Category Archives: Challenge

Engineering Solutions

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

It has been said:

“With great power comes great responsibility”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Hard Work

Perhaps I am getting a little too retrospective, or was it introspective. I forget which.

I think it is interesting how my concept of “Hard Work” has changed over time. I used to think of it as moving rocks and landscaping timbers around our yard for my mother when I was younger. Hours in the heat with all that physical exertion. Then I remember that I was also a competitive tennis player back then, and that also entailed hours in the heat with significant physical exertion. That didn’t seem to be as hard work, at least back then.

Now both yard work and tennis in the heat of a Texas summer seem somewhat equally uninviting. Right now, both seem like pretty hard work.
I think I would like to look at what hard work was, what it is today, and possibly more importantly, what it may become in the future.

I seem to recall that I also had a distinct dislike for reading text books and studying (on my own time, after school, when I wanted to do other stuff, of all things). It was hard work to both get myself to do it, and to maintain the focus on topic so I could learn and master the required topics. Now I find myself reading recreationally on those same topics, as well as many others related to my professional disciplines, and actually enjoying it. Now it doesn’t seem like hard work at all.

Using these examples, it seems that hard work is the work that we don’t want to do, but are somehow compelled to do. It may be best described as doing something which you have not fully bought into doing. Something you have to do, instead of something you want to do. I think I’ll go with that definition for now.

I had bought into the idea of spending hours in the heat practicing the various aspects of my tennis game. Initially not so much on the yard work for the then family home. Later with my own home and family, I enjoyed both the tennis and the yard work. Now, in the triple digit heat of a Texas summer, I do my best to refrain from both.

As an aside, I didn’t require my kids to join me working in the yard, as I was compelled to do. I don’t know at this point if I did them a disservice.

So far, neither of them has complained about not being required to do yard work in the heat. Go figure.

For some reason, I find myself quoting Mark Twain, a lot. I don’t know if it is just happenstance, or if there is some other type of connection. Either way, he seemed to say many things that can still be considered truisms today. He said:

“Find a job you enjoy doing, and you will never have to work a day in your life.”

But I am actually not so sure that is the case. I think it may be more along the lines of: If you do something that you buy into doing, it means that you will not consider it “hard work”.

You may be fully engaged. You may get to the office early. You may stay late. If you are bought in, and are committed to the deliverable, none of what you are doing is going to feel like hard work. You are getting satisfaction and fulfillment from the effort, and probably feel you are providing value in what you are doing.

I have found when I am engaged and committed I have internalized the assignment or objective, and I want to deliver and excel. I suspect that I am not too different from the majority of people out there. Given the opportunity, I think most everyone wants to be engaged, and to have internalized their work goals. What I have learned over time is that people probably cannot be trained or managed into this type of commitment. They need to be led to it.

I think the ability to do this is probably a learned capability.

I think back to the periods in time when my views about what was and wasn’t hard work changed. When the drudge work of studying for an exam was supplanted by the desire to walk into the exam confident in the knowledge and command of the material. Some kids seem to get this early in their educational career. Let’s just say that it was quite a way into my educational journey before I learned it. Much the same feeling as when the drudge work of the preparing for the customer (or even internal) presentation changed to ownership and the confidence that went with it, although that one came much quicker in my professional career.

People buy into ownership and leadership. If they are given a responsibility and are shown how their role plays into the greater good, the process of getting them to buy in has started. But that is normally not enough. People want to contribute. This is where the pride of ownership comes in.

Communicating the “what” part of what needs to be accomplished is only part of the process. It is the “how” part of the objective, as in how is the goal to be achieved that will either get internalization and buy-in, or probably get the function labeled as “hard work”.

If people are told what they must do, and how they must do it, there is very little for them to contribute to the function, other than being the vessel that performs the assigned tasks in the prescribed manner. They may have no pride of ownership. Without it, almost everything, regardless of how simple or easily achieved has the potential to be considered hard work.

As I said, we all have goals that we need to achieve for the greater good of the business, but I can’t help feeling that being told what to do and how to do it sounds like a definition of hard work.

Even with all of that preamble, I believe that the working environment, and for that matter all work, not just hard work is going to change. I have talked about the application of process as a substitute for judgement in business before. Good judgement is a necessary leadership characteristic. There are those that seem to innately have good judgement, and there are those that have acquired it as a result of their experiences.

Randy Pausch in his book “The Last Lecture” said:

“Experience is what you get when you didn’t get what you wanted.”

This is a pretty well known, and surprisingly accurate assessment of the world. What may not be as well known, is the second line from this quote. It goes:

“And experience is often the most valuable thing you have to offer.”

But as business continues its journey from process to automation and beyond (Artificial Intelligence?), getting experience, that most valuable thing, the basis for good judgement (at least for most of us) is going to be a more and more difficult thing to obtain.

Career progressions that were once based on the recognition of an underlying business issue, and the creation and implementation of solutions to rectify them, will no longer be the norm. It will become more along the lines of being compelled to follow the steps in the existing process. As experience is gained in one step, there may then be the potential opportunity to manage multiple steps, or entire processes, or potentially multiple processes. Work will change from the creation of a solution to a problem, to the management of the existing process.

One of the issues that we seem to be facing today is that we no longer appear to be accepting, let alone rewarding the individual who does what we used to call “Thinking Outside the Box”.

That does sound pretty trite to me, but unfortunately also pretty applicable.

Process minimizes the risk of poor judgment and the variability of results. But as business appears to be creating more processes, as a substitute for judgement, that compel people to remain in the process box, it also makes the opportunity for business (or process) improvement that much more difficult to achieve.

I guess this can be an acceptable situation if you are confident that the process in place is optimal. But again, we have all seen and have grown accustomed to the idea that the rate of change in business is continuing to accelerate. The progression of work from on shore, to off shore, to automation, to the potential of Artificial Intelligence (AI) should underscore this. So even if a process was optimal at one time, it does not appear that it can remain optimal in the face of accelerating change.

