Columbia Falls is not a redundant facility

We’ve been here before.

We’ve listened to a major employer who for decades said one thing and often did another. We’ve heard whispers and listened to double talk about what’s in the ground (or isn’t) and about plans to reopen and what the future holds. Our future is not our past.

We’ve seen Plum Creek as a solid community supporter and employer for a long time. Yes, there have been layoffs and temporary closures, but the company continued to support local causes and invest in CFalls – such as the MDF plant and technology infrastructure.

Yet buyouts change things.

We’ve been here before.

No matter what a company says they’ll do after the buyout, companies have a fiduciary obligation to shareholders. No matter what they feel obligated to say, redundant facilities are ALWAYS on the short list for elimination. It’s common sense.

It’s unrealistic, if not wishful thinking to believe that a company says that “closure of (your local) facilities isn’t planned” after buying out a massive competitor.

Columbia Falls knew better. We understand companies have to say those things. The officers have a responsibility to protect the company. That includes not inciting panic, drama or worse by telling staff in that area that “closures are possible but we don’t anticipate closing anything here”.

In this situation, a company’s thought process has to include something like “If we tell them what’s planned (or what we think will happen), people will leave (including some we want to stay), and those who stay will be distracted (or worse). The speculation will negatively impact the attitude and performance of the CFalls team.

When buyouts happen, people worry about feeding their family, much less being able to take care of a house payment, the bills, college expenses, etc. You expect that. Professionals take care of business, even when worried about their families – no matter what the press release said.

I’m losing my job, now what?

Even though we’ve been here before, that doesn’t make it any less scary, worrisome, or frustrating. The pressure to produce cash flow to feed the family and pay the bills is on everyone’s mind.

If you’re targeted for layoff, I’ll bet you have skills, experience and knowledge that you’ve taken for granted for years. They’ve become second nature to you. I could wake you up at 2:00 am and ask you something related to whatever you do or know and without having to think about it, you’d rattle off great advice about how to deal with it, fix it and/or do it.

This is an opportunity to take control, even though you probably don’t feel you have much of that right now. You might have a dream that was always delayed by the “golden handcuffs” of a long-term job. Can you pursue it now?

There is no better time than now to start your own business. There is no better motivation than to create some control over your family’s economic future. It won’t be easy, but it’ll be yours.

Redundant Facilities?

It’s easy to say the phrase “redundant facilities“, isn’t it? Who would want such a thing? Sounds wasteful.

When you say “redundant facilities“, you don’t have to think about 200 families who are wondering how they’ll pay their bills. It lets you sidestep the economic effect the job losses could have on the community. Say it, and you don’t have to wonder about the impact of families who leave the valley in order to meet their employment / financial needs. Saying “redundant facilities” allows you to ignore the impact on the CFalls real estate market, schools, charities and businesses.

If you’re wondering who will come riding into town on a white horse and rescue Columbia Falls, don’t. We know that no one will do that, and that’s OK. Columbia Falls doesn’t need someone to rescue it.

Columbia Falls is not a redundant facility.

As always, the people of Columbia Falls will make do, find or create new careers, recognize market opportunities, and find a way to manage the economic risks we all face. When you see a new business pop up in town, take a chance on them – and keep visiting our existing businesses. They feed Montana families right here in town.

Columbia Falls is open for business. It’s a great community with awesome, welcoming, kind people and to me, the only place that feels like home. Come see us.

The importance of performance metrics

Last time, we talked about metrics that answer questions to help you increase sales.

Metrics aren’t solely about sales and marketing. Quality and performance metrics drive your business. Can you identify a few that would cause serious concern if they changed by as little as five percent?

If there are, how are you monitoring them? Monitoring and access to that info is what I was initially referring to last time. The performance metrics I’ve been working on are a mix of uptime, event and work completion information. In each case, a metric could indicate serious trouble if it changed substantially.

Uptime metrics

An uptime metric shows how long something has been running without incident. In some fields, particularly technology, it’s not unusual to have seemingly crazy uptime expectations.

