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How Does Human Error Affect Your Projects? April 8, 2014

Posted by Jason in Insider's View Relapses, Management.
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In January 2008, several factors came together that caused two airliners to collide on the ground in San Francisco. Both were being pushed back from their respective gates at night, and because of a combination of procedural errors, assumptions, and environmental factors, they came to be at the same place at the same time. Can we learn anything from this incident?

To reduce or eliminate such events, Canada’s transportation authority commissioned a report in 1993 that studied underlying causes of aviation accidents, especially as related to maintenance. While I personally have not had projects come to ends as tragic or expensive as a plane crash, the results of the report provide some useful insights into the human side of our work.

A project manager should evaluate a project’s results to improve efficiency and learn lessons for next time. Often, we focus on tangible aspects of the project—a budget or timeline, changing goals, or technical issues. However, unless the manager is in tune with the human aspects of a project, there may be several complications that are not immediately identifiable but play a significant role in success or failure. The aviation and industrial engineering fields include the study of “human factors” for just this reason.

This focus is the basis for Transport Canada’s report, which identified 12 factors as the root causes of many failures. Think about how these human factors may apply to your projects:

  1. Lack of communication
  2. Complacency
  3. Lack of knowledge
  4. Distraction
  5. Lack of teamwork
  6. Fatigue
  7. Lack of resources
  8. Pressure
  9. Lack of assertiveness
  10. Stress
  11. Lack of awareness
  12. Norms (individual or organizational culture or habits)

Can the same human errors that contribute to aircraft accidents affect your client’s product? At least half of the list can be applied to any project: Communication, knowledge, resources, organizational culture, teamwork, and stress all play roles in any endeavor. While the hazards of complacency, distraction, and lack of awareness are clearly more critical in certain high-risk industries, they still remain important factors to consider when planning and evaluating a project.

Complacency refers simply to the thought that the way things have been is the way they will continue to be. Humans perceive that familiar tasks are not as risky as novel ones. It is apparent whenever managers provide off-the-shelf solutions to unique problems. “If it worked before, why not now?” Of course, not only does this attitude do a disservice to the client, but the design runs the risk of being outright faulty.

Industry defines “awareness” with respect to the physical environment and the activity around the individual. In the office, it is just as important in the abstract, as managers and staff must be aware of various pieces of a project and how different disciplines and functional divisions must work together in parallel. If the project scope is adjusted, the impact must be understood and incorporated into all the project phases, or the team may face severe declines in productivity and morale.

Distraction is a facet of daily life that we take for granted, if often unwillingly. E-mails, phone calls, and computer problems all take their toll on the “real” work. The firm should limit the amount of time an individual needs to spend on non-billable tasks, but managers should also be vigilant to ensure that the team is not hopping from task to task. Not only is there a risk of overlooking critical information, but the team becomes less efficient and spends too much time getting back to what they were doing before being interrupted.

Managers often obsess over the three legs of the project but overlook the people who are making the entire thing go. Those desiring to understand why the budget was blown or the product was delivered late may want to look at the organization first. In the case of the two tangled airliners, luckily no one was injured; but time and money were lost to deal with the incident. Learn the effects of human factors and you may just be able to avoid a crash.

Originally published in CE News, October 2008

Eliminating defects – or multiplying talent? November 25, 2013

Posted by Jason in Management.
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“First, Break All The Rules” by Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman has been out for nearly 15 years.  If you are a manager, work for a manager, or even work near a manager, I highly recommend it as a quick read with some good ideas.  Like any management book, there are few one-size-fits-all solutions to the range of organizations out there, but this one – as the title suggests – provides a different perspective on the business world in general and highlights many of the dysfunctions that keep the average organization from being excellent.

Rather than summarize the whole book (which by the way has been distilled into a great set of notes a la Powerpoint) I took note of one easily overlooked point.  The book is geared toward management and managers, being organized around interviewing, motivating, and retaining truly great employees.  However, nestled in the chapter about hiring talented individuals is a bit of a footnote section called “Study Your Best”.

