Ockham’s Razor doesn’t Always Work

Image courtesy of adamr/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of adamr/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

The simplest solution is usually the correct one.

But this isn’t always true when it comes to people.  We are exceedingly complex; emotionally, socially, psychologically.  Humans are influenced by internal, unseen drivers just as much (if not more) than obvious external stimuli.

The problem is not that the method of Ockham’s razor is flawed.  The issue is that there is typically insufficient data to arrive at reasonable assumptions in the first place.

In Life

I love my wife dearly, but I just don’t understand her sometimes.  I’m sure she would say the same of me as well.  Most of the time we try to be honest and open with one another, but it isn’t always easy.

I have recently had to deal with the death of my dog, Sandy.  She was very important to me and it has been a difficult recovery.  I don’t always show things the same way that my wife expects me to, and she interprets that as a different emotion.  Likewise, she tries coping with the loss in ways that I can’t understand.

As a result, based on the data we have observed, we have made assumptions about one another.  Those assumptions led us to believe that our assessments of one another were accurate because they were the simplest of the solutions.  However, our assumptions were wrong, based on a misinterpretation of the data, and we have had to engage in more open dialogue to better understand one another through our grieving processes.

This is true in many personal situations when interacting with friends, family, and acquaintances.  We make assumptions that lead to judgment.  It is natural.  It’s human.  It’s complicated.

At Work

We often forget that people are people.  We try to separate work from home, but that doesn’t really happen.  We have a hard time relating to people that we simply don’t know well.  We may be having a rough day and then someone asks something of us that is troublesome and we immediately jump to conclusions about motive and method.

Solving problems at work is easier when it is about a machine, a program or a system.  Those things don’t muddy the waters with emotion and intellect.  They simply work.  People, on the other hand, react, anticipate, judge, emote, and in general, complicate the work environment.  This level of complexity can be a bit much and the data is too intricate to fully understand.  As a result we make assumptions about people, but our assumptions can lead us astray.

A Good Assumption

I have found my own razor when working with others.

This person’s intentions were right and good unless otherwise proven.

By using this razor I have simplified my life.  It has prompted me to ask questions, get to know people, and expect decency from others.  It has changed my perspective of people.  And I firmly believe it is true.

I challenge you to take one week and apply this razor to your life.  See if it changes you.

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Survival of the Most Adaptable

be like water

I read an interesting blog post about the responsibilities of companies to change their views of the phrase “survival of the fittest”.  This article is about corporate social responsibility and the ways that we interact with nature.  While I think it is a great post, I would like to talk about the same concept, but on a level that is more for the manufacturing middle-management folks.

Let’s interpret the phrase “survival of the fittest” to be “the best at adapting”.  In business that means flexibility, versatility, and nimbleness.  But how can we influence these factors when we are a cog in the big business machine?

  1. Strategic development of a process model that allows for smaller runs and higher flexibility.  As an Operations Leader, you have the ability to influence how you design your department.  Most companies are looking for the big runs, fewer changeovers, and highest volume.  But what if you could create a section of your department that is specialized at small runs, reduced inventory, and high-speed turnaround?  Could you provide a service to customers at a premium?  Could you handle frequent changeovers as a matter of course?  Check out QRM.  This methodology might be able to help you get started with something.
  2. Stop focusing on reducing changeover time and start focusing on eliminating minor stops.  Let’s look at a typical production line.  If you run a product for 16 hours with equipment speeds of 20 cases/minute you should see 19,200 cases at the end of that time.  But it takes you 20 hours to run that amount.  Then you have to perform a 2-hour changeover to the next product.  Most companies want to reduce changeover time because that is downtime where you are making zero units.  But the changeover has to happen.  Even if you cut the changeover time in half you only saved 1 hour.  But it took you an extra 4 hours to run the product.  Cut that in half and you save 2 hours.  Minor stops on a line can result in huge hits on efficiency.  Quicker runs equal more capacity for new volume.
  3. Slow down to speed up.  It sounds like taboo, but Maintenance groups will tell you that if you run your car at 9000 rpm you won’t get as far as if you run it at 3000 rpm.  But that is exactly what we do to our production equipment.  We run it to the max and shorten its life and Mean-Time Between Failure (MTBF).  This not only increases downtime and Maintenance costs, but it also reduces the machine’s availability for more volume.  Conduct a constraint analysis on your line and set the limiting machine to at least 10% below its maximum rate.  You will see a smoother run and a more predictable life of the equipment.  Remember, it is about cases out of the door, not units per minute off of the filler.
  4. Set goals for management and supervisors that reward flexibility.  It is a difficult thing to do, but try setting department KPIs around how you manage the department, not how much volume you push through the door.  You may have to create a set of KPIs that you track internally and still publish the ones that upper management wants to see.  Think about how the behaviors of your team will benefit your business and create metrics around those behaviors.  It will take some thought, but you will have a better performing system out of the deal.

