Category Archives: Analysis

C.O.T.S.

It has long been known that just about everyone thinks that they can build a better mouse trap. Indeed, several in fact have. That is where innovation comes from. By building something better than what currently exists, a competitive advantage is created. It is usually a short-lived advantage as there are many others that are always also trying to innovate as well, who will either copy, or actually improve on the new design.

Add to this, the question of whether you should actually make your own better mouse trap, or buy someone else’s better mouse trap, and you have the makings for a reasonably spirited discussion. Remember, not everyone is in the same mouse trap business. So, do you invest in developing your own, or do you just go out and buy somebody else’s, already complete? However, when it comes to your own business systems, processes and tools, the decision should be very simple.

Unless you are in the tool and system business, never, ever, ever make your own tools and systems.

The tools and systems within an organization usually fall under the purview of the Information Technologies (IT) group (or some derivative thereof). The IT group can be staffed with some of the finest and brightest people in the organization. But everyone must remember, that unless you are in the IT services, tools and application development business, that is not the business that the organization as a whole is in. IT is then not directly associated with the products and services that the company positions as best in class and sell to its customers. It doesn’t develop them. It doesn’t sell them.

If IT based tools and systems are not the organizations prime business, then investing in their custom development should never make sense. IT should then be treated as an administrative expense that is required to be spent in order for the organization to maximally leverage the available technology in the pursuit of its business goals, not a tools and systems development organization.

With this definition and positioning of IT in mind, I’ll now delve into the issues that almost every organization now faces when it comes to leveraging available technologies and how to be more efficient at it.

Over (a long) time I have had the opportunity to witness several different businesses and organizations try to utilize their product development capabilities to develop what has come to be known a “Multi-Tool Product”. This is a product that is supposed to do everything. It is designed to be all things to all customers. Instead of buying four different devices to serve five different purposes, you can buy one device to do all four.

And every time I have witnessed this type of product development attempt, I have witnessed what can best be described as failure, and worst described as abject failure.

There are two primary reasons for this type of Development failure:
1. The time and expense associated with this type of development is always, always much longer, much more complicated and much more expensive than ever budgeted or even imagined.
2. The functionality of the multi-tool product is never, ever good enough, nor delivers enough value to unseat the individual discrete products that it is competing against.

I like to tell the story of attending a multi-tool product development review some many years ago. The review was opened by the product manager stating that it had been eight weeks since our last formal review, and that unfortunately due to unforeseen development complexities, product availability had slipped twelve weeks in that time.

I commented that since it seemed that we were now falling behind faster than time was passing, that the only logical thing to do was cease development now so as to fall no further behind.

I was never invited back to another one of those product reviews.

The product however, was never completed nor released. It was quietly shelved many months, and millions of dollars later.

As to multi-tool product functionality. It may be time for another Gobeli Postulate on Product Development. It goes:

1. A product that is purported to be able to do everything, will do nothing very well.

Individually developed products are each optimized for value and performance. They are targeted at being the “best in class”. Multi-tool products by their very structures cannot match this. Each individual capability in a multi-tool product must carry the product cost and functionality overhead of every other capability in the multi-tool product.

This is equivalent to the Swiss Army Knife example. It may have a knife, screw driver, spoon and scissors, but none of those attributes are as good in comparison to a separate standalone knife, screw driver, spoon and scissors. And you must pay the added expense of the housing and overhead that is required to combine them all into one device. Invariably the four different best of breed items can be bought for less than the single, less functionally capable multi-tool product.

Okay, so what has all this got to do with IT?

Part of the average IT group’s responsibility is to create / select tools that will enhance the systems and automation of the business organization, their customers. It must be remembered that IT is a support group. They exist to provide functionality to the business.

This is contrary to some IT departments I have witnessed who appeared to believe the business existed in order to fund them.

Most internal (not out-sourced) IT tools groups think that they can create tools, capabilities and applications that are far better than what can be purchased in the market. They believe this due to their increased knowledge and proximity to their very business specific support needs. It is their focus to create tools and systems that deliver ever greater functionality and capability to an ever-greater number of people.

In short, they believe they can create better Multi-tools.

This is not always the case, but I think we can all probably remember instances where a perfectly functional and eminently usable tool was replaced in the name of “integration” by a tool that had greater integration with other systems, but lower functionality than the tool it replaced.

So here is where we get to the Title of this article: C.O.T.S. – Commercial Off The Shelf.

“Commercial off-the-shelf or commercially available off-the-shelf (COTS) satisfy the needs of the purchasing organization, without the need to commission custom-made, … solutions … Although COTS products can be used out of the box, in practice the COTS product must be configured to achieve the needs of the business and integrated to existing organizational systems.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Commercial_off-the-shelf

Please take note of the word “configured” in the above definition. It does not say “customized”. IT provided tools and systems should be configurable to handle multiple applications across different business groups. They should not be customized into different discrete tools to address each group.

There are organizations in existence whose business model is to create tools for other companies and organizations. In order for them to grow and flourish they must create best in breed tools for their specific applications. They cannot create all the tools. Only those types of tools that they are experts in.

That means that in order to get a full suite of tools to address all the business needs of the organization that the IT group serves, they will need to deal with multiple tool supplying organizations.

IT is usually a technology oriented group. External tool providing companies will usually provide tools much faster, better, cheaper and with greater functionality than anything that an internal tools group could create. However, working and negotiating with external businesses is not very technical in nature, which is somewhat out of alignment with the desired direction of most IT Tools groups.

They want to create and develop. Not negotiate and buy.

Many companies have created their competitive advantage by developing their own “better mouse trap”. This self-reliant development mentality can easily bleed over into the IT group when it comes to the tools and systems. Senior management can also be receptive to the IT tool and system development siren song, since that is how they were able to achieve success as a business.

However, management needs to remember that regardless of what they may think, or be told by IT, their business systems and tools needs are probably not so unique as to require custom tool development, but more likely just need the proper configuration of a C.O.T.S., best in breed, already available tool or system. This solution direction will invariably lead to simpler and faster implementations, as well as a lower cost of ownership and sustainment across the commercial life time of the tool.

IT will almost always be the owner of the make / buy analysis when it comes to tools. Building your own multi-tools will almost always be a slower, more expensive and lower functionality alternative to buying C.O.T.S., regardless of what the IT tool development group may want or think. Especially if your business is not the tool and system business.

