you really needed to always have the correct time, you would want to have a watch made by the Swiss, since they were world-renowned for their quality. Unfortunately, Swiss watches also commanded a very high price and most people could not afford that luxury. However, most inexpensive watches were still good enough for typical day-to-day use.

Building models is fun and addicting! When building models it is very easy to get so involved that you forget the big picture. This is equally likely to happen when attempting to get some model detail “just right” or fine tuning an animation to make it more life-like. For example, I once modeled a material handling system where I was helping to evaluate and fine-tune several competing designs. After I had completed the model, I found myself spending hours fine-tuning the animation of AGVs unloading onto the processing devices.

So how are Harry’s sage advice, Swiss watches, and modeling related? Quite frequently when Harry would find me working on a model aspect like the one above, a typical conversation went something like this:

    Dave: “Arrgh! I can’t get this exactly right.”
    Harry: “Are the results correct and validated?”
    Dave: “Dead-on.”
    Harry: “Can someone look at the animation and understand what is happening?”
    Dave: “Yes.”
    Harry: “Well Dave, you are not making Swiss watches here…”

This was Harry’s way of bringing me back to focus on what is really important. While everyone wants to have the most realistic model and animation, for the vast majority of projects that level of realism is no more necessary than a Swiss watch. That’s not to imply that shoddy work is acceptable. Shoddy work in never acceptable – every project should be completed at least at the level of detail and quality necessary to meet the project objectives. But even though an extra level of realism is nice, it’s a luxury that most cannot afford. And that is especially true if spending time on the luxuries causes you to neglect the basics.

In fact, you should apply this concept even more broadly. When a project is not going as well as expected, first look closely to see if you or anyone involved is spending valuable time on things that are not absolutely necessary. If so, refocus on your priorities.

I urge you to join me following Harry’s advice: Concentrate on the basics first and leave the “luxuries” for later.

Dave Sturrock
VP Products – Simio LLC

Executing a Simulation Project for the Simple Minded

This week I thought I would step back and offer a somewhat light-hearted summary of some of the things we have covered. Here are five simple steps for executing a simulation project.

1. Figure out what to model. You can do this by being brilliantly insightful (which you might be), or by just talking to some stakeholders. Ask them questions. How would you use this model? What are your problems? What type of solution are you looking for? Will you invest time in this? Will you make decisions based on this model? Are you going to roll your eyes and laugh out loud once I leave the room? Are you going to tell your spouse about this project over dinner this evening to demonstrate that you indeed do have a sense of humor?

2. Build something. It doesn’t have to be the world-changing model you devised in step 1, but a close enough approximation. It should do at least one useful thing from the list of game-changing things that’s on the feature-list from #1. Oh, and it should sort of work (even if requiring the assistance of some chanting, prayer and promises to recycle more).

3. (Option A) Deliver it! Get your project in the hands of users. Even if it’s incomplete and not fully validated. It is possible that everyone that sees it runs screaming in the other direction. Mothers protect their children in its presence. But, get it out there and work like heck to deal with the aftermath of the great steaming heap you’ve unleashed upon the world.

3. (Option B) Make Perfect, Wait, Deliver it! This avoids the problems with Option A because people will no longer run screaming. But, nobody cares about your project now because everyone is flying around with jet-packs on their back and 16-core processors are embedded in people’s brain as an outpatient procedure. The problem moved on and your solution (however “perfect”) is now irrelevant.

4. Present. Present. Present. The law of large numbers says that the larger the number of stakeholders exposed to the project (see Step 3a), the more people you’ll encounter with average coordination who will trip and fall when trying to run away from your solution. Some of these people will buy-in while still in a semi-dazed state. Voila! You have happy stakeholders.

5. Refine. Armed with a few active stakeholders, see what you can learn from them. What are they trying to accomplish? How do they use the model? What do they say between the screams of frustration? Figure out how to lower the pain quickly and treat them gently. During these brief spites of happiness that your stakeholders have, other stakeholders who come into contact with them think “Hey, Joe seems to be happy — even though he’s got this far-away look in his eyes, maybe this model is useful. Let me try it out…” Bing! You have another “happy” stakeholder.

