Category Archives: Activities

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:

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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.

Boredom


Boredom, the very thought of it makes me cringe. It also makes me yawn. You know what they say;



         “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop.”




I got in some of the deepest trouble that I could get in when I was a kid just because I got bored. When you don’t have anything to do, doing just about anything seems like a good idea, regardless of how bad an idea it really is. This concept has really been brought home to me when I have watched the things that my kids are prone to do when they are bored.



But that’s not the type of boredom I am going to discuss here.




In physics there is a concept called Entropy. It is a crucial concept associated with the second law of thermodynamics. It governs which processes can spontaneously occur and which can’t. In layman’s terms entropy is the universe’s tendency to maximum disorder. As an example, a box of marbles that is overturned on the floor will tend to disperse across the floor (disorder), rather than stay stacked up on top of each other in the form of a box (order). All actions and functions increase the entropy or disorder of the universe, from a physics point of view.




Are you bored yet?




When I was in graduate school, I used to think that in business the accounting equivalent to entropy was boredom. That means that anything that anybody ever did in accounting added to the boredom of the universe. There were several accounting majors who didn’t seem to see the humor in this entropy – boredom comparison, but this was to be expected since they were already in accounting and had obviously already undergone a borg-like assimilation.




This is not the type of boredom that I am going to discuss here either.




My inspiration for this discussion of boredom comes from of all places a book I recently read: “The Adventures of Augie March”, by Saul Bellow. In case you are not familiar with it, it is number 81 on the Modern Library’s editor’s list of the top 100 novels of the twentieth century. It also has nothing to do with business. I find that I read many different books that have nothing to do with business directly, but that regardless of that, provide me with some insights that do help me with business. This is one of those instances.



In this book, Augie March says:




         “Boredom starts with useless effort.”



Now this is coming from a character that actually goes to the mountain desert of Mexico to train bald eagles to hunt giant iguanas. I couldn’t make that up. I am not that good a writer. Saul Bellow made that up. He is that good a writer. He has many awards to prove it.



Now I don’t know if Augie did that because he was bored, or did that to avoid becoming bored. I guess it doesn’t matter.




We have all at one time or another felt like we have been compelled to perform some task or do some work that we felt was useless. It is normally called busy work, or scut work, or any number of other names. It all comes down to we felt as if we were doing something that did not add value, that wasted both out talents and our efforts. It may have actually had a value, we just might not have been aware of it at the time. However, I think we all know when we are doing something useful, and when we are not.




The point I would make here is that if we as leaders have gone through the boredom associated with useless effort, are there people in our organizations and on our teams that are feeling the same way about their assignments? Assignments that may initially have seemed logical and useful by the leaders when they were requested, that may no longer seem that way to the team members responsible for fulfilling the requirements now.



In other words, are you sure that everyone in the organization feels that no part of the work they are doing in their opinion is useless? If you are not sure, then how do you find out? I have gotten my best results and responses to this question by asking it of team members in real-time exchanges, either face to face or over the phone. Sending an email or asking them to fill out a survey or questionnaire means you really don’t care.




That sort of behavior will only increase their boredom by requiring them to respond to another useless email or survey.




There is only benefit to be gained from this approach to communications with team members. At the worst you may have to explain what the value is (if there indeed is any value) in the work you have assigned them. They may not like what they have to do, but they will at least understand that it is not useless effort. At the best you may find that you have incremental capacity on the team because they were in fact engaged in efforts with minimal value. That useless effort can be stopped and the resulting functional capacity can be applied to more valuable projects and efforts.




No one wants to be bored due to the lack of things to do. I think in today’s business environment we can safely say that this is not a high probability issue. I also think that no one wants to be bored because they have to do accounting. That’s why we have accountants. Let them be bored. And no one wants to be bored because they feel they are engaged in a useless effort. If the effort has value there is benefit in explaining it and further aligning the team. If it turns out that there is no value in it, I am sure that there are a myriad of other things with definable value that the business needs to get done with that newly available resource.

