Standardization Archive

Danger in using big data too mechanically

Danger in using big data too mechanically

Big data allows us to overcome the human tendency to oversimplify. Whereas we focus on one or two big causes to our problems, big data allows us to see the integration of many smaller causes. As the article, “Be My Guest” (The Economist, December 21, 2013 edition), exemplifies, this allows further detailing of our standard operating procedures. It means further programming our employees’ comments and actions, especially in customer service.

Oversimplification means focusing on the big things at the expense of the small. Six Sigma and Lean have proven big payoffs can come from small improvements. Translating to customer service, customers’ impressions originate from the collective impact of many small incidents not just a couple big ones. Big data allows us to leverage small incidents, thus transforming customer service and its training.

If you don’t tell a joke right, it falls flat. Customer service is like that. Big data teaches us to say the right things at the right times, but if we don’t deliver right, as early findings are showing, we convey mechanicalness or worse, creepiness. Tone might not fit words. Response might have mirrored exactly a co-worker’s earlier one. Too many personal particulars of the customer might have been referenced.

Big data isn’t about showing customers how much we know them. It’s about delivering without leaving the impression we know anything at all about them. It’s the joke comedians tell a million times as though they’ve just thought of it even though everyone knows it’s well planned, rehearsed and delivered. It’s the dancers, musicians and athletes who deliver performances seducing us into believing they required no practice.

Just as better information helps them, big data can do the same for customer service . . . as long as training methods adapt to incorporate that information.

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Christopher Palmeri reports in “Disney Bets $1 Billion on Technology to Track Theme-Park Visitors” (BloombergBusinessweek, March 7, 2014) that Disney is leveraging big data to personalize their guests’ experiences. This means encouraging them to preschedule their entire visit, thus reserving limited spots on certain rides and reducing wait times. Downside is less spontaneity.

Freedom - Order (Chaos-Slavery) Duality

Schedulers produce order from chaos; Extemporizers produce freedom from slavery

The predictably mixed reactions Palmeri reports highlight a personality schism, the freedom-order duality, I often observe in the workplace. Simplifying for this study we find schedulers (order) versus extemporizers (freedom). Schedulers love it, gaining more control and efficiency over their time. Schedulers produce order out of chaos, giving form to an undefined, potentially wasteful experience at Disney. Extemporizers hate it, losing spontaneity and enjoyment in living the moment. Extemporizers produce freedom out of slavery, escaping the routines and mundanities of work and home for Disney.

The reactions and debates demonstrate how much we underestimate and underappreciate the differences in us as humans. It’s easy to forget that our target audiences, when viewed from varying vantages, often shatter, losing their monolithic qualities.

The article made me recall speech and debate days from high school. Our team needed both talents, scheduled speakers and extemporaneous ones. The first gave the same talk at every tournament for the whole season. The second received different topics every time with often less than twenty minutes to prepare.

As examples, TED talks are highly scheduled, rehearsed and choreographed. Practice often lasting months. At the other extreme, we have pundit panels with lively exchange. In between, we have interviewers with some scheduled questions and with some spontaneous depending on guests’ responses.

Whether it’s speaking, enjoying Disney or working, while some blending occurs, schedulers will often find it difficult or unenjoyable to function as extemporizers and vice versa. Fortunately though, we need both.


Related Post: Real-time Personality Assessment: Freedom-Order Duality


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This entry is part 4 of 4 in the series Vanilla Words-Vanilla Thinking

Plain VanillaPeople often use common words in common ways. The goal is frequently understandable and quick communications. Technical terms, representing complex actions in processes, are an example. People also assemble words to create common phrases.

Reusing or revising form letters are large-scale examples of word assembling. Memorizing definitions and regurgitating reading materials are others. Analogously, it’s akin to programmers assembling packages of code rather than writing each line of code or builders assembling parts of houses rather than building each part.

I began to think about thoughtless word assembling when I created a presentation for a national sales manager. He liked the word “dynamic” very much. On one slide I incorporated it by using “dynamism,” the noun of dynamic. When he came to it, he didn’t know what it meant. A similar result occurred when I wrote “perspectival change” rather than “change of perspective.”

The implications of this to vanilla thinking hit me when I commented an executive was smart because of an idea she discussed. My listener, then asked, “How do you know she didn’t just regurgitate what she read in some book?” Related more simply, consider a little girl who knew the name of every dinosaur in a book, impressive yes but does she really understand anything about them? The same holds true for the adult. She regurgitated the idea but did she understand it?

