Looking a Little Farther Ahead

I almost got hit by a truck the other day driving home from golf. Now a lot of you may be wondering what that kind of statement has to do with the nominal topics of business management and sales that I usually deal with here. I’ll get to that in a minute. For those of you that live here in Texas, you know that the word “truck” can cover a lot of territory. Everything from a go-kart with a toy wagon bed welded on, to a Peterbilt cab-over semi tractor-trailer. In this case I’m pretty sure that it was a Dodge Ram 2500 Crew Cab since the badging was at eye height as I looked out the window at it. In Texas, this qualifies as a “standard” sized truck. Anything smaller and you’re considered either a poser or a city-boy. Still, it outweighed my full-sized car by close to a ton.

Driving on the freeways in Dallas can usually best be described as a cross between bumper cars and playing a game of “chicken” at seventy miles an hour. As long as everybody abides by the same rules and speed, traffic seems to flow along reasonably, bumper to bumper at seventy miles an hour with a minimum of bad language and hand gestures.

However, occasionally there are those that appear to be unfamiliar with the freeway rules of the road, and opt for what I am sure they feel is a little more intelligently safer speed when changing lanes or taking exit ramps, and other such things. They also usually use their turn signals when performing these maneuvers, and equally importantly, turn off their turn signals when they are done. These people are easy to identify in that they usually have a very long line of impatient drivers behind them.

In this case, I was the then last car in such a line of several cars behind one of these drivers, as we all were taking an off-ramp which connected one high-speed freeway to another.

This position is the most feared position in all of Texas driving. You are going slower than everyone behind you, with little to no options of avoidance in front of, or to the side of you. You have a tendency to watch your rear-view mirror rather closely in such situations.

The SUV immediately behind me was a little slow on the recognition of the situation, but was still able to slow down and pull over to the left side of the ramp, but remained behind me. This maneuver on their part took them out of harm’s way and still left me fully exposed. The truck in question behind them however, did not seem to be as alert to the situation.

Did you know that even though they do not cause the loud, wailing skids that we are all accustomed to on television, you can still hear anti-lock brakes as they try to stop a large truck coming toward you? It’s sort of a staccato noise as the brakes bite and release as they avoid the skid. It is not something you really want to hear as it gets louder or closer.

At the last moment before hitting me, the driver of the truck swerved up over the curb on the ramp to the right of me. His truck came to a stop alongside my car, where as I noted earlier, I could very clearly see its name and size outside my passenger side window.

As traffic started to resume speed, I went ahead and let him pass me on the right. This is not usual protocol for Texas driving, but in light of the circumstances, I felt an exception might be in order. After a moment’s hesitation, the truck drove off and my journey home resumed.

So, here is where the business lesson for this event comes into play.

Most of the time we are all focused on what we are doing at that particular time. We are minding our own business. We are focused on our deliverables. We are paying attention to our deadlines. We have our own worries.

Occasionally we look up to see what the next step is. We have a process. We are preparing for what we must do next. We are looking ahead, but only at what comes next. We are aware that there are other factors that are coming into play. We are in effect checking the car in front of us.

For the most part, this approach will keep you out of most of the trouble that is out there. However, there will come a time when the expected events will not occur. The situation will present itself with alarming speed.

In other words, you could find yourself driving along in your big Texas truck, minding your own business, when suddenly the car directly in front of you dodges out of the way and you find yourself presented with the opportunity to smash into me from behind.

It’s not enough to only be aware of what you are doing and what those immediately around you are doing. On occasion, you need to be looking up and checking the horizon. What is coming into view? What are the competitors doing? Are they adding or deleting resources? What are the customers doing? Are they buying and spending, or are they delaying purchases? What are the analysts saying about the market in general and the company in particular?

Are there multiple cars up ahead with their brake lights on, and should you be prepared to, or possibly already be in the process of slowing down?

The combination of the increased reliance on process, along with the seemingly continuous growth in the reverence for the corporate fire fighter when the process fails, does not seem to mesh with this anticipatory approach to things. Processes have been implemented for the most part to reduce the reliance on this kind of judgement. It almost seems that the corporate fire fighter has been integrated into the process for those times when the process breaks down.

Sort of a “In case of Fire, Break Glass” kind of thing.

The lanes in business continue to be further refined by process. Dotted lines become solid lines, become multiple solid lines, become fixed dividers. If you don’t believe this to be the case, just look at any inter-organizational process flow chart.

It is very easy to focus solely on what you are doing. To perform your function in the process. The organizational structure and incentives now focus on that type of professional behavior. And for the most part, things can and do go relatively smoothly. Until they don’t.

Inevitably someone will miss a step, or improperly hand-off an incomplete work project, and things will unexpectedly slow down. Customers may decide to postpone their next purchase and wait for the next generation of product. Competitors may introduce new technology ahead of when it was expected. Foreign competitors may decide to instigate a new competitive approach based on price.

Processes are resistant to change, and will take time to adapt. They don’t come with anti-lock brakes. They have an inherent amount of momentum associated with them. Just like a speeding full sized, crew cab Texas truck. It’s not enough to be performing your operational duties in a vacuum. You need to be looking forward at the traffic and events in front of you.

Markets don’t provide plenty of warning when they are going to change. Customers rarely tell you when they are going to slow down or stop buying altogether. Companies usually don’t give you a pre-notice when they are going to have to react to the changes in customer and market status.

Looking out, looking forward, anticipating the changes in the business environment are still key to navigating in business. Processes are helpful in simplifying the immediate and making it somewhat more predictable, but it is still your responsibility to be anticipating those future needs and directions that the business environment will present you.