Project Management Gone Awry

mistakes

One of the nice things about being American is that the government always gives us an opportunity to learn from their mistakes.  It doesn’t matter your political views, government is messed up.

So with the latest fiasco with Obamacare (or the Affordable Care Act, if you prefer…but Obamacare is so much easier to say) we can see how the website rollout was a poorly managed project.  Let’s do some inferring and see why.

A project is really about syncing three things: Scope, Quality, Time.  Let’s look at how these things are interconnected and how we can make sure we observe some basic understanding of what to do.

The scope must not have been well defined for the website since the major issue was that too many people were trying to log on at once.  This should have been projected as a risk during the definition portion of the project and a mitigation strategy designed.  Now, I am not a web designer or network engineer, so please forgive the errors I may state and feel free to correct me if you have knowledge in these areas.

The system should have been designed to manage the peaks of the users.  The traffic should have been projected and then doubled.  I know that some of the States had their own systems and that needed to be factored in as well.  But there are mathematicians that can help with the statistics.  There are design criteria for the servers and workflow processes.  Some users could have been given a “sorry” message rather than having their information lost when applying for healthcare.

Obviously, the timeline was not reasonable since the website clearly wasn’t ready.  This should have been a pushback to the White House.  Another option would be to cut back the scope or quality of the site, but since that was probably not a good option, they should have delayed the start.

In the political environment, you have to pay attention to what is promised to the people.  The web site designers should have been regularly communicating with the President (their Sponsor) who in turn is communicating to the people (the Stakeholders).  The President and system designers should have been on the same page with timing, capability, and expectations so that everyone understood what was going to happen.  If it would have been stated that the site could only handle so many users, it would have been better received when there were issues and the corrections could have happened immediately.

Lessons…

  • Clearly understand your objectives and create a comprehensive scope.
  • Listen to your Sponsor.
  • Predict the needs of the users.
  • Communicate, communicate, communicate.

As with Leadership, Project Management boils down to communication.  Communication of expectations, progress, and reality.  We all want an optimist to lead, but reality has to be part of what is communicated.  People can tell the difference between hope and reality if you give them the information to distinguish between the two.

When Teams Become Dangerous

4f23280f1861330f65003257Image Source

Teamwork.  Often we have the need and desire to improve team relationships.  We have been told that we need to work well with teams.  We, as managers, must promote a team environment.  Leadership training focuses on working as a team.  If teams are so great, and we have teams everywhere (how many “teams” are you a member of?) then why do we still have issues creeping up on us?  Why do we still have to play politics?

Remember the saying, “There is no ‘I’ in team.”  That concept is flawed because it comes from an idealistic premise that human beings can let go of their individuality.  Well, that is a difficult thing to accomplish.  In today’s culture we are celebrating individuality and simultaneously asking our teams to let it go.  

