Friday, February 26, 2010

Reclaiming the Enterprise - 3 - Stop Counting!

We're lost, lost in a sea of numbers. The numbers have become an end in themselves. We find more and more things to count, more and more numbers to tabulate. It makes us feel good, it assuages our anxiety.
It's a waste of time!
This is another of the illnesses that has infected our organisations. I have a sneaking suspicion that it forms part of a bigger illness called MBA Syndrome.
It's the fashion to measure organisational performance, and on the basis that if measurement is good then more measurement is better we measure everything. At best it's a distraction, at worst it's just another plank to launch yet more senseless bullying and pressure. Measurers aren't managers, they're analysts.
Real managers understand that any organisation is sensitive, in a meaningful way, to a very small number of parameters. Let's be clear: by "organisation" I mean a small to medium enterprise or a division of a larger enterprise.
Let's think about this: if you are a call centre business there will be a small number of parameters that are the real contributors to profitability. I'm not a call centre guy but I'd imagine that calls per hour is one, or in a help desk environment it might be calls resolved on first contact. In a professional services organisation a key number is staff utlisation ratios - if too many of your staff are on the bench then your head is underwater. Whatever the case. It's the same for any business. I would say that 4 parameters are the maximum that any business should focus on.
A further clarification: I'm talking operational numbers - I'll explain that more soon. By all means let the accountants and the analysts measure other things, but ensure that the business is focused on the real measures.
When you measure a small number of parameters you can:
  1. Make those parameters widely understood and accepted across the organisation;
  2. Make the performance against those numbers widely known across the organisation;
  3. Spend only a small amount of time on the measuring process and instead focus on actually doing business;
  4. Ensure that the argument doesn't become one about measurement methodology rather than business performance.
The critical issue here is that, as the quantum physicists know, when you measure something you change it. The same is true of organisations. When you get organisation focus on a small number of parameters and they are the right parameters then the mere fact that everyone is focused on them will lead to improvement in performance. I've seen amazing outcomes when everybody in an organisation "buys in" to a small meaningful set of measures. Employees really start to think about how the business runs and what the drivers are. They can see how their actions and their performance affect the business.
Deciding which parameters to measure and getting that right is one of the key attributes of a good manager. Equally important is the capacity to get shared ownership of those parameters across the organisation.
There are huge benefits to such a sparse approach to measurement:
  1. The team can focus rather than spreading their efforts in a scatter gun approach;
  2. Management can watch the big picture - they can manage - rather than spending inordinate amounts of time sifting through reams of irrelevant numbers;
  3. Employees get a buzz out of being part of the organisation. They can understand the drivers and they tend to commit to achieving. They become self managing with respect to key performance measures;
  4. Where it becomes apparent that a specific area needs focus an additional measure can be added for a short period of time to "clean up" an issue. This can happen without adding to a cumbersome system - the system is neither complex nor cumbersome.
I believe that as a manager, the less you trust yourself, the more you will measure. What do you think?

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Cutting Dyneema & Spectra

This is just a quick thought for all those people who have tried to cut this stuff with a knife or a set of cutters. Whatever you use it seems to be very hard to cut. Even an apparently sharp knife often leaves a ratty end after you have sawed away at it. A hot knife slices right through it but the result is pretty ordinary and the material doesn't really melt in the way that something like nylon does.
In frustration the other day I reached over and picked up a big Japanese Deba. For those unfamiliar with a Deba it is the Japanese knife used for filleting fish. It looks nothing like a western filleting knife: instead it's heavy - the blade is often 3-5mm thick, sharpened only on one side and very broad. Like most Japanese knives the steel is harder than western knives and it is sharpened at a finer angle. Having said that, Deba traditionally have softer steel than most other Japanese knives in order to avoid chips when hitting small fish bones.

