Silicon Valley State of Mind, a blog by John Weathington, "The Science of Success"
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    Welcome to a Silicon Valley State of Mind, thoughts tips and advice based on the consulting work of John Weathington, "Silicon Valley's Top Information Strategist."

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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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Posted by on in Operational Excellence

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.

References:

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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Posted by on in Strategy

Is it possible to be too nice to customers? Is it possible to overdo customer service? Are there damaging effects to exceeding your strategic goals with customer relationships? These are interesting questions to consider; let me share some of my ideas on the topic.

There was a period a few years back when my local Safeway was treating me way too nice. I couldn’t get down one aisle without three different clerks stopping to ask me if I was finding everything okay. If I did happen to need some help finding something, you would think I was rushing into a hospital with a severed arm, desperately in need of boxed macaroni and cheese. Maybe some people appreciated the experience, but for me it was too much.

As you can tell through my discussions about The Orient Express and Sage Vets, I’m a big fan of customer service. It’s more for professional reasons than personal reasons. Although my practice heavily revolves around information strategy, in my view, the best intended use of information is to please customers.

I don’t think you can go too far with customer service, but I do think you can aim for the wrong mark. For customer service to be effective, it needs to be perceived by the customer as valuable and helpful. What Safeway did back then (they’ve since corrected things) was paved with good intentions, but we all know where that road sometimes leads us. The experience was actually annoying for me, not valuable or helpful.

To be sure, you must be in touch with your clients and customers. Talk to them; conduct interviews, surveys, and focus groups as appropriate. Or, have an independent third party shop your business and relay what the experience was like. Get accurate market information, and keep good score. These are the kinds of metrics you should be tracking, not the number of hits on your website.

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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.”

Really?

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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