Keeping up expectations

“If you paint in your mind a picture of bright and happy expectations, you put yourself into a condition conducive to your goal.” Norman Vincent Peale

You may have heard me talking about my wife and how we are complete opposites. I like to see it as a “yin-yang” relationship. Of course this also means there is constant tension, which is both good and bad. Good because we are always exploring the limits of our individual comfort zones, and bad because this process requires an endless amount of patience and understanding. One of our recent debates was about a weekend escape I’d planned for the two of us. After 20 years of marriage, I finally convinced my wife that it was okay to leave our kids at home alone. (Our eldest will be 18 in September, and his brother is only 17 months younger.) Eventually, it was agreed that we should go somewhere for the weekend – but where?  This seemed to be an impossible question to answer; there were just too many variables. In the end we conquered our indecisiveness: we just got into the car and left. I figured we would get as far as Zagreb (which is about 25 km away) and then make our decision just where the motorway splits in two. I’m all for adventure and this was certainly testing the limits of my comfort zone. Deep down I believed my wife was afraid of being disappointed; however, not knowing where we were going to end up meant that we had no expectations.

But it is one thing for my wife to choose not to have expectations about her vacation, it’s another when this becomes your guiding principle. Expectations are the carrots that dangle in front of mankind; they pull evolution forward. We see them at the personal level, for instance, a scientist would not perform an experiment if he did not expect some kind of result, or you would not go on a diet if you did not expect to lose weight. However, we also see them at the societal level, where expectations are derived from religious norms and beliefs and guide our social maturity. Expectations are the seeds of hypotheses and science.

You may ask yourself why I chose to write about this; after all, there is nothing new here. But you may be surprised to discover that I regularly observe missed opportunities that are simply due to low expectations. I have also realised that setting proper expectations feeds the “Strength of the Workplace” model of Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman, published in their book First Break All The Rules. The model depicts three main elements of employee satisfaction: meaningful work, opportunity to contribute and feedback for good work. Setting expectations reinforces all three elements and enables employee growth and development. The same is true for personal development. Expectations of one’s own performance – be it about staying in shape, attaining at school or triumphing on the sports field – dictates one’s success. Without expectations there are no champions. It is through having expectations that progress is made and learning takes place. You see, expectations allow you to calibrate your efforts and set “smart” (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Timely) objectives that will help you overcome challenges along the way to your goal.

In consulting, one of our favourite tools is getting people to describe what a perfect day would look like and how others would know it was a perfect day. Similarly, we like to ask the “consulting genie question”: if you had three wishes, what would you change about your work, in terms of your job and the company you work for? This line of questioning raises awareness and helps create a vivid image of an ideal situation – even if it’s only a dream at that moment.

By creating a contrasting image of a better environment we raise awareness, which allows us to see the deficiencies and opportunities for improvement in the current work environment. Once we have this information we know where we’re heading. It is then a simple task to divide our journey into several stages, each with its own milestone. These stages, in turn, will get broken down further into smaller measurable criteria and units that will provide the basis for your planning.

It is easy to set expectations for yourself and your team when the purpose is clear, the task is meaningful and you are contributing to make things better. The other vital ingredient is feedback: expectations don’t work if you don’t measure results or don’t get any feedback about your effort. It is all very well if we diligently measure our performance using certain indicators; what is crucial is that we seek an explanation for any deviation from that which we had expected. The indicators you use to measure performance will take on a new meaning when you not only understand them but also are able to influence them with the quality of your work. Analyse the deviation and learn from it, no matter whether it’s positive or negative in its outcome; that is the essence of continuous improvement.

Francis Lambert – Zabok, 12 June 2013

Operational Excellence and the Basics

In this day and age, there isn’t time to sit and watch what happens in your market. If you want to succeed, you need to take control of your own destiny.  Most CEOs realize this, they often scramble for ideas on how to improve their operations and, too often, jump on the bandwagon of the latest fad with the hope that it will solve their problems or give them an edge over their competitors. They have heard the stories from their peers on the golf course or the tennis club. They have read the articles in magazines, they may even have spoken to a smooth talking consultant; all singing the praises of the latest “revolution” in productivity and lower cost. The more they think about it the better it sounds.

One classic example goes back to the late ‘90s, when the 6 Sigma methodology became widely seen as the Holy Grail of business improvement.  Many people thought: “If companies like GE can be successful with 6 Sigma than why shouldn’t we?”  What a lot of people learned, though, is that there is no point in learning 6 Sigma if you don’t have any data to process. And, of course, that success isn’t measured in the number of, say, trained Black Belts. Success appears as an increase in bottom-line results.

So before you sign up your organisation to the next revolution you need to ensure the right conditions are in place, that the grounds have been plowed and fertile so the seeds you will plant through the new approach and methodology will have the best chance to grow.

The biggest killer of such initiatives is the lack of time. If your organisation operates in fire fighting mode your people are busy running from one emergency to the next. It is very difficult for them to find the time to sit down and analyse a problem to identify it’s root causes. It’s like the story of the lumberjack who was so busy cutting down trees that he didn’t have time to sharpen his saw.

Besides, the reactive nature of the organisational dynamics make it difficult for people to accept the proactive approach of the new methodologies; it goes against the organisational culture of rewarding people who solve problems when they happen rather than rewarding people who anticipate and take actions to avoid problems altogether.

This is why your journey to Operational Excellence needs to start with the basics: Planning, Execution and Follow-Up. By forcing people to think about the future you automatically change the organisational dynamics away from fire fighting to proactive actions.