We have created turf wars in modern business.  We have pushed ownership to the point of possessiveness.  We sit in meetings and argue over jobs.  We are back on the playground, staking claim on the jungle gym.  We fight for resources, squabble over spending, and plot plans for retribution.  Welcome to teamwork.

Some might argue that this is not teamwork, but I say it is.  It is teamwork as we have defined it over the years.  It is the team member as conditioned by his circumstances.  Most people like to be part of a team, to belong to something.  The question is what are the teams to which they belong?

It is difficult to change the way we think.  It takes time, patience and coaching.  It is part of the evolution of each of us as we mature and grow.  But what I am proposing is not a change in thinking, but a change in definition of the boundaries.  What should make a team and how do we create incentives that are not contrary to that definition?

The team should be defined as “the smallest group possible whose goals do not conflict with the goals of any other group.”  The key to this definition is the set of goals.  This is all about creating the right KPIs.  Coupling personal objectives with team objectives is the only way to create a win-win mentality.

Start from the top down when setting metrics and goals.  Personal goals should correspond to team goals.  The only personal goals that are outside of those team goals would be development goals for the individual (i.e. complete supervisor conflict management training before October 2nd).  If you can’t create a KPI for a group that doesn’t conflict with the KPI of a peer group, you need to think more critically or simply hold to the higher-level KPI.  Share successes of the team with the whole organization whenever possible.  This will help to build camaraderie and will motivate teams to help one another on achieving their collective goals.

Remember, a few good metrics is better than a huge list.  I have seen companies with an entire matrix of Red/Yellow/Green scorecards that people simply can’t keep up with.  Keep your team focused and good things will happen.  Manage the extremes by exception and create solid game plans with your teams to see step change improvements.

Change Management: Putting People First

Metamorphosis_(7196082472)By aussiegall from sydney, Australia (Metamorphosis Uploaded by russavia) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

I have recently been working with a client that has been trying to get results after installing a new ERP.  The technical installation went successfully and there were few issues to work out.  However, nine months later they are still suffering from inaccurate data and technology reversion.  So if the ERP works correctly and the system was properly specified for the application, why the financial discrepancies?

It boils down to people.  I had a conversation with the President of the company and he said that some people just didn’t embrace the change and that forcing people onto a new system wasn’t going well.  Ahah! Forcing.  That was the clue that led me to ask more questions.  The basic response was that the users were never really brought into the process and now the company was paying for it.  Literally.

The project was budgeted to cost around $1.5 million.  Really not much when you consider what some organizations pay for an ERP.  However, financial losses within the first nine months were projected around that same amount and the capital investment is up to $3.2 million.  There is still yet another phase of implementation that needs to be completed before the implementation is even considered complete.

So with a total cost approaching $7 million, don’t you think it would have been worth another few hundred thousand to add some training and headcount for allowing the users to become more familiar with the software?  They should have been asked their opinions up front on the best ways to implement for their locations and how to structure their processes to better fit the new system.  These things weren’t considered to be part of the ERP implementation.

So what are the lessons learned? 

  1. Invest a little more money to reduce the cost and aggravation that comes with change. 
  2. Let people be part of the process rather than victims of it.
  3. Give yourself twice as much time as you think you will need because people are slow to change.
  4. Understand that change is hard and takes time and persuasion.
  5. Create local champions to help cheer on the progress of the changes.
  6. Lead the change by supporting it, not forcing it.

Eliminating Vanishing Points

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The vanishing point is the distance where the sky meets the sea.  It is also the point where vertical planes appear to merge.  To me, a vanishing point does not represent disappearance, rather, it represents infinity.  I know that things keep going and if I can’t see the end it makes me think it goes on forever.

This can be a problem with a project.  If you don’t see the end it most definitely can go on forever.  Here are some tried and true tips on how to make sure you can see the end of your projects.

Define the Ending

If you can describe the ending to a point where you can envision it then you will know what it looks like when you reach it.  Many projects fail because the ending is ambiguous.

