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Sunday, 20 May 2018

Living in the Present? But What If ‘Now’ Doesn’t Exist?

  • Learn from the past
  • Live in the present
  • Plan for the future
Pretty well every leadership and motivational speaker knows this mantra and uses it ad nauseam and rightly so because it makes a great deal of sense.

At least it does on a superficial level and indeed it stands some interesting examination and analysis.

The concept of time is very complex simply because it is an intangible measured in an arbitrary manner.

If we examine the implication of time then the past is self-evident.  It started 13.5 billion years ago and...when did it stop?

On face of it the past ends in the present and that is where the future starts.  The question is, precisely when does the past end and the future start? In other words, when is the present?

Newtonian physics postulates that time is like a river, flowing from the past, through the present and on into the future and that implies that the present is definable.

But is it?  Whenever we make a decision it immediately moves into the past and whenever we take action in the future it also instantaneously reverts to the past.  

This implies that “now” is a very interesting concept because we can define everything that we do in terms of the past and the future but not the “now”.

Indeed mathematically “now” is an infinitely small space of time between the past and the future and that means that in practical terms it does not exist.

We talk about the present, live in the present, think in the present, don’t concern ourselves with the past and the future but it is the present that matters.

What then if it doesn’t exist to any significant extent?

We measure time in an arbitrary way loosely linked to the phases of the sun and the moon and amazingly in a manner that has been universally adopted throughout the world.

Almost the last vestige of being different was North Korea who awkwardly decided to have a time that differed from the South by half an hour.

Last month the decision was taken to regularise so what does that mean about time?

Time becomes a philosophical experience rather than a tangible actuality and that means that we need to give it some sort of form so that we can understand it and use it more effectively.

Time matters when we go for a train or more so when we miss a train but those events are controlled by our measurement of time in seconds, minutes, days, years, millenia and so on.

We use phrases like “I don’t have the time” or “how long will it take?”when we all have exactly the same amount of time as everyone else.

The Book of Ecclesiastes puts it cogently::

There is a time for everything
and a season for everything under the sun
A time to be born and a time to die,
A time to plant and a time to reap,
A time to kill and a time to heal,
A time to tear down and a time to build,
A time to weep and a time to laugh etc. etc.

We can’t “make time” to do anything but we can allocate the time we have in the most effective ways.

Time wasted in something that we enjoy or even doing nothing is not time wasted.  We tend to need to fill every waking hour with activity when what perhaps is needed is to spend more time thinking  and meditating positively.

Above all the greatest waste of time is concentrating on what might have been, to live in the past and live a life of “what if?

I learnt a lesson years ago from a great friend of mine who, when I told him my sad tale, advised me to go home, draw a line in the sand and get on with living my life.  

It was the best and wisest advice I have ever had.

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Sunday, 13 May 2018

Looking For Quality Assurance? We Need to Pursue Excellence!

In my very early days as an aeronautical engineer apprentice we were placed in virtually every department of the factory for short term (6 weeks to 6 months) familiarisation.

One of the coveted placements was Inspection because we had to wear a brown dust coat instead of blue overalls. Ah, the lure of prestige!

In addition we were placed at a surface table on the shop floor where mysterious metrological (thee science of measurement) equipment was used to check that components complied with the specification on the blueprint.

Some due to large quantities were sampled and some were inspected 100% but we were the final arbiter of whether a component or a batch could be built into an aircraft.

Looking back it was a very responsible job and I learnt a great deal about the depth of detail that was needed in order to produce a satisfactory outcome.

The process later became far more sophisticated using statistical methods such as 3-Sigma but in those early days we merely checked against specification.

All this derived from the very early days of, wouldn’t you believe, armament manufacture in the USA. At that time each gun was made individually and if a component failed then the whole thing failed.

In the 1860s some bright spark realised that this was a very inefficient method of manufacture and suggested that it would be better if components were all made the same and then if one failed it could be replaced.

This revolutionised large scale production systems because components were now interchangeable and the final product could be maintained and repaired, a significant cost saving.

In the process Inspection grew up and became Quality Control still in the hands of the customer to make sure that products were received as required.

