Your office is moving to the web, get ready

zoho-logo-thumb1Today I woke up to read a tweet from Robert Scoble (@Scobleizer) and it was the canary in the coal mine for me.  For years I have felt that enterprise collaboration was moving to the web and this tweet confirmed my intuition.  (for those who are mistified by the “tweet” visit Twitter <- this is more then “telling people what you are doing”).  Okay, back to the post, so what did Robert say?


 Info on GE going with Zoho …

WHAT?  That can’t be the Six Sigma, continuous improvement General Electric I know, can it?  Well, I click on the link Robert provided which led to this article (GE Drops Google, Selects Zoho ).  Wow, that’s huge, but I am just finding out something which was stated back in September of 2008.  

So what is this all about?  Well, Zoho is a company which is offering a suite of office applications on the web, think Microsoft Word, Power Point, Excel. They not only provide these applications, but a whole host of other collaboration tools.  

If you have ever used one of these tools you may have thought that they are not as full featured as their desktop counterparts and you’d be right.  The revolution however is how these tools are changing the way we work.  Think of the last MS Word document you created which you needed to share with someone else.  If you are like most people out there you created it on your computer, possibly saved it to a network drive, and then emailed it off to some people for review and input.  If you are lucky they turned on track changes and when you get back their comments and changes you take your time making sense of all the files and compose the final document.  Some of the “more advanced” companies will have implemented systems like Microsoft Share Point or some other document management repository which helps the collaboration process, but most companies aren’t even doing that.  The problem with these document management systems is that they are within your companies’ firewall so collaboration is usually limited to employees of the company, but collaboration has no bounds.  In today’s global economy people need to collaborate with customers, suppliers, and even competitors as part of standards setting bodies.

GE’s move is a sign of things to come.  You can bet yourself that if they get the concept of the “web office” then many companies are soon to follow.  Actually, there is more evidence in Robert’s stream (here, here and here).  Maybe Robert is just pointing out examples which support his argument and I am just reiterating to make my case stronger, but if you don’t think this is reality, go look for yourself.  

If these tools aren’t that great, how are they going to succeed?  Well, if you used the web in the mid to late 90’s and if you can remember how limited the whole web experience was at that time you would not have predicted YouTube, Hulu, or  

Technology moves at an amazing speed and Zoho is a perfect example of that.  I have been following their products for a while and every time I visit their site, I see some new product offerings.  Extrapolating to 2012 there is no doubt that these tools will be up to the task and many more companies will be using them.  It makes sense.  You no longer need to install programs on your desktop, you no longer need to email files around.  You can get new features as soon as they are ready, you can access your files from anywhere.  You need to collaborate with someone outside your corporate firewall?  No problem, just share that single document with them.  In some cases you can all work on the same document at the same time and see each other’s changes as they happen.  All your changes get saved so that you can go back to previous versions of the document if you need to.  The entire workflow is streamlined.  What if you don’t have internet access?  No problem, some of these tools have off line mode and you can be sure that by 2012 internet connections will be even more ubiquitous than the are today. (did you know you can already get internet access at McDonald’s?)  

So get ready and stay ahead of the curve.  When you are analyzing your processes think about your collaboration tools and learn how the innovators are improving their processes.  Technology alone does not solve process issues as I mentioned here, but with a good process, the right technology can mean the difference between modest and significant improvement.

Are you hiring star performers?

handshakeToday I read this post from Peter Bregman on the most important question you should ask during an interview:


What do you do in your spare time?

His conclusion is essentially that if you love what you do, you are always doing it, you don’t just do it at work.

I have always thought this was the case and Peter seems to validate my intuition.  In my career I have met IT personnel who didn’t have a computer at home or who just checked email on it if they had one.  I have met software developers who didn’t program as a hobby or who weren’t interested in current trends and technology.

I have also met people who brought their “hobby” to work or I guess, got paid to do their hobby.  In every instance those whose hobby coincided with their career were in my opinion better workers.  These workers will bring in new ideas and concepts to work, they will learn what has worked for others and try to infuse those ideas into your organization and best of all, they won’t be satisfied doing their job in in a uninspired manner.

If your employees don’t demonstrate characteristics of their job outside work, then they are most likely doing their job for the pay check, not because they enjoy it.  So while I more “well rounded” individual may at first glance seem more appealing, I would rather take my car to the mechanic who lives and breathes cars, than to the one who enjoys collecting comic books or going hiking every weekend.

