Category Archives: Activities

Staying Relevant

It’s hard to think of really where to start here. Everyone everywhere has already talked about the ongoing, continuous change that is constantly occurring in business. Even I have written about it, and I actually do try to stay away from those ubiquitous, and somewhat trite types of topics. As they say, no good can come of that.

However, those of us that have had either the good, or bad fortune to inhabit one of those industries that are subject to the technological whims of change, have an added issue with which to cope. In an environment where the “next thing” is always perceived as the now “best thing”, how do you fight what can best be described as career inertia, and remain relevant in your organization, and to a larger extent, your industry?

Charles Holland Duell, was the commissioner of the United States Patent and Trademark Office from 1898 to 1901. Duell has become famous for, during his tenure as United States Commissioner of Patents, purportedly saying “Everything that can be invented has been invented.” However, this has been debunked as apocryphal by librarian Samuel Sass who traced the quote back to a 1981 book titled “The Book of Facts and Fallacies” by Chris Morgan and David Langford. In fact, Duell said in 1902:

“In my opinion, all previous advances in the various lines of invention will appear totally insignificant when compared with those which the present century will witness. I almost wish that I might live my life over again to see the wonders which are at the threshold.”

I bring up this often mis-cited tidbit for a couple of reasons: the first is that even more than a century ago the speed and relevance of change was already being anticipated, and the second, is that relevance seems to be in the eye of the beholder. It is not so much what you think about your relevance to various opportunities, but what others think of it.

For the most part now, Duell is thought of as an out of step, foolish curmudgeon that had the audacity to state that nothing new was ever going to be developed or patented, when in reality he foresaw that both the magnitude and rate of future changes was going to be unprecedented.

An interesting urban myth, but I have digressed.
I think I’ll look at how both time, and technology work against just about everyone in business. I think this is a position that is somewhat out of step with some of the current thinking.

There is a school of thought that says experience is a good thing. But in order to gain experience you have to have been around either a company, or an industry for a while. The up side of experience is that in order to have remained around for a while you probably had to learn a few things. The down side is that time has passed, and that you may have been pigeon-holed into a role which is defined by your experience.

Robert Heinlein is an author of many famous books and multiple great quotes. I have read most of his catalog, and I have cited him often in many of my quotes. One of his most famous, and one of my favorites is:

“Live and learn, or you don’t live long.”

This is especially true in business. If you haven’t learned from your previous experiences, you probably aren’t going to get the chance to have any experiences in the future.

But how much is that experience worth in business? By just being around for a while, chances are that you are also going to experience salary growth. Yearly reviews, pay raises and inflation are an ingrained part of the business compensation structure. The longer that you are around, usually the more you end up costing the company.

Also, in today’s organizations it is reasonably well documented that management would prefer specific subject matter experts as opposed to very broad experiential histories. Again, that means that the longer you are around, the higher the probability that you are going to be associated with a specific business, technology, and capability set.

But what happens when the baseline business or technology changes? Strategic directions change. Digital has replaced analog. Wireless has replaced wire. Optical has replaced copper. Unleaded has replaced leaded. Transistors have replaced tubes. Fuel injection has replaced carburetors. The list obviously goes on and on.

It is not uncommon for relatively more experienced, and expensive people to be associated with what was once but may no longer be viewed as strategic businesses within an organization. In instances such as this, the opportunities for advancement can dwindle, and in the longer term so can the opportunity for employment.

So, what can be done to prepare and avoid such issues? How do you stay relevant in the face of ongoing change?

My suggestion for the first step in maintaining relevance is to understand the current environment. Employment is now a cost – benefit, or value proposition. As long as it is perceived that you are delivering more value to the business than you are costing it, chances are that things will continue.

That would mean that the correlation to the idea that the longer you are around, the more you probably will be making, is that as time passes it is probably expected that you need to be generating greater value. This is usually much easier said than done. It also means that if time is passing, and you are remaining in the same role, that it becomes more and more difficult to be perceived as generating greater value.

Value is normally associated with orders, revenue, costs and earnings. Understanding your relationship with, and ability to quantify your effect on these topics will go a long way toward defining your value. The weaker your relationship with these key metrics, the more tenuous your value proposition may be viewed.

The second step is to align more with a specific business function or discipline, and not so much with a specific business unit or specific product set or technology. Accountants, Financial Managers, Sales Staff, Project Managers, etc., can usually ply their trades across different industries and business units. This doesn’t mean that it will be easy to move from one industry to another. It merely reduces some of the perceived barriers that will normally be erected when someone is experienced in one industry and not another.

Next, as Heinlein said, if you are not learning, you are probably not going to be around for long. Take courses. Take training. Most companies have training programs to help increase both the depth of knowledge in specific disciplines, as well as programs to support external trainings and certifications. Use them.

If you are planning on being around for a while, it will be expected that you will have to know more in order to maintain your employment value proposition. Learn about other technologies and disciplines. Understand and become more conversant in the process and project orientation that most businesses are currently in.

Finally, it is incumbent on you to challenge both yourself and the organization by demonstrating your willingness and ability to move out of your comfort zone, or area of expertise, and take on new roles. Most of the time no one will come looking for you to take on a new role. You must step up, and out on that proverbial limb and make the first move.

Otherwise it will probably be assumed that you are content where you are, and there you will get to stay. Until something changes.

This approach requires an active awareness and participation. Businesses will normally present you with the opportunity to learn many diverse topics, disciplines and technologies. They will also usually present you with the opportunity to at least try to move into something else. It is up to you to search them out and take advantage of them. Very few companies require you to take courses to stay abreast of new trends within business. Fewer still will actively try to reposition you into new strategic product and businesses.

These are some things that you have to do.

It takes extra time. It involves extra effort. It requires your own initiative.

Otherwise you may be risking your relevance expecting the things you have been doing to be as important, and relevant, to the business in the future as they are today.

Shorter Meetings

I’ve been trying something new lately when it comes to meetings. I started by looking at the number of meetings I attend. I don’t think I am too far outside the norm by saying, I seem to attend a significant number of meetings. I think I have said this before. We may have hit the point where we seem to establish our credibility and measure our value contribution by the number of meeting we attend. We have now associated attending meetings with making progress.

I then started looking at what actual portion of the meeting was I actually engaged in or contributing to. I am sure there are those that would question my engagement or contribution to any meeting I attend or participate in.

The point here however, is that I found that there were specific portions or times during meetings where the topic being discussed was germane to me and I needed to be fully engaged and participative. The rest of the time, maybe not quite so much.

When I looked further at this relative “down” time I would experience in a meeting, I found that a significant portion of it was associated with what I will call “related” meeting topics, not the specific meeting topics. I’ll give an example.

I was in a project review meeting where the objective was to detail the status of the project. An issue was identified. This is a good thing. But it quickly caused the meeting to go off the rails. Instead of identifying the issue, and assigning those responsible to work out a resolution, those responsible for working out a resolution proceeded to try and work out their solution – during the review, with everyone else waiting to contribute their portions of the review.

The issue was important. But more so specifically to a subset of all those in attendance. The rest of the meeting attendees (myself included) time was less than efficiently spent listening to the attempted resolution of a topic that may not have been completely defined, or fully germane to their areas of focus.

In other words. We sat there on the call.

The meeting dragged on. Another issue was identified which created another attempt at an on-line resolution.

The meeting ran out of time so that those at the end of the agenda had to curtail their reports.

