Thursday, July 30, 2015

Process Flow Diagrams

USMC supply system process diagram.
Most full time employees have a keen understanding of their daily processes. However, others, outside the organization, can easily become frustrated when they have to get involved in a process they don't understand. We experience this when we visit the DMV, file our own taxes, etc.

I learned a great way to solve this problem when I was a student at the Naval Academy in the early 1990s. As a midshipman, I had the opportunity to participate in a teleconference with Dr. Deming. Dr. Deming is known for his significant contributions in business management throughout Japan after World War II. In the mid-1980s, his Total Quality Management (TQM) teachings were adopted by the U.S. Navy and branded as TQL (L for leadership).

I paid close attention to Dr. Deming's comments during his conference call since I was raised by a father who spent a career in quality assurance.

The key issue Dr. Deming spoke about, that was actionable for me, were his comments about process diagrams. He pointed out that businesses need to diagram their processes, with names below each box of the person responsible for each step. This point stuck with me for two reasons. First, because it was an epiphany; and, second, because he was a bit of a curmudgeon about it. I got the impression he'd consulted to many businesses, over many decades, that didn't follow his simple, sensible advice.

Process Flow Diagrams

Process flow diagrams are very simple to create. Here's a real world example I developed in the Marines. While creating process diagrams, both in the military and in the corporate world, I refined my technique beyond what I learned from Dr. Deming into a highly effective tool.

Each box in a process diagram represents a step in the process for a particular task. (In my example, commodity is military-speak for customer.)

The text inside the box is a short description of the step. The first word inside the box is the department responsible for that step. If you have more text than can fit in a box then you may need to break that into multiple steps. 

Three items are listed under each box.

The first item is the job description of the person responsible for that step, along with an employee's name.

The second item is the most likely problem (MLP) encountered that holds up that step.

The third item is the solution (Sol) to the MLP. In other words, how to avoid the problem in the first place. 

Real World Reception

In the real world, this document can be received positively or negatively. A lot depends on how well an organization's processes are thought out. When I shared my process flow diagrams with my commanding officers, they were very well received. After all, the military has well established procedures, even if they're not always obvious.

In the civilian world, I got a lot of push back at one company I worked at (not Apple). No one had a clear understanding of the organization's internal processes. Initially, that surprised me when I started working on this simple, side project. Then, it became clear I was asking managers questions about things they didn't know, but should. This resulted in unresolved finger pointing and passing the buck. That organization reinvented the wheel over and over. Needless to say, it was an ineffective organization to work in as I discovered most every procedure was handled ad hoc.

Good definitions make for clear ideas.

Friday, July 24, 2015

What's Exciting About High Tech?

Coding with my team at Apple in Mariani One
Perhaps I'm getting grumpy in my old age, but I don't see anything new and exciting when it comes to high tech and the Web. As a matter of fact, I haven't seen anything too exciting in years.


When I first began coding, as a kid, in the late 1970s, everything was exciting. In 1977, the first three PCs came to market: Apple ][, Commodore PET, and the TRS-80 Model I.

I cut my teeth on the Model I, since access to it was easy through Radio Shack Computer Centers. I learned BASIC and Z-80 assembly on my Model I. In junior high school, we had PETs in school which worked similar to the Model I. The Apple ][ was an impressive machine, but they were hard to find. First of all, they were a tad expensive (everything's expensive when you're a kid). Also, there was only one place, which was close enough for me to bike to, that sold them. That beloved computer store is now a Starbucks.

Through out the 1980s, computers kept getting noticeably faster and bigger, in terms of memory. The Model I had a BASIC interpreter, which ran a bit slow with it's 1.77 MHz processor. Then BASIC compilers came to market, and the world got fast. Very, very exciting.


The 1990s were exciting, even for casual consumers. The World Wide Web was born, making use of the Internet which had been around for decades. Sending an e-mail from one part of the world, to another, for free, was a big deal. In 1997, I deployed with the Marines to the Persian Gulf. We had one digital camera for my battalion and the wives, back home, had another digital camera. Marines' wives gave birth, back in the states, and a couple hours later, fathers could see their newborns while floating in the Indian Ocean. We were amazed. And e-commerce for consumers was quickly becoming the killer application. Billionaires were made at unprofitable companies, many of which couldn't scale.


The dot-com bubble burst in the Spring of 2000 due to overzealous investing and things calmed down for a couple years, at least in the high tech business world. But, software engineers still had exciting technologies like VoIP (free audio and video calls), XML, RSS, and podcasts. We began to say good-bye to dial-up and hello to broadband. Then came Web 2.0 (dynamic webpages and user generated content). A couple years later came social media, cloud computing, cloud storage and mobile smartphones with GPS. For software engineers, compiler technology was innovative when source code could be changed, compiled, and placed into memory to continue running without needing to stop your application for recompiling, linking, and launching.


That leads me to today. As I look at the world of high tech I don't see much that excites me. Perhaps I'm standing too far away??? The only things, in the past few years, that's moved the needle for me was Swift, Uber, Lyft, and Car2Go.

So, what am I missing? What's the hot high tech, nowadays, that changes the way consumers and software engineers do business? I'm talking about something that couldn't be done five or ten years ago?

Friday, July 10, 2015

What Makes Apple Unique?

Presented with a gift of a Chinese fan stamped with their company logo.
I was recently invited to the Bay Area to give a talk to a group of business people from China about Apple's marketing and design philosophies. Putting together the presentation was simple, since I've written and discussed what makes Apple unique, in the past.

The interesting part was speaking through a translator – a first, for me. I'm not sure exactly what the translator said when she introduced me, but the group seemed impressed.

The best part of this gig was how quickly it came together. A woman I never met contacted me on a Tuesday and asked me if I was willing to fly up the following Tuesday to give my talk. When I agreed, she immediately transferred half the payment to me. She paid the second half to me at breakfast, before I spoke. No contract, SOW, schedules, or exhibits. It worked out so well that we'll probably do it again. I can get used to this.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

All Noisy on the Western Front

Today's an interesting day in the world, especially in the world of cyber.

On the heels of China's stock market turmoil came a slew of high profile computer problems resulting in United Airlines grounding their flights, overloaded Wall Street Journal servers taking down the newspaper's website, and suspended trading on the New York Stock Exchange.

From a technical perspective, each of these issues is unrelated. But, what is interesting is that I came across a cyber security company, Norse, which claims to display cyber attacks in a real time. Although I don't know what a typical day looks like, the following video gives you a good idea of the endpoints of each cyber attack.

Cyber attacks in real-time via

PS – One more intriguing thing, as I wrote this blog post, is my computer crashed (kernel panicked). Yet another rare coincidence, but it helps spin a good yarn.