Consulting

Never Panic!

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Regardless of your position or role, panic is not a good problem-solving tool. It is especially bad when you are in charge of people, or when you are brought in for your expertise. Panic leads to a myopic view of the problem, and that hinders creativity.

The point in my career when this became readily apparent is when I was working for a small software company. We had a new product (Warehouse Management System) and were launching our third deployment. This one was more complicated than the rest because it was for a pharmaceutical company. In addition to requirements like refrigeration and lot control, there was a mix of FDA-controlled items requiring various forms of auditing and security as well as storage areas that were significantly smaller than previous installations. It was a challenge to be sure.

A pictures of three ice cubes, stacked, and melting slightly.

During this implementation, a critical component, “Location Search,” failed. There were about 10-12 people in the “war room” when my boss, the VP of Development, began to panic. He was an extremely talented person who normally did an excellent job, but his reaction began negatively affecting the others in the room. The mood quickly worsened.

Partly because I did not want to be stuck there all weekend, and mostly because I wanted this implementation to be a success, I jumped in and took over. I asked my boss to go out and get a bunch of pizzas. Next, I organized a short meeting to review what we knew, what was different from our prior tests and asked for speculation about the root cause of this problem. The team came up with two potential causes and one potential workaround. Everyone organized into three teams and we began attacking each item independently. 

We ended up identifying the root cause which led to an ideal fix a few days later, as well as a work-around that allowed us to finish the user acceptance testing and go live the following day. A change in mindset fostered the collaboration and problem-solving needed to move forward.

But, this isn’t just limited to groups. I was once working at a large insurance company where I was on a team redesigning their Risk Management system. We were using new software and wanted to be sure that the proper environment variables were set during the Unix login process for this new system. I volunteered to create an external function that was executed as part of the login process. Trying to maintain clean code, I had an “exit” at the end of the function. It worked well during testing but immediately logged people out as they were attempting to log into the system.

As you can imagine, I had a sinking feeling in my gut. How could I have missed this? This was a newer system deployed just for this risk management application so there were no other privileged users logged in at the time. Then, I remembered reading about a Unix “work” that used FTP to infiltrate systems. The article stated that FTP bypassed the standard login process. This allowed me to FTP into the system and then delete the offending function. In less than 5 minutes everything was back to normal.

A related lesson learned was to make key people aware of what just happened, noting first that the problem had been resolved and that there was no lasting damage. Hiding mistakes kills careers. Then, we created a “Lessons Learned” log, with this as the first entry, to foster the idea of sharing mistakes as a way to avoid them in the future. Understanding that mistakes can happen to anyone turns out to be a good way to get people to plan better and then keep them from panicking when problems occur. 

Staying calm and focused on resolving the problem is a much better approach than worrying about blame and the implication of those actions. And, most people appreciate the honesty.

Understanding the Real Issue using Root Cause Analysis

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Too often people, including Consultants, spend time trying to solve the wrong problem due to having incomplete or incorrect information. Once I was investigating a series of performance problems and unplanned outages that were assumed to be two separate problems. As I gathered information several people provided anecdotal stories of anomalous behaviors in a variety of systems, speculation about the “real problem,” and discussions about “chasing ghosts” during previous attempts to resolve the problem.

Photo by Ryan Miguel Capili on Pexels.com

I remember stating that I was there to solve a real problem having a serious negative impact on production and that it was not my intent to chase ghosts or do anything else that would unnecessarily waste time. Next, I outlined the approach I would use to make a Root Cause determination, and that we would reconvene to discuss the real problem and potential solutions. A few people scoffed and felt that this was a waste of time and money.

The process followed was simple, structured, and logical. It took everything that was known to be true and mapped it out. I looked for patterns, commonalities, and intersections of systems and events. Within two days my team and I had identified a complex root cause involving multiple components, which we demonstrated would reliably reproduce the symptoms that our client was experiencing. From there we worked with their teams to make minor network changes, system configuration changes, and several small application changes.

By the end of the second week, they were no longer experiencing major slowdowns or unplanned outages. Each outage cost this company tens of thousands of dollars in lost sales due to the time-sensitive nature of their product. Within one week they had recovered the cost of hiring me and my team. What stuck with us was how many really smart people “believed in ghosts” and failed to focus on the information that they already had.

A few years later we decided to create a white paper to potentially help others in need of a simple structured approach. Below is a link to that white paper, which was written by one of the top people on my team. We received very positive feedback at the time so it seemed that this could potentially still be useful today. Please take a look and let me know what you think.

Using Themes for Enhanced Problem Solving

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Thematic Analysis is a powerful qualitative approach used by many consultants. It involves identifying patterns and themes to better understand how and why something happened, which provides the context for other quantitative analysis. It can also be utilized when developing strategies and tactics due to its “cause and effect” nature.

Typical analysis tends to be event-based. Something happened that was unexpected. Some type of triggering or compelling event is sought to either stop something from happening or to make something happen. With enough of the right data, you may be able to identify patterns, which can help predict what will happen next based on past events. This data-based understanding may be simplistic or incomplete, but often it is sufficient.

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But, people are creatures of habit. If you can identify and understand those habits, and place them within the context of a specific environment that includes interactions with others, you may be able to identify patterns within the patterns. Those themes can be much better indicators of what may or may not happen than the data itself. They not only become better predictors of things to come but can also help identify more effective strategies and tactics to achieve your goals.

