5 Critical Product Management Skills

(1) Writing

Communicating with team members, vendors, customers, etc., is an ongoing part of product management. It is one thing to text your friends and not worry about sentence structure, grammar, or spelling. It is another thing when you are writing an email to your team, developing a business plan, or creating product training – your writing is what will empower your message. A few simple rules to remember are: use the active voice (not passive), keep sentences and paragraphs short, avoid adverbs, and practice every day. Yes, practice every day. Writing is a skill and like any other skill it gets better with daily practice. The following books will make you a much better writer.

On Writing – A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King (http://amzn.to/2D4iH1U)

Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury (http://amzn.to/2D7sc0g)

Everybody Writes by Ann Handley (http://amzn.to/2D34xNV)

(2) Market Research

How do you develop the best product in its class? You get out of the office and talk to customers. You interview retail store owners, your customers, and your competitor customers. You create questionnaires, gather data, and use statistics to understand what the data is communicating. Sitting in an office all day and staring at spreadsheets or creating PowerPoint presentations is a big part of the job. However, the only way to beat your competitors and excite your customers is to understand what customers want, how they use the products, and their pain points. The way to do this is interact with them and learn first-hand. Learning the intricacies of market research is a powerful tool that keeps giving. Check out the following books to improve your skills.

The Complete Guide to Writing Questionnaires: How to Get Better Information for Better Decisions by David F. Harris (http://amzn.to/2CYshPR)

Marketing Research Essentials (6th ed) by Carl McDaniel and Roger Gates (http://amzn.to/2D64PU1)

(3) Creative Thinking

You have to continuously develop new ideas. Tattoo the Japanese term kaizen, meaning continuous improvement, in your memory. The only way to improve yourself, your products, current processes, or solve problems is developing new creative ideas. The best way to develop creative ideas is with a structured and disciplined approach. Using creative thinking tools such as SCAMPER, random word, or biomimicry avoids wasting time “brainstorming” or haphazardly thinking of new things. It sounds counterintuitive, but the best ideas are developed with a structured process, tool, or technique. Read the following books to improve your skills.

Thinkertoys: A Handbook of Creative Thinking Techniques by Michael Michalko (http://amzn.to/2DnNIe2)

Lateral Thinking: Creativity Step by Step by Edward de Bono (http://amzn.to/2CV4HDw)

(4) Storytelling

How do you get a new product concept approved from executives? How do you convince salespeople the new product is exceptional and will beat the competition? The best way to build a movement is exciting people. And the best way to excite people is with a compelling story. Creating a compelling story is not easy. It takes practice and a lot of work. Impart visuals, video, audio, and other tools to pull your audience into the story. Video customer testimonials and share the feedback with co-workers. The following books will help build this skill.

The Back of the Napkin by Dan Roam (http://amzn.to/2DrdCh5)

Slide:ology: The Art and Science of Creating Great Presentations by Nancy Duarte (http://amzn.to/2EBxDAY)

(5) Critical Thinking

Critical thinking is something everyone needs to be good at, but most of us have never formally learned critical thinking. If your advertising agency tells you the new TV ad concept will improve brand awareness by 64%, you better ask how this will happen. How do they know this? Where is the data? How did they collect the data? Critical thinking is putting your skeptic hat on and dissecting what someone is telling you. It is not about attacking someone or their argument, it is pausing, stepping back, and asking questions to ensure nothing is missed. In this age of fake news and the allure of Big Data, critical thinking is vital to ensure the best decisions are being made. The following are a few excellent books to reference.

A Rulebook for Arguments by Anthony Weston (http://amzn.to/2Ft35Tj)

Critical Thinking for Marketers (Volumes I and II) by Terry Grapentine and David Dwight (http://amzn.to/2FvUNdt)

Musings from TJ

“You’re nuts to go down there!” was what I kept hearing from co-workers regarding my plan to visit Tijuana and walk around. Sorry to disappoint, but Tijuana (TJ) is not the scary, crime-ridden city from 30 years ago. It had a rough patch in the mid-2000s, but is now a great place to wander around in relative safety. The people are helpful, there are cops everywhere, and the foodie culture is growing (good or bad).

There are multiple ways to sightsee TJ, but we chose the simple method – park in San Diego and walk across. We tried to book a walking food tour but were out of luck, so we did our research, printed out some maps, and headed across. (Yes, we printed out our maps since we are too cheap to pay for international roaming on our phones, or too lazy to just get some extra browsing time for the day). Either way, it was nice not dealing with our phones all day, except to take pictures.

As I have mentioned in previous posts, creativity, innovation, and inspiration come from experiencing new things. The best method to get inspired is visiting new places. What better than visiting a new city just a few hours from home? After we parked our car in San Diego ($25 for the day), we walked about 5 minutes and entered the Mexican immigration center. After some quick paperwork, passports stamped, we were in Mexico. Yup, that easy.

