lessons learned

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.

Are you Thinking About Starting a Business?

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The last post on Starting a Business was popular so I thought that I would share a very key lesson learned and then provide links to previous posts that will provide insights as you move forward with launching your own business. If you have any questions just post them as comments and I would be happy to reply.

The COVID-19 pandemic has created a great deal of uncertainty and opportunity. For many, now is the ideal time to explore their dream of starting a business and jumping into the waters of entrepreneurship. That can be exciting, fun, stressful, financially rewarding, and financially challenging, all within the same short period of time. 

Being prepared for that roller coaster ride and having the ability and strength to continue pushing forward is important. Something to understand is that “Things don’t happen to you. They are the Direct Result of your own Actions and Inactions.” That may sound harsh, but here is a prime example:

When I was closing my consulting business down I trusted my Accountant and Payroll company to handle all of the required filings for Federal, Wisconsin, Ohio, and Colorado – something they stated they would handle and I accepted at face value. Both companies had done a great job before so why would I expect any less this time?

About nine months later I started receiving letters from Ohio and Colorado about filings due, so I forwarded them along to the Accountant and Payroll company. In my mind, this was “old business” and was being handled, plus I had moved on. It was probably just a timing error, something easy enough to explain away.

Skipping forward nearly three years, I had been threatened by the IRS and the Revenue Departments from both Ohio and Colorado. I started with a combined total of nearly $500K in assessments. Slowly that dropped to $50K, and then to $10K. I spent countless hours on the phone and writing letters trying to explain the misunderstanding. It wasn’t until I finally found a helpful person in each department that was willing to listen and told me specifically what needed to be done to resolve that situation. My final cost was around $1,000. I was relieved that this fiasco was finally over.

For the longest time, I blamed both the Accountant and Payroll Service for these problems. Ultimately I realized that it was my business and therefore my responsibility to understand the shutdown process – regardless of who did the actual work. I would have saved hundreds of hours of my time and several hundred dollars by simply gaining that understanding in the beginning.

I was not a victim of anything – this situation was the direct result of my own inaction. At the time it just did not seem very important, but my understanding of the situation and its importance was incorrect and I paid the price. Lesson learned. It was my business so it was still my responsibility to the very end.

Below are the other links. You don’t have to read them all at once, but it would be worth bookmarking them and reading one per day. Every new perspective, idea, and lesson learned could be the thing that helps you achieve your goal a day, week, or month sooner than expected. Every day and every dollar matters, so make the most of both!

Presentation about Starting a Business and Entrepreneurship

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It is interesting how often you see ads for some franchise offering that touts, “Become your own boss.” While that may not be all bad it is just the tip of the iceberg. The presentation below is intended to provide insight to people who may be considering starting their first company. This was from a one-hour presentation and glosses over a lot of things, such as the need for registrations and insurance, but for a first-timer, it could be helpful.

One of my first and most important lessons learned when I started my consulting company long ago was that paying attention to cash flow was far more important than focusing on my balance sheet. Once you understand a problem it becomes easy to alter what you do to manage it. For example, using fixed pricing based on tasks where we received 50% up-front and the remaining 50% upon acceptance of the deliverable smoothed out cash flow and that was a big help.

So, take a look and post any questions that you may have. If one person has a question it is likely that many more do as well! Cheers.

The Value Created by a Strong Team

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One of the best team-building exercises that I have participated in was as a Board Member for the Children’s Hospital Foundation of Wisconsin. We were going down a path that led to a decision on whether or not to invest $150M in a new addition. The CEO at the time, Jon Vice, wisely determined that strong teams were needed for each committee in order to thoroughly vet the idea from every possible perspective.

Canada Geese flying in a V formation with a brightly colored but dark sky background
Purpose-driven teamwork. An amazing photo by Joe Daniel Price found on TheWallpaper.co

The process started by being given a book to read (“Now, Discover Your Strengths” by Marcus Buckingham & Donald O. Clifton, Ph.D.), and then completing the “Strengthsfinder” assessment using a code provided in the book. The goal was to understand gaps in perception (how you view yourself vs. how others view you) so that you could truly understand your own strengths and weaknesses. Then, teams were created with people having complementary skills to help eliminate weaknesses from the overall team perspective. The results were impressive.

Over my career, I have been involved in many team-building exercises and events – some of which provide useful insights, but most failed to pull the findings together in a way that was concrete, had context, and offered actionable recommendations. Key areas that consistently omitted were around Organizational Culture, Organizational Politics, and Leadership. Those three areas have a significant impact on value creation vis-à-vis team effectiveness and commitment.

