Tuesday, November 24, 2009

5 Whys

My car will not start. (the problem)
  1. Why? - The battery is dead. (first why)
  2. Why? - The alternator is not functioning. (second why)
  3. Why? - The alternator belt has broken. (third why)
  4. Why? - The alternator belt was well beyond its useful service life and has never been replaced. (fourth why)
  5. Why? - I have not been maintaining my car according to the recommended service schedule. (fifth why, a root cause)
- From Wikipedia

Didn't realize someone (Toyota) codified a technique like this. Inkling is a huge fan of spending the extra steps in root cause analysis of a problem. It's hard to argue when you wouldn't want to at least figure out what the root cause of a problem is, even if you decide to just treat a symptom.

Yet doing the necessary drilling into the problem to get to the root cause often gets neglected. Even happens to us. And we love asking an annoying set of questions about a problem.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

What you (and even Steve Jobs) could learn about customer support from JetBlue

Doesn't matter what part of the organization you're in or how high you've gotten. You should still on some routine be doing customer support. When you don't, you risk playing the telephone game like a bunch of grade school kids.

The founder of JetBlue knows this. Here's an excerpt from Norm Brodsky's "The Knack", where Norm describes his flight:


As usual I was flying JetBlue. I boarded the plane with the other passengers, and the door closed. As we sat there, buckling our seat belts and checking out the televisions in front of us, a middle-aged man with slightly graying hair stood up in the front of the plane. He had on the long apron that all the JetBlue flight attendants wear, with his name stitched to it. "Hi," he said, "my name is Dave Needleman, and I'm the CEO of JetBlue. I'm here to serve you this evening, and I'm looking forward to meeting each of you before we land."


I don't understand why more people don't take the time to build the systems and processes that would allow all employees to take part in customer support. Why don't more CEOs serve burgers once every few months at one of the franchises in their empire for 8 hours. Why don't more CEOs answer the phone to answer the questions a home owner has to figure out the complexity of their home insurance policy. Why don't more CEOs spend an 8 hour shift at the customer support desk at their retail store.

When you grow your company you are naturally going to need to hire people to place in customer support positions. And as you continue to grow, you continue to find more and more people between you and your customers. Problem is, customer support is swimming with problems that should be opportunities.

We learned in grade school what happens when messages travel through people. The telephone game. The message starts as one thing, and by the end of the chain it's entirely something else.

My wife and I were amused watching it play out at dinner on Sunday night. We were at a new Greek restaurant across the street that opened just last week. We didn't have water or a waiter for that matter for about 15 minutes after sitting down. Finally a waiter arrived, and wanted to correct the water problem. So he told a busser to get some water. Well the busser was in charge of other bussers. So he told someone else to get water. That person had to go to the kitchen and load a tray of water glasses with water. When he made it back out, now someone else had to actually take the water to us.

You can guess what happened next. This fourth person in the chain had absolutely no idea who to bring the water to. We tried to flag him down, but he didn't see us, as he delivered the water to a table of newly arrived guests.

That's why when a problem comes into Inkling, we all get it. We all can answer it. We could very easily have hired some customer support staff by now, and made them some kind of front line. But then these problems would have to go through them, then sometimes passed to an engineer for further help, then maybe passed to Adam and I. We wouldn't be able to converse and brain storm with our clients like we do today.

Or if we (makers and designers in our business) weren't manning customer support, often problems like "How do I change my password" or "I didn't get my email" might get treated with just a routine boilerplate email pointing to an FAQ or online tutorial.

"Nothing gets you more focused on solving a problem than actually having that problem." - Jason Fried at 37signals.com.

Couldn't agree more. That's why I love working on things that I actually use. And doing your own customer support forces your customers' problems onto you. It's expensive to answer routine questions. Most of us makers would rather be making and designing things rather than sludging through log files and sending email troubleshooting browser problems.

So now their problem is my problem. This forces me to focus on making the problem go away for good. Forces me to focus on what we can do to make things easier to understand. Or forces me to pay attention to patterns and look for root causes to a problem.

I can only imagine what would happen if a CEO started doing an 8 hour shift every 3 months at say the Apple Genius Bar? Coming off that shift, and knowing there's another one just 3 months away, is going to light a fire to get some things improved or fixed.

P.S. This buffer between you and your customers is also a good reason to think about tools that better harness the knowledge of these front line customer support folks to answer all sorts of questions an organization is facing. ;)

Monday, November 16, 2009

If you want your company to be innovative, using carrot and stick incentives aren't going to work

Dan Pink, previously Al Gore's speechwriter, displays evidence found that when doing innovative tasks, using monetary incentives actually has a detrimental effect in getting the task accomplished. Carrots like monetary incentives only work for routine tasks that have very focused rules and don't require right brain thinking.

