Wednesday, 26 March 2008

Not getting the Contract

As I headed down the motorway, I noticed the over head signs: 'Congestion J7-J12 - Long Delays'. Not good, since I was heading for an important meeting with some new contacts, and although I had allowed an hour's buffer, when the motorway gets indigestion it can take two, three or four hours to clear up.

Turning off the motorway a couple of junctions ahead of the trouble, I immediately run into slow moving traffic - of course, everyone is trying to work around the blockage - which eventually resolves after passing a set of traffic lights timed to serve traffic on and off the motorway rather than running parallel to it. After about ten swift miles, the pattern repeats, and again, and again. I pull off the road and ring ahead, to say I cannot make it on time. They say their schedule today has been disrupted by the motorway blockage too, and ask me to just turn up when I can. Eventually I turn into the car park, half an hour behind schedule, and hurry inside. Losing my hour's buffer has also prevented me from reading The Book ahead of the meeting. The Book is crucial, because it is the manifesto of The Man who owns the organisation, and reading The Book is what led me to this meeting. After a few minutes to lower my stress levels, I am shown into the presence of The Man's staff - acolytes, maybe.

I might have guessed from The Man's background (academic, maverick, big success in business through unconventional methods), but I am walking into a room pervaded with self-satisfaction. Dress code is jeans and lumberjack shirts. Furnishing is soft sofas with heavy fabric. Style is 18th century townhouse, knocked into farmhouse-size rooms, with carefully preserved uneven floors, and homely bookcases and tables instead of filing cabinets and chairs. My linen silk jacket, which normally serves me well as 'not a suit but not casual' and the silk tie against my made to measure shirt mark me out. Even the layout is contrived and spooky, I am placed with two women 45% on my left, and a man 60% on my right. Maintaining eye contact I would have to do tennis-style head swivelling.

A voice (middle woman) cuts through: 'To be fair to you this is just so we can get to know you a little, and you us. We get a lot of interest, and every now and again we bring several people in for one these meetings, at the moment we are not in a position to take anything further forward, in fact the last session was very productive so we don't have any needs in the short term.'

OK, fine, if you are wasting my time, you are also wasting your own which I think is unlikely, but anyway I'm here, so let's get to it.

'Tell us about yourself'

This is a question I hate. Of course I can talk about myself all day, but the question is, what to include, what is going to be of interest, what will help me pass the test this meeting obviously is, and get closer to the point where money changes hands ? I talk about myself, my drives and motivations, and the things I know and have done that are relevant to The Man's work, and how The Book speaks to me.

'What is it you think we do ?' From right-hand man, who I had not been making eye-contact with.

Another challenging question. The Book has 250 pages setting out what The Man's organisation does - or at least as much of it as The Man cares to make public as a teaser and sales aid. I wish I had had my spare hour to park up and re-skim The Book. I wish I had re-read the book in the previous couple of days. I wish I had realised that 'a chat to get to know a little about one another' meant 'the Oxford interview from hell'. I talk about a few key issues in the Book, and how they relate to things I have learned from elsewhere and have worked out and put into practice for myself.

'What is the important thing we do ?' Right-hand man again.

Is this an idiotic question ? - every organisation believes everything it does is important, or it wouldn't do it. Or is it a clever one ? - some things are more difficult to do than others, and that is where you have to focus more of your attention, but now you're asking me to guess at how your internal capability - which you have said nothing about - matches against the work in front of you. Or maybe it's just a shibboleth ? - we have many good offers brought to us, and in being selective there's no need to use rational methods, irrational ones will cut them down to the number we need just as effectively. I talk about what I think is important.

' We like to work with people who can very quickly understand how we operate. Actually X is the key to what we do, and Y and Z that you mentioned are subordinate matters which follow on from X. Our work is focused on X. Is there anything else you'd like to say ?'

Ouch. I have just failed. Time to stand up, shake hands, and head off back along the now freely-flowing motorway, telling myself that the self-satisfied complacency I have just observed - and to be frank, have reinforced - would not be comfortable to deal with on an ongoing basis. All true but an inner voice insists that it would be very nice to be wrapped in that thick comfortable blanket of Smug.

© Steve Roberts 2008

Tuesday, 4 March 2008

Heroes of our time - Eli Goldratt

Eli Goldratt is best known for his book The Goal which described in a compelling way the struggle of a plant manager to improve his plant's performance to the point where the parent company would keep it open rather than close it.

