Category Archives: Goals

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.

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.

Products and Markets

Good sales people only need a couple of things to be very successful: the right products and the right markets. The corollary here is that even with these things, bad sales people will not be successful. That’s why they are referred to as bad sales people. The question then arises: How can you tell if you have bad sales people, or the wrong products, or are in the wrong market? This is a set of questions that senior management must always answer every time a sales target is missed.

I’ll deal with the sales person discussion first.

Sales people are invariably success and compensation driven. They are also usually in a leveraged compensation type of role. That means that the level of their total compensation is directly associated with the amount of sales that they generate. Sales people are essentially risking part of their compensation, and betting on themselves in that they will be able to not only achieve their sales goals but also exceed them in order to maximize their compensation. Think about that for a minute.

People in marketing don’t take this risk and have their total compensation directly linked to the number or the success of the parking programs and campaigns that they create. People in research and development don’t take this risk and have their compensation directly linked to the number of products, the time it takes to develop products or the customer or market applicability of the products they develop. Accountants don’t take this risk and have their compensation directly linked to the quantity of numbers they crunch or the time it takes them to crunch them.

They may be indirectly linked in the form of management reviews, ratings, and bonuses, but for the most there is not the quid pro quo defined “if you do this, we will pay you that” sort of compensation relationship that you find in sales.

What this usually means is that when viewed over reasonable time frames, sales people are either successful (achieving or exceeding their sales targets and getting paid lots of money, receiving both recognition and rewards as compensation) or they don’t get to be sales people for very long. They can’t afford to be bad sales people because they won’t make enough to survive. They usually either thrive, or don’t survive.

So despite what every investment prospectus may say to the contrary (past performance is no indication or guarantee of future success), if the sales people have been successful in the past, and they are still sales people, it is a pretty good indication that they can be expected to continue to be good sales people.

What is interesting is that despite this knowledge, most management will immediately examine and possibly blame the sales team should each new sales objective not be met. I think that this is because it is the easiest approach. After all, we all know that sales can’t really be that difficult, and that sales also comes with a two drink minimum for the cover charge.

What I’m going to briefly look at here, is what do you do when you have a proven sales force, but you aren’t achieving the market success that you are looking for. That means that you need to be looking at your products and your markets.

Let’s look at the next easiest factor to review, the market.

For this analysis I am going to pick something that we can all probably agree is a good product, that being energy efficiency. It can be an actual product that reduces energy consumption. It can be a service that results in reduced energy consumption. In this analysis it is a hypothetical product that has a definable value in the amount of energy consumption that it reduces.

So in what market would this energy efficiency product do well?

That market would not be, as one might erroneously think, the market where the most energy is consumed, and hence the greatest savings could be generated. If that were the case all products of this type would be very successful in North America and the US specifically since it is one of the biggest consumers of energy in the world. While there continues to be a growing interest in energy conservation, the success of energy conservation products in the US has not been commensurate with the energy consumption market opportunity. In fact, energy consumption has increased over the period of time, not decreased. This is due to the relatively low cost per unit of energy in the US.

The greatest market opportunity would more correctly be identified as the market where there is the highest cost per unit of energy consumption.

Going a little further with the market size versus unit cost example, the average cost of a kilowatt hour (kWh) of electricity in the US is approximately $0.10. The cost of the same kWh of electricity in Brazil is approximately $0.165, or almost 65% more expensive. That means the value of the energy savings per dollar spent on the energy conservation product will be 65% greater in Brazil than it will be in the US.

There are approximately five times as many kWh per capita consumed in the US as there are in Brazil, making the US by far the bigger market opportunity, but the value per unit savings in Brazil make it the more attractive market (at least initially) for energy savings products. When it comes time to create a business case where money is being spent in order to reduce future expenditures (save money in the future), greater savings will always equate to a better business case.

In short, it will be more difficult (currently, from a financial business case point of view) to sell energy conservation products in the US than it will be to do so in Brazil. From this point of view, the better market would be Brazil.