Détente in the Organization

As the matrix organizational structure continues to flourish, where organizations are structured according to business disciplines and processes rule on how these organizations interact, tension is bound to build between these organizational states. Product groups will always believe that they know how best a product should be sold. Finance teams will always think that they are the only ones who will care about the profitability of a deal. Sales will always have to deal with ever more aggressive competitors, and ever more demanding customers, as they try to translate these requirements into something the product and finance groups (and others) can act on and agree with. Trust between these groups when associated with the new business process will be key to the success of the organization going forward.

So, how do you deal with the tension between these organizational groups? History has shown that détente, as practiced between the United States and the USSR during the cold war has probably found its way into the organizational environment.

Détente (a French word meaning release from tension) is the name given to a period of improved relations between the United States and the Soviet Union that began tentatively in 1971 …https://www.history.com/topics/cold-war/detente

The relaxation of strained relations or tensions https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/d%C3%A9tente

While the Soviet Union (in that manifestation) no longer exists, it would appear that Détente still has a place in the current organizational discussions, at least when it comes to discussions associated with matrix organizations and how they interact. That being in how these organizations can decrease the tensions that invariably arise when they are working with each other, sometimes at cross purposes, in the pursuit of their business objectives.

This is just a nice way of introducing the idea of how do you get disparate organizations to work together towards the overall business goals. In the perfect world these organizations would all be altruistic, focus on the business’ greater good and trust each other as they worked together according the latest management process. Unfortunately, none of us resides in a perfect world.

To continue the political allegory a little farther (to possibly foolish extremes, but since I am already in this deep…) this can result in inter-organizational relationships (as noted above) that can be best described as resembling those of the participants of the “cold war”. That being somewhat distrusting and antagonistic, but not so openly as to flare into open warfare.

Although the start of détente has been attributed to President Nixon in the 1970’s, it arguably hit its peak in the 1980’s with president Reagan. As the two world powers searched for a way to work together toward nuclear arms reductions, Reagan is credited with the immortal phrase:

“Trust, but verify”

Suzanne Massie, a writer in Russia, met with President Ronald Reagan many times between 1984 and 1987. She taught him the Russian proverb, “Доверяй, но проверяй” {Doveryai, no proveryai} (trust, but verify) advising him that “The Russians like to talk in proverbs. It would be nice of you to know a few.” The proverb was adopted as a signature phrase by Reagan, who subsequently used it frequently when discussing U.S. relations with the Soviet Union. Using proverbs that the Russians could relate to may have helped relations between the two leaders.

Reagan used the phrase to emphasize “the extensive verification procedures that would enable both sides to monitor compliance with the treaty”, at the signing of the INF Treaty, on 8 December 1987.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trust,_but_verify

The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF Treaty) is the abbreviated name of the Treaty Between the United States of America and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics on the Elimination of Their Intermediate-Range and Shorter-Range Missiles. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Intermediate-Range_Nuclear_Forces_Treaty

Now, “extensive verification procedures…” are very good if you are talking about global nuclear weapons reductions. I for one, am all in favor of it in this instance. The easing of tensions and the reduction in nuclear arms are “good things” as Martha Stewart is apt to say. The significant cost of these verifications when measured against the global good generated by the agreements and conduct of the participants would seem to be a significant value.

However, when we are talking about inter-organizational tensions in business, how do you trust but verify?

Matrix organizational structures, and their accompanying processes were put in place to reduce costs and increase efficiencies. Each group was to be responsible for the application of their discipline specific expertise, and then hand off the process to the next organization. An almost production line capability was envisioned where efficiency would rule. These inter-organizational tensions were never taken into account. So, what has occurred?

As I noted earlier, each business organization associated with a process has relinquished ownership and control for all associated activities outside of their specific disciplines. This means that the product group that feels that it knows best how to make sure the product is properly sold, has no real direct responsibility or authority for the sale of its product. This obviously creates tension between the sales group and the product group.

How do they create detente out of this situation?

The answer that seems to have evolved with the “trust, but verify” aspect of the relationship. Most product group organizations have responded to the trust issue by creating a product group owned organization that is responsible for “helping” or supporting the sales group in the proper sale of the product. They bring aspects of the product group to the sales team, and provide communication from the sales team to the product group. They in essence handle the process hand-off from the product team to the sales team.

The other actual function of these sub-group organizations is to trust the sales group in the sale of the product, but also to verify that they are in fact selling the product, and selling the product properly (at appropriate margins, with accurate and deliverable functionality, etc.), in the manner the product group might prefer.

The product group (in this example) is not the only discipline to have created an inter-discipline “support” team. These inter-organization hand-off groups have a tendency to spring up at almost every inter-organization interface in the matrix business process. A structure and process that was thought of and designed to increase efficiency and reduce costs has now given way to a whole new set of incremental organizational structures designed to make sure that those “other” groups are in fact doing the job that they were envisioned and supposed to do when the matrix structure was adopted.

Inter-organizational détente has been achieved, but at what cost?

Have the efficiencies that were to be gained by going to a discipline structured matrix organization with defined processes and hand-offs been lost due to the proliferation of these inter-organizational “support” groups? Has the “Trust, but Verify” doctrine created the need for every business organization to create groups that are designed to understand and interface into every other business organization, for the purpose of verifying that the other groups are in fact doing what they are responsible for doing? Doesn’t all this seem to violate the idea of efficiency and cost reduction that drove the matrix structure in the first place.

The cold war, and détente ended when one of the powers involved started to crumble under the weight of the structure that they had imposed. In the 1980’s the Soviet leadership tried to introduce reforms that would allow their system and structure to adapt to the new realities of the fast-changing world. These new structures and adaptations did not enable the soviet system to adapt, but instead ended up further precipitating its downfall.

… In November of that year (1989), the Berlin Wall–the most visible symbol of the decades-long Cold War–was finally destroyed, just over two years after Reagan had challenged the Soviet premier in a speech at Brandenburg Gate in Berlin: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” By 1991, the Soviet Union itself had fallen apart. The Cold War was over.  https://www.history.com/topics/cold-war/cold-war-history

It appears that sometimes the idea of an organizational structure can be much better than the reality of it application. When the concept and reality don’t quite mesh, the first impulse seems to be to try to increment and adapt the structure to get closer to what is called for. This seems to be something of a delaying tactic for what is usually the inevitable outcome.

