Wednesday, September 18, 2013

What is the problem you are trying to solve? Assessment and action.

Most business improvement plans are based on the "Plan-Do-Review" cycle:  
You plan something, you do it and then you decide if it worked. While elegantly simple and adequate for most purposes I find a small glitch in the methodology, missing  "feedback" it's not enough to plan or do something without some mechanism to permit course correction quickly.

For example, speeding up production to reduce costs in your buggy whip factory will do very little to address your real issue. You can introduce 1,000  processes to get just in time delivery of leather, oak and rivets; develop incentive plans for safe good work and even flatten your middle management ranks to put them closer to the customer, yet you will fail because nobody owns a buggy anymore.

Without data and in particular, feedback loops, you may not realize, as you shovel another scuttle of coal onto your Rumford hearth that the real problem is you have taken 75 years longer than you should to see that buggy whips are obsolete.

I wish this were simply an absurdity, yet if you look around you will see innumerable examples of buggy whip thinking in companies that roll ponderously along simply by inertia.

Newspapers and cable TV providers come immediately to mind. A great example of a near death buggy whip like organization is the "auto-trader". Not so long ago, for $50.00 you could put a picture of your car in a book, people who were looking for a car would buy the book and phone you, you, of course also had to buy a copy just to proof your ad.

Then along came kijijji, an on line service that let's you post 10 pictures, for free and people looking for a car just cruise the website, also for free.
No ink, no waiting a week for your misspelled ad to come out, no paper, 24 hour access, just better all around. Almost overnight  "auto-trader" became the advertising media nobody cared about. 
As for cable or satellite: Ever heard of Roku or Apple TV? I like Roku,  that plus  digital rabbit ears and I am set. I pick what I watch when I want and as far as local TV is concerned;  really? Global news in the morning and that's about it.
Same thing with Travel Agents:  Doomed to obsolescence thanks to Expedia and on line bookings.
A good example of a bloated lumbering industry that managed to survive being  forced to change with the times  are Realtors. 
After being  forced, by government, to end their monopoly and share all their listing data with the buying public, including allowing 'For Sale By Owner" companies, who's whole business model is based on no commissions to nasty sales people.
You  can shop on to your hearts content, call your realtor (or better yet, call Barb Grodaes at Discover Realty DM me for the #)  with the houses you want to see.   No need to mumble about how gross the red shag rug is at some For Sale by Owner house.
Being married to the aforementioned realtor has not influenced my opinion on this, it took a forced reinvention of the industry, based on service to survive.
The For Sale By Owner  companies demanded access to MLS and got it, in exchange, Realtors who don't like zero commission deals find lots of reasons not to sell FSBO listings, thus effectively, creatively and terminally damaged the FSBO business model.
I will talk about that in my blog on unintended consequences.
Its important to note that the survival of Realtors  has more to do with public limitations than anything else;   people hate to negotiate and in the FSBO model negotiation is up close and personal.  Using a Realtor it becomes comfortably anonymous, that anonymity is really why people chose Realtors.
Business too often  is about commitment and belief in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. It can be hard, in the face of the desperate media to know if blackberry is a good deal or not and it's even harder on the inside. (It's a buy in my portfolio) The right data has to  be understood and acted upon.
Plan-do-review with data and feedback lets you measure and understand what is really going on, your speed of failure increases, you get out before you become the next buggy whip maker and your successes are based on more than luck. No industry or activity is exempt, proper feedback loops and data are critical to all decisions that matter and many that don't.
My particular interest is with the champions of industry on who's shoulders rest the livelihoods of far more than the directly employed. Being entrenched in an idea, any idea without knowing why is fraught with peril, thinking with your ego is even worse.
Data wins. Feedback is a gift. Learn to fail quickly.  
Three maxims that are tough to dispute and even harder to adopt.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

The most neglected question: What problem are you trying to solve?