At a very coarse and high level this is the type of market analysis that needs to occur for all types of products when preparing to enter markets, as well as when going back and analyzing why a market objective may not have been met. It answers the question is the market the right fit for the product. It also clearly points out that one size will not actually fit all.

In looking at the final scenario, we will assume that the again we have a competent sales force and in this case have identified a market that we wish to address. Again there will need to be almost the same product versus market analysis done in order to identify if there is a proper fit.

If we use the same energy conservation product example from above, we see that while the US is a massive energy consumer the relatively low cost per unit of energy versus the rest of the world makes it a relatively poor market for energy conservation products. In other words, energy conservation products do not do as well in the US because US energy consumers (both corporations and individuals) can afford to not conserve (as much) due to the low costs per unit of energy used.

This would mean that for a global energy conservation product to be successful in the US market it would have to attack the market from some direction other that specifically based on the value of the energy saved. It would have to take the more difficult road of trying to quantify the value other “soft” benefits associated with the product.

These types of soft benefits could include but not be limited to: Attractive designs (Apple is a master at this), incremental functionalities (can the energy conservation product do other things besides save energy – a smart phone analogy), social responsibility (casting the product in the “greater good” social category versus solely in a corporate fiduciary role), and corporate leadership (the business case may not be great now, but in the future when energy costs are expected to increase it will be, and then you will be ahead of the curve). I am sure there are many others.

As noted these are soft benefits in that it is difficult if not impossible to define their value. That is not to say they don’t have value. They do. It is just difficult to quantify. However, price is always readily definable. And it is always difficult to sell a product with a definable price, but not a commensurately definable value.

If you find sales people capable of selling a product with a definable price, but not a commensurately definable value, you should do all you can to keep them.

Management will invariably first look at the sales teams when sales objectives are not met. A significant reason for this is the difficulty in looking at, or worse, trying to change markets or products. I do think in most instances it is the specifics associated with the markets and the products that will need to be addressed when sales targets are missed, as opposed to replacing sales people.

I have found that most of the time issues arise with obtaining sales goals because of the desire to sell a specific product into the wrong market, or the desire to sell the wrong product into the desired market. If the product is not readily modifiable, other more receptive markets need to be identified. If the market is the target, then the product needs to be modifiable to meet the specific needs of that market.

The sales force is indeed important, but it has always been about products and markets.

The Process – Simplicity Paradox

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Goals and Processes

Whenever I find myself casting around for a topic to write about, I seem to always migrate toward one of my favorite conundrums: Goals and Processes. Is it goals that drive business processes, or is it processes that enable business goals? Because I have a little time, I think that I’ll go ahead and address this one some more.

Almost everything I see and read these days on this topic seems to be focused on the Process side of this question. It is interesting how the focus and primacy of management ideas and structures ebb and flow over time. In the past it did not seem to be such a Process focused set of business literature. I guess William Deming was one of the first to work in this area, and he did some ground breaking work. Having a Process focus is good from a predictability and repeatability point of view. Businesses like a predictable and repeatable outcome.

A good business process is like a security blanket. If you don’t know what to do, you can fall back on the process and hopefully expect to end up relatively close to where you were aiming to be at the end. Having a process reduces the risk and can remove uncertainty from the business.

At the risk of sounding like some sort of business contrarian I need to openly admit that I do not particularly ascribe to this way of leadership or business thinking.

For me an over reliance on process removes the value of people from the equation. They don’t Plan-Do-Study-Act as Deming said, they just follow the process. If they are following an industry “best practice” they probably are not even encouraged to think. They are part of a production line-like process. This seems to promote a very risk averse position for people. They can’t be wrong if they are following the process, and if they are wrong it is the processes fault not theirs.

I think a process is an extremely efficient and effective way to codify something that you have already done. That means that some way, somehow somewhere someone has already achieved the goal, and that the process has become the documented method that they used to achieve it. If you have been successful in manufacturing the first widget, then a production line process for all subsequent similar widgets would be called for.

