Tag Archives: productivity

Productivity Hack: Thinking in layers

I just finished reviewing a colleague’s latest project. It is absolutely beautiful. It’s a collection of very pretty looking documents and forms that you can use to keep track of your professional accomplishments and portfolio. The idea is that each person can use it to cultivate more agency in the professional development process — and it will definitely help people as individuals achieve that goal.

So why would it make my heart sink? Because it’s perfect for one person (or a handful of people) to more easily manage an individual (and isolated) process, but will make it difficult for us to gain visibility into the collection as a whole. It’s a personal management tool, not an organizational management tool. What it won’t help us do is:

  • Search across 10s or 100s of portfolios
  • Scale to 100s or 1000s of employees
  • Keep the content relevant and up to date

So when I see this gorgeous looking thing, I feel sad: so much work went into this, and although it’s going to help solve one problem, it is going to create a maintenance nightmare. In addition, now we’re locked into a single UI and any change will require a ton of effort (and manual changes in each employee’s worksheet). How could we have avoiding painting ourselves into this box?

Thinking in layers is a habit I’ve developed from decades of working in software. By thinking in layers, you can create more maintainable, systematic, and repeatable solutions for solving operations problems. If we had solved this problem in layers, here’s what the solution components would have looked like:

  • Data layer – store all the data in CSVs, with one observation per row and one variable per column
  • Processing layer – a way to create, read, update, and delete documents, records or fields & perform calculations
  • Presentation layer – a way to display the data and make what the user sees pretty

(One of the reasons I love R Markdown is that it gives you a way to easily combine the processing and the presentation in a way that still doesn’t break the layers. If you want to change what people see, you change that in one spot in your Rmd, then re-knit.)

The moral of the story is: you can’t build a scalable system without layers. Think in layers.

Selecting Pages from a PDF to Make a New (Smaller) PDF

Sometimes small, simple tasks perplex me. Today’s challenge: I’m on Windows 10, and have a 53 page PDF of a journal. I need to make a NEW PDF that only contains pages 26 to 43 (my article) so I can send my article to a researcher who is requesting it. I know you can do this with Acrobat, but I don’t have Acrobat, and still would like to figure out how to make the smaller PDF. Here’s what I learned how to do today:

The Easy Way

  1. Go to https://www.pdflabs.com/tools/pdftk-the-pdf-toolkit/
  2. Find the GREEN button that says “Download PDFtk FREE” and click it
  3. After the download finishes, right click on the .exe file and Run it
  4. When the installer starts, click on all the default options all the way through “Finish”
  5. When installation is finished, go to the search box in the bottom left of your screen
  6. Type “cmd” and hit Enter to open the terminal window
  7. Navigate to the directory that contains your original PDF. I first typed D: to get to my auxiliary hard drive, and then cd Scratch to get to D:\Scratch where my full journal PDF was stored.
  8. Use this code:
    pdftk yourlargefilename.pdf cat 26-43 output youroutputfilename.pdf

    (replacing YOUR filenames and YOUR starting and ending page numbers instead of 26 and 43)

  9. Launch a File Explorer window and navigate to the directory you used in Step 7 above. Open the PDF file and check to make sure it contains only the pages you expect.
  10. There are LOTS more things you can do with PDFtk from the Windows command line, like you did in Step 8. Lots of other options are described at https://www.pdflabs.com/docs/pdftk-cli-examples/

After I finished, I stumbled upon another way that didn’t require downloading a free program, and only uses Google Chrome. (Sometimes those free programs bother me. What a great way to infiltrate computers… offer a totally useful utility completely for free. Consequently, my advice to you is to download it at your own risk. Including these instructions is in no way a guarantee from me that PDFtk is safe.)


The Even Easier Way

  1. Open Google Chrome
  2. Type Ctrl-O (that’s the letter O, not the number zero)
  3. Select the large PDF file that you want to snip
  4. Your PDF will open in the browser… click on the beginning and ending pages, and capture the page numbers
  5. Click the print icon in the far upper right corner of your browser
  6. Click the “Change” button to change destination to “Microsoft Print to PDF”
  7. Click the second radio button under Pages, and specify the start and end pages separated by a dash (for me, 26-43)
  8. Click Print, and select a filename for your new, snipped file
  9. After the PDF is generated, navigate to the directory you saved it in during Step 8. Open the file and check it to make sure the pages are as you expect.