A structure can be imposed by management with the idea of better progress and efficiency for all. As incremental structures are added to deal with the true business environment, the entire “weight” of the organizational structure begins to be strained. Many of the expected efficiencies associated with the matrix structure organization would appear to have been lost due to the growth of the many hand-off and verification groups that have sprung up to deal with both the process, and human nature.

Détente, and trust, but verify, are excellent historical applications associated with the difficult relationship between global nuclear powers. I think when you can start seeing the parallels associated with these concepts within the difficult relationships between business organizations, that there may be some inherent challenges associated with the organizational structure. After all, the result of the application of these ideas was the verifiable dissolution of one of the global participants and the changing of their organizational model completely.

Transformation

Oh, how I long for the days when all we had to worry about was change. We didn’t know or worry about what it was we were changing into. We just knew it was going to be new and different, and hence better than what we currently were. Somewhere along the way, the way we changed, changed on us. Soon we had a changing rate of change in the way we changed. Eventually it was all just considered small change.

Now a days, no one changes. Change is so last century. Change is so passé. Change has changed, yet again. Today, changing is no longer good enough.

Instead of changing, you must now transform.

I think this is now the appropriate time to understand the vast difference in the definitions of these business terms. To the dictionary:

change
CHānj/

Verb: change;
1. make or become different.
“a proposal to change the law”
2. take or use another instead of.
“she decided to change her name”

Noun: change;
1. the act or instance of making or becoming different.
“the change from a nomadic to an agricultural society”
2. coins as opposed to paper currency.
“a handful of loose change”

In case you were wondering, I think I was able to use every one of those change definitions in some way, in the first paragraph. On the other hand:

trans·form
tran(t)sˈfôrm/

Verb: transform;
1. make a thorough or dramatic change in the form, appearance, or character of.
“lasers have transformed cardiac surgery”

Mathematics Linguistics
Noun: transform;
1. the product of a transformation.
a rule for making a transformation.

(In case any of you are wondering about this mathematic definition for transform, in physics, the Lorentz transforms are coordinate transformations between two coordinate frames that move at constant velocity relative to each other. This is the kind of stuff you learn in any basic mechanics class in physics.)

There you have it.

A change is just a change, but a transformation is a thorough and dramatic change.

I’m glad I was able to clear that up. I like to leave my readers enriched for having read my posts, and this little nugget alone is probably worth the time spent reading, at least up to this point.

Below are a pair of Google based graphs of the use of the words “Change” and “Transform” over time. (I didn’t realize that Google had a function like this, but I think it is pretty neat, and will probably use it again in the future.) As you can see, the use and popularity of “Transform” has grown rapidly in recent times. I attribute this (although I have no way to directly measure it, but based on the nominal usage that of “transform” that I hear, I would believe it to be true) to the vast increase in the use of the word “Transform” in all written documents, articles, presentations, etc., etc., etc. associated with business in the last few years.

And as you can also see “Change” has been a generally more widely used term (with some recent growth – probably due to the number of people looking up and defining the difference between “Change” and “Transform”) until recently, where “Transform” appears to now be the more preferred descriptor (at least when it comes to business).

Change

Transform

One thing that can said about business: When it finds a new term that it likes, it will definitely over-use it.

Despite the similarity of the definitions, I do think that there may be some subtle differences in the connotations that each word evokes. Change, at least to me, speaks of moving from what you are, into some as yet undefined state. As I noted earlier, you may not know exactly what the change will entail, or what the end state of the change is, but you do know it will be different.

Transformation, again at least to me, speaks of moving to a little more defined end state. There is a target and a method to the change, or at least there should be. It implies that the target result of the thorough change is known and the while the required steps to get there may not be fully defined, at least the end state is.

Or at least it should be. The key is always going to be trying to convince those that you want to transform that you really do have an idea of what you want them to transform into, as well as plans for the steps to get there.

Knowing what you want to transform to, but not knowing how to get there, would seem to be only slightly better, if at all, than knowing and expecting to change, but not knowing what it is you will become.

Wow, I think I may have just propellered off into existentialism on that last discussion of change and transformation.

However, this discussion could help answer the question: When do you Transform, and when do you merely Change? I think the answer lies closer to the idea that you transform when you have an idea about what you want to become. You transform from an analog to a digital company. You transform to a cloud based solution.

It just doesn’t have the same ring, or gravitas to say you are changing to a digital company, or you are changing to a cloud based solution.

You change in response to a stimulus acting on a business. You transform in anticipation of the stimulus acting on the business.

I went and searched on the keys to changing. Aside from a lot of musical notation associated with when to use the tonic and how to change keys, most of the statements associated with change centered on two words: Courage and Fear. The courage to change and the conquering of the fear of change.

Perhaps that is the reason for the current popularity associated with Transform instead of change. People seem to need Courage to change, while I don’t nearly so associate Transformation as a courage requiring activity. People need to conquer their fear of change as a prerequisite to a successful change. Again, it would seem that the connotation of transformation does not invoke nearly as much fear in the participants.

It would seem that Transform is now the public relations equivalent of Change. More of a kinder, gentler version of change. It has all of the good aspects of change and not nearly so much of the bad. It would seem that changing (or transforming, if you prefer) “Change” to “Transform” is much along the same lines as when the United States Federal government changed (or transformed) the Department of War into the Department of Defense in 1949.

It functions much the same, but it just sounds better.

Again, perhaps because transformation implies a more directed process and end result, where change appears to be a little more undefined and open ended. And few in business like to be the one that is the first to venture into an as yet open ended and undefined future.

The Nimble Process

I have read that there have been many claimed sightings of the nimble process in business these days. they usually occur in small out of the way places, and by possibly dubious sources. When the reports of these sightings first come in they are usually confused and somewhat contradictory. Sometimes the questionable sighting is just attributed to the reliability of the witness claiming to have seen it. Whenever there is an examination of the data associated with the sighting, the results are invariable inconclusive. The hunt for conclusive evidence goes on.

In short, confirming the existence of the nimble process may have become the business equivalent of trying to confirm the existence of Big Foot, the Yeti, or the Loch Ness Monster. There are plenty of people who have claimed to have seen them, but there just isn’t that much reliable evidence around to actually confirm their existence.

If we are going to look for, and discuss the nimble process, we need to start with some simple definitions. Where else but the dictionary can you go to get really good definitions:

Nimble [nim-buhl] Adjective: quick and light in movement; moving with ease; agile; active; rapid http://www.dictionary.com/browse/nimble

Process [pros-es; especially British proh-ses] Noun: a systematic series of actions directed to some end: a continuous action, operation, or series of changes taking place in a definite manner: http://www.dictionary.com/browse/process?s=t

As can quickly surmise, a nimble process is what is known in many circles as an oxymoron.

