Tag Archives: tips

Add Constraints to Processes Carefully

Take great care in adding constraints to processes to avoid doing so needlessly.

Online you will frequently find forms that have required fields that needn’t be. Certainly if you were designing with focus on what is best for customers those requirements rarely make sense. Occasionally a required field is a sensible constraint on an online form but so often they add unnecessary constraints.

I frequently find those forms even requiring a false answer since a response is required and none of the options are true. Often this is because the organization is thinking of the boxes they expect users to fit themselves into rather than thinking how to create the best user experience.

I wrote previously about a company representative that suggested a customer change their name because the computer system didn’t accept names with 2 characters. Constraints on creating a secure password are a frequent failure of web sites for the last 10 years.

Man without arms denied housing loan due to inability to provide fingerprints

because Wu Jianping has no arms, creditors claimed they could not give him a loan since he was unable to be fingerprinted.

After the case was publicized and there was a great deal of negative publicity on social media the banks modified their process and approved the loan. But your organization shouldn’t have as the mistake-proofing (obviously not mistake-proofing at all) that when the process doesn’t quite work well then rely on a massive social media outcry which is a signal to us to straighten out the issue.

Frequently I see unnecessary constraints creating the edge case excuse. By burdening your process with unnecessary constraints you create edge cases that fail and then use the excuse that each of the edge cases is rare and therefore you can’t justify the expense of fixing them.

But if you designed the process sensibly in the first place the edge case never would have failed and you wouldn’t need special work arounds for such “edge cases.” A simple example of this is unnecessarily complex web page code that fails if to submit a button without javascript. Yes, a small number of users won’t have enabled all javascript to run (today anyway) so it is an “edge case” to deal with if you don’t have the form work without javascript. But there is no decent reason to have it fail in most cases.

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Seek to Improve How You Learn, Don’t Just Accept That You Can’t Do Better

photo of several people around a table smiling with red plastic pieces on the table.

Red Squares exercize at the 2 1/2 Deming Seminar in Hong Kong (2014).

As a speaker or coach or teacher it is wise to learn what impacts how people absorb information and learn. Factoring those ideas into how you communicate (one on one, coaching, training, presenting…) is wise.

Learning about how people learn and remember is important to allow you to communite well. And most people seem to understand this. But they also seem to have no shame in not improving their performance in relation to these common weaknesses.

I have never understood why so many people talk about weaknesses in how people learn (people only remember “10% of what they hear, 20% of what they read, and 80% of what they see and do”; you must repeat something 7,9,12… times before most people will remember it; people will retain more if they are given concrete examples relevant to them; people will remember more if they speak or write than if they just passively listen; a good visual will make an idea presented much more likely to be remembered…) but never seem to seek to improve their weaknesses in these areas.

Yes, it is harder for us to retain new information when we just hear about it or if good information is presented poorly. But if you do a much better job of learning and succeed in retaining what you hear or see (even if often people fail to do this well) you will be better off.

Yet what I see is people spouting these statistics, not as a way of learning what they need to improve themselves but as a way of explaining that it is inevitable and they won’t do any better (or even bother to attempt to do so). It just isn’t true that you can’t do better. You can train yourself to learn more than most people when the material is presented in a less than perfect manner by learning how we commonly fail to learn and making efforts to do better yourself.

Sure, learn these common traits to know how you need to take them into account when communicating with others. But also examine yourself and see if you have the same weaknesses and improve in those areas you are weak. Also you can learn from them how to be more successful in retaining good ideas (write them down, think about applying them in your context, make a note to actually apply them at work tomorrow or next week…). You can blame whoever was communicating the ideas to you for failing to present it as well as they should but that won’t help you learn more.

Also companies would be wise to put more effort into helping people learn better. I see lots of focus on how presenters should do better, but very little on how people can improve their capacity to listen and learn. Yes, those presenting should continually seek to improve and be aware of their customers (those they are communicating with). Those that are learning should also seek to improve their ability to learn, even if the way material is presented isn’t optimal.

By the way, you might also want to question much of the claims of what people remember: Mythical Retention Data & The Corrupted Cone.