The Sad News

I tried to use the staplr package in R to snip my PDFs, but I couldn’t get it to work. Will try again some other time 🙁

Improve Writing Quality with Speaking & Storyboarding

For a decade, I supervised undergrads and grad students as they were completing writing projects: term papers, semester projects, and of course — capstone projects and thesis work. Today, I’m responsible for editing the work of (and mentoring) junior colleagues. The main lesson I’ve learned over this time is: writing is really hard for most people. So I’m here to help you.

Me, Reviewing Someone Else’s Work

If I had a dollar for every time this scenario happened, I’d… well, you get my point:

ME (reading their “final draft”): [Voice in Head] Huh? Wow, that sentence is long. OK, start it again. I don’t understand what they’re saying. What are they trying to say? This doesn’t make any sense. It could mean… no, that’s not it. Maybe they mean… nope, that can’t be it.

ME: So this sentence here, the one that says “Start by commutating and telling the story of what the purpose of the company’s quality management software is, the implementation plans and the impact to the current state of quality roles and responsibilities for everyone involved.”

THEM (laughing): Oh! Commutating isn’t a word. I meant communicating.

ME: Have you tried reading this sentence out loud?

THEM (still laughing, trying to read it): Yeah, that doesn’t really make sense.

ME: What were you trying to say?

THEM: I was trying to say “Start by explaining how quality management software will impact everyone’s roles and responsibilities.”

ME: Well, why don’t you say that?

THEM: You mean I can just say that? Don’t I need to make it sound good?

ME: You did just make it sound good when you said what you were trying to say.

What Just Happened?

By trying to “make it sound good” — it’s more likely that you’ll mess it up. People think speaking and writing are two different practices, but when you write, it’s really important that when you speak it out loud, it sounds like you’re a human talking to another human. If you wouldn’t say what you wrote to someone in your target audience in exactly the way that you wrote it, then you need to revise it to something you would say.

Why? Because people read text using the voice in their heads. It’s a speaking voice! So give it good, easy, flowing sentences to speak to itself with.

What Can You Do?

Here are two ways you can start improving your writing today:

  1. Read your writing out loud (preferably to someone else who’s not familiar with your topic, or a collaborator). If it doesn’t sound right, it’s not right.
  2. Use a storyboard. (What does that mean?)

There are many storyboard templates available online, but the storyboard attached to this post is geared towards developing the skills needed for technical writing. (That is, writing where it’s important to support your statements with citations that can be validated.) Not only does citing sources add credibility, but it also gives your reader more material to read if they want to go deeper.


The process is simple: start by outlining your main message. That means:

  1. Figure out meaningful section headers that are meaningful on their own.
  2. Within each section, write a complete phrase or sentence to describe the main point of each paragraph or small group of paragraphs
  3. For each phrase or sentence that forms your story, cut and paste material from your references that supports your point, and list the citation (I prefer APA style) so you don’t forget it.
  4. Read the list of section headers and main points out loud. If this story, spoken, hangs together and is logical and complete — there’s a good chance your fully written story will as well.

Not all elements of your story need citations, but many of them will.

Next Steps

When the storyboard is complete, what should you do next? Sometimes, I hand it to a collaborator to flesh it out. Other times, I’ll put it aside for a few days or weeks, and then pick it up later when my mind is fresh. Whatever approach you use, this will help you organize your thoughts and citations, and help you form a story line that’s complete and understandable. Hope this helps get you started!



Yes, You Do Need to Write Down Procedures. Except…

近代工芸の名品― [特集展示] 

A 棗 from http://www.momat.go.jp/cg/exhibition/masterpiece2018/ — I saw this one in person!!

Several weeks ago we went to an art exhibit about “tea caddies” at the Tokyo Museum of Modern Art. Although it might seem silly, these kitchen containers are a fixture of Japanese culture. In Japan, drinking green tea is a cornerstone of daily life.

It was about 2 in the afternoon, and we had checked out of our hotel at 11. Wandering through the center of the city, we stumbled upon the museum. Since we didn’t have to meet our friends for several more hours, we decided to check it out.

Confession: I’m not a huge fan of art museums. Caveat: I usually enjoy them to some degree or another when I end up in them. But I didn’t think tea caddies could possibly be useful to me. I was wrong!

