Archive for Agile Transformation

Disfluence: Learning is a Mess

Image result for image of writing in finger paintsI always carry a notebook. This has been part of my work life since its inception. I’ve always known that if I write it down in my messy handwriting, I remember it better. Even when I’m told in a meeting “No need to take notes; I’ll send you the PowerPoint”, I still take notes. Sometimes I do it self-consciously since it seems I’m the only one with a pen in the room. But it helps me soak in the information. Now that I understand the concept of Cognitive Disfluence I will pull out my pen with pride. Cognitive Disfluence is a fancy way of saying that you learn more when you interact with what you are trying to learn.

In 2011 a study was done at Princeton. Subjects were asked to read about complicated, fictional biologic taxonomies. One group read in the common Arial font and the second read in Comic Sans MS. The group that read in the more unusual font remembered 14% more. This study has been done in a number of ways and the results are the same. The same concept is true with numbers. If you have to graph the data yourself on a piece of paper, it will stick. If you do the math by hand and not with a calculator, you will remember it better. If you punch in someone’s cell phone number a few times into your phone, you will remember it.

Humans are meant to interact with their surroundings. Our brains are wired to forget the easy stuff and hang on to the stuff we wrestle a bit with. Knowing this can help us absorb the data and information that comes barreling at us day in and day out. Below are some ways to better grab onto what is flowing past.

  • Use the whiteboard: For those of us working in offices whiteboards are ubiquitous. Have you noticed that some people are fast to jump up and use the board and others hang back? Be one of those board doodlers. As a discussion progresses, note the key points. Write down the dates and make a timeline. Assign owners. Draw a picture of how it works or who is connected to whom. If you are the leader of the meeting feel free to hand over the pen to others to pull them in. You will find that the room is more engaged and that the concepts are remembered. You and your team will think about this meeting more than most because the team was actively engaged.
  • Take notes in meetings, during the lecture or sermon, as you read: Keep a notebook close at hand to jot down something that inspires. Draw a picture of the image that comes to mind. Even if you are doodling or writing key thoughts or names, this is enough to engage a different part of your brain and you are more likely to retain what you are hearing.
  • Graph out your expenses or revenue or miles run over time: I’m a big proponent of dashboards in business. These simplify the noisy data and give leaders key performance metrics to be sure that they haven’t lost control. But the very best way to get to this information is by graphing it yourself. Those shop floor charts where the data is added one point at a time (remember TQC?) are the best. Maybe a good combo is to look at and manipulate key pieces of information. If you see the trends going in the wrong direction dig down a level. See what the key contributors are and normalize by doing some math.
  • Write a list of things to do: Lots of us have “to do lists”. Crossing things off feels so good. But maybe the act of writing something down puts it into our heads to complete as well. We think about the task, consider how big the job is, break it down further and actually visualize the act of doing it.
  • Write stuff on sticky notes and move ’em around: A Kanban board or Scrum board is used in businesses to track, prioritize and pull through work. There are tools available to put this online and manipulate virtually but many companies and teams find that a good old fashioned white board with columns and sticky notes work the best. Why? Because you are engaged with the work. You can write on it. Add thoughts and move them around.
  • Argue from another perspective: One of the most interesting “features” of our brains is the tendency to find and stick with a simple frame of understanding. This saves us time. It helps us get through the day. We know how to drive our cars without a lot of brainpower. We can get ready in the morning without being totally awake. We have a perspective on life and we filter everything to comply with that perspective. The downside of this is that we don’t easily learn and change based on new information. We are blind to changes that can be very important in the running of our businesses or families. To shake ourselves out of this rut, try re-framing a situation by taking the other side and arguing it. It is helpful to hire or befriend people who are not going to simply feed you information that you already know or agree with.

The most successful people are ones who are exceptional learners. They digest new information, absorb new insights and aren’t afraid to look beyond their frames of reference. Many of these successful learners try crazy new things just to shake it up. Resolve to get out of your comfort zone and amp up your learning.

Learning is an experience. Everything else is just information.        Albert Einstein


Marcy Alstott is an Operations and Supply Chain Consultant with diverse product and technology expertise, multinational management credentials and extensive transformation know-how.  



