Tag Archives: Creativity

Jason Fried: Why work doesn’t happen at work

In this TED talk, Jason Fried, founder of 37 signals, discusses how people get work done. When asked where do you go when you really need to get something done, almost no-one says: the office (unless it is early in the morning or late at night)? This is especially for creative people and knowledge workers. They need long stretches of uninterrupted time to concentrate. “The real problems in the office are the managers and the meetings.”

The main theme is that interruptions can severely damage performance, especially for what Peter Drucker called knowledge workers.

He offers 3 suggestions to make the office a place people can get work done. No talk Thursdays. And if that is too much how starting with 1/2 a day Thursday once a month. Second, replace active distraction (meeting, going and talking to a person) with passive distraction (email and IM) that a person can turn off when they need to focus. I have found this very useful myself. And third, cancel meetings. He closes with: I hope I have given managers reasons “to think about about laying off a little bit and giving people some time to get work done.”

Related: Understanding How to Manage GeeksBetter MeetingsWorkers Allowed Recreational Use of the Internet are More ProductiveManagement By IT Crowd Bosses

Airport Security with Lean Management Principles

The ‘Israelification’ of airports: High security, little bother

We [Israel] said, ‘We’re not going to do this. You’re going to find a way that will take care of security without touching the efficiency of the airport.”

“The whole time, they are looking into your eyes — which is very embarrassing. But this is one of the ways they figure out if you are suspicious or not. It takes 20, 25 seconds,” said Sela. Lines are staggered. People are not allowed to bunch up into inviting targets for a bomber who has gotten this far.

Lean thinking: customer focus, value stream (don’t take actions that destroy the value stream to supposedly meet some other goal), respect for people [this is a much deeper concept than treat employees with respect], evidence based decision making (do what works – “look into your eyes”), invest in your people (Israel’s solution requires people that are good at their job and committed to doing a good job – frankly it requires engaged managers which is another thing missing from our system).

The USA solution if something suspicious is found in bag screening? Evacuate the entire airport terminal. Very poor design (it is hard to over-emphasis how poor this is). It will take time to design fixes into physical space, as it always does in lean thinking. It has been nearly 10 years. Where is the progress?

A screener at Ben-Gurion has a pair of better options. First, the screening area is surrounded by contoured, blast-proof glass that can contain the detonation of up to 100 kilos of plastic explosive. Only the few dozen people within the screening area need be removed, and only to a point a few metres away.

Second, all the screening areas contain ‘bomb boxes’. If a screener spots a suspect bag, he/she is trained to pick it up and place it in the box, which is blast proof. A bomb squad arrives shortly and wheels the box away for further investigation.

This is a very small simple example of how we can simply stop a problem that would cripple one of your airports,” Sela said.

Lean thinking: design the workspace to the task at hand. Obviously done in one place and not the other. Also it shows the thought behind designing solutions that do not destroy the value stream unlike the approach taken in the USA. And the better solution puts a design in place that gives primacy to safety: the supposed reason for all the effort.
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Why Don’t Football Players Just Thrown the Ball Out of Bounds to Stop the Clock

I have never understood why players don’t lateral the ball out of bounds to stop the clock in pro or college football in the USA. If time is running out and the player is tackled in bounds the clock keeps running and time can expire. You can stop the clock by running out of bounds. Also if the ball goes out of bounds the clock is stopped. I figured maybe there was some rule against just throwing the ball out of bounds to stop the clock. I never hear announcers explain that they can’t just throw the ball out of bounds due to a rule, though.

John Clay, Wisconsin Badgers

I decided to go the the source, on page 73 of the official NCAA football rules it says the clock stops: “With fewer than two minutes remaining in a half a Team A ball carrier, fumble or backward pass is ruled out of bounds.”

However, on page 103 (of 272) it states: “A ball carrier may hand or pass the ball backward at any time, except to throw the ball intentionally out of bounds to conserve time. [The penalty for breaking the rule is] five yards from the spot of the foul; also loss of down.” The clock is started when the ball is ready for play (rule 3-4-3 says the clock restarts on the ready to play signal for “unfair clock tactics” penalties).

From the rule book appendix: “A ball carrier, late in the second period, throws a backward pass out of bounds from behind or beyond the neutral zone to conserve time. RULING: Penalty – Five yards from the spot of the foul and loss of down. The clock starts on the ready-for-play signal.” By the way an illegal forward pass has the same penalty.

