Monthly Archives: May 2009

An existential approach to process optimization

This week I had a meeting with a client that, for a moment, took me back to my college days and the intense, alcohol induced philosophical debates my fellow students and I used to get drawn into. The debates often involved trees in forests, fish, bread and bicycles etc. Jean Paul Satre’s ‘The Age of Reason’ and Immanuel Kant’s ‘Critique of Pure Reason’ both came flooding back.

I was in a meeting with a senior manager whose team had the responsibility for designing KPI’s for measuring the effectiveness of business processes. At one point I ignorantly suggested that to design an efficient process it is best to separate technology from the process itself. I suggested that no matter whether we are in SAP, Cognos, BO, or any other system for processing and/or reporting, we simply need to get back to the essence of the transaction itself. It was at that precise moment that my client interrupted me by saying:

“Harley, I have been studying this exact theory for the last 13 years and no matter how I approach it, I realize that what you are saying is impossible. Try imagining even the simplest of processes without the use of tools. For example, imagine how to design the process of getting from your home to your office without any tools or technology – you can not, it’s just not possible. So we are obliged to accept that tools are an intrinsic part of the process its self, there is no other way of approaching it”.

I considered what he said for a while then told him a true story:

I was once working in China, my client was in the closing stages of building a giant chemical production plant which was situated two and a half kilometers away from the regional head office. The problem was that twice per day a massive amount of data needed to be transferred between the plant’s production systems and the servers located in the regional head office. By coincidence, I had joined a technical meeting addressing the problem, at the point where everyone present had seemingly exhausted all the options. I was told that: ‘Laying a dedicated cable meant tunneling under our competitors factory. Going around it was way too expensive and the cable would then be subject to damage from road building schemes and other forms of maintenance. Using satellite or 3G technology would be too unreliable and would cost the earth.’

The participants were close to panicking – the new plant had cost millions of dollars and was only a few weeks from going on line. It was then I noticed a Chinese construction worker cycling past on his bicycle – “Why can’t you do it manually”? , I asked. “Why not simply download the data onto an external hard drive and have someone cycle with it to office”? The room fell silent. “Are you kidding?” someone asked. “No, I am deadly serious! Give me one good reason as to why it might not work? Give me a simpler, better idea if you have one. If you are worried about risk, download the data onto two hard drives and have two cyclists, one in reserve – just in case”.

As far as I know, to this day the bicycle method is still being used!

Of course – this process, just like any other, uses a tool so my client is correct – but it is not the kind of tool that technologist naturally consider – why? Because, it’s too simple, too embarrassing to admit to one’s colleagues. Me, I don’t care. I am not an engineer. I am just a pragmatic manager that dislikes endless discussions and simply likes to get on with the job in hand. (Except when I have had a few too many units of alcohol and I am in the presence similarly intoxicated philosophers)…

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Mitigation Strategy or Contingency plan what difference does it make?

Some of our profession spend a great deal of effort making contingency plans that cover just about every conceivable scenario. In fact in some cases I have noticed it as an obsession. The first tell tale signs are a seemingly never ending barrage of “but what if?” questions. Admittedly, sometimes it can be difficult to know exactly where to draw the line.

I like to make a simple matrix, high chance/ high impact to low chance / low impact and then to focus on the areas that demand the most attention. The important point of the exercise is to make sure that you rely on the input of a wide group of people. I recommend short brainstorming sessions, beginning with everyone writing down their top ten major concerns on a piece of paper and then followed by a comparative discussion until you have enough input to build the matrix and to construct a well thought through contingency plan.

However with the recent outbreak of Swine Flu it is not always easy to recognize the logic. It is hard to work out what is hysteria and what is ‘reasonable concern’. Apparently this week the guests of the Metro Park hotel in Hong Kong were quarantined in their hotel because a few days earlier the hotel received a visitor from Mexico that had subsequently fallen ill.

The British government has been printing leaflets to be delivered into every letterbox in the land, sharing pearls of wisdom such as(and I quote):

When you cough or sneeze it is especially important to follow the rules of good hygiene to prevent the spread of germs:
• Always carry tissues.
• Use clean tissues to cover your mouth and nose when you cough and sneeze.
• Bin the tissues after one use.
• Wash your hands with soap and hot water or a sanitiser gel often.

But the one I liked best was on the BBC website:
• If you have flu symptoms and recently visited affected areas of Mexico, seek medical advice

Some people use the term ‘mitigation strategy’ while others call it a contingency plan – to be honest I don’t know the difference. What I do know is that the guests of the Metro Park have plenty of time to debate the subject, once they have completed the filling in their travel insurance forms, in the vain hope of receiving some kind of compensation.

I have always wanted to visit Hong Kong. I have flown over it a few times but never had the time to land. I am just imagining what it must be like to have finally arrived in your hotel, only to be told that you can not leave it until your holiday is over!

One last piece of great advice from the Kaikora District Council and the University of Otago, New Zealand:
‘if you have to go out in public keep at least one metre away from other people and avoid making physical contact.’

H.

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