Fair and Good Trade

datsunI made the trade for a Ford Taurus. By then my little red Datsun 210 had traveled from California to New Hampshire. It had carried me through my masters degrees, my early career days, into a marriage and kids. The seat fabric had rotted and split. The paint finish was crackled and faded. A family of mice had decided to store dog food pellets in the fabric roof lining. (We have ever since stored dog food in metal cans!) But this car meant something to me and it was a hard possession to give up. But I needed a car that didn’t slip and slide in the snow and that carried me with a little more dignity to my engineering manager job. So I made the trade. It was fair. It was good.

These days, in the midst of isolationist leanings, there is a great deal of talk about fair trade. The treaties that were enacted over a decade ago are being blamed as the root cause for all of our economic woes and lack of full employment. The US has 14 trade agreements in effect with 20 countries. We are in the process of examining and likely will be rejecting an additional Asia-Pacific trade agreement, known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) Agreement and are in negotiations with the EU  regarding the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (T-TIP). Why are these agreements in place and are they fair and good? 

The argument for international trade agreements is that they reduce barriers to U.S. exports and protect U.S. interests and enhance the rule of law in partner countries. The reduction of trade barriers and the creation of a more stable and transparent trading and investment environment makes it easier and cheaper for U.S. companies to export their products and services. This is goodness if both parties have something valuable to exchange and if each side ends up satisfied with the arrangement. Right now in the US we are not satisfied. We have lost over 5M manufacturing jobs since the beginning of the century. Our annual trade deficit was $500B or 3% of the GDP last year. That money is used by foreign investors to buy real estate or businesses or other assets. But these stats don’t tell the whole complicated story. The complex story makes the solution complex. The WSJ covered this recently in an article on the Future of Manufacturing. If we close our borders to trade or if we heavily tax imports to slow down in the influx of goods, there are consequences.

  • We export more services than we import to the tune of about $300B. If we slow imports we could slow exports of our service industry thus hurting those US businesses.
  • If we tax imports of cheaper goods we are creating a regressive tax. In other words we will hurt the people with smaller incomes who can’t afford it.
  • We could lessen the value of our currency making imports look more expensive but that again will be a regressive action, hurting the wrong people.
  • Moving quickly could cause an economic backlash that could push the US into a recession.

None of the ideas above are easy to implement without repercussions. But we can take positive action to increase our competitiveness and move back to a positive trade balance. However, these ideas require leadership, partnership with government, some patience and a bit of altruism. We as a country seem to be short on those things right now.

  • Measure the costs: Company executives should measure the full, true cost of off-shoring. Doing the math rather than just following the crowd could accelerate the trend to keep manufacturing in the US.
  • Train workers: There is a gap between manufacturing workers needed versus available even today. This gap will increase as our baby boomers retire. We need to create training programs and apprenticeships like are available in Germany and other countries.
  • Embrace Technology: There are ways to improve our competitiveness and the time is ripe. Additive manufacturing, Internet of Things (IoT) and collaborative robotics are ways to use our technical prowess to beat the competition. US universities have developed and progressed these capabilities and progressive companies are employing them to improve productivity and features. The government should encourage investments in manufacturing technology. US incentives for investments in factory automation and research lags behind our competition.
  • Employ Lean and Agile Methodologies: Productivity in the US (GDP/hour worked) has increased year over year for 3 decades. In the first quarter of 2016 it actually decreased by .6%. We need to find ways of doing more with what we have. Lean for Manufacturing and Agile for Innovation are two proven ways to improve efficiency and speed up results.
  • Create Manufacturing Ecosystems: Regional governments have been encouraging a resurgence of focused manufacturing capabilities. Examples are the growth of automotive manufacturing in the Southeast or capital machinery in the Midwest. These clusters are attracting the right kind of workforce, setting up supply chains and are working with regional governments to create workable tax schemes.

We will not rewind time to the days when you could provide for a family and retire on one assembly worker’s wages. But it is possible to generate a good living with the new jobs that are emerging. A robot technician’s salary is about $60K.  A CNC programmer and operator earns about $40K. With the right kind of training and infrastructure we can revitalize manufacturing in the US and embrace good and fair trade once again.

Good and fair trade is within our reach. I gave up my Datsun with thoughts of better driving days to come. Similarly, we need to let go of the past and embrace a new manufacturing reality of automated factories building products the rest of the world will want to buy.

Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.      Barack Obama