Category Archives: Analysis

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.

Automation

Automation used to be a word that was welcomed into business. Back then we were a disconnected, manual world. If you needed to get more things done, or if you were growing, you had to go get more people to help meet the demand. There was a time that I remember seeing competitors driving advertising trucks around the outside of our business campus in an effort to lure our employees away to meet their growing demands.

But times have changed.

It’s fashionable to discuss off-shoring and out-sourcing when companies now reduce their staffs, but the force that is now causing the largest reduction in demand for employees is automation.

It has been easy to look at China, or any other relatively low wage country and discuss the economics associated with moving production and manufacturing to those locations. It is a very easy way to reduce the cost of labor associated with that production. I have discussed it in the past. We all can probably name several companies that we are aware of that have taken advantage of the economic model.

But do you know what is even cheaper than paying people less in low cost countries to manufacture goods that used to be manufactured in relatively higher wage countries? It’s really a simple answer.

Not paying anyone to manufacture your products.

From 2007 to 2013 manufacturing in the US actually grew about 2.2% per year (~17.6% total), however the number of manufacturing jobs fell. Approximately 13% of those job losses came from off-shoring. More than 87% of the job losses came from automation. (http://fortune.com/2016/11/08/china-automation-jobs/)

Now let’s fast forward only a few years. When you hear the word “automation” it can strike fear in the heart of anyone who is currently working. The active word in that last sentence is “currently”. And it is not restricted to just those in production or manufacturing based positions.
As I have also noted in the past, business and organizations continually try to apply those successful approaches used in the reduction of costs associated with production and manufacturing, to other disciplines in the organization. An example of this is where once only manufacturing were outsourced, so now are other disciplines such as finance, accounting and human resources.

So how does this trend affect automation?

The same rules of organizational cost reduction are going to apply. PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) has recently released a study that is predicting that up to 38% of all jobs in the US are at risk for being replaced by automation in the next 15 years. These are not just manufacturing sector positions. They also predict the finance, transportation, education, and food services sectors are also going to be significantly affected. (http://money.cnn.com/2017/03/24/technology/robots-jobs-us-workers-uk/index.html)

In case you missed it, that means that automation isn’t just for manufacturing anymore.

Just about any position that has any sort of a repetitive nature to it can and probably will be a candidate for automation. It is predicted that many of the first positions to go will be those focused on the consumer sector. The continued automation of teller based functions will further reduce the number of people in your local bank. Baristas at the local coffee house may also be endangered. How repetitive is it to take an order for a fixed set of options and then write a name on a plastic cup? If there are relatively similar activities being repeated, the function will be looked at for automation.

Look what Amazon has done to the previously brick and mortar based appliance product purchase process. What was once a trip to the store where you dealt with sales associates and waited downstairs for them to bring out your purchase, is now an online search for the best price, the tapping of a few keys and then answering the door when they deliver your purchase, in some instances in as little as one day.

Of course these trends will be somewhat balanced by many consumer’s distaste for dealing with systems instead of people. But even that is changing. Each new generation of consumer has less and less of a tie to the human touch and is more technically savvy than the previous. And even the preceding generations learn the value, simplicity, speed and most importantly the economic benefit to their own personal finances of the new automated model.

Amazon has been successful not only because they have worked to improve the shopping and purchase experiences. They have been successful because they have also reduced the customer’s cost and simplified their search. No more driving around, visiting stores and malls and looking for a sales clerk to answer your questions and wondering if what you want is still in stock.

If you don’t believe that this is the case, the current number of retail stores that have announced they will be closing starting in 2017 now stands at over 4,500. http://clark.com/shopping-retail/major-retailers-closing-2017/.

These are also concepts that will be applied to organizations and business to business commerce.

However, as noted above, I think they will be primarily focused in internal corporate activities, instead of any functions that deal with corporate customers. I have already noted customers distaste for not being able to deal with and have direct human interaction when it comes to their requests for support when they have an issue. I think we could expect an even stronger reaction if corporate customers were asked to interface with a machine for their complex equipment and service needs.

