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Is the 80/20 rule limiting our ambitions?

See this billboard?  I took the photo just outside the Edinburgh Apple Store - it is literally 5 steps away.  



 Location. Location. Location. 

Location. Location. Location. 

Imagine you've broken your macbook, or iPad, or iPhone and you've popped into the Apple store to get it fixed, expecting the visit to cost you a fortune, and then you see this sign. Hmmm, you think, if I cross the road, take the escalator down 2 flights, then maybe I can save myself a sizeable chunk of cash. I bet a lot of people do just that. 

In terms of bang-for-their-advertising-buck, this location is probably the best investment the small company could make. That said, it is prime billboard real-estate and pretty expensive so they could've used their small budget to buy a dozen cheaper signs elsewhere, throughout the city.  But somehow they got clever and just purchased the one.  


This isn't just 80/20 thinking, it's 99/1 thinking. 

I'd love to know their thought process.  How did they make this decision?  It's counterintuitive.

I doubt they started out thinking, "let's just have one expensive sign". Most people don't think like that. We humans seem hard-wired to think "more is more" not "less can be more". I imagine, too, the advertising folk were very keen - incentivized, actually, in that they'd earn more money - to sell more signs, not less, so I doubt the idea came from them.  

Somehow, someone got creative and did the counterintuitive. Bravo. 


I've had a lot of conversations, lately, with programmers about how we need to "slicing and dice" our projects and then their scope. I always ask - just to be sure - if they're heard of the Pareto or 80/20 rule. I'm surprised to report that hardly any of them had. I guess I'm suffering from the curse of knowledge be used I'd assumed that, since 80/20 thinking was so fundamental to my work, it was just common knowledge and everyone knew it these days.

The bad news is they didn't. The good news is that it's such an obvious concept they picked it up and applied it very quickly. 


I've been using a billboard example to explain Pareto, asking "if you had a limited budget to advertise your new product, in your city, where would ou put the billboards?".  

It never occurred to me, until I saw this sign, that maybe 80/20thinking was limiting.

Maybe I should be asking, "if you could only afford 1 billboard, even if it was more expensive, where would you put it?"

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People Remember What You Say When You Paint a Picture

Do you need to communicate at work!  Yes, of course you do, so pop over to the hbr and read this short article which paints a nice picture of why you should paint a nice picture when you communicate. The short version: Use visual, concrete language if you your ideas to stick. 

Wanna see an example?  Try this snippet from Friends, the TV show. Joey accidentally bought a boat at a charity auction. Watch how Rachel tries to Save Joey $20k by selling the boat to the 2nd highest bidder. Watch and listen how she paints a picture. 



Can you help comedian Dave Gorman solve this estimating problem?

Dave Gorman is one of my favourite comedians.  He's clever, funny, a good bit twisted, but not rude.  He makes powerpoints.  Funny ones.

Anyway, Dave has a problem, according to his facebook page.  It's a forecasting / estimating problem, with a few constraints. I can't think of a solution.  Can you?

Just so you know what you're reading, we start with (1) a comment from an annoyed fan, the rest (2) is Dave's rather thoughtful response.  

  1. [Annoyed Fan] Sad that we never got to see you in London, 2 hours in car/tube, queued for 2 hours only to get close to the door and told it was full [frown emoticon] Us and the other 150 disappointed people behind us had to go home frown emoticon gutted

  2. [Dave Gorman] I'm sorry to hear that Abby. I believe it was actually between 70 or 80 people that didn't get in. That's more people than normal - although a similar number to last month's recording.

    Here's the thing: tickets for recordings have to be free. (I don't know why that's the case, but it is. They *have* to be.)

    Because they're free a *lot* of people request them and then don't use them. It can be for all sorts of reasons. Some people just forget. Some people discover there's football on the telly. Sometimes it's a sunny day and you're in a beer garden and someone gets another round in and... well, what the hell, they were free anyway.

    The %age of people who turn up can vary enormously. This is our third series. Last series there was at least one of our four recordings where nobody got turned away and we could have got another couple of people in.

    They'd issued the same number of tickets for that recording as they did for the most recent recording. The attendance rate can be anything from 30% to 80%. With that amount of variation, it's almost impossible to guess the right numbers. Go too low and you can end up with a half full venue. Go too high and you can end up making people unhappy when they don't get in. As far as I know, they use the figures from the previous series to make their estimates. I don't know how else they could do it. How would you do it differently?