Change became inevitable and eventually people realised that there would be more cost savings if suppliers guaranteed to supply compliant components rather than have to check them. This was the birth or evolution of Quality Assurance.

There is a story, possibly apocryphal, of the UK manufacturer who ordered a large batch of components from a Japanese manufacturer and specified the level of specification compliance at 99.8%.  When the shipment arrived there was a bag with a small quantity of components that seemed to be extra.

When the customer queried the supplier they were told that “we only supply to specification but as you appeared to want some that didn’t comply we had to make them specially for you”.

Modern machining centres nowadays can be programmed to ensure that they produce only compliant components and that, for obvious reasons, makes the life of a high quality supplier much easier if rather more capital expensive.

However, quality is not merely a matter of the product.  It covers everything about the business and I mean everything from the way that the telephone is answered, how many rings, the speed of action, the way that queries are handled and so on.  Everything about the business.

Indeed there is a case for dropping the very word “quality” altogether and building a culture dedicated to the pursuit of excellence in all aspects of the business.

I have posted recently about the brilliant way that Sainsbury’s home delivery drivers interact with the people to whom they deliver.

The quality of the product should be self evident and the customer always has the option of rejection if appropriate.  The way that the drivers behave is a choice on the part of the company and the drivers and it is excellent.

A speaker at my Vistage CEO peer group once said:

Aim to give service that builds a wall around the customer making it very difficult for them to move away from you”.

That encompasses the concept of total excellence.

It is a big picture that needs to be the top line of the business values and culture definition.  Then the spectre of price competition fades into the background.

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Sunday, 6 May 2018

Someone Has Made a Bad Error? Firing is Not Always The Solution!

The media was awash recently about the problems encountered by TSB and their implementation of a new package of ERM software that went vastly awry.  How often have we heard that sad tale. 

It seems to be a truism that whenever we install new software especially ERM that it takes probably twice as long as the most pessimistic estimate.

This is not to complain about the software; it is much easier to moan and complain about the inability of the CEO to run the company properly and look what I have suffered as a consequence etc, etc, etc.

Accordingly the media launches into a great campaign and frankly by building some mob excitement to attach blame to someone who is directly innocent but in overall charge of the business.

The rights and wrongs of the matters are not a subject for this blog, but the underlying ethos of blame is very much at the forefront of my thinking.

It is consistent in BBC programmes like Today, PM and other news programmes that when “investigating” a perceived wrong, the interviewer always want to know who is to blame and what punishment would be appropriate.

It was equally refreshing to hear a learned Professor today saying that blame followed by firing the perceived miscreant does nothing to solve the problem but merely satisfies the human need for revenge.

If something serious happens, as it did at TSB , sacking the CEO and replacing him with a new incumbent means that the newcomer has to go through a learning process which may or may not be successful.

Far better to keep the people in place and monitor how they address the processes and procedures which led to the problem; in other words addressing the root cause and not the effect.
Add to this always make sure that everyone is kept in the loop and are made well aware of the progress being made to solve the issue.

In the case of TSB they made a perfectly valid statement of acceptance of problem and immediately announced that the bank would indemnify anyone who had a serious problem and would offer compensation in any case.

It is only by that sort of initiative that changes can be made effectively to minimise at least the likelihood of a repeat.  By the way, if changes are not implemented and nothing improves, then at that stage it would right and proper to start the disciplinary process.

If changes like that can happen then it might reduce the hypocritical, stomach-churning, “holier than thou” preaching of the media that latches on to subjects “in the public interest” when the real rationale is to sell more papers.

I remember the story of the team member who made a serious error and caused the business to experience a loss of $250K.  He immediately very honestly offered his resignation.

The CEO rejected the offer and pointed out that as he had made the error the best person to solve the problem was him.  Anyone else would not have the experience.

That was a very sensible and far-sighted decision and is to be celebrated.  Perhaps the owners of a few football clubs could take notice.

Rant over – I hope that you are having a happy, sunny and warm Bank Holiday weekend!

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Sunday, 29 April 2018

Hoping to Change Someone? We Need to Change Ourself First!