Thus, the common phrasing habits that standardization, efficiencies and processes enforce can encourage us to communicate without really contemplating or understanding the ideas behind what we’ve said. These habits also force the assumption on us that people understand the ideas behind their words. Vanilla phrasing happens throughout organizations’ hierarchies.

In short, vanilla phrasing allows us to use vanilla thinking to discuss vanilla ideas. How creative, innovative and interesting will this make us?

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This entry is part 7 of 9 in the series Why Problems Occur

Same over UniqueCreativity is challenging especially with time pressures. Additionally, depending upon the work culture, motivation might be difficult. Heck, how many times do we hear, “Don’t reinvent the wheel?” That’s when we revert to doing the same thing we or someone else did, such as a best practice. When doing the same trumps doing something unique, different, it’s an alert of potential problems.

How often do we see a movie’s sequel do poorer than the original? Here’s the principle: the second time we apply the same thing to a similar situation, chances are good that it won’t work as well. Why? Since no two events in life are the same, there is likely an unknown, unique aspect of the first situation that helped our approach work well, and it probably doesn’t exist in the current one.

From a problem-solving perspective, approach influences solution. Applying the same approach can create problems. Routines and habits, while efficient for us, can create problems because we tend to apply them mechanically, not asking, “Why am I doing this?” At some point, they become dangerous for us. Repetitive strain injury is a physical example, boredom an emotional one. Even improving on existing habits and routines by tailoring them to our current situation helps avoid problems.

Emotionally, since doing the same is usually safer and unique implies change, we gravitate toward the first. Moreover, standardization, processes, rules and the like are mainstays of scaling businesses. At some point, change will disrupt them; failing to adapt will bring their death. This is to show that sameness, applied mechanically will eventually cause problems. It’s just a matter of when, not if. That’s why when sameness trumps uniqueness it’s an alert that problems might be brewing.

So, what did your business do the same today?

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This entry is part 4 of 10 in the series Psychopaths in Workplace

Psychopath & Sociopath The DifferencesThe introductory post of this mini-series summarized the situations promoting the rise of psychopaths to CEO as:

Psychopaths function better in formal hierarchies where rules are fairly well entrenched. New and emerging companies have less systematization and structure than their bigger brethren do. Psychopaths often acquire their power by breaking rules, but only if almost everyone else abides by them. Rules enforce controls, controls over people’s behaviors. This is why psychopaths are extremely hypocritical when it comes to rules: they will break them if it benefits them but will strictly enforce and punish others who do the same.

Incrementally growing or declining companies are fertile grounds for psychopaths as long as they sense an advantage. Psychopaths have no problems getting rich at the expense of the enterprise. High growth creates dynamic opportunities and change. This is risky for psychopaths because opportunities abound. A dog-eat-dog mentality to advance is less prevalent compared to situations where one can only get ahead through the termination of another. Psychopaths shine in dog-eat-dog situations.

Of course, if psychopaths can govern change in a high-growth situation or the growth is assured that is definitely an advantage. That is why they will definitely seek to run high-growth departments within slower growing or declining companies; this only enhances their image and power. Furthermore, since change is dynamic, they will likely need to make new rules at which psychopaths are often good. Rules are good, making rules is even better.

Simply, psychopaths need people. They use rules to control them and acquire power by working outside them. They look for rich, mature hosts or very young ones assured of growth, needing organization, standardization, discipline and processes.


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This entry is part 6 of 8 in the series Change Management Strategy

The better we anticipate change the better we can position and implement it. Understanding a company’s life cycle helps us anticipate change. Using a linear perspective of change, we can define this life cycle as Birth, Growth, Maturity, Decline and Death with the curve representing revenues over this life.

Company Life Cycle

Company Life Cycle

Birth. The company forms from a small group of employees with job functions highly integrated. Each employee works within a loosely formed organization and performs many different functions. The major challenge is securing revenues.

Growth. The company expands. The challenge becomes establishing processes to facilitate production and service while containing costs. Job functions become more segregated and defined, giving more organizational structure.

Maturity. The company hits its stride becoming a major force in its market. Growth rates slow as its market penetration expands, but record revenues materialize. It finely tunes processes and job functions to achieve cost savings.

Decline. The market and competition change. The organizational structure, processes and job functions now become deeply ingrained habits of its culture and impediments to adapting. Layoffs and other cost reduction actions become common.

Death. Unable to adapt or to make the right changes quickly, the company contracts. Large-scale layoffs and cost reductions occur, creating a smaller enterprise or preparing it for sale.

