Category Archives: Tools

Swiss Army Knives

I remember when I was a kid that one of the things that I really, really wanted was a Swiss Army Knife. I liked the idea of having a one size fits all kind of knife. If I wanted to whittle something I would have a small knife blade that I could fold out and whittle with. Likewise if I wanted to saw something I could fold out the saw blade and start sawing. The fact that it was a three inch blade with a non-locking mechanism wouldn’t stop me. If there was a two by four that needed some sawing on it I would be ready.

The same could be said for cork screw despite the fact that it would be more than a decade before I would be old enough to drink wine, however if my mom needed any help I would stand ready. There were also blade and Phillips head screw drivers for all the things I would build or repair while in the wilderness, awls for working the leather I would take with me camping, tweezers for removing all the splinters I would amass while roughing it and even a smaller back-up knife blade in case I broke the first one from too much use while in the woods whittling.

In short I guess it could be said that the Swiss Army Knife could do just about anything. This idea of being able to do just about anything had a significant coolness factor. The kid who had the knife that could do the most things that he would never use it for was obviously the coolest kid.

I have grown older (I don’t know of anyone who would be so foolish as to say that I have grown up) and I no longer have the same affinity for Swiss Army Knives that I did when I was younger. Like most guys I am now preoccupied with the number of functions that my favorite Multi-Tool can perform, that I will never use. The primary difference between then and now is that I can now afford a far more complex Multi-Tool than I could ever afford Swiss Army Knife then.

So what has all this got to do with business? Good question.

Reminiscing about my favorite old Swiss Army Knife got me to thinking about optimization for purpose and use. Those knives (and today’s Multi-Tools) are capable of doing just about everything. The problem is that they are not optimized, or really good at anything. The knife blade can be used to whittle, the screw drivers can drive screws, I wouldn’t know about the awl for working leather as I never had the opportunity to really try it, and the corkscrew will in fact remove a cork from a wine bottle. The problem is that it really doesn’t do any of those things very well. The functions are all there, but they are not optimized for their respective applications.

In business it is not about being able to do everything. It is about being the very best at what you do. You usually don’t ask your Finance and Accounting people to go out and sell your good or service. Marketers normally can’t count well enough to have them keep the business’ books. Sales people aren’t normally any good at anything else other than sales. You don’t ask people to do something that they may be able to do, but that they are not at their best at.

This is the same principle that governs the applicability of Swiss Army Knives in functional applications. Professional mechanics do not use them to work on engines. If they need a screw tightened they go and get the appropriate and specific screw driver that meets their specific need. Have you ever looked in the hardware store at the number of different types of screw drivers that there are? There is a reason for that. Each one is optimized for a specific screw tightening application.

My wife has never ever asked me for, nor asked me to buy her a Swiss Army Knife or Multi-Tool with a cork screw so she could open a bottle of wine. In fact I think she has at least two designer cork screws, one of which has an electric motor, whose sole purpose for existence is to only remove corks from wine bottles as quickly and stylishly as possible. The fact that a Swiss Army Knife or Multi-Tool could do so much more than just opening the wine seems to hold no allure to her.

This optimization for purpose and use should be applied throughout the business. Products should focus on being the best at what they are used for. Look at the screw driver example I used before. I’ll also illustrate this precept by using a hi-tech example from my past. I worked for a company that essentially made a chassis that would house a variety of application specific boards and blades (sounds like a Swiss Army Knife). Each blade was optimized for a specific application, and there were a lot of them to choose from.

Customers said that the number of different application blades could be confusing and suggested that the company undertake the development of a “universal” blade that would enable the customers to do several different applications instead of the usually capable and provisioned one. The universal blade came out … and it was a failure.

The resulting universal blade was much more complex, much more expensive and less functional on every application that it addressed even though it addressed far more applications than the single blade – single application counterparts. In short it could do just about everything, but it couldn’t do anything as well as each of the specific application blades could do it, and due to its complexity it was much more expensive to boot. Less optimized and more expensive is not a good business proposition for success.

The same would go for business processes. Processes are supposed to be a simplified, streamlined, consistent way of doing things that will optimize your efficiency. However when you try to create the “universal” process, much like the universal application blade, they end up not being optimized for anything and hence reduce efficiency in everything.

As an example, suppose you are addressing two markets, the North and South Poles. On the surface both are similar in that they are cold and have snow. But the North Pole is populated by Santa’s elves and they are primarily interested in candy and toys. The South Pole is populated by penguins who are primarily interested in fish and not being eaten by sea lions.