Related: Effective Communication is ExplicitCommunicating ChangeHow Could They Know? They could learn about the job they were paid to do.
A Powerful Tool for Learning: The Capacity Matrix

The Aim Should be the Best Life – Not Work v. Life Balance

My father had the most job satisfaction of anyone I have known. He had no separation between work and life. We toured factories on vacation. I visited Davidson College in North Carolina because he was consulting with a client in Charlotte before we went up to Duke and North Carolina for visits and asked the CEO what school I should visit. His grad students would call the house frequently.

Many of his best friends were colleagues. That is how I grew to know people like George Box, Brian Joiner, Soren Bisgaard and Peter Scholtes as I grew up. Various permutations of our family lived overseas based on his jobs in London (before kids), Singapore, Nigeria and China. Those experiences dramatically impacted all our lives and they were not about separating work from life.

The desire for a life embedded in other cultures and for travel drove decisions about work. He lived in Japan (because of his Dad’s job) for 2 years as a kid and that sparked his desire to do more of that as an adult.

My little brother, Justin, pushing me on a scooter at our house in Singapore.

My little brother, Justin, pushing me on a scooter at our house in Singapore.

The sensible aim is to optimize your life. Work is a big part of life. As with any system the results depend on the overall system not the performance of individual parts taken separately. Dad also died young. He was happy to have lived such a good life, even if he wished he could have lived longer he wasn’t bitter about missing anything.

When he learned he would die (of cancer) he mainly continued what he had always been doing living life and working on what he thought was worthwhile. One project he did take on, along with George Box, was creating the Center of Quality and Productivity Improvement at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. George’s speech about Dad’s work provides a nice look at how work and life – William G. Hunter: An Innovator and Catalyst for Quality Improvement.

He honestly looked back on his life and felt he had a life that few could have topped, even though it was cut short. He was certainly optimistic and positive. But my sense was this was his honest assessment, it wasn’t just some fake front he put on for others. He had been living his life as well as he could his whole life. And continuing to live it as long as he could was all he wanted to do.

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Magnetic White-Board Kanban Card Options

Just some quick ideas for Kanban whiteboard magnetic card options from a question I answered on Reddit.

Here is the best lean solution: Trying Out My Agile Kanban Board from Jon Miller.

kanban board with magnetic whiteboad  cards

Magnetic kanban board from Jon Miller.

Why, well mainly I am kidding about it being the best, but if you don’t read his Gemba Panta Rei blog you should! Go add it to your RSS feed reader, before you continue with this post.

Ok, welcome back. In addition to thinking his blog is great the solution from his blog is very flexible and easy – though it isn’t quite a packaged solution (as asked for on Reddit). Also that post provides some good insight into the thinking behind the board (as well as how to create your own).

More links with kanban board options: Magnetic whiteboard cards (50-pack)Physical TaskboardsI think just magnetic symbols (not magnetic white board card) but could use magnet with icon to stick paper to the board

Another silly site, that sells some sort of solution, blocked my access because they don’t sell in the country my computer reported being located in. So I didn’t give them a free plug (assuming their product was decent which it might be?). Very dumb design if you ask me; well even though you didn’t ask, I told you anyway.

Localization that impedes users rather than helping them seems far far too common in my experience. Mapping (and related – find closest…) uses are about the only localization stuff I find useful – country based localization I nearly always find annoying or crippling. And showing my location on a map is totally awesome (especially as I travel around as a tourist – or really in whatever capacity). Such bad design and poor usability decisions cost companies money.

Related: Visual Management with Brown M&MsMaking Data VisibleDeming and Software Development

Use Urls – Don’t Use Click x, Then Click y, Then Click z Instructions

In the 1980s software applications had to use click x, then click y, then click z type instructions to get you to a specific location in a software application (or at least they had a decent excuse to do that). Too many web application development organizations forget that they now have urls to direct people exactly where to go: and that they shouldn’t rely on ancient “click here, then there, then in that other place” type instructions.

Here is an example I wrote up on my recent experience with iTunes and their failure to do this properly: Bad iTunes Ux and How to Submit a Podcast to iTunes. I see it all the time, that is just one example.