This approach requires that a person view an event (desired or historical) from various perspectives to help understand:

  1. Things that are accidental but predictable because of human nature.
  2. Things that are predictable based on other events and interactions.
  3. Things that are the logical consequence of a series of events and outcomes.

Aside from the practical implications of this approach I find it fascinating relative to AI and Predictive Analysis.

For example, by understanding the recurring themes and triggers you can monitor data and activities proactively. That is actionable intelligence that can be automated and incorporated into a larger system. Machine Learning and Deep Learning can analyze tremendous volumes of data from a variety of sources in realtime.

Combine that with Semantic Analysis, which is challenging due to the complexity of taxonomies and ontologies, and now that system more accurately understand what is really happening in order to make accurate predictions. Add in spatial and temporal data such as IoT, metadata from photographs, etc. and you should have the ability to view something as though you were very high up – providing the ability to “see” what is on the path ahead. It is obviously not that simple, but it is exciting to think about.

From a practical perspective, keeping these thoughts in the back of your mind will help you see details that other people have missed. That makes for better analysis, better strategies, and better execution.

Who wouldn’t want that?

Perspective and Expectations Establish your Starting Point

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It appears that we may have seen the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic and now I am seeing more and more articles about the “New Normal” and “Next Normal.” Interestingly enough, I have also been seeing a few articles over the past two weeks about this being an opportunity. Once the fear, uncertainty, and doubt (aka “FUD”) began to diminish, people finally began to look for a silver lining.

Picture of the Toronto City Hall taken from ground level.

Fear is a powerful demotivator, which is why I find it interesting that some managers and executives use it as a tool to help achieve their goals. There may be short-term gains, but the long-term effects can be devastating. In times of chaos (real or perceived), one of the best things that a leader can do is be genuine and concerned for the welfare of their team, communicate in an honest and timely manner, and display confidence as a way to help shift emotions from a negative state towards a positive state. Fear holds you and your team back.

What I find interesting is that two months ago I posted about this unfortunate time being an opportunity – something that led to several negative comments at the time. Three weeks ago I posted about changes that would be coming as part of the “New Normal.” I believe that this is simply insight coming into play, which is one reason why Consultants, great Salespeople, and new Executives are often able to add immediate value to an organization.

As an aside, diversity of backgrounds, experiences, knowledge, expertise, and opinions lead to a variety of perspectives – and that fosters creativity. A best practice in team building is to find people whose strengths help cover your weaknesses.

Picture of the Toronto City Hall taken from a much higher vantage point.

So, perspective and expectations determine where you begin, and not where you will end. The benefit of having a better starting point is that you should be in a much better position to win. The best part is that you can teach yourself to become better at identifying different perspectives. You may find that it is much easier to understand the big picture of whatever problem you are facing with that new skill.

From time-to-time, we are all faced with situations that we know will suck. Avoidance may be an option but usually isn’t the best option. The military has a saying, “Embrace the Suck,” that essentially boils down to “just deal with it.” Focusing on “the gain” (rather than “the suck”), identifying the small wins along the way, and visualizing success is part of the process that I have personally found helpful to maintaining a positive attitude and an open mind. This simple process helps maintain the balance of optimism with realism, and most importantly creates high expectations.

So, what are your thoughts? Do you want to lead or follow? There is nothing wrong with following, especially when you are contributing to the success of the team. Perspective and Expectations are two tools that can help in any role.

Innovation, Optimization, and Business Continuity

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Originally posted on LinkedIn.com/in/chipn

What direction are you leading your team in?

Recently I read that the U.S. is experiencing a significant jump in unemployment claims. Much of that is understandable given the recent decline in many businesses, concerns about how long this crisis may last, and the need to protect ongoing viability by business owners and executives. But, in the near future business activity will resume and it will very important that businesses have maintained a pipeline of business and retained the qualified staff to deliver its products and services.

Now could be the ideal time to challenge your team to focus on improving your business. Look at business processes and identify:

  1. What works well today?  Are you able to identify what makes it work so well? Simplicity, automation, and lack of friction are typical attributes of effective and efficient systems and processes that have a positive impact on any business.
  2. What could be improved and why? Specific examples and real data will help quantify the impact and support the prioritization of follow-on activities.
  3. What is missing today?
  • Good ideas have likely been raised in the past so why not revisit them?
  • What are competitors or businesses in other segments doing that could be helpful?
  • Brainstorm and consider something completely new that could help your business.
  • Start a list, describe the need and benefits, provide specific examples, and then estimate the potential impact and time to value for each idea.
  • Take the ideas having the greatest promise and estimate the cost, people/skills needed, other dependencies for each to see how they stack up.

Something else to consider is the creation or updating of Business Continuity Plans. Now is a perfect time – while everything is fresh in the minds of your team. Not only will this help for the future, but there could also be several useful ideas for the coming weeks.

For example, do you have documentation that is sufficient for someone who is not an expert in your business to be able to take over with a relatively small ramp-up time? How will you maintain quality and control of those processes? Are your plans stored in a repository that is accessible yet secure outside of your organization? Do you have the processes and tools in place to collect documentation and feedback on things that did not work as documented or could be improved? Are your Risk Management plans and mitigation procedures up-to-date and adequate?

Investing in your business during this time of slowdown could have many benefits, including maintaining good employee morale, enhancing employee and customer loyalty, retaining employees and the expertise and skills they have, and increasing sustainability and long-term growth potential.