The meeting ran over the allotted time.

Parkinson’s Law was reaffirmed.

For those of you that are not familiar with Parkinson’s Law, according to Google, it is as follows:

“Work expands to fill the time available for its completion. A proverb coined by the twentieth-century British scholar C. Northcote Parkinson, known as Parkinson’s Law. It points out that people usually take all the time allotted (and frequently more) to accomplish any task.”
https://www.google.com/search?source=hp&ei=BhmlW5GQIsvzzgLem5qABg&q=work+expands+to+fill+time&oq=work+expands+&gs_l=psy-ab.1.0.0l2.1768.4291..6750…0.0..0.86.947.13……0….1..gws-wiz…….0i131j0i10.QQZmraKUhpQ

It seems that it may have its roots in science (Physics actually, and as we all know I am extremely fond of Physics).

”This law is likely derived from ideal gas law, whereby a gas expands to fit the volume allotted.”
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parkinson%27s_law

And as we all know, if it is science, it must be true.

As with any scientific theory, several corollaries have been created as a result.

“The first-referenced meaning of the law has dominated, and sprouted several corollaries, the best known being the Stock–Sanford corollary to Parkinson’s law:

“If you wait until the last minute, it only takes a minute to do.”
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parkinson%27s_law

Other corollaries include Horstman’s corollary to Parkinson’s law:

“Work contracts to fit in the time we give it.”
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parkinson%27s_law

All of this got me to thinking. And, as we also all know, this can be a dangerous situation for not only me, but all those involved or effected. It seems to me that meetings have taken on a status where it’s okay to ramble and take extra time, because invariably we make excuses for, or accept this kind of meeting behavior. The end result is that the meeting does achieve is goal, but it takes far more time than anyone is comfortable spending, and no one feels a sense of accomplishment when it is done.

My answer to this issue was pretty simple.
I made my meetings shorter.

Instead of having a one-hour review, once a week on Wednesdays, I scheduled two – one half hour reviews on Tuesday and Friday. I didn’t reduce the agendas or topics either. We covered everything in each meeting.

You might ask how this is possible? The answer is really very simple.

I became ruthless in cutting non-specific meeting discussions off.

If the meeting is a review, then it was a read-out, or reporting delivery only. If an issue was identified, it was immediately taken off-line, with an action item and an owner identified and would be resolved so that it could be read out and reported during the next half-hour call.

No exceptions.

It took a couple of meetings for the team to understand and get the rhythm of the approach, but the results have been very apparent. The project is moving faster. Ownership of issues and their resolution is much clearer. Progress is accelerated.

Just to review: we are spending the same total amount of time in meetings on the project reviews, but we are making more, and faster progress toward our objectives.

Looking back at Horstman’s Corollary to Parkinson’s Law, meaning if work expands to fill available time, that it should also contract to fit available time. Parkinson’s Law would mean if we schedule a one hour review we will conduct the meeting in such a way as to fill the full hour (and then some). Horstman’s Corollary would say that if we reduce the available time from one hour to a half-hour, we should be able to get the work done in that interval as well.

They both seem to be correct.

The issue is changing what were full hour meeting behaviors to the now necessary half-hour meeting behaviors. That means:

Ruthlessly staying on topic.
If it is a read-out meeting, read out only. Issues need to be taken off line, resolved and then read out at the next read-out meeting. If it is an issue resolution meeting, resolve the identified issue only. Don’t read out. Don’t work on other, related issues.

Cutting them off.
Many times, presenters do not know how to end their presentations. Sideline discussions, anecdotes, stories and all other manner of communications needs to be curtailed. Then move on.

Action Items.
Just because non-germane topics come up does not mean that they are not important topics. Clearly note them. Assign an owner and a time for resolution – and move on. Do not allow the group to lose focus on the topic at hand. This will keep everyone engaged.

Own it.
If it is your meeting, then it is your responsibility not to waste everyone else’s time. Stay on topic. Cut them off if necessary. Assign the action items. Publish the meeting minutes.

I didn’t set out to prove what are widely regarded as accurate, if not tongue-in-cheek axioms regarding how time is spent in business. I actually set out to see if I could start to reduce the amount of “down” time I was spending in meetings in general.

I am reasonably well convinced that the reason we have so much multi-tasking during meetings is due to the length and engagement requirements we now seem to expect in our meetings. We know the meeting will be longer than we want. We know that we will really only need to be fully engaged and aware for a relatively small percentage of the time that the meeting is conducted.

We know we will be bored the rest of the time.

The alternatives are to either multi-task, or to reduce the total time of the meeting in order to reduce the down time. Multi-tasking is the meeting attendee approach to solving their individual wasted meeting time issue. Reducing the actual meeting time is the meeting owner approach to solving everyone’s wasted meeting time issue.

Conducting shorter meetings will take significantly more effort on behalf of the meeting owner, and by extension some of the attendees, but I have found that you can actually get more done in the meeting by taking this approach. And I think that everyone in the meeting appreciates that, since that is supposed to be the objective of the meeting in the first place.

Seminars and Webinars

I think we can all agree that one of the fastest growing business segments in the world today, regardless of industry, has to be the seminar and webinar segment. It has to be. Just judging by the relative number of and ever-growing list of empirical data that shows up in my email on a daily basis. I never think of myself as particularly unique within the business world in general, or within my chosen industry segment specifically, so if the expanding number of webinar solicitations is happening to me, it must be happening to others. If my mailbox is any indication of what everyone else is seeing in their mailbox, there must now be a seminar or webinar available for each of us to attend, just about every hour of every day.

When will this all stop?

I came in on a Monday morning to no less than five new seminar and webinar invitations. The first was a Hipaa Compliance educational opportunity, as if I even know what that is. I had to look it up. I guess I could stand to be educated on Hipaa.

HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996) is United States legislation that provides data privacy and security provisions for safeguarding medical information. https://searchhealthit.techtarget.com/definition/HIPAA

Okay. Nope, don’t need that.

The next was “Team Effectiveness: The Five Dysfunctions of a Team”. Nope, I think we are probably already dysfunctional enough without having to go to a webinar about it. I can just look around if I want to see dysfunctionality. I don’t need to pay a fee to see it.

I was concerned that there might be some sort of professional certification associated with that one.

The next was a SCRUM Study webinar. This one actually did propose some sort of certification. For those of you not familiar with this discipline, it is the latest and greatest variant of project management. While possibly intriguing, this one also went into the “Nope” file.

Then there was the “Keto-Burn” Protocol for Weight loss. Obviously spam, but I guess it does say something about our fixation on our weight and the growing obesity problem in the US if there are engines out there SPAMming it to business email addresses.

I personally ascribe to the age old “Eat a little less – Move around a little more” methodology of weight control.

The final one was “Stability Studies – Key steps to design and analyze the results to estimate a product’s shelf life”. Quite possibly a very interesting topic. However, not something that I think could generate appreciable business value over the course of a ninety-minute webinar.

The one thing that all these disparate webinars on all these disparate topics had in common was that they wanted me to give them money (in varying amounts) for the privilege of attending. Each of these solicitations referred to me by name and acted as if we were either long lost family, or possibly recently separated friends. They just needed a little of my money now, and they were sure that they could improve my livelihood, if not world in the future.

The first thought I had was: Are there really any people, anywhere on this planet that will sign up for one of these seminars or webinars solely based on an unrequested email solicitation?