Anyone who has picked up a landline phone is familiar with the standard in uptime metrics – the dial tone. For years, it was the standard because it was quite rare to pick up the phone and not get a dial tone. Its presence became an expectation, much as our as yet unfilled expectation of always-unavailable cell and internet service is today. The perceived success rate of the dial tone is probably a bit higher than reality thanks to our memory of the “good old days”.

Today’s replacement for the dial tone is internet-related service. Years ago a business would feel isolated and threatened when phone service went out. Today, it’s not unusual for a business to feel equally vulnerable when internet service is out. The seemingly crazy uptime expectations are there because more businesses function across timezones (much less globally) than they did a few decades ago. Web site / online service expectations these days are at “nine nines” or higher.

Nine nines of uptime, ie: 99.9999999% uptime, is a frequently quoted standard in the technology business. Taken literally, this means less than one second of downtime in 20 years. There are systems that achieve this level of uptime because they aren’t dependent on one machine. The service is available at that level, not any one device. Five nines (99.999%) of uptime performance allows for a little over five minutes of downtime per year. Redundancy allows this level of service to be achieved.

Events that idle equipment and people are expensive. What’s your uptime metric for services, systems, critical tools like your CNC, trucks on the road (vs. on the side of the road), etc?

Event metrics

Event metrics are about how often something happens, or doesn’t happen – like “days since a lost work injury” or “days since we had to pull a software release because of a serious, previously unseen bug“.

In those two examples, the event is about keeping folks focused on safety first and safety procedures, as well as defensive programming and completeness of testing. You might measure how many crashes your software’s metrics reported in the last 24 hours and where they were. Presumably, this would help you focus on what to fix next.

What event metrics do you track?

Work completion metrics

Work completion metrics might be grouped with event metrics, but I prefer to keep them separate. Work completion is a performance and quality metric.

Performance completion not only shows that something was finished, but that successful completion is a quality indicator. Scrap rates and scrap reuse get a lot of attention from manufacturers in part because of the raw material costs associated with them. Increasing scrap rates can indicate performance and quality problems that need immediate attention.

One system I work with processes about 15,000 successful events a day – not much in the technology world when compared to Google or Microsoft, but critical for that small business. If the number dropped to only 14,900 per day, their phones and email would light up with client complaints, so there’s a lot of emphasis on making sure that work completes successfully. Catching and resolving problems quickly is critical, so redundant status checks happen every 15 seconds.

Events of this nature are commonly logged, but reviewing logs is tedious work and can be error prone. Logs add up quickly and can contain many thousands of lines of info per day – too much to monitor by hand / eye via manual methods.

These days, business dashboards are a much more consumable way of communicating this type of information quickly and keeping attention on critical numbers – such as this example from klipfolio.com:

business performance metrics dashboard

What work completion metrics do you track?

Half of China’s companies do this

Recently, I was reading a story in the New York Times about a Chinese city’s effort to vastly expand their use of industrial robotics. The story’s video hits home 98 seconds in.

The official being interviewed indicates that the city’s goal is to reduce the number of employees by half and finishes his sentence by saying “many companies are working toward this goal“.

Not one company in one town. Not the company responsible for the birth of Chinese industrial robotics, but “many companies”.

Why expand robotics use?

They’re doing this by working toward the creation and deployment of high-quality “human-like” robotics technology.

A senior manager at one of their leading manufacturers of industrial robots says “China’s demand for industrial robots has been on the rise year after year. Compared to America, Japan and Europe, the increase in demand is enormous.

When I dig a little deeper, I find that there are a number of reasons for this drive to expand the robotization of China – and not all of them are expected:

  • They can’t hire enough people fast enough.
  • Their level of output has stagnated because there are only so many places to put all of these people, which drives…
  • They are encouraging people who have abandoned rural areas to move back to their hometowns – in part to take some of their skills with them.
  • To cut manufacturing costs.
  • To increase safety

What’s this got to do with your small business?

Perhaps nothing. However, a few of the items on China’s list are likely to fit business needs where you are, even though the scale of your project might be dwarfed by a large Chinese manufacturing business.

