Thirty years ago I sat in a factory office with my head bowed low, looking at the dirty grey lino floor. My boss, a middle-aged, overweight man wearing a white coat smeared with ice-cream was berating me in a broad west country accent.
Apparently I was wasting both my time and his. I would be far better off if I stopped faffing about with my computer and did some proper work (my words not his).
This was the late 80’s, my boss wasn’t big into computers.
I had just taken possession of my first copy of Lotus 1-2-3. Some of you may remember it, it was the predecessor to the ubiquitous Microsoft Excel.
I was busy working out how much ice-cream we could get on a lorry. I’d worked through the calculations:
Weight of an ice-cream
Ice-creams per carton
Cartons per pallet
Pallets per lorry
So far so good…
Then I’d refined and improved my calculations adding:
Volume of air in each ice-cream wrapper
Carton filling pattern (how many ice-creams to a carton)
Carton stacking pattern (how many cartons to a layer)
Layers per pallet
Thickness of interleaves (sheets of cardboard that hold pallets together)
Number of interleaves
Weight of interleaves
Pallet shrink-wrap weight (think cling-film)
Shrink wrap length
Then I’d created a whole host of combinations of carton filling and stacking patterns. I was very proud of myself. I’d worked out how to squeeze 1,032 extra choc-ices on a truck.
All calculated to three decimal places.
Precision is not accuracy
By boss took one look at the spreadsheet and rolled his eyes towards the ceiling. He pointed out that for all my variables, data and fancy calculations, the only thing we could be sure of was that my final number was flat-out wrong.
He gave me a thermal coat and sent me and my mate into the cold-store (minus thirty-two degrees centigrade, bloody chilly). We spent the next two hours stacking pallets then went back to tell him what we’d found out.
For some reason he didn’t fancy coming into the cold store to have a look himself.
His point was simple
Pulling together a spreadsheet and running some numbers is all important. But…
I didn’t know what information I needed. How about the thermal expansion coefficient of chocolate?
If I did know, then I couldn’t collect it all without months of research.
I was wasting my time searching for incremental data.
I was giving myself a false sense of security. Thinking I knew everything, when I didn’t.
Worst of all I was wasting time not coming to a conclusion.
As he put it. My obsession with accuracy was stopping progress (that’s not what he said, his terminology was cruder). Cutting hairs over and over again was not going to get me a more accurate outcome. Nor was it going to get any more ice-creams on the lorry.
Analysis by itself is a pointless exercise
It doesn’t take you anywhere unless you act on it. Even then it isn’t enough to act, you have to learn from your actions.
A few freezing hours later we had come to a much more workable solution. It transpired I’d forgotten to include the weight of the pallet…
I went away to refine (and simplify) my spreadsheet and persuade the factory manager to change the stacking pattern.
It is better to be approximately right than precisely wrong
If you are analysing something, first create a simple, straight forward spreadsheet that gives you some insight into what is going on. Then test your assumptions and learn from them.
Running endless spreadsheet scenarios just consumes time. After all that work, the number you end up with will be precisely wrong.
The greatest works of fiction are written on spreadsheets ~ Anon
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P.S. I prefer Microsoft Excel to Lotus 1-2-3. It has so many more options for making your spreadsheet look pretty. You can even colour code it to match it to your PowerPoint. After all, if you have nothing insightful to say, it is always best to make it look impressive…
If you have been reading this blog for a while you will have noticed that I am a caught in a repeating loop. The human equivalent of a stuck record.
I write about organisational improvement. There are lots of fascinating advances in technology, management thinking and other whiz-bang solutions that I could pontificate about, but I invariably bounce back to the topic of culture.
Culture is nebulous thing, there is more to it than “the way we do things around here”, behaviour is only the tip of the iceberg. But the tip of the iceberg is very revealing. There are plenty of hints when things are rotten…
It is easy to see how my list of behaviours fits together, but is changing culture the biggest lever you can pull? In the modern world, with all our data, technology, innovation and infrastructure, surely there are bigger, easier more lucrative fish to fry.
After all, how bad can your culture be?