When to Write SOPs

One of the features of the exhibit was a Book of Standard Operating Procedures. It described how to create a new lacquered tea caddy from paper. (Unfortunately, photography was prohibited for this piece in particular.) The book was open, laying flat, showing a grid of characters on the right hand side. The grid described a particular process step in great detail. On the left page, a picture of a craftsman performing that step was attached. The card describing the book of SOPs explained that each of the 18 process steps was described using exactly the same format. This decision was made to ensure that the book would help accomplish certain things:

  • Improve Production Quality. Even masters sometimes need to follow instructions, or to be reminded about an old lesson learned, especially if the process is one you only do occasionally. SOPs promote consistency over time, and from person to person. 
  • Train New Artists. Even though learning the craft is done under the supervision of a skilled worker, it’s impossible to remember every detail (unless you have an eidetic memory, which most of us don’t have). The SOP serves as a guide during the learning process.
  • Enable Continuous Improvement. The SOP is the base from which adjustments and performance improvements are grown. It provides “version control” so you can monitor progress and examine the evolution of work over time.
  • Make Space for Creativity. It might be surprising, but having guidance for a particular task or process in the form of an SOP reduces cognitive load, making it easier for a person to recognize opportunities for improvement. In addition, deviations aren’t always prohibited (although in high-reliability organizations, or industries that are highly regulated, you might want to check before being too creative). The art is contributed by the person, not the process.

When Not to Write SOPs

Over the past couple decades, when I’ve asked people to write up SOPs for a given process, I’ve often run into pushback. The most common reasons are “But I know how to do this!” and “It’s too complicated to describe!” The first reason suggests that the person is threatened by the prospect of someone else doing (and possibly taking over) that process, and the second is just an excuse. Maybe.

Because sometimes, the pushback can be legitimate. Not all processes need SOPs. For example, I wouldn’t write up an SOP for the creative process of writing a blog post, or for a new research project (that no one has ever done before) culminating in the publication of a new research article. In general, processes that vary significantly each time they’re run, or processes that require doing something that no one has ever done before — don’t lend themselves well to SOPs.

Get on the Same Page

The biggest reason to document SOPs is to literally get everyone on the same page. You’d be surprised how often people think they’re following the same process, but they’re not! An easy test for this is to have each person who participates in a process draw a flow chart showing the process steps and decisions are made on their own, and then compare all the sketches. If they’re different, work together until you’re all in agreement over what’s on one flow chart — and you’ll notice a sharp and immediate improvement in performance and communication.

Happy World Quality Day 2018!

Each year, the second Thursday of November day is set aside to reflect on the way quality management can contribute to our work and our lives. Led by the Chartered Quality Institute (CQI) in the United Kingdom, World Quality Day provides a forum to reflect on how we implement more effective processes and systems that positively impact KPIs and business results — and celebrate outcomes and new insights.

This year’s theme is “Quality: A Question of Trust”.

We usually think of quality as an operations function. The quality system (whether we have quality management software implemented or not) helps us keep track of the health and effectiveness of our manufacturing, production, or service processes. Often, we do this to obtain ISO 9001:2015 certification, or achieve outcomes that are essential to how the public perceives us, like reducing scrap, rework, and customer complaints.

But the quality system encompasses all the ways we organize our business — ensuring that people, processes, software, and machines are aligned to meet strategic and operational goals. For example, QMS validation (which is a critical for quality management in the pharmaceutical industry), helps ensure that production equipment is continuously qualified to meet performance standards, and trust is not broken. Intelex partner Glemser Technologies explains in more detail in The Definitive Guide to Validating Your QMS in the Cloud. This extends to managing supplier relationships — building trust to cultivate rich partnerships in the business ecosystem out of agreements to work together.

This also extends to building and cultivating trust-based relationships with our colleagues, partners, and customers…

Read more about how Integrated Management Systems and Industry 4.0/ Quality 4.0 are part of this dynamic: https://community.intelex.com/explore/posts/world-quality-day-2018-question-trust

Value Propositions for Quality 4.0

In previous articles, we introduced Quality 4.0, the pursuit of performance excellence as an integral part of an organization’s digital transformation. It’s one aspect of Industry 4.0 transformation towards intelligent automation: smart, hyperconnected(*) agents deployed in environments where humans and machines cooperate and leverage data to achieve shared goals.