I guess there must be.

Now I can understand how and why people will give money to a Nigerian prince if he sends them an email explaining that if they send him some money today, he will in turn send them a whole lot more money at some future date. Who wouldn’t want to make that investment? I keep waiting and hoping for such an email and opportunity, but at least up to now, to no avail.

But who would want to sign up for a webinar on some mundane or arcane topic, based on an invitation from someone who wasn’t a Nigerian prince?

Unlike the previous generation of direct mail – direct response (DMDR) campaigns, where businesses actually had to spend and invest money on the postage required to deliver their opportunities to the target addresses, all today’s email campaigns need is just an email address to send it to. It seems the internet-based bits that carry the message are essentially free. This means that if anyone, anywhere, for whatever reason ever responds to these campaign requests, and signs up for one of the webinars, there is an immediate positive business value generated to the sender. As I alluded to before, if one person does it, there will invariably be others that do it as well. After all, it essentially costs them nothing to send the invitation.

They are in essence trying to get something from you for nothing.

If they don’t. No problem. All they do is just fill up your inbox. If they do, then eureka, they scored.

A quick check of my Junk Mail / Spam Filter showed that there were no less than eleven other invitations to other events of varying magnitude that I would obviously have been foolish in the extreme to ignore, that arrived, and were diverted, over the weekend. I quickly identified the five senders that got through as spam and they too were now in the junk file. I am hopeful that all future requests from these sources will also be captured there before I have to deal with them again.

Undaunted by this apparent avalanche of cyber-trash that now appears in my email mailbox, I went and did a little research, as I am wont to do. The results are both surprising and unsurprising at the same time.

Contrary to popular belief (at least my popular belief) DMDR marketing campaigns are not dead. They still exist outside of the internet. In fact, there is an industry association set up for it (the Direct Marketing Association, strangely enough) and they continue to provide information and research on both its effectiveness as well as the effectiveness of what seems to be the bourgeoning direct spamming approach.

“Though there has been a reduction in response rate for direct mail over the last ten years, it’s still holding strong. In its response rate report, the Direct Marketing Association (DMA) analyzed Bizo and Epsilon data and found that direct mail achieves a 4.4% response rate, compared to 0.12% for email.” https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbescommunicationscouncil/2017/08/30/why-direct-mail-marketing-is-far-from-dead/#3c5e2ffc311d

I don’t know if I am horrified or relieved that such an august periodical such a Forbes is dedicating their precious column-inches to topics such as this. Then I remembered that Forbes is now also publishing on-line so the cost per column-inch has also come down appreciably in association with the cost of bits on the internet.

I guess they can now also expect an acceptance and response rate equal to the on-line DMDR people.

I wonder what that may have done to their advertising rates and values. Just a passing thought.

Not surprisingly, the DMA study shows that their preferred method of annoying people with unrequested solicitations via non-email methods, is close to forty times more successful that annoying them with email solicitations. On the surface this would seem to be the preferred method of annoyance.

However, I could not find any information regarding the relative costs of the methodology that they prefer. As I said, the bits on the internet are close to free, while postage for mail delivered by the postal service has a definite finite cost per solicitation. And since bits are basically free, forty times free is still free, so based on this type of cost – benefit logic, I think it is safe to assume that we will all continue to enjoy the multitude of unsolicited opportunities that appear in our email mailboxes for some time. Despite what appears to be a response and acceptance level that seems to be trending asymptotically close to zero.

It just means that the internet emailers need to reach out to forty times as many people as the non-emailers, to get the same number of respondents. And since the emails are essentially free, that is what they do. Hence the deluge of spam emails.

A little further research has shown me that by law, all of these opportunity suppliers, or Spammers for short, must provide the ability for those receiving their messages to be able to opt out from receiving future opportunity notices.
https://www.ftc.gov/news-events/blogs/business-blog/2015/08/candid-answers-can-spam-questions

What I also discovered during this research is that there now appears to be another burgeoning industry opportunity on the business horizon. This one involves services that purport to be able to remove you from these email opportunity lists for you. For just a small fee, of course.

I now fully expect to start receiving email solicitations from these spam removal services, unsolicited of course, asking me to sign up for their service so that I will no longer have to receive unwanted emails from all the other internet people trying get me to attend webinars and seminars, or sell me things like spam removal services.

Gosh, I do appreciate email.

Engineering Solutions

There can be no question that engineers are one of the cornerstones of any successful technology oriented business organization. It doesn’t matter if they are hardware, software, electrical, mechanical, chemical or even civil engineers. Their role and importance cannot be overstated. We need to be very clear about that. I will try to walk the fine line of discussing the work of engineers in business without sliding into the realm of picking on engineers in business. Wish me luck.

It has been said:

“With great power comes great responsibility”

The origin of this quote is attributed to two wildly different sources: Voltaire, the eighteenth-century philosopher, and Uncle Ben, the Spiderman character, not the instant rice one. Both are acknowledged as saying something close but not quite like this, hence the somewhat open-ended attribution.

If I have a choice I’m going with Uncle Ben. Just because I haven’t seen that many entertaining movies about Voltaire and the French Enlightenment. However, I am sure that Marvel Comics will eventually get around to it. Probably after Thor – Thirteen, or some such time.

Mark Twain however, is widely acknowledged as the source of this quote:

“To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”

I believe the modern technology equivalent of this statement is now:

“To an engineer, every question looks like it needs an engineering solution.”

Herein is where we get to the topic of engineering solutions. Engineers have a great power and responsibility when it comes to finding solutions to today’s customer based technological opportunities. A solution usually cannot be created, or implemented without them. Somebody usually has to put them together, and that somebody is usually an engineer.

Engineers have been trained starting in school to create the best solution. It usually entails a single variable. The strongest solution. The highest. The most secure. The longest. The tallest. Very seldom is there a scale or constraint added where there is some sort of trade off versus another variable. This can have a tendency to be the mindset that engineers use when creating real world solutions.

But even in this high technology, engineering dependent environment, it must be remembered that engineering is only part of the solution, not the entire solution. We are no longer in a time where a president can challenge a country to reach a goal, and the engineers can spend whatever is necessary to reach it. Doing things because they are difficult is a great challenge, but doing them within a budget is even a greater challenge.

About this time, I will have lost all readers that have an engineering degree, an engineering role or even just an engineering predilection. To mention that there are items other than engineering that are important to customer solutions, in their eyes can border on blasphemy. Unfortunately, that is the business world that we now live in. I have talked about this evolution before. It is the transition from the best solution, to the solution that is good enough. This idea is likely to drive engineers crazy.

Little things like money, time and resources must also be taken into account when creating a customer centric solution. This is because, contrary to standard engineering thought, the customer does not necessarily want the best engineered solution. They want the best solution that matches their money, time and resource constraints.

Engineers must be continually reminded of these real-world business constraints: money, time and resources. Otherwise it is not uncommon for them to develop the ultimate engineered solution, that is wholly implausible or unimplementable in the real world. It may be the best technical solution, but there will be very few that can afford to buy and implement it.

When engineering customer solutions, it is best not to think in terms of “absolutes”. Words like the “greatest”, “most” and “best” need modifiers otherwise engineers have a tendency to take them as literal objectives and work to them accordingly. This can result in some of the most elegantly over-engineered solutions imaginable.