Walking from the immigration center to downtown TJ took about 15 minutes. Tijuana has always been a tourist city, so there are lots of souvenir shops, barkers trying to get you in their restaurants, as well as many California license plates cruising around.

Our first stop was the Tijuana Cultural Center and museum (http://www.mexicoescultura.com/recinto/51716/en/tijuana-cultural-center-cecut-.html). There was an exhibition of local photographers and it was nice to check out some local history. From there we journeyed to the Museo de la Luca Libre Mexicana (http://www.mullme.com/). This is a new museum that houses an amazing collection of superhero memorabilia, various old-stuff from the past (e.g., comic books, milk jugs, radios, etc.), an unbelievable collection of Lucha Libre masks/billboards/art, etc. and locally made leather masks.

The museum was difficult to find. We asked multiple people and finally found it after about 30 minutes walking in circles (next time I will pay for cell service). When we entered, the manager greeted us and explained the facility (his English is great for all you non-Spanish speakers). The museum opened in April 2017 so they are still building a following. The owners got together and with their love of all things nerdy, decided to open a spot to display their amazing collections.

The museum was an old restaurant that they refurbished. The architecture was a blend of the past and present. It is really beautiful inside. I am not a big superhero memorabilia fan, but the various collections were impressive. A local artist painted the murals of various superheroes on the walls, ceiling, etc. The art was amazing and blew us away – I want to find that guy and hire him for some work. After the first floor collection, we journeyed upstairs to the Lucha Libre collection.

If you are not familiar with Lucha Libre, it is Mexican professional wrestling where many of the wrestlers wear masks. I used to watch Lucha Libre when I was a kid and am a big fan of Lucha Va Voom (http://luchavavoom.com/), so this was really cool. One of the museum owner’s has been collecting wrestling memorabilia for 44 years, and the collection is a historical lesson in Mexican wrestling. Parts of the collection included hundreds of actual masks, various action figures and toys, as well as costumes, pictures, hair samples (from bouts where a wrestler lost and had his head shaved), to old TV episodes from the 1950 and 1960s. There is even a real wrestling ring.

After spending a lot of time being a little kid again, we moved to the third floor. Housed on the top floor is a gallery displaying local artist Jorge Ayllón Gutiérrez’s leather mask collection (https://www.facebook.com/encuerARTE-222118024582954/). Many years ago, a friend bought me a leather mask from Mexico and I have a small collection from various travels (e.g., Italy, Japan). The collection was excellent and all pieces were for sale.

After the museum, we journeyed to the Telefonica Gastro Park (https://www.facebook.com/TelefonicaGastroPark/). It was about a 30-minute walk. The U.S. food truck trend is everywhere, and TJ is no exception (there were lots of food trucks in Russia when we visited earlier this year). The “park” is really a parking lot that houses multiple food “trailers”, a brewery, and plenty of places to sit and enjoy some great food and drink. The place is tourist friendly and the food was excellent.

After stuffing ourselves with great tacos, we headed over to Mercado Hildalgo (http://www.descubretijuana.com/es/atractivos/mercado-hidalgo). The place was crazy as everyone was there buying stuff for New Years. There were more California license plates than TJ. The Mercado Hildalgo is a collection of open-air markets selling vegetables, fruits, cheeses, beans, spices, piñata supplies, etc. It was fun to walk around and sample the various items. Then, it was time to head back to the border.

On the way, we stopped by Container Coffee (https://www.facebook.com/conteinercofferoasterco/?rf=1756930457856837) for a great mocha latte (and to rest our feet). We then found the local tourist trap – zebra donkeys. TJ is known for zebra donkeys (white donkeys are painted with black stripes to show-up better in photographs). I am not a fan of using animals for tourist crap, but most of the animals looked very healthy, had lots of food and water, and had pads to stand on – not horrible. The stand that “grabbed us” were two funny local guys; one spoke pretty good Japanese so he bonded with my wife to practice.

For about $10 we got our photos taken, received a high-gloss color photo, and got some local perspective. We spent about 30 minutes hanging with him and hearing the struggles of kids growing up in TJ and trying to get a good education and well-paying jobs. There is a reason so many Mexicans cross the border to have kids.

As Joe Rogan always reminds his listeners, those of us who were born into the middle class (and above) are just lucky (and privileged). It was just a roll of the dice that we were born in stable families, in a safe place, with good schools and plenty of food, instead of being born in a ghetto or a worn-torn country. Like most places, when the hand you are dealt is not great, it is pretty damn hard to get ahead. There is nothing special about any of us; we are just lucky.