Oxymoron [ok-si-mawr-on, -mohr-] Noun: a figure of speech by which a locution produces an incongruous, seemingly self-contradictory effect, as in “cruel kindness”, “jumbo shrimp” or “to make haste slowly.”. http://www.dictionary.com/browse/oxymoron?s=ts
(I threw in the jumbo shrimp one myself, mainly because a really like it for illustrative purposes. The other two were actually in the definition.)

The primary difference between a nimble process and other oxymorons is that there are verifiable instances of the other oxymorons existing in the real world. You can in fact go to the local grocery store or food market and purchase jumbo shrimp. They are in the bin next to the merely “large shrimp”. The search for the nimble process however, continues to go on.

As noted in their definitions, nimbleness is defined as quick and light in movement, and process is defined as a systematic series of actions, and operation…in a definite manner. Businesses yearn to be able to operate with quick and light movements in a definite manner. This is the big foot / yeti / Loch Ness monster that almost every organization is searching for. The ability to define almost every conceivable option in a process, and the ability to execute on any one of them almost immediately.

Personally, I think there is a greater probability of big foot calling and holding a news conference for the purpose of confirming its own existence.

Process is the defining of specific steps and alternatives. I have written in the past about the fact that process is designed to help generate repeatable results by removing judgement as a variable in the business process. Since almost everyone in business has different types and levels of judgement, it has been identified as a variable that can somewhat be controlled by process. If you define the process steps, you inherently reduce the need for judgement. If all your steps and alternatives are thus defined, what is the use in being nimble in the execution of them?

As more and more process is implemented into the business environment the supposed need for the ability to adapt to new opportunities, or issues, should also be reduced. If this was indeed the case there would be no need for being nimble at all. You would merely continue to increment in new steps to the process until every alternative would be covered.

This is what appears to be the business goal of what happening today.

Processes grow ever bigger and more complex as people strive for that process that can be applied to every situation. Instead of focusing on solutions, focus has shifted to how the process will need to be incremented or modified so that it will generate an acceptable solution.

Nimble is normally associated with the ability to perform the most of complex movements with speed and grace. It is the ability to change and adjust spontaneously to changing issues and inputs. It is moving lightly and actively as opposed to moving passively in a prescribed manner. It is in effect the basic opposite of process.

The only way to make a process more nimble and agile, especially when it comes to issues and events that have no current response defined within the process, is to reduce the intensity of the process.

As processes become more detailed and refined they become more rigid. The more prescribed actions and directions that are contained in a process, the less agile and nimble it becomes. The more judgement that is taken out of the hands of those implementing the process the more fixed and ingrained it becomes.

Judgement, or the lack of it, is an excellent indicator of both an individual’s and organizations ability to adapt and adjust to changes in its environment. It is indicative of the search for the nimble process in that as organizations implement more processes in an effort to remove performance variations, the environment that they must operate in continues to become more variable and to change at a faster rate.

Process, via its fixed step connotation as it is implemented, reduces an organizations ability to adapt to its variable and changing environment.

Still, the search goes on.

There are an ever-growing number of television shows dedicated to the search for finding proof positive regarding bigfoot. There is the show “Finding Bigfoot”. There is “Mountain Monsters”. Heck, even the guy who used to show us how to survive in the wilderness for a week or two with nothing but a multi-tool and some dental floss has given up his show “Survivor” and is now out there looking for bigfoot.

It appears that shows about finding what has to this point proven to be unfindable are entertaining and are generating an ever-increasing following.

Like-wise it appears that there continues to be an ever-increasing drive to create the ever more nimble process by draining the requirements for judgement and flexibility from those who most need, and must utilize those attributes. What really worries me is that there are so many who are comfortable with this ceding of their judgement to the process.

As long as it is easier, and now safer, to follow the steps in a process instead of thinking, using judgement, and possibly being wrong, business risks the continued petrification (a long-term process) of their processes. If business continues to drive judgement out of its staff’s lexicon in favor of process and predictability, then business will continue to become very predictable in its inability to demonstrate any nimbleness or agility.

It’s time to change the meaning of the word “process”. Process, as it is used in business today, is used as a noun describing a fixed methodology for performing actions. It appears that if true nimbleness is desired, many of the prescribed actions need to be removed from the current “by rote” methodology, and process will need to adopt one of its other dictionary definitions:

Process verb: to integrate sensory information received so that an action or response is generated: the brain processes visual images relayed from the retina.
to subject to examination or analysis: computers process data https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/process

The idea here is to take the input associated with the situation and generate a proper response, not follow a preconceived fixed in place response associated with a “process”. Instead of having people merely follow a prescribed set of responses in a process, businesses need to require their people to be smart, examine and analyze the information and input available, process it, and then act in accordance with their resulting judgements and less rigid business guidelines, not prescriptions.

I think therein lies the direction to the nimble process.

Instead of trying to create a process that takes every possible business and market permutation into account, businesses need to scale back the rigor associated with their processes, and require more of their team members. I don’t think that thinking is a lost art in business, yet. The more people that think and exercise judgement the faster a business can respond to new threats and opportunities.

Processes need to become a little more general, and a little less specific for nimbleness to take hold. The more complex the process is, invariably the slower it is to change, be changed and react to new and different circumstances.

There may in fact be a variation in performance as a result of the reduction in the prescribed steps in a process. As I said, not everybody’s judgement is the same. However, if there is as much variation and change in the market (see just about every article ever written about the status and stability of every market, for confirmation of this idea) as noted, then the increased ability to adapt to and deal with this change should in general generate more positive variations than negative ones.

And after all, isn’t positive performance the objective of any process?

Good, Cheap, Fast – Pick Two

This has been a well-known conundrum in business for quite some time. There are always three variables associated with getting the product or service that you want. The variables are Quality, Price and Speed. They are normally associated with the words Good, Cheap and Fast. The conventional question has always been that you cannot get all three variables at high levels at any specific time. If that indeed is a limitation, the question arises: If you are a vendor or supplier dealing with your customers, which two of the Good, Cheap and Fast variables do you choose when delivering your products and services?