    If the same %age of people had turned up as normal, there wouldn't have been an issue. You can't really blame them for expecting it to be the same as normal. That's what anyone would expect. After all, that's what "normal" is. 

    Everyone who is turned away should be offered a guaranteed seat at a future recording. If you weren't, get in touch with them.

    All in all, it's a nigh on impossible task to get right. I'd much rather they were able to sell tickets for these sort of things. Not because of the revenue but because the drop out rate would be tiny and the whole thing would be much easier to manage. From my point of view, the problem is caused by the number of people who request tickets and don't use them. For what it's worth, two of the people who complained loudest about not getting in at the last recording, were people who had requested tickets for series two and then not turned up! They're the cause of the problem. They're the reason we can't issue 200 tickets for 200 seats! 

    Nobody enjoys turning folks away. Nobody wants disappointed punters. But nobody can risk empty seats either. That's why the risks of not getting in are always explained. Ironically... one of the reasons some people decide not to come is that they assess the risk and decide it's not worth the journey. So the more you explain the problem to people, the bigger the problem gets!

    I hope you can avail yourself of the guaranteed seat at a future show. If so, I'll see you there. But in any case, I'm sorry the day didn't pan out as you hoped. It's not for want of trying on our part and despite what some people said to us on the night - we didn't "obviously distribute way too many tickets". We distributed numbers of tickets that on other nights wouldn't have filled the venue!


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Wrong: improvements made anywhere besides the bottleneck are an illusion.

There's a quote about TOC I've seen quoted a few times recently, which seems to sum up the essence of TOC quite well.  

It doesn't.  

It's misleading and wrong.

It's this: "Any improvements made anywhere besides the bottleneck are an illusion."*


Let me give you an example of a situation where it's not true.  

This happened today.

My wife, daughters and I, went for lunch at a newly opened farm-shop restaurant.

  • We arrived at 1:25pm, joined a small queue then got a table quite quickly.  
  • We were seated at 1:30pm.
  • We placed our order at 1:45pm.  
  • Our food arrived at 2:30pm.  
  • We left at 2:45pm.  

Yep: 75 minutes for lunch, 10 of which was spent eating, the rest waiting ....


The restaurant's bottleneck was, clearly, the kitchen.

And, yes, if there was any way to easily improve their throughput then that'd be very worthwhile, but you really shouldn't STOP there.  

In fact,  you probably shouldn't even START there.  You should start by finding the kitchen staff a little thinking / breathing space so they can improve.

Maybe the easiest way to improve the situation would have been to remove or hide some of the tables (perhaps by putting "Reserved" signs on them?, perhaps by collapsing them and moving them into storage for a few weeks), then politely turn people away, "I am sooooo sorry, but we are full.")

That would have instantly reduced the pressure on the kitchen staff and let them think about how to better organise themselves.  You know how hard it is to think about improving stuff when you're drinking from a fire-hose.  They would seated fewer customer but served more, probably up-sold a few desserts & coffees and increased their revenues, and they definitely would have gotten fewer negative trip-advisor reviews.  

Other improvements they could have made which didn't directly touch the kitchen?  They could have raised their prices - over all, or just on the freshly cooked stuff. They could have changed the menu and specials board so it required less kitchen time during peak hours.  My wife noticed they'd run out of soup, for instance - that shouldn't ever happen in a restaurant coz it's so cheap and easy to make in advance and loads of people order it AND perhaps the waiting staff could dish that up without needing a chef?  So, tomorrow, cook more soup.

Are there other non-bottleneck improvements?  Perhaps the kitchen's precious capacity is wasted because the waiting staff (who were learning) were taking multiple orders before dropping them to the kitchen, causing the kitchen to have unnecessary downtime?  Perhaps the waiting staff were slow taking the plated food to the customers, which cluttered the limited kitchen space and slowed the chefs down?  I wonder how much precious kitchen time was wasted when customers left out of frustration, even though 3 or their 4 dishes were cooked?  

And, what if you discovered your waiting staff were making a lot of mistakes?  (Our bill was wrong - we were overcharged but could easily have been undercharged).  Wouldn't you fix that first?


Some improvements to non-bottlnecks are detrimental, some are probably "illusions", but some are vital.  

Yes, bottlenecks let you focus, but you still need to think of the system as a whole.