You may think this is a bit of a niche book, because manufacturing industry involves relatively few people these days, and even when a story is built using corporate politics, family stress, and personal stubbornness, few people are likely to get excited about handling the technical constraints in production organisation. However, within its niche, the book has been outstandingly successful since its first publication in 1984.

Goldratt had previously written regular textbooks about the new ways of managing business which he had invented - or perhaps discovered. None of the books had been very successful, and 'The Goal' was a departure: instead of explaining his thinking, he illustrated it by revealing the causes and the effects, never actually spelling out the details of what he called 'Theory of Constraints' or TOC.

TOC is set of managerial techniques built on two foundations, the 'Five Focusing Steps', and the 'Cloud'.

The Five Focusing Steps

The Five Focusing steps is a method for improving any system which produces a flow of output. It has four key ideas:

1. Any system which is about flow - flow of parts through a manufacturing plant, or flow of tasks through a service business - must be subject to at least one constraint.

2. In almost all practical situations one of these constraints is dominant over all the others.

3. In order to improve the flow of the system we must focus on that dominant constraint.

4. Work on anything other than the dominant constraint cannot improve the system.

These key ideas may seem blindingly obvious (except 2, which is clearly an assumption), but what for me is special about Goldratt is his determination to follow the logic wherever it leads, whether to the seemingly obvious or the seemingly far-fetched. From these simple foundaations he builds a simple universal system for continuing improvement, which when applied to any practical environment, gives rise to thinking and actions which are far from obvious.

The Cloud

The Cloud is a method of analysing and creatively resolving conflicts. Its basic template is that one party proposes to take an action, and the other party proposes to take an action which is in conflict. The Cloud is based on these key ideas:

1. Although many conflicts a can be dealt with effectively by walking away, or by agreeing a trade-off compromise, or by a unilaterally imposed result, there are many conflicts where none of those approaches will lead to a good solution, and we need to apply a more creative result.

2. When parties to a conflict are bound by an overriding common objective, there is always a good solution to be found, in terms of that common objective.

3. The visible conflict between the incompatible proposed actions is driven by an invisible conflict. Each party has chosen its proposed action for a reason, because in some way it supports the common objective. The visible conflict arises when the two sides embrace different reasons or different values, which are themselves in (invisible) conflict.

4. Creative and lasting solutions are to be found by putting the conflicting proposals and the values which drive them 'on the table', and seeking creative reconciliation among the values and the overriding common objectives, rather than by trading off the conflicting proposals.

These ideas are not quite obvious, but they do fit in with a common insight, that in some conflicts both parties are actually right, and attempts to resolve them by a compromise or an imposed solution very often prove short-lived.

The Five Focusing Steps and the Cloud together

When we attempt to improve a situation, we will propose to change some aspect of the status quo. Usually, the status quo exists for a reason - good, bad or forgotten. When we propose a change we are therefore likely to initiate a conflict. usually, then, in order to apply the Five Focusing Steps we have to apply the Cloud as well. Individually these tools are powerful, together they enable a methodical process of improving almost anything.

©Steve Roberts 2008

Thursday, 27 December 2007

The Street Arena

It happened at about one in the morning as I was settling down in my sitting room with a large brandy. The quiet was disturbed by a dreadful commotion of yelling and screaming of obscenities from the street. I should say I live in a solid middle-class suburb which gets the occasional drunken yob walking through on the way to the council estate further out of town.

Outside, a fully loaded wheelie bin had been overturned, and a woman householder was struggling with a skinny feral female of about twenty, who was pulling her hair and kicking and generally fighting her in an ineffective but thoroughly unpleasant way.

I am in good shape for a (very) late 40's guy, and have been training in Tae Kwon Do for two years, so I felt confident that I could handle the situation. I shoved myself between the two of them, shielding the householder with my body, and pushing the girl away with my palms. Then I noticed, lurking at the side of the road, a weasel-faced scrawny little male of about the same age, and it occured to me that unless I was very careful, I would have two of them to deal with. Certainly if I launched a punching or kicking attack on the girl he was sure to attack me.