Can’t hire enough people fast enough.

Not a week goes by without hearing this from someone. Now, to be sure, some of this is driven by salary levels, but most of it is driven by the availability (or lack of it) of trained people in some skill areas. It’s of particular concern in rural areas where you find specialized businesses putting down roots, or simply growing out of local need to create jobs and enterprise.

One of the key things that challenge the expansion of modern businesses in rural areas is the availability of skilled workers with advanced skill sets. Not everyone needs these, but those who do struggle to fill openings when they’re ready to expand.

Abandoned rural areas

China’s encouraging people to move back to their hometowns, in part because some of their urban centers are overwhelmed. Hopefully some of this is also because of a desire to improve urban worker lifestyles. The abandonment of rural hometowns isn’t limited to China, however. In the U.S., rural communities have been shrinking due to “brain drain” as their graduates move away to college and either don’t ever return, or perhaps don’t return for several decades. If they wait several decades, they don’t necessarily come back to town and start families. Instead, they come back as empty nesters.

To lure graduates with newly-gained modern skills, their hometown needs a place to work where they can use those skills. Kids don’t run off to college and get an engineering degree so they can move back to town and manage a franchise restaurant.

To cut manufacturing costs

As I noted above, the graduates we want to keep at home need a place to leverage their skills and that place needs to be competitive in the global market they serve, otherwise the jobs are tenuous as the employer simply cannot compete in the long term.

To increase safety

Safety has been a topic for discussion here in Montana for a while, due to a less than ideal safety record in recent years. While some of this can be addressed through training and safety equipment, there is another way to cut down on dangerous work.

Yes, robotics

These last four items can be addressed in part – not completely – through robotics. Maybe you aren’t ready today. Maybe you don’t manufacture today. Maybe you already have some automation in place. Maybe you and your staff worry that you will be risking your business and its jobs by involving robotics.

Maybe you’ll be risking your business and its jobs if you don’t involve robotics.

While it’s not applicable to every business, it’s worth a look. A safer, more productive workplace creates jobs that more likely to stick around.

Senate may drop the soap (maker)

About six years ago, there was a big fuss about the CPSIA, a law that was written to sharply reduce lead in clothing, toys and other items made for children under 12. Why lead? Lead poisoning causes developmental and neurological damage in young children, including by breathing dust from peeling lead paint.

I made some noise about the law as originally passed because it would force the makers of handmade childrens’ items out of business – and a lot of those businesses exist here in Montana. It wouldn’t have put them out of business because their products contained lead, but because of the costs of per-batch independent lab testing to prove they were lead-free.

The law passed unanimously. Imagine that happening today.

It passed in response to the recall of millions of lead-tainted toys in 2007-2008. However, there was an uproar from makers of small motorcycles and bikes. Lead appears in tire valve stems and other unlikely contact areas, which left them subject to the law.

The publicity resulted in a number of public forums with elected officials. In a response to my question during the Kalispell MT forum, my U.S. Representative lied to my face that he didn’t vote for the bill (the link shows otherwise). He then took the side of the youth motorcycle manufacturers (rightly so, I think) and said he’d fix the poorly-written law he’d voted for.

The law eventually got fixed, mostly, via an amendment exempting both small volume (often handmade) manufacturers – the ones who couldn’t possibly afford the testing requirements of the original law – and those reselling items they didn’t manufacture. While it didn’t save thousands of small handmade manufacturers from their losses prior to this amendment, it did stop the bleeding.

I say “fixed, mostly” because the law was amended to allow Mattel to perform their own lead testing rather than use independent labs other manufacturers must use by law. The irony? The slew of lead problems that provoked Congress to act involved millions of toys manufactured by Mattel and their subsidiaries.

What’s this got to do with soap?

I share all of that for a couple of reasons.

One, there are parallels in the CPSIA story to a new bill that could affect manufacturers of handmade soaps, lotions and the like, Senate Bill S.1014, the Personal Care Products Safety Act.