However your current team has been assembled, it will demonstrate some range of performance.  In many organizations, managers fight an uphill battle to reduce failures, defects, weaknesses, and overall poor performance, often by creating more and more policies, procedures, and rigid enforcement of things like TPS reports.  In my own consulting engagements, this is a natural pursuit, as it yields quick, measurable results for the client.  The authors point out however,

Conventional wisdom asserts that good is the opposite of bad, that if you want to understand excellence, you should investigate failure and then invert it.  In society at large, we define good health as the absence of disease…In the working world, this fascination with pathology is just as pervasive…

Rather, you should

Learn the whys, the hows, and the whos of your best and then select for similar talents.

“Fewer Defects” is an example of one tool that organizations use to work toward true excellence, but it does not in and of itself get them there.  You can’t have an excellent organization if you produce defective products, but 100% accuracy does not mean you have an excellent organization.  Instead, focus on those things that your people do well, and apply them to others.  Don’t waste time filling in gaps of talent with more and more policies and procedures.

Truly excellent people find the right way to do their job for their individual talents – and love doing so.  Anything else is papering over people who may simply not be in a job that makes the best use of their talents.

Can you manage people without destroying trust? May 28, 2013

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Most of us might not readily associate project management – or any other management – with the fields of sociology or political science.  But just as engineering is the application of scientific principles toward a specific objective, management is very much the application of social sciences to coordinating groups toward an objective.

Unfortunately, sociology is rarely given much consideration in engineering curricula, and only passing interest in many business courses.  Surely, many business concepts are founded on sociological and psychological theory, but students aren’t often exposed to the raw studies or how more obscure analysis might be applied in new ways.  What is business and economics but a subset of the continual interactions we have with others every day of our lives?

Columbia University sociologist Herbert J. Gans wrote Middle American Individualism in 1988 as a short examination of the public’s relationship to Big Business and Big Government, especially Americans’ unique distrust of large organizations.  Though focused on how government can better reach such a disaffected population, the book yields some very interesting insights – several of which crop up again in the more recent Bowling Alone by Robert D. Putnam.

Putnam highlights the significant drop in “social capital” since the 1960’s and uses decades of survey data to analyze reasons and consequences.  He singles out our collective trust in each other – or rather lack of it – as being a contributing force in our declining social capital, the glue that allows our various short- and long-term activities to be reciprocated in the future.  Social capital could in some ways be a synonym for a more familiar business buzzword: synergy.  In short, the sum of our social connections is greater than the individuals we know.

In particular, Putnam highlights the concept of economic “transaction costs” as a consequence of less social capital and trust.  It is these transaction costs that hold particular pertinence to management.  We can think of transaction costs as the various tangible and intangible investments, such as research, bargaining, and enforcement (especially through contracts and courts), of any particular exchange.  These may be informal and individual (the time and effort involved in preparing a dinner for a sick neighbor) or complex business agreements (the process of hiring an engineer, preparing a contract, and executing the work).

Whenever we use a written contract, we increase the cost of that transaction – sometimes literally when we pay attorneys to draft them.  Aside from this, there are other intangible costs derived from the effort involved in setting up the agreement, managing the specific deliverables, and enforcing any variances.  To be sure, complex engineering designs do require clear contracts.  But has our litigious society forced us into formal agreements for even trivial matters?  When we micro-manage a project, do we inherently distrust the other parties when we insist on written documentation of every single activity?

Many businesspeople around Montana pride themselves on the magnitude of agreements executed with a handshake.  Similarly, master consultant Alan Weiss has noted that contracts are part of the implementation, not the sales process.  If you haven’t established the deliverables beforehand, the contract is premature at best.  Quite often, you may find yourself explaining away these written documents as “formalities”.  By requiring them, we are expressing at least some degree of distrust.  When developing relationships, that is the last thing you want to do.

