Do It Yourself Business Tools

DIY_HeaderThe older I get, the more analogies jump unexpectedly from random dark alleyways and take me prisoner at gunpoint. Perhaps it’s a function of age; after all, I’m now a card-carrying sexagenarian, which is in no way as fun as it sounds as though it ought to be. More likely it’s just the way my head works, a concept frightening enough by itself to send that analogy scampering back into the darkness if it had a shred of sense. Since it’s unquestionably the height of bad form to anthropomorphize a literary device, I’ll go no further. Suffice it to say that the analogy is here to stay, so perhaps I should explain. First I offer a word of warning; there will be math involved.

Immersion in writing the lecture notes for my business analysis class has already heightened my consciousness for all of the available materials around me. In and of itself, it is a fascinating process of which to be cognizant as I go about learning (or relearning) the subject matter I will teach, along with the requisite teaching techniques. When the stress of interlacing this effort with my day job reduces my productivity to a trickle, I will either head to the piano or to the wood shop to reboot my noggin. It was in the latter venue that the triggering epiphany assaulted me.

For the past two years, I have been moving a lifelong passion for woodworking up to a new level by acquiring some advanced skills. One of these involves woodturning and I had retired to the shop to create a set of drawer pulls. The first step was to make a tool called a “screw chuck” that was going to hold the stock that I would be carving. While I was turning the block of poplar into a perfectly round disk, it struck me that I had made quite a number of tools during the past year. Each was custom made and reusable. And because the process of writing lecture notes was fresh, I saw clearly how many of the business tools I had built over the years were coming in handy in that effort.

We probably all make tools of one kind or another for use in our respective jobs. The question is, how many of us hang on to them? When it comes to tools, I am a packrat. I save everything whether it is from work or for the shop. If it is of any potential use, I categorize it and store it because sooner or later I will need it again. Business tools I have created and kept over the years run the gamut from simple document templates to sophisticated cost-benefit analyses and weighted prioritization tools. This has saved me many times from having to reinvent the wheel.

There is more to the do-it-yourself tool than merely collecting it. The thought process that goes into crafting it teaches one more effectively how the tool actually works, along with other truths about the process for which it is being used. This is as true for the logic behind a kerf jig as it is for the math underlying net present value in a cost-benefit template. In fact, making your own tool is just about the best way to learn because it is not merely the principle that one has mastered but an objectification of the principle. To demonstrate, let us look at these two examples side by side, starting with cost-benefit. Both explanations are a bit technical, but demonstrate the point clearly.


Cost-benefit Analysis
In a cost-benefit analysis, one seeks to understand the net of costs and benefits (cash flow) expressed in some common measurement (usually a currency such as dollars) of a project or product over a specified period of time. In other words, add together all of the direct and indirect costs of a project over x years and subtract those from the financial benefits of the project over the same time period. But there is a catch. One hundred dollars in cash flow today is worth more than the same amount a year from now. This is due to factors such as inflation or what that capital might have earned had it been invested (opportunity cost). Thus, a true cost-benefit analysis looks at future cash flows discounted into today’s value (present value). Moreover, later years are weighted less heavily than earlier years as uncertainty increases.

Now, you could just pop some numbers into a spreadsheet and use the spreadsheet’s functions to do the heavy lifting for you, but where is the fun in that? Instead, let us build our own. The formula for Present Value (PV) is:

CB_EquationAssume that you have a project that will take two years to complete and you want to look at the cost-benefit over five years. This year is year zero, next year is year one, and so forth. Your director of finance has informed you that the discount rate is six percent. Rather than use the spreadsheet function for PV, I have manually input the above formula into cell B11 as =B9/(1+$B$5)^B7 where cell B9 is the cash flow for year zero, $B$5 is the discount rate, and B7 is the time index (year number). I then copy that formula into cells C11 – G11. Net Present Value (NPV) is then the sum of the six PV values in the analysis. In this case, benefits outweigh cost.

CB_GridWhat you learn by building the tool from scratch in this way is a better understanding of how Present Value is driven exponentially year over year. For me, this also demonstrates the importance of how the passage of time impacts negatively the return on investment as well as how the heavier weighting is given to the earlier years where the cash flows are in the red.