The Deba in question

The Deba I use is a modified Deba - the steel is slightly stainless rather than simple high carbon and it has a western style handle. Nevertheless it takes a seriously wicked edge with a few swipes on a water stone. This knife is so sharp that it's not until you see the blood that you realise you have cut yourself. It is the sharpest knife in the house and I have several other very sharp Japanese knives.
Back to the Dyneema. The stuff I wanted to cut was both heat set and "normal". I put it on a board and the Deba just glided through it. I was pretty stunned. I had expected that it might help a bit, but this was a just sliced straight through the material, no deformation, no ratty ends, it just did it.
The problem is that you don't want to be carrying around 420g of knife with an 18cm blade and 32cm in overall length - that's nearly a pound of knife and over a foot long in the old measurements.
I think there are options however, a Ko Deba is a smaller version of this knife and it comes with blade lengths of around 8 or 9 cm - so half the length of mine. An example is here.
This might become an essential rigging tool. However you'll also need to learn how to sharpen a single sided blade and you'll need some decent sharpening stones.
Perhaps a good starting point for understanding this knife is to go to Watanabe Blade and have a look at some. It's also worth having a look around that site at other knives. Please be aware that Watanabe San says he's very busy at the moment! Just for reference Watanabe's small deba have a blade thickness of 3.2mm whilst my large Deba has a blade thickness of 5mm.
Two final things to be aware of: most Japanese traditional knives are high carbon steel and therefore they will rust easily unless cared for - camellia oil is your friend! The other point is that the steel is hard and therefore more brittle than the knives you may be used to. If you maltreat these knives they will chip and it is a sad thing to see. Some of the knives have a soft iron back forged to a hard steel cutting edge. These are stronger knives but the cutting edge is still hard and therefore prone to chipping if maltreated. I'm not sure they will take being hit repeatedly with a marlin spike or mallet!

Monday, February 22, 2010

Reclaiming the Enterprise - 2 - The Micro Manager

These women and men are an illness that has infected our organisations. They are responsible for much of the bullying and distress that happens in our organisations and they have a negative impact on performance. So that we are on the same page, let's paint a picture of the micro manager:
Jane is a GM responsible for the delivery of complex technical services to customers. She has about 8 direct reports and they, between them have about 400 staff in total. Jane insists that NO decision of any importance is made unless she is present (in person or by phone/video) in the meeting where the decision is made. Jane attends around 40 meetings a week. Her day and that of her direct reports starts at 7:30am and often goes late into the night. Jane never seems to have enough time for all the meetings that she has to attend and often decisions are delayed for weeks whilst people try and find a slot in her diary.
Often her DRs make decisions without her - albeit small decisions. It almost inevitably ends in tears. Jane will hear about it and will overturn the decision. Unless she has personally discussed something she will block it in discussions with other GMs and with the CEO.
Jane is very prone to ranting and raving at people - subordinates cop it most but she will also dish it up to other GMs. There is no stopping her and she is vindictive and erratic. Jane's behaviour becomes worse if she senses any risk in a decision. At that point she becomes paranoid and obstructive. The situation has got so bad that Jane will deny that she has heard of a proposal or been part of a decision, even though 6 or 7 senior people may have been with her in the room when she made the decision. The truth is that she works such long hours and attends so many meetings that she simply can't remember what she has discussed and what has been decided. Such situations however make Jane even more aggressive.
Jane's anxiety runs out of control - all of the time. She never feels able to stay on top of "her job"; she never feels able to run fast enough. Jane's DRs are almost all recruited by her, and a sorry bunch they are. Jane only recruits people who will do what she tells them and who she feels won't challenge or threaten her.
Everyone in the company acknowledges that she is a control freak. The CEO loves her because she is just like him: obsessed with detail and never able to exert enough control. He knows that things are safe with Jane, she's just so obsessive that nothing could get past her.

Unfortunately there is not a shred of exaggeration in what I've written about "Jane". My experience is that "Jane" is less obsessive, less controlling, less micro-managing than a very large proportion of what passes for "managers" in Australia.
Let's be clear about a few things:
  • People like Jane are NOT managers;
  • People like Jane are bad for businesses, bad for themselves, and bad for employees;
  • Jane is driven by only one thing: her inability to manage her own anxiety;
Good managers do many things differently to Jane.
  • They employ top quality people - they see the quality of their team as a sign of achievement;
  • They empower those people to make decisions and to take action;
  • They support and mentor their team, they provide them with challenges and support them if they stumble;
  • They deal with performance issues in private and in a way that leads to growth and change rather than belittlement and negativity;
  • The buck always stops with them for the performance of their team;
  • Good manager have their anxiety utterly under control. They know what anxiety is and they have well developed strategies for managing it;
  • Good managers are at peace with themselves and their egos. Yes they have egos but they are settled and quietly confident of their abilities. They don't need to show off to anyone;
  • Good managers are entirely capable of leading from the front but they also know how to effectively lead by influencing and supporting others to perform. They don't need the limelight.
If you are a manager where do you fit? If you fit in the first group then you only have two ethical choices: either begin immediately to do serious work to ensure that you move from being like Jane to being like the Good Managers; or find another job that doesn't involve managing people and do that NOW.
Most likely however you are uncertain where you lie. The reason for that is that most micro managers also lack a key quality that good managers have: they have no capacity for self reflection and therefore they have no capacity to understand that they are in fact a dud and no capacity to do anything about it.
The saddest part is that when a managerial hierarchy in a company are all like Jane, then they all admire each other and none of them have any capacity to reflect on the inappropriateness of their behaviour.
Welcome to much of corporate Australia.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Soft Shackles - Modern Art & Craft

