continual improvement

The Downside of Easy (or, the Upside of a Good Challenge)

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As a young boy, I was “that kid” who would take everything apart, often leaving a formerly functional alarm clock in a hundred pieces in a shoe box. I loved figuring out how things worked, and how components worked together as a system. When I was 10 I spent one Picture of a Suzuki motorcyclewinter completely disassembling and reassembling my Suzuki TM75 motorcycle in my bedroom (my parents must have had so much more patience and understanding than I do as a parent). It was rebuilt by spring and ran like a champ.

By then I was hooked – I enjoyed working with my hands and fixing things. That was a great skill to have while growing up as it provided income and led to the first company I started at age 18. There was always a fair degree of trial and error involved with learning, but experience and experimentation led to simplification and standardization. That became the hallmark to the programs I wrote and later the application systems that I designed and developed. It is a trait that has served me well over the years.

Today I still enjoy doing many things myself, especially if I can spend a little bit of time and save hundreds of dollars (which I usually invest in more tools). Finding examples and tutorials on YouTube is usually pretty easy, and after watching a few videos for reference the task is generally easy. There is also a sense of satisfaction to a job well done. And most of all, it is a great distraction to everything else going on that keeps your mind racing at 100 mph.

My wife’s 2011 Nissan Maxima needed a Cabin Air Filter, and instead of paying $80 again to have this done I decided to do it myself. I purchased the filter for $15 and was ready to go. This shouldn’t take more than 5 or 10 minutes. I went to YouTube to find a video but no luck. Then, I started searching various forums for guidance. There were a lot of posts complaining about the cost of replacement, but not much about how to do the work. I finally found a post that showed where the filter door was. I could already feel that sense of accomplishment that I was expecting to have in the next few minutes.

But fate, and apparently a few sadistic Nissan Engineers had other ideas. First, you needed to be a contortionist in order to reach the filter once the door was removed. Then, the old filter was nearly impossible to remove. And then once the old filter was removed I realized that the length of the filter entry slot was approximately 50% of the length of the filter. Man, what a horrible design! A few fruitless Google searches later I wasPicture of a folded cabin air filter for a Nissan Maxima more intent than ever on making this work. I tried several things and ultimately found a way to fold the filter where it was small enough to get through the door and would fully open once released. A few minutes later I was finally savoring my victory over that hellish filter.

This experience made me recall “the old days.” Back in 1989 I was working for a marketing company as a Systems Analyst and was given the project to create the “Mitsubishi Bucks” salesperson incentive program. People would earn points for sales, and could later redeem those points on Mitsubishi electronics products. It was a very popular and successful incentive program.

Creating the forms and reports was straight forward enough, but tracking the points presented a problem. I finally thought about how a banking system would work (remember, no Internet and few books on the topic, so this was reinventing the wheel) and designed my own. It was very exciting and rock solid. Statements could be reproduced at any point in time, and there was an audit trail for all activity.

Next, I needed to create a fraud detection system for incoming data. That was rock solid as well, but instead of being a good thing it turned out to be a real headache and cause of frustration. Salespeople would not always provide complete information, might have sloppy penmanship, or would do other things that were odd but legitimate. So, I was instructed to turn the dial way back. I let everyone know that while this would minimize rejections it would also increase the potential for fraud, and created a few reports to identify potentially fraudulent activity. It was amazing how creative people could be when trying to cheat the system. By the third month the system was trouble free. It was a great learning experience. Best of all, it ran for several years once I left – something I know because every month I was still receiving the sample mailing with the new sales promotions and “Spiffs” (sales incentives).

This reflection made me wonder how many things are not being created or improved today because it is too easy to follow an existing template. We used to align fields and columns in byte order to minimize record size, overload operators, etc. in order to maximize space utilization and performance. Code was optimized for maximum efficiency because memory was scarce and processors slow. Profiling and benchmarking programs brought you to the next level of performance. In a nutshell, you were forced to really understand and become proficient with technology out of necessity. Today those concepts have become somewhat of a lost art.

There are many upsides to easy. My team sells more and closes deals faster because we make it easy for our customers to buy, implement, and start receiving value on the software we sell. Hobbyists like myself are able to accomplish many tasks after watching a short video or two. But, there may also be downsides relative to innovation and continual improvement simply because easy is often good enough.

What will the impact be to human behavior once Artificial Intelligence (AI) becomes a reality and is in everyday use? It would be great to look ahead 50 to 100 years and see the full impact, but my guess is that I will see some of the effects in my lifetime.

 

 

Non-Linear Thought Process and a Message for my Children

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I have recently been investigating and visiting universities with my eldest daughter, who is currently a Senior in High School. Last week we visited Stanford University (an amazing experience I will post about soon) and then spent a week in Northern California on vacation. After being home for a day and a half I am currently in Texas for a week of team meetings and training. The first night of a trip I seldom sleep, so I was listening to the song, “Don’t let it bring you down” by Annie Lennox, which is a cover of a Neil Young song. That led to a Youtube search for the original Neil Young version, which led to me listening to the song “Old Man” – a favorite song of mine for over 30 years. That led to some reflection, which ultimately led to this post.