Get to the root of the problem if you want to fix it

tree and rootsThe other day I read this post about how Jeff Bezos facilitated root cause analysis at Amazon when a worker was hurt at a distribution center and it gave me great insight on how Amazon works.  Getting to the root cause of a problem and implementing a fix  is the basis of real continuous improvement, but if you look around you will find many who rather deal with problems as they arise instead of dealing with the issue that led to the problem in the first place.  It’s like looking for your lost keys every day instead of determining why you lost them in the first place.

Finding the root cause can be difficult in certain instances, but you may find that a lot of the time there are quick fixes all around you in both your personal and professional life which you can fix by going through the 5 why’s.  

As an Industrial Engineer, I live and breathe root cause analysis.  I always ask deeper questions to everyday problems, but my wife, who has a career in social services didn’t originally think this way.  When she would ask me where her keys or her glasses were I would walk her through root cause analysis and illustrate by example how I never lose my stuff because I have a system.  I just put things in the same place every day.  Annoying as that may sound, I am amazed how my wife now applies these techniques in her job.  Now when she recounts stories of how people in her workplace don’t attack the root cause I can’t help but smile.

Root cause analysis is a way of life.  Once you embrace it you will find opportunities all around you and you will no longer lose your keys.  :-)

A great tool won't fix your bad process

HammerIt’s amazing how often people think that simply implementing a new tool will solve their problems.  If there is something to be solved, a computer can surely do it, right?  The trouble with this conclusion is that technology is just a piece of the solution.  More often than not, the better approach is to spend time understanding your process by defining what you are trying to achieve and determining how the process fits in with the company’s goals.  I suggest fixing the process prior to adopting a new tool instead of trying to fix it with the tool.

The need for a new tool may be the catalyst an organization needs to revisit their processes, but usually most people are focused on implementing the tool, not fixing the processes.

It has been my experience that good processes benefit from new tools while bad processes are made worse.  If a company starts with the presumption that whatever they do can be done better, then they will learn from the exercise of selecting the tool.  First, map the “as-is” process or remap it if it does not match documentation, then step back and figure out why the process was put in place in the first place (what is the goal of the process?).  Brainstorm on how it can be improved by taking out unnecessary touches, automating segments, and even eliminating parts which add little to no value.

Once you understand what you intend to improve with the new tool, you will be able to subjectively analyze the potential candidates.  Your questions to the vendors and their references will be more specific and you will be able to create demonstration scripts for the vendors to follow as they present their tool as it would work with your processes.  Their ability to make your process more efficient will lead you to the right tool for your company.

Throughout the selection and implementation activities you must fight the urge to customize the tool.  If the tool does not do what you want, you have two options; change your process, or change the tool.  I usually presume the tool is right.  After all, most of the time you won’t be the first to implement the tool, so best practices are probably already baked in.  The questions to ask yourself are: “Is our process world class?”,  “Are there others using this tool without customization at a similar company?”,  “Are we holding on to sacred cows?”

More often than not you will find that your company is not the model for the Malcolm Baldrige award.  Your processes can always be improved.  If others are using the tool without customization, how are they doing it?  Are there other areas of your organization that need to be improved first?  Be willing to slaughter your sacred cows and don’t incorporate poor decisions made on other processes into your new and improved process.  Customization means more time and money and most likely it will yield less return than improving more fundamental issues with your company.

This inevitably will mean a longer analysis and selection process, but it will expedite implementation and in the end, the tool will indeed improve your process because you took the time to improve the process along the way.

Rank Projects, don't try to do it all

Today I read a blog post on CrunchGear about how Apple’s success is at least partly due to their streamlined product line.  On a post at MacRumors, they discussed Tim Cook’s view of the Apple Philosophy.  This quote stood out to me:

We believe in saying no to thousands of projects so that we can really focus on the few that are truly important and meaningful to us.

For years I have been touting this is an Apple strength, but this philosophy does not just have to apply to product development.  It can be engrained into an organization in other ways.  

I have seen organization try to tackle many initiatives simultaneously and they have either failed at most of them or they have done a poor job during implementation.  

No matter what an organization is trying to do, it has to realize that resources are finite and that most people will not be able to adequately address multiple initiatives simultaneously.

Given those constraints, what can be done?  Well, borrowing from Agile development and the Toyota Production System, the organization should list all the projects it wants to undertake and develop a set of objective criteria to rank these projects (Time / Resources Needed, Ease of Implementation, Cost, etc.).  Once the projects are ranked, the top projects are selected,”pulled,” and the lower ranked projects are put on the back burner.  