I think the future of hard work will lie in compelling people to continue to use more or less fixed processes in the face of ongoing, rapid change. The process structure by its nature is resistant to change with its multiple parties, stakeholders and check points and desire for predictability, and that does not bode well for it going forward in a continually more unpredictable environment.

Perhaps the new business leaders of the future will be the ones that instead of just recognizing and solving an issue, also master the means of rapidly modifying and adapting existing processes to the changing environment. That will probably require a fundamental change in how processes are created and managed. The proverb states that “Necessity is the mother of invention”. I think that is the case here. Otherwise I think there is going to be an awful lot of hard work for everyone in the future.

Don’t Do Your Job

Although we all like to think of ourselves and our careers as fully and totally unique, I think there are some experiences that we have all probably gone through, to one degree or another, that are probably somewhat similar. It is how we react and respond to these experiences that creates the differences in careers and career trajectories. As I think back on all the roles I have had in the same organizations as well as in new or different ones, I think of one thing that pretty much all of them had in common. They all had a specific job description.

They didn’t all have the same job description. Each role had a somewhat different or unique job description. It was usually that job description that helped the then hiring manager define the combination of experiences, traits and capabilities that led them to choosing me to fill that role. I think it’s probably the same for just about everyone else who doesn’t have some sort of genetic or familial tie to also trade upon in the organizational world.

I think we can all remember those first days in a new position (any new position) where the first thing you do is try to ascertain both what is expected of us and what we will be reviewed and rated on. This is only natural. We all want to do what is expected of us. We want to have objectives to work toward and be measured against. We like to know what we have to do to get ahead.

We then dig in and go on our merry way in trying to achieve or even possibly exceed our goals.

The end.

When review time comes around we are then tasked with the objective of trying to define whether we exceeded our goals in such a way as to merit an excellent “super-star” status (or some such similar ordinal ranking), or just merely a good, exceeded what was expected. Was it really an “exceed” or was it just in reality a “strong achieved”. Did the objective get achieved, or could it in reality have been done better.

It seemed what was once a defined and specific object has now turned out to be open to some interpretation, as it were.

Then there is the ever-present worry regarding whether the ratings that are being discussed are a true reflection of actual individual performance, or is it influenced by, or the result of the organization’s requirement that only certain percentages of the organizational populace can and must fall into certain ranking categories. The dreaded forced rank stacking.

This sort of ranking has been put in place to make sure that managers don’t neglect their responsibility to differentiate employee performance. Instead of having real, and sometimes difficult discussions with their individual team members, some managers have been known to give everyone a “good” rating, regardless of organizational performance.

It’s sort of like this grade inflation thing that everyone seems to be talking about in schools these days. I still don’t understand how you can do better than a 4.0 (straight “A’s”), but apparently, it is possible.

This employee ranking and review is also a good thing in that even outstanding organizations probably have some team members that could benefit in some areas by increased focus, and poorly performing organizations probably have some team members that have performed above and beyond the call.

What this has all led up to, and the point I am trying to make is that when you follow a job description and just do your job, it becomes a question of relative ratings when it comes to reviewing your performance. There is a certain amount of qualitative that inevitably seeps into the quantitative review.

Contrary to what you might think, in this age where the “process” has taken on ever increasing importance, where you would probably think that as a result the quantitative aspects of performance review would be at their strongest, the qualitative aspect of reviews has probably increased.

Think about that for a minute.

As processes continue to ever more granularly define roles, jobs, and their inputs and outputs, the ability to differentiate performance among similarly defined jobs, at least at the high level, becomes smaller. It can almost come down to interpersonal and soft skills as one of the differentiators between similar performers.

Now think back for a minute about that last statement. Have you ever seen that occur?

So, what do you do when just doing your job leaves you open to these types of performance interpretation vagaries?

Don’t just do your job.

Just doing your job is the easy thing to do. You have a job description. You were probably selected because your experiences and abilities matched that job description in such a way that there was a perceived high probability that you would be able to perform the tasks that were outlined in that job description. That was what made you uniquely qualified to fill that role. You were the chosen one.

Don’t flatter yourself.

There are a significant number of people in any organization that can perform any and each specific role in that organization. You may have been selected for that new role, but that doesn’t mean that there wasn’t anyone else around that could do it. Chances are that there were several candidates for that role, and from them they selected you.

I have had it explained to me in a couple of ways, that I will share. The first was that in business, all candidates that make it to the interview portion of the job search are judged to have all the requisite technical and experiential capabilities for the role. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t be called in to talk. All candidates enter the interview process as relative equals. It will be their soft skills demonstrated in the interview(s) that differentiate them.

Remember what I said about soft skills and reviews earlier?

The next is that if we each are truly “one in a million” as the old saying goes, and there is in fact close to eight billion people on the planet, then there are at least eight thousand people that are like each one of us.

There are a lot of people that can fulfill each and every job description.

I guess the point I am making is that the job description is the table stakes in the game. It is going to be what you do above and beyond that job description that sets you apart. Performing against only that job description, regardless of how well you feel you have, or even how well you may be able to demonstrate you have, still puts you somewhere on the “achieved” continuum when it comes review time. You are demonstrating that this is the role or job that you can do and no more.

Regardless of how well things were going, every role that I have been in had facets or areas that could be improved. Sometimes these opportunities for improvement were within my defined responsibility, but many times they were not.

This is where for leaders; the process focus must change. There must always be a bigger picture view that the leader must hold, and be able to rationalize against the more detailed and specific needs of the business. It is not enough to just do your job and fulfill a job description.

You have to recognize on the larger level what needs to be done, and then chart the way to do it. What needs to be done may not reside in your job description. It may not be within the realm of your responsibilities. It may not be immediately obvious and may take time to identify.