Pareto Analysis is a statistical technique in decision-making used for the selection of a limited number of tasks that produce significant overall effect. It uses the Pareto Principle (also known as the 80/20 rule) the idea that by doing 20% of the work you can generate 80% of the benefit of doing the entire job. (https://www.projectsmart.co.uk/pareto-analysis-step-by-step.php)

Many think that it was the Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto who created the Eighty – Twenty rule. To a certain extent this is somewhat true. Pareto first observed that 80% of income in Italy was received by 20% of the Italian population. However, it was management thinker Joseph M. Juran who actually suggested the principle and its far wider applications. Because of Pareto’s observation and work, the technique was named for him. (https://www.entrepreneurs-journey.com/397/80-20-rule-pareto-principle/)

Business, in all its simplest forms, is about investment and return. How much you put in versus how much you get out. This is the basis for employment decisions (if the company thinks that a person will generate more value for the company than the company will have to pay that person in compensation, then the company makes the hiring decision), and it is that way in purchasing decisions (amount paid versus expected return), and it needs to be that way in generating customer solutions.

Customers are not blessed with infinite resources. As I have said, in many instances they cannot afford to pay for what may be considered the “best” solution. Time and money always come into play for them. How much must they pay for each solution? What definable value does the solution generate (reduced costs, increased sales, etc.)? When would they expect to see these returns (the sooner the better)?

Engineers are excellent at the quantifiable. It is the nature of their work. However, if left unchecked they do have a tendency to view costs, time and resources more as “variables” instead of “constraints”. This is where business and leadership reinforcement is required.

When working with engineers, boundaries and constraints are a necessity. An upper limit on costs must be set. This can be in the form of a specific number (The cost cannot exceed…) or a derived relationship (the customer requires a pay-back period of….) based on costs, value generated and specific time frames. This will enable the engineer to modify various combinations of these business variables, but also provide a limiting constraint on the solution.

This customer pay-back period can also be used to help generate the value limit as well. If as Pareto has asserted that first eighty percent of the value can usually be derived with the first twenty percent of the effort, then it should follow that each additional amount of engineering effort (or any effort for that matter) will only provide a continually decreasing return. If the desired customer pay-back is based on returns and time, there is a limit as to what can be engineered within the constraint. Only so much can be done before the cost or pay-back period are exceeded.

It should be noted that not all engineers are so single-mindedly focused on engineering solutions. I have had the opportunity to work with several who understood that good customer solutions are the result of many, sometimes opposing forces in the solution creation process. These are the engineers that have recognized that real world issues and solutions have both a cost and a value associated with them.

A few final comments and observations on the engineering of solutions:

The optimist will look a glass that is half full of water and say that it is indeed half full.

The pessimist will look at the same glass and say that it is in fact half empty.

The engineer will look at it and say the glass is twice as big as it should be, and will set about trying to engineer a smaller glass that will be much more efficient in the holding of that specific amount of water.

Before they are allowed to do that, it is best to check to make sure that the customer wasn’t all that thirsty to begin with, and the amount in the glass is all the water that they wanted at this time. It might actually save more time, money and effort than the solution the engineer would create.

There are probably many engineers that would like to argue this point of view. I have found that for an engineer, the next best thing to trying to engineer the best solution to a problem, is to argue about what is the best engineered solution to a problem. For those of you that have not had the opportunity to argue with an engineer, this is a good time to remember the following quote:

“Arguing with an engineer is a lot like wrestling in the mud with a pig, after a couple of hours you realize the pig likes it.” (anonymous).

Why Do It

There is a brand out there that struck advertising gold with their catch phrase “Just do it”. We all know who they are, so I will not go there. For sneakers, exercising and sports it was brilliant. How incredibly “Zen”. It truly tapped into the psyche of every would-be athlete on the planet. Like so many other marketing trends in society it seems to have also found its way into our business vernacular. I am not so sure this is a good thing. Like process for process sake, just doing something for the sake of doing it, without examining the value or reason for doing it in business can be a waste.

I think we need to remember what drives organizations and what should cause them to take actions. Organizations exist primarily to bring value to its share holders. It does this by providing value to its customers. It seems that too many times they have a tendency to confuse activity with progress, much the same way that process can be confused with control.

I am convinced that there are three simple driving forces for actions in business. I am sure there are many that would potentially argue this point and say that there are actually a myriad of driving forces for action in business, but stick with me for a moment. When I look at the root cause analyses of all types of actions in business, and boil them down to the basics, I still keep coming back to these three:

Actions can be customer driven.
Actions can be revenue driven.
Actions can be cost driven.

If there are business decisions that result in activities that when analyzed cannot be attributed to one of these categories, I would probably challenge that it is an action or activity whose relevance should be called into question.

In other words, if an organization is doing something that cannot be attributed to one of these causes, I would ask why they are doing it.

Customer driven actions are just that, actions that benefit the customer primarily without regard to any other considerations. This means that they can be actions that are not in the current financial best interests of the business at that time. They are “investments” in the customer relationship which will hopefully produce greater returns to the business at a later date.

These are actions that are the result of externally focused decisions. They are actions designed to further the relationship or build incremental trust with that specific customer. They are usually strategic in nature and are focused on the longer term view of the business, not its immediate profitability.

Revenue driven actions are actions designed to grow the business, either through the acquisition of new customers or the expansion of business with existing customers. Since they don’t specifically focus on business profits or margins (they are looking at the top line, not the bottom line) they can be mixed between external and internal in their business focus.

These actions tend to be shorter term focused than the long term customer driven actions in that there is some consideration to the business results that are input into the decision and action process.

Cost driven actions are specifically internally focused and are used to target shorter term results. They are the result of decisions that are usually focused on the business performance and are designed to directly affect profitability and margins.

Cost driven actions are not solely defined by infrastructure or staff reduction types of actions. Some cost driven actions can be taken as a method of avoiding or reducing known costs. For example, business actions such as corporate wellness activities can also be considered cost driven actions. They are solely internally focused. They are designed to help improve employee productivity by reducing stress and resulting sick days. They also help reduce corporate healthcare costs and insurance premiums by reducing the claims and medical costs of employees who are in general healthier because of them. All of these improvements directly affect the corporate bottom line.

There may be some that believe that some actions are based on meeting legal or regulatory requirements, and should be categorized separately. I would argue that these too are cost based actions based on the argument that they are internal in nature (not affecting customers or revenue) and only affect costs in the form of what it costs to adhere to them, as well as what it will cost if they are not adhered to.

The tradeoffs between these decision drivers and actions are reasonably clear. There are the primarily short term affects of internally focused actions (such as cost cutting), the midterm effects of revenue growth actions (such as sales programs and discounts), and the long term aspects of customer relationship investments (such as faulty product replacements and customer satisfaction actions) and their effects and values to the business. There is the tradeoff between an external (customer needs) focus and an internal (primarily profitability) focus that must be balanced.

It is the business leader’s responsibility to continually monitor and balance the internal and external decision focus, and the short term – long term effects on the business. If they become too focused on the short term business performance, future revenue streams and customer relationships can be negatively affected. If they focus on the longer term and customer relationships, shorter term business performance may suffer due to the increased investments that are required.

Sometimes these decisions and actions can align and be complementary to each other. This alignment between short and long term decision and action, between internal and external focus then becomes relatively simple. Other times they will not be complementary in nature and tradeoffs will have to be made between the performance of the business today and the investment needed for the business to perform tomorrow. Cost actions will need to be balanced against investments in revenue growth and customer relationships.