Get Off the Internet


For any of you who have read my past articles you might suspect that I have a slight bias away from the ongoing development of the total dependence on electronic communications as the sole means of communicating and conducting business. I have similar slight biases to bleeding from gunshot wounds and jumping out of airplanes without a parachute. This may seem funny since I am using that very medium to communicate to you. For me the medium is something more of an electronic soapbox from which I get to make my observations and suggestions, most of which are based on my non-electronic experiences. Please bear with me for a moment. I promise I’ll get to the point.


It seems that that many people however have evolved to a full dependence on the internet. This was brought home to me by of all things, the evening news.


The various news programs have been lauding the improvement in the economy and the relative reduction in the unemployment numbers down to approximately 8.4%. They then went on to examine some of the individuals who have been termed “long-term unemployed” or people who have been searching for work for more than 6 months. Without exception they showed images of these individuals dutifully sitting at their computers, pounding away at their emails and talking about how they have sent out “over 200 resumes” without a response.


Wait a minute. Here comes the point I promised I would get to earlier. Let’s do a little Internet Math here.


If job seekers are flooding the internet with 200 resumes each, it is no wonder they are not getting responses. We have seen only half the equation. How many resumes are hiring companies receiving for each job opening? The obvious answer is: Too Many.


If everyone is sending out 200+ resumes that would logically mean that every job opening is receiving at least 200 applicants. This number is probably higher for certain types of positions. How can these hiring companies sort through and interview 200+ people per position? Again the obvious answer is: They Can’t.


Speaking just for myself, when I was trying to fill a position I always tried to interview 4-5 people for each position, after I had the initial cuts based on just the resumes submitted. With 200+ applicants, 4-5 interviews means based purely on probability and statistics (and I will quote Mark Twain regarding statistics later) there is roughly a 2% chance that any one resume will be chosen / be the perceived perfect match for the position. Unless your resume is truly differentiated from all others (Nobel Prize laureate, Congressional Medal of Honor recipient, $100 Dollar Bill attached to it – particularly difficult to do electronically, etc…), I would think that these statistics would hold true.


That means that to improve your chances from 2% to 100% that you would get an interview, you would need to apply to and send resumes to 50 times more opportunities. That means that instead of sending out just 200 resumes, you would need to send out 10,000 resumes to statistically assure yourself of getting an interview.


Mark Twain said “There are lies, there are damn lies…and then there are statistics.”


I am pretty sure that applies here. I have tried to illustrate with a little hyperbole that sitting at your computer punching out emails, and in this case applying for positions, is not a very effective form of communication. It is not as good as making a phone call and communicating real time with a real person. It is nowhere near as good as getting up, going somewhere and meeting someone face to face to have a conversation.


Sitting behind the computer may be more efficient, in that the costs expended in communicating are much lower (how much do bit cost?), and the number of people that you can theoretically contact is much higher (how many friends on Facebook, or connections on LinkedIn?), but as the numbers show, it is nowhere near as effective as the old school methods of actually meeting people and talking to people.


In today’s day and age it is indeed the fortunate few who have not had to look for a new position. Some of us have had to do it multiple times. All of my successes in this area have come as a result of making personal contact with someone. I would like to think that I am reasonably well educated and experienced, but I also recognize that there are a lot of other well educated and experienced people out there. While a resume might be able to provide some insights into an individual’s potential job qualifications, the only person that can differentiate me for everyone else, is me.


The only way I or anyone else can provide that differentiation from everyone else is to get off the internet, and get out and make real time contact with people. Otherwise, you are relying on some pretty long odds and statistics.

Who is Spamming Me?


I normally like to Blog about what I perceive as real business issues and solutions. Sometimes I can’t help myself and propeller off into a different area. This is one of those times.




It used to be that my business email was almost pristine in terms of the types of messages and content that I received. I only got business emails and items that were germane to the work I needed to do. I understand that this must have been an anomaly in today’s electronic communications environment. The same could not be said about my personal email. I don’t know how I could have possibly won both the Ethiopian and Kenyan lotteries last month. The odds of something like that must be really astronomical, especially since I don’t remember entering either of them. However, until recently, my business address was relatively free of these types of opportunities.




That isn’t the case any more.