The issues that are causing the business issues will however become clearer for you as you perform the tasks that are expected of you. It will not be so much the identification of these business issues that will set you apart. Chances are that the issues are already very well known. It will be identifying the causes of these issues, and the resulting solution that you create (and potentially implement) that will be what sets you apart. Remember what I said earlier about how we react and respond to these issues will define careers and career trajectories?

Again, in short, it will not be doing what is expected of you via fulfilling your job description and objectives that will enable you to continue to move forward. It will be doing the unexpected. It will be questioning some of the basic business assumptions that “everybody knows are correct” and creating a new model. It will be questioning and causing issues as people are challenged by you to move out of their comfort zones.

It will be looking at old problems through the new eyes of someone coming into a new position. New employees in new positions are not yet beholding to the status quo. They have not yet become stakeholders in the existing process. It will be those who are not content to do their job that see the answers to questions, many of which may not have even been asked, and identify the new ways to move forward.

It is not how well you do what you are supposed to do that sets you apart from everyone else. It will be how well you do what you are not expected to do that will differentiate you. It will be important to don’t do just your job if you are to get ahead.

The Review Process

I got to thinking about all of the reviews that I have had the pleasure of sitting through, or have been sentenced to, as the case may be. Both the ones that I conducted and the ones that I just got to attend. They are a sometimes interesting, and sometimes not so interesting mix of development, product, marketing, finance, sales, operations and ultimately business reviews where there was a little of each of the previously mentioned disciplines covered. They have ranged in length from the relatively short one hour to the interminably long multiple days in length. I have traveled internationally to attend, present or conduct them as well as done the same over the phone. Throughout all of these reviews, the most important thing that I learned is that it is up to the review leader, not the review process, to make the review useful.

I think it is reasonably apparent that no one likes to be the bearer of bad news in a review. We all like to feel that we can and should be able to march triumphantly into the review and present as well as receive only good news. Schedules are being met. Sales are up. Earnings are good. Enough said. Take a bow. Let’s get out of here.

Admittedly I have been in only a few reviews like that, very few.

However, most of the time I have found that a review usually contains some good news, some bad news and more than a significant amount of extraneous information. Extraneous information is the information that is presented about the activities conducted by the presenter, that are other than the assigned topics that they were given to present on. Extraneous information is what fills up the extra charts and time in almost every review. It has evolved to almost become and expected part of the review process.

I think this might be another opportunity for the coining of another one of the specifically not famous “Gobeli Laws of Business”:

“If allowed to go unchecked the amount of extraneous information that is included in each successive periodic review will grow to a point where it renders the review almost useless.”

Since everybody likes to present good news, and since not all news is good news, people will almost always try and compensate for any possibly perceived bad news in a review by presenting more and more other extraneous information. This information, while possibly interesting to the presenter, and is usually positioned to sound like highly functional activity levels and good news, while in reality it is likely of limited use to the person conducting the review.

This type of information distracts from and obfuscates the important information to be imparted at the review, while continuing to maintain the appearance, flow and process of the review. Unless it is specifically cited and prohibited, almost every presenter at a review will probably include some of this type of information “filler”. The result will be overall less time available to deal with any potentially germane or relevant review topics.

I think I have mentioned before that I matriculated through management within the General Management business model as opposed to the seemingly more in vogue Process Oriented business model of today. It seemed then that objectives were mandatory and processes were guidelines as opposed to the current structures where the reverse seems to be the rule. Ownership of an end to end deliverable objective made reviews that much easier. Progress against an objective is always easier to measure than progress on a process.

The purpose of objective oriented reviews is two-fold: the avoidance of surprises, and the identification of actions for the resolution of issues. They are not and should not become opportunities for everyone to tell everyone else what they are doing.

One of the first rules of business is that there should be no surprises when it comes to performance. Everyone should have an objective, know how they are doing against that objective and be able to succinctly report that information. This approach should be applicable to every business discipline. There can be no excuse for “surprise” misses to sales targets, or budget overruns, headcount and staffing levels, profitability, etc. Providing this type of information is the responsibility of the review presenter.

Once a potential issue or objective miss is identified in the review, a plan of action to bring the objective miss back under control should be the next function of the review. A specific set of activities, and activity owners need to be identified and assigned. Performing this type of function is the responsibility of the review owner. Notice that I didn’t say solving the problem is the review owner’s responsibility. I’ll get back to this point later.

I think this also might be another opportunity for the coining of another one of the specifically not famous “Gobeli Laws of Business”:

“The best type of issue to have in business is one that you prepared for, and avoided.”

This is the focus of reviews. To enable the team to foresee, and take action to avoid issues associated with objectives. It should be with these review objectives in mind that reviews are conducted. If the material covered does not directly apply to these objectives, it should not be included.

There may also be a secondary focus on understanding the cause of the identified issue so that steps can be taken to avoid similar issues in the future, but I have found that these types of root cause analyses should probably be taken outside the review. This has the benefit of keeping the review to a shorter more manageable length, as well as minimizing the impression among all attendees of creating a negative environment for reporting issues.

Everyone has issues at one time or another in obtaining their objectives. A public examination of why they missed as opposed to a public plan on how they can recover will usually generate a more conducive environment where issues are identified and discussed as opposed to being glossed over.

If a review is allowed to become a matter of process, where the purpose of the review is lost in the extraneous information that each presenting group imparts to the other presenting groups detailing all the activities they are doing, but precious few of the issues they are encountering, then its value is lost. They should be times to challenge both management and each other. They are opportunities to do better.

I always looked at reviews as opportunities for the team to suggest solutions to issues. Issues are to be expected. Field Marshall Helmuth Karl Bernhard Graf von Moltke, who was Chief of Staff of the Prussian General Staff in the mid nineteenth century is credited as saying:

“No plan of operations extends with any certainty beyond the first contact with the main hostile force.”