I would also expect even this type of resistance to reduce in the future as each successively tech comfortable generation matriculates up through management to positions with purchase decision responsibility.

The drive for automation within corporations and businesses has started with the internal functions. Just as the automation of spreadsheets reduced the need for the number of accountants in business, so is the drive for on-line processes, tools and tracking systems reducing the need for the number of other types of support staff.

As processes continue to be implemented and refined, and as tools for the tracking of work continue to expand and go on-line, the business environment becomes ripe for automation. Sales opportunities are now tracked from suspect to prospect to bid to contract to implementation in on-line tools. How much data resides in that tool that can be automatically reviewed, with the generation of sales forecasts, booking reports and expected profitability projections made available with just a few key strokes.

Costs are likewise automatically tracked via on-line time charging and the utilization of already automated production and shipping capabilities. How much easier will it then be to generate booking, shipping, revenue and profitability reports.

People in these support and accounting roles who have up to now been providing these periodic reports and functions need to be aware of which way the automated wind is blowing.

So where does that leave us?

First I think everyone is going to need to “up their game”. People are going to have to get reacquainted with the risk-reward scenario. The relatively safer “support” type roles are going to get squeezed almost out of existence. You are going to have to be able to “do” something, not just support the people who actually are doing something.

It is always the “new” or next great thing that is prized in business. People will have to relearn that following the past methods of success will not now provide them with success. They will have to get used to looking forward and trying to predict what will be needed and then trying to move in that direction instead of relying on what was once needed. The creative spark will need to be reignited in all workers as those who wait to be told what they need to do will probably be automated (or off-shored) out of their current roles.

Everyone will truly have to get used to and good at selling. Selling their products, their services, their vision, their ideas, their value, their future. It will probably not be good enough to align with and support someone else who is able to do this.

Everyone will also have to get good at delivering. Customers will want their solutions in ever shorter time frames. Look at how Amazon is driving toward same day – immediate gratification – delivery for their customers. Customers will be defined as those that use your particular service or value. That means that they can be internal to the organization, external to the organization or both.

And value will not be a report. It will have to be more along the lines of an idea, or the fulfillment of an idea.

Automation is coming. The capability to automate will only continue to expand. However, it will be the ability to generate ideas and conceptualize that will be the most difficult to automate (if ever) and will hence increase in value. The person who can think of new ways of doing things will increase in value.

It will also be the person who can actually deliver and implement the products, services and processes of the future who will also be in demand. As I said, it will be those that are able to “do” things as opposed to those that enable others to “do” things that will be in demand in the future.

I guess it has always been that way to some extent, except with automation the gulf between the two will become that much greater.

The Five Stages of Change…..and Grief

A friend of mine asked me to look over a document that he was going to issue to his most prized customers. He wanted to prepare them on how he saw things were going to change in the coming (if not already here) digital world. I was flattered. Normally the only people who ask for my opinion are some of my myopic golf buddies when they are having trouble reading a putt. My friend wanted to make sure that his message was not viewed as just another document to be scanned and thrown on the pile of other documents his customers read. As usual, this got me to thinking about how we can relate to and react to the now inevitably changing processes, as they continue to barrel down the tracks at us.

As is also usual I first went out and looked around to see if there was anything written on the five stages of change. I wanted to know if I was capturing some original thought or possibly just rehashing something that someone else had already said. It was with only a modicum of surprise that I did indeed fine information on the five stages of change. According to the article I found, the five stages of change are: precontemplation, contemplation, preparation, action, maintenance. I correctly assumed that anything that includes both precontemplation and contemplation in its description is somehow academic in nature and not fully business oriented. You too can see this at: http://www.cpe.vt.edu/gttc/presentations/8eStagesofChange.pdf

I have never really encountered “precontemplation” in a business environment, but I will now be on the lookout for it. Most of the time I am both surprised and thrilled if I run across anything that even resembles contemplation, let alone precontemplation. For those of you wondering what precontemplation is, it is the point in time when people are not even considering (contemplating) change.

