Category Archives: Random Thoughts

Leadership – No Pushing Required

Brene Brown on leadership

When I was younger, I felt like I was pretty smart. Then I turned 23, was thrown into the fast-faced world of helping CxOs try to straighten out their wayward enterprise software implementations, and realized just how little I knew. My turning point came around 6pm on a hot, sticky, smelly evening on Staten Island in a conference room where a director named Mike Davis was yelling at a bunch of us youngster consultants. I thought he was mad at us, but in retrospect, it’s pretty clear that he just wanted something simple, and no matter how clearly he explained it, no one could hear him. Not even me, not even when I was being smart.

The customer was asking for some kind of functionality that didn’t make sense to me. It seemed excessive and unwieldy. I knew a better way to do it. So when Mike asked us to tell him, step by step, what user scenario we would be implementing… I told him THE RIGHT WAY. After about five attempts, he blew up. He didn’t want “the right way” — he wanted “the way that would work.” The way that would draw the most potential out of those people working on those processes. The way that would make people feel the most engaged, the most in control of their own destiny, the way that they were used to doing (with maybe a couple of small tweaks to lead them in a direction of greater efficiency). He knew them, and he knew that. He was being a leader.

Now I’m in my 40s and I have a much better view of everything I don’t know. (A lot of that used to be invisible to me.) It makes me both happier (for the perspective it brings) and unhappier (because I can see so many of the intellectual greenfields and curiosities that I’ll never get to spend time in — and know that more will crop up every year). I’m limited by the expiration date on this body I’m in, something that never used to cross my mind.

One of the things I’ve learned is that the best things emerge when groups of people with diverse skills (and maybe complementary interests) get together, drive out fear, and drive out preconceived notions about what’s “right” or “best”. When something amazing sprouts up, it’s not because it was your idea (or because it turned out “right”). It’s because the ground was tilled in such a way that a group of people felt comfortable bringing their own ideas into the light, making them better together, and being open to their own emergent truths.

I used to think leadership was about coming up with the BEST, RIGHT IDEA — and then pushing for it. This week, I got to see someone else pushing really hard for her “best, most right, more right than anyone else’s” idea. But it’s only hers. She’s intent on steamrolling over everyone around her to get what she wants. She’s going to be really lonely when the time comes to implement it… because even if someone starts out with her, they’ll leave when they realize there’s no creative expression in it for them, no room for them to explore their own interests and boundaries.  I feel sorry for her, but I’m not in a position to point it out. Especially since she’s older than me. Hasn’t she seen this kind of thing fail before? Probably, but she’s about to try again. Maybe she thinks she didn’t push hard enough last time.

Leadership is about creating spaces where other people can find purpose and meaning.  No pushing required.

Thanks to @maryconger who posted the image on Twitter earlier today. Also thanks to Mike Davis, wherever you are. If you stumble across this on the web one day, thanks for waking me up in 2000. It’s made the 18 years thereafter much more productive.

Happy 10th Birthday!

10 years ago today, this blog published its first post: “How Do I Do a Lean Six Sigma (LSS) Project?” Looking back, it seems like a pretty simple place to have started. I didn’t know whether it would even be useful to anyone, but I was committed to making my personal PDSA cycles high-impact: I was going to export things I learned, or things I found valuable. (As it turns out, many people did appreciate the early posts even though it would take a few years for that to become evident!)

Since then, hundreds more have followed to help people understand more about quality and process improvement in theory and in practice. I started writing because I was in the middle of my PhD dissertation in the Quality Systems program at Indiana State, and I was discovering so many interesting nuggets of information that I wanted to share those with the world – particularly practitioners, who might not have lots of time (or even interest) in sifting through the research. In addition, I was using data science (and some machine learning, although at the time, it was much more difficult to implement) to explore quality-related problems, and could see the earliest signs that this new paradigm for problem solving might help fuel data-driven decision making in the workplace… if only we could make the advanced techniques easy for people in busy jobs to use and apply.

