Silicon Valley State of Mind, a blog by John Weathington, "The Science of Success"
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Silicon Valley State of Mind

Tips, thoughts, and advice based on the consulting work of John Weathington, "The Science of Success."

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Operational Excellence

There's no doubt that effectiveness trumps efficiency; however, without efficiency there's no scalability, transferability, and most importantly competitive advantage. Here are my thoughts, tips, and advice on executing with precision, predictability, and high-octane.

Posted by on in Operational Excellence

Because of my experience and credentials as a Six Sigma Black Belt, I’m often called into companies to help them improve a process that shouldn’t be improved. I was recently on a Six Sigma effort where the process was so broken we couldn’t even establish a baseline. That’s a good clue that you’re heading down the wrong path. You cannot improve a defective process—you need to replace it.

Most people identify Six Sigma with process improvement (i.e., DMAIC[1]); however, there is another part of Six Sigma that deals with process development (i.e., DMADV[2]) called Design for Six Sigma, or DFSS[3] for short. Although the two look similar side-by-side, the execution is very different. For instance, both have a measure phase following their design phase; however, with DMAIC a key goal of the measure phase is a baseline; however, with DMADV that goal doesn’t exist. Instead, you’ll focus more on obtaining a crisper understanding of how the new process will be measured.

To decide which path to pursue, ask yourself whether you have an efficiency problem or an effectiveness problem. For instance, if the process works okay; however, the results are coming out too slow, you have an efficiency problem that requires DMAIC. If however, the process doesn’t work at all, you have an effectiveness problem that requires DMADV, which is more along the lines of process innovation.

Trying to improve a dysfunctional process is like changing the oil in a blown engine. It doesn’t make any sense. Before you start a process improvement effort, make sure you first have a process to improve. If you don’t, it’s best to just start over with a new process.

  1. DMAIC stands for Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve, Control; and represents the major phases of a Six Sigma process improvement effort.  ↩

  2. DMADV stands for Define Measure, Analyze, Design, Verify; and represents the major phases of a Six Sigma process development effort.  ↩

  3. For most intents and purposes DMADV and DFSS can be used interchangeably to represent process development using Six Sigma techniques. For those who care, DFSS is more of objective-based characterization and DMADV is more of a process-based characterization.  ↩

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I woke up this morning a little late because I couldn’t hear my iPhone alarm. When I got up, the alarm looked like it was ringing; however, I couldn’t hear anything. It has been working fine for years; now suddenly I’m having problems. It started happening around the same time my podcasts started having trouble syncing. I still love my Apple devices; however, for the first time, I’m really questioning the quality of their products. If you have a brand that communicates excellence; you must be diligent in making sure you maintain that level of excellence.

Like it or not, your brand adjusts with the quality of your offering. Legendary management consultant Alan Weiss explains that a brand is a uniform recognition of quality that occurs whether you like it or not (Weiss, 2002, p. 4). He’s absolutely right, so you must constantly assess your brand, as it might not be what you expect. The name of my company—Excellent Management Systems, Inc.—is not arbitrary. I deliver excellent results for my clients—all the time. You don’t have to take my word for it, I have plenty of testimonials that say the same thing.

Here are three steps for maintaining a brand of excellence:

1. Decide and communicate what you’re excellent at. You don’t need to be excellent at everything. I’m not a world class soccer player or an accomplished opera singer. Understand where your excellence is and narrow your communication to just that.

2. Instrument your excellence. You can’t manage what you can’t measure. Make sure you clearly define what excellence means and collect and monitor the information with metrics.

3. Control your excellence. Know—in no uncertain terms—when your excellence is waning and have contingency plans in place to get things back on track before they get too far out of control.

I still have full faith and confidence in Apple; they’re miles ahead of anything else that’s out there. However, there’s doubt and caution where there wasn’t before. If you’ve already established a brand of excellence in a certain area, people expect you to maintain it. Don’t let them down.


Weiss, A. (2002). How to establish a unique brand in the consulting profession: Powerful techniques for the successful practitioner. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass

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Posted by on in Operational Excellence

Have you ever tried to drive in white-out conditions? I remember driving to Reno once, and the falling snow was so blinding, the only thing I could see were the red tail lights of the semi-trailer truck in front of me. If that truck had gone over the side of the mountain, I would have followed right behind. We all know it’s important to be clear about your objectives and goals; however, it’s also important to be clear about your progress. To clearly define your key performance indicators (KPIs) you need operational definitions.

