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Chapter three...The Phantom Revealed

Preface: Daphne St. James has recruited her friend, Matt Harris, to help her counter the phantom. But, before Matt could change the cycle count program to screen part numbers not in the database, the phantom’s activities have captured the attention of Louis Smith the nasty Controller who delights in finding fault in other areas. Daffy has been summoned to his office and is unpleasantly surprised to find her boss, Donna Wright, also waiting for her.

“I attended the University of Michigan myself,” Louis Smith stated as he leaned back in his chair looking pleased with himself. “So I don’t know what they teach in those lesser schools. But I assume that somewhere along the line you learned that this…” he slid the cycle count audit report across the desk toward Daffy, “is far from the level of accuracy required to manage a factory.”

Daffy felt her anger rising at the characterization of her college as a “lesser school” but she refused to give Smith even that much control over her. He would not make her angry. And she would not even look at the audit report he had slid toward her. She wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of thinking he had made her aware of anything at all.

“Obviously you are referring to those non-existent part numbers on the cycle count audit report,” Daffy replied confidently. “I’m puzzled by them too. I should have left the programming of my cycle count system to the IT people. But Matt Harris is fixing it for me… he knows how important this sort of thing is to you so it is his top priority.”

The Controller was caught off guard by Daffy’s calm admission of responsibility and was visibly disappointed by the lack of verbal confrontation.

“Well, I’m certain Mr. Harris can indeed correct the error. In the future, please be aware that the MIS department does not have people idling about waiting to save the Materials department from its own mistakes. He does have other duties and before I hire someone to clean up after you folks…” he looked over to Donna Wright sitting on the couch against the wall. “I’m certain someone higher up will suggest to Mrs. Wright that she hire people who require less babysitting.”

“Oh, lighten up. Lou.” Donna Wright said calmly as she stood up and walked over to stand beside Daffy. “There’s no cost on those numbers so you aren’t impacted by this at all.”

Smith brightened. Perhaps he would get his fight after all.

“You see…this is why I asked you in here. To confirm my suspicion that you don’t get excited about anything until it’s a problem,” he said accusingly. “Perhaps you aren’t suited to this job. Your predecessor was a man… perhaps more attuned to the realities of the factory…”

Wright cut him off. “Every manager in the history of this company—before me—was a man and you didn’t like any of them either. If Big River Products is not running as smoothly as you would like, and you believe gender is the reason, then its obvious we need more women -- not one less.” Donna Wright had a talent for speaking forcefully without raising her voice. “When we screw up the Accounting department you will be justified in belittling us. Until then lay off. OK?” she ended with a smile.

Smith was enjoying this. “Its like you to assume the problem is limited but you don’t actually know that.” He leaned forward, “Its true those part numbers haven’t held a standard cost in years…”

Daffy reacted visibly. In years! These weren’t crazy part numbers. Of course… why had she not guessed it? They were old part numbers… an old numbering system.

Smith was still talking. “… but if you can make errors with numbers that precede the computer system, who knows what you are capable of with numbers easily accessible. Well you go back to sleep. If you mess things up more, I’ll let you know.”

Daffy and Donna Wright were in Wright’s office a few minutes later.

“In spite of the fact that he’s a shoo-in for the jerk-of-the-year award, Louis may have a point,“ Wright said. “Are you certain the error is limited to the appearance of these old numbers?”

Donna Wright had hired her and, although Daffy was not going to test her boss’s confidence in her by relating the story of the phantom, neither would she lie.

“No. I’m not certain how pervasive the problem is. But this is the only problem I’m aware of and Matt Harris can fix it.”

“That worries me,” her boss said furrowing her brow. “If you don’t know what causes a problem you can never be certain you’ve seen all the symptoms. Anyway…keep at it.”

“Thanks for supporting me, Donna. I’m glad you were there.” Daffy said in an attempt to end the conversation. She was anxious to talk to Sue DeCamp in engineering.