This has also been simplified and paraphrased down to:

“No battle plan ever survives contact with the enemy.”

What this means is that once you start the implementation of anything, stuff happens that requires you to adjust both your plan and the way you implement it. In short, issues occur. And how you deal with them will directly affect the success of the endeavor and the achievement of the objective.

The sooner the issue can be identified, and the more information that can be supplied about it, the better the resulting response can be.

This again, should be one of the driving goals of the review. Everyone wants to avoid issues. The best way I know how to do this is to get them identified as early as possible and then take the requisite steps to mitigate, and hopefully avoid them.

I think the hidden key to the review is that each reported or identified issue needs to be accompanied by an associated solution. It should not be the review leader’s responsibility to solve all the issues. This is a situation that seems to have evolved in a process driven organization, in that it is usually only the leader that has purview over the entire system. Hence any issue associated with any step falls to them to resolve.

In an objective oriented review, it should be the responsibility of each individual that identifies an issue to also provide a suggested course of resolution. They are the ones who identified the issue. They should be the ones closest to it and in the best position to affect its resolution.

It will be the leader’s responsibility to accept, reject or modify the recommendation. It should not be the leader’s responsibility to generate the recommendation.

It seems more and more common that reviews are becoming just another step in a process. A box to be checked off. They seem to have lost some of their true purpose. That is a shame.

I have been in plenty of reviews where the time was spent and the motions gone through, and not much else was accomplished. But I can also remember many of the reviews where issues of substance were identified and dealt with. Where team members got to display their leadership capabilities when it came to solving their own and others issues. And where things got done.

They were challenging reviews where performance against the objectives was reviewed, hard questions were asked, and answered, and where the results were what drove the process.

Millennials

If you have anything to do with electronic communications or media, you have probably heard about or possibly have already have seen the video by Simon Sinek on millennials in the workplace. It is very good. If you haven’t seen it, you can see it here:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hER0Qp6QJNU.

There seems to be an ever increasing amount written, or in this case videoed in business about the most recent generation to enter the work force, millennials, and how businesses must change and adapt to deal with them. With this in mind it seems that I should be no different and add my input into the conversation. However, I do think I may have a different take on the situation.

Before we go too much further, let’s do a little generational definition work. There are at the current time predominantly three generations working today: Baby Boomers – who are defined as those who were born after the mid-1940s and prior to the early 1960s (the youngest of whom are now in their mid-fifties and approaching the end of their working period), Generation X – who are defined as those born after the early 1960s and into the mid-1970s (the youngest of whom are now well into their forties and are entering their prime working period), and Millennials – There are no precise dates for when this group starts or ends, but most demographers and researchers typically use the early 1980s as starting birth years and ending birth years ranging from the mid-1990s to early 2000s.

The oldest millennials are now reaching their thirties and have been in the work force for some time, while the youngest are either preparing to enter or have just entered the workforce.

The reason I bring up this generation definition and demographic information is to set something of a baseline when discussing all the generalizations that are being made. We all like to sort things into groups as it makes it easier for us to model and respond to group behaviors as they affect the business performance. Although individual traits can vary widely across a demographic, I will try to adhere to those demographic traits that seem to be widely accepted as baselines.

As an aside, I have often said that demographics can be broken down into only two groups of people in the world: Those that like to divide people into two groups and those that don’t. But I digress….

In Sinek’s video discussion he points out many of the generational characteristics of the millennials. He also states several times that it is not their fault that the millennials believe and behave as they do. They are the products of their parents, schools, societies and times. They were taught that they as individuals matter and that their opinions and output count regardless of accuracy or being correct. They were the generation that got “participation trophies” in competitions when they did not win. They now enter the business world at the standard entry level positions and expect the same sort of attention and acclimation that have received throughout their past regardless of their performance.

In short, their baby boomer and generation-x parents gave them unrealistic expectations of how the business world would work, and now so much is being written (and videoed) about how the business world is going to have to change and adapt to these somewhat unrealistic expectations.

Really?

It is quite possible that perhaps I missed the same sort of business workplace demographic analysis associated with expectations of the baby boomers (who still make up the largest demographic in the workplace) or generation-x as they entered the workplace. I suppose it was just expected that they would have to adapt to the environment they had if they expected to be successful.

I think it is safe to say that everyone wants to matter, and have an effect on the business or organization that they work for. I think most people want to feel and be fulfilled by the work that they do. This has been a standard for all new hires from all generations. I don’t think that the millennial generation is the first generation that expected and felt entitled to these roles without first proving themselves.

What is interesting to me is that it seems that the millennial generation is the first generation that business is actually contemplating changing its order of things in order to better accommodate these expectations. At least there is a significant amount being written about how business should, may, possibly change in order to better accommodate the coming millennial workforce generation.

As a brief example, in the past the workforce migrated from the cities to the suburbs to better accommodate their home and lifestyle choices. They did this knowing they would have to commute to work. Over time some businesses migrated out of the city centers to better accommodate their work forces (and truth be told, to reduce the costs associated with expensive urban center floor space). This migration occurred across decades.

There is now a widespread belief that millennials are a key factor in the new gentrification of many urban areas, and as a result some businesses and organizations are contemplating migrating back to the same urban centers that they left. This is being contemplated in order to better accommodate and attract a portion of the workforce who by all measurements are the most junior and currently least productive components.

To be fair I think that there are several other factors that are also coming into play when we look at some of the changes that organizations are both contemplating and implementing. It is possible that some of these changes have been instigated as a result of the millennial influx into the workforce, and some of them may have already been in process and are just attributed to the millennials based on the timing of the change and the generational influx into the workforce.