Operational definitions are about means as opposed to ends; they’re used to clarify key performance indicators, which are used to gauge progress. A strategic vision is a desired strategic outcome, and it’s good to have a clear vision, but you also need to know whether or not you’re moving in the right direction. I just wrote an article for TechRepublic on how to define Big Data to build a competitive advantage. In it I dissect what it means to be strategically competitive, and overlay that with how Big Data can foster those objectives. In going through this exercise, I help you realize that competitive Big Data must be valuable to one of your target markets. That’s all fine and good, but how can you tell if your Big Data is valuable? To properly answer this question, you must create an operational definition.

The key to creating an operational definition is to be precise. Operational definitions come from the world of Total Quality Management, and they’re a required component in any Six Sigma project. As a Black Belt, when I’m building the data collection plan for a Six Sigma project, I spend a considerable amount of time precisely defining what each measurement means. The result is a set of operational definitions that are used to collect, analyze, and monitor the metrics that are critical to quality (CTQ). The same must be done for your important efforts.

When building an operational definition, consider the acronym ACT: accuracy, completeness, and time. An operational definition will usually fall into one of these three categories. Accuracy deals with how closely your measurement comes to a desired target. This is extremely common; in our Big Data example, you may consider creating a value index that’s based on customer feedback. Completeness deals with coverage. An example is testing software, where you want to measure how much of the code has been tested. Since time is such a common measurement, it has its own category. And, since time is on a continuum, operational definitions that deal with time always have an upper and a lower bound.

Knowing where you’re going is great, but knowing you’re headed in the right direction is just as important. Don’t run your strategy in white-out conditions, you might head over a cliff.

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For the second time this week, I’m typing this blog while the power is out. The last time came as quite a surprise; however, this time, I was more prepared as our electric company left a notice on the door yesterday stating that they would be doing planned maintenance at this time. I made a note on my calendar to that effect, and when planning my day last night, started considering how I would be impacted by the power outage. Not much came to mind, so I scheduled it like any other day. To be resilient, you must break dependencies.

In my practice, I’m not bound by continuous power. Even if my Uninterruptible Power Supply gives out, which keeps me 95% functional, I can still operate at close to 90% productivity for the rest of the day. I’m typing this entry on a MacBook Air which still has plenty of battery life, and I have a battery powered wi-fi device to get to the Internet if I need to. Most of my operational data is in the cloud, so as long as I have Internet access, I’m in business. My cell phone is fully charged, so no issues with calling people. The only thing I can’t really do right now is crunch large sets of data on my server—and fortunately that can wait.

There’s a concept in agile design called low coupling. This means, for your solution to be agile, it should not be bolted into other components of the system. This is what makes agile systems resilient, and it can make your business and your life resilient as well. If you like to play Jenga, you know exactly what I mean; removing one small block can bring the whole tower down. You don’t want or need these blocks in your organization or in your life.

When going through your improvement cycle, focus on decoupling strong dependencies. Don’t allow the power to go out on your business just because there’s no electricity.

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A few days ago I completed an experiment to see if it was safe to shower with my iPhone; here’s an update. Anxious to start my new morning routine in stereo, I jumped in the shower, cranked up the Wall Street Journal, and started about my business. In very short order, I realized there was a slight glitch in the production rollout of this process, and I needed a hot-fix. I found myself in a situation similar to my blog rollout, only a little less serious.

Everything I tested worked fine so no worries on the condition of the phone; however, I didn’t test for sound quality. The sound played fine through the iPhone, it just wasn’t loud enough to overcome the noise of the shower. In retrospect, even if I had tagged this as a CTQ (critical to quality—it’s a Six Sigma term), there’s no reasonable way I could have tested for this. So, I had to make an in-flight adjustment (aka hot-fix, and based on the temperature of the shower, this was literally a hot-fix).

I quickly searched Amazon for a bluetooth shower speaker, and I came up with the Hipe Waterproof Bluetooth Stereo Shower Speaker. With a product name like this how could I go wrong?!

I was right, problem solved. This thing is awesome. I’ve already tried it a few times, and this speaker cranks, much louder than I need for the shower.

