Continuous Permanent Improvement

arun-cpiWhat? A book on continuous improvement that would make executives and other managers happy?

Yes, Arun Hariharan has made this happen in Continuous Permanent Improvement, published by the ASQ Quality Press in May 2014. Although there are many references that describe the mindset and philosophy of quality and continuous improvement efforts, it is rare to see one that could meet the needs (and satisfy the interests) of executives as well as operations managers. This book, which reflects on his experiences working with organizations of all sizes over the past three decades, provides a refreshing perspective, aiming to “give you a holistic and strategic approach to quality, rather than the limited view that restricts the benefits to only certain operational or tactical aspects.” These well-written and engaging 236 pages easily meets this primary goal. As part of an interview with Arun on the ASQ blog, Julia McIntosh calls thisa strategic distillation of experiences, anecdotes, stories, case studies, and lessons learned from successes and mistakes in nearly three decades of experience.”

There are several highlights that will also help readers bridge the strategic and operational levels.  For example, in Chapter 4, the author differentiates between SIPOC (Suppliers – Inputs – Processes – Outputs – Customers) and the “outside-in” COPIS (Customers – Outputs – Processes – Inputs – Suppliers) approach to understanding a process first from the customer’s perspective. He adds that COPIS can be used strategically as well as operationally, and provides a comprehensive case study of how strategic COPIS was applied at one organization. Chapter 5 presents the rationale for standardized processes in the context of an expanding bakery, a story that provides an excellent backdrop for explaining the relationship between standards and innovation. In Chapter 8, the author demonstrates a very straightforward method for value stream mapping, by simply identifying which stages of a process can be considered types of waste. Chapter 9 provides the most comprehensive explanation of “First Time Right” that I have seen in print.

This book is not a manual or reference guide that covers specific techniques for improvement and how to implement them. More significantly, it uses stories to illustrate how the many dimensions of quality and business excellence can be effectively integrated in practice. By taking this approach, the author has provided an excellent resource for practitioners who are looking for new insights, as well as academics who are seeking a more nuanced understanding of how continuous improvement is organized and managed in practice. It would also make an excellent textbook for an advanced undergraduate or graduate course in practical process improvement.

This is draft material for a review that will be published in the October 2014 issue of Quality Management Journal.

The Best Book Ever on Machine Learning (and Intelligent Systems) in R

lantz-ml-in-rDear Brett (Lantz),

In short: your book, Machine Learning with R, is the book I’ve been dreaming about for years. Everyone who applies machine learning techniques for their work, teaches applied machine learning at a university, or just loves R and wants to know more about these super cool algorithms should buy and use your book.

I’ve been teaching a course called “Intelligent Systems” (ISAT/CS 344 at JMU) for the past few years. I inherited a syllabus and course description from professors who had taught the course from the mid-1990′s until 2009, so I started out following their lead and broadly covering expert/knowledge-based systems, simple neural networks for regression, and some elements of robotics. We used a commercial package to build the expert systems (rather than a declarative language like Prolog), which was fine, but we also used a commercial package for the neural networks. I was unsatisfied for two reasons: first, I knew that far more “stuff” was going on in the world of intelligent systems which we weren’t sharing with our students, and second, I knew there were tons of free packages in the R Statistical Software that could perform the same tasks… and more. I started a yearlong process of soul-searching and creating new materials… determined to bring R to the classroom, along with neural networks for both classification and regression, classification using k-nearest neighbors and Naive Bayes approaches, clustering with k-means, and some text mining and analysis to show students what you could do with unstructured data.

I also wanted to compare and contrast neural network regression with simple linear regression, classification algorithms in general with logistic regression, and share how to evaluate and improve model performance using metrics like precision, recall, and F1. (I mean, who cares about developing an intelligent software system if you can’t evaluate and continually improve its performance?) In addition, I’ve dreamed about adding a module on decision trees, in particular focusing on the C5.0 algorithm. But I haven’t found the time to explore or create new course materials on this topic. So I knew it would be even harder to compile all of my course materials into a book for my students to reference.