If you were to create a global process that addresses the needs of both the North Pole and South Pole markets it would have to take into account the specific and disparate needs associated with serving both elves and penguins. By the very nature of your markets at least half (and probably more) of your process would not be applicable to one or the other market. If you were to complicate things further by adding third market, say the Himalayas (again cold with snow) you would then have to add the processes associated with serving the populations of Sherpa and Yetis in the area. As we all know Sherpa are primarily interested in climbing and Yeti are primarily interested in leaving foot prints and not being seen.

Sherpa and Yeti, elves and penguins all live in similar markets (cold and snow) but I don’t think that a universal process can be put together to efficiently address each of these markets’ specific needs. It would seem to be much more efficient to create and optimize a process for use in each specific area.

Business is about addressing specific markets and even more specifically, specific customers and their specific needs. The better that you can do that, the better your chances of success both with that customer and in that market. Swiss Army knives and Multi-Tools are cool, but people, and customers, who have a specific need are not looking for all the other functionality that comes with the more complicated or diverse solution. When you start to hear the siren song of the universal product or the universal process it may be best to emulate Odysseus and find a way to maintain your direction and focus on the optimization for purpose and use that your customer really wants, and that has been the cornerstone of business success.


I have a pretty good memory. At least I used to think I did. They say that the second thing that you lose as you age is your memory. I forget what they said was first. Regardless of how good your memory is, I don’t think anyone can remember everything that they need to in today’s business environment. I remember learning this early on in my career, back when my memory was even better than it is now. It was taught to me by one of my first managers. He told me that one of the first things I needed to do if I was going to be successful in business was to get a notebook and take notes on everything.

Imagine coming out of graduate school as a newly minted scion of business and the first thing you are told is that you will have to do is resume a process that you had just spent the last several years learning to loathe. I am going to have to take notes at work? I took notes in school. I shouldn’t have to take notes anymore. I am done with school, right?


I was done with school, but I was not done learning. Learning means that you have to remember what you have done so that you can repeat the successes and avoid the same mistakes in the future. Since you are doing so many new and different things and no one can remember everything, and like in school you need a place to store this information. You need a notebook.

Unlike the notebooks in school where you spent most of your time trying to capture the gist of the professor’s lecture for late night reviews just before the exam, or to doodle in when you are really bored in the lecture and can no longer focus well enough to take lecture notes, a business notebook needs to be more. In school each class usually had its own notebook and since you normally had multiple classes, you kept multiple notebooks. In business you normally have only one job at a time so you probably need only one notebook at a time.

I found for my purposes that a bound (not loose leaf or spiral notebook) was the best notebook platform. The idea is to retain all noted information. Loose leaf and spiral notebooks have a tendency to wear and pages can and do fall out. You want the notebook to be your “permanent” historical record that you can go back to and consult as needed.

I also found that a business notebook is also a sort of activity log. I date every page. I try to note all calls and conversations with who called (or who I called), what the topic of discussion was and what the major points of the discussion were. I cannot tell you how many times I have gone back into my notebook and reviewed calls and discussions with those parties involved to help “remind” them of the topics and outcomes. It seems that there are many times when other people’s memories may not be as sharp as they may have thought or possibly wanted either. It’s always good to have your notes to refer to.

A business notebook is also more than just a place to note the topics of discussions or log phone calls and activities. It is also the place where you capture your ideas. I have learned that ideas are fleeting things. If you don’t learn (there’s that word again) to capture ideas immediately upon having them that they will quickly fade from memory (there’s that word again) and be lost.

I wish I could remember every idea that I have had. I know (or at least have to hope) that some of them were probably pretty good but if I had not noted them I would never be sure. On the other hand I do know that I have had a few ideas that qualify as real stinkers and that I would like to forget them, but don’t seem to be able to. It’s funny how the memory works.

The point is that since a notebook is a private repository for the things that you think are important and that you may want to revisit in the future, you need to use it to not only document the activities and topics of the day, but also the ideas and concepts that came to mind during the course of dealing with everything else during the day. This function has been particularly reinforced with me, all these years later as I have started writing.

I have not learned what internal mechanism causes topics to register within me as a good idea (there’s that word again) for a good business topic to write about, but I have learned that if I do not immediately grab the topic and write it down I will eventually lose it. I will then be forced to later try and sort through all of the topics and inputs of the day to see which one might have been the impetus for the next great article that I know I am sure to write, hopefully.