When I posted the news of my original experiment, Olaf, a good friend of mine from grade school suggested that I post a picture from the shower to see what the quality’s like, so this one’s for Olaf! This is the Hipe hanging on the wall, a few seconds after I finished my shower. As you can see, the water’s not really an issue for picture quality; however, the steam fogs up the lens. If I tried to take this picture during my shower, it would be a big blur. Fortunately (for everyone involved), I don’t anticipate taking many pictures while in the shower!

So, there you go: test, release, hot-fix, success! All is good.

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Posted by on in Operational Excellence

For those of you wondering whether or not it’s safe to shower with your iPhone, I have the answer—well at least a validated thesis. The thought originally crossed my mind as a way to be efficient in the morning. I listen every morning to the Wall Street Journal podcast, and of course I shower every morning, so I always felt it would be great to multi-task these two processes.

Of course I could stream in the audio with A2DP over bluetooth; however, I wanted to have the iPhone close enough to check emails or jot notes while I’m in the shower. This is when all the greatest ideas come to me, and the worst place for them to show up!

So the first challenge was to make the phone waterproof, which is where the LifeProof Case comes in. Since I have full faith and confidence in my LifeProof case to keep the phone dry, the next challenge was heat—can the phone withstand the heat of the shower?

A quick call to LifeProof support offered zero help. The customer service lady was real nice, but her answer was, “I’m sure the case can withstand the heat, but I really can’t speak for the phone inside the case.”


My reply was, “Did you think I was going in the shower with just the case and no phone?”

Okay, no help from LifeProof, so I had to setup my own experiment. The one good thing LifeProof support told me, is Apple’s stated upper threshold for heat which is 95 degrees Fahrenheit. As a safety valve, I know the iPhone will try to shut itself off before it overheats, but I didn’t want to take any chances. So, I setup my own experiment.

I started by ordering a 3M shower caddy and two very inexpensive Acu Rite Thermometers (actually, they’re sold as humidity monitors, but I was just interested in the temperature readings). I’ll explain why I bought two in a minute. I could have gone with a sauna thermometer, but they were much more expensive. By the way, the cheap thermometers are not waterproof, but I didn’t care. If the shower splash/steam ruined both of them, I was out less than half the money it would cost to buy a sauna thermometer. I was prepared for that—no worries. Fortunately, they’re still working fine today, so the risk was well taken.

For the last seven days, I’ve taken a shower with both thermometers in the caddy. I would periodically check on the readings to satisfy my curiosity, but at the end of the shower I would record both temperature readings (and quickly dry off the devices). Today was the last day of my experiment, and my working theory is: yes, you can safely take a shower with your iPhone.

Here’s how I know.

Knowing I’m a Six Sigma Black Belt, a lot of people ask me how many data points make a trend. They know it’s not one or two—so what is the right answer? To be honest, it depends; however, a good rule of thumb I use is seven. In an experiment like this, I don’t expect the variation to be wide, so seven is a good number.

So why two thermos instead of one? The answer is: measurement error. This is something many people forget, which is why Six Sigma is one of the few methodologies that formalizes the process of uncovering measurement error. There’s no way to know the true temperature, you can only read what’s on your measuring devices. All measuring methods and devices have some degree of error; it’s important to always understand how much measurement error is in your approach. On some days, the two thermometers would read exactly the same; however on days like today, the readings were different—as much as two degrees apart. Which one is right? There’s no way to know. Both could be wrong. The best you can do is take an average and observe the variance (the difference between the two readings). Since both readings were never more than two degrees apart, I’m comfortable using this as a measurement tolerance.

To summarize the results of the experiment, the average temperature over the seven days was about 85 degrees, and the highest reading was 88 degrees. In the worst case scenario based on my data, and factoring in my 2 degrees of measurement error (88 + 2 = 90), I’m still a good 5 degrees away from Apple’s upper threshold of 95 degrees (which I assume is a very conservative limit). So, my conclusion is: shower with confidence!

I ran a pre-test earlier with the iPhone in the caddy, and everything checked out okay! Tomorrow I get to enjoy my shower with the Wall Street Journal blasting through the speaker, with full confidence that my precious iPhone won’t drown or fry as a result. I just hope my wife doesn’t protest to an early newscast coming through the walls!

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Posted by on in Operational Excellence

It has been a couple of months since I purchased a LifeProof case for my iPhone, and I wanted to share some of my thoughts. I bought one for both my wife and me in the wake of an incident that happened some time ago. My two-year old niece accidentally fell in the pool, and my wife dove in to save her life. Thank God everything turned out okay with my niece; however, the iPhone she was holding at the time never recovered from the swim.