Still to me this leaves a very good reason to lateral the ball out of bounds. It should certainly take less time to line up and ground the ball after the ball is marked ready for play than it would if the clock is never stopped. Often you could still have time to run a play or just ground the ball and stop the clock.

The NFL does use a 10-second runoff rule, and with the referee winding the clock on the ready for play, which would likely make an deliberate attempt a bad idea. But as far as I can tell college rules don’t have that time penalty. It seems to me, if you want to have a rule against stopping the clock that way, it probably is wise to have the 10 second penalty.

Even if for some reason taking that penalty doesn’t work if you are in the middle of the filed you could thrown it to someone near the sidelines to let them get out of bounds. Also if you at least make that attempt and then the ball goes out of bounds (based on your lateral attempt) it seems to me you at least have the hope the referees won’t call the penalty that requires your intent to thrown it out of bounds to stop the clock, in order for it to be a penalty.

Related: Randomization in SportsNHL Experiments with the Rules of HockeyPhysicist Swimming Revolution
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Managing Our Way to Economic Success

From Managing Our Way to Economic Success, Two Untapped Resources by William G. Hunter, my father. Written in 1986, but still plenty relevant. We have made some good progress, but there is much more to do: we have barely started adopting these ideas systemically.

there are two enormously valuable untapped resources in many companies: potential information and employee creativity. The two are connected. One of the best ways to generate potential information to turn it into kinetic information that can produce tangible results is to train all employees in some of the simple, effective ways to do this. Rely on their desire to do a good job, to contribute, to be recognized, to be a real part of the organization. They want to be treated like responsible human beings, not like unthinking automatons.

W. Edwards Deming has illustrated one of the troubles with U.S. industry in terms of making toast. He says, “Let’s play American industry. I’ll burn. You scrape.” Use of statistical tools, however, allows you to reduce waste, scrap, rework, and machine downtime. It costs just as much to make defective products as it does to make good products. Eliminate defects and other things that cause inefficiencies, and you reduce costs, increase quality, and raise productivity. Note that quality and productivity are not trade-offs. They increase together.

Potential information surrounds all industrial processes. Statistical techniques, many of which are simple yet powerful, are tools that employees can use to tap and exploit this potential information so that increasingly higher levels of productivity, quality, and innovation can be attained. Engaging the brains as well as the brawn of employees in this way improves morale and participation…and profits.

What is called for is constant, never-ending improvement of all processes in the organization. What management needs, too, is constant, never-ending improvement of ideas.

Related: William Hunter, articles and booksInvest in New Management Methods Not a Failing CompanyThe Importance of Management ImprovementStatistics for Experimenters

Frugal Innovation

First break all the rules

The device is a masterpiece of simplification. The multiple buttons on conventional ECGs have been reduced to just four. The bulky printer has been replaced by one of those tiny gadgets used in portable ticket machines. The whole thing is small enough to fit into a small backpack and can run on batteries as well as on the mains. This miracle of compression sells for $800, instead of $2,000 for a conventional ECG

Frugal products need to be tough and easy to use. Nokia’s cheapest mobile handsets come equipped with flashlights (because of frequent power cuts), multiple phone books (because they often have several different users), rubberised key pads and menus in several different languages. Frugal does not mean second-rate.

The article goes on to talk about several methods for how to profit from reducing costs which seem misguided. Frugal innovation is about thinking about meeting the needs of huge numbers of customers that can’t afford conventional solutions. By talking a new look at the situation and attempting to find solutions with significant price constraints new markets can be opened. Often this requires thinking similar to disruptive innovation (products that serve a similar need but less completely than current options).

It also requires the engineering principles of appropriate technology. I highlight this thinking in my Curious Cat Engineering blog and find it very worthwhile. For organizations that have a true mission to serve some purpose using such thinking allows a greatly expanded potential market in which to make a difference in the world.

There is a great quote from Jeff Bezos that captures one reason why organizations so often fail to address frugal innovation: “There are two kinds of companies, those that work to try to charge more and those that work to charge less.” Many organizations are focused on trying to charge more, not less. Another problem is that decision makers often have no life experience with cheap solutions – this doesn’t prevent frugal innovation but it does make them less likely to see the need and to decide to solve those customer needs.