When Sir Edmund Hillary climbed Mount Everest, there was no known process associated for a successful summiting attempt. People had been attempting the summit since 1921, but it was not until 1953 that is was actually accomplished. It was only after he was successful that the process of creating a series of ever higher camps, and the selection of which specific routes provided the greatest probability of success started to coalesce. In fact it has now evolved to a situation where the process for climbing Everest is so well defined that even novice non-climbers are now being taken up the mountain escorted by seasoned mountain climbing guides.

I think the cost for the Everest “guided expedition” is approximately sixty five thousand dollars ($65,000) and takes several months to prepare and execute.

I think this is a little bit of hyperbole, but it does illustrate my point. It took more than thirty years to achieve the goal. There was no defined process that anyone could fall back on. Every attempt was breaking new ground. We also need to recognize that just because there is a process does not guarantee that each climb will be successful.

To date there have been about eleven thousand (11,000) expedition attempts to summit Everest, with the vast majority of them since the year 2000. This would indicate that the process is reasonably well defined. However there have only been three thousand (3,000) expeditions that have ended in success. These successful expeditions resulted in only approximately five thousand (5,000) individuals that have actually stood on the summit.

In the mean time it should also be noted that more than 260 people have died while trying to climb Everest. That means that for every 20 individuals that succeeded in climbing Everest, 1 paid the ultimate price.

Thank goodness for the internet and Wikipedia. Where else can you get facts and statistics like that so easily?

So, what does all this have to do with the discussion of Goals and Processes in business? As I said, I think it illustrates several points:

First, if something has never been done before, there is probably no defined process available for doing it. People knew the process for climbing mountains. They had been doing it for years. It took more than thirty years and many unsuccessful attempts before they climbed Everest. They ended up creating a new process in order to do it. If you are trying to do something in business that has been done before, you had better come up with a faster, better cheaper way of doing, otherwise being the second successful one probably won’t get you too much.

Second, it was not the “process” of climbing Everest that captured people’s imaginations. It was the “goal” of climbing Everest that did. It is difficult to get people committed to a process. It is far easier to get them committed to a goal. The same goes in business. It is the goal that drives people to succeed, not the following of a process.

Third, just because you have a process that has proven to be successful in the past does not mean that it will continue deliver success every time. Less than a third of the expeditions attempting Everest are successful. Even well defined processes can fall victim to external environmental issues or potential team issues from within. Expecting to follow a process to get you to a goal without being prepared to deal with the unexpected or unforeseen enhances the probability of not being successful.

Fourth, even if only one or two out of the entire expedition actually get to the top of Everest, the entire expedition is considered a success. The goal is to get someone from the expedition on top of the mountain. If the goal was to get everyone to the top of the mountain, no expedition would be considered a success, and we would still be searching for the process to do it. The idea is to make sure that success is clearly defined and that everyone can participate in it.

I think it is reasonably apparent that it is goals that inspire people and it is the attainment of those goals that most people are measured against. Processes are good in that they provide a guideline on how to go about achieving the goal. But just like the weather on Everest, or the makeup and capabilities of the team attempting the summit, there are always variables associated with achieving the goal that cannot be accounted for in the process.

Processes are at their best and most useful when they are simple and allow for variances based on the environment surrounding the goal. It is only in the most repetitive of manufacturing production lines that a process can be fully relied upon, and even then it is subject to the vagaries of the humans doing the work.

As an example of this I would point to automobiles. They are produced primarily in a production line; however the quality of some cars can vary significantly. They are all produced by the same process, but some are acknowledged to be significantly worse than others. Hence the concept of getting a “lemon”, and the creation of “lemon laws” to protect the consumers unfortunate enough to have purchased one of “those cars”.

Business is lead and inspired through the use of goals. Processes can be of assistance in attaining those goals, but it is the goal and the measurement of progress against that goal that is important in generating progress. It is when business supplants goals with processes as its primary focus that the business will start to lose its way.