I had to look it up because I didn’t know either.

The five stages of change that I want to deal with are a little more basic and deal more with the human factor associated with change. They are, denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Some of you may recognize these five stages of change also as the five stages of Grief. Since there is very little in business these days that causes more grief than change, I think that they are most appropriate.

I have had the opportunity to be a change agent in several different roles for several different organizations. I have found that the two primary reasons that businesses need to change are: The business is doing well and it is anticipated that the market will require the change, or, the business is not doing well and the change is required by the market if the performance is to improve.

Pretty simple, huh?

In either instance, you are almost guaranteed that the universal initial response by those who must change will be denial. They are already doing everything in accordance with both their objectives and the existing process. It will be others who must change, not them. And they are usually at least partially correct. However, I have found that the proper response to such a denial is that others will also change, not just them.

Denial can be one of the longest lasting stages of the change process. Too many times change is seen as an invalidation of what the business has been doing. This not and should not be the case. All business environments are dynamic. Change is an inevitable requirement.

I promised myself that I would try to avoid platitudes of that type. I guess I will continue to try and promise myself that after that last statement.

The next stage in the change process is anger. If denial is not the longest stage of the process, then anger is. When people are made to do something that they don’t particularly want to do, they do tend to get emotional and this usually translates to a little angry. They can also perhaps be a little angry that they were not the ones that recognized the necessity of the change, or that they were not the ones that proposed the change, or even perhaps that the change occurred on a Tuesday as opposed to a Monday or Wednesday.

The idea here is that the response to change can be emotional. And the first rule of dealing with an emotional response is to not get emotional in return. Understand why the response is present, but don’t slow down or alter course.

So now everyone is denying that a change is necessary, and they are now also angry that you are not paying attention to their denials. What’s next?

Bargaining is next. This is an interesting stage in the change-grief process. It denotes the understanding that some change is going to occur. It is also the beginning of the internalization process for that change. It is the methodology by which people begin to take ownership of the change.

It is always good to engage in the change-bargaining process because no one has a corner on the market for good ideas. You never know where the next one will be coming from. Listening to the team that is preparing to change is always beneficial. There is one thing to remember though:

It is not a negotiation.

There may be pieces and parts of proposals that can and should be incorporated into the change process, and there may be those that may best be ignored. Most organizations will not change of their own volition. It takes someone to change them. And it will take will power to overcome the inherent resistance to the desired change.

Once the bargaining is done, along with all the associated renting of clothing, gnashing of teeth and general keening, there is usually a quiet period. This is where the depressing truth of the pending change sets in. It’s going to happen. People will have to change the way they do things. There may even be pending changes to the people themselves.

It will be up to the change leadership to do two primary activities during this period. The first is to make sure that the period between the acknowledgement of the pending change and the actual implementation of it is minimized. It is up to the leader to keep this stage of the change process as short as possible. They need to minimize the length of this negative effect.

The second is to continuously communicate with the changing team during this time and process. Over communicate. Be visible. The change leader must assume the responsibility for moving the team, not just the process, forward at this time.

Finally, if everything has gone right, and the implementation of the change has begun, there should be the final stage of the change-grief process: acceptance. And as with almost every other stage in this process, there will be varying levels of acceptance. Some will embrace the change and move forward with it, and some will begrudgingly go along with it. The only way to make sure that all are on the same page is to take one more additional step.

Review.

What was the reason for the change? Why was everyone put through the grief inducing process? What was the outcome of the system before the change as opposed to the now current outcomes?

In short, show the team what the benefit of the change was. Look at the business performance before and after. Document what is was before, what the implemented change was and what the performance is after.

The idea is to close off the change-grief process with a review that (hopefully) shows that all the effort was in fact worth it to the business. Having a final review of what was the situation and performance before the change and what the new baseline is after the change closes the loop with the team that has gone through the change.