From a change perspective, early on, companies strive to segregate, organize, process, standardize and computerize integrated human activities. As a company matures, change focuses on refinement and incremental improvements. Once past maturity, change appears as complete overhauls to serve new purposes and markets, usually as the result of mergers, acquisitions or consolidations.

While no company follows this life cycle idyllically, it helps us anticipate the kind of changes we might need to position and implement. More importantly, it helps us realize that the infrastructure helping us today will obstruct the change we seek tomorrow.


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Hell Image Text [IMG-0124]Businesses strive for predictability. Standardization helps them achieve that. Still, many employees like their jobs for their variability, “It’s something different every day.” Herein is a paradox.

On one hand, we have predictability containing expenses by minimizing surprises. On the other hand, work’s variability gives us pleasure. Could predictability make us wealthy but miserable too? Walter Kirn touches on this paradox in his article “Knowledge of the Future Is Messing With the Present” (The Atlantic, July/August edition) by asking:

Has making life more explicable actually made it any more pleasurable?

Perhaps by understanding predictability better, we could appreciate change better and strip its fearsomeness. The The Twilight Zone episode, “A Nice Place to Visit,” can help.

The main character, Rocky, is a petty thief who dies. A divine guide finds him to deliver the news and show him to his new “home.” At first, Rocky can’t believe his luck for in this place he gets whatever he wants. In poker, all the cards go his way. With women, none deny him. Despite his long list of sins, Rocky figures God granted him heaven.

However, after a while, he becomes bored with the predictability of succeeding at whatever he attempts, poker, slots, women, robberies, billiards etc. Finally, he approaches his divine host and says, “If I gotta stay here another day, I’m gonna go nuts! Look, look, I don’t belong in Heaven, see? I want to go to the other place.”

The divinity rebuts, “Heaven? Whatever gave you the idea that you were in heaven, Mr. Valentine? This IS the other place!”

By imagining extremes, we alter our perspectives, permitting a more realistic assessment of our conditions. Not only do these perspectives influence our emotions (i.e. reducing fear of change) but also they improve our problem-solving skills.



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This entry is part 2 of 4 in the series Vanilla Words-Vanilla Thinking

Plain VanillaJust as music can set the tone, so can words. Just as music can help you assess personalities, words too. In business, standardization and processes play critical roles and bring their own jargon to facilitate communication in very much the same way as play calling facilitates football and military jargon facilitates warfare.

When we combine the two concepts, communication with efficiency, we create what I call “vanilla words.” Just as serving chicken at weddings is safe, words can serve the same purpose: palatability for all tastes. Yet, while such words facilitate communications, what kind of mood do they set? Just as “money” words cause us to think of work and “time” words relationships, what do vanilla words cause us to think and feel?

For example, what would you think of a person using nothing but vanilla words? How creative would you suggest his word choice was? How creative would you think he is? Long ago, as a merchandise buyer, a vendor showed me a 15-year old children’s bed sheet line that doubled sales in one year by simply changing the packaging. Similarly, many ideas seem fresh simply because of a different wording to present it.

If the creativeness and innovativeness of a culture correlate strongly to the presence of diverse personalities, why can’t the same be true for a person with regard to his word choice? Diverse word choice correlates to creativeness and vanilla word choice to standard thinking? Furthermore, if we return to the power of words to set our moods, what mood does a vanilla presentation set in us? An uncreative one? A standard one?

Thus, if we wish to help people or cultures feel more creative; we should spice up our word choice with some non-vanilla words.


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Identifying creativity isn’t easy, but it is possible and can be done without assessment tools. It begins with identifying outlying answers to our questions. There are differences between people who give standard answers and creative ones, and differences between people who can solve problems and people who are problem solvers.

In other words, when we ask people questions, we should to anticipate their answers. The more different they are from the ones we expect the more creative they might be. Of course, different is necessarily creative. For example, someone gives a different answer to a question, but when we ask, “How did you come to do that?” and they answer along the lines of, “Well, some friends suggested I do that,” the act might be different to us but was not creative to the person.

This technique is similar to polling, meaning we need several questions on divergent topics to use it well. We also need to adjust for cultural and environmental differences. For example, people might give us different answers because their culture is different from ours and we have little experience with theirs. Thus, while their answers might be different from what we expect, our expectations might be too narrow.

On the other hand, their answers can’t be unconnected to our question. For example, if we ask, “How do you normally get to work?” and they answer, “Breakfast,” while it’s different, there isn’t a connection, and we’ll need to ask for one.

Nevertheless, in the end, the more different we find people’s answers are from our expectations and from what we could expect from their situations, the greater their creative potential is. That brings up another point: most people don’t realize how creative they are so they haven’t developed it.


