Monday, September 26, 2011

Seven Effective uses of Technology in Business

rocketmanThis is Part 2 in a series about the role of technology in business improvement. In Part 1 we explored Five Ways to Incorrectly Use Technology.

Organizations can experience significant benefits applying technology in scenarios where:

  • technology can be a catalyst for innovating around a process.
  • the majority of the perceived process waste has been removed.
  • the ability to improve the process without technology has reached its threshold.
  • technology is better suited for poka-yoke, such as eliminating math errors or guiding complicated work flows.
  • the risks of injury or danger to employees can be reduced or eliminated. Examples are un-manned military drones replacing pilots in hostile areas or using robots in automotive paint spray booths.
  • the mechanical burden of maintaining the process using manual methods becomes a hindrance to productivity.
  • information or collaboration needs to be shared across geographic boundaries.

photo credit: jurvetson / CC BY 2.0

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Why Behaviors Don’t Represent a Person’s Nature

Smoking Jack SparrowYou can’t trust the outwardly presented behaviors of people to accurately represent their real personality or nature. Often behaviors that look “bad” are driven by something outside of the individual’s control. Look at the scenario below as I reveal more information in “The reality”.

The natural assumption

I was walking out of an attractive office building and saw two people about to enter the entrance to the foyer. The guy flicked a cigarette out onto the large outdoor brick and concrete entryway surface. Wow, I can’t believe that guy just did that. A still smoldering cigarette littering the clean decorative sidewalk. What would this tell you about his character?

The reality

When the man and woman first came into my view, the woman was gazing about as if she was looking for something. The man appeared to be looking at the outdoor trashcan with a puzzled look on his face. Just before flicking the cigarette, he shrugged his shoulders out of what looked like frustration. Neither of them noticed me until they were already inside the building.

The office complex was a smoke free campus, but it was not very well marked on the property. There was no cigarette butt receptacle near the entrance. Clearly the man didn’t want to put his butt in the trash can and risk starting a fire. Both of the them were looking for a safe place to dispose of the cigarette - they were conscientious people wanting to do the right thing.

In business, how we treat people and and their ideas are often influenced by our impression of their personalities as perceived through their behaviors. We can be dismissive, judgmental, and exclusive. None of those are conducive to getting the most creative ideas for improvement and support for change.

When you see “bad” behavior at work, instead try assuming there is an underlying issue driving that behavior and let them prove you wrong. If you are a leader, try to find out the root cause and drive it to resolution. Thoughts?

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Personality Strengths and the Pinky Swear

gymnastics vaultThis is a true story about two talented High School gymnasts, Pam and Lisa, and their challenges overcoming  pre-event nerves.


The event is the Vault. What differentiates this event from the others, is the gymnast is scored on two vault runs. They have the option of bailing out at the last minute and not performing on a run if it doesn’t feel right. This obviously can have a negative affect on their score, so it is not desirable, unless there is a safety concern.


Both gymnasts have complicated routines that despite repeated practice, they don’t feel 100% confident in their ability to execute them perfectly. That is where Molly “The Motivator” comes in. Molly is a fellow gymnast, but wasn’t competing because of an injury. Pam and Lisa have grown accustom to relying on Molly, above all the others, to motivate them to victory. I say motivate because each of the two gymnasts responds to completely different stimuli.

Pinky Swear

Molly recognizes the strengths of their personalities and what drives them to perform at their best and she emphasizes those strengths when she cheers them on.

Lisa always repeatedly performs better when Molly psyches her up before the event and cheers loudly and enthusiastically for her through the duration of her routine.

Pam is perfectly capable of a near perfect Suke, but her tall height creates an additional challenge for her that impacts her confidence. She routinely walks off after a run before hitting the springboard. However, unlike Lisa, Pam doesn’t respond to positive reinforcement and cheering. During competition, Molly knows she can leverage Pam’s sense of responsibility by having Pam “pinky swear” that she will complete the run and finish her routine. With their pinky swear in play, Pam consistently performs and scores high as a result.

Leadership Lesson

Molly looks at the strengths of each of the gymnasts and individualizes the treatment to what they personally want and need to succeed. It’s for that reason Molly is considered the “go to” person for getting the most out of the team.

It doesn’t matter whether the subject is sports or business, individualizing communication based on the strengths and personality of the individuals generally delivers positive rewards for all of the parties involved.

*The names have been changed to protect the identities of the people in this story.