Rabbi Hillel the Elder was an exceptionally wise teacher and religious philosopher from the beginning of the Common Era (d.1BCE in Jerusalem) who left many widely used quotations and aphorisms still highly valued today.

Perhaps his most notable saying was;

"If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?" (Ethics of the Fathers, 1:14)

Rabbi Hillel draws the distinction in the definition of ourselves between “I”, the inner identity and “Me”, our identity of us by the outside world.  This is a complex and subtle concept and indeed Hillel takes it to several even deeper stages.

In our case it seems that his message is to assess what we consider to be our identity then to check it with the opinions of the outside world and that can be a can of worms. It demands a measure of humility.

How true to ourselves is our opinion of ourself?  How accurately can we assess our behaviour and attitude?  To what extent are we hiding our true identity because it is too difficult or even painful to accept?

There is nothing problematic in this because the outside world will always make a decision on how we behave in the way that it impacts on them.

The crux of the matter is how far that opinion differs from our own assessment and if there is a distinct variance then perhaps it is time for a reassessment of how we behave, our general attitude and our ability to build valid and lasting relationships.

This implies that we are able to make a true and genuine assessment of how we behave and the reaction that it engenders in others.  For example are we cheerful, positive and likable or do we tend to look on the dark side of everything, transmit negativity and are judgemental?

More importantly do we really know the impression that we leave with other people and crucially, do we care?

Hillel’s strictures on identity do not imply constant self-examination and self-absorption but they do suggest that if there seems to be a variance between the two then note should be taken of it and above all, action needs to be implemented.

That is, of course, on the assumption that we are interested in other people’s opinions or even care about them.

Certainly we need to plough our own furrow in the world which we inhabit and should not be constantly expecting others to change in accordance with our wishes.

If we have an identity and personality then we have to accept that everyone has as well and it behoves us to accept that fact and understand that everyone is different.  The key is to expect little and work to accept differences.

In the end it is a matter of “If not now, when?” and that is the greatest call to action known.

Unless we do take action to change on the assumption that change is necessary then there will be no difference in the way that we interact with others.

If, on the other hand, we examine ourselves, determine that we need to change then the time to do it is now.

Above all, remember we cannot change other people and it is arrogant to assume that we can.  

We can only change ourselves and that only should we deem it to be desirable.

It may be a case for a trusted counsellor or mentor to open our eyes to ourselves and it should be someone who is close enough to be true and honest.  It can of course be painful and we need to be true and honest to ourselves to accept that we may need to change if that is the conclusion.

It is in our own hands and the time is now.

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Sunday, 22 April 2018

Dissatisfied With Forecasting? Analyse The Trends Not The Actuals!

I have in recent post mentioned the work that my old friend and Vistage speaker, the late Brian Warners, espoused in the management of a business.

In essence he considered that the conventional budgeting process was invidious and he, as a consequence, invented what he called dynamic budgeting.

This consisted essentially of analysing the regular break even activity compared to invoiced sales in a business, in fact, on a weekly or even daily basis.  It is a prime leadership tool and can be checked in real time.

He considered that a leader should not be concerned with the minutiae of the management accounts but rather should look for the information that can be derived from them in a simplified but relevant format.

I recall a past member of my Vistage CEO peer group who was leading a publicly listed company that he managed essentially on six or so graphs produced for him every month.

In other words, it was the trends that mattered and not the monthly actual numbers.

I am constantly surprised by leaders who react to, say, one month’s activity by comparing it with the same period in the previous year.

This only compares direct performance and it does not take into account any other  factors that may have an effect on how the business performs, typically the weather, general economic activity or even the current morale in the business.

We have to accept that looking backwards at a business is not the best way to predict what is going to happen; certainly not by comparing it with a similar period the year before.

It is interesting but not more than that.

Predicting the future is a dodgy exercise to say the least and our great friend of Vistage, Roger Martin-Fagg, says very sagely that you will be either wrong or lucky.

However there is some value in realising that businesses have momentum and unless something dramatic happens, are likely to continue in much the same way for a while.