The Kerf Jig
The kerf jig is used to create the “perfect” lap joint using a standard table saw blade. A lap joint is made by making a wide cut (dado) halfway through two pieces of wood and assembling them to look like this:

Lap_joint2There are several ways to do this including mounting a dado stack (a composite wide blade created by “stacking” together a set of blades). The challenge is always to have the width of the cut precisely equal to the width of the piece of wood you are fitting into it. The wood worker must also take into account the width of the saw blade when making this kind of cut. (I told you that math is involved.) Enter the kerf jig. It guarantees a perfect cut every time.

The kerf jig is a very simple device and easy to make. It consists of two blocks of wood: one fixed and one that slides. A knob secures the slider. As you can see in the next photograph, when the end of the slider is precisely even with the end of the block, there is a gap left. This gap is precisely the width of the saw blade.

Kerf_Jig_Closed1Imagine now that you are going to make this cut. You have two pieces of wood, piece A and piece B. You are going to cut the dado in piece A first, so you insert piece B into the jaw of the jig and set the slider as shown.

Insert_work_piece0The gap is now the precise width of the cut you want to make. At the opposite end, the distance between the end of the slider and the end of the block is equal to the precise width of the desired cut minus the precise width of the saw blade.

Kerf_Math1Then using a cross cut sled (another DIY tool) you align the saw blade with the inside end of the cut, add the jig using the long side (block plus slider) and clamp a stop in place. The sled (see picture) gives you a way to clamp a stop block to something that moves through the cut. It also allows you to move the stop block, the jig, and the piece of wood you are working on through the cut together.

First_Cut2After you make the first cut, turn the jig 90 degrees so that that the short length is against the stop. Butt the wood piece against the jig and make the second cut. Remember that the distance between the first cut and the second is the desired width of the cut less the saw blade.

Second_Cut2The saw blade cuts on the outside of that distance, adding itself back in. All that is left is to cut out the center material.


By now, you may begin to appreciate the value of the do-it-yourself tool. Sure, I could buy a kerf jig online somewhere, but why would I do that? The jig I made cost virtually nothing since I made it from scrap wood in the shop. And because I now have a hands-on understanding of why it works, I will make fewer mistakes when I need to make a complicated set of lap joints (e.g., a wine rack). Similarly, having used the PV formula directly in my template instead of relying on a built-in function, I not only have the underlying concept more clearly in mind, I also will be able to teach it more effectively.

The business analyst in me likes this contact with the inner workings of things, the visceral connection to the underlying “why” and “how” of tools. I delight in how the underlying math of both tools reveals something about the nature of the processes being performed. Also, I love the correspondence between these very different business tools. In the end, it is a good thing that the analogy took me hostage, don’t you agree?

Do you make your own business tools? Do you save them?


By the way, if you are curious about the tools in the title photograph, they are from left to right a feather board, the kerf jig, a hand-held starter bit for hollowing out bowls or cups on a lathe, a screw chuck, and a push board for a table saw. All of these tools are sitting on a cross cut sled.



Gouge or Skew?

Gouge_or_Skew_Header“A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.”    — Robert Heinlein, Time Enough for Love

The quote above has come back to me several times over the past few weeks as I write the lecture notes for a class on business analysis that I will soon be teaching. This is Heinlein’s definition of the “competent man” as articulated by his character Lazarus Long. That name alone conjures competence and longevity to the fertile mind, don’t you think? Say it out loud: Lazarus Long. At any rate, the reason that this particular passage has come to the front of my mind is because as I prepare for this class, I have come to realize what a model of generalization business analysis really is.

The program director recruited me to teach the class about five months ago on the basis of my background both in business analysis and meeting facilitation. It was perhaps more the latter qualification that mattered because that is the focus of this class, the final one in the certificate series of three. In addition to my facilitation and group management knowhow, however, is the need to bring together the tools and techniques taught in the prior two classes into a final pretty package and tie it with a bow. Ignorance is bliss; I agreed to the gig.

Reality is a brutal teacher. Having been a reasonably competent practitioner of these skills for twenty years is one thing. Teaching about them is quite another. First, there is a professional framework that must be observed (IIBA or the International Institute of Business Analysis). Second, there is a variety of tools and techniques with which I need to be at least modestly conversant but have neither heard of much less used. Third, one picks up habits both good and bad along the way without giving them much thought. Given these impediments, the challenge of sitting down and crafting course content might be enough to dissuade one from teaching altogether if it were not for all the new knowledge.