There is no doubt that change induces grief into an organization. Even the prospect of change can and will generate grief. I think that organizations might have a little better response to change if they focused more on dealing with it as grief instead of just change. While the idea of change has its own connotations, it does not engender the appropriate management response. Change is almost an intellectual concept.

Dealing with the organizational upset generated by change from a grief point of view enables management to understand more of the human response and emotion that is created. After all we like to think of change on organizational levels, but it is really on the human level within the organization that the meaningful changes actually take place.

Off-Shoring

One of the hottest debates going on in business these days is the debate regarding what work, if any, will stay in the supposedly high cost country and what work will be sent to the supposedly low cost country. This is the function that is usually referred to as off-shoring. There are many factors that seem to be taken into account with this decision, but there are also several factors that don’t seem to be included. It appears that the only major factor that companies really consider in the off-shoring decision is the relative wage differential of the existent workforce versus the prospective workforce. Having gone through, worked with and reviewed some of these types of working environments, it has made me wonder if there are other factors that should be reviewed before these decisions get made.

The bottom line in all of these out-sourcing or off-shoring decisions seems to be doing what is perceived as best for the organization’s bottom line. This is also somewhat subjective depending on which of the shores you find yourself. The idea is to save money. All other factors will be dealt with or considered in due course. And one of the best ways to save money is to try and reduce the cost of your labor associated with the function in question. Are there other people in other places in the world that can and will be paid less per person to do the work in question?

On the surface the answer to this question is almost always “yes”.

If the only factor to be considered is the wage rate paid to the resources doing the work, then the decision is always an easy one.

But things are usually never that easy.

The first jobs to experience this sort of movement were the production and manufacturing jobs. Production lines and repetitive functions were sent elsewhere. Business cases were built containing the incremental cost of building a new factory as well as the reduced cost associated with the low-cost labor to staff it. Questions were answered about how long the pay-back was on the needed off-shoring investment and decisions were made. Factories and production lines were built in these low-cost countries. The production of simple and basic products was then moved.

I am not going to continue too far down this line of thinking because we all know where it goes. More and more, and more production functions have been off-shored. These are finite directed positions that perform repetitive processes at a fixed rate, to create large numbers of similar products.

Let’s now fast forward a few decades.

Almost every business function is now subject to the discussions associated with which shore it should be on. One of the biggest issues associated with any proposed move now, is that the work being considered is usually more variable than the production work of the past, and it is more subjective in its execution.

While a production line will move along at a fixed rate enabling all participants in the production line to work at the same rate, the same cannot, and should not be said about knowledge based disciplines. Do all people who write software code, or design hardware do it at the same speed? Are they all equally proficient at their respective disciplines? Are all accountants or financial managers at the same competency level?

On an even more basic level, do all locations have the same financial drives, work culture, language fluency and associated work styles when it comes to delivering the required work products? Remember now we are discussing complex or service oriented work products, not physical products such as consumer electronics or other real goods.

It is no longer just a question of the difference in the hourly wage rates, or salaries of the teams involved. The question now moves into the somewhat murkier areas of work force effectiveness and work force efficiency.

Efficiency and effectiveness refers to how many resources it takes in each relative location to accomplish the desired work, and how long it takes them to do it. Too many times it is assumed that one workforce is as proficient as another. This might have been the case on the fixed speed production line (after appropriate training and time to come up to speed), but is it correct to apply these same principles to non-production line types of work and service products?

This is neither a case for or against the off-shoring and cost reduction push. These are tidal type forces that will continue until some sort of economic equilibrium is reached. This is more a question of identifying, accepting and analyzing the total costs associated with each proposed workforce location decision.

Just because it takes ten highly motivated, well educated, relatively expensive resources in one global location to deliver a satisfactory work product, does not mean that it will take the same number of similarly motivated, similarly educated relatively inexpensive resources in another global location to deliver the same work product in the same amount of time.