There are no police here at night, it takes them a good 15 minutes to get here, supposing they are not all out on calls. I had just walked out into the street the way I was, not changing my slippers for hard-soled shoes, not bringing my mobile phone to summon the police, not picking up my son's hockey stick that is parked by the front door. The brandy I had abandoned was the third of the evening, and followed half a bottle of wine and a gin and tonic. This was not going to be quite the same as sparring in the club. No gumshield, groinguard, or shinpads. No referee, no rules. No idea what weapons might be produced.

After a bit more pushing and shoving, two more females came into view, who added to the chaos by yelling and screaming at me. Fortunately they didn't touch me, because with four people to deal with I had worked out that I would be lucky to survive, and to do so I would have to put at least three of them down with a knockout or serious injury, and even if I was able to do that it would put me in big trouble with the police.

Eventually I managed to fairly gently push feral girl into the arms of feral boy and told him, in as good a voice of authority as I could manage, to get her home. To my surprise he pulled her away up the road - I guess he really did not want a fight either - and after one more round of screamed obscenities the other two harpies went with them.

I watched them down the street before turning my back and going inside, hands shaking, mind racing through the what-ifs, and wondering at how my life turned inside out in the seconds it took to get out of my armchair and walk into the street.

Thursday, 6 September 2007

Fade to Red

Is this the way it ends, on a stubble field, as the sun is setting ?

Harvest given way to weaponclash and fall of men

Fear and fatigue forgotten, sword-arm moves unbid, parry and strike

Feet across and back as the shield-wall reseals

Nowhere behind and no path ahead

Only those whose strength withstands will walk from here tonight

Flash of blade, fade to red


© steve_roberts 2007

Thursday, 2 August 2007

Shaper / wrecker team dynamics - one reason why bureaucracy doesn't work

Although it is no longer fashionable, I have a lot of time for Meredith Belbin's work on management teams, and in particular his work on what distinguishes successful teams from the unsuccessful ones.

In the course of a long series of experiments with management teams, Belbin identified a number of specific roles which had to be carried out within a team. For example, there is the resource-investigator role, which finds out and communicates to the team the resources available to them (he is the one who can be relied on to know which cafe has the best pastries, as well as hopefully more work-related things). There is the Chairman, who has a strong sense of the objectives, and works to make sure that everyone's contribution is taken into account. There are several others: the Plant (ideas man), the Monitor-evaluator (who knows how well we are doing), the Completer-finisher (who makes sure things get finished and all loose ends are dealt with), etc.

I know some people who have been away on training course and have come back to work saying proudly "Guess what, I'm a Plant". Tempting though it is to reply, "Indeed, and the plant in question is deadly nightshade - in small doses emetic, occasionally fatal", the correct response is that they are looking through the wrong end of the telescope. Their preferred team role is 'Plant', so if they are part of a team where no other member prefers to be the Plant, they will fill that role. If there is another Plant in the team, after a bit of shaking down, one will assume the role of team Plant, and the other will likely adopt a different role, although if the team is very big there can be room for two Plants. However, it is very convenient shorthand to refer to people as a Plant, when they are either someone who prefers to be the team Plant, or the person fulfilling the role of Plant in the team, so I will do so, and ask you to bear in mind that there is a distinction.

All teams have each of these roles, in small teams one individual will fill more than one role, in large teams there may be more than one person with a specific role. It is one of the wonders of human self-organisation how, within a new team, people will sense what roles everyone else is comfortable and competent with, and adjust their role accordingly, so that, after a shake-down period, the team roles are established.

One clear distinction between effective and ineffective teams is the extent to which the roles are filled by people with an aptitude to do them. For example, it makes a big difference whether the completer-finisher is good at completer-finishing, because it makes the difference between 100% complete and 90% complete with bits and pieces all over the place.

There is one role which is slightly different, the Shaper. The Shaper is the person who takes the lead in setting the agenda, in 'shaping' the task. Sometimes the team contains people who can be a good Shaper, or equally happily can fill one of the other roles, but very often, along with the sort of personality that has an aptitude for shaping, we find a need to be the shaper, not to allow anyone else to fill that role. I call that kind of personality a shaper/wrecker because depending on circumstances one will either shape the task or wreck it.

There are actually three modes of failure to do with Shapers. Firstly, as with the other roles, failure looms if no-one in the team is good at Shaping. In this case the task will drift until someone intervenes to cancel the task or introduce a Shaper. Secondly, the task will also be in trouble if the team Shaper does not have the right subject matter knowledge to shape the task well. This is particular likely to happen if the strongest Shaper in the team also has the Wrecker characteristic, because they will not step aside and allow a weaker Shaper who does have the right knowledge, to take over the Shaping. Thirdly, If the team includes two Shaper / Wreckers, the outcome is always bad - one will Shape while the other one Wrecks, and it is the nature of life that the wrecking will contribute more to the outcome than the shaping.