Learning from Mayo April 3, 2013

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Here in Montana, one of our local hospitals recently partnered with the Mayo Clinic.  As someone who thankfully doesn’t yet require the services of this world-class organization, I am one of many people who have heard of how great it is, but didn’t really understand what made it different.  As happens quite often, I found a great resource that opened up a new world of management methods – but I had to look in a different section of the library.

Deep in the MSU Billings library – in the healthcare management section – you can find “Management Lessons from Mayo Clinic: Inside One of the World’s Most Admired Service Organizations.”  This quick read highlights many of the Mayo brothers’ approaches to healthcare and management, and is purposefully sprinkled with examples for managers in other industries.  Like so many other gems however, you often have to look outside your own sector for new insights.

What does the Mayo Clinic have to do with, say, engineering or project management?  Plenty.  Here are two important examples:

Mayo Clinic practices what they call “destination medicine”.  Physicians, radiologists, specialists, surgeons, labs – all in one place.  The patient doesn’t cross town from clinic to clinic, waiting days for test results or diagnoses.  Engineers might call their operations “full service”.  But it’s not as easy as putting a slogan on your website.

Mayo is designed around a collaborative environment.  They don’t start with a particular specialty and then hire for it.  They start with people who are hired for their commitment to their patients and their professional development – as well as the development of their colleagues.  Being a medical “destination” is not simply having a large campus and a catalog of services – it is the open interaction among professionals that allows patients the effective care they need to define Mayo as the destination in their own minds.  The question for other sectors: Are you providing truly integrated services, or are your business offerings still siloed by overprotective managers and excessive bureaucracy?

Next, Mayo goes out of its way to present a professional appearance and instill confidence in the brand.  From dress codes to personal attention by any staff member, the leadership understands that patients cannot necessarily judge their services on a technical level.  Rather, they (and all of us) will substitute other aspects to decide whether the organization is “professional”.

Physical spaces, for instance, are well lit and noise is kept to a minimum.  These are not necessarily important for quality clinical care (though it probably helps), but a patient would surely not feel as at ease in a tightly confined, noisy office.  The doctor may truly know his stuff, but he isn’t exactly presenting the best image.

Similarly, are your project managers presenting a professional image to your clients?  Are your offices kept neat, with quiet spaces for meetings and clean desks?  Perhaps this isn’t important to you and your staff, but it may make the difference if a client is trying to determine whether your firm has the professionalism to undertake the next big project.

Though most organizations will not have the weighty impact that comes from saving lives, the organizational leadership in any firm can learn a lot from those that do.  Remember to look outside your own industry now and again for great insights into management successes.

Have you considered a visual resume? January 24, 2013

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Inspired by several examples of visual resumes and CV’s, I decided to package my seventeen years of engineering and consulting experience into one concise picture.  Personal branding is more than optimizing a resume for text searches and databases, it’s a demonstration of your ability to communicate a complex, abstract message to a variety of audiences.  Visual communication is often your best bet.

Visual CV Thumbnail

Check out VisualCV, Re.Vu, or ResumUP for great ideas and quick tools for creating your own visual resume.

What would you do with an immortal mouse? January 8, 2013

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This fascinating infographic highlights many possibilities – not just in discrete areas of science, society, and politics, but in your own life and business.

Tomorrow's World

I’ll place my own dubious odds that most people don’t think five years in the future, let alone ten or twenty.  It’s no mystery why: with too many unknowns, our brains freeze up and we regress to the much easier task of simply making it through the present.

But predictions like these – even if they have only a tenuous connection to reality – provide a unique chance to focus our thinking.  Using our future-mouse as an example, it’s an excellent chance to brainstorm a bit about how life and business will be different if that were to happen.  Not that it necessarily will, but by undertaking the exercise, you are training your brain to recognize these little opportunities when they do finally arrive.