I think the bottom line here (if you pardon the pun) is that customer focused decisions and actions are what keep any business or organization in business and should be prioritized above the others. After all, it is the customer that supplies the order that gets turned into revenue that ultimately drives profit. Forgetting, or re-prioritizing this axiom can in some instances occur briefly, but probably at the long term peril of the business. There are always other competitors in the market that regardless of their situation who will be willing to make the incremental investment in a customer.

I realize that I have greatly simplified the decision and action criteria here for an organization. However I do think that it is somewhat justified. We do have a tendency to make business as complicated as we want. I seem to have reached the point where I prefer a simpler approach as opposed to a cross functional team creating a new process and program to document the approach.

As I noted at the opening, it seems that too many times organizations undertake actions that don’t seem to support any of these key reasons for taking them. If there was a check and balance arrangement where processes or programs were reviewed with an understanding toward these criteria, they might be modified or removed all together.

Since this would be for all intents and purposes an internal only review, it would probably be classified as a cost base decision criteria and action.

Organizations have a limited number of resources. It seems in many instances they have an almost unlimited number of objectives and desires, many of which are somewhat conflicting. The business’s resources need to be spent or invested on those objectives that keep the customer in the forefront of the decision criteria and can best be aligned to provide the greatest return to the organization. These returns need to be balanced between the short and long terms.

Little Things

Usually I start off one of these articles with a specific idea in mind. I try to examine a topic or a specific facet of business that I find interesting and provide my take on it. I end up trying to make a point or infer a position, and I also try to make it a little entertaining, at least to myself. I have been told on multiple occasions that it is not uncommon for me to miss that entertaining objective for others. Today I am thinking I might change things up and try a little different approach to things.

None of the topics running through my mind really seem worthy of their own entire article. However there doesn’t seem to be a way to banish them from my thought process in favor of a perceptibly higher priority topic. They continue to pop up and present themselves in various forms, apparently clamoring for my attention. It appears that the only solution is to run through them all and let them be sorted out on their own.

Fridays

Is it just me or does anyone else notice a perceptible drop in attendance at the office on Fridays? I understand all that has been written about the benefits of flexible hours and virtual offices and the like. If that was truly the cause of this phenomenon I would expect a little more even distribution of lower office attendance days across the rest of the work week.

I have seen the new television commercial where the “boss” proclaims much to everyone’s amusement that “Wednesday is the new Thursday”. That’s fine, but I definitely must have missed the memo where Friday has become the new Saturday.

On a related topic, I don’t seem to have much sympathy either for those who are ever more frequently complaining about having to attend calls or meetings on Friday afternoons. The last time I checked Friday was still part of what has been so quaintly and colloquially referred to as the “work week”. You know, that eight to five, Monday through Friday thing?

This is especially interesting to me since the latest information from Gallup.com is that the average work week is no longer forty hours, but closer to forty seven hours. That would mean that instead of just working eight to five Monday through Friday people are on average also working eight to four on Saturdays.

So I guess the conundrum to solve here is that people are working more hours and the business offices have lower attendance on Fridays. With all the additional hours being worked I am not so sure that more is actually being accomplished. Interesting. Maybe this one does deserve more thought and research. I’ll have to think about it.

Spam

I passed a milestone a little while ago. I am now averaging more than two hundred spam emails a day on my corporate email account. That is correct. Across a typical eight hour day I am now receiving a spam email every two and a half minutes. I must really be popular with the spammers. I don’t know why. I never respond regardless of how tempting they tell me their offer is.

What is a little more than disconcerting to me is that both my email system and my computer recognize that the junk emails are spam, and regardless of what setting I use to try and stem the ever increasing flow, nothing seems to work.

Now my system lets me know that they are spam, as it continues to present them to me:

picture3

If the system knows that they are spam emails, why doesn’t it just get rid of them, or better yet, block them from even being presented. This number does not include the approximately fifteen other emails that did go directly to my junk email folder because I had already individually blocked the sender of previous spam emails.

As an aside I went out to www.todayifoundout.com and looked up the origin of the term “spam” as it relates to emails. This is what they had to say:

“The real origin of the term comes from a 1970 Monty Python’s Flying Circus skit. In this skit, all the restaurant’s menu items devolve into SPAM. When the waitress repeats the word SPAM, a group of Vikings in the corner sing “SPAM, SPAM, SPAM, SPAM, SPAM, SPAM, SPAM, SPAM, lovely SPAM! Wonderful SPAM!” drowning out other conversation, until they are finally told to shut it.
Exactly where this first translated to internet messages of varying type, such as chat messages, newsgroups, etc, isn’t entirely known as it sort of happened all over the place in a very short span of years, in terms of the name being applied to these messages. It is, however, well documented that the users in each of these first instances chose the word “spam” referring to the 1970 Monty Python sketch where SPAM singing was drowning out conversation and SPAM itself was unwanted and popping up all over the menu.”

“Drowning out all other conversation…” That sounds about right.

Spam Calls

As if spam emails are not enough, it seems I am now getting more and more spam phone calls as well. They are coming in on both my personal as well as business phones. These calls seem to have also spiked in frequency most recently.

I initially tried to be polite when I told them that I wasn’t interested in whatever it was that they were sure that I wanted to talk about. They just kept going on with their spiel. I would then be forced to hang up anyway. I then tried being a little more “forceful” in communicating my desire that they should never contemplate calling me again. Despite my directly questioning their intellects and species orientation, this didn’t seem to work either.

I have settled on what I think is a good solution to this particular business problem. When I receive a spam call, I simply answer the call, lay the receiver down and go on doing whatever it was that I was doing when the call interrupted me. The auto dialing system then connects the call to a person on the other end and I can eventually hear someone start speaking, and then realize that no one is listening. Eventually they hang up and go away.

Since these auto dialing spam phone call shops are predicated on the efficiency of the system, this method disrupts their entire process. I think that they then put me on some sort of a “do not call” list as the number of repeat offender calls from these places seems to be reducing. The only problem is that there seem to be so many new ones popping up to take their places.

I don’t want this to seem like some sort of scree or disconnected rant today. Business is obviously changing. How people work, where they work and what they do has changed. I have noted in the past that I am not so sure in many instances if these changes have been for the better. Working more hours from a virtual office, does not in itself indicate any sort of an improvement to me. It does however seem to be instrumental in generating what is now a forty seven hour work week.

I am not sure what the business benefit of generating spam is. I guess it can be considered the electronic replacement for Direct Mail Direct Response (DMDR) marketing and since there is now no cost for postage it seems to be running amok. I don’t think I have ever seen or heard of anyone responding to that stuff although a DMDR response of one to two percent was the expected target. I guess the logic is that if the volume of junk mail is increase by an order of magnitude then the response will increase proportionately as well.

Still, sending me ten requests for the thing I didn’t want once isn’t going to improve things.

Generating spam of any kind should be a punishable offense, at least in my opinion. Living in Texas the idea of dragging spammers through cactus or horse whipping immediately comes to mind as a suitable punishment. No need to get too medieval on them, at least for the initial offense.

I think that’s enough disparate business topics for this session. I’m sure I’ll have more to discuss in the future.