In a normal business situation, and especially when the owner is closely involved enough to observe what is going on, there is a natural limit to the shaper/wrecker dynamic, because each mode of failure will delay or compromise the task, and therefore reduce profits. Those firms that deal with the problems will succeed more often and therefore grow at the expense of those that don't. Knowingly or not, good managers will add a Shaper to a team that is making no progress; they will train up or replace a Shaper / Wrecker lacking in knowledge, and in the event of a wrecking contest, one or the other contestant will be removed.

In a bureaucracy, however, there is less pressure for corrective action, because no profits are at stake, and there is no Darwinian sifting of successful and unsuccessful organisations - what sifting there is being based on politics, not profits. Drift will continue because it is awkward to admit errors and make changes; lack of knowledge will be resolved over time through learning by making mistakes, the cost of which falls on innocent third parties; Wrecking competitions continue until the stronger party defeats the weaker. Only if the team has exactly one shaper, and he has the necessary subject knowledge, will the team be effective.

What are the chances of a team picked at random having exactly one Shaper ? It depends how many good Shapers are in the pool we pick from, but in any case, the smaller the team, the less likely it is to have a good Shaper, whereas a large team is likely to have two or more Shaper / Wreckers. Again, it will depend on how many Shaper / Wreckers are out there, but there may be a few pointers. In a well-managed business, Shaper / Wreckers will be identified and generally discouraged or excluded from senior positions, because of the necessity for effective team working especially at the higher levels. Instead Shapers who are also willing take other team roles will prosper, and in the Darwinian sifting of the competitive economy, such organisations will prosper. As a result, it is likely that the non-competitive economy will disproportionately attract ambitious Shaper / Wreckers, and as a result these people will be over represented in the places where they are least likely to be checked, and therefore liable to do most damage. The result is that bureaucracies tend to have less effective teams, and therefore don't work when it comes to complex many-sided tasks which characterise the modern world.

Reference:"Management Teams - Why they succeed or fail" by R. Meredith Belbin,
ISBN 0-7506-5910-6

© steve_roberts 2007

Tuesday, 24 July 2007

Heroes of our time - Genrich Altshuller

Today I want to celebrate the life and works of Genrich Saulovitch Altshuller, inventor and creator of the process for the creative solution of technical problems known as TRIZ.

Altshuller's work is much less well known around the world than it deserves to be, based on a couple of unhappy circumstances. Firstly, because he worked in the Soviet Union during the Cold War he was denied the possibility of communication with the community of scientists and engineers in the West until very late in his career, and much of his written work remains untranslated from the original Russian. Secondly, the Soviet authorities regarded his work with suspicion, at one stage sending him to the Gulag, and later denying him facilities for teaching and research.

If we consider man's material progress over the centuries, there has been a steady accumulation of clever inventions and ideas which enable us to make better use of time and resources to serve whatever purposes we have in mind. This expanding base of knowledge and ingenuity has over long periods of time led us from the uncertain existence of the hunter-gather, through to the more productive and predictable subsistence agriculture, and most recently to the fantastically rich, productive, and safe life that industrial society provides us today.

Over the last few hundred years or so, technical advances have been described and communicated in textbooks, research papers and patent libraries available to all, so that the pace of improvement has been multiplied by one mind being able to build on the thinking of strangers, even when separated by barriers of distance and language.

However, much as we can make better use of creative advances than we could in the past, the actual process of creating useful new ideas has remained stubbornly mysterious and impenetrable. Many discoveries and inventions have come about apparently by chance inspiration. Others have been the outcome of extended programmes of thousands or tens of thousands of laboratory trials. In view of the waste involved in both waiting for inspiration to strike and in conducting an exhaustive series of trials, many scientists, engineers, psychologists and philosophers have sought - with little or no success - a better way to stimulate the creative spark. It is Altshuller's greatness that he set about the seemingly contradictory task of systematising this type of creativity.

The foundation of his approach was the observation that inventions of different types, in different technical fields, could nevertheless be related through being instances of the application of a more fundamental underlying principle.

