Friday, April 27, 2007

From Piano Practice to Self Expression

My 11 year old has turned a corner on the piano. Instead of having to remind him multiple times a day to practice and setting up job charts as reminders with rewards for doing it, he stumbles downstairs first thing in the morning and begins playing before he's even spoken to anyone. He sits down and plays when he gets home from school. He plays a few times throughout the evening. The difference seems to be that he's finally hit a tipping point in his skill level where he can play a handful of songs well from memory and he's beginning to feel the release of self expression through his music (I can't think of many motivators more powerful than self expression).

The next time you notice resistance to some new business processes, instead of reiterating the "why we did this and why it's best for the company" speech, try helping the individuals in question gain more skill at using them. Help them to become more proficient.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Big Waves: Drown or Drop-In?

What goes through your mind when you look at this picture?

Are you thinking, "How insane must those people be to be out there?" or are you wishing you were one of them so you could drop in on the next one?

What would mean certain death for one looks like fun to another. It's a matter of perspective.

Trained professionals look for the big challenges to test their skills. Small shorebreak would be boring for these surfers.

So what do you think of when you hear of a really large project coming down the pipeline? Are you hoping secretly your boss doesn't tap you as the PM or are you dropping hints you'd love to take that one on?

A Remarkable Shoe Buying Experience?

The other day I decided to get a bit more serious about my running and felt it was time to get my first pair of real running shoes. To date, I'd just go to the local big box sporting goods store and buy a pair of general purpose name brand shoes and wear them for just about all sports.

I got a recommendation from a colleague who's an avid runner to visit the Falls Road Running Store. I was in for a treat.

I was greeted by what I later found out was a staff made up of decorated and dedicated runners. I was asked to stand, walk, and run on a treadmill barefoot while my advisor carefully knelt down and looked at my gait from all angles. Within minutes, I had an analysis of how my foot made contact with the ground and had three pair of shoes designed to correct a slight defect I have in my step. I then repeated the treadmill test with each pair of shoes--each time under the supervision of the same advisor. Throughout the whole process I'm asking fairly detailed questions about recent articles I'd read on various shoes and learned right away what little homework I'd thought I'd done was a drop in the bucket for what there was to know. I learned a little about running form theory, recent historical trends in essentially running barefoot vs. using specially designed supportive shoes, that when you run your feet swell so you need to buy them one size larger than you would other shoes, etc. As I checked out, I was greeted by the owner who asked about my satisfaction with the transaction and offered some additional training helps and tips.

For the few minutes I was there I felt like I was in the hands of experts and could have been a professional athlete being sized up for a wind tunnel test at Nike HQ or something. Needless to say, I'll not be going back to a big box retailer for my shoes.

Despite being hard to find and literally a hole-in-the-way store, they've transformed shoe buying into a remarkable experience. Can our customers (internal and external) say the same thing about what we do?

The Style Changes Every Day!

My son is at an age where he's beginning to get interested in hip hop, breakin, and dancing in general. I have all the classic breakin films from when I was growing up in the 80's but was intersted in learning about and seeing some of the newer forms of dancing such as clownin or krumpin, myself, so we rented the movie Rize. I found the documentary inspirational as you see kids opting to form dance crews rather than join gangs, members of a church congregation take in a child whose mother just went to jail, an older brother stepping in to protect his younger brother from getting involved in a local gang, and an ex-drug dealer clean up his life and start a birthday party business where he shows up as "Tommy the Clown" and is basically a hip hop pied piper for inner city youth.

At one point in the film a group of guys were being interviewed about their style of dancing: krumpin. They mentioned how they had begun under Tommy's tutelage but broken off from clownin to form their own "brand" of dancing (I must say my untrained eye couldn't really distinguish between the two), and gave some insight into the energy and frustration they vent through its expression. One young man commented that, "the style changes every day" and went on to elaborate that if someone took even one day off and was essentially disconnected from the crew, everyone would notice it in his style when he/she came back.

With the growing emphasis on value-added, creative, innovative solutions in today's business world, we could learn a thing or two from these young people. It's all about being different, unique, and executing with flair and confidence. It's about going head-to-head with your competition in a public forum and letting go to find self expression. It's about community and heart and doing it to avoid the alternatives. It's about being positive in the midst of adversity. It's knowing that what you did today will not cut it tomorrow and having the self reliance that you'll be able to constantly think up something new.

Maybe Tommy the Clown should expand his business from doing inner city birthday parties to corporate retreats on innovation.