But you, in the meantime, have saved my life. I’ve explored tons of books on machine learning and intelligent systems that focus more on the practical applications of the techniques rather than the theory… and I have not found one that meets my standards, until now. In a friendly and conversational manner (that’s not overfriendly, condescending, or flippant) you have managed to cover pretty much all of the topics I want to share in my intelligent systems class — in a way that I’m comfortable with.

Chapters 1 (Introduction to Machine Learning) and 2 (Managing and Understanding Data) provide a great, simplified introduction to what machine learning is all about and highlights the data structures and R commands that might be the most useful for these purposes. Chapters 3 and 4 cover classification… first with k-nearest neighbors, then with Naive Bayes. Chapter 5 covers decision trees and C5.0. Chapter 6 covers regression in general, but with applications to decision trees (yeah!) In Chapter 7 (Black Box Methods – Neural Networks and Support Vector Machines) there’s a great example based on Optical Character Recognition (which will pair nicely with the lab exercise I already use). Chapter 8 covers Apriori, Chapter 9 introduces clustering with k-means, and Chapters 10 and 11 specifically deal with evaluating and improving model performance.

As a cherry on top of the cake that is this book, Chapter 12 provides an overview of most-used ways to acquire data (e.g. using RCurl, XML, and JSON) and even introduces parallel computing.

I am eternally grateful to you for writing the book that’s been in my head in a way I (think I!) would have written it. It’s not PERFECT (I would have spent more time on concepts like overfitting, and maybe given examples… and maybe some prose on the Turing Test and Reverse Turing Test) — but I can easily use your book as a required text and then provide supplemental materials on the side.

Thank you Brett!

Sincerely and with a world of gratitude,

Nicole

Thrivability: A Sneaky Awesome Little Book About Innovation

thrivabilityI just got done reading Jean Russell’s new book, Thrivability, from Triarchy Press. In my opinion, this is perhaps the most compelling book about innovation that’s been written in the past few years – and it’s not even expressly about innovation. But it can help you think about all the assumptions you make about society and the environment in which you’re embedded – assumptions that, when relaxed, can open up new ways of thinking that will help you more effectively innovate.

Here’s the review that I’ll be publishing in the January 2014 issue of the Quality Management Journal. In the meantime, I encourage you to read Jean’s book — and please share your comments below! I want to know what you think about it.

               “Thrivability,” or the “ability to thrive,” suggests strength, grace, health, growth, and sustainable value creation – all in one word. In this book, Jean Russell articulates over 20 years of knowledge and insights she’s gleaned from delving into this one concept from the perspective of multiple disciplines. The end result is a book that is unique, richly textured, and achieves its stated goal: “to equip you with tools to see and act in ways that enrich your life, your community, your business, and our world.” As a result, this book contributes indirectly (yet profoundly) to the expanding body of knowledge on innovation.

               The book is structured in three Parts: Perceiving, Understanding, and Doing.  The first chapters encourage the reader to critically examine his or her external environment, the assumptions that are inherent to the economic and political systems within which we are embedded, and the individual stories that we use to construct our expectations about ourselves, our capabilities, and others around us. It does this by emphasizing the importance of storytelling and narrative – to imagine ourselves in the context of a story that inspires us about our world, rather than fills us with fear. To be successful at this, we must first learn how to look at our world and the people around us with compassion and acceptance. This, according to the author, will help us generate new perspectives on existing situations, and open us to new possibilities for improvement.

               Part II, on Understanding, explores how we can shift our beliefs to help create more positive, productive, connected environments and organizations. A large part of this section reflects on the psychological influences of social media and how this is changing the ways we identify opportunities and even the definition of “success” itself. For example, in education, grades are losing their significance as society recognizes that complex creations are more effective measures of accomplishment than passing tests. Part III, on Doing, focuses on tools and techniques to enliven creativity, enhance trust, and break through limiting beliefs and blocking situations.