Put it on Paper

Here I go again, demonstrating to the world just exactly what sort of a business dinosaur I am. That’s ok. I don’t really mind. For those of you not exactly following what I am saying here, I would refer you to the title. I refer to paper. You know, that old technology, tactile foldable thing; paper. Most people don’t use paper anymore. If they want to take a note they usually type it into their omnipresent laptop or tablet, or if really pressed they will use their thumbs and try to tap it into their smart phone.

I remember attending a sales conference some time ago. For those of you who may not be familiar with sales conferences, these are events where the sales team goes to celebrate their previous year performance while also receiving their next year targets and objectives. I also understand that each day of the sales conference has a two drink minimum.

I am not going to discuss paper and its relationship to a sales team’s past performance. The paper that is normally associated with that is green, has pictures of past presidents (and others – Ben Franklin wasn’t a president, at least I don’t think he was) and is recognized as legal tender. In this case I am going to talk about paper and how it was used in relationship to the future targets.

Success in sales is a double edged sword. Do well and you are rewarded handsomely with commissions and recognition. On the other hand, do well and your next year’s targets will be raised so as to reflect your past success. They will usually be significantly increased. It is one of the basics of target setting. Beat them one year, expect them to be significantly increased the next. Such is the life and continuous challenge of being a top flight sales person.

At the sales meeting I was at, the Senior Vice President of sales had just finished congratulating the team on their past performance, when he turned everyone’s attention to the future. It was if he simultaneously and collectively hashed everyone’s “mellow”. He told them what their targets were for the next year.

The air left the room. There was an audible whooshing sound as the blood drained from the various sales leaders’ heads. What had been a celebration now sat precariously on the precipice of becoming an insurrection. The demanded growth was that large. It was impossible to achieve. It looked like it was going to get ugly.

This was when the wily sale vice president stood up and said.

“I don’t know how we are going to get to the number either, but the first thing we need to do is to put it on paper so that we can start working on it.”

He understood that while the goal sounded outrageous and unattainable, that the first step in generating success was to make the target real. Putting it on paper demystified it. It made the number real. And making the goal real, regardless of the perceived difficulty in attaining it is the first step in attaining it.

By putting it on paper you take something that may seem out of reach and reduce it to a number, or words on a piece of paper. Think about that for a minute. When it is on paper it is both bound and defined. It is no longer unbounded and undefined. It is real.

I thought this was a pretty spectacular way to regain control of the room. Sales people are not renowned for being the most forward thinking of strategists. Some of the really good ones that I have known are, but for the most part, maybe not so much. In any event, by telling the team members to write it down, and then taking a moment to pause in his presentation, which had the effect of adding more impetus to the request, he slowed the runaway new quota riot train before it could fully leave the last year’s performance station.

It took me a while to come up with that allegory. I am not sure that I fully like it, but I think I will leave it for now.

The simple fact of writing something down starts the planning and strategy process. Putting pen to paper. Once something is written invariably something else will be written next to it, or below it. Once the thought process starts other ideas will begin to evolve. Eventually plans and strategies will emerge. It won’t happen all at once. It will take time. But it all starts with just writing down the goal on a piece of paper.

Defining Success

I started this topic quite a while ago and put it away as I could not comfortably come up with a method to address the topic. I now have a daughter in college and it seems to have taken on a new life for me.

We all want to be successful and even more so want our children to be successful. I didn’t want this discussion to be purely an analysis of numbers and trends, but rather the relationship to both the opportunity and probability of “success” and more importantly the definition of success. For so long, so many of us have defined “success” as going to school, then going to college, graduating, getting a good job with a major company and going on from there.

Is that really the proper definition of success in today’s world?