If you look at a modern high tech racing boat you'll find exotic fibres sprinkled all over it. Boats are even using exotics in place of things like chain plates and fibre rigging is making a come back. All that makes tremendous sense when you are in a high tech racing campaign where every gram of weight counts and strength per unit size is ultra important.
What's that got to do with traditional wooden boats though? Well the answer is "everything and nothing"! My boat displaces about 8 tonnes on a 29 foot waterline - a lightweight flyer she isn't. However our spinnaker block is an Equiplite spectra block - it's very light and what's more important it won't damage the mast varnish by banging on it as a normal block would. It also has massive reserves of strength.
The spinnaker is a great big 840 square foot asymmetric. The thing about a traditional style boat is that it comes, ready made, with the bowsprit and all the trimmings to fly an asymmetric. Our J measurement is 18 feet on that 29 foot waterline so we can carry a big spinnaker with ease. The real purpose of that sail is for light winds - from basically 0 to 15 knots apparent. After that we feel like it belongs below. The apparent wind angles range from 50 to 130 degrees in light winds through to 65 degrees to 160 degrees at the higher end. But what we really like it for is light winds. With an asymmetric in order to sail deep you need to ease the tack line and get the luff of the sail to rotate out to windward. Again the heavier the pressure the deeper you can sail.
However at lower pressures you can still get good outcomes if you can get the weight out of the running rigging. The less weight the sail has to lift - either from the sheets or from the tack line and shackle the more likely it is to fill and set. So that sets us on a path to get the weight out of the gear and that's where exotics come in. We want sheets that are light, strong and which don't absorb water. There's nothing worse than having the sail collapse, the sheets getting wet and then making it hard for the sail to set again. So that means spectra sheets with the covers stripped or single braid spectra with a non-wettable cover added in the way of the winches.
Elsewhere on the boat we still want "hardware" that isn't hard on the boat. Lots of manufacturers are now offering soft "shackles". These are great - they weigh nothing and are very strong - but they are also very expensive. USD$90 for a shackle is too much for me.
My first attempts are in the photo below:
Top to bottom: 1 & 2 use a brummel eye splice and a double figure of eight stopper
3 uses a slip eye and double figure of eight
4 uses a slip eye and a carrick bend stopper
Each of these shackles is incredibly light and potentially incredibly strong. The breaking strain of the line is about 5,300 daN or about 5.3 tonnes. Subtract say 30% for the knot and then halve that for a safe working load and you still come up with a working load of around 1.85 tonnes (and yes I know that daN doesn't quite convert to tonnes but it's near enough). I say potentially because I haven't tested these yet. I'm waiting till I perfect them.
The one I really like is option 4: Options 1 and 2 rely on a fixed eye and whilst I think it is secure it could possibly be induced to work loose. Option 3 is OK but the lengths and tensions are not quite right. Option 4 is the best because not only are the tensions right but the slip eye is highly secure as you can see in the two close ups:

This photo clearly shows the slip eye. The braid is formed into an eye, one side of the eye is passed through the centre of the other side of the eye. It's then passed back out and the two ends formed into the carrick bend to form the stopper.
Under pressure the outer braid grips the inner braid and even at very low tensions it is impossible to either open or close the eye. To open the eye the outer braid is bunched slightly and the eye slid open.