We’re not there yet, but as ASQ and other organizations recognize Quality 4.0 as a focus area, we’re much closer. As a result, I’ve made it my mission to help bring insights from research to practitioners, to make these new innovations real. If you are developing or demonstrating any new innovative techniques that relate to making people, processes, or products better, easier, faster, or less expensive — or reducing risks and building individual and organizational capabilities — let me know!

I’ve also learned a lot in the past decade, most of which I’ve spent helping undergraduate students develop and refine their data-driven decision making skills, and more recently at Intelex (provider of integrated environment, health & safety, and quality management EHSQ software to enterprises and smaller organizations). Here are some of the big lessons:

  1. People are complex. They have multidimensional lives, and work should support and enrich those lives. Any organization that cares about performance — internally and in the market — should examine how it can create complete and meaningful experiences. This applies not only to customers, but to employees and partners and suppliers. It also applies to anyone an organization has the power and potential to impact, no matter how small.
  2. Everybody wants to do a good job (and be recognized for it). How can we create environments where each person is empowered to contribute in all the areas where they have talent and interest? How can these same environments be designed with empathy as a core capability?
  3. Your data are your most valuable assets. It sounds trite, but data is becoming as valuable as warehouses, inventory, and equipment. I was involved in a project a few years ago where we digitized data that had been collected for three years — and by analyzing it, we uncovered improvement opportunities that when implemented, saved thousands of dollars a week. We would not have been able to do that if the data had remained scratched in pencil on thousands of sheets of well-worn legal paper.
  4. Nothing beats domain expertise (especially where data science is concerned). I’ve analyzed terabytes of data over the past decade, and in many cases, the secrets are subtle. Any time you’re using data to make decisions, be sure to engage the people with practical, on-the-ground experience in the area you’re studying.
  5. Self-awareness must be cultivated. The older you get, and the more experience you gain, the more you know what you don’t know. Many of my junior colleagues (and yours) haven’t reached this point yet, and will need some help from senior colleagues to gain this awareness. At the same time, those of you who are senior have valuable lessons to learn from your junior colleagues, too! Quality improvement is grounded in personal and organizational learning, and processes should help people help each other uncover blind spots and work through them — without fear.

 

Most of all, I discovered that what really matters is learning. We can spend time supporting human and organizational performance, developing and refining processes that have quality baked in, and making sure that products meet all their specifications. But what’s going on under the surface is more profound: people are learning about themselves, they are learning about how to transform inputs into outputs in a way that adds value, and they are learning about each other and their environment. Our processes just encapsulate that organizational knowledge that we develop as we learn.

The Value of Defining Context

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

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

The most important stage of problem-solving in organizations is often one of the earliest: getting everyone on the same page by defining the concepts, processes, and desired outcomes that are central to understanding the problem and formulating a solution. (“Everyone” can be the individuals on a project team, or the individuals that contribute actions to a process, or both.) Too often, we assume that the others around us see and experience the world the same way we do. In many cases, our assessments are not too far apart, which is how most people can get away with making this assumption on a regular basis.

In fact, some people experience things so differently that they don’t even “picture” anything in their minds. Can you believe it?

I first realized this divergence in the work context a few years ago, when a colleague and I were advising a project at a local social services office. We asked our students to document the process that was being used to process claims. There were nearly ten people who were part of this claims-processing activity, and our students interviewed all of them, discovering that each person had a remarkably different idea about the process that they were all engaged in! No wonder the claims processing time was nearly two months long.

We helped them all — literally — get onto the same page, and once they all had the same mental map of the process, time-in-system for each claim dropped to 10 days. (This led us to the quantum-esque conclusion that there is no process until it is observed.)