The Final 1%

My wife and I recently sold our modest town home in Baltimore. We spent about three weeks preparing for the sale by doing all the things we'd wanted to do while we lived here (i.e., painting, putting carpet in the family room downstairs, etc.) as well as by throwing out and donating a ton of stuff we realized we no longer used or needed. It was impressive to see what a big difference these relatively small steps made in the home's appearance and livability. What's interesting is that the sales price was in the low $300K range and it only cost us about $3K to fix the place up.

Now maybe real estate is totally unique and the lessons learned from this sale can't be extrapolated to other environments. But it certainly should give one pause to think that putting in that last one percent of effort and attention to detail could perhaps make the difference between making the sale or not. Or, like in our case, making the sale in one day for a bit more than list price.

I think I'll take a look at my next project deliverable a bit differently now and go over it carefully one more time before turning it in to see if there's anything I can throw out or get rid of or "paint". Incidentally, I've got to thank a recent 37Signals blog post for pointing me to a recent Semeiotica blog post re: the "smallest effective difference" which addresses the above phenomenon from the perspective of molecular biology and psychology.

Anyway, when we were done with the above improvement my wife and I looked at each other and asked why we hadn't done it months before! I probably also need to take a look at other areas of my life where I might be able to make a very small investment in order to enjoy an improved quality of life.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Are you a Time Teller or a Clock Builder?

I was a boy scout as a kid (and yes I got my Eagle) and loved to camp and learn about outdoor and survival skills. I remember, once, hearing about how some explorers could tell time by looking at the position of the Sun. I used to try doing this while I was out mowing yards (which seemed to be pretty much all the time) and I was always way off.

In the book Built to Last the authors propose that it really would be impressive if someone could look up in the sky to gauge the position of the sun and tell you what time it is. It would be even more impressive if they could do it consistently and with great accuracy. The person may even build a traveling show around it where they perform this feat for audiences all around the globe. But eventually, the "time teller" is going to retire or pass away and the traveling show will take its tent down for the last time and all the support cast will be out of a job.

The authors continue by suggesting an approach with a longer-term view: build a company that builds clocks.

Now, to be fair, I'd hate to see Andrea Bocelli stop all public performances and set up a school for aspiring tenors. This metaphor has some obvious limitations. But it's useful for us to take a look at our own work and honestly see if we're trying to hoard the knowledge, the power, remain the one and only subject matter expert, or if we're sharing, documenting, and collaborating.

The authors point out that the first approach is self-centered while the latter is focused upon the customer/employee/enterprise and their collective well-being.

Quick test to compare brands

Two quick thoughts as I'm reading through the book Built to Last by James C. Collins and Jerry I. Porras:

First, the authors ask the reader what comes to mind when you hear "Disney." For me it was Walt Disney, Mickey Mouse, Walt Disney World, and for some reason Michael Eisner. Then the authors ask the reader to do the same thing for Columbia.

Hmm...I've got nothing.

I don't think I've run across a better, quick test to determine the power of one's brand. This should give us all pause as we think about what image or associations our past and present supervisors, colleagues, vendors, etc. have when they hear our name. What brand image do we have? Is it, "Oh he's probably the most organized guy I've ever worked with..." or more like, " he the one that was in purchasing a while back?"

If you follow Tom Peters (and I think we all should), we should be just as concerned about building a brand in our own little world as Disney was and is about there's.

Another test the authors propose is how woven into the fabric of your culture are you? In other words, it's hard to imagine popular culture without a Disney. It's pretty easy for me to imagine life without Columbia. How hard is it to imagine your field, your industry without you?

Isolate and Duplicate

A large part of troubleshooting can be summarized by two words: isolate and duplicate.

Can we make it do whatever it did the last time when it didn't work right--again? And again? (duplicate.)

And under what conditions? What about when we're not doing the "happy path" or normal use case and are on this particular variance? In other words, does your engine light come on all the time or just when you're at a stop light? Or even better, when you're at a stop light in 95 degree heat, etc. (isolate.)

We could all save ourselves and the growing number of technical support staff we must appeal to on a regular basis to get through our day-to-day lives if we try to do these two things before we make our appeal.

Do I need all my keys?

I'm just about to head out for lunch and went to grab my key chain. I've got this really cool key chain from Brookstone that has quick release rings where I can pop off a given key ring very quickly (but I hardly ever use that feature). I thought about how I always take all my keys with me instead of just the one I know I need for the job at hand (e.g., I don't need the key to my storage garage to go to lunch--just my car key). Then I thought about why. For me, it comes down to two reasons:
  1. You never know when you might need the others
  2. (This one is by far the biggest reason for me) I want to keep them all in one place so I don't lose them.
This got me thinking about the differences between the FranklinCovey and GTD time management systems. FranklinCovey was about bringing your whole planner or key chain with you everywhere whereas it seems like the GTD approach is kind of like taking the key along that you need for right now (knowing, of course, that you'll have whatever key you need when you need it from your trusted system).