Automation is a spectrum: an operator can specify a process that a computer or intelligent agent executes, the computer can make decisions for an operator to approve or adjust, or the computer can make and execute all decisions. Similarly, machine intelligence is a spectrum: an algorithm can provide advice, take action with approvals or adjustments, or take action on its own. We have to decide what value is generated when we introduce various degrees of intelligence and automation in our organizations.

How can Quality 4.0 help your organization? How can you improve the performance of your people, projects, products, and entire organizations by implementing technologies like artificial intelligence, machine learning, robotic process automation, and blockchain?

A value proposition is a statement that explains what benefits a product or activity will deliver. Quality 4.0 initiatives have these kinds of value propositions:

  1. Augment (or improve upon) human intelligence
  2. Increase the speed and quality of decision-making
  3. Improve transparency, traceability, and auditability
  4. Anticipate changes, reveal biases, and adapt to new circumstances and knowledge
  5. Evolve relationships and organizational boundaries to reveal opportunities for continuous improvement and new business models
  6. Learn how to learn; cultivate self-awareness and other-awareness as a skill

Quality 4.0 initiatives add intelligence to monitoring and managing operations – for example, predictive maintenance can help you anticipate equipment failures and proactively reduce downtime. They can help you assess supply chain risk on an ongoing basis, or help you decide whether to take corrective action. They can also improve help you improve cybersecurity: documenting and benchmarking processes can provide a basis for detecting anomalies, and understanding expected performance can help you detect potential attacks.

(*) Hyperconnected = (nearly) always on, (nearly) always accessible.

Writing a Great Article Review

We’re teaching a class on blockchain and cryptocurrencies this semester, and since the field is so new and changing rapidly, we’ve asked our students to make finding and reviewing articles part of their learning practice this semester. This is a particularly challenging topic for this task because there’s so much hype, marketing, and fluff around these topics. We want to slice through that, and improve the signal-to-noise for people new to learning about blockchain and cryptocurrencies. Here are some tips I just prepared for our students — they may be helpful to anyone writing article reviews, especially for technology-related areas.

0 – Type of Source. Reviews or articles from from arXiv, Google Scholar were strong; reviews from Coindesk, CNN were weak; reviews from WSJ and Hacker Noon went both ways. Here are two submissions that were publishable with only minor edits:

1 – Spelling & Grammar. Most of you are college seniors, and the few who aren’t… are juniors. Please use complete sentences that make sense, with words that are spelled correctly! If this is hard for you, remember that every one of you has spell check. One way to remember this is to draft your posts in Word, and then perform spell check before you copy and paste what you wrote into WordPress.

1 – Your job is to create the TL;DR. What’s the essential substance of the source you’re reviewing? What are the main lessons or findings? If you were taking notes for an exam, what elements would you capture? (Using this perspective, commentary about how good or bad you think the article was, or what it didn’t cover well, would not help you on an exam.)

2 – Choose solid source material — primary sources, e.g. research papers, if possible. If the article is less than ~400-500 words, it’s probably not detailed enough to write a 250-300 word summary/analysis. Your job in this class is to break down complex topics & help people understand them. If your article is short and already very easy to understand, there’s nothing for you to do.

3 – Avoid “weasel words” (phrases or sentences that sound like marketing or clickbait but actually say nothing) and words/sentences that sound like you’re writing a Yelp or Amazon review rather than a critical academic review. Here are a couple weaselly examples drawn from this week’s draft posts (see if you can spot what’s wrong):

  • It is clear how beneficial blockchain can be to smaller businesses.
  • Blockchain has the potential to change the world.
  • Each other the topics covered in the article deserve their own piece and could be augmented upon greatly.
  • There is a degree of uncertainty that comes with an emerging technology.
  • Blockchain can bring them into the 21st century to compete with larger corporations.
  • Many people are scared of the changes, and governments will seek to regulate it.

4 – Answer the “so what” question. Why is this topic interesting or compelling?

5 – Choose information-rich tags. For example, in our class, don’t include blockchain as a tag… pretty much everything we do will be related to blockchain, and everyone will tend to use it, so there won’t be much information contained in the tag.

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