Since that time my radar had been raised for something that could protect the phone better. I eventually decided on LifeProof. After two months of using the case, I’m completely thrilled. To be honest, it’s overkill for what I need—I’m not exactly mountain climbing in the Himalayas every day. In my normal day to day activities, 9 times out of 10 I didn’t worry about the phone at all. I can’t tell you how good it feels to now not worry about the other 1 out of 10.

I have a healthy paranoia about mixing electronics and water, as any good Silicon Valley native should. Kim’s phone was only in the water for a few seconds, but as you know, that’s all it takes. I tried to resuscitate it with an overnight rice plunge (rice draws the water out), but to no avail. The LifeProof case changes all of that for me.

LifeProof claims that it will keep your iPhone safe from water, dirt, snow, and shock. So far, I have full confidence the case will live up to their claim. I can already attest to the claims on water and shock, and as soon as winter arrives, it’s off to Lake Tahoe for the snow test!

LifeProof is very diligent about covering all the bases. They exhort you to do a rigorous water test without the phone before you ever put your phone in the case. Of course I complied (with both phones), and I was delighted at the results—after an hour under water, both cases were completely dry. Then it was time for the real test. I carefully sealed up my wife’s phone, and threw it in the pool (you didn’t think I was using mine, did you?).

Voila! The phone worked completely fine underwater, just as they said. I was thrilled! Since then we’ve used our phones in and around the pool with no worries at all—what a relief.

As much as I like the phone, I’d be remiss if I didn’t share some of the areas I would recommend for improvement. First, the case is a bit bulky. It has a relatively slim design as far as protective cases go; however, compared to no case, or any normal carrying case, it makes the phone a little big. Also, it’s best to keep the phone in the case at all times. Because of the way it seals around the phone, LifeProof doesn’t recommend that you open and close the case too many times. A full water test is recommended every time you put the phone back in the case, so you won’t want to do this very often.

This makes the handling of the phone a bit cumbersome. There is a door at the bottom of the case that swings open so you can charge the phone. That’s fine if you plan to use the normal charging cable that comes with Apple; however, it presents a challenge for docking stations. LifeProof claims that if you buy a dock extender (like the one in the picture), you can use the case with any docking station; however, that’s not true. Shortly after I purchased the case, I purchased a dock extender and a Sinjimoru Sync and Charge Dock Stand. With almost 100 reviews and an average four star rating, I thought it was a safe bet—I was wrong! There’s nothing inherently wrong with the stand; I think it’s pretty slick. However, when you add the LifeProof dock extender, the unit becomes top heavy and it doesn’t take much to flip the phone over. This was driving me crazy, as when I’m in the office, I keep the phone in the stand next to me. This thing would dump over several times a day. I gave up on this idea, and after some research, settled on an iHome iD37GZC Dual Alarm Stereo Clock Radio. I don’t need an alarm clock in my office, and this doesn’t sync, but it does support the phone when it’s docked. As a bonus, it charges my iPad when I’m not using it for my iPhone.

Another minor thing about handling the phone with the case on it, is the headphones. Without the LifeProof case, it’s no big deal to plug-in and unplug headphones. I would do it all day long, as I only use headphones when I’m talking on the phone. With the case, there’s a screw where the headphones go. Every time you want to plug in headphones, you must unscrew the cap, and screw in the LifeProof headphone adapter (actually, you don’t need the adapter if you’re using standard iPhone headphones, but for any other kind of headphones, you need the adapter). This is a bit of a process compared to just plugging in headphones when you need them. I may adjust in the future to bluetooth, but I’m still not impressed by the connection quality.

Of course, I have a belt clip as well, which makes the bulky phone even more bulky. This might be appropriate for an athlete, but there’s no way I’m going into a meeting with an executive wearing this bat-phone gadget. Plus, the belt clip won’t work with the dock extender in the phone, so you must remove the dock extender, close the door, then push it on the belt clip. It’s all a bit clunky compared to my Belkin case that would just slide and snap into place.

Shortcomings notwithstanding, I love this case. The peace of mind is worth every penny I’ve spent and all the adjustments I’ve had to make. I just ordered a second dock extender to keep in my car, when I need to use the car charger. I’m also looking into waterproof headphones and an armband for when I’m swimming in the pool or at the beach.