Two, there are a large number of handmade manufacturers of soap, lotions, creams, lip balms and scrubs in Montana, including my wife’s business.

Three, when the press microphones are on, there’s a high likelihood of horse biscuits along the lines of “I voted for it before I voted against it” or “My vote was a shot across the bow“, so have your biscuit filter ready.

S1014 is on the agenda of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, which is full of high-profile personalities, including two Presidential candidates. The needs of your small business or your employer may not mean squat in the context of Presidential candidate image makers advising these people.

Handmade manufacturers on alert

As in the CPSIA situation, an industry group has worked to provide exemptions for small handmade manufacturers. The Handmade Cosmetic Alliance (HCA) has for months tried to educate and reason with the bill’s authors and suggest that they include small manufacturer exemptions like those found in the 2011 Food Modernization Safety Act (FSMA). Despite that, these small handmade soap, lotion and cosmetic manufacturers will be held to the same standards that makers of prescription drugs and medical devices meet.

Most of these 300,000 (!) small manufacturers use food ingredients found in grocery stores, even though customers don’t eat them or use them to treat a medical condition. We’re talking about olive oil, oatmeal, sugar, coconut oil, etc. My wife buys olive oil for her creams off the shelf at Costco.

This law will force them to pay user fees that will result in higher consumer prices, plus it will add more paperwork burden by requiring them to file per-batch (10-50 units) reports. For the more successful homemade product makers, this could result in 100 or more FDA filings per month. Everyone has time to do that, right?

It’s almost tourist season. Many of the products tourists buy and take home are made and sold locally, and thus feed local families in your area. Speak now or …

Perfect is the enemy of done – or is it?

A couple of weeks ago, NASA celebrated the one year anniversary of Curiosity Rover landing on Mars.

As someone who has been taking pictures since the ’60s, I still find it amazing that we can tell a satellite orbiting Mars to take a picture of a Jeep-size spacecraft parachuting to its landing 62 million miles away and have the photo on my laptop 20 minutes later.

The photos and video of the landing and all that led up to that event reminds me of the oft-quoted remark “Perfect is the enemy of done.”

Does it need to be “perfect”?

While shipping something and iterating its benefits, features and quality are perfectly acceptable strategies for many products and services, I think we shortchange ourselves if we don’t keep in mind that there’s a time and a place for “better than done”.

I was trained by engineering professors during my college days, so “perfect” means something well beyond “done” to me, often well beyond four decimal places.

Perfection is extremely difficult to achieve and even harder to prove , so let’s settle on a “Much better than where it is now” definition so we can keep the engineers happy.

Using that definition, perfect makes no sense for most work under most circumstances. For example, software programs are never “perfect” and while you can always sand a surface with a finer grit of sandpaper, does it matter if you take an 800-grit-smooth surface to where 10000 grit will smooth it?

Perhaps a better question is this: Is the cost and time investment worth going past “good enough/done” to reach for those “perfect” four, nine or 27 decimal places?

Going beyond a seemingly ridiculous number of decimal places is one reason why Curiosity made it to Mars and still rumbles across the Red Planet today – yet it’s unlikely that Curiosity is perfect.

BUT… it is extremely well-designed and resilient.

Design and Resilience

My point is this: while perfect is certainly the enemy of done for much of the work that you and I deliver, that doesn’t eliminate the need to put serious thought into the design and resilience of our best products and services – if not all of them.

It’s not unusual for us to design something based on immediate and short-term needs, never taking the time to consider what happens if it encounters situations and customers our short-term design never considered.

The information we don’t have is often as important as what we know and assume at design time.

When you send a product like Curiosity to Mars, you don’t get an opportunity to replace a part you didn’t think through as well as you should have. You can’t make a service call or throw a tarp over it while you rip it apart to figure out how to resolve today’s problem.

Instead, your design time process has to include what *could* happen and how your product would react and extract itself from an unexpected situation….long before you load it onto a rocket, pallet, download page or Fedex box.