But what really comes out of the process that harkens back to Heinlein is the variety of skills and tool sets available to the business analyst, along with the variety of different skills to master. There are modeling techniques for both business processes and systems. There are business architecture frameworks. The successful business analyst must be articulate both verbally and in writing, and must be both intensely logical and highly intuitive. He/she must be able not just to lead a meeting, but also to facilitate a dysfunctional group toward agreement. How much like the competent man this begins to sound.

But here is where the true rejection of specialization comes in. In the Heinlein passage there are several examples of stated opposites, for instance, “cooperate” and “act alone,” or “take orders” and “give orders.” The implication is that one must be prepared for most situations and be capable of both extremes. In other words, just because there is a plethora of modeling languages available does not mean that one necessarily needs to be expert in all of them. Rather, one needs to know enough about them to be able to choose the one that is appropriate for the situation. And even then, any of several might work so one needs to be able to choose the one that will work best for oneself. For instance, in twenty years of performing business analysis for a variety of organizations, I have never needed to use UML (Universal Modeling Language) or IDEF0 (never mind, it is an acronym within an acronym). I have found Business Process Model Notation (BPMN), Context Modeling, Fact Qualifiers, and Entity Relationship Diagramming to be a completely sufficient toolset. Had I ever worked for a defense contractor, such might not have been the case. By the way, for those of you who are unfamiliar with the terms and acronyms, don’t worry. I do not give tests.

A wood turning video I watched recently demonstrated the same truth in sharp relief. The craftsman filmed it as a training guide for wood turning beginners (such as myself) to learn how to hollow out the inside of a cup or bowl on the lathe. Rather than assert that “this is the tool” and “this is how to do it,” he acknowledged that there are many ways to go about it and many different tools that could accomplish the same end depending on individual skill level and comfort. Within the framework of key facts about the nature of a block of hardwood spinning at 1000rpm or more on a lathe, either a gouge or a skew chisel could work equally well in hollowing the vessel. An “outside in” or an “inside out” approach is equally acceptable as well. The secret is to practice with the tools that you do use until you are competent with them, gradually adding new instruments and techniques as you progress in ability and knowledge. The expert wood turner is competent with many techniques. Our discipline is no different.

There is yet another aspect of business analysis that resonates with the Heinlein quotation. This is the fallacy that the business analyst must be a business expert – that is, a specialist. I would expect a good business analyst to be experienced and knowledgeable in business, but not necessarily at the level of an MBA. On the contrary, I would expect an outstanding business analyst to be broadly educated and widely skilled because the role calls for active listening and profoundly acute pattern recognition. The tools and techniques help us, but they are no replacement for the analyst’s perceptions and experience. It is the same skill (or art) that comprehends an analog between a skew chisel and UML, that is able to perceive that the goose one man sees and the beaver another man sees are in reality the opposite ends of the same platypus. Add to that the ability to help each man adjust his point of reference sufficiently to recognize the fact and you have the competent business analyst. Rather than an expertise in one area, the role requires competence in many.

While I have taught many one-day classes over the years, they have all been on focused topics for individual clients. This is my first time teaching a full-length course in a University classroom which means that I am newer to it than even my wood turning. Ten classes of three hours in length translate to a tremendous amount of material to prepare and organize.   And while I have been reading and studying and writing for months, I have as yet to “turn out” a single product. That will come in a few weeks. In all events, I look forward to the new ideas and insights that will come from working closely with twenty other active minds for thirty hours (600 mind-hours!). I have no idea as to what shape might emerge from this virgin block of wood stock, but I do know that it will add additional dimension for any competent man. Stay tuned.

What qualities does your organization look for in a business analyst? Do your practitioners employ a range of tools and skills?


Talk is Cheap

Cheap_HeadingIn their best-selling book In Search of Excellence, Tom Peters and Robert H. Waterman, Jr. described eight themes or behaviors practiced by successful or excellent companies. At the top of the list was “a bias for action.” The authors saw the importance of driving to rapid yet well-informed decisions that allowed the business to move forward without becoming stalled in bureaucracy or endless talk. Thirty-three years later, this bias for action is as relevant as ever. It is relevant not only for businesses, but also for organizations of all types. Frankly, it is even relevant for individuals.