Develop Your “Will-dos”

In your scope, spell out what you will accomplish with this project.  If you have itemized deliverables and you can check them off you will know you are done with the project when there is nothing else to check.

Develop Your “Won’t-dos”

Just as importantly (and more importantly in many cases) you need a list of things you won’t do as part of your project.  You will typically get pushback on this, but it is worth it.  Now you can’t be led astray and steered away from your real objectives.

Set a Finish Date

If we don’t give ourselves deadlines we give ourselves excuses.  Most people procrastinate (I’m just as guilty as the next guy) when we don’t have a deadline.  Finish dates are key to providing that needed pressure to get the job done.

Get Sign-offs

If you think you are done and you have hit your objectives, get the key stakeholders to put in writing that they agree with you.  It is your contract with them that the project is done and that the end is nigh.

These are just some quick pointers that have worked for countless project managers.  Keep in mind that these tips also work with Leadership and setting expectations and goals for teams.  Look over them again and you will see how this is similar to goal-setting and Performance Improvement Plans.

What are some other ways to define the end?

How could these pointers have helped with your past projects?

Take Care of the Little Things

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As Project Leaders we are usually have skills regarding our attention to detail.  But we are also usually very neglectful of the “soft” side of project management (which is why I prefer to use the term “Project Leader” as a reminder that projects involve the personal component just as much as the technical).  So when I want to write something regarding the little things, I am not just talking about the technical, task-related items that are part of a project.  Below are 5 little things to take care of while you are managing the tasks of a project.

Tone
It is easy to mismanage our tone when we are working on a project.  We can become so focused on accomplishing tasks and getting updates that we forget that there is a person that is working on this for us.  Often times we are doing these updates via phone (a conference call is typical) and we want to be efficient and not waste other’s time.  However, forgetting to be appreciative and approachable can cost us in the long run.

Timeliness
Don’t forget that you are serving the needs of those that are working on the project just as much as they are serving yours.  It is necessary that you be timely with responses and due dates as well.  There is a lot to manage when running a project, but providing information to those that are managing tasks is one of the most important things you can do as a project leader.  Give realistic commitments and keep them.  This is one of the easiest ways to lead by example.

Topical
Keeping up is necessary.  90% of what a project manager does is communicate.  Make sure that you are getting the latest information to everyone and keep yourself current on the progress of all of the parts of your project.  You may not know the details, but that is okay.  Just know where the project is and how it may affect the other pieces.  Keep others up-to-date as best as you can.

Take a Break
We all need to recharge.  Make sure you are taking the time to recharge yourself and your team.  If you don’t take a break you may find yourself completing subpar work and settling for mediocrity.

Take Turns
Whenever possible find a backup that can help with some of the duties required of you so that you can be there to support the team.  Let someone else lead a meeting so that you can take some one-on-one time with a member that needs that extra support.  This also provides development tools for other members of the team that may need to work on some of these skills.

These little things can add up to big things in the long-run.  Don’t discount the power that these small tasks have on your project and your team.

What are little things you have done to make a big difference?

How have leaders impacted you by taking care of the little things?

Providing Choices

tomatoes

When you look at a group of tomatoes at the store from a distance, they all look the same.  That doesn’t make for excitement.  It doesn’t make me feel like I have options.  If I want a tomato, I get that type of a tomato.  It’s kind of like getting a Model T in fire-engine red…not going to happen.

People like choices, and as Project Leaders, we need to understand that desire.  Sales people have been using this tactic for decades. 

Don’t give people the option to say “no”, give them options on how to say “yes”.

As a Project Leader, you are a salesman, whether you want to be or not.  You have to sell your solution, your method, your team choice, your timeline, your budget, and your abilities.  These are all points of sale, and if you provide options, you will sell more.

The Solution & Budget

Selling the solution seems like it should be the last step, but it is the first.  Most times a project is “identified” already and you are the one to get it done.  The thing is, there are multiple solutions for most situations:  Automation vs. Manual, New vs. Used, Higher Investment/Lower Operation Cost vs. Lower Investment/Higher Operation Cost.