               This book has essential insights for both academics and practitioners in quality-related fields. Most significantly, Russell’s work can help us envision the new world in which we might soon find ourselves, where the search for meaning and compassion for others (and our environment) take precedence over profit and capturing or creating new markets.

Give and Take: Adam Grant, the Revolution of Gifting, & Quality Consciousness

doug-who-is-god-virtual-space(Image Credit: Doug Buckley of http://hyperactive.to)

For the past few years I’ve been promoting the idea of quality consciousness — that is, that you can DO BETTER by BEING BETTER. Since quality can be viewed as excellence in being, you can improve your quality consciousness by improving awareness, alignment, and attention. More recently, I’ve been focusing on how embracing your unique gifts and finding ways to be an innovator by bringing your gifts into the world contributes to alignment.

In April, Wharton professor Adam Grant is releasing “Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success” — and I am SO excited, I can barely stand it. Why? Because Adam’s research has made the link between freely giving of yourself and success. And based on the awesomeness of his insights linking creativity to motivation within a social context, I’m thrilled that his next book deals with gifting. (However, I do hope that it takes a different approach than yesterday’s post at Forbes on The 21 Principles of Persuasion, which argues that gifting is good because it compels people to give stuff to you.)

Now, don’t be fooled by this whole “professor” thing and what it might mean about the readability of his book. Sure, he teaches at a top tier university, and has a wildly intense professional record of publications to go along with his title. But he’s also the youngest tenured professor they have, and at 31, he’s also spent career time as a professional magician.

A High-Quality Academic Book Review

qmj-coverexampleI’ve recently been assigned the role of Book Review Editor for ASQ’s Quality Management Journal starting with the second issue in 2013, under the guidance of new Editor, Larry Fredendall of Clemson University. As we are preparing our book reviews for this issue, Matthias Thurer (who will also be preparing regular reviews with me) asked me for guidelines and what constitutes a “good” review. Here is my message for Matthias, as well as for any of you who are interested in preparing a book review for an academic journal.

In my opinion, the book review should be 500 to 900 words and discuss some or all of the following, as appropriate. These questions, which have been adapted from wendybelcher.com, are consistent with the excellent structure adhered to by the late James Kohnen who served as the QMJ Book Review Editor for many years:

  • What are the 1-3 main messages of the book?
  • Does the book achieve its stated goals?
  • Is the book a contribution to the field or discipline, and if so, what is that primary contribution? 
  • Does the book relate to a current debate or trend in the field and if so, how? 
  • Is the book well-written? What is the writing style and who would it appeal to?
  • How accurate is the information (e.g., the footnotes, bibliography, dates)? Who would benefit from reading this book? 
  • How does the book compare to other books in the field? 
  • If it is a textbook, what courses can it be used in and how clear is the book’s structure and examples?

If you know of a recently released (or pre-release) book that is relevant to academics and practitioners in quality management, or would like to prepare a book review for our pipeline into the QMJ, please let me know by email (at myfirstname dot mylastname at gmail)! We will be including 3-5 book reviews in each issue of the QMJ.

I invite you to add to this discussion – as a reader or writer, what are your criteria for a high-quality book review? Please share in the comments.

The Secret of (High Performance) Teams

I confess, I wasn’t very enthusiastic when I first picked up this new book by Mark Miller, VP of Training and Development from Chick-Fil-A. The Secret of Teams: What Great Teams Know and Do was kind of thin and reminded me of Who Moved My Cheese? – at least by touch. I’ve read tons of books about cultivating successful teams, many of which were banal and uninspiring (in addition to saying the same things as all the other “yay team” books). Does the world really need one more?

After reading Mark’s 144-page parable, I think the answer is yes. Yes, the world did need one more book about high performance teams, and it’s this one. And I’m glad he took the time to share the story with the world.