And the story goes on.

For the really, really simple minded here’s the summary:
Decide what to model, complete an imperfect prototype, get stakeholder buy-in, keep improving, get more stakeholder buy-in. Lather, rinse, repeat. SUCCESS!

Thanks go to Dharmesh Shah of the OnStartups blog who provided the basis for this article. For anyone who has ever been, or wanted to be, part of a startup, you might find this blog interesting and entertaining.

Dave Sturrock
VP Products – Simio LLC

Wood You Simulate?

I split a lot of firewood.

I get most of my firewood in 18”-48” diameter logs that must be split lengthwise to about 6” thickness.

Years ago when I first moved into a house with a fireplace, I started cutting and splitting my own wood. I used to split wood with an 8 pound maul (a maul is like a thick-bladed axe). I frequently had to supplement that with a wedge or two driven in with a large sledge hammer. Over time, I learned to “read” the grain in the wood, so that I could split along natural cracks and save myself some effort.

A few years later I bought a wood stove to supplement my heating. As my wood demands (and my muscle tone) increased I upgraded to a 14 pound maul. What a difference. Sure it was a lot more demanding to swing, but as my aim improved just about every swing resulted in the desired division of one piece of hardwood into two. Life was good.

Ten years ago I moved into the oddity of an all-electric house in the cold Northeast and shifted even more of my heating to my woodstove. After a while I started finding it hard to manually split enough wood to keep my house warm, so I bought a hydraulic splitter. Sweet! While it is still a bit difficult to manhandle a 200-300 pound log onto the splitter, once I get it there, the hydraulic ram pretty much takes care of the rest. Sometimes with badly knotted wood, I still have to “read” the wood and be a bit creative at how I direct the splitter to get through it.

Today while I was splitting some logs my mind started to wander to some parallels between splitting firewood and doing simulation projects.

Doing it yourself is definitely not for everyone. If you don’t enjoy it, and don’t have the time and skill for it, you are probably best off buying the service from someone else.

It is amazing what a difference the right tool makes. No single tool is right for everyone. For some jobs, a lightweight tool is perfect. For other jobs, nothing less than a high-end tool makes sense.

No matter what tool you use, having the good judgment to “read” the problem can make solving it a lot easier. And the more you practice, the better you will be able to determine the best approach to solving the problem.

Until next time, Happy Modeling!

Dave Sturrock
VP Products – Simio LLC

Making the Date

It is rarely pleasant to miss a deadline, and sometimes it can be downright career-limiting. Last week, we talked about some problems that contribute to missed project dates. Now let’s explore some solutions.

Step 1 – Objectives and Specifications

We have already covered the importance of project objectives and specifications. Of course setting those objectives requires knowing your stakeholders and getting their involvement. In this and other articles I use the term stakeholders to represent the set of people who care about this project. It could be your customers, your manager, people who work in the systems being modeled, or others.

Step 2 – Creating a Project Plan

When creating a project plan, two adages come to mind.

“Expect the Best; Plan for the Worst”

I think it is fine to be an optimist and hope, maybe even expect, that things will go well. But I don’t count on it. I don’t base my plan on optimistic assumptions. I like to start with what seems to be a reasonable estimate, then double it to account for all the things that I know will go wrong. This may seem like “padding” but the objective is to determine an achievable schedule. I have seldom, if ever, found what seems up front to be a “reasonable” schedule to actually be achievable in the end due to the large number of unknowns in a typical project.

Of course you can always spend more time up front studying the problem to reduce the risk to an acceptable level and possibly improve the accuracy of your estimates. But by that time the project has often become irrelevant because the decisions have already been made. Time estimates are always a guess and always wrong, so find a method that works for you and move on.

“Under Promise, Over Deliver”

To me this means be conservative. I try to avoid over-committing and, when possible, avoid sharing my optimistic intentions. For example, while I may have every expectation of creating a compelling 3D animation, I might only guarantee 2D animation or simple 3D animation. Or while I might intend to model some secondary applications so that I might explore some potential system improvements, I would not guarantee that in the project specifications.