What are the implications of an immortal mouse (and, by extension, a human)?  What would such an event mean for health, aging, retirement, education, or tourism?  Would people postpone “bucket-list” activities, anticipating human immortality by 2040?  Perhaps not, but if you’re in the tourism business, this could become an interesting aspect of your future strategic plans.

More down to earth (or above it), consider all the advances we have made that are dependent on the aging GPS satellites – such as agriculture noted in the figure.  This technology pervades virtually every aspect of the modern world, and there is no shortage of concern about its long-term viability.  Despite that new satellites are slowly coming on line, one must certainly wonder if there will be a change in ownership somewhere in the future.  Just as we are beginning to see private space flight take to the skies, will there someday be a subscription GPS service?  Will SiriusXM begin looking at a private GPS network in 2030?  Will your business be ready if it does?

Focused predictions like these provide a great seed for your company’s strategy sessions.  Surely they don’t indicate immediate action, but if you’re already thinking about them years ahead of time, you may just have that much more advantage when things really do change.

Would you like to supersize your data? January 7, 2013

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Is your organization “data-driven”?  Do you scrutinize your company’s analytics to understand sales, customer behavior, product improvements, or innovation opportunities?  Do you stand firmly behind Peter Drucker’s counsel that “you can’t manage what you don’t measure”?

Or are you confused by the term “big data” and wonder just how another database or piece of analytical software could possibly substitute for years of experience?

Either way, you may be right.

Naturally, business is governed by data.  At the simplest, we measure cash, inventory, sales volume, and numbers of customers.  Human intuition and assumptions (and especially memory) are often trumped by basic observations of hard numbers.  You can’t run a business based on feelings.

But on the other end of the spectrum, we have global organizations collecting unimaginable volumes of information, using it to understand the past and predict the future.  We live in a world of immense data gathering and storage capacity.  Whether we are, in fact, any smarter for it is open for debate.

IBM - Big Data Infographic

This HBR article highlights some of the specific ways data is used, and summarizes a few case studies of successful analysis, modeling, and application that led to increased efficiency.  However, the last two pages highlight what I believe are the most important aspects: the leadership challenges associated with using big data.  Another article paints a clearer picture of these challenges and quotes Thomas H. Davenport’s big questions when faced with a decision based on a data set beyond the bounds of human comprehension:

What data do you need?

Where does it come from?

What are the assumptions behind the model?

How is the model different from reality?

We’ve all heard the phrase Garbage In-Garbage Out.  This doesn’t apply just to the data, however.  It also includes the assumptions and structure of the model – the human construct is, by definition, only an approximation.  If we feed good data into a bad model, the results can be just as disastrous.

It’s tempting to buy into a system designed to boost your business, operations, or product development.  In fact, as the above figure shows, at least in the UK, big data focuses on customer-centric outcomes – in other words, things to improve the customer experience, attract buyers, or otherwise interact with the client base.  And for large companies that can improve on the margin over a large pool of customers, the law of averages says that big data may very well be a good enough approximation.

If, on the other hand, you run a small business with personal service to individuals, you may very well find yourself on the wrong side of the database.  As we know, humans are much more irrational than we give ourselves credit for.  While a large sample size can indeed yield beneficial predictions, individuals may behave quite differently than the model founded on untested assumptions.

In my consulting practice, we find quite often that companies have much more data gathering capability than they actually use.  Our challenge is to make the best use of the admittedly imperfect data, challenge preconceived assumptions, and then change a culture while at the same time reducing the dependency on inflexible methods.  Data is, then, merely a tool to achieve a needed change, but can in fact be as much a hindrance in the future once the change has taken hold.

This goes to show that the need for big data will be driven as much by the particular needs of your organization at a particular time as by the size of the business and its customer base.  Invest in big data carefully and in line with your corporate strategy rather than promises of improvements that may only be appropriate for a larger firm.