Today, I read about how mathematician Keith Devlin revolutionized the process of intelligence gathering after 9/11 using this same approach… by going back to one of the first principles he learned in his academic training:

So what had I done? Nothing really — from my perspective. My task was to find a way of analyzing how context influences data analysis and reasoning in highly complex domains involving military, political, and social contexts. I took the oh-so-obvious (to me) first step. I need to write down as precise a mathematical definition as possible of what a context is. It took me a couple of days…I can’t say I was totally satisfied with it…but it was the best I could do, and it did at least give me a firm base on which to start to develop some rudimentary mathematical ideas.

The fairly large group of really smart academics, defense contractors, and senior DoD personnel spent the entire hour of my allotted time discussing that one definition. The discussion brought out that all the different experts had a different conception of what a context is — a recipe for disaster.

What I had given them was, first, I asked the question “What is a context?” Since each person in the room besides me had a good working concept of context — different ones, as I just noted — they never thought to write down a formal definition. It was not part of what they did. And second, by presenting them with a formal definition, I gave them a common reference point from which they could compare and contrast their own notions. There we had the beginnings of disaster avoidance.

Getting people to very precisely understand the definitions, concepts, processes, and desired outcomes that are central to a problem might take some time and effort, but it is always extremely valuable.

When you face a situation like this in mathematics, you spend a lot of time going back to the basics. You ask questions like, “What do these words mean in this context?” and, “What obvious attempts have already been ruled out, and why?” More deeply, you’d ask, “Why are these particular open questions important?” and, “Where do they see this line of inquiry leading?”

(You can read the full article about Devlin, and more important lessons from mathematical thinking, Here.)

View story at Medium.com

Free Speech in the Internet of Things (IoT)

Image Credit: from "Reclaim Democracy" at http://reclaimdemocracy.org/who-are-citizens-united/

IF YOUR TOASTER COULD TALK, IT WOULD HAVE THE RIGHT TO FREE SPEECH. Image Credit: from “Reclaim Democracy” at http://reclaimdemocracy.org/who-are-citizens-united/

By the end of 2016, Gartner estimates that over 6.4 BILLION “things” will be connected to one another in the nascent Internet of Things (IoT). As innovation yields new products, services, and capabilities that leverage this ecosystem, we will need new conceptual models to ensure quality and support continuous improvement in this environment.

I wasn’t thinking about quality or IoT this morning… but instead, was trying to understand why so many people on Twitter and Facebook are linking Justice Scalia’s recent death to Citizens United. (I’d heard of Citizens United, but quite frankly, thought it was a soccer team. Embarrassing, I know.) I was surprised to find out that instead, Citizens United is a conservative U.S. political organization best known for its role in the 2010 Supreme Court Case Citizens United v. FEC.

That case removed many restrictions on political spending. With the “super-rich donating more than ever before to individual campaigns plus the ‘enormous’ chasm in wealth has given the super-rich the power to steer the economic and political direction of the United States and undermine its democracy.” Interesting, sure… but what’s more interesting to me is that the Citizens United case, according to this source

  • Strengthened First Amendment protection for corporations, 
  • Affirmed that Money = Speech, and
  • Affirmed that Non-Persons have the right to free speech.

The article goes on to state that “if your underpants could talk, they would be protected by free speech.”

Not too long ago, a statement like this would just be silly. But today, with immersive IoT looming, this isn’t too far-fetched. 

  • What will the world look (and feel) like when everything you interact with has a “voice”?
  • How will the “Voice of the Customer” be heard when all of that customer’s stuff ALSO has a voice?
  • What IS the “Voice of the Customer” in a world like this?

Improving the Quality of Your Writing

blacked-outMorgan and I work with students to produce written reports all the time. Sometimes, they’re working on their senior capstone project, which culminates in a formal written thesis… other times, they are working on shorter reports. Ultimately, the goal of writing is to produce an artifact that will effectively communicate a specific message to a specific audience. What people don’t as easily recognize, however, is that for this to occur — the audience has to understand what you’re trying to say.  Since we’re academics, we write all the time (sometimes well, and sometimes badly). We’re used to writing one draft, and then another, and then another… serving as our own worst critic every time we pick up the paper with fresh new eyes. Sometimes, we benefit from the critiques of an external reviewer, and when we hear what they have to say — more often than not, we say “yep, I didn’t do that part well… I’ll try again.” And then we try again and again, never really getting it perfect, but sometimes getting it close.