In fact, my project specifications usually include three categories:
Guaranteed Deliverables – No matter what happens, the project is not considered done without them.
Likely Deliverables – I intend to complete these, but if things go poorly, they may be cut. Often the stakeholders do not even know this list exists, depending on their tolerance for flexibility.
Wish List – In the rare instance when the project goes exceptionally well, I implement tasks from this list. This list never makes it to a public project plan.

This approach provides me some flexibility to:
a) Avoid disappointing the stakeholders in case the project goes poorly, and
b) Retain the opportunity to delight the stakeholders if the project goes well.

What Comes Next?
These first two steps are just the start of a project. In future articles I will discuss prioritization, agility, communication and many other topics that contribute to making the date and making a successful project.

Until next time, Happy Modeling!

Dave Sturrock
VP Products – Simio LLC

On My Honor

On my honor, I will do my best
to do my duty to God and my country;
To obey the Scout Law;
To help other people at all times;
To keep myself physically strong, mentally awake,
and morally straight.
Boy Scouts of America – Scout Oath

I haven’t really thought about those words in a few decades, but it’s funny how they came back to me in an instant. If you were ever a Scout, you probably repeated those words hundreds of times, like I did. These are certainly admirable words to live by. But what does that have to do with simulation?

On my honor – Make a commitment. Then take it seriously. Or in the words of Jedi Master Yoda “Do, or do not. There is no ‘try.’
I will do my best – Is “good enough” really good enough? What would happen if you really did your personal best?
To do my duty – A somewhat outdated concept, that each of us has intrinsic responsibilities and obligations. Or is it?
To self and company – OK, I took some liberties here. But when considering your specific project commitments, also consider the big picture of what the company (or your stakeholders) really need. And it should never be far from your mind, what do you and your family need?
To help other people – A team who works together can accomplish so much more than the sum of the individuals.
To keep myself physically strong – Keep a good balance in your life. Personal fitness takes time, but can return so much.
To keep myself mentally alert – Some types of wisdom require time to develop, but sometimes “wisdom” can be as simple as thinking things through objectively, along with careful attention to detail.
To keep myself morally straight – There is no substitute for personal integrity. Sometimes you have to make difficult choices to keep your integrity, but it is always easier to keep than to restore after it has been lost.

These concepts are valuable in your professional life as well as in your personal life. Think about them from time to time while doing your next project.

Dave Sturrock
VP Products, Simio LLC

Prove This

On my second professional model, now that I thought I was an expert 😉 , my manager came to me and said “Prove this…”. He had the very common situation where an associate wanted to make a major investment, but could not convince upper management. This is a perfect application for simulation – a model can provide objective information on which to base such a decision.

This was a much better situation than my first experience. This time I had a motivated, involved stakeholder. I had a clear objective. I had important meaningful work. Life was good.

For a while.

Until the model started to “dis-prove this”. Experimentation led me to believe that other alternatives might be better. I told myself that I must be wrong. I double checked but I could not find any errors. Then my boss and the stakeholder told me I was wrong. I triple checked but I could still not find any errors. Life was no longer so good.

What went wrong?

We started with the result. When I set out to prove a conclusion, I put my integrity at risk. The best I could hope for was that the model actually “proved” what they wanted. A typical client reaction to that situation is an empty “I already knew that!” feeling and the perception on his part that I provided very little value. Worse is when the model contradicts their conclusion. It does not support a “known fact“. In that case, stakeholders might think I am incompetent or that simulation offers no value.

But the worst case of all would have been if the model disproved what the stakeholder wanted, but I kept “fixing it” until it supported their conclusion. My client may be satisfied, but do you think he will ever bring me real work? Unlikely. I would have just proven to him that a model can be made to produce whatever result you want, and that my integrity is low enough to do that.

When similar situations arose later in my career, my responses were:

    –I will be happy to evaluate that situation for you, but I cannot promise what the results will be.
    –If what you really want is just a supporting statement, I cannot provide it without objective criteria on which to base it.