Friday, July 8, 2011

That Perfect Team

Scooby Doo - the ultimate problem solving teamMany of us have been on that “perfect” team at some point in our lives. You know, the one where everyone’s personalities meshed just right and each person’s strengths were exactly what was needed to get that project done. If you had another chance to work on a project with that team, you know it would be successful.

Starting a team project is similar to integrating multiple different software programs together. Each program is designed for a particular purpose and it does it well. One can rely on an individual program to provide it’s designed value. The thought of integrating it with other programs instantly brings up questions. Is it possible? Will it be reliable? Will integrating them provide the intended result?

The confidence that the integration can be successful begins with a simple test where one small piece of one of the programs can successfully “talk” to another program with a common language. The confidence that the objective will be successful grows as additional parts of the systems are progressively more connected.

People are like those individual programs. Initially there may be apprehension of how well they will work together, but after experiencing sometimes even the smallest group interaction, the team’s confidence can skyrocket and lead to immediate productivity.

Whether it is teamwork or software integration, the result has the potential to be orders of magnitude more valuable when working together rather than individually.

illustration credit: Scooby1980 / CC BY 2.0

Friday, June 17, 2011

A Common Language is Half of the Utility

GPS in FrenchI was reminded about the value a common language has on the usefulness of tools through a recent experience with my GPS.

The Story

I loaned my GPS to French exchange students for their trip to New York City.

After they returned, I turned on my GPS to set a destination and all the text and menus were set to the French language setting. I’ve studied Spanish and German, but it was a little challenge to navigate through the French labels on the menus to find the setting to change it back to English.

The Power of Commonality

For the exchange students, the GPS would have still had considerable value to them on their trip even if they left it set to English because of the illustrations and graphical nature of the GPS (and like many Europeans they spoke English). However, when set to their native language, the GPS was far more useful as they didn’t have the distraction and pressure of translating and interpreting the audio prompts while driving in traffic.

A GPS is a powerful tool. But it is just that - a tool. A common language that is readily understandable to the users is a subtle, but often overlooked component of the utility of the tool.

The utility of a common language is a universal principle of business process design, supporting technology, and communication. It is far easier to ensure everyone understands the process and each other if everyone shares the same terminology, vocabulary, and usage. The same holds true with the technologies and tools that are used to support the processes.

Software and other tools are far more effective when the terminology, labels, and workflow incorporate the industry and company specific language and thinking native to the organization.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Transforming Tribal Knowledge to Standard Process

Instrument PanelOrganizations lament over the risky dependence on Tribal Knowledge to run their business. Extracting the knowledge from the key individuals is not as simple as asking them to write down everything they know about a process. People holding the Keys to the Kingdom are frequently making heavy use of intuition and hard won experience that can’t be dumped to documentation immediately upon request.

A deliberate structured iterative process is needed to reveal, define, and understand the processes and criteria that people use to solve daily problems, make decisions, and manage in their specific operational areas.

Here is one generalized variation of a method to extract and structure tribal knowledge into a repeatable process complete with decision logic.

  1. Following the 80/20 rule, identify and document the 20% of the process that represents 80% of the normal conditions and decisions of the typical happy path.
  2. Create a visual holding place, if one doesn’t already exist, for the data (actions, issues, and decisions) associated with the process - probably in time sequence. This can be as simple as a spreadsheet.
  3. The objective of the visual system is to have a wider  perspective of the norm so that the exceptions and non-standard conditions are more readily exposed for investigation and clarification.
  4. Apply what I call pattern-based process improvement and creative slicing and dicing of the data to begin to fill in the missing pieces that are currently only understood by the people with the “keys to the kingdom”.

This method is best executed with participation between the mentor (process expert) and at least one other person with “outside the process” eyes to distinguish between the intuitive knowledge and explicit knowledge. The additional participants are part of the audit process to verify if the process is being standardized in a form that can be operated by other non-experts.


photo credit: ben.fitzgerald / CC BY 2.0

Friday, April 15, 2011

Design of Experiments for Web Analytics

jetboat precisly navigating a challenging pathAfter recently participating in a discussion with leading Search Engine Optimization (SEO) experts, I realized that there is an under-utilized market for using Six Sigma tools, such as Design of Experiments (DOE) to increase the value of web analytics for increasing sales, conversion rates, and Search Engine Optimization.

