Sadness

My Top Three Skills

 

Analysis

I take overwhelming data and find the small but vital takeaways.

One of my projects involves acquiring thousands of products from a variety of sources and shipping them to a vendor overseas. Over the last year and a half over 30,000 items have been shipped, many of which we borrowed from libraries that expected them to be returned eventually. After our first, small return shipment was almost double the cost we had anticipated my boss asked me to figure out exactly which products we have to return and to investigate every possible option of replacement so that we only return the essential items to mitigate the cost.

To start, I pulled a full export of all physical products we shipped out of the Inventory Locator. Once the items were all in an Excel spreadsheet I identified which set of products we needed to return, established a chart of all other possible avenues to replace them, reached out to fifteen Supply Planners to confirm which products we had duplicates of in the warehouse to order, and finally formed the list of items that could be replaced in no other way. Of the 30,000 items, I was able to relocate all but a third of the products.

Once my analysis of the products was complete I consolidated all of my research into a single page to provide my boss with a quick reference point for where products were coming from.

Organization  

I strive to make everything straight forward and logical.

When I first started working for Houghton Mifflin Harcourt we had a library. Or rather, we had several libraries. They were set apart by subject and reasonably organized by copyright year/market. While there was no digital home for all the inventory it was fairly easy to go to the library and find the book you needed.

A year ago we moved offices and with the move lost all our storage space for the libraries. Also since our move, I’ve taken ownership of an entire division of products from a recent business acquisition. My inventory of books totals 1,219. When they arrived disorganized and in unmarked boxes, it felt as though I’d simply drown in books. The sender clearly had not spent even a minute cataloging what they were sending, I found that I had received over 80 copies of one single book and entire programs I had requested did not arrive at all. I needed to organize, catalog, and store all these books. But where will they all fit? How could I possibly track all these titles, my manager asked me.

I created a 3 Phase plan to take inventory of what we had, eliminate all the duplicates for donation or trash, and organize all the products in a system where anyone on the team would be able to find the book they desired. Here’s how I did it:

Phase 1- Unboxing and piling

Once all the boxes were emptied I had stacks and stacks of books piling up in all the vacant cubicles. I did an initial sweep and pulled out as many duplicates as I could and divided the books into a series of categories.

  • Program Known (clearly labeled on the product)
  • Program Unknown
  • No barcode

Phase 2 – Cataloging and analysis

The quickest, most efficient way to take inventory of everything and weed out the duplicates was to scan the barcode of all the products into an excel sheet using a BCST-20 Scanner and then using vLookups identify which ISBN’s were repeated. As I can scanned I stacked the products in groups of 20 so I could easily move and locate specific products when I was ready to shelve them. For the items without a barcode, I manually entered the item number so those products could be included in the final list.

Once everything was scanned and the duplicates pulled out I used the list of ISBN’s to pull in other useful product information such as program, copyright, and title from the archive and mapped out where in our office each program would be housed in phase 3.

Phase 3 – Shelving

I moved the stacks to the bookshelves and alphabetized them within their program group before shelving the products so that they could easily be located later on. I also created a master excel list with every ISBN I scanned, the program, title, and location of the product so that anyone on the team could look up if we had a book and easily locate it.

Overall I pulled out an additional 331 copies of repeated titles and organized the remaining 888 books over the course of 2 business days and cataloged the entire inventory so that going forward anyone can find what they need in a matter of seconds.

Process Documenting 

One on one training is great for getting someone started, but if you’re like me then you prefer to stumble your way through a few examples. I ensure that everyone has access to any instructions they might need.

Over the course of my time with HMH, I’ve taken the task of documenting all our process as well as establishing a folder to easily store and locate materials.

Some of the things I’ve documented are a Cheat Sheet, Tool Navigation PowerPoint, and User Guide for a tool that I built.  In addition to those pieces, I’ve also written a walkthrough script for training new team members how to conduct our QA.

As the team expanded I realized we need a consistent outline to introduce each person with. I wrote the script to encompass the background of the project, the layout and structure of the tools and reports, the expectations for QA and when assignments are due, and to go over a set of specific examples of common errors. The script is also posted in case team members would like to reference back to it

Sadness

Inventory User Guide

User Guide for inventory locator

Once I completed the Inventory Locator, tested all its features for bugs, and prepped the tool for its official launch the need for a user guide became apparent. While the tool itself is designed to be operated with minimal user interaction, I knew a written explanation of the behind-the-scenes functions would help the team understand just what each button click entailed.

The breakdown

The twelve-page guide begins with how to download the tool. Because multiple team members could potentially be working in it at the same time the database is housed on a server and each user is asked to enter their name upon opening so changes are not overridden or corrupted.

Once the tool is open a small window appears asking you where you’d like to go, you have the option of going to the Control Panel, Product Lookup Page, or the tracker to update your progress.

After the tool is installed and the needed forum is open I describe the criteria behind each of the buttons. As a user, all that needs to be done is click the button, but behind the scenes, a specific set of criteria queries are conducted to complete the function for that source.

The buttons are in chronological, left-to-right, color coded order.  But one line consists of several queries I built to do all the work.