[Update: I'm assuming that people will read this to mean they should only change the bottleneck.  That's how I read it for the first few years after I discovered TOC, based on my interpretation of The Goal, before I discovered strategic bottlenecks and the meaning of subordination and buffers and ropes.]


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Free audible copy of Rocks Into Gold

I will soon have 2 audio books published!

1. My narrator is about 1/3 of the way through Rolling Rocks Downhill and it should be on audible by the end of this month.  

2. Email me at clarke@rolls.rocks if you'd like a voucher for a free audible copy of my little book Rocks into Gold. It's 48 minutes long. The text version has been read almost 90,000 times on slide-share since I published it (for free) in 2009. You can also read or listen to it on www.rolls.rocks






TOC Insights on iOS

I worked through the Critical Chain session of Eli Goldratt's TOC Insights today. There are 4 of them: project management, operations, finance, and distribution.  I've worked through all 4 now, over the last few weeks, and they're really good. If you are interested in learning more about the How-Tos of TOC without going broke, they're a good investment of time and money. 

As it happens, I just discovered they're all available on iOS. They're not cheap compared to snappy birds, say, but considering they could change your life they're worth looking at. 

Start here: TOC Insights into Project Management and Engineering



Agile punctuation marks

Warning: If you're the sort of person who likes things black-and-white, then you might find the deliberately oblique approach, below, horribly annoying.

When I talk to a team which is starting an agile software project I usually ask them where their project's two agile punctuation marks are. 

Their what? 


I'll start with the obvious one.

1.  Agile Exclamation Marks - !

Most "Agile Exclamation marks" happen when we ship stuff.  That's when the "potential improvements" we've been working on become live and real.




These days we like projects to look like this: 

! ! !    !   ! ! !!!! 

rather than this:  


That said, sometimes, for very sensible reasons, you've gotta do Big Bang shipments.  Even then, this:


         !      ! 

is better than this: 


Most of us - especially if we're programmers (or, like me, programmers at heart) - start new projects by thinking about how we'll build stuff up, which is important but also narrow-focused.  By asking a team "where and when are the exclamation marks?" and "what's stopping us having more of them?" we're asking them to place themselves - temporarily, but at the most important stage of the project - into the shoes of their customers and take a top-down and benefits driven view.  It's disturbing how infrequently that happens.

2.  Agile Question Marks - ? 

"Agile Question marks" represent risks and uncertainty - things you don't know but wish you did.  

I hate to go all gloomy, but we IT folk are too optimistic and too focused on the stuff we're gonna build. The older and grumpier (and more accountable) I get, the more I'm interested in knowing what could go significantly wrong.  I want to unearth those potential problems early, if I can.

What are the significant question marks?  Things like "that messaging system is scary, I wonder if it'll work out of the box?", "the vendor says they'll deliver in August but I doubt that, what's their track record like?", "we just don't know if people will buy this thing when we launch, will they?", "we don't know if our (internal) customer will have enough time to work with us, will they? What should we do if they don't?".

Significant question marks are the bits of the project that might kill us, or might not, we just don't know.  I don't mind little question marks - sorting them is our day job - but I hate the big question marks - especially when they're unsurfaced, unnamed or unmanaged.  I particularly don't like it when teams cross their fingers. That's not their job.

So, when I meet teams, I put on my daft laddy face (i.e. socratic face) and ask "where are your project's question marks?" and then I ramble on a bit about what I mean by that. Often, I'll conduct a quick pre-mortem, asking the team to "imagine five years have passed, you're all sitting in a pub, reminiscing about how this project almost destroyed your careers ... what was it that went wrong?", then I'll sit back and listen as the the big question marks pour out.  The stuff that comes out is often a surprise - even when the PM actively manages a risk register - and it's often stuff that almost every agrees on.

Just by naming the question marks, the team inevitably starts discussing them and thinking about how to remove them, reduce them, or, at the very least, put a font-size on them. 



slowly creeping up the charts

Sorry for going on about my book but, as you can imagine, it’s been a big part of my life for the last decade and I’m just so pleased to see it popping up all over the place - Malta, New York, Paris, Canary Islands, … and, lately, one the first page of the two important categories on amazon, namely “Programming” and “Project Management”.

It’s funny, the random nature of purchases means that it wanders all around the charts, and it’s been hitting the front page quite often, lately. If it’s on the front-page of a category then it gets noticed a little more, which helps it sell a few more … 

I am hoping it’ll keep quietly creeping up the charts … but, well, we will just have to wait and see.