He also provides even more examples of organizations that use things like letting employees work on what they want, when they want, and where they want to accomplish great things. That kind of autonomy is the right incentive to inspire creative work.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

You are tone blind

All the written electronic communication we do as a society has given us enormous gains, but most of us (including Inc. columnist and business owner Joel Spolsky in an example below) suffer from a frequent inability to accurately read the intention of this type of communication.

We are tone blind. Or more accurately, we are blind to more than a few communication cues that we more easily utilize using verbal communication like intonation and stress.

It doesn't help that we usually think adding emoticons and internet lingo is considered unprofessional and something for texting teenagers.

As humans, understanding someone's intention of their communication is of super importance, but it's not always an easy feat. Here's an example found on about.com:


I don't think he should get the job.

Meaning: Somebody else thinks he should get the job.

I don't think he should get the job.

Meaning: It's not true that I think he should get the job.

I don't think he should get that job.

Meaning: That's not really what I mean. OR I'm not sure he'll get that job.

I don't think he should get that job.

Meaning: Somebody else should get that job.

I don't think he should get that job.

Meaning: In my opinion it's wrong that he's going to get that job.

I don't think he should get that job.

Meaning: He should have to earn (be worthy of, work hard for) that job.

I don't think he should get that job.

Meaning: He should get another job.


Depending on where you put the emphasis in this sentence by using stress, the sentence has totally different meanings. The meaning here was only conveyed because I spent the time using Bold. But often we don't spend the time using tools like Bold and we blast off an email as soon as the words pass our fingers.

Here's an example from the real world I saw recently. Joel Spolsky, a personal hero of mine, wrote a column in Inc. magazine about some growing pains his company might be having. To more than a few people, they felt that the article is a bit of a subtle marketing piece. Right or wrong, that was their opinion. So one guy made a comment about such opinion:

"If increasing your growth rate is your objective, this looks like a very nice first step, Joel. You disguise a PR piece as an objective 'how to' in a national business publication, coming across as an authority, the underdog, and an all around nice guy who really cares about his customers. You're an engineer who claims to be 'weak' in the sales department, but all evidence to the contrary: nice 'sales hack'. Any reasonable person who takes your advice would be a fool if he bought from your competitor. Not bad for a couple hours work. Kudos."

Joel's reply:

"Jeez, everything is a conspiracy on Hacker News. How about I wrote it because I'm a columnist at Inc and I have to turn in one article a month? And how about, they hired me because they like columnists who are actively running businesses to write about the issues they face? (c.f. Norm Brodsky, the other columnist, who has some kind of a box storage business). None of the plumbers and dog shampoo-vendors who read Inc. do software project management. The number of leads I get from Inc readers is laughable. Also, you're confusing sales and marketing. They're different things. We're pretty good at marketing for a company our size. We're absolutely bad at sales."

Joel seems a bit insulted and attacked by the first commenter. Even though the first commenter cleared up in a later comment, that he WASN'T being sarcastic and was trying to genuinely complement Joel on his article.

I imagine this conversation in person would have been much more constructive and useful, if these 2 people were in person or talking on the phone and could read each other better through audible and visual cues like smiles, hand shakes, and the intonation of the comments.

This happens every day for us folks who manage projects and teams online. We have to use email and instant messaging very well to collaborate together. And for many reasons, it's our preferred communication channel at Inkling.

Email allows people to work asynchronously and schedule interruptions better so they can get more work done while they are in a zone. But often a discussion over email can easily turn into an unintended disagreement because the intention of the written word was inaccurately understood.

At Inkling, we've picked up a few habits to try and combat this, which might help others to keep in mind.

1) Emoticons and internet lingo (lol, brb, lmao, etc.) do have a place in "professional communication". They aren't just for teenagers.

A :) easily lets your reader know you are smiling when you are writing your words. Just like a ! helps share that you are heightening your voice or emphasis. Don't be afraid to use these tools even with your clients to help convey your mood and your intonation.

2) Compliment, compliment, compliment. Most of us don't feel appreciated enough for what we do for other people when times are good. And now given tougher economic and political situations, there's an air of stress in many places. Complimenting people and showing gratitude early and often is a big help in producing effective written communication.

Even if a later point you make in your communication is misconstrued, an earlier mentioned compliment or thank you easily sets up a better follow up note or phone call to clear up a matter.