While I am not getting the rather colorful pharmaceutical, friendship and foreign lottery opportunities that I do get in my personal inbox, I now seem to be getting a plethora “business” trade shows, seminars,  “bulletins” and symposium opportunities to either attend (for a hefty fee) or subscribe to (for another fee). It takes a set of notifications like these to actually inform me of many superfluous industry meetings and publications there are out there. They seem to exist for just the purpose of getting people to attend / buy them without any other redeeming qualities.




Am I the only one that feels this way about them?




The question now turns to who is providing my business email to these “Spammers”. It’s not me. Why would I want to commit any act that would knowingly subject me to this type of ultimately useless barrage of seminar and white paper opportunities? It has to be someone that is deriving some sort of twisted pleasure in befouling my here to fore relatively useful business email. When I check around it seems that it is possible that I might have in fact been the last person on the internet with any type of mail address that was not receiving useless unrequested mailbox clutter of this type.




It is said that “misery loves company”, so I am trying to figure out who the miserable jerk was that put me on some list that got all this started. I am convinced that all these spam lists are related. First I got just an occasional useless message. There was nothing to it. I just deleted it. Then it started to grow.




I didn’t respond to any of the messages. They must have been communicating with each other. There must be some sort of secret spammer society where they meet, (virtually? electronically? in person?) to exchange the addresses of their latest, and in my case last victim to receive their onslaught. It has truly gotten out of hand.




My mail system does a reasonable job of trying to sort out some of the junk email from the rest. I believe that it must be set according to the number of recipients in the email address. At least that would explain why every announcement from our senior executives (and HR) end up in the same Junk Mail folder as my most recent opportunity to attend an industry seminar in Miami, Florida, to go over the proper steps in justifying to senior management why it is important to attend industry seminars.




Some days I now come in and my Junk Mail folder rivals my Inbox folder for new messages, and by the time I sort out those that should be moved to Junk Mail, it is not even close.




I understand that there is a law where if you take the active step to “unsubscribe” to the email sender, they will stop sending you email….from that address. It seems that they will however just create a new email address I have now thrown down the gauntlet and Don Quixote like started charging at the windmills of industry bulletin and white paper generation. I am patiently searching through each of these emails for the unsubscribe message location. For those of you that may be interested it is normally located in either the top, middle, bottom side, or corner of the page, and it can be recognized because it is the only writing in the message that is in 4 point font. It is also occasionally written in “white”, just to add to the challenge of finding it.




This seems like a significant amount of work, especially since I don’t ever remember subscribing to this stuff in the first place. I am also concerned that if there are enough people like me in the work force who are taking these steps to try to hold on to their business email mailbox like I am, there could be significant productivity lost in the work place. Perhaps this could be a root cause factor to the current business malaise that we all seem to be in.

Free Time

What do you do with your free time? I don’t mean play golf, or spend time with the family. I mean your free time in the office. I know we are all busy and that the demands that have been placed on us require more and more of our focus, but we all have some free time. What do you do when you get off the call, or finish the meeting and don’t have anything scheduled on your daily calendar?




Some surveys suggest that one of the main things we do is go check our email. Not our business / professional email, our personal email. Other surveys also suggest that we go and surf the web to help us “decompress”. Do you leave your office to search out someone / a friend for a little social discussion and activity?




The world, not just the market continues to get more competitive. There are many qualified and talented individuals in many disciplines in the work environment. How can you start to set yourself apart?




The approach that I am taking for myself and my team is to try and re-vector my “free time” toward learning, training and certification. I used to look at people who put all sorts of letters and acronyms after their names with a little bemusement. The truth be told, I still do. I think its great to have the training and certification, but I also think that you need to be self confident enough to not have to continuously display it every time you electronically sign a document.




But I do think the idea that it is desirable to have that training, knowledge and certification to back up your capabilities and talents is starting to grow, and has value. Almost every professional discipline now has some sort of training / certification capability. Sales, HR, Engineering, Design, Project Management and many others all seem to have certifications available. Most of the “training” or course work required to get these certifications / pass the tests in most instances can be done without actually having to sign up and take classes. You just have to read, study and learn.




Reading
, studying and learning sounds like something most of us can do in our free time. It probably also will provide us more personal value than checking to see how much new spam we have in our personal mailbox. I like the idea of using free time to set yourself apart and at the same time increase your value to your business.




I am a little frustrated with myself that I didn’t figure this out sooner……