What if your product…

  • Finds itself being used by a customer 10 times bigger than your design-time’s “Ideal Customer”? Or 10 times smaller?
  • Is being used in an unfriendly environment? A high-security or low-security situation?
  • Lasts 10 years longer than you expected? Remember – the work or result it provides still reflects on your business.
  • Cost 250% more to replace once it’s installed – and that installation takes 253 days  (the time it took for Curiosity to reach Mars).

When Curiosity lifts off, it was too late to turn a screw, change a part’s materials, or sand and polish it to an even-higher tolerance fit.

Think about your best stuff – no matter what you do. What would happen to it under the conditions described above? Would it be worth more if it handled those things without breaking a sweat?

How would you react when that extra bit of design effort pays off? What revenue will result? What will that first few seconds of success feel like?

PS: The sum of *all* NASA spending over the last 50 years is $800 billion. Lots of money. Yet that 50 years of exploration and discovery were cheaper than the government bailout of Wall Street, which cost $850 billion. A stunning comparison of ROI, even before thinking about the spin-off technologies from NASA’s work that have trickled down to business and industry, much less the things that impact our daily lives.

What isn’t Amazon going to change?

During Amazon Web Services’ (AWS) November re:Invent conference, there were a number of interesting talks.

Psst…Don’t run away, not-interested-in-technology folks, this is barely about tech if you look closely.

I got the most out of the sessions centered around the strategic design decisions that Amazon.com (an AWS customer) and other AWS customers were making.

These discussions were all about making a system resilient, scalable and capable of reacting quickly and transparently to changes in the business – while keeping costs as low as possible and tied directly to the business’ actual resource usage.

Naturally, their point was that AWS helps provide this ability to people who build systems.

AWS streamlines server infrastructure the same way LTL trucking streamlines freight shipping.

LTL clients get to use a high quality transportation system without investing a fleet of trucks, warehouses, dispatchers, mechanics and drivers that they may not need two weeks from now. Yet all of those resources and jobs are necessary to get freight from point a to point b. Shippers pay for what they use, meaning less waste, more efficiency, better job security and better asset use.

As I said, this isn’t about tech.

No one ever says

During a discussion on why AWS is always changing, Bezos summed it up simply: “No one ever says ‘Jeff, I love AWS but I wish it was more expensive.’ or ‘Jeff, I love AWS but I wish it was a little less reliable.’ or ‘Jeff, I love AWS but I wish you would improve it at a slower rate.’ ”

Is it any different for you? For the LTL trucking firm?

In a business where inexpensive, high quality delivery whose cost tied to usage is the focus, these changes simply don’t happen without high quality systems managing things.

Systems reduce inertia, eliminate obstacles and streamline processes so people can get the right work done faster at the same (or better) level of quality.

They aren’t about tech.

What’s the next hot thing?

When Bezos was asked about the difference between being an entrepreneur when he started Amazon (1995) and now, he said “the rate of change has increased substantially”.

He noted that people always ask him what the “next big thing” is and lamented “I almost never get asked ‘What’s not going to change in the next 10 years?’ “.

He likened businesses that address those long-standing needs to flywheels. They take time to spin up, but run smoothly and efficiently once at operating speed.

These days, solutions to these needs can be built anywhere. In a rural Montana community of 4000 people, Zinc Air has developed energy storage technology that makes dependable, scalable, portable power storage a reality.

Power availability in the developing world is a need of substantial scope as it is in places that would otherwise require months or years of infrastructure construction. It’s one more example of a need that isn’t changing anytime soon.

Is there a business there?

Not all that long ago, a substantial reason for chasing venture capital was the cost of server infrastructure. Using cloud computing like AWS, you pay for what you use as your business grows, rather than for massive infrastructure you may never use. A long-standing obstacle that impacted business development has been addressed.

Obstacles like those that LTL trucking, AWS and Zinc Air eliminate are the kind of change that Bezos was talking about when he spoke of businesses addressing long-standing inefficiencies, problems and barriers in things that won’t change over the next 10 years, rather than trying to figure out what the next big thing is.