I've been a consultant, in one capacity or another, since 1994. Throughout this I have worked with and implemented a great many systems, solutions and technologies that proclaim to solve problems. Some of them work, some work for awhile and some are doomed to failure from the outset.

Since we consultants are a greedy lot, we sell our services on either a hefty day rate or an equally hefty project fee, the occasional consultant will even work on a gain share: that is they get a share of your good fortune.

There is nothing wrong with this, many companies have benefited from the use of "outside hired guns" to solve problems, particularly when the company has taken the time to determine what problem it is trying to solve.

My expertise, which includes, safety process, leadership development and performance metrics is varied enough that I can usually adapt to most any situation. Often though, I'm hired to solve the wrong problem.

My favourite example of this is a sawmill project  in Hines Creek, Alberta in 1997. After my boss and  I giving the client the standard spiel about measurement, feedback, involvement and accountability, the grizzled old mill manager leaned across the table and asked "that's all real nice son, but can you weld?"
I replied "yes I could but did he understand why I was there?
It was a less than auspicious beginning.

After early termination of the contract and a bogus offer by my soon to be former employer to move to Bella Coola BC, I thought to myself  "you know, Ted really did need some good weldors"

(That is not a typo,  a welder s a machine, a weldor is the person skilled in its use, see I do know a little about it)

Ted's boss was very impressed with my work in a completely different situation and in his mind all that was necessary for success was to transition me from one place to another.  As my boss and I both shared the need for billable days, we damned the torpedoes, didn't bother to properly address the real question and failed.

We did not identify what problem we were trying to solve.

In the legislature this happens all the time: laws with good intent are enacted without a clear understanding of the problem. Take, for example distracted driving.

If ever a pointless bit of legislation existed, it's distracted driving. Rather than go so far as to say passengers are a distraction we simply made it illegal to talk on the phone, eat a burger or comb our hair. Having a yappy dog on your lap apparently is ok.

Now I agree that distracted driving, such as texting is stupid so I only text at red lights, but that too is illegal. Law enforcement has gone so far as to ticket drivers who pull off to the shoulder to make a call unless the vehicle is in park and shut off.

I was unclear then and I continue to be as to what problem was being solved.

On a municipal level, I challenge all on council to articulate what problem the arena is supposed to solve, or the airport closure or those chrome balls on the white mud. In every case I propose that no one knows the real answer.  These people aren't stupid, they simply get caught up in the solution and skip the messy part of trying to figure out why we need one.

For companies the answers are often more confusing with abstracts like "team" or "work flow" when in reality the problem could be market share, profitability or productivity.
The current rage for data mining, gathering and assimilation usually doesn't take results into account. There is no point in mining data until you have a need for data and until you know and can articulate it. We can measure anything but it is foolish to think that everything is worth measuring, unless you already know what problem you are trying to solve.
In my role, I teach the art of using tools like measurement to solve problems. I do this formally at first then later, once the user "gets it" I let them determine their own best process.
I'm the guy who sees the big picture and understands the psychology of it, business people should be too busy with their business to be experts on process.
The climate of business has changed in America (I can't speak for the rest of the world) today we are faced with boomers can't retire, schools still think only dumb kids go into the trades or drive trucks, foreign workers and essentially zero unemployment for people with any kind of skill or inclination at all.
Business needs to examine itself very carefully and ask "what problem are we trying to solve?" There is no longer enough extra personnel or margin to manage by numbers alone. Oil sands companies are faced, as are many other industries with very high labour cost, relatively low productivity to the point that the viability of much of it is in jeopardy.
Now before we all panic and import a bunch of people or blame the government in some false hope of getting the job done on time and on budget it's time to actually assess what problem we are trying to solve. It's a difficult and uncomfortable question, we solve solutions so much that often the problem is subordinate entirely.
My interest and apparently life's work after 20 odd years, comes down to carefully helping businesses figure out what problem is greatest and which one needs to be solved first.
It's a lot easier said than done but when it works, it's spectacular.