These are all choices.  Scope your project on all of these fronts for feasibility and impact.  Present the options to the stakeholder and help him choose the solution that is right for him.  Remember that the solution and the budget are closely related.  Provide valuable options that are at different investment levels, however, make sure they all satisfy the objective of the project.

The Method & Timeline

Method is the HOW for executing the project.  You already have the WHAT sewn up with the choices you provided for the solution.  Now, with the different solutions, you can have different methods.  These choices can range from installation methods, equipment options, operation needs, interviews, surveys, process flow maps, value-stream mapping, and many other buzzwords, catch-phrases, and tools that proliferate in the Project Management arena.  Pick different options that, again, provide value to the stakeholder.  Method and timeline are directly related and usually the longer the time investment the more thoroughly the solution will be implemented and sustained after the project is completed without your intervention.

Be careful here.  It can be easy to find yourself providing a method option that is going to tie you to the project for a long time.  Understand your time commitment and budget and provide options that fit within your requirements.  Also, be cautious about being pulled back into the project after it is completed because it drifts backwards.  This is usually because you provided an option that was too short on time and the project was not adopted readily, requiring your intervention later.  Make sure the stakeholder knows when you are parting ways with the project and understand that support will be limited afterwards.  People will not own something if they can rely on the Project Leader as a crutch.

The Team & Your Abilities

These options start with a clear assessment of what you bring to the table.  Understand your time availability, your technical capabilities, and the level of intimacy you have with the project topic.  Create options around how you will support your weaknesses (and it is okay to have weaknesses on a project and still be the Project Manager) with other people and create potential teams with suggestions.  Make sure that all of these teams satisfy your requirements for time and talent, but still give options on who is on the team and the time they will need to invest to the project.

How Many?

Three is always a good number.  I think that is why the Baby Bear in Goldilocks didn’t have any siblings.  You will find that with a number like three, the process of elimination takes over and you will have an option that is too hot, too cold and another that is just right.  Sometimes you can’t make it to three, that is okay, work with what you have.  Other times, you may need to present more options.  Understand your audience and the project complexity.

Don’t provide too many choices.  People get bogged down when they have too many options to consider.  Use yourself as a guide.  If you would be willing to sit and read all of the options and weigh them against one another, chances are that your stakeholder will as well.

When Teams Become Dangerous

hawksTeamwork.  Often we have the need and desire to improve team relationships.  We have been told that we need to work well with teams.  We, as managers, must promote a team environment.  Leadership training focuses on working as a team.  If teams are so great, and we have teams everywhere (how many “teams” are you a member of?) then why do we still have issues creeping up on us?  Why do we still have to play politics?

There is no “I” in “team”: yeah, right.
In today’s culture we are celebrating individuality and simultaneously asking our teams to let it go.  I don’t think we will ever be able to suppress the individual to a point that teamwork will be natural.  People often work in teams because it benefits the individual.  This has been showcased in modern Reality TV where people will work in teams until it is time to ‘win’.  Additionally, this is also demonstrated in game theory analysis.  The concept is flawed because it comes from an idealistic premise that human beings can let go of their individuality. 

Emotional Teams
Overall, mankind is selfish unless we are touched emotionally by something.  People work very well in teams when there is a crisis.  We all tend to fall into an order of sorts and try to contribute in the best way we can.   However, these are short-lived teams that band together when the time calls for action and then disperse quickly when the job is done. Teamwork comes easy when we believe in something greater than ourselves.  Volunteer groups, emergency response teams, and first responders work together very well during the time they are needed but will resort to selfish measures when the emotions no longer dictate the behavior.  But it is hard to convince an employee that making Product A the most efficiently with the best quality is a noble cause.  Most people are not emotionally tied to their jobs.