Consider hunger. The short term solution is usually feeding people who can’t feed themselves. The long term solution is somehow enabling them to alter their economic situation so they no longer need help feeding themselves. Solving it might include some combination of jobs, medical care, child care, irrigation, clean well water, transportation, seed stock and better farming methods.

“The next big thing” might be your streamlined solution to just one small inefficiency in one area that makes hunger so difficult to extinguish. And it might be bigger than Amazon.

If you’re willing to be misunderstood for a long period of time, then you’re ready to start something new.” – Jeff Bezos, commenting on starting Amazon.

How does your industry organization help you?

This past weekend, I spoke at a national organization’s regional trade show here in the Rocky Mountain West.

As you might expect, we talked about personalizing their businesses – in their very narrow market context.

What always makes me wonder about these events is why they aren’t standing room only.

Why aren’t people lined up at the door, so to speak, to join the trade organization that represents their industry?

I don’t mean this particular organization – I mean *yours*.

The benefits are there

Some trade orgs are better than others, but all of them offer one thing of significant importance: the ability to get with others who do what you do, live somewhere else, and are willing to discuss their business and yours.

Certainly social media has had an impact on the ability of folks all over the world to share information – but it still doesn’t rival sitting at a table with a group of folks who do what you do.

Why don’t more people take advantage of the benefits of their industry’s trade organization?

  • Is it the value proposition?
  • Is it the time?
  • Is it the money?

Maybe all three. Or maybe you aren’t aware of the association for your business. There might be more than one.

Not all trade organizations are the same. Some do little more than have what amounts to a party for their members. Some develop a solid educational program for their members. And some take these things well beyond that.

What the cream does

I’ve only seen one organization that was truly hitting on all cylinders to strengthen the performance of their members’ businesses. They did more than holding regional and national conferences/trade shows.

They set standards for members in their industry, but not just by putting them on paper after having a few meetings.

Instead, they established real-world “you can use this in your shop” standards relating to manufacturing processes, curing times, mix ratios and workplace safety (critical in their industry). From there, they fine tuned the processes and testing procedures with eight years of effort that resulted in the establishment of an ANSI standard for manufacturing their industry’s product.

But that wasn’t enough. They created a third party certification program for manufacturing quality testing that gave their members the ability to confidently stand up to the brutal testing process their ANSI standard requires.

Not just anyone gets to wear the lab coat. They require that independent labs perform the testing during the certification process. These labs must be certified by a short list of testing/product evaluation industry associations, and no business or partnership relationships are allowed between the labs and the organization that approved them to perform the tests. Beyond that, they must have five significant capabilities necessary to administer the visits, lab tests and field work. The science isn’t enough.

Achieving manufacturer certification also requires that manufacturing facilities have a written quality control program that includes, at minimum, a quality check of incoming raw materials and in-process manufacturing process control as well as finished product quality checks. Random in-plant inspections and testing by the third party certifying lab verifies each these requirements.

A few other industry trade organizations do that sort of thing as do a number of major industries. It’s unusual in this case because the organization’s members are family-owned, local custom manufacturers producing annual sales between $3MM and $25MM. They aren’t 3M or GM.

Do even more

They’ve created an industry-standard education program to advance and certify the skills of the people doing the product manufacturing and installation.

In the last few years, they put together a marketing task force in order to help their membership effectively market what they do, while also marketing their industry nationally. That’s fairly common among trade associations. What isn’t common is that they built a marketing tool kit for their members to use in their own communities – a kit that complements the national materials. The national campaign brands their product for all members and is in sync or products produced by these members.

Again…all this from a trade organization that represents family-owned local manufacturing businesses.

How does your trade organization help you and your fellow members? What *could* they do? Perhaps you should ask. They may do more than you’re aware of and if not, your question might start them down that path.

Have you perfected the art of flawless first time deployment?


Curiosity’s shadow through the lens’ dust cover. Credit: NASA

Anyone who has built something for public sale has felt both the pain and joy of deployment.

Last night’s Mars Curiosity landing was a deployment that every software team or product developer should be in awe of.