OFAT – One Factor at a Time

Most experts in marketing and SEO are familiar with the tactic of using A-B testing to improve traffic, goal conversion, and other website metrics. They may not realize that by using a well designed DOE, they could do multiple A-B tests simultaneously with a minimal amount of confounding while accelerating learning and results.

All Factors at Once

I found little evidence that Six Sigma tools like DOE are commonly being used in the SEO industry. One of the few examples of a case study using Six Sigma Methodology for SEO was to increase the conversion rate of song downloads from a music download website. The author was very open about the process and metrics that were used in the study. They demonstrated the use of the Six Sigma DMAIC (design, measure, analyze, improve, control) approach. From the study it appears they applied all the changes at once and measured the month end results. Applying all the proposed changes at once, while fast, sometimes provides misleading results.

For example (hypothetically), one or more of the changes could have had a negative individual effect of reducing the conversion ratio, while the net affect of all the changes could have still been positive. Reversing or adjusting the changes having a negative impact could have yielded an even higher net improvement, if they were individually quantified, which is not possible when making all the changes at once.

Multi-factorial Design of Experiments

Another option would have been to use a DOE to measure the effects of the individual factors and also interactions between the factors (proposed changes) on the results. Using the referenced study as an example, an experiment could be designed using four factors with two levels each:

Factor + High Level (current) - Low Level (proposed)
Sample length of song part of song (+) whole song (-)
Button text “buy now” (+) “click here for free downloads” (-)
“downloading fees” text displayed on website pages (+) not displayed on website pages (-)
sales funnel process 8 steps (+) 3 steps (-)

Testing all of the 16 possible combinations (full factorial) of the factor levels would yield the most information about the individual effects and their interactions with each other. A full factorial experiment in this case is probably overkill.

Another option would be to run an 8 run fractional factorial experiment which will still provide useful insights to the individual main effects and some information on two factor interactions.

An example recipe for running the experiment follows. Each run is made one at a time, measuring the analytics results for a period of time of time under the conditions described by the run. For example, run 4 would have the following factor levels set:

  • sample length of song = part of the song (represented by the + sign)
  • button text = “buy now” (represented by the + sign)
  • “downloading fees” text = not displayed on the web pages (represented by the – sign)
  • sales funnel process = 3 steps (represented by the – sign)
Run # Sample length of song Button text “downloading fees” text sales funnel process
1 - - - -
2 + - - +
3 - + - +
4 + + - -
5 - - + +
6 + - + -
7 - + + -
8 + + + +

After completing the eight run experiment and collecting the analytic data (as recorded by analytics software, such as Google Analytics), the data would typically be analyzed with the help of JMP or MiniTab software.

The analysis should reveal the optimal combination of the factors studied to maximize the goal conversion rate. Additionally it should provide insight about which of the factors has the highest contribution to the improvement, information that can be used to hone in on additional related ideas to consider for future improvements.

In a market segment like Search Engine Optimization and website goal conversion, it is likely that the information learned from one experiment can be transferrable to other areas immediately.


Running Design of Experiments like the multifactorial one described above can provide valuable quantitative information about improvements that one can’t get otherwise, but it is not without a cost. DOE’s take time to set up, run, and analyze. They also require the use of experienced Six Sigma practitioners to effectively analyze and interpret the results.

In order to maximize the return on investment from this process, it is better suited for complex challenges where an organization might spend months making dozens to hundreds of individual changes to try to improve their results while not fully understanding the potential effect of the changes at the outset. The additional understanding gained about the contribution of individual changes and interactions can efficiently pinpoint the areas that have the most opportunity to yield the highest improvement.

photo credit: Alex E. Proimos / CC BY 2.0

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Operational Excellence doesn’t have to be an Either-Or Decision

Six Sigma vs. Lean; Shingo Prize vs. Malcolm Baldrige

Operational excellence programs are not an island among themselvesLean, Six Sigma, and other methodologies and programs are great, but none of them solve all the problems all organizations experience. As an example, Lean doesn’t solve difficult scientific problems with complex interactions. I am a Lean practitioner and certified Six Sigma Black Belt and have used both of them to solve difficult problems, but I don’t wedge my experience with either into every situation or issue I encounter.

Possibly organizations could be better served by the technical community if instead of focusing on a single cookie cutter strategy for improvement for the entire enterprise, they used the one(s) or a blend that best matched their needs, current conditions, and vision for the future. All environments, cultures, and challenges are unique, why should we expect a “one size fits all” program to be the silver bullet?