I then grabbed a Mexican Coca-Cola (cane sugar, not syrup), and waited in line to cross back to the U.S. About 45 minutes later we were back in San Diego. Too much fun, way too easy. Much better than driving.

As the New Year is a few hours away, think of what you want to accomplish in 2018. Think about how fortunate you are. And, if you are struggling, put a game plan together leveraging the internet, public libraries, free online courses, mentors, etc., to improve yourself. Moreover, experience new things, meet interesting people, and change your life and the life of others. Make this year count to destroy the negativity, hate, and lazy thinking of others. As Gary V says, “Crush It!”

Musings from PAPOR Annual Conference

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I always tell people to get outside their comfort zones. Meet people from different industries, attend conferences outside your industry, and basically just experience new things. As a long-time product and marketing guy, I have conducted market research to develop competitive advantages, solve problems, or create differentiation. Over 15+ years, I have conducted hundreds of market research projects and feel market research is an underused practice within most businesses.

Last week I attended the Pacific Chapter of American Association for Public Opinion Research (PAPOR) annual conference. PAPOR is my local chapter of AAPOR. The conference was in San Francisco and the majority of attendees were academics and professional researchers focused on public opinion research. So for a guy who focuses on applied research, this was a great experience to hear how the “pros” conduct research and find ways to improve how I conduct research.

AAPOR-logo-2017

The conference kicked-off with two short courses on mixed-mode surveys and tips for conducting web surveys. The next two days consisted of panel discussions. Multiple panels presented papers on sampling, design, and analysis. In addition, there were discussions on the current criticism with public opinion research (e.g., fake news) and the public’s view on health policy, aging & quality of life. Not your typical topics for a guy who uses market research to improve marketing and sales operations, or develop new products.

Research types

Listening to a wide variety of individuals present their academic papers was an excellent reminder of how important it is to apply the structure of basic research to applied research. Hearing how others conduct research and the struggles they encounter was a great comparison to typical market research. The conference also had presenters from the “real world” of research.

Selfishly, there was a great panel that discussed survey processes and best practices for applied research (as well as basic research). Shirley Yang from Dropbox discussed a segmentation project she worked on, and Jocelyn Landau from Netflix discussed how her team applies mixed-methods to product development. In addition, Bob Davis from Davis Research presented excellent reminders for data security and protection. Bob was the one who let me know about AAPOR and convinced me to join the group.

Netflix logo

The ability to “rub elbows” with a wide range of researchers from a variety of industries, both public and private was a great way to spend a few days. I returned to the office with several excellent tips to improve surveys and response rates, as well as meeting new people to bounce ideas off.

I strongly recommend joining AAPOR and your local chapter. Every one of us needs to become a lifelong learner. The best way to learn new skills and develop new innovative ideas is through meeting new people and collecting tips and techniques to improve your own work. Join groups like the American Marketing Association (AMA), Marketing Research Association (MRA), or the Product Development and Management Association (PDMA), or just reach out to local businesses and have a coffee with someone in a related position.

PDMA logo

Don’t get in the habit of going to work, doing what you have always done, and then returning home. You need to break this cycle and move away from the status quo. The business world is changing rapidly and you need to ensure you have the proper skills to succeed. Skill-up, join various organizations, and learn from others. Don’t think that since you have done something for many years, you know it all. The world is changing too rapidly to be content. Now get out there and make a difference!

The Work Ethic of Comedians

Pewdepie

In this era of instant stardom, YouTube and Instagram celebrities, and reality TV “stars” more and more people expect success to just happen. The problem with the expectation versus reality is that success most often comes from hard, ongoing work – working at your craft so when opportunity arrives, you are ready to take advantage. Sitting around and dreaming will not result in success. Success comes from continuous learning, ongoing practice, and failure. Successful comedians are an excellent example how hard, consistent work equates to success.

The life of a successful comedian is about writing every day, going to clubs every night to practice in front of a live crowd, and pushing the limits of the status quo. The late, great comedian Ralphie May was a great example for how hard work results in success.

An excellent video is Ralphie May discussing what it takes to be a successful comedian at a comedy workshop (https://vimeo.com/15182852). May’s “secrets of success” are writing every day, learning from those with more experience, and being prepared when opportunity knocks. These recommendations can be applied to any profession.

Ralphie May

If you listen to successful comedians (Jerry Seinfeld, Joe Rogan, Bill Burr, Christopher Titus, Whitney Cummings, Tom Segura, Bert Kreischer, Dean Delray, Amy Schumer, Ari Shaffir, Greg Fitzsimmons, etc.) there is a common pattern they all follow – write daily, practice every night, take any job to get experience (no matter the effort), accept failure (e.g., bombing) as the only way to learn, improve, and grow. These comedians have worked year-after-year, driven thousands of miles, performed in all types of environments (e.g., dive bars, coffee shops, colleges, restaurants), and never gave up. This same work ethic needs to be adopted by anyone who is serious about becoming excellent at their craft or career.