The great leap forward
From 1958 to 1962 Mao Zedong, chairman of the communist party of China, attempted to transform his country. He wanted to change it from an economy based on agriculture to an industrial power house that rivalled Britain and the United States. Chinese historian Yang Jisheng chronicled his attempts in the book Tombstone. Mao’s desire to overtake Britain within 15 years became “the guiding ideology of the party and the country”.
Chairman Mao forced through many radical changes to achieve his dream:
He abolished private ownership of land and property, creating state operated communes instead.
The communes were set stringent food production targets to feed the cities and provide export revenue.
To boost industrial output the communes were urged to build backyard steel furnaces.
New agricultural methods were adopted, close planting of seeds to improve yields was enforced.
Manure was concentrated on the most fertile land to increase productivity. Other land was left fallow.
The four pests campaign was introduced to eradicate mosquitos, rodents, flies and sparrows. The government declared that “birds are public animals of capitalism”.
To help motivate the people and encourage compliance with the new policies loudspeakers boomed out propaganda and songs.
Local party officials swung into action to force through the changes.
Peasants and other workers battled to build and operate the backyard furnaces. They stripped local forests of trees to fire them. Knives, pots, pans, plates and other “scrap” were requisitioned then melted down to produce low quality pig iron. All to hit production targets. This all took people away from work in the fields.
Of the four pests, sparrows were the easiest target. People banged pots and pans together. The resulting racket frightened the birds so much they wouldn’t land in the trees. Many died from the exhaustion of flying. Sparrow nests were sought out, their eggs were smashed and chicks killed. Propaganda forced the activity on, particularly in rural areas. “Killing sparrows serves to protect crops. Sparrows in cities and forest areas do not necessarily have to be eliminated.“
The Soviet agronomist Trofim Lysenko was the source of the agricultural innovations. His ideas are now rejected. Close planting of seedlings gave reduced yields. The plants competed with one another for resources. Liu Shaoqi, Mao’s deputy at the time suggested that peasants use tweezers to weed the seedlings.
Despite the havoc caused by Lysenko’s ideas the weather in 1958 was ideal for agriculture. But because people were so busy with Mao’s steel furnaces and other projects, much of the harvest rotted in the fields. A plague of locusts exacerbated the problem. The insect population flourished in the absence of its major predators, rodents and sparrows.
The harvest was disastrous, but nobody admitted it.
Local officials, motivated by fear or power, declared record breaking yields. Senior officials then swooped in to commandeer the grain “surplus”. It was taken to fill government warehouses. The lack of food caused a famine in rural areas.
As disquiet spread amongst the population there were vicious attacks on anybody who dared question the policies. When the head of one agricultural commune dared to point out the obvious — that there was no food — a party leader warned him: “That’s right-deviationist thinking. You’re viewing the problem in an overly simplistic matter.”
Local leaders started to cover up the famine and cast blame on the peasants, protecting their own positions. When Mao visited Henan province in 1958 the fields he saw were carefully prepared. Local officials transplanted healthy seedlings from other parts of the region. They were densely planted giving the appearance of abundance.
Only one of Mao’s senior leaders spoke out about what was happening. Marshal Peng Dehuai was the minister for defence. Mao denounced him as “bourgeois” and sacked him. His successor Lin Bao then went on to purge the military of Dehuai’s supporters.
Mao’s attacks cowed his opposition. At local party level, gangs of Mao’s political supporters harassed or killed anybody who dared speak out. Doctors were forbidden from using the word starvation on death certificates.
Despite the famine, China was a net exporter of grain between 1958 and 1960 . When news of the disaster reached the outside world the Japanese offered to ship 100,000 tonnes of wheat to China secretly. The offer was refused. When asked about the famine in a news conference in 1961 John F. Kennedy said “we’ve had no indication from the Chinese Communists that they would welcome any offer of food”.
Mao Zedong did not want to lose face.
Estimates vary on how many people starved to death. The most that has ever been admitted is 20 million, though some estimate the number was as high as 45 million. But those are just big numbers. It is the small stories that show how horrific the situation was. According to the author and academic, Frank Dikotter:
One man was found guilty of stealing a sweet potato. Officials forced him to eat excrement.
Another man was forced to bury his son alive for stealing a handful of grain.