“No problem,” Wright said casually. “Besides, I hated his comment about Michigan and lesser schools.”

“What school did you attend?” Daffy asked wondering why she didn’t already know this.

“I attended Michigan just like Louis. I just hate it when some alumnus spreads the stereotype of U of M grads having a superiority complex.

A few minutes later, Daffy was sitting in front of Sue DeCamp, the sixtyish Engineering Secretary. DeCamp looked at the cycle count audit sheet for several seconds and then spoke with a hint of nostalgia in her voice. “It’s been years since we used that part numbering system. My first job was to assign part numbers to new parts. Now the computer just sequentially assigns them. But in the BC years – before computers – we used these significant part numbers. Every digit meant something.” Her pale blue eyes sparkled beneath her bifocals as she brushed a lock of pure white hair from in front of her lens.

“The first digit indicated which family of end items the part went into. The second indicated the process… stamping, machine, assemble. I don’t remember the rest except the last digit was the engineering change level.”

Daffy was unsure what significance there was to the fact that these part numbers were once active but she felt she was on the right path if she was ever to understand what was going on. Sure, Matt Harris could probably stop the phantom; but what was its motivation? Did ghosts have motives?

“Why was the old numbering system discarded?” Daffy asked trying to keep the conversation alive.

“Well, a significant part numbering system is unnecessarily complex once you have a computer,” DeCamp answered a bit surprised that Daffy had to ask such a question. “I mean, once you can just look up a part number in the database it tells you much more than any code within the part number itself. You can imagine how many fewer reporting errors we had in the shop when we changed from nine digits to five digits. Of course, we didn’t change the numbers for finished goods, There were too many catalogs out there with the old numbers and we didn’t want to confuse our customers. So we assigned the new numbers to components and new end items. We left the old end items alone so the last of these old numbers died out when those products were eventually discontinued.”

Daffy did not know what more she could learn and she was about to thank Sue DeCamp for the information when the friendly Engineering Secretary was again overcome with nostalgia.

“I remember poor Frank Predum. He was a Cycle Counter back in the early seventies. Frank had such a hard time trying to keep the on-hand balances correct for these old, error prone part numbers. And no one in manufacturing would agree to any transaction discipline at all. Things have improved a lot but it didn’t happen fast enough for old Frank. He died right on the job. We all thought the stress of the job killed him.”

Daffy felt a shiver flow through her. “Where did this Frank die?” she asked already certain of the answer.

“In the stockroom of the old downtown factory. The stockroom was in the basement. Someone found him the following day when the Payroll Clerk asked the Stockroom Supervisor why Frank hadn’t punched out the previous day. It was sad. Lots of folks didn’t care because Frank was a cranky man. But some of us knew he was stressed out because the Plant Manager always held Frank responsible for any on-hand balance error. But this Plant Manager wasn’t about to turn in scrap tickets daily and, if he had a good production day, he would hold some back from his production report and report it when he had a bad day. Lots of stuff like that… but it was always Frank’s fault when the part counts were messed up. You are lucky you don’t have to deal with what he did.”

Now it was coming together. Was Frank Predum’s ghost trying to cycle count the old stockroom as it existed forty years ago? But Predum never saw a computer. Could phantoms learn to hack about in a cycle count program”?

“There’s a picture of Frank Predum behind me,” DeCamp continued.

Daffy was lost in thought and nearly missed the statement. “What? Where?” Daffy asked standing up.

Sue DeCamp had the entire wall behind her covered with neatly framed photographs. “That one,” she said pointing to a black and white picture of a bowling team. “He’s the one to the right of the man holding the trophy.

Daffy put her face close enough to distinguish individual features. When she turned away a few seconds later the color had drained from her face and she looked distant and distracted. Sue DeCamp was startled by Daffy’s sudden change in appearance.

“Why dear,” she said with concern. “You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”

Next time --- chapter four: The Phantom Retaliates

 

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