This may seem obvious, but you’d be amazed to find how many companies operate without one or two of the three.

Execution is a given—without execution, there is no revenue. And every company engages in some degree of Planning, whether it’s in budgeting, sales or logistics. How ‘granular’ that planning is, and/or how much room for improvement is built into that process, are two different questions.

It is in Follow-Up that most organizations stumble. There often just seems not to be enough time to do a proper review of the Planning and Execution, let alone perform root causes analyses on the deviation between what you planned to make and what you really made. People forget that deviations are golden opportunities to learn, improve and save time. But I guess this is also nothing new, most managers will regularly look at deviations to understand performance. There is even a name for this: Management by Exceptions.

Note that it is one thing for managers to practice Management by Exceptions; it is another when operators do it. In my experience, to achieve the next level of organizational maturity, one needs to look at plan deviation, from management to the operators. If you can get your shop floor operators to apply the same techniques, then you will have made a huge jump in organizational maturity. Empowering employees to analyze deviations and make decisions without consulting their superiors (within their freedom box) not only gives employees more job satisfaction, it tightens the control of your operation and produces better results.

Zabok, 12th May 2013

The importance of habits

First I must apologize for the long absence of this blog. Facts are, I just lost my groove. So I reflected of the events in order to draw a lesson that I could share with everyone. During my analysis, I realize the importance of the habit. Sure, nearly every self-improvement book theses days peaches the importance of the habit, but it only when you have experienced it yourself that you truly understand the effects of habits have on your productivity.

When I started my blog some of my friends that already warned me about starting strong and quickly running out of steam. “The first three are easy, maintaining the pace is the real challenge”. But I was not to be fazed; I have discovered a good rhythm and created a habit. By the time November came around I have consistently delivered and I was proud of myself. The only problem now was that my environment surrounding my habits had changed. You see I have discovered that my most productive time is early in the morning; and we are fortunate to have a wonderful terrace where I like to sit and, depending on the time of year, watch the sunrise. These moments, alone and surrounded by nature, are truly priceless to me and where I am in my most productive state.  The only problem now was the temperature. When the snow came, even my jacket could not save me, it just made no sense to be sitting outside any more. Then of course came Christmas and everything that comes with it, many distractions and activities, but I still managed to get one article out. However by the time January rolled around I had completely lost my groove. Not only was it to cold now, and the snow firmly controlled the terrace, I had started a new project which required me to drive long distances every week and there just did not remain enough time for the blog.

This just happened to be the time, when I found out about podcasts. One but one particular podcast, “accidental creative” by Todd Henry, gave me some great insights about building habits and how to integrate my new work life with my creative side and my ability to deliver, quality material on a regular basis.  In fact I was so impressed by his podcast that I bought his book “the accidental creative”.  The insight that Todd shared in his book is that often people under pressure, who generally can’t find enough hours in the day, need to perhaps add something to their routine rather than cut back on their activities. That something is a  “point of reflection”. By stepping back and going through your plan of activities of the day you can correct your focus and increase the amount of time you are most effective, by rationalizing the urge to stray from the task at hand. This simple exercise will allow you to challenge your behavior and maintain a much higher level of focus. By increasing your awareness of distractions, over time it even allows you to alter your behavior and sustainably increase your productivity.  Make a plan of your activities everyday and take a few minutes each hour to review your plan. Make corrections as you see fit to maximize your outputs. You will also need to create the right environment as to minimize distractions. For example: I write on a piece of paper as not to be distracted by the lure of email; man’s instinct is to respond to the stimulation of that familiar email “ping”, as you sit there wondering who sent me an email. No having a computer in front of me completely eliminates the temptation.

Fortunately for me the sun and warm weather are back and the terrace season is opened.

Zabok, HR – 28th April 2013

It’s not the guns, stupid!

The debate is on. Following the Newtown massacre the never-ending discussion about gun laws vs. the “right to bear arm” rages on.  The NRA predictably proclaimed that what is actually needed are arm guards in every school, because: “The only thing that can stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun”.

Whilst it is not too difficult to come to that conclusion, you may remember my first blog on the subject where I laid out the arguments for it, I’m afraid the establishment maybe completely missing the point. Of course there will always be a relationship between the number of guns and the number of fatalities from guns.  Nowhere on earth are there more guns per capita than in the USA. In fact other nations, with a relatively high number of guns per capita, say Finland, do not proportionally have the same number of gun related death (much lower).  So where can the difference came from?

I have been pondering that question for a while without really coming up with anything specific; there are just too many factors.  That is until this week.

Because I was a good boy last year, Santa brought me an ipod for Christmas. Lately I’ve been driving to Germany and from where I live it’s about a 1000km journey. It takes me about 10 hours to make the trip. Ten hours that are not very productive, that is until I found out about podcast. Wow! There is just so much to choose from, comedians, talk shows on just about every subject you can think of and interviews with world leaders and shapers; I even found French Canadian radio and must admit that I relish in listening to my mother tongue once in a while. Needless to say the 10-hour trip now goes by much faster, at least perceptively, when you are engaged and listening to in a good debate.  As you can imagine there is also a lot of crap on offer, so I have been trying different content.  One of the ones I like is called “what’s wrong with Kris and Steve”. It is a podcast from a radio station in Arizona that talks about mental diseases and conditions.  That is where I learned about the mental health care system in the USA, or perhaps it would better to say the lack of one. As Kris explained the story, dating back to the 50’s where people were simply locked up, or as she put it “Warehoused”; to the abuse and the scandals that triggered the dismantling of the entire system, it quickly became obvious that the real problem in the USA is not guns, but mentally ill people with guns!  Each time there is a massacre we learn that the killer was deranged or had mental conditions.