3) And most importantly, know when to graduate communication mechanisms. We graduate to phone calls pretty quickly. It's amazing how often, what seemed like a disagreement over email turns into a very constructive conversation over the phone. Things get cleared up, and intentions more easily understood.

The written word continues to be increasingly important in how we operate together in teams and in projects over the internet. We've learned that it helps to spend a bit of extra effort in conveying the mood and intent of our writing. Hope some of these tips help.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Speed reading: How I started reading 3-4 times faster in just a short time

I increased my reading speed by 3-4x recently. I was a bit skeptical that I could pull it off, but had a lot of hope, because I knew people that could do it. And now here's a couple tips on how I've accomplished it.

First of all, I credit my improvement to a 5 hour class I took at Iris speed reading.

I can share a couple of my notes and things I'm doing now, but a 5 hour class with Iris is totally worth it. It's one of the best 5 hours of learning self improvement type stuff I've done in many many years.

The reason people read slow is usually because of a mix of 3 things:

1) We often go back and reread stuff we just read. Either we didn't understand the last sentence, or we stopped paying attention. Either way, this slows us down a ton.

2) We use our eyes to glance at every single word. Growing up we learn to read by reading each letter at a time. No one teaches us to digest whole words or entire sentences using all of our vision. You absolutely have the ability to digest more characters and words than you are now. You already digest more words and characters in one glance than you did when you were 5 years old. Imagine if you trained that ability.

3) We subvocalize words. Similar to reading every single word with our eyes, often we read by actually vocalizing the words in our heads. Does it sound like you are talking to yourself in your head when your reading? A lot of people hear that voice. It slows you down. You can read a lot faster than you can vocalize words. So you need to force the voice in your head to quiet down.

Training your eyes

So here's one great exercise I'll share that helps stop these 3 things above. There's definitely more exercises, but this one is my favorite and probably the most effective.

Take 5 minutes, a book and just read it as friggin fast as you can.

The key is to just see words as fast as you can. Don't even try to understand what your reading. Pretend it's another language, one that you don't understand. Pretend it's Klingon. You don't need to comprehend anything during this exercise. Just see words, lots of them, and super fast.

Use your finger during this to trace underneath each sentence. Using your finger is exactly what your parents and your teachers wanted you to stop doing as you learned. Which is a shame, because that finger really helps guide your eyes.

Most importantly, it keeps you in a groove and stops you from going backwards.

After 5 minutes, take a break, rest your eyes, then do this exercise 2 more times for a total of 15 minutes.

Go try and read a book now, but this time in order to comprehend the words.

You'll probably be amazed at how much faster you are reading just after doing this exercise 1 time. But just like any other exercise, you can't just do this once. You can't just do this a few times and then be an expert.   

Start with doing it 7 days in a row. Take a break, then do it for 14 days in a row. Just know that you'll need to revisit this exercise occasionally to keep your reading in shape.

Better comprehension from better skimming

So above was all about speeding up your eyes and your brain at seeing more words. But speed reading is also about comprehending better. For that, the technique I use is something akin to better skimming plus repetition.

I read every chapter 3 times.

The first time, I just read the first paragraph or 2 of a chapter and the final paragraph of that chapter. This gives me just enough to know what the chapter is about. I read at a pace that's comfortable for comprehending.

Then I go back to the start of the chapter for my second read. This time, I read the first sentence of each paragraph in the chapter. Sometimes I'll read a couple sentences if the sentence is pretty unremarkable. Again, I read at a pace that allows me to comprehend. I don't try and read fast.

Now, I go back to the beginning of the chapter for the 3rd and final time. This time, I try to read the chapter focusing on speed. I'll try and capture the main point of each paragraph. But I'll feel free to skip paragraphs I remember from my second reading as being kind of useless. And so I go through the chapter very fast.

Afterall, from the second reading, I have an outline already of what's kind of important and interesting in this chapter that I want more information about. I'm amazed at how many interesting chunks I can pull and remember from these books now. I'm learning better how to basically skip things I think are filler (determined from the second pass).

That's about it. Of course, I probably wouldn't read poetry like this or some kind of mystery novel. But this is an awesome technique when you are trying to get read through lots of other material. For example, I love reading business books. This is a great way to get past a lot of the fluff and redundancy. A lot of these books should be about a third as wide as they are now anyways, but that's another story.

Give it a go. But be warned, this is a great way to find yourself spending a ton more money on books. Now I have to manage all this book shopping I'm doing. I'm going to have to get a bit more handy with the public library.