When I had my consulting company we had a small core team of business and technology consultants and would leverage subcontractors and an outsourcing company to allow us to take on more concurrent projects as well as larger, more complex projects. This approach worked for three reasons:

  1. We had developed a High-Performance Culture that was based on:
    • Purpose: A common vision of success, and understanding of why that mattered, and an understanding of specifically how that was defined and measured.
    • Ownership: Taking responsibility for something and being accountable for the outcome. This included responsibility for the extended team of contractors. Standardized procedures helped ensure consistency and make it easier for each person to accept responsibility for “their team.”
    • Trust: Everyone understood that they not only needed to trust and support each other but in order to be effective and responsive the others would need to trust their judgment. If there was a concern we would focus on the context and process improvements to understand what happened and implement changes based on lessons learned. Personal attacks were avoided for the good of the entire team.
  2. Empowerment: Everyone understood that there was risk associated with decision making, while at the same time realizing that delaying an important decision could be costly and create more risk. Therefore, it was incumbent upon each member to make good decisions as needed and then communicate changes to the rest of the team.
  3. Clear and Open Communication: People on the team were very transparent and honest. When there was an issue they would attempt to resolve it first with that person, and then escalating if the two people could not reach an agreement and decided to seek the consensus of the team. Everything was out in the open and done in the spirit of being constructive and collaborating. Divisiveness is the antithesis of this tenet.

People who were not a good fit would quickly wash out, so our core team consisted of trusted experts. There was a friendly competition that helped raise the bar for the entire team, but when needed the other team members became a safety net for each other.

We were all focused on the same goal, and everyone realized that the only way to be successful was to work together for the success of the team. Win or lose, we did it together. The strength of our team created tremendous value – internally and for our customers that we sustained for several years. That value included innovation, higher levels of productivity and profitability, and an extremely high success rate.

This approach can work at a Business Unit or Department level but is most effective when it starts at the top. When employees see the leaders of their company behaving in this manner it provides the model and sets expectations for everyone under them. If there is dysfunction within an organization it often starts at the top – by promoting or accepting behaviors that do not benefit the whole of the organization. But, with a strong and positive organizational culture, the value of strong teams is multiplied and becomes an incredible competitive advantage.

Occam’s razor, our Maxima, and the Sage Mechanic

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My wife has a Nissan Maxima and loves her car. Over the past 9 months there has been a persistent but seemingly random problem where the radio is used for a few minutes while the car is off and then the battery dies when she goes to start the car. This has happened more than a dozen times over the past 3 1/2 years, and it has been seen by two dealerships a for a total of three times recently with no success – the most recent visit being one day before this problem occurred.

Saturday morning I was running errands when my wife called and let me know that this problem happened again (second time this week and she was very frustrated). I was pretty excited because this time the problem occurred at home, not at some parking lot like usual, so I had the luxury of time to try to make a root cause determination. I’m somewhat mechanical but certainly no professional, so I followed my own consulting advice and contacted a professional.

Dave T. is a mechanical guru, and has an uncanny ability to offer sage advice with only a modicum of information. He is an incredibly busy guy, but is always willing to spend a few minutes and give helpful advice. It helps that he is a great guy, but it also helps him generate business (leads and referrals). It is an approach that helps create a constant backlog of work and very loyal clientele, which is good business.

I called Dave, described the problem, mentioned what I had read on various forums (i.e., similar electrical problems observed after some arbitrary mileage). Next, I mentioned that this had just been to the dealership and they did not find anything wrong. Dave laughed, stated that, “There is a 99%+ likelihood that alternator is bad, and possibly both the alternator and battery.” He sounded very confident.

There was a pause, and then he asked, “What’s more likely – that there is some completely random problem that only happens when your wife is out and your son stays in the car and listens to music for a few minutes, which by the way only happens to Maximas after X number of miles, or that there are issues with the alternators where they tend to fail after a certain amount of use, which causes them not to charge the battery properly and leads to a condition where there is not enough of a charge to start the car?”

battery-cell-testing

When Dave explained it like that I felt kind of stupid, consoled only by the fact that other professional mechanics had not resolved the problem before me. He then added, “Anything that would be able to drain a battery within a few minutes would be noticeable. It would start a fire or melt wires, and smoke or smell as a result. You haven’t seen or smelled anything like that, have you?”

I described my plan to troubleshoot the problem, and Dave suggested that in addition I test the alternator and the specific gravity of the individual battery cells. So, in less than five minutes into that call I had a plan and was off and running.

alternator-test-shot

Yesterday afternoon I spent several hours using a very methodical approach to troubleshooting, documenting everything with pictures and videos to help me recall both details and sequence if needed. Sure enough, Dave’s knowledge and intuition led to the correct conclusion.

I gave him a call to thank him, and while talking I wondered aloud why the dealership could not figure this out? Dave replied, “It’s not that they couldn’t have done what you did, but instead they focused on the symptoms you described. The mechanic probably sat there for 10-15 minutes with the lights and radio on while the car was off. After that the car started so they assumed that everything was fine. I listened to what you said, ignored the randomness and speculation, and honed-in on the problem. The fact that this happened again so soon also made sense because now your battery was run down from the testing performed by the dealership.” He added, “In my business I get paid for results, so I can’t get away with taking the easy way out.” 

I’m big on lessons learned, wanting to make the most of each and every experience because I have learned that skills and knowledge are often very transferrable. As I thought about this I realized that Dave’s analysis was the perfect practical application of Occam’s razor. It’s a skill that is very helpful as a Consultant, but more importantly, it is something that can help when problem solving in any line of work.