Research has shown that it usually takes more people, and more time for the lower waged (and supposedly lower cost) locations to accomplish the same tasks and deliver the same work products. (https://cs.stanford.edu/people/eroberts/cs181/projects/offshoring/failures.html)

What this means is that it is not just the relative cost of each hour of work that must be examined in the off-shoring decision. It is also the relative number of hours of work that are required at each location that must be included in the equation. That means that the relative number of people (spending hours on the work) and the length of time that they spend (how many hours) should also be taken into account.

If it takes five people one month to do the work at a higher cost location, and it takes eight people two months to do the work at lower cost location, the resulting total cost of work delivery may yield a very different work location decision that just the straight hourly wage comparison that has been so popular in the past.

On the other hand, it should be noted that if the relative wage differential is great enough, even these types of labor inefficiencies can be overcome.

I try to focus on real and definable costs. The relative number of hours used and the relative wage rates at each location in question are either known or can be estimated with some relative amount of accuracy. These are usually real numbers that deliver real relative costs. As always there are other factors that can be associated with the off-shoring question. I’ll list a few of them, but as they are less quantifiable in their effect, it will be difficult assign an actual value to them.

Are there incremental but hard to quantify costs associated with the increased complexity of the operations, IT, infrastructure and security associated with an off-shoring. In today’s hacker infested world one would think that adding facilities and resources in other global locations would have an effect on these types of costs. However, it is hard to add them into any comparative costing discussion.

There are considerations that should be observed regarding the relative quality of the work product generated in each location. Are there bugs in the software? Are there differences in the way customer support is provided that affect customer satisfaction? These are difficult issues to quantify, at least prior to having to try and resolve them.

Communications will also become more difficult. What was once a real-time conversation may now become a series of emails, depending on the relative time zones associated with the differing locations, potentially across multiple days. The overall speed at which things are accomplished, or issues resolved can become problematic.

The cost of management should also be expected to increase as well. At least initially, expatriate management will need to be present at the off-shore site to setup the new functions and oversee them. Depending on how things progress, their presence could extend over a significant period.

For those of you not familiar with the expatriate role, these people are expensive. They are normally paid at the “high cost” location salary rate, and their expenses for staying in the low-cost location are usually also covered by the company. They are in effect paid close to twice for the inconvenience of living in one location and working in another.

The final “soft” cost that I will address is the public perception of moving jobs out of their current location and to another, as well as the potential exposure associated with future governmental regulations associated with this activity. Market movements associated with drives to “Buy Local” and legislation designed to increase the expense associated with off-shoring are gaining traction in multiple locations.

It is easy to see why low wage rates in other parts of the world may be attractive. As companies continue to become more virtual in their natures’ Virtual Office can mean an office anywhere on the globe. The initial success and savings generated by moving the simple and repetitive off-shore has given rise to the desire to move more and more complex and unique functions as well. This complexity and uniqueness affects the efficiency and effectiveness of the model.

While the relative wage differential will continue to be an important factor in the off-shoring equation, other factors will continue to increase in importance as the off-shoring drive continues to move up the business complexity curve.

The End of Maintenance

Service used to be a distinguishing characteristic for a company. You wanted to be known as a great service company. If you were good at it, service was also a pretty profitable way to augment both the top and bottom lines. But that was before customers figured out that they could make do with lower levels of service. Excellent service is now too expensive, and barely acceptable service has become good enough. There are many forces at work in the market, and I think they all point toward the end of maintenance as a viable service or business.

Almost all products come with some sort of maintenance agreement to start. It is normally referred to as the manufacturer’s warranty. This is the period of time after the purchase of the product that the manufacturer guarantees that the product will work. The length of this guarantee can vary and depends on several things.

The age of the technology involved, the stability of the market, the relative dominance of the consumer or the vendor in the market, and the speed with which new technologies or substitutable products are introduced, can all be factors effecting the length of the product guarantee.