The millennial generation is the first generation in the workforce that grew up in the connected world. They are video games, personal computers, and cellular phones. They are immediate feedback and immediate gratification. They have seen the rise of virtual offices and have watched their parents work from home. I have a couple of kids that are millennials and I watch them and I learn from them and their friends.

They are also, as Simon Sinek said in his now famous video, a generation that has come by this feeling of entitlement naturally. Their baby boomer and generation-x parents were determined that their millennials would not fail. Sometimes this was accomplished through the efforts of the children. Many times it was through the efforts of the parents to reduce the obstacles and lower the bar to assure clearance.

The result is an expectation of success, or at the very least accommodation of their expectations regardless of the effort expended. They have been told how good they are for so long that they believe it. They have been given trophies for playing regardless of whether they have won or not, to the point where they believe their participation is valuable in and of itself.

I think that there needs to be recognized that there is a symbiotic need between the millennial generation workforce and the business organizations of today. Millennials will need to work to survive and organizations will need millennials in their workforce to pursue and grow their markets. If organizations make drastic changes solely to accommodate millennials they risk alienating the current majority of their workforce who are not millennials. If millennials do not learn and rapidly come to grips with the idea that there may not be participation trophies and progress can be based on competitive merit, they too will face a very bumpy acclimatization to business.

The speed of change has increased. What once took decades can no longer be expected to take decades. However, business still requires a fiduciary responsibility to its shareholders. What makes sense to the majority of the business at large in general makes sense for the business. Business and organizational change based on millennial matriculation into the workforce should be expected as their demographic increases over time.

On the other hand, I await the next wave of business articles and documentation on how the millennials are going to have to change and adjust their habits and expectations in order to participate, let alone succeed in the organizations that they enter. I don’t think that business can be expected to change to the level to wholly meet the expectations that millennials have. There will need to be some sort of middle ground established so that neither the business nor the millennial will be overly disappointed or disillusioned in what they get.

Over Specialization

It seems as though business, or maybe more accurately organizations and the conduct of business, is at a crossroads. Like “process”, organizations seem to have drifted into the position that if a little bit of specialization (and process) is good, then a whole lot of specialization (and process) must be better, right? After all, if one man who is a four hundred meter specialist can run the distance in about forty five seconds, and four men who are hundred meter specialists can run the distance as a relay team in thirty six seconds, then forty men who are ten yard specialists should be able to do better than that, right? When does specialization run its course when it comes to creating an advantage?

I absolutely agree that some specialization can create a competitive advantage. As noted above, four one hundred yard sprinters working together will usually beat a single person running the distance alone. The focal point of this is the word “usually”.

Since 1920 the United States four hundred meter relay team has won the gold medal fifteen out of a possible twenty one Olympic games. One time they didn’t compete due to a boycott. So three out of every four Olympics they have run the race and won. The other twenty five percent of the time they either finished behind, or didn’t finish at all because of poor handoffs of the baton. The handoff either slowed them down, or they dropped the baton and did not finish all together.

On the surface this looks like a pretty good performance. From an Olympic standpoint there is no doubt. It is excellent. But what is our reaction if we translate this performance into business terms? What would you do if someone came up to you and said:

“I am going to quadruple your costs (going from one employee to four), improve your performance by just under twenty percent (reduce your time from forty five seconds to thirty six seconds), and introduce a one in four chance that you will not even finish the project (the baton gets dropped twenty five percent of the time). In return for these increased costs and risk, you will succeed three quarters of the time.”

Now admittedly I have stacked the deck here a little bit. The Olympics happen only once every four years. This rarity of opportunity has a tendency to breed a “Win at all costs / Win or go home” sort of mentality. It is indeed a high risk – high return mentality. But I think it helps to make my point.

Business on the other hand occurs every day. While there is competition, success is usually measured in relative terms. I think that the Sales role is the only one where there is a win – lose relationship with the competition. You either beat them, or you don’t get the customer order (“the gold”). After that everything is more of a “how well did you do” question as opposed to a “did you win” question.

What I think it also points out is that specialization does introduce incremental expense in the form of multiple specialized participants where in the past there may have been fewer potentially more generalized people. The idea here being that if you can grow the business to the point where you can break the increased work down into smaller more specialized roles that can be aggregated it can be more efficient. This brings up the next point.

How far can the work be efficiently broken down and aggregated? If four can do it faster than one, can eight do it faster than four? Can forty do it even faster than that? At what point do you spend more time passing the baton than actually running the race? If no one can ever accelerate to their potential ability (top speed) before they must pass the baton, will the relay team actually be faster in the total?

The final aspect of the added cost and complexity of over specialization is the risk it induces. If the best relay teams have three hand-offs of the baton (first leg-second leg, second leg-third leg, third leg-anchor), and manage to drop it one out of four races, what happens when more and more baton hand-offs are introduced. It is possible to theorize that there is a point where there are enough handoffs that it is statistically probable that there will always be at least one dropped transition, and no race (project) will ever be completed, at least without some secondary group to monitor the transitions and make sure that a final work project is in fact delivered.

I believe that this secondary group responsible for making sure that all business baton handoffs occur (amongst other process responsibilities) is usually called the “Quality” group, but that could just be my opinion. They are the group that is usually responsible to make sure everyone runs in their proper lane, and hands the baton off when they are supposed to.

Specialization is the logical extension of what is known as “Fordism” in the theory of production. As we all know Henry Ford was one of the first to recognize the values of specialization and the production line. Although Fordism was a method used to improve productivity in the automotive industry, the principle is thought to be able to be applied to any kind of manufacturing and by extension business process.

Fords major success is thought to have stemmed from a couple of major principles:
1. The standardization of the product (nothing hand-made: everything is made through machines and molds by unskilled workers)
2. The employment of assembly lines, which used special-purpose tools and/or equipment to allow unskilled workers to contribute to the finished product

I didn’t make that last bit up. I looked it up in my cyber wanderings regarding specialization.