I don’t seem to remember having this problem in the past, but if my memory is indeed having issues, or perhaps it is finally reaching its manufacturers capacity, it could explain why I can no longer remember the things I used to be able to easily put in and access in my memory. I hope you followed that.

At the end of the day I use my notebook to not only look at the events of the day, I look at my ideas of the day. Those ideas that can be utilized in some way in the future I further note and start to develop. Over time a significant number of these ideas have found their ways into various sales, business and strategic plans. Having a notebook full of ideas won’t necessarily cause you to have better plans, but it will cause you to use those ideas and to think about those upcoming plans in different ways, and that is the first step toward improvement.

I significant amount of time has passed since my first manager told me about this business notebook idea. If memory serves me right I have actually forgotten just how much time has passed. Thank goodness. However I still utilize a notebook daily to annotate my day and to capture my ideas and thoughts for use in the future. It may be old school, possibly because I cannot type fast enough with two fingers to take notes on my computer and keep up with my conversations, or my ideas (if and when they occur), but it still serves me very well. I also think it is an under rated activity that continues to contribute to the success of the business.

I can now also cross notebooks off my topic list for articles that I keep in my notebook.

The Voicemail Curtain

Voicemail is an interesting technology. I remember its inception and introduction. It was hailed as a space, time, energy, cost, etc, etc, saving technology. A panacea. A cure all. Initially, and possibly in some instances today it continues to provide business efficiencies and cost reductions. It has become so ubiquitous that we almost never even think about it. Almost never, with the possible exception of when we actually want to talk to someone about a problem or issue that may have some urgency associated with it. It is in these instances that voicemail no longer provides its Dr. Jekyll based higher minded benefits and services, and reveals its darker, far less beneficial Mr. Hyde side.

I have mentioned several times that I am old school in many of my approaches to business. That doesn’t mean that I reject new technologies and capabilities. On the contrary, I would like to think of myself as something of an early adopter in an effort to always try to improve what business does and how it gets done. However I hope to never lose site of the fact that business is conducted by and between people. While asynchronous or non-real time communication such as voicemail can provide increased productivity in certain instances and applications, such as when individuals are in significantly different time zones around the world, it seems to me that in many instances it is becoming a detriment and an inhibitor to getting business done now.

It appears that asynchronous communications such as voicemail (and email for that matter) may have removed in some people’s minds the necessity to actually have to conduct business by and between people. Instead of talking to people, we now have slow motion conversations over some other type of media instead of a real time discussion over the phone. We have evolved our use of voice mail to the point that instead of answering a call and potentially having to deal real time with an unexpected issue or request, that we will now let the call roll over to voicemail instead. This enables the called party to review the potential issue or request at their leisure and then decide on a potential course of action with which to respond, if they so choose to become involved at all.

When you combine voice mail with other technology advancements such as calling line identification, we have now created a recipe for people to actively avoid answering calls from specific displayed numbers where they know or suspect the caller may be requesting time or support that the called person may not be able or want to provide. We are now enabling and in some instances inciting a behavior where the avoidance of work may now be perceived as being previously engaged, or even over worked. People are in effect hiding behind the voicemail curtain. Regardless, the result is that things get slowed down.

Business is about solving issues, and solving them as quickly and efficiently as possible. That is how value is generated. If you cannot solve customer issues, it is very difficult to generate customer value. I think this is a pretty widely accepted premise for doing business. In a great many instances the way a customer issue is solved is by internalizing it within the vendor organization. Another way to say this is that many businesses bring value to their customers by taking customer issues away from the customer, solving them within their own confines and presenting the customer with a solution.

The result of this process is that the customer is so thrilled with no longer having a problem to deal with, that they give you money.

Up until recently I would have said that this model worked admirably well. Not everyone likes issues but in solving them we provide the needed or desired value. What I have noticed was that in the drive to solve internalized customer problems I was starting to have more and more discussions with the voicemail system mailboxes where I would explain my issue in the hope that the intended party would hear my plea, be provided with enough information to act, and would get back to me with what I needed, than I was having with the actual people I needed to get solutions from.

What has been happening as time has passed and voicemail usage has matured has been that the called party usually returns the initial voicemail with another voicemail (I didn’t know until recently that you can actually do that. You don’t even have to call and forward to the voicemail system. You can now remain in the system and respond to a voicemail with another voicemail) where they either ask for more data (to be left on another voicemail) or explain that I need to contact another different party with the issue (where I will probably have to start the whole extended voicemail message process over again). If they had just answered my call in the first place I would have been able to learn this then and there instead of the several hours or days that it took for them to get back to me.