People turned to cannibalism, one teenage orphan killed and ate her four-year-old brother.
In one village 44 of the 45 residents died. The last one, a woman in her 60’s went insane.
In an internal Party communiqué in 1959, Mao admitted, “Much of the falsehood has been prompted by the upper levels through boasting, pressure, and reward, leaving little alternative to those below.”
In 1961 the agricultural policies were curtailed and agricultural production started to rise. Grain exports were stopped and shipments were accepted from Canada and Australia.
As an ops guy I get to visit them all. If I am lucky I get invited to London to talk strategy as well. I spend my life on a train. Being part of the train-set isn’t quite as chic as being part of the jet-set.
There is an upside. A couple of days a week I hand in my rail pass and work from home.
They get their heads down and graft, there are no distractions. Because they don’t commute they start earlier and finish later. Home-workers are hugely productive.
They are a bunch of idle gits. There is nobody checking up on them, so they spend their hours watching daytime TV in their slippers. Home-workers are a bunch of slackers.
I like to think that the more enlightened among us hold the first opinion, whilst the second is a little medieval, but what do I know?
Am I an idle git?
A company in China decided to find out if working from home is a good thing or not.
Ctrip are a NASDAQ-listed Chinese travel agency with sixteen thousand employees. They asked their call centre staff if they would like to take part in a home-working experiment. After checking a couple of qualifying factors (availability of home broad band and a quiet place to work) Ctrip managers selected a trial pool of employees and randomly assigned them to two groups. A home-working population and a control group who stayed in the office.
What they discovered was quite startling. Employees who worked from home put in 9% more hours per shift (fewer breaks and time off sick). They also answered 4% more calls per hour (this was attributed to a quieter, more convenient working environment).
A 13% increase in productivity isn’t to be sniffed at, but there was more. Staff attrition fell by 50% and, of course, the company saved the cost of office space.
The trial was so successful that Ctrip offered home-working as an option to all employees.
Interestingly this policy led in turn to a couple more spin-off benefits.
Ctrip were wise enough to offer staff a choice. Some decided that home-working wasn’t for them (they didn’t like the loneliness) and returned to the office. However there was a further productivity rise to 22% for the staff who self selected to work from home.
Ctrip also increased the geographical base of its hiring activity. It started offering home-working contracts in other (lower wage) areas of the country.
The study (which you can read here) doesn’t say what the overall productivity improvement was. When I factor in all the improvements I suspect home-working was between 33% and 50% more productive than working in an office.
So I’m not a lazy slob
Maybe not, but arguably what is true for Chinese call centre staff isn’t the same for British middle managers.
Experiments are a wonderful thing
Nobody would ever have guessed that a home-working trial would have boosted productivity by over 30%.
Leonardo da Vinci said that to understand something you need to look at it in at least three different ways.
My default perspective is middle-aged white male manager. Fortunately, when it comes to business and organisations that is undoubtably the best perspective to have. So I can happily ignore Mr da Vinci’s advice.
You, however, might not be so fortunate.
Blinding ignorance does mislead us. O! Wretched mortals, open your eyes! ~ Leonardo da Vinci
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But single numbers are meaningless. People quote point metrics and statistics with abandon, but by definition, a single number doesn’t have any context. As single numbers don’t have any context they aren’t useful.
There are three ways to add context to a point metric:
Big single numbers are the worst, the bigger the number the more impressive it sounds. Journalists know that if a number is so big it is difficult for us to get our minds around then we will automatically think it is important.
Whenever somebody starts quoting single numbers at you (journalists, managers, doctors, lawyers, or politicians — especially politicians) ask for a comparator a numerator or the history. And don’t forget, the bigger and more impressive that number sounds the more suspicious you really ought to be.
Some numbers shouldn’t be trusted.
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These three causes if death didn’t really register. Their significance was blown up out of all proportion by the media.
In the UK in 2016 there were somewhere between 2 and 9 deaths caused by terrorists (depending on who you count as a terrorist). In our green and pleasant land newsagents have killed thousands of times more people than al-Qaeda ever managed. Cigarettes and alcohol are deadly.