All too often, though, organizations demonstrate a debilitating penchant for inaction. As a result, it takes longer to identify and solve problems, makes responding to the marketplace slow, and generally renders any form of improvement close to impossible. This inclination toward non-action typically takes one of two forms. The first is the practice of endless talk. The second is the diaphanous decision.

I imagine that nearly everyone reading this has experienced a situation where an organization you were involved in was facing a challenge but progress toward a solution had stalled. You attended meeting after meeting with lots of talk and no decision. Perhaps the meetings were just far enough apart that everyone felt they had to begin over again. Perhaps there were new participants and for whatever reason they had to be caught up on the topic by rehashing it all from the beginning. And all too often, the same people dominated the meetings time after time. Moreover, phrases such as “We’ve tried that!” and “That doesn’t work” abounded. Sooner or later, the people in the room who are ready and willing to act drift out of the picture only to be replaced by new folks who will need to be “brought up to speed.”

Of course, a facilitated session would end the talk once and for all, but recognizing the need for one requires capable and aware leadership. On the other hand, if leadership is sucking up all of the available air in the room at meetings, then the self-awareness needed to make a change is not in evidence. Such organizations are destined to wallow on until they either fold or disaster causes a true shakeup.

The cult of the diaphanous decision is even more deadly because it is generally a cultural part of the organization in question. Consider a group of people who come together and eventually make a decision. The participants can even document the decision, but anyone who did not participate in the meeting is allowed to reopen the debate and delay any action that might be a consequence of the decision. I have even seen situations where one of the participants in the original decision has challenged the decision in a subsequent meeting. Not even facilitation can help in this situation, because an agreement by the participants to abide by the decision has no validity. Such organizations can eventually move forward, but progress is glacial and the cost is high.

In both cases, there is an almost pathological resistance to action. There are many reasons for this including control, incompetence, and fear. Fear may be the biggest factor and can derive from the fear of change, fear of the unknown, or fear of failure. In any case, the perceived need to talk and analyze and reanalyze leads to a form of institutional paralysis. Such paralysis can rarely be overcome except by a wholesale change in management, a cataclysmic event, or both.

The bias for action does not ignore any of these factors. Action requires forethought, a measure of control, and competence. The reality is that no one can be 100% assured of any outcome no matter how much planning goes into the action. But with that knowledge, one can be prepared to adapt in process when the need arises.

I have found that preparing deliberately but then taking action quickly can help to facilitate success. The secret is not to try boiling the ocean in the early stages. Rather, beginning with small successes or failures can help to uncover facets of a problem or situation that months of talk and analysis might never have uncovered. It is one of the reasons that Agile works so well as a software development approach.

I have also found prolonged talk or preparation to be creatively stifling, while action frees the mind to creative possibilities. I often apply this when learning a new skill. After reading just enough to know how to get started, I will jump in with both feet and try it myself. I will experiment to see what works and what doesn’t. When I encounter things that do not work, I will go seek out the answer from a book, an online article, or an expert. Action gives me more and better questions to ask. Experimentation leads me to possibilities that were not “addressed in the book.” And doing leads me closer to a solution more rapidly whether I am leading a team or pursuing an independent project.

As for those situations where the endless cycle of talking or rethinking of decisions has ground progress to a halt, I have little in the way of advice to offer. If you are in a position to bring change to the organizational culture, then by all means do not waste another day. If not, the best you can do is ask the question, “What will it take to agree to action by the end of this meeting?” You can sweeten the pot by offering to lead the way if the team is agreeable, but that also means taking responsibility if events do not turn out well.

Peters and Waterman had it right back in 1982. And as I mentioned above, there is a cost in time and dollars when organizations cannot move from talk to action. The meetings themselves cost money, while the issues and challenges that remain unaddressed have a cost of their own. When allowed to continue unresolved, that cost can mount quickly. Looking at it in this way, I realize that I acted too quickly in naming this article. Perhaps I should have entitled it “Talk is Pricey?”

How do you move from talk to action in your organization? How would you break the cycle of unproductive talk?