The reason that I mention this is because it is an example of the tangential thought process (which is generally viewed as a negative trait) that occurs naturally for me. It is something that helps me “connect the dots” more naturally. It is part of the non-linear thinking associated with ADHD (again, something generally viewed as negative). The interesting thing is that in order to fit in and be successful with ADHD you tend to develop logical systems for focus and consistency. That has many positive benefits – such as creating repeatable processes and automation.

The combination of linear and non-linear thinking can really fuel creativity. The downside is that it can take quite a while for others to see the potential of those ideas, which can be extremely frustrating. But, you learn to deal with that. The upside is that you tend to create relationships with other innovators because they often tend to think like you do. The world is a strange place.

It is funny how there are several points in your life when you have an epiphany and things make complete sense, which causes you to realize how much time and effort could have been saved if you had only been able to figure that out sooner. As a parent I am continually trying to create shortcuts for my children so that they can reach those points much sooner than I did.

I started this post thinking that I would document as many of those lessons as possible to serve as a future reminder. But, like most children, they will each learn in their own way and at their own pace. So instead, I decided to post a few things that I view as foundational truisms that could help foster that growth process. So, here goes…

  1. Always work hard to be the best, but never let yourself believe that you are the best. Even if you truly are, it will be short lived as there are always people out there doing everything that they can to be the best. Ultimately, that is a good thing. You need to have enough of an ego to test the limits of things, but not one that is so big that it alienates or marginalizes those around you.
  2. Learn from everything you do – good or bad. Continuous improvement is so important, and by focusing on this you constantly challenge yourself to try new things and find better (i.e., more effective, more efficient, and more consistent) ways to do things.
  3. Realize that the difference between a brilliant and a stupid idea is often perspective. Years ago I taught technical courses, and occasionally someone would describe something they did that just seemed strange or wrong. But, if you took the time to ask questions and try to understand why they did what they did you would often identify the brilliance in that approach. It is something that is both exciting and humbling.
  4. Incorporating new approaches or best practices of others into your own proven methods and processes is part of continuous improvement, but it only works if you are able to set aside your ego and keep an open mind.
  5. Believe in yourself, even when others don’t share that belief. Remain open to feedback and constructive criticism as a way to learn and improve, but never give up on yourself. There is a huge but sometimes subtle difference between confidence and arrogance, and that line is often drawn at the point where you can accept that you might be wrong, or that there might be a better way to do something. Become the person that people like working with, and not the person that they avoid or want to see fail.
  6. Surround yourself with the best people that you can find, but look for people with diverse backgrounds and complementary skills. The best teams that I have ever been involved with consisted of high achievers who constantly raised the bar for each other while simultaneously creating a safety net for their teammates. The team grew and did amazing things because everyone was both very competitive and very supportive of each other.
  7. Keep notes or a journal because good ideas are often fleeting and hard to recall. And remember, good ideas can come from anywhere so keep track of the suggestions of others and make sure that attribute those ideas to the proper source.
  8. Try to make a difference in the world. Try to leave everything your “touch” (job, relationship, project, whatever) in a better state that before you were there. Helping others improve and leading by example are two simple ways of making a difference.
  9. Accept that failure is a natural obstacle on your path to success. You are not trying hard enough if you never fail. But, you are also not trying hard enough if you fail too often. That is very subjective, and honest introspection is your best gauge. Be accountable, accept responsibility, document the lessons learned, and move on.
  10. Dream big, and use that as motivation to learn new things. While I was funding medical research efforts I spent time learning about genetics, genomics, and biology. That expanded to interests in nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, machine learning, neural networks and interfaces such as natural language and non-verbal / emotional. Someday I hope to tie these together in a way that could help cure a disease (Arthritis) and improve the quality of life for millions of people. Will that ever happen? I don’t know, but I do know that if I don’t try it will never happen because of anything that I did.
  11. Focus on the positive, not the negative. Creativity is stifled when there is fear of blame.
  12. Never hesitate to apologize when you are wrong. This is a sign of strength, not weakness.
  13. And above all else, honesty and integrity should be the foundation for everything you do and are.

Hopefully this will help my children become the best people possible, and hopefully early-on in their lives. I was 30 years old before I feel that I really had a clue about a lot of these things. Until then I was somewhat selfish and focused on winning. Winning and success are good things, but they are better when done the right way.

Why do you want to teach?

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I’ve mentioned in the past that I like to read, experiment, and learn as much as possible about as many thing as possible. My goal isn’t to be the Jack of all trades and Master of none. Rather, I view knowledge and experience as pieces that can be used to build a mosaic of something interesting and/or worthwhile.

Years ago when I first started programming my manager had me work with the top performers in the group. Being inquisitive and wanting to improve, I asked a lot of questions to understand why things were done the way they were, and learn as much as possible. One Analyst I worked with was extremely sensitive, and after fielding a few questions he told me, “Programming is like art, two people will interpret things in two different ways, but in the end you will have two pictures that are similar and both do the job. So, quit messing with my picture.”

At first I was somewhat offended, but then I realized that much of what he told me was right. That led me to incorporate better methods and approaches into what I did, making them my own, as a way to continually improve. It really was a lot like art from that perspective.