There is a huge amount of media hype and noise about issues that are novel and new. Yet precisely because they are novel and new they are largely irrelevant. Stories about children dying from diarrhoea, or middle-aged men having heart attacks don’t sell newspapers. The real killers pass by unnoticed. We see them every day, and they just blend into the background.
Worry about the unremarkable
The same is true in business. The biggest problems — money wasters, customer dissatisfies or general organisational screw-ups — are the mundane everyday occurrences, not the management noise. Worry less about the risks and more about the common or garden issues. They are the real killers.
You have precious few resources; focus on the things that matter, not the current panic.
Take it from me, a burkini never hurt anyone.
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There is lots of pressure on companies to be nimble, to innovate, and to change. Yet these directives fail time and again. This has lead to widespread puzzlement and a host of research and articles analysing why:
Generally speaking though, organisations don’t do that type of analysis. Instead failure to change is often blamed on employees who resist change and won’t keep pace with the new. This creates divisions between managers and employees, further reducing the chances of success.
Organisational change fails for two reasons:
1. The change is driven by an abstract target
Managers identify the need for change in a boardroom looking at a chart and deciding to “move the needle” on a particular metric.
Change can be hard if the metrics are specific and measurable, like sales numbers or production targets. It is often disastrous if the goal is something vague like “employee engagement” or “innovation”.
The C.E.O. read a book and went to a seminar about a Hot New Thing and sees it as an agent for change. Now there is an inferno of activity around the H.N.T.
Frequently companies hire a vice president of the H.N.T. who is going to bring change to the organisation. He issues memos and press releases and holds company meetings to usher in the revolution.
Long-term employees roll their eyes because they have seen more than one H.N.T. in their time.
These groups of people are often labelled with pejorative terms like “the frozen middle” or the “awkward squad”, as if they are simply unwilling to change, and that their resistance is wrong. But that shows a lack of understanding of company culture and human motivation.
Target driven initiatives that address the symptom and not the cause are doomed to fail.
Successful organisational change requires a deep level of motivation and commitment.
To combat these failure points, organisations should reassess their change initiatives:
1. Correctly identify the thing that needs to change.
Measurements and metrics give valuable insights into the operation of an organisation. But measurements tell you what and not why. If analysis reveals a problem then managers must understand why it’s happening to understand how it can be changed.
Broadly speaking, the best source of this information is your own employees. They are your greatest asset in identifying sources of friction and how best to correct them. If front-line employees don’t agree that change is needed, or what should be changed, your efforts are virtually doomed to fail.
The process of change should start by listening to employees to find the areas they find problematic. Then proposed solutions will meet the real need, and not an abstracted measurement.
2. Employ a trusted change agent.
A Hot New Thing (a new technology or process, management philosophy or person) can be a powerful symbol of commitment to change. Several studies have shown the effectiveness of minority influence on organisational change.
However, it will not have the desired result unless it is addressing underlying problems, and the employees trust it. If trust has been eroded by a series of H.N.T.s that didn’t address real problems, if the H.N.T. fails to win the commitment of employees, or if the H.N.T. hasn’t been given the licence to enact deep change, then it just becomes another fad.
Whether the change agent is a person, technology, method or process, the fundamentals remain the same: build trust and seek input.
Start at the beginning
To really change, organisations need to start from the beginning and ask the questions:
Is change actually needed?
Who feels that way, and why?
Is there widespread agreement about it at all levels of the company?
Without that information, you won’t accomplish meaningful, lasting change. Not by any measure.
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Agriculture forms the base of the economy. Two-thirds of the population make their living from farming. The industrial and commercial sectors are also based on agriculture; processing and trading the tobacco, sugar cane and pulses that are grown.
An agricultural economy needs water
Nepal has plenty of water. The average annual rainfall is 1,600mm, about twice what we get in the UK. Unfortunately, virtually all the rain falls in the monsoon season between June and September. As Nepal is a mountainous country all that water heads to the Indian Ocean at an alarming rate. So the Nepalese economy is dependent on an infrastructure of dams and irrigation channels.
Historically these were built by the local farmers with whatever materials came to hand. So the farmers had two jobs, working the land and maintaining the dams and canals.