Friday, February 11, 2011

What is the Cloud?

A view from above the clouds over NevadaI caught a few minutes of a radio show where “the Cloud” was being discussed by tech-savvy guest “promoters” that had a marketing perspective on the cloud. Marketing often equates the cloud to the internet or Google Apps like Gmail and Google Docs and now thanks to recent Microsoft commercials, Outlook and Office.

But is that really what the cloud is all about? That is only a small part of it. The cloud has three primary marketplace stakeholders:

  1. consumer (you and me)
  2. service provider (apps)
  3. cloud provider (infrastructure)

In the case of Google Apps, Google is really a service provider that uses its own cloud to host the applications. Microsoft is a little different. Microsoft is both a cloud provider (Windows Azure) and a service provider with Office and Skydrive in the cloud. It is not uncommon that promoters don’t realize there is a difference and, as a result, blur the distinction and understate the value of the cloud.

Software as a Service

The cloud provides a platform for many vendors to provide their software as a web-based service, instead of the more traditional shrink wrap software that you install on your home or work PC using a CD or DVD. That is an attribute that is shared by both the cloud and the internet.

The following are characteristics that the cloud provides, but the internet may or may not represent.

Dynamically scalable on demand

One of the best examples for its ability to scale up to handle large bursts of traffic is how a company that advertises during the Super Bowl that normally handles 10,000 page visits per day might need to handle a quarter of a million visitors in a just a few minutes.

Multi-located for performance

An application and/or its data may be located in multiple locations across the globe so that when a person uses the system, it detects where they are geographically located and serves up a version from a data center that is physically closer to the user. The shorter the distance the data travels, the faster it gets there.

An additional benefit of multi-location is that other regions will still have access to their programs and data in the event there is a natural disaster like a tsunami (or a government – Egypt blocks all internet and cell traffic) that wipes out internet connection for an entire country.

Replicated for redundancy

Many cloud platforms automatically create multiple copies of a program and its data so that if a piece of hardware fails, or a physical data trunk is cut, the “replica” can immediately take over and serve its users without interruption.

Priced by usage (to the service provider)

Parking meterBy pricing by usage, it provides a near constant pricing scale that grows (or shrinks) as demand changes vs. the traditionally high initial capital cost for servers in addition to maintenance and support costs.

  • Computing cycles
  • memory
  • storage
  • bandwidth

The pricing model to the consumer varies depending on the financial model of the service provider. Some software like Google Apps are free to the home consumer because it is funded by advertisements, but it might be priced on a per person basis for organizations.

Infrastructure Purchase Flexibility

Cloud providers provide the flexibility to purchase the specific services needed:

  • Virtual Machines (VM)
  • Storage
  • Database
  • Service broker
  • Applications


Typically when a service provider purchases cloud services, they are not buying a physical piece of hardware. They are buying (leasing) an address that points to a cloud provider managed virtual server(s). The fact that it is virtualized means the services can be moved around from server to server and location to location by the cloud provider as necessary to improve availability, performance, and maintainability.

Proprietary Operating Systems

Most computers and hosted servers on the intranet are running standard available operating systems. Because of the nature of how the cloud providers allow their service providers to configure their services and to scale on demand, they often don’t run directly on a native Operating System. They often have an intermediary operating system or control layer that has multiple virtual Operating Systems installed or running on top of. Microsoft’s Azure cloud service has what it calls the AppFabric.

Unicorns and Rainbows

a rainbow wall of M&M'sThe Cloud has many benefits to both the consumer and the enterprise, but it’s not without its disadvantages. Until private or hybrid clouds allow clouds to be hosted on your premises maintained by your IT staff, you will have to rely on a third party (or multiple third parties) to protect and maintain your priceless data.


Parking meter photo courtesy lancefisher / CC BY-SA 2.0

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Mocking Change

mocking birdIn software development mocking is a deliberate effort to simulate other system elements, such as a database, with a representation of the element in order to test a portion of the software without interacting with the actual database. Mocking is a tactic to make sure that software works as expected throughout the development process and when changes are introduced.

When facing the implementation of a big change in a business process or initiative, why not mock the elements of the change that might be complex or difficult in order to solicit as much feedback as necessary about what might go wrong or isn’t getting adequate consideration to ensure a positive experience for all the participants and stakeholders?


photo credit: Teddybear Junction / CC BY 2.0