Category Archives: Information

What is a “Plug”?

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

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

As a noun plug can usually mean either:

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

As a verb Plug can usually mean either:

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

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

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

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

You insert what is called a plug into the forecast.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This results in the equation:

Actual Forecast + Unidentified Forecast (Plug) = Presented Forecast

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brevity

I’ll let everyone know up front that this article is going to be somewhat brief, or at least shorter than the average article that I usually post.

It is probably no secret that while I think I may understand and appreciate the concepts and the thought that goes into creating a project and process oriented business (I have a PMP certification to this point), I also recognize that there is the potential for significant overhead and non-productive work to be attracted to this type of business structure. It is easy to say that you have got to take the good with the bad (as the beginning of the famous anonymous quote goes), but I am not so sure that is the case. Project and process structures were created in order to generate efficiencies in business. But who, if not ourselves, is responsible for making sure our projects and processes remain as efficient as possible?

This brings me to my topic: Is it just me, or more accurately, is it just my imagination or have all of business’s documents and presentations been getting longer, more detailed, more complex, and less functionally useful or justifiable?

A process at is simplest is defined as: “a series of actions or steps that are taken to achieve a particular goal”. I couldn’t make that up. It came straight out of the dictionary that way. The idea here being that it is possible to break down a complex work requirement (goal) into a series of simpler tasks and functions. This breaking down process is called “work decomposition”. I didn’t make this one up either. Although somewhat paraphrased, it comes directly from the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBoK) handbook.

So the idea of taking the complex and breaking it down into a series of simpler, repeatable steps is the goal of a process. This is a good thing.

So what has this got to do with the burgeoning size of documents and presentations you might ask. I think it has a lot to do with it.

As we continue to try and bring finer and finer granularity to the work requirement, we find ourselves documenting and presenting on ever more specific and smaller topics associated with the overall process and goal. Instead of presenting on sales, we now are discussing the various sales and support team engagement processes and when they come into play in the overall sales process. We don’t necessarily look at orders, but all those functions associated with the order process. Now each team will create documentation and presentations on their specific roles, when they engage and who they hand off to when they are done.

I can remember being asked to review a thirty-one-page document (not presentation, an actual Word document) regarding one of these team’s engagement process. That is correct. Thirty-One pages.

I do not begrudge anyone their function or role, but I am concerned that if it is felt that thirty-one pages are required to try and define one’s role in the greater scheme of a sales process, then it may be just possible that we have reached the point of decreasing returns on the value of the incremental process documentation investment.

The add-on effect of this process granularity can now also be seen in volume of slides and presentations that are now also being generated.

There was a time (long, long ago, in a galaxy far, far away) when overhead slides and overhead projectors were somewhat expensive and cumbersome items. This had the knock-on effect of limiting the size of presentations. Now with the proliferation of personal computers, bandwidth to connect them and the sharing of desk-tops each new image now represents only a slightly greater utilization of an ever more abundant resource. If you think you need more slides, go for it. As the great Yogi Berra once said: “The limitations are limitless”.

It now seems that fifty slide presentations are no longer the exception, but instead have become the norm.

The net here is that we seem to be producing ever greater amounts of documentation, be it written word or image / presentation based, about ever smaller and more specific topics.

It is said that work will expand to fill available time (C. Northcote Parkinson, in one of my favorite books: “Parkinson’s Law”) and that demand will expand to meet available supply. It now seems that the expansion of our ability to share information has also come with the desire and ability to share ever more of that specific information. Now it appears that the volume of what we share has increased in accordance with our ability to share it. Technology has enabled us to share more, in finer and finer detail, to the point where it seems that we may have lost our bearings as to what level of detail represents a useful or appropriate content materiality.

In the African plain faster cheetahs are able to chase down the slower gazelles. That left only the faster gazelles to reproduce the next, faster generation of gazelles. This in turn meant that the slower cheetahs were then not be able to chase them down and did not survive. That left only the still faster cheetahs to reproduce the following even faster generation of cheetahs. On and on it has been going, with both species currently topping out at speeds of approximately seventy miles an hour during the chase. There is a question as to where this evolutionary cycle will lead.

Previous generations of business structures and communication technologies seemed to have had an effect on limiting the number, topic and volume of documents and presentations created and communicated. As the speed and capacity of each succeeding generation of business structure and its communications capability has increased, so it seems has the number, topics and volume of documents and presentations that it has created.

Who can be sure what the future holds for business organizational structures. It is however expected that our ability to connect, share and communicate will continue to expand. This would lead me to the somewhat gloomy supposition and expectation that with this expanded communication capability we should expect to continue to see an expansion in the number and volume of documents and presentations created and shared to fill it.

I think that sooner or later the limitations imposed by each individual’s available time will have to kick in and start to curtail their ability to read or process this information deluge. I would hope that we would then see the pendulum start to swing back toward brevity and the informational value associated with the document or presentation, not its volume.

I have always valued the clear and concise. Fifty-page presentations and thirty-page process guides are usually neither. We seem to be in an age where we create them because we can, not because we need them. We need to get back to sharing the information we need, not all the information we have.

I told you I would be brief, or at least shorter than usual.

The Power of Information


Information is power. We
have all heard this. It enables us to make intelligent decisions. It helps us
create strategies and chart courses. It is vital to the continued well being of
any business. That is why we continue to pursue it, search for it, and mine it.
However, the real power of information is not in just having it. The power of
information is in sharing it.

 

This idea sometimes runs
counter-intuitive to what we believe. As we progress through our assignments and
our careers, we acquire more experience, more responsibility, more power and
more information. It is part of what we believe makes us valuable to the
business. It is for these reasons that some managers try to “horde” their
information. It is an effort to become indispensible.

 

Information that is horded
and not shared is the same as no information at all. If you know something and
don’t tell anyone, it is no different in the eyes of the business than if you
did not know it. The more information you give to, and share with the
organization, the more valuable you are to the organization.

 

Most of the good things that
have occurred in my career were usually the result of my bringing the knowledge
that I had acquired to a larger group, without being asked. It helped others
make better decisions and create better strategies. It helped me bring value to
the organization.