It is so sad that Google can’t even offer mildly decent help for their own software nearly a couple decades after they started out with the goal to organize the world’s information. And lots of other software companies also point you to clicking around various gui (graphical user interface) click paths instead of just

  1. showing the url (say in a help email) – instead of the gui click path text
  2. a clickable link to the url in web documents

On top of the waste inherent in click path instructions they often fail because the interface has changed and no one bothered to change the click path or the click path depends on other things being a certain way and they are not so the click path breaks.

I really can’t comprehend how this usability failure is something I run across all the time. Urls are not some secret idea only PhD computer scientists have heard of. This is super basic stuff – click path instructions should never have been acceptable for any web application. It is pitiful they are still common among companies that see themselves as advanced software development organizations.

Using the proper urls also will help make sure you are using human readable urls. Another super basic usability concept that is ignored far too often by some web application developers.

Related: Usability, Customer Focus and Internet Travel SearchMaking Life Difficult for CustomersPracticing Mistake-Promoting Instead of Mistake-Proofing at ApplePassword Gobbledygook Instruction (more bad usability)What I Would Include in a Redesigned Twitter Profile (2014)

Resources for Using the PDSA Cycle to Improve Results

graphic image showing the PDSA cycle

PDSA Improvement cycle graphic from my book – Management Matters

Using the PDSA cycle (plan-do-study-act) well is critical to building a effective management system. This post provides some resources to help use the improvement cycle well.

I have several posts on this blog about using the PDSA cycle to improve results including:

The authors and consultants with Associates for Process Improvement have the greatest collection of useful writing on the topic. They wrote two indispensable books on the process improvement through experimentation: The Improvement Guide and Quality Improvement Through Planned Experimentation. And they have written numerous excellent articles, including:

Related: Good Process Improvement PracticesThe Art of Discovery (George Box)Planning requires prediction. Prediction requires a theory. (Ron Moen)

What is the Explanation Going to be if This Attempt Fails?

Occasionally during my career I have been surprised by new insights. One of the things I found remarkable was how quickly I thought up a new explanation for what could have caused a problem when the previously expressed explanation was proven wrong. After awhile I stopped finding it remarkable and found it remarkable how long it took me to figure out that this happened.

I discovered this as I programmed software applications. You constantly have code fail to run as you expect and so get plenty of instances to learn the behavior I described above. While I probably added to my opportunities to learn by being a less than stellar coder I also learned that even stellar coders constantly have to iterate through the process of creating code and seeing if it works, figuring out why it didn’t and trying again.

The remarkable thing is how easily I could come up with an new explanation. Often nearly immediately upon what I expected to work failing to do so. And one of the wonderful things about software code is often you can then make the change in 10 minutes and a few minutes later see if it worked (I am guessing my brain kept puzzling over the ideas involved and was ready with a new idea when I was surprised by failure).

When I struggled a bit to find an initial explanation I found myself thinking, “this has to be it” often because of two self reinforcing factors.

First, I couldn’t think of anything else that would explain it. Sometimes you will think right away of 4 possible issues that could cause this problem. But, when I struggled to find any and then finally came up with an idea it feels like if there was another possibility I should have thought of it while struggling to figure out what I finally settled on.

Second, the idea often seems to explain exactly what happened, and it often feels like “of course it didn’t work, what was I thinking I need to do x.” This often turns out to be true, doing x solves the problem and you move on. But a remarkable percentage of the time, say even just 10%, it doesn’t. And then I would find myself almost immediately thinking, of course I need to do y. Even when 10 seconds ago I was convinced there was no other possibility.

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Process Thinking: Process Email Addresses

This is just a simple tip. When providing email address think about what the purpose is. If it is to contact a specific person then an individual’s email address makes sense. But if you are really emailing the software testing manager then it may well make sense to provide people the email address [email protected]

Essentially, I think it is often sensible to break out email addresses for specific functions or processes. Then the email address can just be routed to whoever is suppose to handle those emails. And as your responsibilities shift a bit, those you no longer do can be shifted to someone else and you start getting your new emails. Another nice (I think so anyway) side affect is your various roles are made more concrete. Often it seems who really is responsible is unclear, if you have 5 email address that Jane handled before she left it will be obvious if only 4 of them have been reassigned that 1 has not. Granted such a thing should be obvious without this email tip-off but given how many organizations really operate failing to assign all of someone’s responsibilities to someone when they leave is more common than you would hope.