Are you giving away your intellectual property? January 2, 2013

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The recent Instagram debacle has more people talking about Intellectual Property rights.  For many corporations, IP is a very real concern, and a great source of corporate value.  Examples are various workshops, training materials, or design elements (whether patented, trademarked, copyrighted, or simply kept secret).

But what about personal branding?  Is there an advantage to an individual to share his or her intellectual property with a past, present, or future employer or client?  I think so.

One of the greatest threats to IP is that a competitor will use it to take some of the firm’s market share.  Another is that a client will perform work internally that it previously paid your firm to do.  While valid concerns for an organization, the individual is less exposed to these kinds of risks.  Unless you are an empire builder, you have little to lose by sharing knowledge, skills, and techniques with those around you – even clients.

Here is an example from my own work as a writer:

My value to a client does not come from my ability to strike plastic keys with my fingers.  That’s an easily outsourced task that with low intrinsic value.  Rather, I follow some process (which varies based on topic and audience) to synthesize various parts of the client’s business into a cohesive message and deliverable product.  I’m quite happy to explain in great detail how I organize the raw information and mold it into a finished piece.  Indeed, these are skills that virtually anyone can learn, and if the client was so inclined, could do for himself.

But that’s what distinguishes our separate business interests, goals, and differentiating value.  My engineering client wants to do engineering, not writing.  Surely he will benefit by understanding what it takes to write a good press release or technical article, and I’m all for teaching him (it makes the writer’s job that much easier).  But to keep the process ‘behind the curtain’ is to overthink the risk and ignore the additional value that comes from forming a partnership.  Instead of maintaining a black art, take some time to educate your clients and coworkers.

Knowledge is not a zero-sum game.

Are you driving your meetings into a ditch? December 2, 2012

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As a consultant, I help managers and front-line supervisors to achieve their myriad, sometimes conflicting, corporate goals.  Usually, in the mining environment, this relates to daily production rates – how many trucks, how much rock, how many tons processed and sold.  Despite mining’s many inherent challenges of geology, mechanical breakdowns, and logistics, seasoned professionals have seen most of them before.  One of the largest barriers to improvement isn’t any of these, rather, it is the staff itself – sometimes an individual, but often a corporate culture that has become bogged down in habit – a habit of bad meetings.

One of the first things we do on a site is examine meeting effectiveness.  We use the 5-P model, modified to fit our particular clients’ needs.  Our model requires that each meeting have:

  1. Purpose
  2. Payoff
  3. Participants
  4. Process
  5. Preparation

In short, we want clear outcomes (for the meeting itself and the longer term strategy), the right people, a clear agenda, and enough preparation that no one is receiving important information “cold turkey”.

But there is another, sneakier way that meetings can be hijacked.  This article illustrates another “P” – one that you DON’T want to have if you want to get things done.  PLOT stands for Parkinson’s Law of Triviality.  It states that more time is spent discussing low-impact issues simply because they are more familiar and controllable.  Bigger, more important issues are given mere minutes due to complexity and a tendency to trust the ‘experts’, while low value ‘bike sheds’ consume hours.

Though intended as a spoof, indeed there is likely some behavioral science behind this (Dan Ariely, are you reading this?).  We know that people can act quite irrationally when emotionally involved with an issue.  And if there’s anything that meetings seem to be especially good at, it is the nurturing of irrationality.

Employee Ethics November 20, 2012

Posted by Jason in Insider's View Relapses, Management.
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Taking a step back from our day-to-day work, it is always interesting to examine reasons and motivations for our actions. Any given industry comprises every background imaginable and represents cultures from around the globe. However, despite our differences, most professionals (engineers, lawyers, doctors, even project managers) are obligated to similar ethical codes and owe a duty to the public to act for their benefit. Further, each individual is bound by their own personal morals as well as their employer’s particular culture. But what happens when an individual’s personal moral code conflicts with the firm’s?

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