The Secret of Teams is the story of Debbie, a manager who has a track record that includes turning one particularly less-than-stellar team into a powerhouse. Her reputation precedes her as she moves into a new position, where her team (although well intentioned) just isn’t coming together like she’d envisioned. Debbie carries a slight air of defeat as she struggles to recover her sense of self-worth. She convinces her boss that it might be helpful to go interview some high-performance teams, to extract some themes that could help improve her own management approach (as well as other team leaders in similar positions in her company) – and she sets off on her journey.

As you read through Mark’s book, you find yourself reflecting on your own personal experiences to uncover the drivers for great teams. It is the easy and natural way that his prose draws out self-reflection that, I think, is the greatest strength of this quick read.

To me, I realized that there are characteristics of individuals as well as characteristics of the collective that must be in place for a high-performance team to emerge. You can have high-performance people that work well alone, but just don’t gel while working together. Each of the team’s members must want to be there. They have to have the skills and capabilities to function within the team, and make a contribution that the other members value, rather than riding the coat tails and momentum of their teammates (and in general, dragging things down). Team members have to be approachable, willing to share information and support. There has to be a feeling of camaraderie and enjoyment for a team to truly be high-performance… because then they will seek out time and opportunities to do more with the work, catalyzing the productivity of inspiration.

Miller echoes many of these findings through the characters in his story. His “Top 3” drivers turn out to be Talent (intrinsic motivation/fit), Skills (capabilities that can be developed through experience and training), and Community (an “emotional grid” where the team’s members can at once be vulnerable to one another and fully supportive of one another). In fact, the only driver I might add to his list is Inspiration, because I’ve observed it in every truly awesome team I’ve had the privilege to observe. You’re going to have to read his book to get more context – but it’s an enjoyable and worthwhile read, one that would be excellent as the basis for a team to read together and discuss how to get on a track towards collective self-improvement.

An Unorthodox Tip for Improving Productivity and Eliminating Writer’s Block: Listen to the Earworm

(Image Credit: Doug Buckley of http://hyperactive.to)

The other day I read a news article or blog post (or something; I can’t remember) that explained one reason we get irritating songs stuck in our heads. The post was based on a research paper by Williamson et al. (2011) in the journal Psychology of Music. Usually, when we catch one of these “earworms” because we’ve heard a snippet of a catchy and familiar song, we’ll walk away or turn off the song in the beginning or the middle of it.

The tune, however, like a rapid flesh-eating organism invading our very soul, continues without compunction. Because we stopped the song in the middle, our unconscious becomes fixed on the task of finishing it. And so it continues, on and on, all day!

The solution, we’re told, is to listen to the annoying song until it’s over… our unconscious, at that point, will be content that the tune is complete and will be happy to move on to other topics.

I didn’t think too much of this piece of trivia until I was reading an interview with Erik Larson, author of the fantastic 2003 novel The Devil in the White City. His book provides an amazing account of the technology development and social context that went into organizing the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago – it’s a totally satisfying read. When asked about his discipline for writing, and for avoiding writer’s block, he described a method that might actually leverage the same hold on the unconscious that earworms grab:

And I try to write a couple of pages. I’m not firm. I don’t have a specific goal. But the one thing I always adhere to is that I stop while I’m ahead. If I’m going to take that break for breakfast, I may stop in the middle of the sentence or the middle of the paragraph. Something I know how to finish. Because as any writer knows, it’s — that’s what kills you is when you just don’t know what to do when you come back. And all the demons accumulate. And then you go out for a cappuccino, that kind of thing.

If you want to avoid writer’s block, leave your unconscious a hook – an easy way back in to your writing productivity!

If you want to avoid ramp-up time (or context switching time) to get your head back into a problem – which has been estimated, for software development at least, to be on average a full 15 minutes for every interruption – leave your unconscious an easy way back in to productivity! A half written module or subroutine… or a half written sentence on your notepad!

These are just hypotheses, but they’re definitely testable. I’m going to try testing this out in my own life immediately.