It would seem that in the USA, if you have mental health issues or conditions, and you are not employed, and therefore don’t have any health care (which for this category of people is the vast majority) then you have nowhere to turn to.  That is to say, there are millions of mentally ill people freely roaming the streets. The ones that get too violent with inevitably end up in jail, the others well they’re on their own; or in the case of the Newtown killer live with someone who has guns.

I bet you the Finns don’t let their mentally ill people run around freely!

Well of course they don’t they are Scandinavians, home to some of the most moderns socialist democracies on the planet!  They have a good healthcare system. In fact during the last European survey in 2000, the healthcare system in Finland was rated as good. ([1]Finland had the highest number of people satisfied with their hospital care system in the EU: 88% of Finnish respondents were satisfied compared with the EU average of 41.3%). It is true that the Finns pay a lot more taxes  – max rate of 30% on earned income+ 2.12% social security insurance + 18.3% Pension + 3.2% unemployment insurance; capital gains and dividends are taxed at max 32% – Ouch, I guess peace of mind has it’s price! Nevertheless you will be surprised to learn that Finland is ranked higher than USA when it comes to GDP per capita! That’s right, the average Finn is richer than the average American.

The USA has some of the most brilliant medical minds in the world, some of the best medical hospitals and research facilities and yet it fails to provide basic access to health care to millions of Americans. Nearly 50% of Americans voted for Romney, the guy that promised to repeal president Obama’s health care plan.  I’m sorry but if universal Healthcare can prevent just one more massacre, call me crazy, but I think it’s worth it.

Too expensive you say! Maybe not, take for example the Cuban Health Care system.  Being isolated from Western interest and other Healthcare oriented companies, the average Cuban boast a higher life expectancy than the average American. According to the World Health organization 2012 Statistical report, the USA spends 7 960$ per capita on Healthcare whilst Cuba spends 672$ per Capita, yet in the USA not everyone is covered. For the lack of resources, that has plague the Cuban system since the beginning, they have done remarkably well. Their focus on preventive measures and basic hygiene may seem obvious and antiquated but it has helped them achieve a higher life expectancy at a fraction of the cost. I am sure there are things to learn & practices to copy; which together could save trillions of $ over the next generation.

I’m not saying the US should go social democrat like the Finns, or emulate the healthcare system in Cuba, that would be pushing this a bit too far. But keeping an open mind I’m sure there are things to learn. And besides, you can’t argue against the logic of looking after mentally ill people; if the Cubans can look after their own mentally ill, then why not the Americans. No matter what the cost, if we can minimize the risk of another tragedy, by helping sick people, it’s got to be worth it; not to speak of the moral issue surrounding the discrimination of the mentally ill.

The next hurdle is this misconception about Government. Many Americans see government as a bad thing. Government just gets in the way, the less intervention the better. Americans don’t seem to realize that government is the only thing that seeks to protect the good of the many as it is in fact the representation of its citizens. Government should protect the interest of its citizens. Here is a simple example. Mayor Bloomberg of New York past a law banning the sales of soft drinks in large containers. The logic being that people drink too much soft drinks and it has become a health issue, so to protect it’s citizens the government of New York city has passed this law.   Whether you agree with the law, or not, is not the point.  It is the intent that is important.   Outsourcing government services may look good on the books, but people often overlook one thing, purpose. The problem with privatization and reducing government is that they don’t share the same interest and objectives. Companies are driven by profits and government strives to protect and serve their citizens. One of the major problems in US and its politics is that companies, as legal entities, enjoy similar rights as citizens. Yet companies wield much more influence (through lobbying and money) on elected officials than the average citizen can.  Some of the lobbying is so entrenched in politics that it is the often the victim sarcastic humor and sporadic scandals, like the sugar lobby. It’s hard to avoid “conflicts of interest” when your “friends” finance your campaign and essentially keeps you in office.  So yes there certainly are some services the government can outsource to private companies, but let’s stay true to our objectives when we decide to do so.  We cannot expect bankers to regulate themselves nor should we let Pharmaceutical companies and health insurance companies run the healthcare system.  Did you know that some health insurance companies spend more money on personnel to process, examine, and fine ways to deny you your claim than they do on actual healthcare? Talk about a waste of money!

Clearly, changing the focus of the debate from gun ownership, to the root cause of the problem, treating the mentally ill, would seem like the right course of action.

Zabok, HR – 3rd February 2013


[1] Wikipedia

What time is it? 3.0 (Man and the Universe)

During the holidays, I had the opportunity to see a really interesting documentary on the story of the earth. Not only did it put things into perspective, it fits rather nicely with some other articles I have written on time. The documentary covered the beginnings of the universe (14billion years) and earth 4-5 billion years ago, all the way to the industrial revolutions (200 years ago).  Ok I know you may not understand how you can come up with such a number. You may even question whether it is possible to know exactly how old the Universe really is? But for the lack of a better number or theory I’m willing to go along with the accepted methods from the scientific community. So without getting into the details of the documentary, here is the interesting part. When we talk about billions of years, it is difficult for us to imagine what that looks like. The scale is so large that, without a reference point, we can really make sense of the number. So instead of talking about 14 billion years they converted the scale to a more relevant 14 years, (the average life time of a dog). When we present the information in this way we can now understand the timeframe and relate to it. So if the universe was born 14 years ago then:

–       The earth was created 5 years ago; this means that 2/3 of time, as we know it occurred before the earth even existed.