Imagine if your car door, house, office, PC, etc. were all biometric and you got into what you needed to get into just by being there--without having to carry a key chain for each eventuality (kind of like the world depicted in Minority Report). Now imagine sitting down to your work or home PC and all the tasks you need to do at that particular PC emerge (and only those tasks). Your phone tells you the calls you need to make. You can pick up a shopping list from a kiosk at the front of your local grocer that's connected to the list you keep on your refrigerator when you stop in to get some milk.

Are you comfortable with your system being distributed or do you need to have it on you?

Mopping the electrical room

On my way back from the water fountain down the hall in my office I noticed a maintenance man finishing up his mopping of what appeared to be an immaculate floor in the room that contains our electrical or telecom stuff (I'm frankly not sure exactly what's in there but I saw a lot of pipes and wires from my glimpse).

It made me think about what it means about a company that will ensure that even its rooms that very few ever see or use are spotless. Then it made me think about my garage or basement and how I'd kind of let that go because it wasn't really visible when guests come over. Then I thought that my email inbox could use a little Spring cleaning, and I may have some mail stuck in a drawer at home...

I suppose I've justified not bringing some things up to par with others from an opportunity cost stand point. But maybe I should re-think that if a large, multi-national company can take the time to mop a utility closet.

The mailbox was right there!

I live in a town home in Baltimore where the mail is delivered to your door but not picked up--you have to drop off your mail in one of the few official mail boxes scattered around the neighborhood.

For almost a year, now, I've been driving to the local post office (about two miles away from my office building) during lunch, as needed, to drop off my mail. I just noticed, today, on my way back from the lunchroom (I work in building three on a corporate campus where building four contains the lunchroom) a woman pulling her car up to the front entryway and dropping off her mail in the official USPS mail box I'd never noticed before.

How many time savers like this are there right in front of our eyes that we just don't see?

And isn't it true that sometimes we have to see someone else doing something before we notice it and determine it will have value for ourselves?

Friday, April 20, 2007

Apple: How to improve audiobooks on iPods

I've got a few beefs with how the iPod handles audiobooks:

  1. I want to be able to bookmark certain passages as I go through the book. I may be listening in the car and hear a great quote I'd like to go back to when I get home. I'd like to be able to reach over, press a button, and have that marked so I can jump back to it later.
  2. I want to be able to navigate through the book more easily. For instance, I'm re-reading Jack: Straight from the Gut with a particular interest in picking up any tidbits re: GE's Six Sigma initiative. I finally reach it at like seven hours into the book. I'd love to have a Table of Contents screen I could get to by pressing the center button that would allow me to scroll through chapters and jump right to a particular section--it would be much more useful than being able to push the center button to see a slightly larger picture of the book cover!
  3. I want sections to be meaningful. By pressing the forward or back buttons I can jump between sections of a book. Instead of these sections being equally divided chunks (e.g., a five hour book may have five one hour sections) the section markers should be at the beginning of each chapter. For instance, even if I couldn't get to a table of contents screen as suggested above, I still should be able to press the forward button enough times to jump right to the beginning of the Six Sigma chapter.
  4. I want to know where I'm at in the book. Some podcasts are enhanced--meaning they incorporate some additional tags and/or images in the input file that translates into additional text or images appearing on screen as the program progresses. It allows the podcast to be almost like a slide show instead of just an audio program. I'd love to see some kind of chapter name either float over the screen like the letters do when you're scrolling quickly through a list of artists in your music library or to have it appear on screen in a way similar to how enhanced podcasts display section headings.
I realize some of what I outline are enhancements that may not have surfaced until we had working audio book in our hands. However, some of this is a prime example of how the provider did what was easiest for them and not want was truly value-adding for the end consumer.

For example, I'm sure someone probably suggested sections markers in a planning or design meeting. A developer probably thought about it and said he or she could create an algorithm that would take the audio length, determine how many sections to create based upon certain length parameters, and then equally divide it. It's automated and done. He/she then got to mark off the feature as delivered on the project plan and marketing got to put "comes with section markers" on the marketing material. But it's not useful. It's not want I want.

It would take time to work with digital audio suppliers to get them to incorporate chapter markers in their audio stream that could then be incorporated into the internal design specs, or to create the abstraction of chapter markers in the digital audio provider industry, or to simply have an intern sit and listen to each book and write down the time stamp of each chapter.

Lean and Agile teaches to start from the perspective of the customer and find out what they want and consider valuable. Then you work from there to provide that and only that--really well. Everything else (like being able to see a picture of the book cover) is considered wasted time, effort, expense, and functionality (muda in Lean terms) from the consumer's perspective.