As a customer, the simplest answer has always been to demand all three variables, and to demand them immediately. They want the lowest price, the fastest delivery and the best quality. They want it now and please don’t argue. We have all been there. However, even the most demanding of customers recognize that this is usually only an opening gambit and that there will always be negotiations associated with what is actually obtained and when it is to be delivered.

In the past customer hierarchy of desirable product attributes, Quality has ruled as king. The higher the quality, the more reliable the product, the better the customer liked it. They would possibly make concessions to either Cheap and Fast, if they got the best Good there was.

If Quality, or Good, was the given, then the customer (and vendor) needed to decide which other variable, Price or Speed was going to be sacrificed. I think that history will show that for the most part it was speed. (In support of this position I will submit that almost all product and productivity focus in the last few generations of products have been on how to take time out of the equation). Even the axiomatic statements associated with business in general refer to the fact that the pace of change within business has been accelerating.

That meant that a good customer would wait for a good product, and that they would get at a good price.

Those were the days. That does not seem to be the case anymore.

As I just noted, everything about business has accelerated. Cycle times for everything from product development to customer billing have been reduced. No one wants to wait for anything anymore. What was once fast or accelerated is now the new normal. Full speed is now the minimum accepted and if you expect to get ahead you had better figure out how to go even faster. They want it all now.

We have become an immediate gratification society.

What was once saved for, and purchased later, is now purchased today on credit, and paid for later.

So, if this increased focus on Speed, or Fast, is the new primary given requirement (instead of Quality, or Good) for driving customer satisfaction, then which of the two, Good and Cheap, will be the second factor chosen in the customer purchase decision? (remember, the axiom of you can only have two of the three variables at any time still pretty much holds in reality – or does it….) One would suspect that since Quality was so important in the past that it would also be of high importance today. That would leave cheap as the odd variable out.

That would also mean that customers want their products and services Fast and Good, and would hence be willing to pay the requisite higher price associated with this variable selection.

I do not know about you, but it has been a very long time since I have dealt with a customer that is willing to pay more for anything, regardless of speed and quality.

I think the reality is that price is still king. It is very difficult to sell a higher price versus a competitive product regardless of the speed and quality delivered. It can be done, but you are starting out at a significant competitive disadvantage if you start with a higher price than your competition.

As I have noted in the past Good in the business vernacular has been replaced by “Good Enough”. As product life cycles have become shorter (there’s “Fast” again) and prices have come down as components, support, warranties and service have been reduced (there’s “Cheap” again), Good has been reduced down to Good Enough to compensate.

The answer to the Good, Fast and Cheap, pick two conundrum in today’s business environment is now Fast and Cheap.

How quickly can the product be in the market? It has to be fast because there will be another, better competing product put out by a competitor soon enough. It better be cheap because customers most likely won’t buy a more expensive product, regardless of any (temporary) advantages. As for quality? That’s now a given. It is almost impossible to differentiate in the market based on a quality variable. Almost all manufacturers in just about any given market can be viewed as having a high-quality parity.

Today, if a company is not viewed as having a high / acceptable quality level in its products, they won’t be surviving for very long.

As an example, look at automobiles. Manufacturers have tiered the market into sub-markets based on car size (e.g. Sub-compact, compact, mid-size, etc.). Many manufacturers have created specific models to address and compete in each specific market tier.

The model for buying a car has “Fast” as a given, since I don’t know anyone willing to wait for a specific car to be manufactured for them – they want to drive off the lot in their new car when they buy it, not at some later time. That leaves Price and Quality as the final negotiation variables. I think Quality for the most part is also a given since now almost all cars come with similar warranties, usually somewhere between six and ten years. If you don’t believe Quality is a given in cars, try negotiating a longer warranty for your car as a term of the purchase agreement.

Let me know how that works out for you.

That essentially leaves Price as the next (only) selected variable in your car purchase decision. The starting price can vary a little, based on the feature set that the car is equipped with (X, SX, LX, etc.), but even that is limited. Fast (you want to drive off in it) and Cheap (you don’t want to pay anything more than you absolutely have to), are the criteria.

Fast and Cheap. That’s it. That’s where we are in business.

Now there may be other variables that you input into the decision criteria such as the car must have an appealing design. This is a matter of personal taste. Car companies spend incredible amounts of money in creating appealing designs for each of their cars. Car companies also spend incredible amounts of money advertising these appealing designs with the objective of convincing you that theirs is the most appealing, (Mazda has gone so far as to create a commercial showing what I suppose is a sculptor, sculpting the latest appealing design of their latest car model) and hence getting you to come to their dealership where you can negotiate the price and then drive off in that appealing (work of art) car.

There are always exceptions to every rule in business. That is also probably also a rule of business as well. However, when putting together a strategy on how to attack a market in general, and to pursue specific customers on an individual basis, with quality now thought of as a given in the market where “Good Enough” is now good enough, focusing on speed and price will most likely provide the best competitive advantage.

Answering questions as to how quickly the solution can be acquired and more importantly implemented will be a differentiator. Price, more so than almost ever before will be a decision driver. With almost all products now being viewed as easily interchangeable, why would a customer pay more for anything?

I remember the good old days where management would blithely tell the sales team to sell “quality” when their market price was higher than the competition. Management would say reference the product’s “quality” when there was a delay in product availability.

Now if a product takes too long to arrive in the market, or the price is too high, the opportunity is most likely lost. It doesn’t matter what management will want to tell the sales team. A competitor will have a substitutable product available when the customer wants it at a price they can afford.

Times have changed. Quality was once a product differentiator. It is probably not anymore. Of all the resources available to everyone, time is the only one that we cannot readily get any more of. Hence Speed has become the new prime differentiator. With Quality a given, and speed a differentiator, that leaves Price as a decision driver.

Customers might pay a little more for a preferred product, but that differential is closing fast. The more expensive you are versus the competition, the more disadvantaged you are. There will always come a point where the Price differential will always outweigh any Speed or Quality advantages. That Price differential point is always moving closer and closer to the Cheapest solution.

Looking a Little Farther Ahead

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is a “Plug”?

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

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

As a noun plug can usually mean either:

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

As a verb Plug can usually mean either:

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

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

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

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

You insert what is called a plug into the forecast.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This results in the equation:

Actual Forecast + Unidentified Forecast (Plug) = Presented Forecast

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Forecasts

Forecast meetings are interesting animals. They are basically meetings where you compare what you think the numbers are going to be, with what you want the numbers to be. Over time I have had the opportunity to attend many different types of forecast meetings. Sales, Revenue, Cost, Delivery, all types of forecast meetings. I have found that there are basically two types of forces competing for supremacy at a forecast meeting: The volumetric force, which is the force working to drive the numbers toward what they are wanted to be, and the accuracy force, which is the force driving the numbers toward what they have a higher probability of being.