He set out, with collaborators, to trawl through the patent libraries of the world, and to distil from the hundreds of thousands of recorded inventions, the few inventive principles involved. He identified forty of these in all, independent principles each of which underpinned thousands of novel inventions in a wide range of technical fields. The basic use of his list of inventive principles is simplicity itself. When 'stuck' with a technical problem requiring a solution outside the textbook, one can simply take each inventive principle in turn, asking, for example "Could 'Curvature' help here? ". If, after due consideration, there doesn't seem to be any way to apply curvature to get closer to the necessary solution, move on to the next principle, and so on down the whole list if necessary. It seems in a way extraordinary to capture the elusive flame of creative thinking in a check-list, but the use of the principles does not entirely remove the need for creativity, it simply makes it a lot less difficult in practice.

The next advance, after identifying the inventive principles, was the observation that the inventive principles were in general applied to resolve a contradiction - for example, a railway carriage needs to be light - for reasons of carrying capacity, fuel consumption, etc; but it also needs to be strong, for reasons of safety, and carrying capacity. In this case the principle of 'Curvature' leads to the solution of a rigid curved shell which provides structural strength with much less weight than a chassis / framework / floor / wall /roof configuration.

Moving from this specific case of curvature resolving a contradiction between weight and strength - which is a contradiction that constantly comes up because in general, stronger things are heavier, and lighter things are weaker - the next step is to see whether the same logic applies to each of the inventive principles, in terms of each principle frequently being the basis for resolving specific types of contradiction between technical parameters. Re-analysing the patent library information to identify each invention as the application of an inventive principle to resolve solution to a technical contradiction, we come up with three things: a list of technical parameters, such as strength, weight, which frequently feature in contradictions; a matrix of pairs of these parameters frequently forming contradictions; and for each pair in a contradiction, a list of the inventive principles which have frequently been used to resolve the contraction. This is then put together in the form of the 'Contradiction Matrix', which allows us to further accelerate our creative solution-finding, by narrowing down our search to first examine those principles which solve the specific contradiction we face. Creativity is now down to a three-step process: 1) identify the technical contraction to be resolved; 2) identify which of the 40 principles applies to this contradiction 3) work with each principle to find a solution.

This is only the beginning of Altshuller's work, but in itself is fantastically useful for everyone in a technical profession, and for those of us working in more nebulous areas, we can build on it ourselves in two ways. Firstly, many of the inventive principles are not specific to engineering and scientific uses, so we can apply them directly to administrative or managerial issues. Secondly, we can, from our own experience and study, identify other inventive principles specific to our own field, which we then use in the same way as Altshuller's.

Links:

Wiki on Genrich Saulovitch Altshuller

Wiki on TRIZ

The TRIZ Journal TRIZ Journal

© steve_roberts 2007


Wednesday, 11 July 2007

Losing Weight - it ain't hard

What you do is to eliminate refined carbohydrates from your diet (sugar, flour, bread, cake, pasta, pastry, rice, potatoes, etc), and stick to modest levels of unrefined carbohydrates (fruit, root vegetables, etc) while ensuring you eat plenty of green vegetables, meat, fish, and dairy to keep up a good intake of fats and proteins. At the same time keep doing some regular exercise.

Eliminating refined carbs prevents blood sugar spikes which your body handles by converting the excess sugar to body fat. Keeping down the unrefined carbs makes your body use body fat for fuel. Keeping up your fats and proteins intake prevents your metabolism going into 'famine' mode, which is what trips dieters into bingeing. Exercise speeds things up by increasing the amount of fuel you need, and by building muscle, which also burns more fuel.

So, it's goodbye to: beer, sweet wines and spirits, cake, pies, pizza, chips, rice, bread, potatoes, fizzy drinks, sugar, and anything that you don't know what's in it. Hello to dry wines and spirits, nuts, seeds, green vegetables, fresh fruit, water, cheese, cream, olive oil, meat, poultry, seafood, and food you prepare yourself from any of the above ingredients.


There are some downsides, it takes a couple of weeks of self-discipline for new eating pattern to become a habit; shopping and preparing food this way takes more time than using factory-made crab-loaded additive-stuffed package meals; sometimes eating away from home is a challenge - when presented with a sandwich lunch I have been known to eat the filling and throw away the bread.

Read more in any book on Atkins, South Beach, Low GI - they all converge at much the same point.

© steve_roberts 2007