Service Economy

I attended a seminar the other day from a group that was offering a new service to businesses and business professionals. I admit that my attendance was more at the urging of a friend who played upon our friendship to get me to go than any specific desire on my part to attend a seminar of this sort. I don’t usually go to these things. I usually prefer root canals to seminars. However the lure of a “free” lunch in exchange for having to listen to the speakers, and the fact that I was reminded by my friend that I had agreed to go a couple weeks earlier was enough to swing the deal.

I should have known. I think most of you can guess where this is going.

I’ll start with the lunch. It was your typical buffet set up. Not too bad. Most of us understand the idea of getting in line and taking our turns walking by the assorted warming trays and selecting the ingredients for our meals. That is most of us with the possible exception of those that are prompt enough to get in the front of the line.

Why is it that the people in the front of a line need any kind or urging to actually do what they got to the front of the line to do in the first place? I guess they just wanted to be at the front of the line. They didn’t actually want to be first to get their food, sit down and eat. Didn’t they realize that by slowing the line down at the onset that the follow on effect would be that every subsequent function, including the after lunch speakers, would also be delayed.

Wait a minute. In hind sight that might not have been such a bad thing.

Come on, people. I was here for a lunch and some enthralling discourse, not to stand in line wondering why those in the front weren’t holding up (pun intended) their end of the bargain and getting a move on. Step up and take control of the situation. We are supposed to be business leaders.

After almost ten minutes of standing around, a slight nudge and a direct suggestion (Why don’t we get started with lunch?) by some obnoxious loud mouth (I couldn’t say who. Really…) somewhere back in the line, lunch got started. It is here that I should have reinforced one of the rules I had learned at previous buffet lunches.

If you have to ask someone what the contents of a buffet lunch warming tray are, if it is not readily apparent just by looking at it, you probably shouldn’t put it on your plate and try to eat it.

As I said it had been a while since I had been to one of these things, and I was hungry. After all we had been standing in line almost tem minutes. The response to my tray contents question did not include the words “poison” or any other items related to “inedible”, so I gave it a go. It did not go well. I ended up eating the rice, vegetable medley and a roll, all of which were easily identifiable at the outset. I had to go back and get butter for the roll. I have my standards when it comes to breads.

My friend (the one who insisted that I go to this thing) informed me that he was a vegetarian so it seemed that he was able to avoid my food selection miscue. His lunch plate contained no mystery ingredients. It seems these events are scheduled monthly and he has attended them in the past. If he had been a true friend he would have suggested my conversion to the vegetarian life style before lunch.

So it was on top of the delicious, nutritious and filling repast that we then embarked on the actual reason for the meeting. We were going to listen to a couple of people tell us about a new service that they had put together. I could hardly wait. It was going to be good.

Now I always try to simplify things. It just makes it easier for me. If it is simple I can rapidly come to the determination if I think it is useful or has value. It took me a while listening to them talk and rereading the handout to figure out what their service was.

They were offering a service where they would read the management trends and directions books on the management book (I really didn’t know there was such a thing) best seller list and provide the subscriber of their service a synopsis of each one. Really.

The netted out value was that you still had to read (their synopses), you just didn’t have to read as much.

I had to give them points for creativity and trying to figure out a way to monetize their love of books and reading. I enjoy books and reading too. But there are some books that even I have a hard time reading.

“Finnegan’s Wake” by James Joyce is probably at the top of that list. It’s over six hundred pages long. It took him several years to write the base story and then more than a decade to obscure it in a variety of dialects, images and allusions as to render it almost unreadable. I am not the only one that feels this way about this book. You can look it up. It took a few weeks of dedicated effort for me to get through it, and then when I was done I had to additionally read one of those literary analyses books about it just so I could understand what it was that I had actually read.

The rest of the books on my personal “Hard to Read” list are comprised almost entirely of business management books. Their titles are basically interchangeable and don’t really seem to matter. They are usually on the list because of their content, not their style.

It is George Bernard Shaw who is usually attributed as the author of the phrase:

“Those who can’t do, teach”

I would be so bold as to extend this with the corollary:

“Those who can’t teach, write”

If these business management book writers were so good at business management, why aren’t they captaining businesses themselves and being successful implementing their own ideas? But I digress.

My point here is have we really reached a point in a service based economy where we need a service to read books for us and provide us with their views of the salient or important topics of each book?

Now I think we have had this in the past. There was a set of “books” called CliffsNotes. They could be purchased at just about any bookstore (this is in a dark historical period before Amazon and eReaders, where books were actually composed of paper). These short booklets contained the summaries and salient explanations of many different literary works. In today’s vernacular they would probably be known as Lite Books along the same lines as Lite Beer. All the literary enjoyment, but much less reading.

They were primarily purchased by students that were too lazy to actually read the entire book they were assigned to read, yet still had to pass a test on the book in their English class.

In reality I am not so sure how I actually feel about this new service in our serviced based business society. I am strongly in favor of reading and enjoy a broad spectrum of topics and genres. However I am not particularly in favor of reading management self help books as they all strike me as being somewhat derivative of the previous generations of these instructional books and the authors haven’t quite learned yet how to compensate for this shortcoming with incremental entertainment value.

Yet further on the other hand (since we can’t have three hands) is the fact that the service actually reduces the amount of reading that one would have to do if one actually desired of such management instructional input. This would result in less time actually wasted on reading these books.

I guess the bottom line is that the value of this service depends on the value that each person ascribes to management self help books. If you are a devotee of them, then here is a way to increase the number of them that you become aware of with the same reading effort as a synopsis is shorter than the actual book. If you are not, then it is just a shorter version of something you wouldn’t have read anyway.

Either way, I think next time I’ll make my friend buy me lunch.

It All Counts

After over seven years and more than three hundred articles, I took a little time off from blogging. I needed a break. It wasn’t much of a break. I think it was on the order of a few weeks. It was interesting in that the longer the break went the more I felt the need to get back to writing. I guess that wouldn’t be so bad if I felt I was a better writer.

Be that as it may, I will not allow my lack of talent to stop me from enjoying something. I prove this fact every time I try to play music. So I am back. I have a few new topics already in mind, but I think I will take my time in getting to them. What I will delve into today is going to be the new age joy and scourge of so many of us: Social Media.

My son is a senior in high school, and I believe him to be one of a vanishingly few individuals in North America (if not the civilized world) who does not participate in any social media. He has grown up during the age of social media. Still, he doesn’t have a Facebook account, or a Twitter feed, or any other of a number of social media sources. This pleases my wife since he is blissfully unaware of all the pictures, comments and proclamations she posts about him as he matriculates through life. He doesn’t tweet, friend, post, snap or chat with anyone. What is most surprising to me is that he seems genuinely happy about it too. Go figure.

When I have asked him about it he has blithely responded that he doesn’t see any benefit in participating in social media and if the truth be told he views it as a more of a problem then a benefit when it comes to communicating.

A long, long time ago in a black and white (television) galaxy far, far away, a guy named Art Linkletter had a television show named “Kids Say the Darndest Things”. My son just proved him right.

In this day and age of ubiquitous social media and the ability for anyone to access, generate and present any comment, image, content or position into cyberspace at any time, people seem to have forgotten a very important principle: Other people (not just the ones the content is intended for) can see and read these things. We would like to think that as we are well into the twenty first century that we all enjoy the benefits of freedom of speech and expression. To a large part we do. Except for when we don’t.