The volumetric force is the desire by business leadership to see forecasted numbers that are either meeting or exceeding the business plans for that particular aspect of the business, regardless of whether they are or not. This means that for example, if it is a sales forecast in question, the desire is to see the annual sales target for business to be divided by twelve (coincidentally the number of months in a year) and to see the sales forecast incremented upwards by one twelfth the annual sales target each month, which is coincidentally the usual frequency of the sales forecasting meeting.

The accuracy force is the desire by business leadership to see forecasted numbers that are relatively reliable, and have a relatively high probability of actually becoming reality. An example here would be if the average interval between order and revenue was six weeks, and the orders target was achieved with eight weeks remaining in the quarter, there is a reasonably high expectation that the revenue forecast should also be reliably achieved.

Sometimes these forces work in concert. This is where the volume of the forecast and the accuracy of the forecast are both close to, or ahead of the desired targets. This can mean that sales are above target, or costs are below target, or both. This is also where there is a very high probability of the business sales or cost performance coming in at or very close to the forecasted numbers.

In business vernacular, times when the volume and the accuracy of the forecasts are both on target are usually known as “rarefied air”. They don’t align this way very often. When they do it seems to be a foregone conclusion that either the volume or accuracy targets for the next forecast will be changed significantly.

Once the volume and accuracy targets for the forecast have been modified to the point where one or both of the variables are now in question, the business process can now be considered back in normal state equilibrium, or more accurately in the normal state of disequilibrium.

One of the primary topics of forecasts are the numbers. It is usually a good rule of thumb that if there is anything but numbers in a forecast meeting, then somebody is trying to distract somebody else’s attention from the numbers. Given the opportunity, there is a reasonably high probability that those responsible for presenting the forecast will try to add in extraneous information of some type, if their forecasted numbers do not meet or exceed their assigned targets.

Both a strength and a weakness of the forecasting process is the periodicity with which it occurs. Regular forecasts enable the business to prepare for and adapt to the forecasted changes and values that are projected. If forecasting meetings are held too often, there is not enough time for new events to occur and the forecast to change. This results in wasted effort and repeated information.

On the other hand, if they are held too infrequently, it can mean that events have occurred during the forecast interval that must now be responded to in a far shorter time. It can also mean that the results of the last forecasting meeting can be forgotten or obscured. This can result in a loss of directionality as to how the forecast is either progressing or regressing. One of the main benefits of the forecasting process is to get an understanding of which direction the specific piece of the business is moving.

This results in the potential need for at least some incremental information to be included in the forecast. Again, think numbers. The most useful of which is the comparison of the current forecast to the desired target numbers. That provides a snapshot of what the predicted versus the desired performance will be. The next useful piece of information will be the comparison of the last forecast to the current forecast. This information provides a directionality to the snapshot. Is the forecast getting better, worse or staying the same with respect to the targets?

Adding much information beyond the targets and the previous forecast can cause the information in the forecast to become somewhat garbled or confusing. I have seen forecasts where the information was compared to multiple previous forecasts, or the forecast from the same period a year earlier. This one I am not sure I understand, unless you are looking for some sort of a longer-range piece of information regarding how things have changed, or not, over a year.

To me the salient point is always to know how things are progressing towards this year’s targets. Knowing what last year’s forecast was for the same time period can be a little bit like knowing what the weather was forecasted to be for the same day, a year ago. It might be interesting to know, but it has little to do with whether or not you will need an umbrella or not tomorrow.

The purpose of forecasts is to alert you to the state of the business with as much lead warning as is possible. Do those presenting the forecast indicate that things are getting better? Are they getting worse? It takes time for changes to produce the desired effects in a business. The more time that you have to make them, the greater the effect that they can have. Does the forecast indicate that any changes are required at all?

This is where the volumetric forecasting force can work against the business. As stated, this force is the desire to forecast increasing performance, that is at or near the desired targets. But what happens if either the market conditions, or business performance are such that the actual forecast is indicating that the numbers are moving away from the desired targets?

If you actually forecast this type of event, the known decline of performance and missing of a target, you are inviting what is known as “management assistance”. This type of assistance usually comes in the form of even more forecasting meetings where the opportunity to explain what is going on is made available, that is until the forecasts improve in line with desired results.

So, what happens?

A general rule of thumb is that once a forecast is created, it cannot get worse. They can either improve, or stay the same, but having a forecast that is moving away from the target will cause much consternation. As we all know, business is a continually changing environment and set of events. Very little in business can or should stay the same. Accurate forecasts should reflect the constantly changing environment.

If you see a forecast, of any type, that is not changing with time, then you know it is getting worse.

The advantage to this situation is that management is not being directly told that things are getting worse, so they have plausible deniability to their senior management, and the business performers are not having to spend incremental time explaining what has occurred, and what they are doing to correct it. They can just get on with correcting the performance and trying to improve the forecast.

However, this approach will only work for a while. Eventually even management will have to recognize that they are being shown the same information over a prolonged period of time and they will be forced to question it. Once this type of questioning on the relative believability of the forecast begins, there is little that can be done to stop it. This is where plausible deniability ends.

As process has continued to expand its role within business, forecasting has also become the forecasting process. This usually means that instead of just having the person or team closest to, or responsible for the specific set of numbers for that specific period enter them into the forecast, they must now put them on a form where they are then routed to many other people and teams who are either only tangentially or wholly unrelated to the numbers, can then approve them before they are actually entered into what will become the forecast.

Forecasting is a critical aspect of a successful business. The ability to accurately predict present and future performance enables business groups and disciplines to take the most effective actions to benefit the business. Understanding how forecasts are put together, and being able to accurately interpret the numbers they contain are key capabilities for the business leader to learn.

It is also critical for the business leader to be able to interpret the information that the forecast contains that may not be specifically numeric in nature.

Write It Down

A very small event occurred yesterday. On the surface, it usually doesn’t mean much, but I try to recognize them anyway. The pen I had been using to take notes on my activities and calls with, to jot down ideas with, and to work out solutions with, ran out of ink. As I said, on the surface, it didn’t mean much other than I had written down enough stuff that I had exhausted the ink cartridge in one of those disposable pens that I like to use. And as I said, it was a little thing, but I noticed it.