What follows are some comments Morgan provided to one of our students after the student submitted a portion of a thesis draft for us to review. We quickly realized that we could give almost all of our students the exact same advice. So here are some tips to help you improve the quality of your writing… and it usually starts with eliminating most of what you started with.


Let’s start with the quality of your writing. This feedback may come across as harsh, but it is not intended to be so. Please rest assured that Nicole and I have your best interests at heart, and since this is perhaps one of the last opportunities you’ll have in your educational career to get detailed, personal feedback on your writing, we feel it is our responsibility to be blunt and honest with you. This may be your last chance to really work to improve before you enter a professional setting. So you might want to brace yourself because this may sting.

Okay, here’s the bad news: your writing is shockingly bad. If I didn’t know better, I would be convinced that English is not your native language. If you were to write like this in a professional setting, you would certainly embarrass yourself and it might actually damage your career.

The good news is that you can improve and we’re going to help you. Before I make specific guidance on your draft, I’d like you to take the first stab at revising what you’ve written so far. Here are your instructions. Please follow them closely.

Do not spend any time apologizing to us, or making excuses for your writing. Everyone starts somewhere. You need to not be self-conscious, and be open to really working on getting better.

Stand or sit in front of a mirror and read what you wrote out loud to yourself. I’m totally serious about this. It may feel silly to you, but it will help tremendously. I know from talking to you that you talk and communicate like a totally normal person. I also know from experience teaching many people that it is not uncommon for people, who can have normal conversations, to totally fall apart when they try to communicate in writing. As you read your paper to yourself, imagine that you are listening to someone else read this paper to you and that it is not your own work. Trust your gut. If it sounds weird or bad, it probably is.

Every time you hear a sentence that sounds strange, put a mark on the paper to indicate that the sentence needs to be revised, but don’t make any changes yet.

Once you’ve read the whole paper out loud to yourself, go through the paper again. Read each sentence one by one and ask yourself the following questions:

  • What was the purpose of this sentence?
  • What vital information does it convey?
  • Could it be said in a much simpler, more direct way?
  • If I erased this sentence altogether, would it change the meaning or impact of the paragraph?
  • What was I trying to say? Listen to the words that just came out of your mouth when you answered that question. Why didn’t you just say that?
  • Is there anything else I could do to improve this sentence?

If the answer to questions 1 and 2 are “I don’t know” or “none” then you should delete the sentence. If you get to question 3 and the answer is “yes” then revise the sentence to make it shorter and more direct. For question 4, read the whole paragraph leaving out this sentence. If the meaning of the paragraph doesn’t change, then delete the sentence. If the sentence is still there and you get to question 5, then make any final changes and move on.

You might find that you need to revise earlier sentences based on changes you make on later sentences. It’s okay to go back.

As you do this, don’t be discouraged. Persevere. This should be tough, but I think you’ll find several things:

  • Your draft will probably be 50% shorter without losing any meaning. This is a GOOD thing!!!
  • It will feel much better and be much easier to understand, both for yourself and for other people.

Here are a couple of other pointers:

  • Don’t use an inflated font size.
  • I know for a fact that the default font size in Google Docs is not 14. Just stick to the default, which is 11. Regardless of whether this was your intention, boosting the font size makes it look like you’re trying to make us think you wrote more than you did. Since shorter is better, this doesn’t help you in any way.
  • Stick to single spacing.
  • Again, stick with the default. You can take care of formatting the document at the very end, after you know that you’ve got the content right.

A lot of this restates the feedback we give you in every one of the classes you’ve taken with us. Keep it simple. Keep it direct. Only include a sentence if it really adds something to the narrative.