Ari Shaffir

The lessons from these comedians are transferable to any career, especially business. Too often, business professionals stop learning when they leave university and enter the workforce. They join a company, do what they are told or how the company wants things done, and that’s it. Growth stops. Unlike professional comedians, professional athletes, or medical professionals, people in business typically do not live a life of continuous learning and improvement.

DeLaSalle basketball coach Dave Thorson analyzed video footage of other teams with the players on their ipads and from his laptop after practice Thursday, January 31, 2013. (ELIZABETH FLORES/STAR TRIBUNE) ELIZABETH FLORES ¥ eflores@startribune.com

Most people go to work, do the basics, and go home. This habit does not result in improvements, competitive advantages, or future growth. It is perfect for a relatively easy life, but one with a not-so secure future. If you are not improving every day, you are falling behind and there is a good chance you will eventually be replaced.

working_late

It is not just about you toiling away by yourself. It often takes a community to succeed. Many of these successful comedians work together, continuously talk and engage with one another, and learn from each other. In addition, they help each other grow, help each other get new jobs, and work to ensure the entire community succeeds. As a business professional you need to be doing the same thing. Interact with people outside your company and industry. Become an expert. Learn from others and share your knowledge.

As you spend 1/3 of your time at work, why wing it or do things haphazardly? Business is fun and should be conducted to win, create, and/or help others. Why spend 1/3 of your life accepting the status quo and mediocrity? Why not work your ass off, become great, and enjoy life?

Office Space

As global business becomes increasingly competitive with new entrants, quickly changing technologies, and ongoing socio-economic challenges, every person who is serious about their business craft, needs to continually evolve and adapt. What’s the easiest way to achieve excellence? Reading. Read the works of Sun Tzu, Peter Drucker, Tom Peters, W. Edwards Deming, and other “business legends”. Learn new skills – statistics, market research, critical thinking, decision making, problem solving, etc. Use your skills and share with others. Don’t just read, but apply your learnings, practice, and improve.

Work hard quote

Listen to the following podcasts to get motivated and understand that success results from hard work. Success is about daily practice and embracing failure. A habit of lifelong learning is the surest path to success and fulfillment. Don’t do what everyone else does, be unique, zig when others zag, keep experimenting and learning. Success does not happen overnight. It happens after lots of work, pain, suffering, and continuous improvement. Don’t worry, it will be worth it when you’re 90 years old and sitting on your front porch contemplating your life. Don’t regret anything. Be proactive, get out there and get stuff done.

References

Ralphie May – Stand-up Mastery: https://vimeo.com/15182852

Joe Rogan Experience: http://podcasts.joerogan.net/

Ari Shaffir’s Skeptic Tank: http://www.arishaffir.com/category/podcast/

Greg Fitzsimmons – Fitzdog Radio: https://gregfitz.libsyn.com/

Musings from Inroads to the Future

Inroads2017

The annual Motorcycle Industry Council (MIC) symposium took place November 15, 2017 in Carson, CA. The event (Inroads to the Future) allowed MIC members to meet and discuss how to prepare for the changing future of the powersports industry. The audience was composed of representatives from the major powersports distributors (BMW, Can-Am, Honda, Kawasaki, KTM, Polaris, Suzuki, Yamaha, etc.) as well as teams from after-market parts & accessories distributors and manufacturers. In addition, industry media and marketing agencies were also in attendance.

Shama Hyder from Marketing Zen Group was one of the keynote speakers. A motorcycle enthusiast, she shared some marketing tips to the crowd to better navigate the digital landscape. Shama focused on the benefits of targeted Facebook advertising and provided case studies of her client’s success.

shamahyder

The speaker most of the crowd came to see was Dr. Paul Leinberger from Denny + Leinberger Strategy, LLC. He has provided an economic overview and futurecast over the past several years. His insights were excellent and provided attendees with brain food to prepare for the challenging future of the industry. Dr. Leinberger noted that in the next 5 years we will experience the biggest fundamental changes since WWII. The key areas of change will be:

  • Transportation
  • Urbanization
  • Medical
  • Mobility
  • Frictionless commerce – more engaging, immersive retail experiences
  • AI and robotics

Leinberger

Leinberger also noted that we need to move away from talking about the Internet of Things (IoT) to focus on the Internet of Everything (IoE). A completely connected world will be a challenge for all businesses in terms of privacy, massive amounts of data, and changing socio-economic influences (not to mention technology advances). Digital and physical will merge changing the retail landscape and changing consumer preferences. The industry needs to change now, to prepare for and shape a challenging future.