–       Complex organisms came into being 7 months ago – (4.17%)

–       Dinosaurs were extinguished 3 weeks ago

–       The first humans came to be 6 mins ago (0.000 0815%)

–       The industrial revolution occurred 3 secs ago. (0.000 000 68% that’s right six zero behind the decimal point)

So as you can see, we humans have existed but a mere 6 mins in a 14-year time frame, and we only can into existence after 99.9999185% of known time has already elapsed. So I guess it’s fair to say we are at the mere beginning of our existence and we should be careful we don’t screw up the world for future generations. We are the only species to have wandered and settled everywhere on earth. But what is most interesting is that each innovation in our evolution has allowed the next step in our evolution.

For example it is estimated that we started to walk on two legs about 6 million years ago. This came about because of a change in the earth’s climate. At the time we lived in forests but climate change forced us to leave the forest for the plains of grass.  Since you would be in an advantage if you wandered the plains of grass and could see ahead, we started standing and then walking on two legs and cashed in our advantage over our four legged cousins. So what? you may say! It is exactly this kind of change that enabled us to evolve into what we are today because by walking on our hind legs we freed up our hands.  and with our hands we learned how to make things.  I would also venture to guess that it is this kind of creative activities, making things, which also spurred the development of our modern brains and also distinguishes us from animals. However at this time in evolution things still move relatively slowly, it still took another 4 million years for us two evolve to Stone Age people. That may seem like a long time but as we have seen it is all relative.

Now that man has learned how to fashion tools, we are different from other mammals, we are using our brains to use create things from our environment that give us an advantage. We make things like clothes to protect us from the cold, fashion weapons out of stones, containers to carry water etc.  Our ancestors are hunters and gatherers, with the men hunting in small groups and the women taking care of the dwelling, most probably a cave, and picking fruits in the forest. Then one day someone hits two rocks together and creates a spark. Having seen first hand what lightning does to a tree, he gets this brilliant idea and quickly finds some dry leaves and kindle, and he starts striking the two stones and suddenly smokes starts to rise. From that moment on, roughly 800 thousand years ago, we mastered fire.

Fire is awesome! It keeps our ancestors warm and allows them to take in more energy by consuming cooked foods. Before we could only make things out of wood or stone, with fire we start to use clay to make all kind of things. Fire also opens the way for making use of metals, and latter on oil.  Fire also brings us closer as people and about 200 thousand years ago our ancestors emerge as modern man. Living in what is considered to be the first societies.  They have mastered speech and language, and can now transfer and share knowledge.

Without fire I would not be here today writing this story, as man we not have survived the ice age in the same way. Because it is estimated that about 100 thousand years ago we started wandering the earth as species and the last great ice age came 65 thousand years ago. And although it is believed that is was the ice age (and therefore the sinking sea levels that exposed the bearing straight land bridge) that allowed people to cross from Asia into North America, how could they have survived without fire?   The ice age, interestingly enough, also contributes to creating the conditions for our world today. It does so by leaving behind a system of rivers, the Yangtze, the Yellow river, the Nile, the Euphrates, the Tigris etc. where people would settle and the population would later dramatically increase.

12 thousand years ago people make the next big step in our evolution; the start of humans mastering crops. Where as until now our forefathers were counting on hunting to feed themselves, they now learn to domesticate animals and start planting crops. This opens the door for a population explosion. You see a hunter needs roughly 15 square kilometers to sustainably feed his family, as a farmer he only needs 1.5square kilometers, or 10 times less. This big gain in productivity was not immediately translated in a population explosion is just made it possible. Another ingredient was necessary, trade. With the domestication of animals, man now had found a new means of transportation, donkeys, horses and camels. These animals enabled the first long distance freight transportation; and as people settled along the navigable rivers left behind by the ice age, goods could now be moved without too much human effort. Farmers, now capable of producing more food than they could consume, could sell their extra production in exchange for other types of foods or goods. Then people in the settlements along the rivers became the first merchants and wholesalers.

But farming, even with the help of animals to pull the plough, is hard physical work. So necessity, being the mother of invention, spurred man to discover the wheel about 6 thousand years ago. I don’t think I need to explain what kind of and impact the wheel had on our evolution.  I think it is fair to say that the wheel is what enabled all machines and itself was a revolution in energy use. With the wheel started his journey to liberate himself of manual effort.  This is also the time when the first civilizations start to emerge, the Sumerians, Egyptians and Chinese.

About 1500 years ago we enter the Iron Age. We now master the art of metallurgy and although we could make all kinds of things out of metal, we concentrate on weapons. This is also the era when the world’s religions and Emporiums are born. Judaism, Christianity and Islam are all rooted here. They would emerge individually as religions latter, Christianity 300 A.D., Islam 600 A.D. With the invention of gun powder, 800 A.D. in china, came the next step in our evolution. By mixing different elements we created an unnatural substance with tremendous energy potential; chemistry was born. And although we used this new technology primarily to kill one another, it would later serve as the basis for modern medicine and pharmaceutical products.