That highly complex, if not seemingly crazy Mars Curiosity landing plan went without a hitch.

The first Curiosity photo returned from Mars showed the rover’s shadow, taken through the dust cover of the lens.

Millions of lines of code. A multi-step time-sensitive deployment where the smallest mistake likely means that we leave a very expensive pile of broken, tangled metal on the surface of Mars.

And yet, it went perfectly.

Thanks to the University of Arizona’s HiRise project, we even have a picture of Curiosity’s chute deployment, despite landing on the side of Mars we couldn’t see from Earth at landing time last night. Simply amazing.

Curiosity hangs below her chute above Mars.
Photo credit: Univ of Arizona HiRise project

Perfect first-time deployment?

Deployment in the field almost always comes with challenges and adjustments.

How can you possibly deploy something perfectly in the field the very first time?

“Simple.” – By not doing it for the very first time in the field.

These things happened perfectly the first time, in part because of redundant systems, but primarily because of testing of all kinds done well before anyone built the device, much less fired it into the sky toward Mars.

NASA does the same kind of testing that we talked about last week re: Intuit’s 10 million lines of code.

Unit testing. Integration testing. System testing. Testing redundant systems. Simulations. Much of it automated so that nothing gets missed and everything possible is tested every single time it or a related component changes.

It’s not “simple”, but it’s what professionals do. Test. Everything. Not just manually, not just once the thing is done and ready to roll out the door. After every build. Automatically. Long before liftoff.

Congrats NASA.

The Right Kind of Work

SUPERSEDED
Creative Commons License photo credit: m.a.x

 

Productivity is pretty important, but it had better apply to the right sort of work.

Even if your employees are incredibly efficient at whatever they do, if their work no longer brings substantial value to the table, your business could evaporate.

The failure to automate the work that can and should be automated will eventually push your costs out of line with the competition. If some of the work you do now could be automated without losing quality, you have to take an honest look at it.

Remember…If you don’t address this issue, the marketplace will do it for you.

If you’ve ever had to lay someone off, you know it isn’t fun. When they walk out for the last time, they have to go home and tell their family and they have to figure out what’s next. It won’t feel any better that it happened because you weren’t paying attention – and it certainly won’t help you to be understaffed.

In order to avoid this, you have to look for places to become more efficient. It has to be done without losing quality, distinction or value. It’s possible that your choice becomes your new edge and that the staffer who was doing the low value work ends up managing the process that replaced their labor.

Are you still doing the right things?

Sometimes, automation isn’t enough. You realize (or the market tells you) that you’re doing the wrong work.

Every month, you have to ask yourself about your business and about your people, “Am I doing the right sort of work? If not, am I ready to? If not, what do I have to do to get there?”

If your work can be outsourced easily, you’re living on borrowed time.

If you’re a middleman adding zero value, you’re living on borrowed time.

You already know this if you’re paying attention and being honest with yourself. Even so, it’s nothing to be ashamed of unless you ignore it. Everyone faces market challenges but we don’t have to seek them out and invite them in for dinner.

There’s nothing that says you have to do what you do now, that your people can’t learn a new skill that someone places a high value these days or that your business can’t start making something that people will line up to buy.

The kind of work you should be seeking is the kind of work that produces real value and/or requires taking real responsibility for what you deliver.

Think about the vendors who serve your business. How many of them take real responsibility for the products and services they provide? Now consider the vendor you’d NEVER fire. You know why. They care as much as you do.

What if you don’t want to change?

“Boy, the way Glenn Miller played”…

Edith and Archie sang that song in the 70s about music from decades earlier, looking back upon what they saw as their golden years.

No matter how wonderful those golden years were, no matter what decade they were in, now isn’t then. Even in 1939, the handwriting was on the wall for Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel.

If you warmly recall that time two, three or even four decades ago when your area had low unemployment, the best jobs, more work than you could do and close to the highest per capita wages in the country.

Those decades are long gone. So are many of the high-paying jobs that were valued back then. Just like that steam shovel.

Everyone deals with it.