Abraham Lincoln said “With great freedom comes great responsibility.” He was as right then as he is now (except if he said it now he would have probably posted it on Facebook and LinkedIn and gotten a ton of “Likes” and “Shares”). What this means today is that just because we have the ability and even the forum to post or say anything we like, it doesn’t mean we should post or say anything we like.

I like picking on meteorologists because to me there are so few occupations where you can be wrong so often and still be regarded as a good meteorologist. I would have said great meteorologist, but that sounded too much like an oxymoron to me. Could there really be something called a great meteorologist?

A great baseball player actually hits the ball and gets on base about thirty percent of the time. This is called a three hundred batting average. Baseball players are praised for succeeding thirty percent of the time, while failing seventy percent of the time. I don’t know what the equivalent batting average is for a good meteorologist is, but I don’t think it is quite as high as a good baseball batting average.

In any event, the topic I am using as an example involves the dismissal of a meteorologist some time ago. This meteorologist wasn’t fired for their inaccurate predictions of the weather. I actually think most people rather expect meteorologists to get the weather prediction wrong. This meteorologist was fired for expressing their own personal opinion on the public forum called the internet.

It seems a group of people took issue with what the meteorologist posted and started to use their own internet based forums to complain. As the groundswell grew, this person’s professional fate was sealed. Job performance had nothing to do with it.

Please notice that I have not said anything about the content or the context of the purported comments. They were not illegal or threatening in any way. I am definitely not saying I agree with them in any way, shape or form. What I am saying is that they were perceived by various groups as being contrary to what those groups viewed as an acceptable position or comment. They took issue with them and as an ever widening group began to complain to the television station about what this meteorologist had posted.

A point I am making here is that it is now a very real and proven possibility that you can in fact lose your job based on what you post in social media or on the internet. The meteorologist in question is not an isolated instance of this type of professional reaction to personal comments. What might be possibly acceptable in the context of a private conversation may not be acceptable in the public realm of social media. What may be heard on the radio may not be acceptable for an individual on the internet.

Think about that for a minute. Some people can be paid for saying shocking things in public and others can be fired for doing the same thing.

Another point to be aware of is that with the quality of today’s search engines, the internet never forgets. Once a comment or post is released into cyberspace, it more than likely remains there forever. It doesn’t matter if it is deleted or erased. It can be exhumed over and over again. Where do you think I get most of my quotes and attributions?

What do you want to be remembered for?

Those embarrassing pictures taken at some party? Yup, they’re out there. That off the cuff, off color comment that you just had to post? It’s there too. That snarky response to someone else’s post? Who could forget that? I think you get the point.

I think those of us in business organizations, as well as just about everyone else I guess, need to remember that once we put something out there, that anyone including our associates, employers and customers have the ability to see it. And just as we are becoming more social media and internet savvy, so are they.

It is not uncommon for would be employers to research candidates via the web for their social media “fingerprints”. What better way to learn about people than to read what they have to say and do in these unrestricted very public forums? I would suspect that every company’s customers are probably doing the same searches as well.

I enjoy social media, and blogging. I actually try to use it as a constructive capability, if you can call this blog a constructive outlet. I’ll leave that to you to decide. I have tried to not lose sight of the fact that not everyone will agree with the positions that I may take. That is a more than acceptable condition as it is the discourse that results from these differences of views and opinions that keeps my interest in the forum. But I always try to understand others points of view before reacting with a potential off the cuff or inflammatory remark.

I think that it has yet to be decided what the outcome of my son’s lack of social media involvement will bring. Will his friends accept that he is “different” in that he doesn’t care to be on social media? Will he have to bow to peer pressure and get on social media if he wants to be able to communicate with his peer group? Will potential future employers be concerned when they do an internet search on him as a potential employment candidate and don’t find years worth of comments and posts?

Or is he possibly just ahead of the curve in recognizing that at least for him, he chooses to define the way he uses the internet as it relates to him?

I’ll have to think about that for a while. In the mean time, I think that as social media continues to garner more and more attention both within the real world and cyberspace, we need to be cognizant of the fact that regardless of what we put out there, it stays there for all to see, and it all counts.

The Process – Simplicity Paradox

The known world is full of paradoxes. Paradoxi? Whatever. Having studied Physics in school I am somewhat familiar with a couple of scientific paradoxes that changed the way we look at everything. Prior to these changes the world was viewed through the lens of what was called Newtonian Physics. That is the mechanics of the motion of objects of non-zero size. Beach balls bouncing, planets orbiting, that sort of thing. It worked well until technology progressed to the point where people could examine smaller and smaller objects, like “particles”, electrons, and protons and such. Then it didn’t work anymore.

It was at this point in time that a new branch of Physics had to be created. It had to work for the macro-world of bouncing balls and the micro-world of sub-atomic nuclear particles. It was called “Quantum Mechanics”. It had to address the paradoxes that were now visible.

It had to address the paradox that sometimes light behaved as a wave and sometimes it behaved as a particle, when in reality it had to be both a particle and a wave all the time. If that was truly the case then everything had to exhibit the same characteristics of waves and particles. This is called the wave-particle duality.

There were other paradoxes that Quantum Mechanics had to address. The idea that physical quantities such as speed and energy (and others) changed in only discreet amounts, sort of like going up and down steps as opposed to the idea of smooth slopes like slides. It also had to explain why the very act of observing these things changed their behavior and made observing other aspects of the same objects that much more difficult.

So, as usually the question now is: What does this introduction have to do with anything associated with business. I think it is pretty simple. I think we have been working in a business management model that for analogy’s sake is the seventeenth century equivalent of Newtonian Physics. It has worked, or not worked as the case may be, on a somewhat macro-scale, but as we have tried to drive it further down on a micro-scale into the organization, it seems to no longer provide the solutions and value businesses need.

As we have introduced more process into the business system in order to try and drive more and more order into the system, I think we are starting to see a breakdown in the results we are expecting to see. Instead of getting better we have gotten slower. We don’t get the results that we expect. So what have we done? We have attempted to introduce still more and more process on a smaller and smaller level in order to achieve the predictability and order that we desire in our business universe.

I think we may have reached the same metaphorical boundary in business that Newtonian Mechanics Physicists had to cross in order to get to the new Quantum Mechanics model of the world.

As we layer in more and more process in order to try and simplify, streamline and make our business universe more predictable, we are also adding in more complexity to the business system through the application of the process itself. Herein lies the paradox: The very act of adding incremental process in order to simplify the business adds complexity to the business. We may actually end up simplifying the business a little, but it takes more effort in the process than we save in the business.

This incremental process complexity manifests itself in the time it takes to accomplish simple tasks. It can be seen in the number of conference calls that are now required before any actions can be taken. It can be seen in the increased desire for consensus instead of action. All of these complexity symptoms can be seen as the result of trying to drive the increased application of complex process into the business structures.

Extending the Quantum, Mechanical and Measurement metaphors a little farther into business could also give us some of the solutions to the paradoxes that business is now facing. If the very act of trying to simplify adds complexity, and if the very act of measuring modifies the behavior of how the business behaves, what do we need to change?

I think one of the first things we need to do is change what we measure. As we have seen in the quantum mechanical world, the more specifically we try to measure something the more we modify some of the targets other characteristics or attributes. This is actually called the “Uncertainty Principle” (It was actually introduced in the early part of the last century by the German Physicist Werner Heisenberg, and is also known as the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle).