500 years ago Christopher Columbus reunited the human species. By discovering America, he reunited our lost cousins that had wandered over the bearing straight during the ice age after 15 thousand years. Unfortunately for them Columbus also brought with him countless diseases that the natives had never been exposed too and together with the bullets of the conquistadors nearly wiped them out! Nevertheless the planet is now one. We have by now mastered the seas and with reached every corners of the earth. There are now an estimated 400 million people on earth, and in just 300 more years we will have more than doubled that number and reach a population of over 900 million people. Just when we start to stretch the productivity gains afforded by the farming revolution, the steam engine is invented in 1712 by Thomas Newcomen. Ironically the engine was developed to help pump water from underground coalmines. I guess Newcomen did not think at the time that his invention would be just the kind of thing that would drive up demand for the very same product he was trying to extract. The steam engine opened the way for the next big step in our evolution. Up until now the energy needed to survive consisted of 70% human muscle effort and 30% animal (not to talk about before the domestication of animals when it was 100% human muscle effort). With the steam engine we got a huge boast in productivity. By getting machines to do our work we freed up time for other things, just like when we freed up our hands 6 million years ago, this is another similar event. With more time on our hands we can think up new machines and make things faster and cheaper, the creativity of man is suddenly released. It now takes only less than 200 years the see the next big step in evolution, the “Otto” motor, the telegraph, electricity and ultimately the telephone. We are now in 1900 and roughly 1.6 billion people roam the earth.

I guess there is no real need to get into the last century, as you are probably well aware it’s development. So to conclude I have put together this little table to shows you the time between the milestones in our evolution.

Walking

 6,000,000

Fire

 800,000

Language

 200,000

Farming

 12,000

Wheel

 6,000

Iron Age

 3,500

Gun Powder

 1,200

Steam Engine

 300

Otto Motor

 140

Electricity

 100

Computers

 60

Internet

 20

It is quite plain to see that the rate of evolution has exponentially increased over time. Many predict the coming of a synchronicity event in the near future that will again create a huge boast in productivity. When machine outsmart people and robotics open up new possibilities. Who knows what the future hold, one thing is for sure, we are living in the most exciting time in our history. The evolutionary steps that before took millions or thousands of years now only take decades. Change is truly all-round us these days, there is no sense in resisting, let’s just go along with the flow and embrace it when it comes our way.

Written by Francis Lambert, Zabok January 5th 2012

The duality of individuality

Is the glass half full or half empty?

The answer to that question is limited only by our imagination, and each one of us will have a different way of answering it. Some of us will respond instinctively, others will analyse the glass, trying try to calculate where the 50% mark lies, so that they can give an accurate answer. There will be others who will try to figure out why you are asking that question in the first place, in order to come up with the answer they think you want to hear.

Each one of us will process the question in a different way. This happens because the sum of our life experiences is what drives the response process. We all have different frames of reference. That, amongst other things, is what makes us individuals. Although we all share similar emotions, such as motherly love, anger, rejection, success, pride, etc., the environment, timing and context in which we experience these emotions is different for all of us. This makes the mental imprint we have of that experience unique. It is precisely these experiences that we then use as filters to process situations and information during our lifetimes. A child has a relatively clean mental slate, and it is easy to understand the weight and importance that these mental imprints can have on a child’s future.  When and how this happens early in life makes a huge difference to a child’s potential. In his book Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell talks about the story of Lewis Terman and his still-running longitudinal study called the Genetic Studies of Genius (known today as Terman Study of the Gifted). Terman was convinced that geniuses (people with an IQ higher than 140) would achieve great things in their lifetimes. As it turned out, all he was able to prove was that, when it comes to their achievements in life, geniuses are also normally distributed. However, when the data is segmented in a different way, it shows a clear correlation between social class and academic performance. This is related to upbringing and the tendency for well-to-do families to encourage and support academic education, whilst the socially disadvantaged parents generally have little time to encourage and support their child through education, and in some cases may even be ashamed that they themselves do not have an academic ability.  We all see the world through different eyes, and no two eyes are the same. When we answer the question about the glass of liquid filled to 50% capacity, not only is the process of answering different for each individual but also it all happens in the blink of an eye.

So what gives us the ability to do that? Well, it’s our brain, of course, but more interesting it’s the duality of our brain. On the left side of this organ there is the rational part that thinks through problems and structures thoughts – this part will filter the challenge itself, in terms of physical and factual data. On the right side is the emotional part that filters a different type of data: body language, context, company, etc. Each part plays its role in transforming this data into information on which we make a choice of responses. Whilst we have the ability to think rationally, we are driven by emotions. This is why in the US supermarkets when you get your receipt you see in big letters how much you’ve saved, while the total of what you’ve spent is in normal text – they want to make you feel good about how much money you have saved at their store, never mind that you’ve maxed out on your credit card!

Modern psychology has made a lot of progress trying to understand how the two sides of the brain function and complement one another. There have been many analogies used to describe the tension between the two halves, but perhaps the most vivid is the one used by the psychologist Jonathan Haidt (Professor at New York University Stern School of Business) in his book The Happiness Hypothesis. Haidt sees our emotional side as an elephant and our rational side as its rider. Sitting on top of the elephant holding the reins, the rider may give the appearance that he is in charge, but, in fact, if the elephant were to see a mouse or be in any other way scared, it is quite clear that the rider would not be able to hold the elephant back, no matter how hard he pulled on the reins. It is precisely this tension between the rational and emotional sides of our brains that makes it so difficult for us to change. The elephant side is instinctive, and always on the look out for instant gratification. The weakness of the elephant is the rider’s strength: the ability to plan long term – the knowledge that calories saved today will enable me to lose weight. Put another way, everyone knows that smoking is bad for you (rider), but getting the elephant to stop procrastinating and coming up with excuses is difficult indeed. The challenge is for our riders to keep the elephant on the path long enough so that we can reach our destination. To achieve this the rider needs to resort to tricks, such as avoiding people who smoke when you are trying to stop smoking, or strategically placing a device that makes pig noises every time you open the refrigerator door.