Now if I could just get the people in those large trucks when they following me to do that a little better.

What is a “Plug”?

For some reason, I have been reading and thinking about forecasting for the last little while. One of the words that seems to be popping up more and more frequently in the business literature with respect to forecasting is the word “plug”. I have actually heard this word in past forecasting meetings that I have attended. I thought I might delve in a level deeper than just understanding forecasting, and look into one of the more favored words in the forecasting vernacular: “plug”.

Plug is an interesting word. The dictionary defines it as both a noun (a thing) and a verb (an action). I’ve also talked about words like this before. You used to go to a party, and now you can also go and party. I think that plug is a much earlier iteration of this particular phenomena. Usually a word is used as either a noun or a verb. I am not so sure that this is the case with the word plug when it comes to its business usage. I think that when you hear the word “plug” in business, it is both a thing and an action at the same time.

As a noun plug can usually mean either:

“an obstruction blocking a hole, pipe, etc.” or “a device for making an electrical connection, especially between an appliance and a power supply…”.

As a verb Plug can usually mean either:

“block or fill in (a hole or cavity)” or “mention (a product, event, or establishment) publicly in order to promote it.”

For now, I think I’ll ignore the appliance power cord and product promotion definitions for obvious reasons, and focus on the other two.

As the ends of various months, quarters, and years come into view, forecasting takes on a role of increased importance. Depending on the business performance, as these end of period times roll around forecasting can take on both a greater frequency and intensity, especially if the numbers are not in management’s desired range. As I have noted, forecasting is essentially the comparing of what you think the numbers are going to be with what you want the numbers to be.

I have also noted the “volumetric force” associated with forecasts. This is the management drive and desire for all forecasts to be either at or exceeding the desired targets. This desire to respond to or please management has a tendency to render forecasts possibly slightly more optimistic than what they might normally be, so that management can smile. But what do you do when the forecast obviously does not meet the desired levels?

You insert what is called a plug into the forecast.

You find a way to provide the management desired levels in the forecast numbers. You forecast the performance that is defined, and then you add in an amount equal to the difference between the goal and the defined forecast, which is undefined. This undefined amount is known as the “plug”.

You are in effect using the verb definition of the word “plug” as a noun. You are essentially filling a hole (a verb) in the forecast with a plug (a thing). It is normally the noun function that is turned into a verb, but here we have the verb function that is turned into a noun.

I guess it is a little thing (a very little thing) but it amuses me, so I have included it.

I have also noted in the past that if a forecast is knowingly presented to management, and it does not at least meet the desired targets, that whoever submits such a lacking forecast could be subject to a significant amount of incremental management attention and assistance. As I also noted this attention and assistance will usually continue until the forecast realigns with the desired targets.

The quicker the plug is inserted into the forecast; the faster management can feel better about the forecast.

I think this may somehow be related to the genesis of the saying “The beatings will continue until morale improves.” This quote is attributed to Captain Bligh, or the HMS Bounty, when told of the forecast associated with how the crew felt about reaching Pitcairn’s Island. It is also apparently quite applicable to a multitude of other management groups.

Plugs were developed in forecasts as a way to create a real and accurate forecast (that potentially does not meet management expectations), yet also provide an acknowledgement of the expectations of management in order to avoid the incremental assistance of management. Plugs are the as yet unidentified portion of a forecast, that will (hopefully) be defined in the future, and will result in the meeting of the desired targets.

This results in the equation:

Actual Forecast + Unidentified Forecast (Plug) = Presented Forecast

Plugs are an acknowledgement that the actual forecast doesn’t meet the desired levels, but the miss to forecast has been identified and is being worked, so that extra management reviews of the forecast (or beatings, as the case may be) are not going to be necessary.

On the surface, this type of forecasting technique sounds great. The actual forecast can be presented to management, as well as the desired number that management wants to see. They get both reality and what they want.

However, if you are going to use the Plug Gambit in a forecast, you need to understand that it is a double-edged sword, and it has a limited shelf life. It is a double-edged sword in that a forecast is being presented to management that is in essence telling them that their desired number is going to be achieved. If it is not, then there will be significant, and now merited management attention visited upon those that delivered such a faulty forecast.

The plug in a forecast also has a limited shelf life in that it is expected to reduce as time passes, and the measurement period draws to a close. An example is that a plug in a forecast during the first month of a three-month quarter might be acceptable. However, the same plug in the third month of a quarter should definitely garner incremental management attention.

So, there you have it. A plug is an artifice, inserted into a forecast in order to avoid (at least temporarily) unwanted incremental management attention associated with the forecast. It is an identified amount, but from an unidentified source. It can be sales to unidentified customers, or cost reduction from unidentified actions.

Once a plug has been inserted into a forecast, it is almost impossible to improve the level of the forecast. This is because as new opportunities are identified, they reduce the amount of the plug, as opposed to actually improving the forecast.

With this in mind, it is my understanding that the latest management approach to limiting the use of plugs in forecast is to in fact request and drive for improvements to any forecast that does contain a plug. This has the effect of requiring double the desired growth as the plug must first be filled before the forecast can be increased. This move by management will no doubt engender some as yet unknown, new methodology for forecasting, as the ongoing escalation associated with business forecasting continues.

This is very similar to the idea that the fastest cheetahs only caught the slowest gazelles. This natural selection meant that only the fastest gazelles (and cheetahs) survived. The ongoing evolutionary race is forecasted to continue going forward on the African Savannah.

However, I think it is pretty obvious that in this example, gazelles do not get to insert plugs into their speed forecast.