Related: Appropriate ManagementManaging InnovationProcess Improvement and Innovation

Interruptions Can Severely Damage Performance

Interruptions can severely degrade your performance. The type of work you are doing impacts the cost greatly. I have spent some of my time programming web applications. When I am doing that interruptions are a huge drain on my performance (for me the costs of interruptions while programming are far higher than any other type of work I have done – many times higher). If the interruption disrupts my flow (an interruption needn’t necessarily disrupt it I found, instant messages may not, while speaking to someone else almost surely would – it is a factor of how much of your brain much shift focus I imagine) it can take a huge amount of time to get back into a high performing state. Other work I do can be interrupted with much less impact. I am easily able to slip back into what I was doing.

For me the main cost of interruptions is the time it takes to get back to where I was before the interruption. And the cost is related to how much focus is needed to address what you are working on. Most programming takes a huge amount of focus.

Another big cost of interruptions is the increased risk of mistakes. When people are distracted and then have to go back to a task, and then are distracted, and then go back and… it is more likely they will miss a step or miss noticing some issue than if they can work without distraction. One tool to help cope for distractions that can’t be designed out are checklists.

Paul Graham addressed the importance of managing the system to provide uninterrupted time very well in, Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule

One reason programmers dislike meetings so much is that they’re on a different type of schedule from other people. Meetings cost them more

Most powerful people are on the manager’s schedule. It’s the schedule of command. But there’s another way of using time that’s common among people who make things, like programmers and writers. They generally prefer to use time in units of half a day at least. You can’t write or program well in units of an hour. That’s barely enough time to get started.

Paul Graham’s article also shows why managers so often fail to adequately address this issue. Manager, by and large, work in an environment where interruptions are the work. I know, much of my time as a program manager is driven by interruptions and is doable even with many interruptions every day.

When managing you need to understand how big a cost interruptions have and design systems appropriate to optimize system performance for all parts of the system. The design of the system needs to take into account the costs and benefits of interruptions for those people working on various processes in the system.

Related: Understanding How to Manage GeeksExplaining Managers to ProgrammersWhat Motivates Programmers?Joy in Work – Software DevelopmentProgrammers CartoonChecklists in Software Development

Kiva – Giving Entrepreneurs an Opportunity to Succeed

photo of a Kiva entrepreneur

Tony, a Kiva entrepreneur in Pennsylvania, USA looking to manufacturing specialty cars.

I really like Kiva. Kiva lets you lend small amounts of money to entrepreneurs around the world. My latest loan is to a manufacturing entrepreneur in the USA.

When Tony’s 6’0 6″ body could not fit in the traditional supercars, he built his own in 1990. Tony says, “If one door closes I just look for another opening; I don’t give up.” With much patience and hard work he continues to expand his business and hopes to make it a full-time job. With his ACCION USA microloan he has hired two designers to work with him part-time and has purchased a laptop.

I must admit I wouldn’t take this as an investment. It seems a very risky and doesn’t seem that likely to pan out, to me. But I see my loans through Kiva as a way to give people a chance to pursue their dreams. This loans is probably the one I find less compelling from a business point of view (to me), but I like to provide some loans in the USA so I decided to give Tony a chance.

I do try to select loans that look promising and seem to provide the entrepreneur an opportunity that will help them. By which I mean I love finding loans where, for example, they will buy equipment that will improve their productivity or take on new business. Very often loans are to buy raw materials or supplies, which is also fine but the potential gains are often less than something that improves the efficiency (it seems to me). Often this allows the entrepreneur to buy more and grow their business.

I have made nearly 200 loans now. The top country has been Togo (at 12%). I don’t target Togo but I do pay attention to the loan costs to the entrepreneurs (part of my assessment of the good business case for the loan) and some of the micro finance organizations offer good terms to entrepreneurs. Some of the microfinance organizations are more charitable (they may use donations to fund significant parts of the operating expenses, instead of profits from interest on the loans). Read more details on how Kiva works. It also used to be a bit difficult to find loans I really thought were great. It is getting easier to find more options so my guess is that the top few countries now will see declines in their percentages.

So far I have lent to 37 countries. Cambodia is 2nd at 7.7% of my loans, Viet Nam 3rd at 6.7%, Tanzania 4th at 5.1%, Nicaragua 6th at 5.1% along with Kenya, and Ghana and Boliva are 8th at 4.6%. The United States now makes up 2.6% and Mexico 1.5%. The sectors the loans are categorized in are: Services 25%, Food 18%, Manufacturing 17%, Retail 14%, Agriculture 12% and various others. Though the sector categorizations are pretty weak in my opinion (they seem to be fairly inaccurate – so it gives you an idea but it isn’t exact).