Internet-of-Everything

The symposium is always a great event to reconnect with associates in the industry. In addition, it was insightful to hear from individuals outside of the powersports industry and gain new perspectives to help attract new consumers. I highly encourage you to attend your personal industry and also non-industry events. Connecting and listening to a diverse set of people helps drive creativity and provides new ways to conduct business. If anything, just getting out of the office for a day to hear insightful speakers is worth the time to separate from your normal schedule and gather insights for new creative ideas.

Musings from PDMA Conference

PDMA2017

The past week I attended the annual Product Development and Management Association (PDMA) annual conference. This year’s conference was held in Chicago at the Swissotel and was a great opportunity to meet fellow product geeks and get a taste of what’s happening in the “real world”.

With several hundred attendees from a wide variety of industries, academic institutions, and countries, the event was an excellent opportunity to engage with the global product community. I had the pleasure of presenting a seminar on creating an innovative ecosystem titled, Strategic Agility: Building an Innovative Organizational Ecosystem. This title is a mouthful, but the concept is very straightforward. To create an innovative organization that can properly adapt to the changing business environment requires four key areas of focus.

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The audience was a great mix of practitioners and academics. And from the lack of hands raised to my questions, “Who considers their organization innovative?” and “Who knows their organization’s strategic plan?” there is a lot of work (and opportunities) ahead of us. The four main concepts for an innovative organization are:

  1. Strategic agility – composed of three meta-capabilities (collective commitment, strategic sensitivity, and resource fluidity)
  2. Cognitive skills – creative thinking, critical thinking, decision making, problem solving, etc.
  3. Strategic roadmap – a clear understanding of where you are and where you plan to go
  4. Culture – encourages experimentation, accepts failure as a key aspect of learning, and most importantly has a high-level of trust between senior management and employees at every level

Too many organizations are not focused on innovation and out-maneuvering the competition. Business leaders are content with the status quo (or what worked in the past will continue to work in the future), offering consumers me-too products, and overseeing a demoralized workforce. Executives must take the lead to build an organization of capable thinkers who have a strong understanding of the market, and leverage evidence-based management to encourage data-driven decision making and problem solving. Skills, knowledge, and ongoing experimentation are vital to stay ahead of current and future competition.

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It is critical to “rub elbows” with individuals outside your industry. Understanding how a variety of individuals, organizations, and industries practice product management is vital to leveraging best practices and uncovering new methodologies to stimulate the organization. Product managers need to get out of the office and interact with practitioners from different industries. The more your network, the more you learn.

Meeting new people and learning new ways to excel at product management will help you develop innovative and interesting ways to create exciting products and allow you to position your portfolio for competitive advantages. To become a master product manager you must become a life-long learner. Reading, research, and roaming the Internet are all good ways to learn; however, it is also vital to interact with different people and groups to expand your world knowledge. A key element of creativity is connecting unrelated dots. The way to build a large supply of “dots” is traveling, meeting new people, and applying your new learnings to work.

networking

An innovative organizational ecosystem is critical for sustained, positive growth. The ability to continually surprise competitors and keep them off balance while wowing customers with new and exciting products and services ensures long-term success. Leaders need to stop outsourcing their basic business needs. They need to create a skilled and innovative organization for long-term success. An innovative ecosystem founded on empowered and highly skilled employees, clear and effective strategic development and execution, and a corporate culture based on trust, learning, and strategic agility, is critical within the increasingly turbulent and disruptive global business environment. Now get out there, attend some conferences, meet new people, and change the world.

Market Research – Best Practices

marketresearch  One of the most important skills for product managers, brand managers, and anyone involved in marketing is market research (MR). To wow customers and out-maneuver competitors it is critical to understand what your customers need, how they use your products, why they don’t buy competitor products, etc. In addition, you need to understand the same information about your competitor customers. To uncover these insights, you need to conduct both qualitative and quantitative MR.

Foundational MR skills can be learned from books, videos, or classes. However, like any other skill, you need to practice in the real world. You need to get out of the office and interview consumers. You need to go to retail stores and observe consumer behavior. You need to shadow experienced researchers and learn how they do it. It is also critical to practice writing questionnaires for both qualitative interviews and quantitative surveys. Writing and design questionnaires are an art form and takes a lot of practice, failure, and continuous improvement.

MR

No matter what type of MR you use, there are a several best practices you need to keep in mind. It is important to use these best practices to ensure strong response rates and keep participants engaged so they will participate in future MR studies. Treat your participants like friends and they will agree to future research requests.

The following best practices are from the recent Participant Engagement – How to improve the online survey user experience guide compiled by Global Research Business Network. You can access this excellent guide at http://grbnnews.com/special-report-improving-the-online-survey-user-experience/.