I lowered the price of my book on Amazon and (cringe) you won't believe what happened next ...

[I've never, in my 10 years of blogging, knowingly written a click-bait blog title before. I feel dirty, so dirty.]

Anyway, my book has been selling and getting good reviews since I published it in December. I'm still learning how to market it, though. It's not something I've ever had to do before. 

Yesterday I got some good medical news, AND it was sunny, AND I had a great chat with one of my clever Agile friends, AND then all this good stuff somehow made me a little whimsical and I popped over to Amazon and lowered the price of Rolling Rocks Downhill by just over 60%. I also put a little comment at the top of the book's description field saying I was having a "sale". 

And guess what? I've sold more books in the last 24 hours than I did in the previous 10 days. 

What that seems to tell me is that people have been looking at the book, thinking it's a little pricey and spending their hard earned money on coffee or iTunes instead.  

I'm happy. I want people to read the book. I want them to find it useful. I want to change the world, a tiny little bit. I also want to make a little money from it, but that's a long term thing - a bet, really. The more people who buy it now, at a low price, the more recommendations and reviews I'll receive, the more people will buy it in the future. Or something like that!

The 60% discount ends at the end of the month so if you see interested go here: Amazon.rolls.rocks




First fifteen minutes of Rolling Rocks Downhill audiobook

You can, if you like, listen to the first fifteen minutes of the Rolling Rocks Downhill audiobook.

The entire book - about 7 hours long - should be available on Audible in May, or maybe June.

You might be surprised when you listen to discover that the narrator isn't Scottish.  


The book is set in Scotland, Steve Abernethy, the hero, is Scottish and it's written in first person, so shouldn't the book be narrated by a Scottish man?  

That's what I assumed but then I did a bit of  internet research and discovered that my assumption was wrong.  I didn't believe what I read so I got a bunch of auditions, maybe 40 in total, some Scottish, some English, many American, and then I sampled a few of the best with friends.  The two big problems with  Scottish narrations are that Americans - my biggest audience - can't always understand them and there's not a lot of them to choose from.  The problem with American and English readers is that they just didn't sound like Steve.  Also, people said that English accents is that they sound intelligent - go figure!

I didn't know what to do so I chose one of the (few) Scottish narrators ... and it just didn't work out.  So  I opened the auditions pipeline again and I got a bunch flooded in.  Two of them were English guys and, well, they both just sounded right, to me.  It wasn't their accent, it was the way they read.  They just sounded right to me.  They didn't sound like Steve ... but they sounded like Steve, if that makes any sense. I chose one, Paul, since he was available soonest.

I hope YOU like the sample. If you're Scottish, I hope your note offended.

This was difficult, but I'm happy!



The Von Moltke matrix

From Rory Sutherland writing in the Spectator:

"When determination rather than skill becomes the deciding criterion for success, you may end up favouring the dumb and energetic — arguably the worst people of all. In the 19th century, Field Marshal von Moltke reputedly categorised Prussian military officers using the following matrix — in descending order:

1. Intelligent & Lazy: I make them my Commanders because they make the right thing happen, and find the easiest way to accomplish the mission.

2. Intelligent & Energetic: I make them my General Staff Officers because they make intelligent plans that make the right things happen.

3. Stupid & Lazy: There are menial tasks that require an officer to perform; they follow orders without causing much harm.

4. Stupid & Energetic: These are dangerous and must be eliminated. They cause things to happen, but the wrong things, and so create trouble."



My new podcast: TOCThinker Lisa Ferguson!

Hey! Five years passed and then I started my TOC and Agile podcasting again! Yay!

First up is Lisa Ferguson talking about the year she spent working as Eli Goldratt’s “Apprentice”. She’s written a book about the year and it’ll be out within a few weeks. How awesome is that? I am so jealous.

There’s video and audio. You can watch the video by following the link below. The audio is available there too AND on itunes.

Thank’s Lisa. It was a fascinating hour. I can’t wait to read your book.




Are you wearing the Agile dress ... or is it wearing you?

Last week, while helping me review an audition for the audiobook version of Rolling Rocks Downhill, my friend Alison said, "You know what the problem with this sample is?"

I shrugged. "Tell me."

"Well ...", she paused, seeming to struggle to find the right words to explain.  "I'll use an analogy.  Okay?"

"Go for it."