While the above does not always create good will, it does allow me to keep my integrity. As much as I hate to admit it, intentionally misusing a model to create invalid results is often easy. Integrity is often the most important thing that you and I can provide as simulationists. A simulationist without integrity should look for another line of work.

Dave Sturrock
VP Products – Simio LLC

Model This

When I first started modeling, my boss came to me and said “Model this…” and then proceeded to describe an area of the plant that he thought “might benefit from having a model”. Unfortunately there were no specific objectives beyond that.

To me, a new simulationist, that sounded like an ideal project. Nothing to prove… Nothing specific to evaluate… No one waiting on specific results (because none were asked for)… It even sounded like a good opportunity to learn how to model. But it was not.

“Model this” generally results in a useless project. A waste of time. Without clients or clear objectives, I could not know what to model. Without clear objectives, I had little motivation to learn how to model tricky situations; I instead tended to bypass them to work on aspects more fun or interesting. In fact, for the same reason I often did not even recognize modeling challenges, so I never learned to deal with them.

Moreover, when it was all done, what did I have to show for my time? Perhaps a cool-looking animation. It probably did not have many aspects of reality to it. Reality is driven by close interaction with the stakeholders – oops, I did not have any of them. Why should anyone waste his or her time sharing domain knowledge with me, when I was basically just modeling for fun?

And worse, after I “finished” the model, I was overconfident of my modeling skills – after all, I modeled everything I set out to model, right? Of course I was never forced to really verify and validate against the real system, so I never really had any idea how good the model really was.

Avoid “model this”. Always push for clear project objectives. More on that next time.

Dave Sturrock
VP Products – Simio LLC

Magic Formula For Success – Part 2

This article continues a brief exploration into how you can be more successful in your simulation projects. (Look here for part 1.)

Here is a second set of important issues that should be considered.

Agility – You can count on the fact that what you are modeling will change. If the system itself is not changing, the detailed project objectives will. Use a technique that allows you to stay agile enough to cope with the inevitable changes.

Solve Problems – Don’t see yourself as just a model-builder. See yourself as a problem-solver. Think outside the box. Recognize opportunities. Don’t simply provide a service, add value.

Software – Software selection is often difficult, particularly if budgets are tight. Domain-specific or generic? Easy to use or flexible? Established product or state-of-the art technology? Many factors must be considered.

Know Your Stakeholders – Who is funding the project? Put yourselves in their position and determine what their concerns are and what they would like and need to see from this project.

Credibility – While simulation provides a degree of objectivity, to many it is still a “black art”. At the end of the day if you don’t have personal credibility, all the backup data possible will not be able to sell your ideas.

Certainly this was a very brief treatment of only a few key factors to success. Future articles will discuss these and others in more detail.?

Dave Sturrock
VP Products – Simio LLC

The Magic Formula for Success

Many people new to simulation rightfully inquire how they can be successful. This first article will identify some of the issues associated with simulation projects. Later articles will explore these and other issues in greater detail.

So, to get started, here are five of the more important issues that should be considered.

Project Objectives – “Model this” is not a good objective. “Prove this” is not much better. A clear objective is essential to a meaningful project. Hopefully it would include the phrases “evaluate …” and “as measured by …”.

Know Yourself – What are your strengths and weaknesses? How about those of any other team members who will be involved? Be honest. Then come up with a plan to capitalize on the strengths and overcome the weaknesses.

Domain, Tool & Process Knowledge – It is not enough to be proficient in a simulation tool. Nor is it enough to have comprehensive domain knowledge of what is being modeled. While having project participants with both of those skills is a prerequisite to success, you also need to know how to conduct a simulation project and deliver validated, valuable results.

Project Planning and Management – A project that produces results after the decision is made has little value. And an over budget project may be cancelled before completion. You must pay appropriate attention to completion dates and project costs.

Team/Reviews – Even though “No man is an island”, too often simulation projects are conducted by a single person with little or no team interaction. Find a way to get others involved.

Look for five more success factors next time. Future articles will discuss these and others in more detail.?

Dave Sturrock
VP Products – Simio LLC