All this is of course analogous to extra investments in risk mitigation. Even if you have some tolerance for risk, it’s okay to take a few more steps and spend a few more dollars once in a while for the extra peace of mind. As long as priorities are covered, it’s okay to splurge a bit on extras. That might be hiring a consultant even when you have capacity in house. It might be putting redundant controls in place even though the existing controls are working fine. It might be taking a process to six sigma even though five sigma is well within tolerance. It might be going after 85% market share when you already have 75%.

It’s hard to put a cost on anxiety, but it sure feels good when it’s not there. And if you have an iPhone, go buy a LifeProof case—you’ll see what I mean.

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Posted by on in Operational Excellence

I very rarely run out of shaving cream, because I think small. Here’s a good tip for making sure you don’t run out of necessary materials at the wrong time.

I was inspired by lean management principles when I came up with this idea. Time wasted waiting for materials is a common target with lean practitioners, and before long it really becomes an unconscious competence to watch for these things. I picked up on something when I ran out of shaving cream a while back—I didn’t have any notice. The can doesn’t tell you you’re about to run out, like the red markings on the side of receipt tape signals to the cashier that the tape needs to be changed. Instead, one day you press the button, and it just splatters—no shaving cream.

I order everything like this on Amazon, since I think it’s a horrible waste of time to drive down to a store when I can conveniently have it delivered to my house. The problem is, I need some lead time. Amazon’s usually fast, but we haven’t reached same-hour service yet, and me with a beard is not a good look.

Then it dawned on me—I have a spare in my travel kit! Problem solved. Another thing dawned on me—this is a great reserve technique that eliminates any downtime waiting for my shaving cream order to arrive from Amazon.

Now, whenever I order shaving cream, I order a normal size and a travel size. Once the normal size runs out, I start using the travel size and order another set. The travel size keeps me going until the new set arrives. Then I throw away the travel size, so they don’t keep accumulating. You may think it’s a waste to throw away perfectly good shaving cream, but you’d be falling into a common trap. The point of lean thinking is maximize efficiency, not reduce costs. You should feel comfortable throwing away the little amount of shaving cream left in the travel-sized canister. The insurance policy served its purpose.

So if your process always requires certain materials to function—think small. It’s better than walking around with a 5pm shadow.

Tagged in: inventory lean process
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Posted by on in Operational Excellence

The best way to avoid the process management trap is to impress yourself—with self-assessments. You can tell an organization that’s slipping into this trap when they start attaching undue value to process steps, and forget about why they’re executing the process in the first place. Use self-assessments to undo this.

Of course this idea has a direct implication on compliance, but a more general and appropriate application is in becoming excellent at executing—operational excellence if you will. In compliance, they’re abused and over-used—we’ll fix that here. In operational excellence, they’re not used enough.

The reason why you don’t see many self-assessments with operational excellence efforts, is the very reason people fall into the bureaucracy that cripples their efforts. In their zeal to create and document processes, the focus becomes the means, and not the ends. This is the why I emphasize process leadership over process management.

A good operational excellence effort will deliver a control chart which is a structured tool for monitoring how the (ostensibly) critical process is doing. That’s better than nothing, but their complex nature is intimidating, and the tool itself needs to be maintained—another process!

Self-assessments are a simple and effective way to make sure you’re focused on process outcomes, and not just following steps. You shouldn’t over-complicate this. Just create a checklist of outcomes. Ask yourself this simple question: “At the end of this process, what should the outcomes be?” Remember to include all the parties that have a stake, and all the supporting constraints. For instance, if I’m going through the process of throwing a party, the primary objective is for the guests to have a good time; however, a supporting constraint is for me to have a good time as well. And, my neighbors have a supporting constraint that involves the collective level of “disturbance.”

Make sure everything on your checklist is an outcome, not just another step in disguise. For instance, don’t put on your checklist, “Was the garbage taken out?” This is just a task with an outcome’s costume on. The real outcome is “Is the place clean?” Also, self-assessments don’t have to be based on the final outcomes of the process. Try to put together some self-assessment checklists to gauge your success along the way. This will give you a structured way to adjust mid-stream if necessary. To build a progress self-assessment, just ask yourself, “What will it look like at point x if everything is going well?” The answer again, should just be a simple list of outcomes.

In most cases, you are your own toughest judge. If you comply with your own self-assessments, you’ll probably stay out of trouble with others as well. More importantly, it will keep you focused on the real purpose of the process, and not just the motions. Take some time to impress yourself once in a while—you deserve it.

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