We normally associate the attendance of and graduation from college as a prerequisite of success. I was reading an article about relative graduation rates for students in the US who attend college. It showed that the graduation rate could be directly correlated to the cost of the college. That means that the more expensive the college tuition (Private school vs. Public institution) the more likely it was that the student would graduate with a bachelor’s degree in 4 years. I guess that means that if you want to up the odds of your kid graduating from college that you had better send them to an expensive school.

The problem is that they are now all expensive. Very expensive.

It showed that on average about two thirds of students entering a Private institution of higher learning graduate with a degree in 4 years (actual number is 64%), and that about one third of students entering a public institution of higher learning graduate with a degree in 4 years (actual number is 37%). It also shows that the gap closes significantly if graduation data is reviewed after 6 years instead of 4. Private school students hit 3 out of 4 graduating (actual number 78%) and public school students hit 2 out of 3 (actual number is 66%).

Stepping it back a little further, and out of my own curiosity, I looked up the percentage of high school students that graduate from high school and enter college. This number comes in at about 70%. It is interesting that in these difficult economic times that this number is now at its all time high (actually it was set in 2009, but 2010 was at almost the same level). Being something of a math-guy, I multiplied the two numbers together and came up with the fact that less than half the people that go to high school actually graduate high school and college (even after 6 years of college).

Okay, so what.

When is the last time you have hired, or you have heard of someone being hired into an organization without a college degree? If less than half the people entering school graduate college, chances are they won’t be hired by a corporate organization. That doesn’t mean they aren’t successful. It means they are doing something else.

This got me thinking a little bit further on the topic.

I did what most people do these days. I went out and “Googled” the percentage of college graduates that are actually hired into a position that requires a college degree. I make this distinction because some graduates will take positions that do not require a college degree to perform the work (check out the baristas at Starbucks), and others will not find work (check out the “boomerang” kids returning from college to live at home).

As we all might expect this number varies with the status of the economy. In 2006 and 2007 approximately 85-90% of college graduates found work. In 2010 this number dropped to only 56%. 22% of 2010 college graduates took jobs that did not require a college degree. In total 78% of 2010 college graduates found work, but many of them were “under employed”.
That means that of the people who start school, a little less than half actually graduate college with a degree. Of those that graduate college, a little more than half (or a quarter of the total that started) actually find a job that requires a college degree.

A little more research – again with Google’s help, revealed that of those that find work as a college graduate new hire, 46% – again almost half, will leave their jobs (either of their own volition or at the company’s direction) in the first 18 months of employment. The information I found goes further to indicate that while 46% leave, only 19% of those that stay will be successful, with successful being defined as advancing up the corporate chain with increasing responsibilities and a (hopefully) fulfilling career. To me that means that 35% (the 54% that do not fail less the 19% that are actually successful) of college graduate new hires remain employed but are again not what we might successful.

So let’s recap. If we have 100 people who start school, approximately 70 of them will graduate high school. Of those 70, approximately 50 will graduate college. Of those 50 college graduates, approximately 28 will find a job that requires a college degree in today’s economic climate. Of those 28 that have found work, approximately 13 will leave their jobs in the first 18 months of their employment. Of those 15 that remain employed, approximately 5 will be what we as business leaders might call successful.

According to our preconceived notion of success, only five percent (5%) of the people will be successful.

Now I have had to pause here for a while because there are so many different directions that I can go with this type of information and analysis. We can look at the societal or cultural reasons why almost three quarters of those people starting school won’t graduate from college and will most likely be excluded from consideration for positions in our companies. We can look at what causes almost half of those that we do hire to leave. We could also look for the presence of similar characteristics in the successful five percent and see how we might be able to teach and train people on how to utilize these success attributes.

Or we could ask if we have the right definition of success.

The comedian Craig Ferguson had what I thought was an incredibly insightful as well as very funny monologue addressing what he called the “deification of youth” where he noted amongst other things that youth also meant a lack of experience. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ROJKEwYEx8Q) And a lack of experience to me means that you don’t know what you want yet. How can people be successful, when they lack the experience to know what they want to be successful at?
When we judge success we have a tendency to judge it from our own perspective and experience (because we are not young, we have experience), and not everybody has the same perspective. As time passes and we gain more of the “experience” that Craig Ferguson mentioned our perspective also changes. Not everyone who starts school is destined to be a leader in business. Not everyone who plays golf is destined for the PGA, or now senior PGA tour.