Related article: Test Your Creativity: 5 Classic Creative Challenges


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Groups change people; a person in a group is very different alone. Subliminal influences encourage groups to accept those who adopt its ways and to excommunicate those who don’t. Since new approaches disrupt the status quo, creative people often fall in the latter.

The Stanford Prison Experiment (August 1971) clearly showed what can happen to individuals when they form groups without constraints: abnormal behavior erupts from normal individuals. Daisy Yuhas’ article, “Emotions in Lockstep” (Scientific American Mind, May/June 2012 edition), follows a similar theme.  She discusses the work (Synchrony, Compliance, and Destructive Obedience) of Scott Wiltermuth from University of Southern California Marshall School of Business in which he:

. . . demonstrated that cultural practices involving synchrony can enable people to bind other people to them, making those others more likely to comply with others requests and engage in destructive obedience.

In other words, when people perform synchronized movements, their emotions become more unified and more open to aggressive and destructive behavior than when they aren’t synchronized with others. Thus, as Yuhas writes:

Military leaders have long known that marching in unison makes for a tight-knit platoon. . . . A more tightly knit team, it seems, is a fiercer foe.

However, the challenge is that while good can come from such unification so can bad. The determining factor will often be the leader. This only reinforces the importance of the environment and culture that a leadership team establishes for its enterprise.

While negative manifestations might not be as overtly destructive as in the Stanford and Wiltermuth experiments, a culture overemphasizing standardization, compliance and planning will covertly retard an enterprise’s ability to adapt, create and innovate. One of the main ways this will occur is by the gradual expulsion of disruptors and dissenters.


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Tony Hey in his article, “The Big Idea: The Next Scientific Revolution” (Harvard Business Review, November 2010 edition ), and Patrick Spenner and Karen Freeman in theirs, “To Keep Your Customers, Keep It Simple” (Harvard Business Review, May 2012 edition) talk about the challenges of too much information, too much choice. These become tougher when we are acquiring more information at an unprecedented rate. However, these trends also apply to everyday business activities.

For example, research is cited in Spenner’s and Freeman’s article concerning the following:

  • Too much information will tend to cause us to postpone or neglect decisions
  • People naturally tend to overthink and second-guess trivial decisions
  • The harder a decision is the more important we seem to believe it is
  • The more time we spend on a decision the more important it becomes in our minds

Now, if we combine these tendencies with the acceleration of information, we could easily have business leaders thrashing more and more with their decisions. In other words, if you believe your organization has problems making decisions now, it’s only going to get worse.

This creates an ironic paradox. While technological advancements allow us to produce and deliver products and services faster, they slow down our decision-making. This means we become even more wedded to our standard processes for longer periods, thus retarding adaptability. In short, we miss opportunities because we respond more slowly to new facts and circumstances; we can only handle decisions that fit within our standard parameters.

Therefore, the stockpile of unmade decisions will grow and clog our already overstressed decision-making processes. We will wrestle with more decisions longer than we ever did. We’ll have the information at our fingertips, but we’ll be indecisive about what to do with it.


For additional reading, consider “Your Brain on DDoS” by George Colombo (Twitter: @georgecolombo)


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We often overlook the downside of processes in our businesses because we enjoy how they allow us to scale and reduce labor costs. However, they often become the infrastructure that retards flexibility and adaptability as people’s self-interest and comfort zones become wedded to the processes.

The November 2010 issue of the Harvard Business Review, which focused on leadership lessons from the military, Boris Groysberg, Andrew Hill and Toby Johnson wrote about the tradeoffs between process and flexibility. Their article, “The Different Ways Military Experience Prepares Managers for Leadership,” discussed the tradeoffs that each of the four branches of the U.S. Military made and how they influenced leadership styles.

Their research showed that CEO’s who had military experience in the Navy and Air Force tended to “take a process-driven approach to management; personnel are expected to follow standard procedures without any deviation.” This allowed them to excel “in highly regulated industries and, perhaps surprisingly, in innovative sectors.”

Conversely, those with an Army and Marine Corps experience tended to “embrace flexibility and empower people to act on their vision.” They were able to excel “in small firms, where they are better able to communicate a clear direction and identify capable subordinates to execute accordingly.”

Throughout the article, the authors contrasted the process orientation of the Navy and Air Force with the adaptive one of the Army and Marine Corps, the important point being that there is a tradeoff between the two. Even though they justified why each branch had the orientation it did, they still contrasted the two orientations as a trade-off. In simple terms, it’s hard to have both.