There is no strict recipe for this: everyone is wired differently, every situation will require different measures and certain things will work for some people but not for others. It is important to recognize that the rider needs to and can manage the elephant – even if this occasionally requires putting a blindfold on the elephant’s head. Learning to manage our elephant is not that difficult: the rider needs to observe how the elephant behaves, orchestrate life with fewer temptations and reward the elephant for every step it takes in the right direction. After all, gratification is what it is craving!

Francis Lambert – Zabok, 17 December 2012 (originally written 29/05/12)

Gun Society

I couldn’t help but shed a tear this morning as I watch Obama address the nation; I too am a father and the thought of losing my kids in such a way just overwhelms you with emotions. What a horrible thing to happen. Even though these kinds of events have picked up in frequency over the years, the fact that these kids were first graders, so innocent, is what makes the crime so heinous. My thoughts go out to those families that have lost their angels.

Unfortunately it takes events, such has this to stir up the Gun debate in the US. But quite frankly, with over 300 million guns already in circulation in the US, dare I say that the Genie is already out of the bottle!

Interestingly enough another headline caught my eye this morning “ Man Stabs 22 Children in China” (AP). As it turns out half a world away another deranged person decided to take his frustration out on innocent school children, only difference is: he did not have 2 pistols and a semi automatic assault rifle, he had a knife. Conclusion 9 people were injured but no one died in China. No doubt he would have caused similar damage as in Connecticut had he been armed in the same way. And this is the point, with so many arms at large; the problem is now beyond proliferation. Other than having arm guards everywhere or requiring everyone to carry a gun (I guess one can make the argument that if those teacher had been armed they might had stop the killer before he killed all 18 of those kids), it is hard to imagine how else you can protect yourselves and your loved ones.
Access to guns is the key factor is these cases and the logic used by other Western countries that restrict gun ownership like Canada, UK and other European countries. I also own a gun, as a Canadian I grew up in an environment where hunting is a popular hobby. However my gun is a hunting rifle and I can’t imagine why one would want to buy a semi-automatic assault weapon, for something other than killing people, or I guess the famous quote “ Self defense”! Well I don’t know much about guns but if some one is robbing my house late at night I’m sure I can also stop them with my pump action 12 Gauge. I would also think that a pistol or a revolver would be more appropriate in the close quarters of a house anyway. So why sell assault weapons? The argument is the same: since they are already out there, then I have the right to be equally arm to defend myself. The only question is where does this stop? Rocket launchers?
The Connecticut killer must have acted out of jealousy, for he killed his mother and her entire class of students. But the most twisted part is that apparently used his mother’s guns to do his deeds. His mother was a teacher at the school, that is an elementary school remember. You have to ask yourself why would an elementary school teacher possess a semi automatic assault weapon and several handguns?

It’s not easy to stop gun violence in a gun society!

Zabok, HR – 15th December 2012

Austerity vs. Prosperity

Ok, I got distracted by the election and was so flabbergasted by what I was hearing in the media that I was too emotionally charged to be writing anything.  Now the election is over and we are back to square one, yes Obama has been re-elected but the status quo in the House of Representatives and the senate has not really changed the divisive political mood; not to mention long list of other threats menacing us, Greece and the rest of Europe have not resolved their debt problem and the US is heading for the fiscal cliff, let’s just hope this is not a remake of Thelma & Louise.

Consequently, there is a lot of talk about austerity in Europe at the moment, and in some cases it makes good sense but people tend to forget that austerity is by design a constricting measure for the economy. One of the things I have learned during my consulting career is that unintended consequences can sometimes undermine the very effort to fix a problem.  This is where “system dynamics” and causal loops diagram can be useful to explore and express the dynamics at play in a given situation. To help explain what happens with austerity, I have developed the following model. The model is quite rudimentary and as it was created in Insight Maker, it is available to anyone to expand on, improve or correct what is already there. (so if you have any input to making my model better, please update it yourself or let me know). You will notice that austerity has the potential to be a severe vicious cycle depending on how it is applied.

Quite frankly I don’t believe Greece will ever be able to repay it’s debt, especially not by cutting spending alone. The current depressive cycle the country is one is only exacerbating the problem. In fact just like in the US, the debt problem needs to be a balance approach of revenue generation (ie Tax reforms) and spending reforms. Let’s face it the tax system in Greece is a disaster, and this is nothing new. The Greek politicians have kick the tax reform “can” so far down the road that the “can” is falling apart in pieces and there is nothing left to kick.

But, whatever gets done on taxes, it will have to be attractive. Greece needs urgently to get its population back to work, so creating private sector jobs has to be a priority.

The other side of the coin is spending. You may have picked up that I just the term spending reform rather than spending cuts. That is because I believe there is a fundamental difference and that one is sustainable and the other isn’t.  Spending cuts equal less services or investment in the future, and as you have seen in the model they constrict the economy. Spending reforms reviewing what you spend money on and what you get in return.  There are some great success stories of how one man was able to transform the purchasing process within government, under President Clinton, there by savings 100’s millions $ in the process. My experience tells me there are still billions $ if not 100’s billions in inefficiencies within government processes, in six sigma we call this the hidden factory. In fact perhaps the best way to think about this is the illustration with the iceberg.