Voicemail in itself as a technology is not inherently bad. It is the misapplication of the technology by the user that is the cause of the issue. Voicemail was created to help us receive those phone calls that we would otherwise miss. It automated an otherwise labor intensive administrative function. Best of all it got rid of those ever present pink phone message notes that covered your desk every time you came back from lunch.

It seems that because we know that our automated greeting avatar will now answer the phone every time we cannot or decide not to answer the phone, we have increasingly decided to continue on with whatever we were doing, even if it was nothing in particular, and let our voicemail answer the phone. The result is that the business that could have been conducted by and between people real time has now been slowed down.

The speed at which business must be done continues to accelerate. The workloads of those involved continue to grow. People are busy. I understand and accept this. I just don’t believe that everyone is so busy that they cannot answer their phone anymore. It doesn’t take that much time or effort. It gets things done.

To prove my point I’ll close with a scenario and a question. How many times have you been out to lunch with business friends and associates, the food is served and you are eating. You are discussing the business or even social topics of the day, and someone’s cell phone rings? They have voicemail on the cell phone, but what do they do? They interrupt the conversation flow; stop eating and or talking and answer their phone is what they do.

We have all seen it happen and may have possibly even have done it.

My question is: Would they have behaved the same way if they had been sitting at their desk?

We need to start treating our business phone like our cell phone and answer it when it rings, and not expect to conduct our business via voicemail.

Process, People and Tools

Many companies today continue to look for efficiencies and business improvements by trying to create better processes. The idea seems to be that if the process is perfected, employees will be able to follow it, speed will be increased and mistakes will be eliminated. I understand the concept and the idea, but I don’t know if I agree that improving the process alone will actually deliver all the improvements that are being sought, or promised.

Processes are based on the idea of repeatable events. If functions or events are similar enough, then you can create a process to make sure that similar events are handled in a similar manner. The idea is to assure consistent performance. Manufacturing products, paying bills, inputting orders and the like were some of the first and most successful beneficiaries of good process creation. The concept has also been extended, at higher levels to other business functions such as sales, marketing and service as well.

The issue with process seems to arise when a good general approach is taken too far. If a good high level process works well, shouldn’t it be extended to more specific applications to make them work even better? My view is probably not.

My view is that Simple is Better.

By necessity the more specific you make a process to enable it to handle more and more variations in inputs and desired outputs, the more complex you make it. I have commented in the past that if your Sales compensation plan is longer than one or two pages, that it is most likely too complex and you are probably not inciting the desired focus from your sales force that you are looking for. I think the same can be said of your processes.

There needs to be a relative parity between your processes and your goals. If we can maintain a focus on relatively fewer and simpler goals, then we should also maintain a focus on relatively fewer and simpler processes. The question then becomes do you run the risk of decomposing your business goals and processes into progressively smaller and simpler levels to the point where you lose the ability to manage the overall business with any continuity. It becomes the equivalent of trying to manage the growth of each individual wheat stalk in the field, instead of trying to manage the growth of the wheat field.

There will always be a human factor associated with our business process. People make decisions based on the information they have and the goals that they are pursuing. Instead of trying to reduce the impact of the human factor by trying to create processes that prescribe decisions for them; we might do better to focus on the information and the tools that provide it to them, as well as the actual decision makers that we are asking to act on it.

Pilots spend multiples of hours in simulators facing manifold situations honing their decision skills so that when they are placed in similar real life situations they can follow some relatively simple processes to quickly arrive at the right decisions and take the correct actions. The average business leader does this while on the job. The business leader must base his decisions on situations that he has seen in the past and adapt them with the new information (or lack of new information) to the current situation. Hopefully either the leader’s experience translates well to the new situation, or the information supplied is sufficiently available and accurate to enable a good decision.

The pilot has multiple tools and gauges on his dashboard that immediately provide him the information that he needs as a basis for his decisions. While we have seen significant gains in the tools and gauges area for the business leader, it has been my experience that these capabilities have grown up over time as more of a happen stance instead of a cogent and integrated plan for providing needed gauges for management information.

It takes good people, good tools and simple processes to get good decisions and actions. Focusing on more detailed processes without paying attention to the people or the tools that they are using seems to be an activity that will only provide decreasing relative value returns for the investment. Spending more time on preparing business leaders to be ready and capable of making the types of decisions that they will be asked to make, and investing in the informational tools that will provide the accurate and timely information that they will need to make those decisions will probably provide greater benefits to the business.