Automobiles are a baseline technology that has been around for more than one hundred years. They may be becoming more complex, but their basic components still include engines, seats, wheels and the other basics. One manufacturer’s automobile is readily substitutable for another. Warranties on cars can now extend up to ten years. Manufacturers are now guaranteeing car operation for a decade. Research shows that few people actually own a specific car that long but the guarantee is there.

On the other end of the spectrum telephone companies used to require a twenty-year support guaranty from its suppliers for the products they purchased. It wasn’t initially expected that technology would change at the rate it has evolved to. High reliability and long product life cycles were the norm. Now the carriers can no longer pass along the cost of that type of product and its support to the consumers, so now much shorter product support guarantees are acceptable.

Apple has decided that the warranty on the iPhone will be one year. They have also decided that it is a limited warranty, meaning only certain service repairs will be covered, and that they may repair or replace a broken iPhone with potentially refurbished model or parts. They are Apple. If you want one of their iPhones this is what you get.

So, if the article is about maintenance, why am I spending so much time talking about warranty?

The answer is simple. Once your product comes off warranty you have basically two options for service: You can get a maintenance or extended warranty type contract, or you can hope that your product won’t break, and if it does break you can hope there will be someone out there that can fix it.

Or the third alternative will be that you can go out and buy another, or the next generation of product and then make use of the new product warranty.

I think it is safe to say that business used to be all about the best service possible. It then modified that perception and position by saying it was all about the best service at a reasonable price. It seems it is now more along the lines of the cheapest price for the lowest minimally acceptable service.

Products were engineered to the highest levels of reliability. They were not expected to break. When the product came off warranty customers were expected to purchase post warranty maintenance contracts, just in case something ever did go wrong, they would get the best support possible. Since the products were engineered so well, they didn’t break very often. Maintenance contracts were very profitable for most manufacturers.

It seems that something strange started to affect both ends of this arrangement. Manufacturers could not afford to make such reliable products in the new market. They didn’t have the time required to create them. And if they did, customers were not really interested in paying for them versus slightly less reliable, but much less expensive competitors.

There is a wireless carrier that has recognized this shift in preferences. They have a tag line that asks: “Our network reliability is within one percent of our competitor’s. Why would you pay them twice as much for only a one percent difference in reliability?”

On the other side of the relationship, customers decided that maybe reliability, while nice, wasn’t worth the premium they were paying for it. They started to examine their costs. One that obviously pops up is the high cost of maintenance. The drive started to reduce this cost.

Customers started looking a competitively provided maintenance solutions. Competitors realized that if products were reliable, they could sell maintenance cheaper than the manufacturer with relatively little risk, and still make money. In turn customers demanded that if the manufacturer was going to provide maintenance they would need to match or even better these competitive maintenance price levels.

The race to the bottom was now on.

The speed with which new products were introduced was increased. It would seem that the life cycle of products became ever shorter. Products were developed, introduced and then superseded by the next newer and improved version at an accelerated rate.

The reliability of new products diminished in accordance with the lower prices. As the life cycle, and more importantly the life expectancy of products reduced, they were no longer engineered to last a long time. It seems that they are now engineered to last only slightly longer than their warranty periods. After that, all bets are off.

Customers were more willing to accept reduced maintenance capabilities if they came at commensurately lower prices. It has often been said that we have evolved into a disposable society. What was once retained and repaired is now discarded and replaced. After all, with the new and improved version either already out, or on the cusp of availability, why would you want to repair the old one, when you can get the new one for close to, or possibly only slightly more than the repair price?

Why would you want to repair the old one, when you can get a new and improved one?

When a car comes off warranty it is six to ten years old. At this point in time it will be significantly depreciated in value. Chances are if it needs a repair it will be a significant investment verses the actual residual value of the older car. Probably better to get a new one.

When you buy your iPhone you get a year maintenance. Hopefully it will last just a little longer than that, but it doesn’t matter. The iPhone was released in 2007. There has been a new iteration of the iPhone released every year since then. And people line up every year in advance of the release to get some of the first new ones. Why would you want to fix your old iPhone when the cost of the repair represents a significant portion of the cost of just getting the next generational model?