So, why am I writing about such a seemingly innocuous topic?

I learned long ago, back in college, in a time long before Personal Computers, that the quality of what I was able to learn, retain and utilize was directly related to what I wrote down. It was just me, but writing something helped me get it.

This of course was then the only way to capture information when taking notes in a lecture. This was a time before smart phones that enabled you to play Angry Birds video games in class while they recorded the entire lecture for you to peruse at some later time when you weren’t so focused on something else. It was a time when the professor’s words were ephemeral. They were spoken and then they were gone.

I found that intently listening was not good enough. If I physically wrote them down I not only captured them on paper, I captured them much better in my own mind. Revisiting the notes was always useful when it came time to study, but it was the initial writing down of the information that provided the most value.

When it came time for studying, I found that annotating those already written notes, in effect rewriting them, helped me prepare that much better. Somehow the act of writing helped me learn and retain information that much better.

When I told some of my friends about this study and retention technique, they looked at me like I was from another planet. I still used it anyway.

I thought about this idea, which is no mean feat for a then teenager. I wondered if the simple act of writing down concepts and notes as they pertain to lectures was such an aid to my learning and retention, would it also work with my academic reading load?

Till then I, like most of my student peers, just used a highlighter to highlight those passages in text books that I thought were important. I then tried taking notes on the textbook assignments I had instead of just the typical highlighting. It seemed to work as well. At least for me, it worked. I retained and was able to utilize the information far better than when I just read and highlighted it.

These realizations drove several changes in my behavior that still stay with me today. Whenever I need to learn and retain something I write it down. I learned that I no longer wanted lose-leaf binders and discrete sheets of paper. Paper would become ragged and eventually tear and fall out. I wanted permanently bound composition notebooks so the notes would always be there.

I didn’t want large, full sheet sized notebooks as they were prone to succumbing to the abuse that repeated access would cause, nor did I want the small note card sized ones as those did not allow for sufficient information per page. Hard cardboard or plastic covers were also desirable.

The simple act of my pen running out of ink got me to thinking about all of this learning, and retention and utilization of information. I wondered if it was just me or did others utilize this practice. I noticed that some of my now professional peers in the office also had notebooks, although many did not. As PCs have continued to proliferate, this notebook habit seems to be rarer and rarer.

I have tried to replace my notebooks with my PC. There are a couple of things holding me back. First, although I took typing in high school, I am still basically a “two-finger” typist. If I really get going, the number might expand to four, but never approaches the ultimate of using all ten fingers. The second is, that when I used the PC instead of the notebook, I didn’t retain the information nearly as well. It just didn’t work as well as writing it down for me.

I wondered if this was just me, or if others had found the same thing, so I Googled it. By the way, I continue to find it interesting how in this language a proper noun, the name of a company, can become a verb. Sort of like how having a “party” has now morphed into “partying”. I guess this is also the origin of “Xeroxing” as well.

Sorry. I digressed.

I searched “information retention from writing”. Holy smokes. A ton of stuff came up, supporting and detailing just what I have been talking about.

“A Learning Secret: Don’t Take Notes with a Laptop” https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/a-learning-secret-don-t-take-notes-with-a-laptop/

“Why Using Pen And Paper, Not Laptops, Boosts Memory: Writing Notes Helps Recall Concepts, Ability To Understand” http://www.medicaldaily.com/why-using-pen-and-paper-not-laptops-boosts-memory-writing-notes-helps-recall-concepts-ability-268770

“Take Notes by Hand for Better Long-Term Comprehension” https://www.psychologicalscience.org/news/releases/take-notes-by-hand-for-better-long-term-comprehension.html

“Writing by hand strengthens the learning process. When typing on a keyboard, this process may be impaired.” https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/01/110119095458.htm

These are just some of the articles that came up on the first page, and they are predominantly from the last ten years or so. They also seem to deal with the difference in learning between typing and writing, although the last couple do deal with the cognitive and comprehension benefits of writing something down.

This was just the first page. Google said there was something on the order of one hundred and twenty-one million results to my search. Judging by the first hits, I am going to guess that the rest will be rather supportive of the position.

That position, as you might guess, is write it down.

Ah, but there are probably some out there that are at least thinking to themselves that this is all well and good, and after all this discussion about the value of writing things down, does he “write” down his blogs and then transcribe them on the computer? The answer is no. I do not. I actually compose at the computer.

I have thought about this as well.

The best description of the difference that I can come up with is that when I want to learn and retain information, I write it down. I am trying to take external information and internalize it. Writing it down is part of the process that helps me do this more efficiently.

On the other hand, when I am trying to take thoughts and information that are already internalized and express them, I find that the keyboard is actually a faster methodology. I can compose better at the keyboard.

It seems that at least in this cognitive approach technology has the benefit of improving the expression of the written word, but not so much the learning or retention of the information that it represents.

We all like to think of ourselves as somewhat unique. However, there are many things that we have in common. Understanding how we learn is something of a baseline that can also help us understand how we work, and more importantly how we can work better.

As business continues to increase in complexity and velocity, we have more and more information that we need to find ways to internalize that much faster. I think we need to understand that the tools that we employ, at least for me, are best utilized at helping in the expressing of our ideas. The taking of what we have and providing it to others.

On the other side of the same coin though, they are probably not so much good in the process of learning and utilizing of the ideas and information that others have provided via the same medium.

I think this is a point that needs to be remembered going forward. Computers and all the other forms of automation and intelligence that are out there, are better applied as capabilities that enable us to express the information that we have already internalized, but they are not nearly so good, or so helpful in aiding us in the understanding or internalizing of the information that they provide us.

If you really want to learn something, all the data and the research says that one of the best ways to do it is to write it down.

I think I’ll go get another disposable pen out of the pack now.

Solutions, Costs and Confirmation Bias

It is said that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I guess it can also be said that the best solution is also in the eye of the beholder. It probably also depends on who you ask. The problem is that the best solution depends on the relative criteria associated with the issue that requires a solution. It also depends on the lens that each individual looks through when they are trying to craft a solution.

Abraham Maslow was an American psychologist who was most notably remembered for his ideas on the hierarchy of human needs. That in and of itself is pretty cool in my book, but that is not why I am citing him here. He also said:

“if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail”

and variants thereof, which is from Maslow’s The Psychology of Science, published in 1966.