Line three – Corporate Archives

  1. Yellow Button – Pulls products without a method of acquisition and do not fall into a Material Group of Online, Digital, or Mobile App. When clicked the tool will export results to excel list so that an order can be submitted.
  2. Blue Button – creates an email addressed to the specific archive contact with the standard message request already typed as well as the required ordering number. All the user needs to do is attach the export list from the related yellow button.
  3. Green Button – works with the Material ID table in the center of the page. When you receive a response to one of the Physical locations paste the confirmed the material ID’s into this table and clicked the associated button. Once the button is clicked access first updates the product list for the specific confirmed ID’s, checks the box for located via Corporate Archive, and sets the method of acquisition to Physical, which prevents this product from being requested in later steps.

Inventory Acquisition Completed

Once the inventory process is complete and all available products have been located the tool can generate a shipment invoice and product Product Lists for each individual program when needed.

Final result

With the completed tool, published user guide, and recorded a demo of functionality anyone on the team has access to the instructions and resources they need to either learn a new project or refresh their memory on old process.

After the launch of the tool, we realized there was another way to use this resource: similar to a customer look up anyone company-wide has the option to locate the products they need from our vast, ever growing inventory. If there’s a copy to locate, we know where it is. Whether it’s stored in an office on a shelf, sealed away in a warehouse, or waiting online we have the information and have made it available for anyone to use.

Sadness

Tool Navigation PowerPoint

Using a Phase II Tool

The main project I’ve worked on for the last three years is called Product Genealogy Phase II. In this project, we’re going through every page of every product by the program and verifying the image records. The work is done in an access tool and once a product is complete it must pass our internal Quality Assurance (QA) checks. We check that the image found on the page matches the record in the tool.

I started on this project as the first QA person and over the years the QA team has expanded to seven people, all of whom I’ve trained. When I started this project there was little to no documentation of the process, I was given a verbal introduction and simply asked questions as new issues arose. Over time as I QA’d more and more and brought people onto the team the need for written instruction and formal training became apparent. A project of this scale requires lots of time and much of it is hard to explain before it’s happened because there’s always a new issue we didn’t predict.

The bulk of our project work is completed in Microsoft Access databases. Most people, myself included, start the project with little to no knowledge of how to operate in the databases or find the desired information. Over time I have learned how to navigate in databases, create custom queries, import & export data with Excel, and build tables and relationships.

As part of my self-initiated project to document as many of the Phase II complexities as possible, I made a PowerPoint highlighting basic tips and tricks for using the tools in QA.

Main Page:

The main Genealogy Phase II Forum displays all the base records in the tool. The page is divided into sections which I then highlighted the critical information found in each with a brief description.

Secondary Page:

The second forum shows all the records derived from the bases. Again I highlighted the critical boxes, called out the most common error found from this page, and specifically pointed out that there are three different places the folio (page number) may be located.

Access Tips & Tricks:

In addition to displaying the layout and location of our information, the PowerPoint includes tricks for using access such as:

  • Right-clicking in any field gives you the option to set a customizable filter. You can do a contains or equals to search to find related records or view only the records for one set of pages at a time. 
  • If you apply too many or loose track of which fields are filtered, the orange Filtered button in the bottom right corner of the screen can be clicked and it will remove them all, restoring the page to its default view. Beside this button, you can see how many records fit the criteria and navigate through them using the arrows.
  • From inside a cell using CTRL + F will active a pop-up window to jump to a record.
  • Unlike other Microsoft programs, access automatically saves changes to the data once you’ve clicked out of the cell, and there is no undo feature. Through the nature of our QA, there should be no changes made to the tool as we are only viewing the information. If by accident something is changed or altered simply redownload a copy of the tool from SharePoint.
Sadness

The Cheat Sheet

training documentation

The main project I’ve worked on for the last three years is called Product Genealogy Phase II. In this project, we’re going through every page of every product by the program and verifying the image records. The work is done in an access tool and once a product is complete it must pass our internal Quality Assurance (QA) checks. We check that the image found on the page matches the record in the tool.

I started on this project as the first QA person and over the years the QA team has expanded to seven people, all of whom I’ve trained. When I started this project there was little to no documentation of the process, I was given a verbal introduction and simply asked questions as new issues arose. Over time as I QA’d more and more and brought people onto the team the need for written instruction and formal training became apparent. A project of this scale requires lots of time and much of it is hard to explain before it’s happened because there’s always a new issue we didn’t predict.

How I improved the project:

To combat this sense of unknown, in addition to the lengthy, fully detailed process instructions for each component of the project I also wrote a cheat sheet to aid new team members with the process, key points, and general guidelines. The two-page document is easy to read, small enough to either print out and keep beside your computer or simply leave up on the second screen for reference as you work. In the cheat sheet, there are four main sections each with several bulleted points beneath for elaboration.

I broke down the different types of image records that could be found and listed the required components of each (example, something taken in-house should not have a third party credit or the latter).