Of the two I think it is now the golf one that bothers me most.

Many, simply by the choices that they make will opt to be something other than what “we” may currently define as successful in business. We see this in the generational definitions that are currently in vogue. Generation X, Generation Y, Baby Boomers, etc. all have their own definitions of success. We as business leaders need to understand these differences and try to adapt to them as well as try to adapt them to the goals of business. Not everybody will meet our definition of success, but that doesn’t mean they won’t be successful.

That doesn’t change the fact though, that I want my daughter to graduate from college…and get a good job.

Expect What You Inspect


I was thinking back to some of the sales and revenue meetings that I had attended. These are normally meetings where the top line is the focus of management’s attention. This is arguably step one in any business process. One of my favorite phases is to state that in order to have a good bottom line you need to start with a good top line. This sounds pretty logical, but you might be surprised by some of the directions that some of these meetings have taken.


 


Top line review meetings invariably go in one of two directions; if the top line is below the objective, you stay focused on sales and revenue and what steps must be taken to achieve the targets. If the top line is at or above the targets, the meeting will almost immediately begin to focus on the margins that the sales are contributing. The focus of the sales meeting then becomes margins.


 


You are inspecting sales, but are expecting margins.


 


This got me thinking further about some of the operations reviews that I have attended. The idea of these reviews is to see if the operations and service level objectives are being met. Again I recalled that these meetings invariably went in one of two directions, depending on the measurement attainment. If the operational and service objectives were not met, they stayed focused on service. If the operational and service levels were met, the meeting changed focus to profitability.


 


They were inspecting service levels, but expecting profitability.


 


The point I am making here is that you should only expect what you inspect. If you are only inspecting sales, then sales are all you should expect. Too many times we have seen the volume of sales go up in accordance with the attention it has received, only to see a change or reversal of course when the lower margins associated with those increased sales come to light. The same sort of events seems to occur when the incremental expenses associated with increased service levels come to light. Again too many times we have seen the service levels go up in accordance with management attention, only to pull back when the costs associated with those higher service levels come to light.


 


If you are going to inspect both the volume and margins on sales, you will need to make the sales team responsible for both sales volumes and margins. If you have a sales team that is only responsible for, and compensated on volumes, then margins will continually be an issue associated with sales. If you are going to inspect both the operational levels and profitability then the operations team needs to have responsibility for both the service capabilities and the associated profitability. If the operations team is only measured on their operational performance levels, then the costs and profitability associated with those functions will continually be an issue.


 


When metrics are provided to any team as a means of inspecting their performance, expect that team to focus on the actions required to attain the goals associated with the metrics. There are always tradeoffs in business. Lower margins may be required in order to increase sales. If the sales teams do not have the responsibility to evaluate those sales volumes to lower margin tradeoffs, they won’t. You can continue to have sales inspections with the sales team, but you will need to have a margin inspection with some other team.


 


The same goes for operations. If service levels are the only focus that the operations team is to be measured on, they will do whatever is necessary to meet those service levels. If they are not required to evaluate the tradeoffs between desired service levels and profitability, they won’t. It will be left to someone else.


 


Individual, team and business unit inspections need to be aligned with overall business expectations and requirements. If you only inspect one aspect of a desired performance, then that will be the only aspect that receives focus. If you only inspect the volume of sales, expect good volumes. If you do not inspect the margins associated with those sale, do not expect good margins. The same goes for operational goals and profitability.


 


I suppose the same could be said for just about any function within the organization. If you are going to expect multiple facets of behavior and performance, you will need to measure and inspect each of the facets and behaviors collectively. If you inspect them individually, don’t expect them all to be met.