The cover bunched and the eye slid open
Time to make one of these is about 15 minutes, materials cost about AUD$8.00. It's a bit hard to find a new shackle when one breaks half way across the ocean but it's easy and simple to make one of these.
Just to clear up a couple of misconceptions: Spectra/Dyneema has extremely good abrasion resistance and extremely good UV resistance. The spinnaker turning blocks on our boat are attached to the bulwarks with some strops made of this stuff. They've been out in the sun for about 3 years with no signs of any degradation and the only thing that's being abraded is the bulwark.
All I have to do now is to find a better way of finishing the carrick bend so that the ends don't show (any suggestions?) and then put a couple on a test rig.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Recreational Aviation Governance in Australia

In Australia we have a very effective legislative regime for recreational aviation - what used to be called ultralight aviation. CASA - the safety regulator - has delegated organisations to undertake the management and oversight of recreational aviation.
In the case of traditional ultralight aviation this role is undertaken by Recreational Aviation Australia (RAAus), the old Australian Ultralight Federation. You must be a member of RAAus to exercise the privileges of your pilot certificate.
Rec aviation has become extremely popular and RAAus has grown phenomenally over the last few years. Membership increased 13% in 2006, 12% in 2007, 8% in 2008 and almost 9% in 2009 to stand at around 9,180.
This has created some interesting challenges for RAAus. The two most important challenges that I see are:
  • Enhancing governance to reflect the changed scale and nature of the organisation; and
  • Ensuring that the activities of the organisation reap the available economies of scale.
Let's look at each of those. RAAus has grown from a small, easily understandable organisation to a large and increasingly complex organisation over recent years. The governance and management demands have changed and with them the demands on management and the Board.
RAAus has a Board of 13 which is elected on a representative basis. This doesn't represent best practise in corporate governance and raises a number of issues:
  • The Board is too large to be manageable and effective;
  • The Board meets only twice a year - too little to effectively oversight the organisation;
  • Representative boards involve a fundamental conflict of interest. Board members have a general responsibility to act always in the best interests of the organisation as a whole. At the same time the voters who elected individual Board members often have regional or sectional interests which may be at odds with the interests of the organisation as a whole (see Note);
  • Representative Boards do not ensure that the organisation has the best possible Board members and often lead to a lowest common denominator outcome from elections (see Note)
  • Representative Boards do not give the organisation the ability to seek professional directors to serve on the Board. This prevents the Board from effectively ensuring that it has the requisite expertise amongst its membership;
NOTE: To be clear I am not suggesting in any way that any past or present member of the RAAus Board has acted in conflict of interest, nor am I saying that any past or present Board member has represented the lowest common denominator. I am simply highlighting that the current system supports the occurrence of both of those things.
There are further issues of growth which also touch on Board roles and responsibilities. The most important of these is the transition from a Board that is intimately involved in every aspect of the activities of a small organisation to the role of a Board of a larger organisation which must focus on governance and oversight of the activities of the organisation.
An example at RAAus is that the Ops Manual gives Board Members specific powers with respect to operational matters. This is entirely appropriate for a small organisation and increasingly inappropriate for a large, complex organisation (like RAAus) with competent employed staff.
The difficulty with dealing with these issues is that neither the Board, nor membership has any real incentive for tackling them. For the membership, any meaningful change will see a reduction in the representative nature of the Board. For Board members there is that issue and also a reduction in the absolute number of Board members. What is certain is that governance challenges will increase unless action is taken. In that respect CASA has an obligation to seek constitutional change at RAAus as a condition of its continued delegation of oversight to RAAus. At a minimum the required changes are:
  • Board elections to change from regional voting to national voting;
  • Board to change from 13 elected members to 5 elected members;
  • Creation of a selection committee (see next point) to select and appoint 2 professional directors with specific required skills who are not members of RAAus;
  • The selection committee would consist of 2 representatives of CASA, 2 members of RAAus not Board Members, and an independent Chair all appointed by the Minister;
  • Professional directors would have a two year term with one of the initial appointees to have a 3 year term so that only one appointee is due for replacement in any given year;
  • Board meetings to be increased to 10 a year with at least 3 of those face to face;
  • Review of the Ops Manual to ensure that Board Members no longer have operational roles unless they hold another role (such as a CFI) that requires operational activities.
These changes are a first and urgent step on the way to improving the governance, Board effectiveness and financial viability of the organisation. These changes will allow for much more effective Board performance, a skilled Board and effective strategic direction and oversight of staff.
Once those changes have been undertaken we will have a Board that is in a position to direct a review of the organisation and its operation. As RAAus has grown there is little evidence that the per unit cost of doing its business has fallen as it should have. This means that too much money is spent on administration (issuing certificates, renewing them, etc) and therefore too little is available for safety, operational and technical oversight and indeed employment of suitably qualified management.
Food for thought for RAAus and CASA