Therefore, when we rush toward processes to create standardized, consistent and repeatable outcomes, we need to leave room for adaptation. After all, life never duplicates itself in exactly the same way.


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One of the paradoxes of best practices is that they promote unimaginativeness because if everyone followed best practices the differentiation among competing firms would drastically narrow.

In its raw form, BP is copying. Companies do not transform markets or shoot ahead of the competition by copying. If they do, they need to enhance the original. A better practice than the best practice will achieve this especially if every other company in that space is following the best practice. As a result, BP’s encourage “inside the box thinking” resulting in a workforce based upon complying with the BP rather than thinking about making the best better.

This occurs because to find a “best practice” people only need to dredge the internet or current research material. If they don’t want to do this, they only need to find an unimaginative expert who has already done this for them. However, bettering a best practice requires much thought and inspiration. That’s why in many law firms there are research assistants assigned with this task so attorneys have more time to think about the uniqueness of their cases.

Of course, many unimaginative people offer this defense: “Let’s not reinvent the wheel.” What they don’t realize is that since 1790 the United States Patent Office has approved over 30,000 patents for wheels. This number doesn’t include many specialty wheels in toys and machines such as the wheels on toy cars or the pulleys in machines like transmissions. It also doesn’t include the Ferris Wheel.

BP’s encourage employees to do exactly that: not reinvent the wheel. They don’t encourage them to think about improvements to make the wheel better or for other purposes. BP’s say, “Someone else has already solved the problem.” Thus, the best practice of inside-the-box thinking is to adopt a best practice.


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If you examine the two opposing sides in the Star Wars Epic, The Empire (Bad Guys) and The Rebels (Good Guys), there are two major contrasts:

  1. There are no women on the bad side.
  2. The good side has diverse characters, the bad side doesn’t

Upon contemplation, Point #1 is easy to see. Point #2 is a little harder, but essentially the Empire’s army consists of robotic droids who all look alike in white, shock-troop armor. Conversely, the Rebels are a collection of species, some humanoid, most alien and some even animalistic. Moreover, whereas the Empire’s forces are all dressed alike, the Rebels are not. Similar themes exist in Lord of the Rings.

What does this mean? Very simply, we tend to see evil as being a life of conformity without feminine qualities. In business, this movie helps us to see the emotional forces aligned against standardization and processing. It might also help us to understand why women are making such advancements: perhaps as an offset to these negative forces. Finally, it shows our inherent emotional propensity for diversity including in personality.

Women are closely associated with diversity; as they’ve been the first ingredient of diversity in many business settings. Heck, their wardrobe alone adds immense diversity to them. What would happen if two women actors arrived in the same dress for the Academy Awards: chaos, confusion, anxiety? What if two men came in the same black tuxedo, would anyone even notice?

Movies tend to tap into our deep, unseen, collective emotional currents. Consumer research shows there is often a different between “what people buy” and “what people say they will buy.” Thus, while we wring every cost saving from standardization and processing, perhaps on a deeper emotional level we feel “The Bad Guys” are winning.


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This entry is part 1 of 4 in the series Vanilla Words-Vanilla Thinking

Expressing our thoughts is challenging especially when we don’t know the words to do so. Therefore, restricting our vocabulary will tend to restrict our thoughts. As a result, we will experience more difficulty influencing others and solving problems. It’s important for us to expand our vocabularies, to allow stylistic differences and to exercise our minds by defining the fine differences between synonyms rather than assume they are the same (i.e. truth vs. clarity, influence vs. control, power vs. authority).

George Orwell’s book 1984 details this thought control through a state working feverishly to restrict the words of its citizenry. By eliminating words like “freedom” and “revolution,” citizens would have difficulty thinking of these concepts.

We don’t have an Orwellian state; however, business and company cultures tend toward self-censorship because they need standardization for efficiencies. Standardization often requires standardized communication practices, as exemplified in warfare and football. They save time.

I call such words “vanilla” words. They tend to be:

  • Inoffensive to the group (politically correct)
  • Repeatedly used to enforce positivity and optimism (i.e. great, awesome, super)
  • Technically or narrowly defined
  • Promoting cost-control, speed and efficiencies
  • Easily understood (no dictionary needed)
  • Buzz words, phrases and acronyms
  • Void of emotionalism and feeling (i.e. business reports and legal documents)
  • Emphasizing groups over the individual (i.e. We versus I, They versus He/She)

Basically, vanilla words encourage us to look at our businesses in vanilla terms. We cannot arrive at new flavors by using words that encourage a vanilla filter. The cost is employees who can only think inside a vanilla box.

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