  • Keep the questions simple and short, and use every day terminology
  • Design the questionnaire so it works on mobile devices
  • Keep screeners as short as possible
  • Avoid using large tables or matrixes
  • Provide incentives that align with the participants’ effort
  • Keep surveys to a maximum of 10 minutes – if you have to go longer, be honest about how long it will take to complete

GRBN-logo-400

In addition to best practices, use metrics to ensure you achieve what you want. Keep your MR goal in perspective by asking “Why and now what?”. Remind your team why are you conducting the research and once you compile the data, what are you going to do with it.

Create a survey people enjoy taking. Use creativity to keep participants engaged (e.g., gamification, animation, videos). Develop a MR study which participants feel their responses are valued and are being used to improve business, products, etc.

When the research is completed, create a compelling story to share insights with team members. Don’t just gather data to sell your products. Think of MR as an additional touch-point with your customers; just like advertising, customer service, packaging, social media, etc.

MR story

Too often teams make decisions based on guesses or relying on intuition or experience. It is vital to adopt a data-driven, evidence-based decision-making culture. The importance of “going to the spot” and seeing how products are used, how consumers behave in the “real world”, and struggles they encounter will provide insights for innovation.

Guess

Staring at data can only provide a limited understanding of consumer behavior. Using qualitative MR to gather deep insights and quantitative MR to identify patterns leveraging the strength of statistics will help you create competitive advantages and separate yourself from your competitors. Learn, practice, and implement MR tools and techniques for long-term growth.

The Yellow Hat

The Six Thinking Hats (Hats), developed by Dr. Edward de Bono is a powerful tool for decision making, solving problems, or developing new product ideas. The Hats are a simple, easy-to-learn tool that ensures teams work together to develop optimal solutions. The Hats forces teams to explore subjects in parallel; everyone focuses on one hat at a time, in a short amount of time.

debono Compared to less productive tools such as brainstorming, the Hats avoid argument and confrontation. The Hats directs teams to focus on an optimal decision, not one based on ego, emotions, or personal agenda. Everyone is forced to develop pros and cons of a subject, not just a single point-of-view.

Brainstorming

The Hats require everyone to look at a topic holistically (from all points-of-view). A holistic analysis ensures all benefits and risks are identified; the goal is to develop the optimal solution for the organization, not one based on an individual’s personal agenda clouding the discussion.

sixhats-1A key element of the Hats, is the yellow hat. The yellow hat focuses on benefits and feasibilities of a topic. Often depicted as the pros (compared to the black hat, cons), the yellow hat forces team members to develop benefits and values (along with justification) of why the topic is beneficial. Even if someone is against the idea, they still have to develop benefits and reasons how the idea can provide value.

yellowhat

As with all creative exercises, yellow hat analysis needs to be driven by questions. Several helpful questions when analyzing the benefits and advantages are:

  • What ideas, suggestions, or proposals are there for how to approach this problem?
  • What is the benefit of this?
  • What positives are there for this idea?
  • What could be done to make this faster?
  • What could be done to make this work better?
  • What could make this cheaper?
  • Under what conditions would this work?
  • What would it take to make this proposal acceptable?
  • What is your vision for how this could work?

Most discussions are based on arguments, I am right, you are wrong, focusing on satisfying the ego rather than developing the best options. The Hats unbundles and separates thinking, to think of multiple perspectives and develop the best options. Also, the process avoids thinking of too many things at once.

Parallel Thinking

The Hats helps you explore subjects in a disciplined way, focus on individual aspects of the subject, balance thinking, and maintain discipline (don’t jump between hats). In addition, the Hats create structure in important conversations, and allow all sides to be heard. Use the Hats the next time you want to thoroughly analyze a topic and ensure the optimal decision is made for the benefit of the organization.

Improve the Business With DMAIC

 DMAIC-Cycle

DMAIC is a data-driven, five step improvement cycle within the Six Sigma process. it is an excellent tool to identify root causes of problems and develop solutions. DMAIC stands for define, measure, analyze, improve, and control. The goal is to improve processes or products to achieve the Six Sigma level of 3.4 defects per million.

Six Sigma is a data-driven improvement process to eliminate defects. It was developed in the 1970s by Motorola Corporation. The goal of Six Sigma is to achieve 3.4 defects per million instances (sigma (σ) is the Greek letter used to measure statistical variability in a process). Defects are considered anything outside of base specifications, typically derived from customer needs or manufacturing requirements. Six Sigma leverages data and statistical measures to solve problems and improve processes.

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Define is the first step of the DMAIC process. Under this step it is necessary to clearly define the goal of the exercise (e.g., problem, process, product). You need to also define who the customer is that is experiencing the problem and determine overall objectives. In addition, it is helpful to Define the overall process where the problem occurs.