I listed the four primary things the QA team should be checking for:

  1. The records in the tool are accurate representations of what’s found on the page.
  2. The records are assigned to the proper folio, and before a folio is marked as incorrect all three folio fields are checked.
  3. There is exactly one record for every image, no more, no less.
  4. Consistency. If a seemingly simple graphic has a record for one page, it should have a record for all pages it’s found on.

I explained each of the columns in our QA report and when they are applicable to fill in as well as broke down the process of checking the products. We examine every 3-5 pages unless there are a high number of errors. If the passing percentage falls below 60% halt QA and return the product for rework. The QA report I designed automatically calculates the passing percentage based on the number of passes vs. fails in the report.

I included four practical tips for viewing information in the access tools as most people are not immediately familiar with the sometimes complex functions and formats. As access is typically the steepest learning curve for new team members I created a PowerPoint further describing how to navigate in the tools.

  1. The Genealogy Phase II tab shows information from all the base records. The top box lists all the product details and the Spec AutoID
  2. When you’re QA’ing the Spec Details box will show the description, the page number, and the spec type. If the AssesUsed box is not checked the image should not be on the page, sometimes you’ll see duplicate specs but only one of them will have the AssestUsed box checked – that’s ok.
  3. The Asset Details box here you’ll see the Source File number, Rights Type and credit.
  4. At the bottom of the page, you’ll see four tabs, the Base Spec Verification tab will show the status of the spec. Descriptions of the different status’s are written out in the box to the right.

And finally, in the cheat sheet, I collected links to each of our internal SharePoint sites that are either used for tracking purposes, housing digital products, the location of the new tools, and the training site where all the lengthy process instructions are available. I listed the links and explained what can be found at each of them so new members can easily find further instruction, new assignments, and fresh copies of the tool as needed.

Sadness

The Inventory Locator

I designed the Inventory Locator tool to aid the inventory process by automating ordering products and tracking the location of over 79,000 items in one single location.  By creating this tool I cut down 85% of time spent by the team on this project, doubled the amount of inventory we were able to move in one group, and provided a service to other departments in the form of inventory data that was previously unorganized across hundreds of spreadsheets.

 

What it was:

 

Before there was the Inventory Locator tool there was a collection of 122 (and counting) programs stored in individual excel spreadsheets. When each program began our six-level acquisition process my coworkers and I were burdened with hours of clicking back and forth, mass copy-pasting, disorganized lists, and at a high risk of either overlooking products or forgetting outstanding orders. We tracked each program separately using color codes and email chains. A typical shipment size was 2-5,000 products across multiple programs, anything more and the risk of oversight became too great.

One day, I had enough.

I decided no longer would I spend hours scrolling through excel sheets thousands of rows long, no longer would I keep a mental tally of who had responded to my product requests. It was time to tame this beast of a project once and for all.

When I started working for Houghton Mifflin I had no experience using Microsoft Access, but after a year of watching my teammates use tools, build custom queries, and doing quite a bit of quality assurance checks in tools myself I felt that I had a decent understanding of how they worked and how they correlated with Excel Docs. The Inventory Readiness project was our only one without a tool, so I decided I would make one from scratch.

What I did:

 

For weeks I spent my evenings and free time painstakingly combining every single spreadsheet into one massive, all-inclusive access table. When I finished, the spreadsheets were no more, instead, I had 79,155 records all in one nice, neat place.
But what good is that? Consolidating them wasn’t going to help me or my associates with the ordering or the tracking or the status updates. I needed to push further.

For two more weeks, I spent my evenings experimenting with areas of Access I’d never explored. If A connects to B I can see this, if the program is tied to the ISBN’s I can view them this way, if I enter these parameters I’ll wind up with X result. Slowly and with many errors (most notably the tragic data loss of Tuesday the 12th) I formed the shell of something that exceeded my own expectation.

I created a control panel of steps that were color coded in chronological left-to-right order. A user needs only start in the top left, and by the time the bottom right button was clicked the shipment would be complete. All of it. Not just a single program.

It was time to show the boss.

I paraded into her office one sunny Monday morning and presented my tool. She was impressed I had squished so many separate things together, but what really caught her attention were the tools bells and whistles, the extra flair I had experimented with to satisfy my own curiosities. Steps that used to take us hours to accomplish were now solved with the click of a button. Planner codes that previously required a tedious decoding process had been automatically resolved. Lists that used to take time copy/pasting together now automatically exported in one long, complete list that was ready to send. I had her attention.

What it became:

 

With her blessing, I was allowed to work on the tool during work-hours. I designed a user-friendly layout for each of the forums, formatted a tracker that updated live as each user worked through their assignments, I even automated our emails to be pre-typed and addressed, we only need to add the list and press send. When a librarian responded with available products checking them off one by one was a thing of the past! The future was bright, shining, and automated.

With the polished tool, my precious creation, finally complete the day of the demo arrived. And I, someone who feels horribly uncomfortable with public speaking, was ecstatic. The launch went off without a hitch. I cut down on the time spent on Inventory Readiness by 85%, I was even asked to make a sister tool for the rest of the department to use. Several months have passed and the tool has been incorporated into our standard procedures. I was asked to train all relevant staff how to use the tool and publish a detailed user guide for the company to see.