And here-in lies the issue.

What seems to occur is that if you are trained as a lawyer, you are taught to view every issue from a legal standpoint. If you are a marketer, you view every issue from a marketing point of view. If you are in finance it is always about money. The view you have of business influences the view you have of issues and their respective best solutions. And so on.

This is absolutely the case for engineers. It seems that if you are an engineer, everything is an engineering problem, and therefore an elegant engineering solution is probably not only possible, it is highly desirable. For engineers, it doesn’t seem to matter what the specific issue criteria are. Topics such as cost and time required take a back seat when it comes to engineers. It always comes back to engineering the best engineering solution.

For those of you (like me) who are not engineers, and who have argued with engineers in the past, you will probably very clearly understand the following. For those of you who have not yet had the opportunity to argue with an engineer, be patient. I am sure that you will get your opportunity to argue with one in the near future.

There is an old saying regarding arguing with engineers. It is so old that no matter how I researched it (two or three variants of searches on Google) I could not find any direct attribution as to the original author. The saying goes:

“Arguing with an engineer is a lot like wrestling with a pig in the mud. After a while you realize that the pig is enjoying it.”

But I have digressed enough. With the possible exception of noting that engineers are usually much more associated with costs than sales. I’ll get to that in a moment.

The point that I am trying to make here in my own clumsy way, is to point out that regardless of what the defined criteria may be regarding an issue’s potential solutions, we all have a bias as to how we would go about creating our best solution. This type of bias has a specific psychological name: confirmation bias.

Between my earlier discussions regarding Maslow, and now confirmation bias, I seem to have taken on quite a psychological bent here.

Shahram Heshmat (Ph.D.) in his blog states confirmation bias occurs when we have formed a view on a topic, we embrace information that confirms that view while ignoring, or rejecting, information that casts doubt on it. Confirmation bias suggests that we don’t perceive circumstances objectively. We pick out those bits of data that make us feel good because they confirm our prejudices. Thus, we may become prisoners of our assumptions. (https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/science-choice/201504/what-is-confirmation-bias).

I brought this idea up to an engineering friend of mine. He said every problem should be viewed as an engineering problem, and started arguing with me again. Having just cleaned the mud off from the last time, I didn’t engage.

Confirmation bias is an interesting topic when it comes to management, leadership, and issues. This is especially true when it comes to looking at two very important aspects of any business: sales and costs. I will hedge my comments here with the qualifier “for the most part” in that there are definitely exceptions to every generalization. But for argument’s sake, I will go ahead and generalize a little.

When it comes to setting sales targets, who sets the goals?

Those of you that said sales are wrong.

Management usually sets the sales goals. They ask for bottoms up forecasts and expectations from the sales teams, which they will usually review and find lacking in that they do not meet the financial and or growth expectations for the company. They will then ratchet up the targets to be more in line with the company’s needs and requirements, and issue them to the sales team to achieve.

The confirmation bias here is that management believes and expects that sales will provide them with a lower set of sales forecast targets because it provides the sales team a higher probability of achieving those targets. When sale provides a forecast, regardless of its veracity, that is lower than management expectations, this bias is confirmed.

I really don’t think I have ever been part of an organization where the sales team ever provided a sales forecast which was greater than management expectations. Perhaps my own confirmation bias is that management sales expectations will always exceed the sales team’s expectations, regardless of the market conditions.

On the other side of the spectrum lie costs. When it comes to setting costs, it is usually engineers that set them. While there is usually a similar process of setting up costs and budgets associated with products and services (I am not going to look at specific disciplines or functional groups here, just the costs associated with deliverable products and services) where the cost groups (usually containing at least some engineers) are consulted regarding their input into the costing model.

Herein is where the processes begin to diverge. Management has the ability and bias to step in and alter or impose their sales demands on the sales experts, but does not have nearly the same inclination to alter or impose their wills on the cost experts and groups.

Their confirmation bias is that the cost groups are doing their very best to keep costs low, even though the cost group has the same rationale as the sales group when it comes to setting targets. Higher cost targets for the cost group are obviously much easier to achieve than lower cost targets.

The resulting higher costs drive higher prices and a sales team that is invariably told to “sell value, not price”.

This may have been an acceptable mantra when there was discernable value (and price) differences associated with products and services. In some instances, there still may be, but the race to the bottom regarding minimally acceptable product quality and service levels at the lowest compliant price seems to have mitigated all but the basic pricing and functionality topics as differentiators.

Customers do not particularly care what a supplier of products or services costs are. They care about the supplier’s price. And quality. In that order.

A colleague of mine mentioned that the incentives and commissions associated with sales incite the striving behaviors associated with good sales teams, while there is no similar incentive plan in place to incite a similar striving approach to reducing cost budgets for the cost groups. Sales teams make at least partial commissions, proportional to their sales target achievement, even if they don’t fully meet their sales objectives.

Perhaps it is time to rethink the compensation plans associated with the cost teams so that they more accurately reflect the need for continued cost budget reduction instead of the current cost budget achievement structure.

Nominally the market sets the price for a good or service. The market is made up of customers. Even Apple with its ubiquitous iPhone faces market challenges from the likes of Samsung, LG and other smartphone producers. If Apple raises its price too high they risk losing share, and profitability to competitors.

Apple is immensely profitable. They are also a veritable tyrannosaur when it comes to working and controlling their costs. If you don’t believe me, try becoming one of their suppliers and selling them something. I have been a part of organizations that have done this. It can be a challenge, to put it politely.

It would seem that Apple’s culture may have evolved out beyond the confirmation bias dichotomy associated with sales and costs to the point where they continue to challenge themselves with respect to their cost structures, and engineering solutions. They seem to have created a market cache, expectation and demand that may have enabled them to restructure their cost model focus in order to maximize their profits.

That is truly speculation on my part, but it is a theory that would seem to be supported by the empirical observations of them in the market.

Companies that are looking to maximize their profit potential probably need to do a little internal analysis to understand their own costing processes and capabilities. There are many that are still looking at them from a bottom up, confirmation bias based point of view. Apple has recognized that their costs and their product price really have very little relationship and should be treated as almost totally unrelated items.

This approach would allow product and service providers to focus on their sales strategies and their costs strategies in separate, but similar ways. It would seem that the best solution has proven to be to engineer your products and services, not your costs, and instead to treat your costs with the same type of aggressive objective setting that you treat your sales.