Just ask any leader who is absent for a period and then when he/she returns, discovers with chagrin, that the business has gone on in his/her absence much as normal.

It is when some change is experienced that the process breaks down.

How best then to derive meaningful information from current and past performance to enable us to make a forecast that has some meaning?

I am convinced that the momentum theory has value so why not use it to advantage?

Given that any prediction will only have value for, say, three months, there are one or two techniques that may help.

Firstly there is the matter of seasonality. Agriculture based businesses are obviously well aware of this factor but how many leaders in other businesses check to see whether there is a pattern of behaviour in their markets that can affect them?

A simple way is to plot monthly actual sales performance over the past five or so years and overlay the graphs to establish any patterns.

Another very important understanding is to get away from looking at comparable weeks or months and start looking at performance on an annual basis using rolling annual averages for sales, cost of sales, gross margin, fixed costs and net profit together with any other relevant KPIs.

It is the trends in the business performance that matter most.

This will give a more realistic view of the way that the business is performing and smooths out any short term anomalies.

In summary therefore try not to use solely the conventional budget and add the following:

  • Break-even analysis comparing the level of break-even sales with actual plotted regularly and then overlay the average trend using linear regression  (generally available on most spreadsheet software).

  • Seasonality assessment over a period of at least the past five years if possible.

  • Assess the performance of the business using rolling annual averages and linear regression to show real trends.

These relatively simple procedures can add real value to the often sterile forecasting process and hence to the way that the leader manages the business.

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Sunday, 15 April 2018

How Do You Handle Complaints? You Need to Recover in Style!

I posted a blog recently mentioning a problem that I had encountered with a large corporate that I had hired to provide a service to my business. Things have not gone well and I decided to part company while still waiting for completion of a statutory submission.

Having escalated the problem I was called by a Senior Manager who could not have been more helpful and reassuring.

She was rightly concerned at the delays I had experienced and after a long listing of the problems she thanked me for the feedback and assured me that she would take up all the issues and make sure that they don’t happen again.

I am no cynic but how often do we hear on radio and TV that “lessons have been learnt and it won’t happen again”. It has become something of a platitude and it arouses in me a deep sigh and “Oh yes?”  

While these statements are made, I am sure, in all good faith there is a tendency to look at a complaint as an internal problem rather than one that directly affects the customer.

The fact is that while it is nice to hear that our complaint is being taken seriously we really don’t want to know about the investigation, what went wrong, how it can be prevented in the future and,worst of all, who is to blame.

Dropping into blame culture mode is, together with,”it’s company policy”  the worst possible excuses for a problem.

What the customer wants to hear is  how am I personally going to be satisfied in this particular instance.

I really don’t want to know about your problems with people off sick or a computer glitch. I just want to know when MY issue will be solved satisfactorily.

I have known businesses who take complaints so seriously that they are all referred to the CEO. On the other hand there are companies who are never wrong and treat complaints with indifference and disdain.

The bald fact is that complaints are feedback about your performance and need to be taken seriously.

One way, of course, is to have a Customer Service Department, often these days sadly situated in some far off land and staffed by people who are far away from the action and the culture of the business.

It is that detachment that can preclude a personalised answer to a query but rather one dictated by the rules and company policy. There are exceptions I am glad to say with the wonderful Apple in the forefront of all that is good.

The Ritz-Carlton hotel group used to have and probably still has a strap line for all the staff that says: “We are ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen”.

Moreover there is a rule (admirable this time) that anyone in the business approached by a guest with a complaint or query is expected to handle the issue and put it right without the need to refer it upwards.

Complaints are not an internal issue even if they have to be corrected by internal means.  They are an expression of the level of customer satisfaction achieved by the business and hence they are an invaluable denominator of reputation.

It is said that when we have a complaint we tell eighteen people about it whereas when we experience great service we tell only one or two.

A speaker at my Vistage CEO peer group talking about complaints suggested that “we should recover in style”. Doing just that can delight the customer and enhance the reputation. In fact handling a complaint in a way that really sorts out the customer’s problem can build an enhanced level of confidence in our product and service.

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