Aid and investment
To ease the situation, many aid agencies have invested in Nepal, using modern materials and equipment to build new concrete dams. These need less maintenance, freeing up the farmers time to do something more productive. The aid agencies were helping to lift Nepal out of poverty, or at least so they hoped.
Dams are the sort of project that large aid agencies love.
They are a visible sign of activity.
The need for them is easy to explain, so they attract investment.
They work well with foreign government aid programmes that provide cheap industrial machinery.
Civil servants also love to show how they are contributing. So local permissions are easy to obtain.
A waste of money
The economist Elinor Ostrom studied these projects. She came to the unlikely (and unwelcome) conclusion that the aid agencies were wasting their money investing in big concrete dams. Over the long-term, they did little to promote economic growth and often prevented it.
The soft system
The problem with the large modern dams was that they didn’t need much maintenance. That after all was the point. They were built to reduce the amount of time spent maintaining the infrastructure, freeing farmers up to do other things.
But historically the farming communities have cooperated to maintain the dam and the downstream irrigation channels:
The farmers down the hill would help those at the top maintain the dam.
Those at the top would help those lower down clear and rebuild the irrigation channels.
Unfortunately, when the dam didn’t need maintaining, there was no longer any incentive for the farmers at the top of the hill to help those lower down with the irrigation channels. So the farmers downstream were left to help themselves, and the irrigation systems gradually fell into disrepair.
Because they didn’t understand the human system, the builders of the hard technological solutions broke it.
Was to invest in upgrading the irrigation channels and not the dams. This maintained everybody’s incentive to cooperate. Though, of course, a concrete ditch doesn’t look nearly so impressive in a charity’s annual report as a dirty great big dam.
The best-of-breed is the Dvorak keyboard. Dr. August Dvorak designed it in 1932 after carrying out a set of time and motion studies on typists. It is overwhelmingly better than the QWERTY keyboard. Let me explain why…
In an ideal world a typist wouldn’t have to move his fingers from row to row. The Dvorak keyboard was designed so that (for somebody typing English) 70% of the keystrokes are on the “home” or middle row. 28% are on the top row and 8% on the bottom row. For QWERTY typists only 32% of keystrokes are on the home row.
The population is predominately right-handed. Using a QWERTY keyboard the typist’s left hand completes 56% of key strokes. The Dvorak keyboard reverses this and places 56% of key strokes on the stronger right hand.
If a typist can use both hands alternately then typing becomes faster, as one hand hits a key the other hand can find the next so improving rhythm and speed. On the Dvorak keyboard all the vowels (and the Y) are on the left hand side of the keyboard, promoting a hand to hand rhythm.
Here, in all its glory is the Dvorak keyboard:
It has been estimated that during a typical 8-hour day a typist’s fingers travel sixteen miles over a QWERTY keyboard. On the innovative Dvorak keyboard that distance plummets by a staggering 94% to just one single mile.
That is a startling improvement in performance, even before you consider the impact of lost time and medical claims for repetitive strain injury.
Of course, the ideal pairing with a best-of-breed keyboard is a best-of-breed typist. To avoid any Benny Hill humour, let’s agree that a best-of-breed typist looks like somebody who can average about seventy words per minute. To put that in context I manage about thirty-five.
What happens when you combine a best-of-breed typist with a best-of-breed keyboard? You get a dismal performance as the QWERTY trained touch typist hunts about with two fingers for the keys…
A word about corporate cultures: for better or for worse, they are enduring, stable, hard to change. They can be a source of advantage or disadvantage. You can write down your corporate culture, but when you do so, you’re discovering it, uncovering it — not creating it.
It is created slowly over time by the people and by events — by the stories of past success and failure that become a deep part of the company lore. If it’s a distinctive culture, it will fit certain people like a custom-made glove.
The reason cultures are so stable in time is because people self-select. Someone energized by competitive zeal may select and be happy in one culture, while someone who loves to pioneer and invent may choose another.
The world, thankfully, is full of many high-performing, highly distinctive corporate cultures. We never claim that our approach is the right one — just that it’s ours — and over the last two decades, we’ve collected a large group of like-minded people. Folks who find our approach energizing and meaningful. ~ Jeff Bezos