Ford wasn’t the first to do this but he saw the value in breaking complex tasks down into component simpler ones in order to better utilize the available labor component. The point that I see here is that specialization was born from the need to get the most productivity possible from the predominantly unskilled labor force. Today we seem to be continuing to try and further apply these principles to a very skilled and in many cases knowledge based labor force.

I think some specialization does in fact produce returns that can be justified against the increases in complexity and added potential risk of a “missed hand-off”. I also believe that there is a point where the number of hand-offs and the added complexity of having tried to add too many runners into the relay race generates decreasing returns.

When a business gets to the point where it loses visibility of the overall delivery responsibility, it has probably decomposed its work products beyond its optimal granularity.

Most businesses today do not rely on unskilled labor. If fact most of the technology based organizations that are looked to as drivers of the new economy require not only college degrees as a minimum threshold for employment, but would prefer that employees come with previous experience for the job. In short, organizations are looking for smart people who already know how to do the job.

It is against this increasingly intelligent and skilled workforce requirement that organizations seem to be trying to reduce the skill and intelligence needed to do a job by ever reducing the scope of the job as it gets more and more specialized. Business in effect wants people who can do more, but wants them to be limited by specialization to doing fewer things – hopefully better.

In encouraging team members to focus on smaller and more specific roles instead of understanding and requiring more and broader capabilities, organizations run the risk of stifling future leaders. If team members are incited to only worry about their specific task, where will the next generation of leaders who will be responsible to the team’s performance of aggregated tasks come from?

Business leaders require a very good working knowledge of many different business disciplines in order to be successful: Sales, Finance, Marketing, Operations, and Service, just to name a few. A lack of knowledge in any of these areas, or an over dependence on any of these specific disciplines can weaken the leadership capability of the organization.

Even in the age of (over) specialization, the title of the “Worlds Best Athlete” still is bestowed upon the winner of the decathlon. The decathlon is the event where there are ten different aspects of the competition. The winner of the decathlon is not an expert in any one or two of these aspects. They don’t have to win all of them (or potentially any of them) but they must be very good in all of them.

Leadership today needs to recognize the trade-off between specialization in the drive for efficiency, and generalization in the need for a broader end to end view of business. Future leaders cannot be expected to easily move from a specialized discipline experience set to a generalized business leadership set, anymore than a sprinter should be expected to be able to effectively compete in the other nine aspects of the ten event decathlon. Nor does the decathlon allow for a passing of the baton between ten people, one for each event.

While business does depend on team work and the ability of the team, sometimes it is not a specialized relay race.

Darwin and China

I think it is safe to say that we are all experiencing some sort climate change. I am not just saying that because it is one hundred and four degrees here in Texas. It is mid-August in Texas. It is always one hundred and four degrees in Texas in mid-August. Remember Climate is what you expect. Weather is what you get.

What is interesting about this year in Texas is that we had almost four feet of rain in the first five months of the year, and now it hasn’t rained since then. That is a little odd. We have had something of a drought for the last few years where all of the water resources were way below normal. Most municipalities had instituted water conservation rules because of it. Needless to say, there were a lot of dirty cars because we could not wash them and a lot of brown lawns because we could not water them.

We then had a short period of a few months where it rained a lot and filled all the reservoirs to literally over flowing. Everything got green and lush. Most importantly, the golf course fairways were lush and the greens were soft. Life was good. And now we are back to no rain, a drought, but with full lakes. And on top of that it’s August and really hot, again. Go figure.

There are many that would like to point to man as the cause of this perceived global climate change (global warming). I am not entirely convinced of this causality since the geologic record across hundreds of thousands and millions of years indicates that we have had multiple periods of global glaciations (ice ages) followed by significant periods global warming in the past. I’m pretty sure that man didn’t cause these as he (we) weren’t around for most of them. It is possible that man is potentially affecting or exacerbating this cycle with carbon emissions and the like but with a data sample of only a few hundred years (against a historical record of millions of years), as I have said, I am not sure I am entirely convinced.

Be that as it may, this entire introduction regarding environmental change brings up the topics of how do you recognize environmental change, and how do you cope with that type of change. As always there seems to be some significant parallels between what is going on (and has gone on) in the environment and what businesses are facing on almost a daily basis.

Darwin in his “Origin of Species” postulated that organisms either adapt to their environments, or they go extinct. This is pretty interesting stuff when you remember that he figured this out by looking at some little birds in what are now Galapagos Islands. This is now a basic tenet that we all seem to agree on.

It is those that adapt to their changing surroundings that survive.

About ten to eleven thousand years ago North America experienced a period of rapid warming associated with the end of the last glacial period. During this time lions, cheetahs, mastodons, and various types of bears that were present in North America went extinct. It is interesting to think that there were lions, cheetahs and mastodons as little as a few thousand years ago in North America, and that they are now extinct. That is a veritable “blink” of an eye in climate or geologic time.

It is believed that several of these species were unable to adapt quickly enough to the changing environment associated with the post glacial period warming and began to die off. It is then thought that other species in that particular food chain (predators and such) also began do die off as they could not quickly enough adapt to utilizing other prey. The net result is that they are gone, and we only know about them here because of the bone and fossil record.

When we look at what is going on in the various markets, not only in the Americas, but globally, we see similar adaptation and extinction events occurring. Businesses and organizations must be quick to recognize shifts and changes in their environments and be agile and flexible enough to be able to adapt to them.

This adaption – extinction pressure requires businesses and organizations to continually perform a balancing act between their desire to codify and stabilize the activities and functions that allowed them to succeed yesterday into a repeatable format, and the ability to be flexible and change these activities and functions in order to meet the new demands of the environment (and the competition) of tomorrow.