The second step is Measure. This step focuses on objectively developing baselines and understanding deviations from the norm. This data-collection step is critical to ensure the entire process is moving in the correct direction to understand “what is happening” in the environment. An effective method to gather data and understand the problem is to “go to the spot” and see the problem first-hand.

Measure

Talk to people experiencing the problem or do the process yourself and understand what causes the problem to occur. In addition to gathering qualitative data, gather quantitative data to identify any patterns that can be statistically analyzed to identify patterns. Gathering data is critical for effective analysis using statistical tools.

Go to the spot

The goal of step three is to Analyze the data you gathered and determine the root cause of the problem. During this step the team needs to understand what is causing the problem, when the problem occurs, where it occurs, etc. This step requires strong critical thinking and patience to ensure a careful review of the data leads to the identification of the root cause.

analyze

Step five is to Improve; develop, implement, and test a solution for the problem. This step focuses on developing creative solutions to eliminate the root cause of the problem. Teams should use tools such as the Six Thinking Hats or Random Word to develop creative ideas. The team can leverage the plan, do, check, act (PDCA) cycle to test new ideas and determine which ideas result in improvements and eventual elimination of the problem. Within this step, the team develops new ideas, tests, then implements.

Improve

The final DMAIC step is Control. The purpose of this step is to ensure improvements are sustained. It is critical to monitor the improvement steps and measure any deviations from the norm. This step is extremely important to ensure the root cause of the problem you identified eliminates the problem from reoccurring. If the problem reoccurs it is time to analyze what is occurring and develop a new solution.

Control

Let’s look at a real-world example. A large chemical company sells a two-stage adhesive that bonds plastic pipes; the company sells business-to-business (B2B). The company has received a product complaint from a customer. The customer bought the two-stage adhesive to join plastic pipes and it is not working; the adhesive is gelling before the two components are mixed.

Chemical Plant --- Image by © Keith Wood/Corbis

It is imperative to solve the problem and get the customer new product that is not defective. Most importantly, the customer needed a replacement, non-defective product ASAP. They have their own customers that need the product for several large projects. There is a lot of pressure to get this figured out quickly.

The team has Defined the problem and outlined the entire process from obtaining raw materials to shipping finished goods. In addition, the team has outlined three goals of the exercise.

    • Determine root-cause of gelling
    • Implement actions to verify if root-cause is issue
    • Develop procedures to reduce issue to zero defects

The team then gathers data to Measure the current situation. The team interviewed workers in the engineering lab, the quality lab, production areas, and the warehouses. In addition, the team called customers to understand details of the problem (when it occurred, where, etc.).

zanon_workers

Through phone interviews it was determined there was large amounts of inventory in customer stock. In addition, the team identified that all gelling was only in batches produced from Nov 2016 to January 2017. In addition, the team then measured production levels from the past 18 months. Customer order data was gathered to understand which customers received the faulty product. The team also identified that 164 complaints of defective product was noted from five U.S. states.

Phone interviews

The Analysis determined that the batches used a new formula of the adhesive (the only batches to use this new formula). It was also determined that 39,899 total items were produced. As the team gathered a large amount of data, and took the time to properly analyze the data, they identified several potential root causes. A fishbone diagram was developed to graphically represent possible causes and narrow-down the most likely issues.

blank-fishbone

Within this step the team also identified that a supplier of one of the key components of the adhesive had to cease operation due to hurricane damage to their manufacturing facility. The purchasing department identified a new vendor of the same raw material to ensure production was not affected. The new raw material was quickly added to the production process to ensure all deadlines were met. Unfortunately, the raw material from the new vendor was not properly tested by the QA group before being introduced into production. The team narrowed in on the raw material as being the root cause of the gelling problem.

Bags of material

After analyzing all the possible causes, it was time to Improve the process and ensure the problem does not reoccur. A list of possible recommendations was developed; the focus was to eliminate the problem and ensure the customers were satisfied. The cross-functional team (engineering, quality, manufacturing, marketing, procurement) developed recommendations to avoid the problem and improve the overall process to ensure this problem is not repeated.

brainstorming_session_pan_6170

To ensure the problem was Controlled and the solution was effective, the team developed a new process. Each step of the process (which was noted in the Define step) had a new monitoring step added to ensure every batch produced meets specifications. And most importantly, ensure customers do not get defective products.

Flow-Chart

A quality control (QC) chart was produced and hung in the engineering lab, the quality lab, and within the production area to ensure everyone reviews and understands the new process. The goal was to ensure that any time a new material is introduced; it must be reviewed by engineering and tested by QA before using in production. This visual communication device was an excellent reminder for everyone to follow the process.