The Opposition Within
When we create teams we often create competition: shift rivalries, departmental performance.  But competition is good, right?  Have you ever been in a meeting where two department managers are arguing about who will pay for something?  There is an agreement (stated or implied) that a service or good is needed but it is being argued about who’s budget will take the hit. As managers we should know that if one of us is going to buy something that it is for the betterment of the organization.  So who cares who pays? This is a common example of teamwork gone awry.  Are we not measured on how well we manage our budget?  This is an individual goal that trumps the business need.  It is a selfish endeavor to manage your budget over doing what is right for the company.  We have created turf wars in modern business.  We have pushed ownership to the point of possessiveness.  We sit in meetings and argue over jobs.  We are back on the playground, staking claim on the jungle gym. Some might argue that this is not teamwork, but I say it is.  It is teamwork as we have defined it over the years. 

Redefining Teams
The team should be defined as “the smallest group possible whose goals do not conflict with the goals of any other group.”  The key to this definition is the set of goals.  This is all about creating the right KPIs.  Coupling personal objectives with team objectives is the only way to create a win-win mentality.  This doesn’t mean that the other KPIs shouldn’t be measured.  They should, they are topographical maps of the company.  They show the peaks and valleys and allow the team to work together to achieve a common goal. 

Sustaining Gains

  1. Start from the top down when setting metrics and goals. 
  2. Personal goals should correspond to team goals.  The only personal goals that are outside of those team goals would be development goals for the individual (i.e. implement supervisor conflict management training before October 2nd). 
  3. If you can’t create a KPI for a group that doesn’t conflict with the KPI of a peer group, you need to think more critically or simply hold to the higher-level KPI. 
  4. Share successes of the team with the whole organization whenever possible.  This will help to build camaraderie and will motivate teams to help one another on achieving their collective goals. 
  5. Flex your KPIs to shift your business needs and create renewed focus in primary improvement areas. 
  6. Solicit the feedback of everyone to see where people can affect the KPI and if it is reasonable to set as a goal.

Remember, a few good metrics is better than a huge list.  I have seen companies with an entire matrix of Red/Yellow/Green scorecards that people simply can’t keep up with.  Keep your team focused and good things will happen.  Manage the extremes by exception and great solid game plans with your teams to see step change improvements.

How have you seen teams become destructive?

What are you doing to ensure that your teams are collaborative and not competative?

At a Snail’s Pace: 3 things to learn from the Gastropod

 

snail

We are in a rushed world.  We want instant gratification and we expect timely service from our suppliers and our customers expect it from us.  When we manage projects we are looking at the critical path and trying to crunch the schedule as much as possible without any slip.  As project managers, our job is to complete the project with the right quality, cost and in time.

I was watching this particular snail move across the sidewalk.  It was slow and deliberate.  When it ran across an obstacle it took its time to evaluate the best way around it and then continued on its journey. In this relatively short amount of time I felt myself relax and become amazed with the simple movements and methodical pace of this creature.

When we are running projects we tend to rush through them in order to get the results.  What we neglect is the setup.  This is where a methodical pace will get us somewhere faster than the crazed frenzy we typically use.

 

Take the time to investigate.
We often leave out the most important part of the project: evaluating its validity in the first place.  Many projects are “handed” to project managers with the assumption that it will get done; that it has already been vetted.  But usually the project has only had a cursory glance and it “felt” to be a good opportunity.

Work with the end-user to begin the project.
“A stich in time saves nine,” right?  Slowing down at the beginning and getting a solid working definition of the project objectives through the eyes of the user is the best way to make sure that the project stays done (in other words you don’t have to keep revisiting and revising the project after it is “closed”).

Incorporate time to get around obstacles.
Just like our shelled mascot, give yourself time to properly evaluate obstacles as they arise throughout your project.  Conduct a solid risk assessment (sometimes this can be as simple as on the back of a napkin for smaller projects) and think of how to mitigate those risks.  When they show up, you will have the beginning of a workaround that you can refine when the risk arrives.

 

 What other benefits come from slowing down a project?