Many “middle class” jobs of a century ago (like coal and ice delivery) were steady jobs. They’re gone. It’s not much different with many of the jobs from 20-30-40 years ago.

If this describes your business, understand that I’m not trying to make light of that. I was trained as a programmer. 20 years later, tens of millions of people in India, the Ukraine, China and elsewhere can do what most “first world” programmers do for $10-20 an hour. I understand the competitive pressures.

If your work can be outsourced at $10-20 an hour, you have to ask yourself…”How much value do I really deliver?”

Take charge. Do the right work.

 

 

Producing Trust

Last time (in the context of being trusted, and what a business must do to re-establish trust), I talked briefly about vendors who announce software years before they plan to ship it, including firms that never ship what they’ve announced and taken payment for.

On occasion, early announcements are a legal requirement for some businesses. IBM and the terms of their consent decree, for example.

Delivery problems can be made worse by substantial changes in market conditions that can make the announced product irrelevant. In some cases, a failure to deliver is irrelevant because the product is so late that it no longer matters. The totally rewritten Netscape is one such example.

Sometimes the product doesn’t meet the expectations it originally set for potential customers even if market conditions havenâ??t changed. On very rare occasions, a failure to deliver is intentional/fraudulent but that’s for legal blogs to discuss.

How do delivery problems happen?

Delivery problems are frequently born months or even years before they reveal themselves. They happen because the firm involved has internal development (yes, management) problems.

While hidden, these problems can lull a business into taking advance payment for a product that they cannot dream of delivering in the short term – even though their intention is to do just that.

Symptoms of a software business with development problems can include:

  • Inability to deliver a consistently high quality product.
  • They can’t name a date and deliver on that date occasionally, much less time after time.
  • They don’t know with any confidence if they will ship on a particular date until that date is too close to do anything about their ability to reach it.
  • They fail to design to a detailed enough level of granularity and get surprised during the development process, finding that something allocated to two days or two weeks instead requires four months of work.
  • They fail to focus on the task at hand and occasionally find themselves chasing a “bright shiny object” that has at best a tangential relationship to their announced product goals.
  • They work in a vacuum (insulated from their industry and/or their client base) and because of a substantial design/strategic product miscalculation, it is months or years before they discover it.
  • If they accept customization work requests for their core products, it tends to appear “duct taped” on, rather than designed-in.

Businesses that experience one or more of these issues simply haven’t decided to do enough enough to ensure compelling levels of consistency in the product they produce. They haven’t decided (or don’t realize they need) to focus only on the things that ensure an on-time delivery of a quality product. In some cases, they may not even be sure what “on-time” will be.

These things are not “just how it is”. They are decided.

Trust that upgrade?

Think about the one software package you use more than any other. Doesnâ??t matter whether itâ??s a development tool (like XCode or Visual Studio), an accounting package (QuickBooks?) or a firmware upgrade for your CNC machine.

  • Will you install the next upgrade without first checking to see if someone else has done the bleeding for you?
  • Are you confident that you can install the next upgrade right away, or do you wait a few days or weeks to see what the fallout is?
  • Do you install new upgrades right away with strong confidence that itâ??ll be solid?
  • Do you install and then spend a pile of time testing obvious things to make sure they still work?
  • Do you routinely wait for someone else to â??do the bleedingâ? for you before you decide to install or not?
  • Is it common to have to “back off” an upgrade because it broke too many things?

Put that hat on your customers.

What do they do?

Do they install what you ship on the day you ship it? Or do they put off updates until they have no choice – such as when industry specification and/or governmental rule changes require use of the upgraded version.

That’s an indicator of their trust in your development and testing process. In YOU.

Problems like this aren’t just about software businesses and aren’t about upscale quality. It’s about management consistently doing the things that create trust. This kind of trust applies to plumbers, coffee roasters, political candidates and construction companies – and many others.

You trust that even the cheapest generic milk from the store won’t have hair or bug body parts floating in it. You trust that when you flip a wall switch, the power will come on.

To produce high levels of trust in your work requires a decision: “We will do what it takes to become (or remain) the trusted party.”