There is an old joke that if you are a member of the group that is being chased by a bear, that you don’t have to be faster than the bear. You just have to be faster than the slowest member of the group.

This idea works for a while, until the bear has caught all the other members of the group that are slower than you. Now you had better be faster than the bear, or able to figure something else out. Just running, like you always do is no longer good enough. If you don’t change, you are probably in line for the next personal extinction event.

All this leads to the rather simple position: Changing environments require businesses and organizations to change.

We have all heard the platitudes that organizations have with respect to change and their ability to change. They have to plan on change. They have to react to change. The only constant is change (a particular favorite of mine). This is all well and good. They may or may not do these things. It appears certain that if businesses cannot accept and come to grips with the idea that the way they are doing things today will not be good enough “to outrun the bear” tomorrow they may not get to see the next “tomorrow”.

Climate change may involve the possible change of tenths of a degree across tens or hundreds of years. It is not constant or consistent, as demonstrated by the fact that average temperatures have actually declined slightly in the last few years. It seems the past changes were small and slow, but it was enough to send multiple species into extinction, rather rapidly when looking at things from a climate and evolution time frame point of view.

Such is not the case in business.

Over the last few days the Chinese government has “officially” devalued its currency, twice. In global warming terms this is the equivalent of announcing tomorrow the world will officially be five degrees warmer and good luck to all you seals, walruses and polar bears. This move in China fundamentally alters a business’s ability to move products from other countries into the world’s second largest market by making them significantly more expensive, and at the same time makes products manufactured in China far more competitive in other global markets by making them significantly less expensive.

A business that finds itself on the wrong side of this type of import-export governmental cost equation manipulation has a very short time to change its model for doing business. Maintaining that a company is flexible and that it prides itself on its ability to change isn’t any good here. When there is a recognition that the environment has changed, there needs to be the accompanying recognition that in reality the bear is now running faster.

The only thing that counts in a situation like this, or just about any other situation where a business is confronted by a reality that is in conflict with its current operating model is, does the leadership recognize the new environmental reality, and do they have what it takes to get to the new required business reality? Discussions, meetings and attention to process improvement do not “change” the need for a new approach to doing business when you find yourself in a change or extinction situation.

Sometimes the changes in the business environment occur like they just did in China. They are blatant, easily recognized and either drives a business response, or extinction. However sometimes they are more similar to the changes associated with global warming in that they have occurred slowly, and somewhat erratically and inconsistently over time. There will be those (like me for instance) that recognize and agree that an environmental change is occurring but differ on the attribution of its cause, and there will be those who deny that any change has actually occurred.

It is very clear though that in either case there comes a business morning where you wake up to an unseasonably hot day, and smell bear breath over your shoulder. What you change and how you change will then decide which side of the adaptation – extinction equation you are on.

I think Darwin would be agree.

Forecasting: Gaps and Plugs

It has been raining here in Dallas. It has actually been raining a lot here in Dallas. It is week twenty of a fifty two week year and we have now officially had more rain in the last twenty weeks than we had ALL of last year. The drought that has plagued us for the last four years is now officially over. The lakes are full. It can now stop raining. Please.

The reason I bring all this up is because it points out that at least for the last little while the weather forecasters in this area have had it pretty easy. All they had to do was mention the word “rain” in their forecasts somewhere and they were golden. They were going to be right. It was probably going to rain.

But even that didn’t seem to be good enough. It now became a forecasting contest to see who could be the most accurate in predicting the amount of rain we were going to get each week with each ensuing storm. Even this doesn’t seem too difficult. It’s week twenty and we have had almost twenty two inches of rain. I’m usually a pretty good numbers person, but this one should be pretty easy for everyone. We are getting a little more than an inch of rain a week here.

Forecasting. Go figure.

If only forecasting orders in business could be so easy.

For the most part it should be. We know how much rain (or how many orders) we already have. These amounts are called “actuals”. As an example, in Dallas we have actually had twenty two inches of rain so far this year, or “year to date” as we like to say. Management likes to work with trends. If we are trending at a little more than an inch of rain a week, they will more than likely expect at least another thirty three inches of rain over the next thirty two weeks. (Did you catch that? I told you I was good at math).

Knowing that everyone expects their fourth quarter to be their best quarter (for orders) they could conceivably expect even more rain, but we won’t get into that at this point.

Extending this example a little further, we could now say that we have a “gap” between the twenty two inches of rain that we “actually” have year to date and managements desired target amount of fifty five inches of rain for the year. This “gap” is obviously the target amount less the current actual amount. This is a pretty straight forward system and process. Take what you have and subtract it from what you want and there is your gap.

It works the same way for orders. Take the amount of orders you have (actual) and subtract it from what you want (plan) and there is your gap.

As time passes and more rain (hopefully) falls, the amount you have, your “actual” amount of rain, should grow and through the wonders of mathematics your “gap” to your desired annual rainfall target or plan should reduce.

But we have a slight problem. Despite what we have seen for the first twenty weeks of the year here in Dallas, we know that rain will not continue to fall at the rate of slightly more than an inch per week. We have a time here in Dallas that is known as “summer”. This is the time when you can replace the word “rain” in the forecast with the words “hot” or “heat”, and again be referred to as a brilliant and accurate forecaster. The only problem is that when it is “hot” in Dallas, it usually doesn’t “rain” much. It is usually dry.

Despite management’s belief and demand that twenty consistent weeks of rain performance does constitute an unbreakable trend, nature does not usually pay attention to these management expectations. There will inevitably be weeks where it does not rain.

Here is where weather forecasters and order forecasters begin to diverge. Weather forecasters would continue to look at the “actual” amounts of rain, compare it to the desired or “plan” amount of rain and calculate the “gap” or amount of rain needs to reach the plan. Order forecasters have developed this concept called a “plug”. A “plug” is something that is inserted into your forecast so that management can feel better about the team’s ability to reach the goal.