This same approach is now finding its way into business as well. The demand for reduced maintenance costs by customers and the shorter product life cycles driven by competition are combining to eventually squeeze maintenance out of existence as a viable business for manufacturers.

It will probably become what would be called a “break – fix” type of environment. Customers will look for a warranty on a new product that is commensurate with its expected life cycle. They will probably have an extra one or two around as spares. If one breaks they will implement a spare and then do the cost benefit analysis of either getting the broken one repaired, or just buying a new one from the next generation of products.

It may take time for this apocalyptic vision of maintenance to come to pass, but I do think it is coming. The economics on both the vendor and consumer sides of the value equation are pushing it in this direction. Vendors won’t be able to afford the multiple generations of maintenance staff required by rapid product development and introduction. And customers will not be will to pay the costs of even reduced maintenance contracts if newer and more capable replacement products are rapidly and relatively inexpensively available.

I think we are heading to the point where the warranty and the life expectancy of a product are going to be very close to the same length. Any incremental life that can be squeezed out of any product beyond the warranty period will be looked at as an incremental unexpected benefit. Once the warranty expires, the break-watch will begin. If and when the product should happen to break (remember products will no longer be over engineered to last significant periods) the fix – replace decision will be made.

If it makes sense to repair it, it will be repaired. If it doesn’t make sense to repair it, it will be replaced. I just don’t think that we will see products continue to be under maintenance contracts in the future. Business probably needs to start planning for that eventuality now.

Future Jobs

This is a tough topic to tackle without sounding too trite or stale. But I now have children entering the job market and I have been continuing to do some networking with several people who are in a job search mode so it is on my mind. As usual I got to thinking about where to go and how to position for the jobs of the future. With the continual drive for cost reductions and all the talk about bringing certain jobs back on shore (as others continue to go off-shore), is there truly a way to future proof what you do for a living? I don’t know for sure, but as usual I do have a few thoughts on the topic.

It must be acknowledged and accepted that the rules of the game are changing. We must adapt or it probably will not end well. There will be those who will stubbornly hold out the hope for a return to the days when this country could manufacture and build its own products, and people could earn a living doing it. This was an ideal and golden time, but as we have all seen, there may be scattered exceptions, but by and large that economic structure has gone.

I think this was only the start. Almost every role that can be defined within an organization, can be subject to the same risk of off-shoring, out-sourcing, or whatever description you may choose to use for being moved to a cheaper labor oriented area. Production was moved off-shore because the labor was cheaper. The quality may not have been as good initially, but that can be and for the most part has been rectified. We all wanted the cheapest products possible, because they were good for the bottom line.

We have already seen instances where financial and accounting functions are being out-sourced and off-shored in the name of reducing costs. These are largely looked at as internal functions. They are usually associated with the overhead costs and functions, and as we know, everyone wants to reduce overhead. There are many people across the globe who are trained in the financial and accounting disciplines that perform these functions cheaper than they can be performed here.

We have already seen many instances where Research and Development, what was once a cornerstone of our growth engine, have been moved off-shore to lower cost countries. It seems that there are also many places with smart people who can write code and create products, with many of them working for significantly lower costs than here.

We have also seen the relocation and / or reduction of some of the Human Resource functions to other locations. Many of the repetitive steps associated with the simple recruiting and support functions can be and have been moved to lower cost countries. There has also been an explosive growth in the utilization of self-help and web portals as replacements for actual people.

Service and support is also similarly questionable. It is possible that this trend specifically associated with service may be reversing, but it is still highly probable that when you call for help or support on many products, your call is directed to an off-shore, low cost call center somewhere else in the world. People who predominantly talk on the phone as a function of their job, can have a phone to talk on in just about any low-cost country.

So, against this type of cost cutting and low cost country focus, what do we do for a living going forward?