Work Backwards


Process Reengineering and Process Transformation seem to be the new popular catch phrases for business these days. We continue to evolve and place more emphasis on the “process”. We like to define them, and map them, and engineer them, and reengineer them, and transform them. We even now have global “Process Owners”. The goal of all this additional and incremental work that is being applied to the process is to make the process more efficient. I understand the almost obsessive approach to processes that businesses are exhibiting these days. I am just not quite sure yet whether or not I agree with it.


This approach seems to be consistent with the idea that the most efficient process to build a staircase is to gather a number of previously defined and constructed steps and start to assemble them until you reach your goal, whether it is the second floor of a house or the top floor of a high rise building.


To me the simple definition of a process is a way to get something done. We used to want to standardize the way we got things done in order to be as efficient as possible. This was particularly effective when we were primarily a manufacturing / production oriented economy. We have continued to change from a production based economy to a product / services / knowledge based economy for quite some time as the production function has been moved to lower cost environments.  We are now trying to standardize the process – the way we get things done – for this new service / knowledge based business environment in much the same way we did for the manufacturing and production based structure. The new catch phrase for standardizing Service and Knowledge based processes is to “Industrialize” them.


Here is where I think we may start to run into trouble with this industrialization approach to processes. For quite a while we have strived for a diverse workforce. This diversity is a very good thing. Different people think differently. The diversity of thought and approach that results from having a diverse workforce helps prevent the group think phenomenon from happening, where similar people all see things the same way. If everyone saw and did things the same way there would never be any way to improve the process because everyone would see it the same way.


So now we are looking at trying to industrialize a process in order to make it more efficient, which if we are fully successful at will make it difficult to ever modify or improve in the future because we will all be doing it the same way. To go back to our steps and staircase example, if you are going to standardize on only one set of steps, you will only be able to make one type of staircase.


A further complication to the industrialization drive occurs when we look at the variations in service and knowledge that are to be applied either internally to the business, or externally to the customer. Manufacturing efficiency was driven based on a relatively few sets of variations to the end product. You used to be able to custom order your car with the specific sets of options that you wanted. Can you do that anymore? The last time I looked most car models came in approximately three option package variations: Standard, Enhanced and Luxury versions.


Because the knowledge and service needs of each specific customer will be unique to that specific customer, it may be difficult to fully industrialize the process of satisfying their wants and needs.


I have always been a goal driven individual, even when it comes to the processes that I must use. I have found that if I know the goal, I can begin the process of decomposing it into sub-goals or milestones and from there into logical tasks and steps. You can use this approach differently for different goals and that will result in a somewhat different process, and in different tasks.


If we have a goal and know what we need to get done, then we can work backwards from it to break it down into the steps that need to be taken to achieve it. This method of work definition provides a general framework or process to work from, but also enables individuals to see and do things somewhat differently in the pursuit of the goal.


As long as there are guidelines that are known (example: Bank robbery is not an acceptable solution to increasing the profitability of a customer engagement….) and responsibilities and ownerships (approval levels, etc.) are defined this generic process of working backwards from the end goal can provide a flexible framework that will enable the multiple variations of deliverables that customers require, while also enabling the business to efficiently and effectively adapt to each customer engagement.


The current push to industrialize and define each step of a process can be very useful if all you are going to do is provide straight staircases. This approach will work very well if all every customer wanted was a straight staircase. It starts to have real problems when you try to apply it to circular, elliptical and spiral staircases. These types of customer engagements while having the potential to utilize some industializable aspects of the process normally need to be customized to each specific engagement.


The final ingredient to a successful process is ultimately going to be the people using. We need to work at creating the ability within our people to recognize and adapt to each new engagement, to build the appropriate stairs and staircases that our customers want and our businesses need, instead of trying to industrialize a process to the point where all they can do is to try an assemble a predefined set of steps, in the hopes that it will more efficiently meet each new set of business and customer needs.

Free Time

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




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




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




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




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




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




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