My first acquaintance with computers was  in Sao Paulo, Brazil in 1967. That year I had started working for Chrysler Corporation as a Manager of the Pre-production and Planning Department at the factory at Sao Bernardo do Campo which they had recently bought from the French Simca car makers, and were proposing to produce American Dodge cars there starting 1968.

Jim Albin, the man who took me on said, at the end of the interview, ‘OK, you are the man, but you will have to master the Chrysler System within three months, otherwise……it’s a hard, cold world.’ I understood what he meant.

The ‘system’ was run on a main frame Burroughs Computer managed by ‘Chuck’ Lulek who wasn’t much help in explaining things when I sought him out. He impressed me as being a technician, suspicious that others might know, or get to know, the ‘system’ better than he did. His main job was to keep the, ‘floor-sprung,’ air-conditioned holy of holies running to churn out the seemingly endless flow of paper on the dates and on the times required. Discussing systems was off bounds for him.

Meetings were held on a weekly basis where twenty or more people from different departments would gather under the chairman Jim Durbin, another American purporting to understand the ‘system.’ The purpose of the meetings was to update the progress made by each department for the launch of the new cars to be produced on an irremoveable target date. The results of the meetings would be sent for a computer run where the hundreds and hundreds of pages generated would show the meeting’s input  ready for re-examination at the following weekly meeting. Other Americans mainly kept away from these meetings, electing to send their Brazilian seconds-in command. The meetings never managed to get to the end of all the pages before they were sent off to ‘Chuck’ Lulek for re-running and up-dating.

Boredom and disbelief took over at the meetings as there were no tangible results as to whether progress was being made, or not, in spite of this particular ‘print out’ being central to the planning and known as ‘The New Model Progress Report.’

With a vice-President from headquarters in Detroit due to make a vist the Company President called a meeting to evaluate progress against target. There was no substantive evidence produced at the meeting so every department head claimed that his respective department was ‘up-to-date’ and had cleared all information to my department so, by deduction, this was where any log jam lay.

Jim Albin was instructed to investigate and report back within a week. he passed the investigation over to me. My moment had come. By making a manual summary of the thousand plus page report, which took many after-hours work, I was able to produce a graph showing the progress status of every department; something the computer could not do. My department came out with the best results; Product Engineering came out with the worst, with other departments ranging somewhere in between.

From that moment onwards my credentials at Chrysler were never in doubt; I was given the freedom to involve myself in computer decisions much to ‘Chuck’ Lulek’s disgust, and made the most of that freedom.

Nearly ten years later I was working at Babcock Controls on Purley way in Croydon. There was another main-frame computer there doing pay-roll and inventory control. The inventory control part did not function properly because of indiscipline in the factory when Production Department borrowed material allocated for long term delivery jobs to make up for material shortages on the short term delivery jobs. This resulted in there being negative stock records in the inventory and therefore valueless for any computer systems until the problem was addressed. Either this was not understood or no one wanted to tackle the problem but, as this did not concern my work at the time  I did not press the point until later, when it did.

The Manufacturing Director, John Forward, used to complain that the Finance Department could never give him monthly targets because Sales Department could not give Finance monthly sales estimates because Production Department could not give Sales Department  estimated manufacturing output because Purchase Department could not give Production Department materials delivery dates because Material Control could not tell them what to buy on a timely basis because the computer gave wrong information. Whew.

John Forward knew that I had worked with a computer system at Chrysler and, by-passing the main frame, bought me the first Personal Computer ever seen at Babcock. It was a Commodore Pet and came with a manual, two days instructions from the sellers and he added £500 worth of programming instruction from a local programmer.

My brief was to get the best production forecast estimate from the Production Manager, the amount of sales possible from this forecast plus any existing finished stock; get the value of this information from the Finance Director and then input all this information on to a computer programme devised by me on a continuing basis. This information, showing what could be achieved as revenue on a rolling basis, was to be compared with what had been planned. (Any knowledgeable factory planner will see from the foregoing that there was no real structured system at Babcock).

The programme I produced delighted John Forward who afterwards always referred to me as his ‘ace planner,’ but was highly unpopular with the managers who had been flushed out of their comfort zones. When John Forward left Babcock Controls some months later for a better berth, the programme was immediately dropped.

Fast forward two years at the same Company and a new Maunufacturing Director, Colin Priestland, invested in a computer package, ‘materials requirement planning,’ and appointed me to introduce and control this system which I quite enjoyed working on as, strangely in spite of its success, I had not enjoyed working on the one for John Forward.

In 1989 I was working in a retirement job on general office duties with PriceWaterhouseCooper (Coopers & Lybrand) at Plumtree Court, Farringdon Road. The department I worked in was, ‘Growing Business Development’ which amongst many operations was responsible for acting as the Registered Offices for the many hundreds of client companies. This work was controlled by a manual kardex system.

new employees, recruited direct from universities to work for three years while they studied for their chartered accountancy exams, were given this kardex system to maintain. I noticed that they showed little interest in doing this properly and the data was frequently not updated resulting in constant complaints.

Having found out about an embryonic computer section being formed on another floor I asked my Manager, Richard Tozer, if I could put this kardex system on to a computer data base. He needed to consult a Partner but the idea was immediately approved and, with the help of a computer programmer, the job was done and I was put in charge of running the new ‘Registered Office’ system.

Word got around quickly. It is difficult to believe that, as late as 1989, one of the giant, world-wide accountancy firms dealing with Management and Business Consultancy was mainly being run on manual systems. This seemed to have been a wake-up call and the Senior Partner, Tony Trembeth, wanted as much  of the organisation’s systems computerised, and as quickly as possible.

As a result I was given every facility to get this done – training, the latest equipment, support staff and access to programmers for, as soon as one manual system was computerised successfully another one was lined up ready to be dealt with . This kept me gainfully employed for the next five years. 

It always surprises me that such a non-technical person as I am, was able to carry this off successfully. I have no aptitude for, what I consider, the specialist function of computer programming, but I was able to view a work situation that either was not functioning or mal-functioning and to devise a mental plan of how it could be beneficially dealt with through an operating system and then take a computer programmer through this plan, step by step, so that the programmer was able to develop a computerised version of the plan. This was when I began to realise that there are people who tend to be binary (linear) thinkers and others who are more lateral thinkers and I was in the latter group. Another way of putting this is that I was the hand but needed the pen while the programmer was the pen and needed the hand.

Dubious as I am of the benefits of some sorts of progress, from the age of 43 to just short of 70 I found myself involved in the forefront of computer usage in manufacturing and commercial enterprises.

19 JULY 2008