Dropping back to our weather and rain example, it can be expected to be both hot and dry in Dallas through most of June, July and August. It might rain occasionally, but it won’t rain at the afore mentioned rate of a little over one inch a week. It will be nowhere near that amount. Somewhere in late July or early August you can reliably expect the ground to dry out and start cracking due to the lack of rain. It would be fair to estimate that instead of the twelve or more inches of rain that the trend would show you to get, and that management would want, we might more realistically expect about two inches of rain in this period.

If this is truly the case, we would then expect to miss the annual rainfall plan of fifty five inches by as much as ten inches. From a weather and rainfall point of view this miss will probably elicit a collective “so what” from those of us who live here and see that the lakes are already full anyway.

If we are talking about orders however, this is unacceptable, unless you really want to invite a significant amount of management attention and assistance in your efforts to get more orders. So what happens here is that the orders forecasters understand that more orders are usually generated in the fourth quarter of the year than in the other times of the year, so what they will do is forecast ten weeks with more than two inches of rain in the fourth quarter.

Do they know if it will in fact rain this much? No. Is the plug amount twice as much as the rate for what is already one of the wettest years in a very long time? Yes. Do they have any idea as to if this increased performance rate is attainable?

In short a plug is something that is inserted into a forecast in order to make sure that the forecast ends up balancing with the desired annual target or plan. It is an as yet unidentified event or opportunity that is going to hopefully bring more rain after a dry period. In this example the forecasters do not know where they are actually going to find that extra / desired ten inches of rain that was missed in the summer, they are just committing to do it, somehow. It may not have any real substantiation, but it is now in the forecast so everyone now feels more comfortable about meeting the rainfall target.

The problem with putting plugs in a forecast is that they have a tendency to hide or mask an issue. As the actual performance diverges from the desired trend line, plugs have a tendency to be inserted. This may reassure some people that the target is still the target, but it does not solve the issue. Plugs are very good a defining what the problem is. The issue to be solved is how the lack of desired incremental rain is going to be obtained. Where is the incremental rain that is needed to reach the goal going to come from?

A “plug” in a forecast should be an alarm to anyone that sees it. A plug usually appears when there is a gap between actual performance and the desired goal. It is usually put in place to acknowledge that there is a gap and that there is every intention to try and close it. What it does is obscure whether the gap can in reality be closed and the goal attained. It provides the illusion of goal attainment when the reality may call for other actions to be planned or implemented.

There is a reason that weather forecasters don’t insert plugs into their weather forecasts. The lakes here in Texas for the last three to four years were well under their capacities. Water conservation measures were enacted to limit use so that things didn’t get any worse. Every year that the drought went on, the conservation efforts increasingly limited water use. Can you imagine what would have happened if rainfall “plugs” were inserted into the weather forecast in order to let everyone think that it was acceptable to continue to use water at the accelerated rate? When the shortage was finally acknowledged, it would have probably been too late and even more draconian measures would have been required.

Such is the case with orders plugs too. It is always best to acknowledge orders gaps and try to close them than it is to obscure them with plugs and have to deal with any potential shortfall consequences.

Significance

Are you significant? Are you relevant? I don’t mean these questions in some sort of cosmic, or existential sort of way. I am sure that to yourself, your family and friends, you are. At least I hope you are. I mean are you significant and / or relevant on the professional level to you individually, and also on the greater level to the business you create or lead.


 


Let’s say you lead an organization that is responsible for $25 Million in revenue. If the entire revenue of the business is $25 Million, then you are obviously extremely significant. If the entire revenue of the business is $1 Billion, then potentially, at only 2.5% of total revenues, you may not be very significant.


 


On the other hand, if the total earnings for the 1$ Billion business is only $10 Million, and your $25 Million revenue organization is responsible for $10 Million in earnings, you could be very significant, depending on the earnings and losses of the other organizations within the business. As you can see, there may be no hard and fast rules regarding significance and relevance for a business.


 


There may however be some indications about an organization’s significance and relevance to the business. What is the revenue trend? Is it up, down or flat? Upward revenue trending businesses are naturally more relevant as business growth is always a focus. What is the earnings trend in both real dollars and as a percentage of revenue? Of the two, real dollars are usually more important, but businesses like to see both earnings dollars and percentage of revenue on an upward trend.


 


As you can see, significance and relevance in business is usually measured with a number, and the number usually has a “$” sign in front of it.


 


Now there are some “significant” businesses that may not meet this acid test. These are organizations that are usually deemed either “strategic” or “investment” organizations. That means that the business is putting resources into these organizations with the expectation that they will become significant and relevant quickly. Usually very quickly.


 


With the increased demand for and the decreased supply of resources (money, time, people) in the business, strategic and investment organizations are becoming rarer, and those that do exist are having greater demands for more significant performance faster. As the owners of the business (Stockholders, either private or public) demand better performance, so must this be translated into increased demands on each of the business’s organizations for increased and faster improvements in their performance.


 


Now with all this in place, what do you do when you find yourself in an organization that seems to be neither Relevant nor Strategic to the business?


There are several paths that can be taken in this instance. The choice can depend on personal preference and personality, assessment of the overall business, and the willingness of the individual and organization to accept change. I won’t go into great detail here. I will leave that to the next Blog article, but the basic responses to being in an irrelevant or non-strategic organization are:



  • Move to a new organization that meets the requirements of either a Relevant or Strategic organization.

  • Accept the organizations status within the business and work to make it successful within the bounds and expectations associated with that status.

  • Make the changes required to make the existing organization relevant. This can include changes to products, people and processes. This would include making the required changes needed to make the organization relevant on either the Revenue or Earnings level, or moving it into a strategic role.


I have always tried to be a change agent within the organizations that I have been associated with, so you can suspect what choices I have made in the past. I will look at those options, and others in the next article.