I think for starters focus on one word: Customers.

The majority of business functions and disciplines that are at risk in being moved to low cost countries do not interface with customers.

Yes, I know that call centers and service have moved off shore and they deal with customers. And again, by and large customers don’t like it. It has been surveyed and noted as a major customer dissatisfier when it comes to support from vendors. And if given a choice almost every customer would prefer to deal with someone in their own time zone and their own country when it comes to support.

As I said, companies are recognizing what their customers want and this trend may be slowing, if not reversing as some of these service related positions return on-shore.

One of the inviolate axioms of business to business commerce is that “People buy from People”. It used to be the same for business to consumer commerce, but the internet seems to be changing that for commodity type transactions. I’ll get to that part a little bit later.

Selling will always be a function that requires direct customer interface. It will also invariably require face to face exchanges between the seller and the customer. In short, it cannot be off-shored easily, if at all.

As we continue to evolve to a service oriented economy, and as products continue to become more and more complex as well as more commoditized and interchangeable, having people who have the ability communicate specific value propositions, and more importantly be able to sell those value propositions in the new economy will be at a premium.

On the reverse side of the selling to customers, will be the implementation of the complex products and services that have been sold. It doesn’t matter if it is a good or service that has been sold. This brings us to the operations team. The reality is that most customers will not accept a “Do It Yourself” approach to the implementation of the good or service that they have purchased. They are usually going to want the company that sells it, to also be the one that puts it in.

Again, the direct customer interface from the operations team on the implementation of the customer’s purchase will be a key to that customer’s satisfaction, and potential future purchases. It can’t be off-shored and it can’t be minimized in its importance. The best product in the world can be sold, but if it is not implemented well, the customer will not be satisfied. This will be the case with both product and service implementations. Having good customer interfacing operations teams will also be a non-negotiable requirement for the future.

I have looked at specific individual customer interfacing roles up to this point, but what about broader multiple customer roles, such as Marketing?

For the most part in the past I have considered marketing an overhead function with a two-drink minimum. This is said with just a little tongue in cheek. However, if we note that individual customer interfaces are important then it is not too far a leap to expect that individual markets are important as well. Even though there is much written about the “global” economy, I don’t think that goods and services can be positioned and marketed the same way in Canada as they are in Brazil.

No one in Brazil will know what a Tuque is, and I have met very few in Canada who understand the importance of a good Caipirinha. Expecting one marketing approach to work in both regions will probably not be a good recipe for success. I do not think there will be a good or reasonable substitute for local market knowledge, cultural awareness, presence and positioning.

I suppose that the same could be said about lawyers and the specific legal requirements of each market. However, the less said about lawyers, the happier I find myself to be.

So where does that leave the organizational and business jobs of the future?

I think that it will be those outward facing, and customer interfacing roles that will be the jobs of the future. I don’t believe that customers will stand for the out-sourcing and off-shoring of them. It is the personal relationships and the trust that is built by direct customer interface that is the basis of a successful business relationship. There may come a time where that changes, but that may be in the “next” generation of business.

That means that the internal facing business and organizational roles are at risk as a function the eternal drive for lower costs. Accounting, Finance, HR (some of the functions), Research and Development and Production / Manufacturing, all to one level of success or another can be and have been sent to lower cost countries.

What is also interesting to me is that historically a little more than forty percent of CEOs that are hired come out of the finance discipline. In good times this number percentage goes down as growth is a focus and in tougher times it goes up as the bottom line takes on even greater importance. Many others come from the accounting and engineering functions as well. My point is, as many of these internal accounting, finance and engineering functions get out-sourced, where will the future leaders come from?

If these entry level (and other) types of roles and positions are sent elsewhere, where will the future leaders get their starts. It is in these roles that we learn and gain experience. If the roles aren’t there to provide the experience and jumping off points, are companies also off-shoring the development structures that the future leaders have used to get started?

This could mean that in due time, future leaders would predominantly come from those countries that the jobs were off-shored to.