Unless they really convey something crucial, leave out images for the time being. Don’t include images just to make the report “look pretty” or to take up space. Pretend you’re writing for Wikipedia. Include the facts, just the facts, and nothing but the facts. Don’t embellish.

Don’t try to make it fluffy or sound like marketing. Keep it clean. Keep it objective.

Okay, whew. I know I’ve just thrown a lot at you, but stay positive. My goal is not to tear you down, but to support you in getting better. This is uncomfortable sometimes. You are working on really amazing stuff and I have confidence in you that you can do something that we’ll all be proud of. Hang in there!

Randomly Sample Twitter Followers in R

Image Credit: Doug Buckley at http://hyperactive.to

Image Credit: Doug Buckley at http://hyperactive.to

So yesterday, I set up an #AmazonGiveaway for my new R book at https://giveaway.amazon.com/p/ea32d421d8d7672d — but I had my 10 year old input the number that will determine every nth person who gets the printed copy delivered to them, so that I’d be surprised too when it happened. Well I got surprised today, because nothing’s happened yet… he must have set the number pretty high. I’m a little impatient, so I decided that today I’d like to randomly sample my most recent 100 Twitter followers and send 3 eBooks to whoever comes up.

Turns out, it was pretty simple once I found the right documentation. This was the first time I’ve successfully accessed information from Twitter within R; when I tried other times, the documentation I encountered was problematic and the authentication never worked. But I finally converged on excellent documentation which helped to solve my problem at http://geoffjentry.hexdump.org/twitteR.pdf.

First, I went to https://apps.twitter.com/app/new and set up an application called “random-new-followers”. I think the choice of name is totally arbitrary… Twitter just wants a way to track who’s using their API and how it’s being used. I gave this form my name and web site URL as well. Next, I went to the “Keys and Access Tokens” tab. I had to click the “Create Access Token” button at the bottom. Once I did, I had 4 different access keys to work with, each of which looks like an unwieldy string of numbers and letters and has one of the following four names:

  • Consumer Key (API Key)
  • Consumer Secret (API Secret)
  • Access Token
  • Access Token Secret

Then I went into my R console. First, I wanted to make sure I had the most recent copy of the httr and twitteR packages. After using .libPaths() to find out where my R packages are installed, I went into those directories and blew away the old folders containing httr and twitteR. Then I went into R and re-installed the two packages:

> install.packages("httr")
> library(httr)
> install.packages("twitteR")
> library(twitteR)

At this point, authenticating and getting access to the Twitter data was pretty straightforward:

setup_twitter_oauth("Consumer Key", "Consumer Secret",access_token="Access Token", access_secret="Access Token Secret")

(When YOU use the above code, be sure to plug in the long, unwieldy number-and-letter combinations you saw on your “Keys and Access Tokens” tab. They are unique to you… and this is what unlocks twitteR so you can get real data!) Next, you can specify the user whose information you’d like to obtain, and using getFollowers() you can find out information about their followers:

oauth-example

Notice that I only wanted to randomly sample from my most recent 100 followers, hence the [1:100]. The names that pop up in quotation marks are my random sample of followers. (If you wanted to sample from all your Twitter followers, just leave out the [1:100].) After I got my three random followers, I checked out their Twitter pages. The bad news? I think they are all bots 😦

(So then I filtered out anyone who had “811” or “#AmazonGiveaway” in their recent Tweets.)

There is a lot more information that’s obtained when you try getUser() from the twitteR package. If you’ve gotten this far, check out all of the interesting information (and methods) that are contained in the results by typing this:

> str(me)

Quality and Innovation in the Counterculture

Inside the Temple of Grace at Burning Man 2014. Image Credit: John David Tupper (photographerinfocus.com)

Inside the Temple of Grace at Burning Man 2014. Image Credit: John David Tupper (photographerinfocus.com)

This week, I was the guest blogger at the American Society for Quality’s “View from the Q” where I shared some anecdotes about encountering quality tools and concepts at Burning Man this past August.

Check it out and learn what’s so great about “MOOP“.

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