The team and senior leaders knew everyone was trying to do the right thing by making sure production was not delayed and product shipped to customers on time. This was a good example of how important it is to ensure testing is not skipped. Everyone understands that quality is the most important aspect of the business.

A town hall meeting was conducted to share the problem and solution with the entire company. The goal was to continue the development of a root-cause analysis mindset to encourage ongoing continuous improvement throughout the organization. Most importantly, the team worked together to properly go through the DMAIC process and identify the problem and develop solutions quickly, without blame. The goal was to fix the problem and ensure the customer was satisfied.

meeting

The customers were extremely impressed with the thoroughness of the analysis and the quick response from the team. In addition, the customer’s confidence was renewed to ensure the relationship continues. In addition, several members of the team visited key customers to explain what was learned, why the problem occurred, and what the company was doing to ensure this does not happen again.

Customer meeting

DMAIC is an excellent process to improve existing products, processes, or services. It helps create a continuous improvement mindset throughout the organization to continually focus on eliminating defects. Using qualitative and quantitative data to drive analysis ensures a data-driven methodology is used to make critical decisions. DMAIC is easy to learn and use. If you do not have a formal root-cause analysis process, DMAIC is a great tool to use, even if the organization does not use Six Sigma.

    1. Observe some important aspect of the marketplace or your business
    2. Develop a tentative explanation, or hypothesis, consistent with your observations
    3. Based on your hypothesis, make predictions
    4. Test your predictions by conducting experiments or making further careful observations. Record your observations. Modify your hypothesis based on the new facts. If variation exists, use statistical tools to help you separate signal from noise.
    5. Repeat steps 3 and 4 until there are no discrepancies between the hypothesis and the results from experiments and observations.

So stop guessing. Use a formal process that leverages data to make decisions. Discipline and systematic processes ensures a higher probability of success that knee-jerk reactions or a scatter-gun approach to solving problems.

A Whack on the Side of the Head

Roger-london-2008

I love dusting off old, classic books and getting inspired by great authors. Roger von Oech wrote a classic book on creativity in 1983, A Whack on the Side of the Head. Whack is a great read that provides a fun, simple overview of the creativity process.

I hadn’t read this book in several years but it is one of my favorites. I typically give this book as a gift to help motivate people to embrace creativity and improve their lives and business. The author explains 10 mental blocks, and the four roles in the creative process.

Whack

There are ten “mental locks” to creativity and von Oech provides guidance how to overcome them. These mental locks are myths of creativity that often hinder our creativity. Anyone can improve their creative thinking skills; it just takes motivation and learning a few tools. The ten myths von Oech notes follows:

  1. The Right Answer
  2. That’s Not Logical
  3. Follow the Rules
  4. Be Practical
  5. Play is Frivolous
  6. That’s Not My Area
  7. Don’t Be Foolish
  8. Avoid Ambiguity
  9. To Err Is Wrong
  10. I’m Not Creative

Von Oech also outlines four roles within the creative process, explorer, artist, judge, and warrior. Each role oversees the four steps of creativity. The need to shift between different thinking methods is critical as we move between each role.

Roles

The explorer searches for new information and resources. The artist creates new ideas. The judge evaluates the benefits of each idea and decides which offer the highest probability of success. And, the warrior puts the idea into use. Creativity requires the flexibility to move seamlessly between each role.

Anyone can improve his or her creative thinking skills. Like any other skill (e.g., playing the piano, skiing, shooting free throws), creativity requires using the proper tools and practice. Most importantly it takes commitment to become a creative individual. The information within this book will help you overcome barriers to creativity and allow you to navigate the creative process by adopting each role.

Roger failure

As the global business environment becomes increasingly competitive, technology rapidly iterates, socio-economic issues influence behavior, and ongoing political and environmental challenges all industries, every person within an organization needs to develop creative thinking skills. The need for continuous improvement and the development of new business and product concepts is critical to stay ahead of fast-moving competitors. Complacency and acceptance of the status quo is a recipe for disaster.

A Whack on the Side of the Head should be a part of everyone’s library. Along with classic creative thinking authors such as Dr. Edward de Bono, Michael Michalko, Doug Hall, and many others – von Oech provides a great foundation to improve your creativity skills. I also recommend his other book A Kick in the Seat of the Pants as well as his deck of cards, Innovative Whack Pack.

A kick in the pants

Teams need to use deliberate and systematic methods to drive creative thinking. A structured method of creativity ensures effective and efficient creativity sessions. Having mental flexibility along with the foundational creative thinking skills allow anyone to develop new ideas to change the business and delight customers. The more everyone in the organization challenges themselves, stretch their thinking, and use creative thinking daily, the higher probabilities of business and product success.

Whack Pack