The estimated cost of poor quality, expressed as % of turnover

The estimated cost of poor quality, expressed as % of turnover

The sad part, and often overlooked, is that the majority of these inefficiencies are known or have even been documented. The organization, in our case government, is just not capable to foster the kind of organizational maturity that would allow such opportunities to be addressed. And although the government may be often ranked at the bottom of the scale when it come to “appeal”, there are only a few organizations, world wide, that have the necessary transparency and values to motivate their workforce to truly strive for perfection and continuous improvement. Look at it this way:  how many people do you know trust their boss and organization so much that he would be willing to tell his boos how o make his own job redundant; because he would know that was the best way to demonstrate his value & commitment to the organization?

Ok some of you may have some Japanese friends where something like this is more likely to take place, precisely because they have developed mature organization where the workforce feels stronger together than the sum of the individuals, creating a strong identity! Identity is one of the magic ingredients that separate “groups” from “teams”. But wait a minute we are talking about government here, not Google! Looking for saving opportunities in government processes should be like looking for eggs in a henhouse. There may not be an egg under each hen but you pretty certain you will find some eggs.

As I mentioned above the first step of sliming down government were initiated under Clinton, and a lot of services and processes have been out sourced. In fact the Bush administration conveniently rode that wave when the same trimming down effort and clarification of “core competences” was applied to the military and the military contractor industry was created, suspiciously creating huge profits for companies like Blackwater & Halliburton in the process.  This is also the message Obama is trying to tell the American people when he says that some things are best done together. He has put a canvas that has some broad strokes on it but the question remains whether the other politicians will be willing to shape the landscape and add the color. Nevertheless the road to sustainable prosperity would clearly be smoother with a reinvigorated workforce of loyal civil servants that pride themselves on their work and looks after the governments interest as if the were his own.  Seeding the seeds for continuous improvement in government could be a low cost endeavor with immense potential returns.

Zabok, HR – 14th November 2012

The working class vs. the investment class

The recent divulging of Mitt Romney’s tax returns has put the 99% vs. 1% discussion into perspective. Although it is astonishing to see a guy talk about people who “don’t work” when he himself does not really work, I have come to expect anything coming from the republicans. If we set aside the elderlies and the veterans, whom everyone can agree have already done their fair share of work, we are left with the people that taxes through their payroll (people holding jobs) and the people the people that pay taxes on the revenues from their wealth (investments class) and by definition the don’t hold jobs and don’t work, at least not 9:00 to 5:00. Well I guess to say that they don’t work is not really fair, they work at maximizing the returns on their investments as to accumulate more wealth and, theoretically at least, create new jobs. The only difference here is that this kind of work is taxed at a lower rate.

This reminded me of something, in his book “Rich dad, poor dad’ Robert T.Kiyosaki talks about his experience as a young boy who grew up with two father figures. When discussing as a boy what to do with one’s life, each one had a different message for him. His highly educated, but poor, dad would say: “go to school get good grades, and then find a safe secure job”; whilst his rich, but uneducated, dad would say ”go to school, graduate, build businesses and become a successful investor”.  Two different mind sets that lead to two different results; one where you work for your money and the other where your money works for you.

At the heart of this dilemma lies risk & responsibilities, how they are perceived, how they are weighed and managed. Never mind the fact that job security is a thing of the past, risk averse people will then to look for a jobs a it will provide a sense of security, they do their work within an agreed timeframe and they get a paycheck, they don’t have to worry about anything else. The business owner or self-employed person needs to constantly be thinking about, at least maintaining if not growing their business or practice and revenues. Along with that comes all the administration work and looking after employees. So as you can see the rewards are potentially higher but there are a lot of other things to manage and be responsible for, in other words, a lot of work. Obviously if you have enough money working for you, then you hire people to take care of all that work for you.  Which brings us back to the original point that the investment class does not work for a living. Would they work then they would have pay taxes like the rest of us.

Then there is this “taxofobia”.  As is paying taxes should be a thing to avoid most. Ok, I agree no one wants to give their hard earned money, whether it is through years of patience and careful investments or a 40-hour week of brute force and sweat.  On the other hand we enjoy living in a society and communities where: we feel safe;  if we should fall ill, we can be certain someone will take care of us; we don’t have to miles to the nearest well to get glass of water; etc. So you can see there are lots of benefits to organizing ourselves and creating structures and organizations that can provide theses services to the community and population. That is what government does.

It is interesting to observe the evolution of the role of government in the Republican speech over the last 50 years. They appear to have swung completely off the chart. Under Nixon, government still had a role, some may even argue that his vision of government is what help bring him down, today the rhetoric has moved the masses to believe that government equals socialism. Any redistribution of income is bad. During the past Busch presidency, what was once considered a “holy cow” of government functions, the military has begun to get outsourced, with companies like Blackwater and Haliburton, to name a few, raking in huge profits in the process. Here is another example; this week kids in Kansas grab the media attention with a YouTube video parody of the song -we are young- titled “we are hungry”. The action was a protest against the new school lunch initiative that promotes a healthier diet, fruits and vegetables. This was picked up by the “rightist” media and blown into a debate about how the government is trying to tell kids what to eat! Considering that the USA has the highest child obesity rate in the world, that is actually a good idea.  Sadly this the number news channel in the US.  By exploiting sound bits, twisting or hiding facts or just plain lying, they constantly generate a kind of fog around the real issues and brainwash their viewers with their message, keeping everyone ignorant in the process. Ironically, I must say, it was refreshing to see Bill Clinton, at 66 years old, try to make a case with facts and numbers in his speech at the Democratic conventions a few weeks ago. Unfortunately he only represents one side of the divide.