The same behavior is noted in organizations and is defined by the phrase “Expect what you inspect”. This generally means that by merely measuring something in an organization, whether it has value to the organization or not, you can change the behavior of the organization with respect to what you are measuring. If you measure the wrong things you should expect the wrong behaviors.

So perhaps we should reassess the value of ever more specific metrics and measurements. This thought seems to run almost entirely counter-intuitive to the directions that many organizations are going today. Instead of looking for ever finer and more specific things to measure we may want to take a step back and focus on the organization as a whole.

There are many metrics that the market looks at when it puts a value on the whole of a company, but the primary ones are financial: Orders, Sales, Profit, Earnings and Cash Flow. There may be others, but these should work for this argument’s sake. It is through the application of these metrics that the market usually establishes a value for the business. We might want to add Customer Satisfaction into the business metric mix, but I actually think that metric will sort itself out through the other financial metrics. If you don’t have Customer Satisfaction, or Quality or any of those derivative topics, you eventually won’t have the financials either as your customers will leave and take their business elsewhere.

So the simple baseline metric for every process, project, strategy, product or program should be: Is there a Financial Business Case that improves one of the five financial metrics that justifies the activity? By forcing the creation of that business case you have created the business representation in numbers and also the accompanying metrics for measuring the activity’s success. You can then see if the activity actually generated the beneficial behavior for the business that was targeted. If the value of the proposed activity cannot be defined, then there is a pretty good chance that the activity probably doesn’t need to be given a high priority.

Measurements against any other type of criteria will yield nothing more than some sort of a track against a non-critical objective, and will most probably drive a behavior that is not in alignment with the objectives of the business.

The Process versus simplicity paradox may be a little more difficult to counter, but again I think we can get it down to a business case. I think the idea for all those that would like to create, add to or extend a process is again to ask them to quantify what they are trying to correct or improve, and what resource they expect to expend on the improvement. In other words we need to create a Process – Simplification equation:

Man Hours required to implement the process
Less
Man Hours saved / removed from the business because of the process
Equal
Net Business Simplification.

The nice thing about physics is that it can be clearly expressed in terms of numbers. Postulates and theories can be readily proved or disproved via experimentation or observation. I think we need to look at returning business to this sort of practice as well. There is the proposed theory to reduce and align the metrics with the financial value metrics in the business so that all members of the organization are clearly working towards the same goals. This will make sure that the behaviors on the macro-organizational level are fully aligned to the individual or quantum level within the organization.

I believe and agree that some process is required for the proper running of an organization. The question is when do we start experiencing the law of decreasing returns when it comes to adding more process? By requiring at least a business case proposal and defense of the quantified value of each incremental process I think business can begin to regain the focus on the value that each process is supposed to deliver and start to move away from the current approach that appears to be more process as the solution to every issue.

Business like Physics is a numbers oriented discipline. Good processes in business are like good theorems in physics. People may like to believe in them, but they need to be proven out in the numbers and measurements before they become accepted as natural laws.

Process


If there is one word that should strike fear in the heart of business leaders it should be the word “process”. Please don’t get me wrong. I understand the need for and support the idea of some form and amount of standardization of business conduct. There are efficiencies that can be gained. A certain amount of uniformity of methodology will remove customer variability and should improve satisfaction. I get it. But as the old saying goes: Too much of a good thing is bad, and process is no exception.



Simply put processes are defined as a sequence of events. They are a model of the flow of how things should be done in an optimum environment. The idea being that by establishing a process for an aspect of a business you will remove unwanted variance from the way the business operates. Reduced variance should mean more consistent performance and increased efficiency in the business. Consistent performance and increased efficiencies should lead to more satisfied customers and more profitable operation. What’s not to like about that?



Process was initially introduced into the manufacturing or production environment, where the variation in the end product produced was an undesirable outcome. The idea was to assure that each product was manufactured the same way with a resulting uniformity in the output. This uniformity of output or outcomes seems to be the driving force behind the drive to apply process science to non-production oriented business functions.



If a little bit of process formalization delivers significant returns, then a full scale push toward total business process formalization should be the answer to all our business needs, right?  This direction leads you down the path toward higher order, more complex controls and processes, and as many of the old maps would indicate about uncharted territory, “here there be danger”. The problem is that as the process gets more complex in its efforts to be more broadly applicable, it becomes more cumbersome to document, follow and apply. This necessitates a greater process staff whose task it is it to marshal the process to assure that it is being followed.



By creating a process staff you are now introducing another drag on the business. The process staff is not focused on achieving the goal. They are focused on how you go about achieving the goal. Incremental staff associated with documenting and implementing the process means incremental costs that must now also be offset by additional process efficiencies before the business improvement driven by the process can contribute in a positive manner to the business performance. We now find ourselves in the position where the law of decreasing returns comes into play. The more we depend on the process for improvement, the more people we must have to support the process. The more people we have supporting the process the more improvement the process must provide in order to overcome the incremental costs associated with the increased number of people supporting the process.



Circular logic now ensues. The process gets bigger trying to drive more savings. More people are required to sustain the process. The process has to get even bigger to cover the extra costs of the incremental people.



The major issue that I have with processes is that as they evolve and grow and become bigger, more complex and more all encompassing, they have a tendency to become too focused on how things are being done and seem to lose their focus on the objective of what is being done.  Business is about getting things done. If you can get more things done, and done right than your competitor you should have a competitive advantage. When you start to expend increasingly greater amounts of resources on how you should get things done as opposed to the quantity of resources focused on actually getting things done you have probably hit the point of decreasing returns for your process investment.



The idea of process and process refinement came about when the market was primarily involved in a production and production worker environment. As we have evolved into a knowledge and knowledge worker environment we still seem to be increasingly focused on formulating and formalizing the way we want our knowledge workers to work. We are in effect trying to dictate the way our knowledge workers use their knowledge. This also seems fundamentally flawed to me.



Henry Ford ushered in the mass production process when he stated anyone could have a car in any color they wanted, as long as it was black. He built the ultimate no variability process. He built black model A’s. And that worked for a while. Mass production gave way to mass customization in the manufacturing environment. At one point not too very long ago you could buy any combination of features and colors on just about any car model you wanted.



 It was during this period that a number of car companies started going out of business as their processes, amongst other issues had become too cumbersome to be profitable. The process that worked well for the simple did not hold up as well for the multiplicity of options or the complex. And so the pendulum began to swing back toward far fewer and more simple groups of options or option packages, in order to reduce option complexity. This seems to be the current status of the production process in the automotive industry.



It appears that knowledge worker processes are still going through the “mass customization” stage of application. It seems that the processes themselves are becoming more complex in an effort to address the multiplicity of variables that are present in the knowledge worker environment. We are creeping ever closer to potentially strangling ourselves with the very processes that we hoped would be our profitability generating salvation.



Processes need to provide guidelines on how to deal with the known as well as unknown in business. They need to have enough specificity to provide direction, but also need to allow those that are working within them the ability to vary and adapt them to the changing needs of the customer, company and environment. One size process cannot fit all unless it is so big and so complex as to be able to handle all variables present in the business. Why would you want to build a process, or a model of how you are to conduct business that is as complicated as the real business is? Processes are supposed to simplify things, not mirror their complexity.



We need to keep our processes simple, the staffs associated with them minimal, and allow enough flexibility so that those operating within the process can react and adapt to new situations. Trying to expand the process to work in every instance of business inevitably leads to increased complexity and decreased returns for the effort.