"I was trying on dresses, last Saturday, for a wedding I'm go to next weekend and there was this one dress, right, which I reeeaallllly liked, I mean it was GORGEOUS.  But then, when I tried it on. it wasn't.  It just didn't work."


"The dress took over.  If I wore it then people wouldn't see me because all they'd see was the dress.  Understand? It was like the dress was wearing me, not the other way around."

I said, "Oh", not quite following.

"This audition is like that dress.  It's is too theatrical, his reading is too dramatic, your story would get lost inside his narration and that's all most listeners would notice."


Likewise, I worry that, oftentimes, the agile "change agents" get too excited about agile and they end up with THE AGILE DRESS WEARING THEM, rather than them wearing it.  AGILE becomes the centre of attention.  Everything is "agile this" and "agile that".  Some people love all that excitement  - rah! rah! rah! - but it repels many people too. 

Not all that much changes with Agile: it's the same people, working on the same software, but they're delivering smaller chunks of software more frequently.  That sounds pretty boring, but I'd rather people focus on the benefits of Agile, rather than all the techniques and features.  Does it really need all that fuss?



We shouldn't have to ...

It bothers me, big time, that we NEED to stop and point out woman who've done extraordinary things. 

Don't get me wrong, I think we NEED to. It just really bothers me that we need to. 

Take a look at Margaret Hamilton's Wikipedia page, for instance. What a great story. What a brilliant person.  I find that interesting and impressive (especially the snippet on Apollo 11) whether her name was Margaret or Mark. Don't you?

I've been lucky, I think, during my career to work with, and for, some extraordinarily kind, thoughtful and intelligent people and many of them women. Without naming names, I still am. The surname of my book's main character, Steve Abernethy, comes from a woman I worked for 20 years ago. Her gender is irrelevant, but she had an enormous effect on how I work and think and behave towards others. Why isn't Steve Abernethy a woman then? It's coz the book is written in first-person and I don't think I'm good enough at writing, or intuitive enough about people, to write a female character that way. And, also, frankly, it just never crossed my mind.

I wrote "I've been lucky" in the last paragraph, and I think I have. I can't prove this but I think it's harder for women to start working in my industry, these days, than it was when I started 20 years ago. I hope that's not the case, but it seems that way. i don't know what to do about that.  It bothers me. 

That's why we need to point out woman who've changed the world, even though we shouldn't need to. 

Take a look at Margaret Hamilton's Wikipedia page. How cool was she!?!?!?!



I need a haircut

I had lunch with some agile friends - Chris and Marc - today.

Chris took this photo.  

We discussed self awareness. This photo made me aware that myself needs a haircut and a shave. 




R U Siri-ous?

I was in a very interesting meeting this morning when I remembered that I needed to finish that meeting early in order to rush to another meeting in a different building. 

I don't wear a watch so I pulled out my iPhone and told Siri, "set an alarm for 1045". 

It didn't work. Either It didn't like my accent or maybe I'd used the wrong syntax. Not sure. 

So I thought a moment then asked Siri the same thing but using words I knew would work because I use them most nights before I go to sleep. 

I said, "Wake me up at 1045". 

That worked! It set the alarm exactly as I needed. 

However ...

It took me a few moments to realise why, when I looked up from my phone to face my colleagues, they were frowning at me ...

"Wake you up?"

It was a really interesting meeting, honest.



Evaporating Clouds - an easier way?

I was surprised, after RRD came out, when several readers emailed me to say they particularly liked how I'd described Eli Goldratt's Evaporating Cloud technique.  Some were TOC people.  Some were newbies.  That made me VERY happy because, despite liking my variation of the cloud, I almost ripped those chapters out of the book, twice.  What saved them?  First, Kelvyn Youngman - a fellow Kiwi,  one of the cleverest people I know (and, trust me, I know a few), and author of the best free TOC resource in the world - shared a new, simpler way of writing (and evaporating) clouds.  Second, after my editor said the cloud chapters were too long and boring, I spent hours and hours rewriting them and de-boring-ficating them.  

Sadly, not everyone is going to buy RRD, so I figured I'd share the chapter where Craig (the book's Yoda) introduces Steve, the book's reluctant hero, to clouds by running through a very real example.  

I *think* the chapter stands alone - as an introduction - but your best way to learn how to evaporate clouds is to find a problem worth solving then use the example here as a pattern.  Go on ... give it a shot.