When the pie is growing the 1% vs. 99% discussion is not so sensitive. The 99% get the 99% of the growth, each a tiny bit, and are satisfied with having the opportunity to dream about making the 1% on day. When the pie is shrinking the 99% have a lot more to lose and suffer a lot more. If growth is not restored to keep it in equilibrium, the pain builds up like pressure and can lead to explosions and revolutions.

Instead of hiding his income, Mitt Romney would have been better off showing his tax returns early on and explaining this difference in tax rate and tax class, creating a reason to celebrate his success. Encouraging more people to aspiring to belong to the investment class is not a bad thing; it’s the American dream!

Zabok, HR – 3rd October 2012

How much baggage do you carry around?

As I continue to think through the time question I have realized that there just is so much to cover. So the upcoming posts will be related to optimizing and helping you make the most of the time you have.  The beauty of this is that you decide how you use the tools and what you do with your time. Whichever way you decide, the whole point is to make you aware. If you followed the last post and did the exercises you will now be more aware of how you spend your time. And like every thing in life, some things are relatively easy to fix others require fundamental change. Today’s segment is of the fundamental type, as I believe that building on a solid foundation, ultimately provides longevity and sustainability.

Rule number 1 – the more stuff you have the less free you are. Every material thing, not only takes up storage capacity and effort (cleaning moving around etc.),  it takes up brain capacity and processing power as well. Think about it for just about every thing you posses have it’s own story: where it came from gift bought when where with whom etc. So all that stuff in the attic, although out of sight is not out of mind. It weighs on you without you realizing it. Sometimes letting go of stuff can be emotionally wrenching, I know, I still got stuff from the seventies and I’m a pack rat by nature. Nevertheless sorting through your stuff it’s easy to keep the emotional stuff and get rid of the other stuff. To do the sorting, I have developed the 4 G approach: Good to keep, Give to someone else, Garage sale, Garbage. You should run through the cycle at least once per year and your “Good to keep” pile should not be getting bigger (and unless your income is expanding at the same rate, chances are you are over-consuming). I have shrunk my to good to keep stuff to a large oversea trunk. When I pass away I know that my kids will have a laugh at all this junk that has sentimental value to me and no one else. But one trunk over almost fifty years that’s not bad, I guess?

Let me tell you the story of a client I had and for the sake of anonymity we will call him Fred. He was an engineer in his fifties and having being part of the original new hires during the construction of the site he was now the operations manager in a chemical plant. The man was brilliant and he had a fantastic memory, we could be talking about a subject and he would say A yes, I attended a conference 4 years ago, hold on a minute I’ll be right back. He would then stand up and leave the meeting we were having, only to return 3-7 minutes later (his office was down the hall). Upon his return he would show you the documentation from the conference and get completely off topic. As you reeled him back and got back on the subject, something else would pop up and he would be off again! This guy was a walking encyclopedia but you could not get him to focus on anything. Although he was a hard worker, came in at 6:00 and was usually the last to leave after 20:00. His spent the entire day on the shop floor, something rare for someone in his position. As our project evolved we quickly realized that something was wrong with Fred. His un-ability to concentrate was affecting his work performance, besides something else was weird about Fred. No one had ever been into his office. None of my colleagues, or even clients we asked, could ever remember having been in his office. Ok I know what you are thinking, what about his boss, the plant manager. Well that’s another story, his had an alcohol problem and was fired 2 weeks after we started our project. Anyway I doubt whether he had been in Fred’s office either!  I made it my mission to discover the mystery that was his office. Since he loved to recount memories and look up stuff, I engaged him in this way and slowly broke down his barriers through my curiosity and interest. One night, in early December as we were working late, I noticed the light on in his office and I decided to pay him a visit. As I knocked on his door I heard the shuffling of papers and his voice telling me to wait a minute. He opened the door slowly to see who it was and seemed surprised to see me. I told him I had seen the light in his office and wanted to stop by to show him the new management report I had been working on. With nowhere to go he quickly open the door and closed it quickly behind him before leading me to the conference room down the hall. However he quickly realized by the look in my eyes that I had seen enough off his office to give him away. Even though he pretended to not to notice, I could see I had unsettled him. As we went through the report, he suddenly burst into tears, and when I say burst I mean literally did burst with tears sprinkling all over my report.  I stood up and walk out to go to the washroom for some tissues. When I came back with toilet paper he was gone. That was the last time we saw Fred. He did not come back to work and ended up in a mental hospital. Later we learned that he had suffered from, amongst other things, what was referred to as information overload.  I spend a good deal of time on the Internet looking for a picture that would represent his office.  The one I found does not really do it justice, his office looked worst simply because his office was bigger and the path through the piles of documents was longer and interspersed with the odd plant.

Courtesy of http://www.rentittoday.com/rental-blog/5204/inception-technologies-document-scanner-rentals-us-canada .Electronic document solutions so your office doesn’t look like this!

Most people’s office does not have the chance of getting like Fred’s. His was a particular situation, and living alone he must have subconsciously known this was not normal hence his reluctance to let anyone in his office. In any case, it was a hard lesson on me as I was the one who delivered the wake up call.

Zabok, HR – 5th September 2012