Apple, project management, supply chain

Making the little details work at the world’s largest tech company

Measuring up to the brilliant – and famously difficult – Steve Jobs can’t have been easy for him. But the Tim Cook era at Apple has seen a less combative, more detail oriented approach to getting things done take hold. Joanne Frearson investigates

In his new book Tim Cook: The Genius Who Took Apple To The Next Level, best-selling author Leander Kahney describes the Apple boss as a master of operations. Since taking over the reins after the death of Steve Jobs in 2011, Cook has introduced a new style of management, leading the tech giant into a whole new era of success.

The Cook and Jobs approach to managing projects are very different, Kahney tells Business Reporter over the phone from his home in San Francisco. Jobs, for example, would often set teams of people within Apple itself against each other, he says.

“He was very much into competition. He had two executives battling to see who would make the first iPhone. When he was developing the first Macintosh, the team set themselves up in the building with a pirate flag and the rest of the company were called ‘bozos’. Jobs would encourage that.

“But Cook is far more cooperative. He wants all the teams to work together and not to compete with each other.”

Getting it together

Kahney, who runs The Cult of Mac blog and has written four books on the company including the New York Times bestseller Inside Steve’s Brain, believes Cook has spearheaded a post-Steve cultural revolution within the company.

Instead of employees fighting it out against each other, Kahney points out, Cook has implemented a whole new culture, which emphasises kindness, collaboration and honesty. His mission has been to introduce collaboration between teams at the tech giant. Even the new Apple spaceship campus has been designed with a spirit of collaboration, making it easier for staff to walk around, bump into each other and interact.

Under Jobs, big projects were secretive, Kahney explains. For example, when the iPod was developed, staff working on it were not allowed to tell anyone else in the company what they were doing. Apple was very much a siloed operation, where the hardware teams and software teams wouldn’t know what each other were doing.

A team approach

This attitude extends to every aspect of operations at Apple – even outsourcing. When Cook took over as CEO, he decided to outsource manufacturing as Apple’s own factories were expensive to run. But instead of just handing over the plans to manufacturers and leaving them to their own devices, the tech giant is closely involved at every step.

A major product might take two or three years to develop, explains Kahney, and Apple will design the whole manufacturing process for the factory, sending out engineers to help work out in intimate detail how to put everything together. What makes this operation work so smoothly is because the tech giant knows everything about the process down to the very last detail.

They have people who are responsible for every single component of every single product, even down to the screws,” he says. “They have someone at Apple who is tracking even the tiniest screw that goes into an iPhone. They know whether the screw suppliers have enough steel to make enough of them.

“They track all of the components really carefully, but also all of the raw materials that go into the products. They know exactly how much and who has what.”

It’s all in the detail

Apple not only tracks components with an unerring eye for detail, but also the day-to-day operations of the plants themselves – if a labour action is being threatened, or if management can’t hire enough workers, for example, Cupertino HQ will know about it.

Once, Kahney says, there was a shortage of a component because a Japanese manufacturer could not hire enough people to produce it. To solve the problem, Apple sent out a team of specialists to help recruit people for the factory.

“They are very intimately involved,” he elaborates. “They keep on track of everything – they don’t just say, we want an order of 1,000 screws and leave it up to a manufacturer. They are on top of it.

“They make sure the manufacturer has enough raw materials and enough people to deliver on time. They don’t just use one supplier – they have at least two in every single thing they do. It is often half a dozen, a dozen, or more.”

This unerring micromanagement when it comes to component supply ties directly into Apple’s own equally exacting stock management systems. “If a store in New York is selling a lot of iPhones, they could track it from end-to-end,” Kahney explains. “It goes all the way down into their suppliers and even the raw material suppliers. The materials that they are using track with their system all the way through it.”

Keeping the pace with product development

This shared approach to working has helped Cook develop and innovate new products such as the Apple Watch – for which the company has big plans, Kahney says, particularly in its potential as a medical device. “They have a lot of doctors on the payroll – they are trying to figure out how to do things like add a glucose monitor the Apple Watch so it can monitor your blood sugar levels.”

Meanwhile, Apple’s shift into every other aspect of our lives continues apace – other projects in the pipeline will see them enter new markets such as transport and healthcare.

“The biggest one is Project Titan, which is a self-driving car,” Kahney says. He dismisses rumours of the company shelving the project and laying off staff, and believes Titan has entered the latter stages of progress. “From what I can tell it is a big project, involving several thousand engineers,” he says. “It is fairly advanced – they are looking into how they can manufacturer the car, which means it has gone beyond the prototype stage.

“They are seriously ramping it up as a product – it could potentially be a really big deal. Transportation is one of the world’s biggest industries, and a self-driving vehicle would have a profound effect on all sorts of stuff not just travel but commuting, real estate, urban planning, retail.”

The other big projects at Apple, explains Kahney, are in augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR). A launch is rumoured for next year, and Apple is already laying the groundwork for this with new iPhone and iPad developments that are designed to incorporate the technology.

Kahney expects it will be an immersive experience similar to the Magic Leap headset or Google Glass. “You will have this overlay of visual information of things you are seeing in the real world,” he says.

“You could walk down the high street and look at all these buildings and it would tell you what offices are in there, what restaurants… You’ll be able to call up the menu and see what specials they have – maybe they will advertise when you walk by. Maybe you will be able look at someone and it will do face recognition and tell you their name. You can imagine for a lot of workers this would be useful.”

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