It is also nice because, if their is a reason it is helpful, those emails can automatically go to as many people as desired. Also if the manager goes on vacation for 2 weeks, the emails can be sent also to the person filling in for them until they return.

Another benefit is a manager, or whoever, can take a quick dip into the email traffic to get a sense of what is being requested. Another benefit (depending on the way it is implemented) can be to have all the [email protected] emails and responses associated with that email so if you are given that responsibility you can view historical response.

If our knowledge management (wikis, or whatever) solutions were great this would be less important (though still probably valuable) but often the email history may have the best record of our organization knowledge on a topic. When it is spread about in a bunch of individuals mail boxes it is often essentially lost.

It is a small think but this bit of process thinking I have found helpful.

Related: Management By IT Crowd BossesSoftware Supporting Processes Not the Other Way AroundEncourage Improvement Action by EveryoneDelighting Customers

Customer Focus

Customer Focus is at the core of a well managed company. Sadly many companies fail to serve their customers well. To serve customers, a thorough understanding of what problem you solve for customers is needed. The decisions at many companies, unfortunately, are far removed from this understanding.

It is hard to imagine, as you are forced to wind your way through the processes many companies squeeze you through that they have paid any attention to what it is like to be a customer of their processes. When you see companies that have put some effort into customer focus it is startling how refreshing it is (which is a sad statement for how poorly many companies are doing).

If the decision makers in a company are not experiencing the company’s products and services as a customer would that is a big weakness. You need to correct that or put a great amount of energy into overcoming that problems.

Another critical area of customer focus is to know how your customers use your products. It isn’t enough to know how you want your products to be used. Or to know the problems you intended people to use your products for. You need to know how people are actually using them. You need to know what they love, what they expect, what they hate, and what they wish for. This knowledge can help offset experiencing the products and services yourselves (in some cases getting that experience can be quite difficult – in which case you need to put extra effort into learning the actual experience of your customers).

You cannot rely on what people tell you in surveys. You need to have a deep understanding of customers use of the products. Innovation springs from this deep understanding and your expertise in the practice of delivering services and building products.

One of my favorite improvement tips is to: ask customers what 1 thing could we do better. It is very simple and gives you an easy way to capture what customers really care about. You shouldn’t rely only on this, but it is an extremely powerful tactic to use to aid continual improvement (with customer focus).

Related: Delighting CustomersThe Customer is the Purpose of Our WorkCustomer Focus and Internet Travel Search

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Leading Improvement and Enjoying the Rewards

The better job you do of managing the easier your job becomes.

As a manager your primary responsibility is to improve the system: both the systems within your sphere of control and those outside of it. The more effectively you do so, the less firefighting you have to do. The less firefighting the less hectic and chaotic your days are. And the more time you have to focus on improving the system.

The better you are at leveraging your efforts, the greater your impact, and more quickly your job gets easier. Most effective leveraging involves improving the system. Improvement to the system continue to deliver benefits continuously.

A specific form improving the system is coaching people so they are able to be more effective at improving the system themselves. One valuable role you can play is to help avoid the existing traps that prevent improvements. Early in a transformation to a continual improvement culture there are significant barriers to improvements. Those not only prevent the system from improving rapidly they can easily derail the motivation people have to improve. It is hard to maintain a desire to improve if every effort to do so feels like a long slog through quicksand.

As you create a system where people have the knowledge, drive and freedom to improve you get to enjoy continual improvement without any direct action by you. As this happens you are able to spend more time thinking and learning and less time reacting. That time allows you to find key leverage points to continue the progress on improving the management system.

Related: Engage in Improving the Management SystemKeys to the Effective Use of the PDSA Improvement CycleGood Process Improvement Practices