What makes teaching worthwhile to me is helping people improve in ways that are their own, rather than teaching them how to do things in one specific “right” way. One analogy is that you are teaching people to navigate, rather that providing them with the route. Also, in order to be a good teacher you need to have a solid grasp on the topic, be willing and able to relate to students, and want to help them learn. It’s rewarding on a couple of different levels.

Amazing teachers are out there, and I’ve met many of them. Those people are worth their weight in gold – especially when they are teaching your children. They have their own kind of “magic” that can inspire people and help them do more than they ever thought was possible.

But, those aren’t the people that the rest of this post is about. This is about corporate trainers, training companies, and consultants that engage in training, and people who just view training as a way to make an easy buck. Good content is expensive to create, and good trainers need to have subject matter expertise and a passion for what they do (similar to good teachers in any context).

The book that I am currently reading is, “Leadership and Training for the Fight” by Paul R. Howe, a retired U.S. Army Special Operations Master Sergeant. The focus of the book is on mindset and mental discipline – two things that I believe are very important (which is how I stumbled across this book).

While there is a lot of good content in this book, there was one section that struck a chord with me. So, here it is:

“Why do you want to teach?

Before you can begin teaching, you must ask yourself the most basic question: Why do you want to teach? Are you driven by ego, your self-esteem? Do you merely like to hear yourself talk, or do you have a genuine desire to pass information along?”

To paraphrase the rest, adding my own take, take the time to first figure out why you want to teach. Is it to bolster your ego to feel important? Or, does it look to be an easy road to a steady paycheck? These things don’t add value for your students, and most will easily see right through you. A good reputation is hard to get and easy to lose – words to live by in my book.

However, if you are looking to honestly help, are willing to continue to learn yourself to be the best that you can be, and able know when you are in over your head so you can look for help – then that is a great start. Every time you are handed a lesson plan try to make it better than when you received it. Finally, give it your all and really try to make a positive impact. It only requires a bit of work ethic and pride.

Your ability to teach well starts with your understanding of the topic, but that is just the foundation. Being able to apply a seemingly abstract concept to a concrete problem is a very helpful skill. Being open to other approaches that might seem strange at first but then you see the brilliance in the solution is also helpful.

Teaching is about helping others, and not trying to be the smartest person in the room. And remember, not everyone wants to learn and/or improve so don’t take that personally. Just do your best to help people grown and improve. To me, that’s the right reason to want to teach.

Doing it like Mike

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My son is playing basketball this year (previously he played football and soccer), and recently we went shopping for new shoes. Each store had pictures of Michael Jordan. I used to love watching MJ play with the Chicago Bulls. He was the epitome of skill and professionalism. To this day he inspires me.

"The Chart" - from Chris Lytle's MAX Sales Training program
“The Chart” – from Chris Lytle’s MAX Sales Training program

Some people are just naturally talented, but even they need to work hard to maximize their potential. Hard work is an important aspect of being the best of anything, but it takes more than that. It takes doing things in a manner that allows you to continuously improve, as well as a positive mindset and commitment to success. Once people reach that level of high performance their job begin to look easy, and they may even appear to be “naturals” – just like Mike.

Most of my career changes have been unplanned. Opportunities presented themselves, the job seemed interesting, and before I knew it I was fully immersed in something related but different.  Many of these things have not come naturally to me. Each time I have focused on understanding the requirements for doing the job well, then look for examples of exceptional performance, and then create a systematic approach that allowed me to measure performance and identify areas of improvement.

Sales has been a large part of my consulting management jobs since the mid-1990’s, but it wasn’t until I owned my own company that this became a true priority.  I ran across a good book, The Accidental Salesperson by Chris Lytle.  Back then Chris Lytle had “MAX Training,” and a large part of their focus was increasing your “level” with regard to Prospect and Client relationships. The training was good, and was complementary to systems like Miller Heiman. What each of these systems do is help you prepare, plan, and then execute to the best of your ability. And like basketball, it takes practice to master (although you can get immediate value, so don’t wait until you have finished to begin trying).

Regardless of the system used, what is important no matter what you are trying to be the best at is to look at both positive and negative examples to see what you can learn from them.  There are lessons to be learned everywhere! Understanding what makes it good or bad helps you improve as part of a continual process. Incorporating new tools and techniques into what has already been proven to work for you can improve your game. Going back to the sports analogy, this could be part of what made Michael Jordon so good. He would see something interesting, improve it, and then make it his own.

For example, I get a lot of really horrible sales calls and email. The people have obviously not done any preparation, do not know anything about me or the company I work for, and often remind me of why I stopped listening to them by referring to the number of times they have tried contacting me. On the other hand, there are some really talented sales professionals who have done their homework, understand their products and the competition, and have an idea about why what they are selling should matter to me.  I speak with them and occasionally buy from them. And in either case I provide my team with real life examples of good and bad sales techniques.

So, think of the best example of whatever it is you do, and see what you can do to become more like them. This isn’t about imitation, but rather about uncovering the secrets of their success and learning from them. And, have some fun doing it!

Mind of a Champion – Michael Jordan training for success