The default rate on my loan portfolio is 2.1% (3 defaults). One was in Kenya where $71.50 out of $75 was paid back and then huge civil unrest took place and it defaulted. The other 2 are from the same microfinance bank in Ecuador that was closed down due to mismanagement. In that instance I lost $87.50 out of $100 lent. 94 loans have been fully paid back and 94 are being paid back now.

I would love it if more Curious Cat readers joined Kiva and helped other entrepreneurs. If you do let me know your Kiva page and I will add you to the Curious Cat Kivans page. Also join the Curious Cats Kiva Lending Team.

Related: 100th Entrepreneur LoanThanksgiving: Micro-financing EntrepreneursUsing Capitalism to Make the World BetterKiva Opens to USA Entrepreneur LoansMicroFinance Currency Risk

Improving Education with Deming’s Ideas

This interview (link broken, so removed) with David Langford discusses how to improve education using ideas from Deming. Along with Alfie Kohn, David have long been the learning and management experts I find most valuable.

I have long remembered is his idea that he was the CEO of his classroom. On hearing Deming discuss how critical it was to have the CEO active in a management improvement effort to achieve success he tried to get those above him in the organization chart to change. Which didn’t work very well. Seeing that method was not successful he took a new look and decided to view the problem in a different way.

He looked for what he was in charge of and decided he could decide how to run his classroom. I think this is a very valuable idea for anyone looking to improve their organization. What is your sphere of control? Focus on how you can improve there. Don’t just try to change others. See how you can change and improve what you can.

The interview provides a good insight into the great ideas David has.

  • “Make changes that let all kids get good grades.”
  • That comes from the theory (incorrect theory) grades motivate students.
  • There is no level of education sub-quality that is acceptable. Success or need to work more, which category are you in. B, C, D does not make sense.
  • People keep trying things we have proven over and over again don’t work, like pay for performance schemes for individual teachers.

Anyone interested in improving education should listen to this interview and search out more ideas from David Langford and Alfie Kohn. I really like David’s capacity matrix.

Related: Orchestrating Learning With Quality by David P. Langford and Barbara A. Cleary – K-12 Educational ReformDeming on being Destroyed by Best Efforts

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi: Creativity, Fulfillment and Flow

“After a certain basic point, which translates, more or less, to just a few thousand dollars above the minimum poverty level, increases in material well being don’t see to affect how happy people are.”

The speech includes, the first purpose of incorporation at Sony:

To establish a place of work where engineers can feel the joy of technological innovation, be aware of their mission to society, and work to their heart’s content.

Excellent books by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi:
Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, 1991. People enter a flow state when they are fully absorbed in activity during which they lose their sense of time and have feelings of great satisfaction.
Good Business: Leadership, Flow, and the Making of Meaning.
Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, 1997. Drawing on hundreds of interviews with exceptional people, from biologists and physicists to politicians and business leaders to poets and artists, the author uses his famous “flow” theory to explain the creative process.

Related: Extrinsic Incentives Kill Creativityposts on psychology Interviews with InnovatorsInnovation StrategyThe Purpose of an OrganizationFlow

Observations of a New Googler

Some interesting thoughts from a new Google engineer, Things I’ve learned at Google so far

I would describe Google’s culture as “creative chaos”. There was some confusion about where I was supposed to be when I started. This resulted in the following phone call, “Hello?”, “Hello Ben, this is Conner (that’s my new manager), where are you?” “Mountain View.” “Why are you there?” “Because this is where the recruiter said to go.” “Good answer! Nice of them to tell me. Enjoy your week!” This caused me to ask an experienced Googler, “Is it always this chaotic?” The response I got was, “Yes! Isn’t it wonderful?” That response sums up a lot about Google’s culture. If you’re unable to enjoy that kind of environment, then Google isn’t the place for you.

Paul Buchheit was a software engineer at Google. He didn’t need permission to write something like gmail. Corporate culture says that if you need something like that, you just go ahead and do it. In fact this is enshrined as an official corporate policy – engineers get 20% of their time to do with pretty much as they please, and are judged in part on how they use that time. I found a speech claiming that over half of Google’s applications started as a 20% project. (I’m surprised that the figure is so low.) To get a sense of how much stuff people just do, visit Google Labs. No corporate decision. No central planning.

Sick day policy. Don’t show up when you’re sick and tell people why you’re not showing up. Note what’s missing. There is no limit to how much sick time you get if you need it.

I think he overestimates the lack of central planning, still it is another interesting view of Google.

Related: Eric Schmidt on Management at GoogleGoogle: Ten Golden RulesThe Myth of the Genius Programmer