Not only does ranking help identify the truly important projects, but it helps people stay focused.  Another advantage is that no one works on projects which are low priority and may get displaced by a hot new initiative.  By continuously reviewing, adding, and modifying your project backlog, your organization will do a better job at implementation and the benefits will be realized sooner.

If you are afraid to break it, how will you fix it?

Problem Solving Flowchart

Today I came across a process flow chart which made me think of past experiences where I was blamed when something was not quite perfect with something I did.  As I mentioned in the whining article, people sometimes have a need to blame their surroundings and don’t take action to make improvements.

So the question I pose to the nay sayers is; “How will anything improve if nothing changes?”  If you don’t try you will certainly not get blamed, but you will certainly not succeed at improving anything. 

However, if you are not afraid of failing, being told you are wrong, or taking responsibility when things do go awry, you can accomplish great things.  I have learned that things tend to go right more than they go wrong and things that go wrong usually just need a minor adjustment.  

By far I have found that persistence and commitment to improvement have garnered more praise than blame.  I have a hard time thinking of solutions I have put in place that are still not in place.  Most people appreciated the improvement and those who embraced the change became my cheerleaders and advocates.  I also believe I won the respect of the whiners because I had an impact that could be measured.

So go ahead, change things.  Don’t be afraid to break something and if someone blames you when something is not perfect, just remember they are whining.  If you are persistent, your great ideas will win out in the end.

Bottom up solutions miss the mark


Statue of Librety

If you were trying to get to the Statue of Liberty and didn’t know where it was located, would you just head out and hope you would find it?   If you don’t know where you are and where you need to go, will you ever get there?

Although many people can agree that in order to solve a problem well, one must take a top down approach to problem solving, it is my experience that people take the path of least resistance and solve problems bottom up.  For some reason most of the time I come across people who want to just dive in and “solve a problem.”  Some of these people see the situations in front of them as black and white.


Like many in the business world,  I too just want to get down and dirty.  I want to implement  solutions and move on to the next challenge.  The problem with this approach is that unless you step back and take a birds eye view of the situation prior to getting down in the weeds, not only will you manage to create a locally optimized solution, but you will likely find it more difficult to achieve your goals.  

Most people can step back and get a broader view, but they rarely go beyond the areas outside their immediate control.  Whereas the people who jump into a solution know the situation as the black and white squares above, the ones who take a broader view know there is more to the problem.

partial_mazeThese people realize they are in a maze, but their Achilles heel is that they stop widening their view here because they see multiple paths to take.  Any one path may be the optimal path and so they do some analysis around the 3 possible solutions.  They show their analysis to management, select the path, and go on to implement the solution. 

In rare situations, you will have management who will help you see the entire maze.  These are the great managers who realize that locally optimizing a system may adversely affect someone else.  These managers realize that for the company to succeed, it need solutions that go beyond their immediate area of responsibility and which are aligned with the corporate goals.

maze_completeIf you don’t know where to start or what your goal is, any path will do.  So start at the top, understand where you’ve been and where you want to go, then find the solution to today’s challenge which will optimize the entire system.

Is whining sabotaging your progress?

Baby CryingMy first job out of college as a newly minted Industrial Engineer led me to a company with lots of “opportunities.”  On an almost daily basis I recognized processes that didn’t work well and things that could be improved.  I made it a habit of pointing these out.  Since these areas were outside my immediate area of responsibility, I felt that pointing these out was as far as I needed to go.

One day my manager gave me some advice that I have lived by ever since;  “instead of whining, suggest solutions.”  He made me realize that as a small company with limited resources and a staff which could not see past the processes they had lived with for years, ideas and execution were what was going to move the organization forward.

The other day I read an article in the New York Times, Some Protect the Ego by Working on Their Excuses Early, and it reminded me of this story.  Not because I was trying to protect my ego, but because whining and making excuses will not help your organization move forward.

It is easy to fall into the trap of finding faults with the things around you, but the next sentence after, “Filling out this form serves no purpose.” should be “I will take ownership and find out why the form was implemented and I will see if there is a way to get rid of it”

Too many times a culture of complaining will develop within an organization and all progress will come to a halt.  Production will blame Planning, Planning will blame Purchasing, Purchasing will blame Suppliers, and so it goes.  The sooner you realize that these are just excuses and that the whining always comes from the same direction, the sooner you can be empowered to make the necessary changes to move forward.

Change can be a long hard road when everyone is committed to it, but if you are having to deal with whining in the face of change, change will be nearly impossible.