A recent post on ScienceBlogs reviewed a book by Matthew Sleeth, an evangelical Christian and former doctor who has dedicated his life to environmental change. He came to speak at our little synagogue a few months ago – it’s interesting to read the perspective of a scientist and atheist: The Voltage Gate : Questioning the Sincerity of Evangelical Environmentalists.

Posted by: herzigma | April 4, 2007

Seth’s Blog: NOBS, the end of the MBA

Seth Godin provides a welcome criticism of the typical MBA program in NOBS, the end of the MBA. He reveals how little of the typical curriculum reflects the real problems a manager deals with, and the real skills they require. I agree with him that programs need to spend more time on meta skills: persuading, selling, teaching, hiring, firing, and inspiring. It’s valid criticism.

While we don’t get there 100%, though, I would argue that my program at Babson College gets closer than most other schools:

  • Unlike traditional programs organized around a semester system, Babson eschews stand-alone courses for integrated, just in time knowledge delivery. Our first year is organized to follow the life-cycle of an archetypal corporation: evaluating the opportunity, assembling the team, developing the plan, securing funding, expanding operations, and becoming global. Subject matter such as finance, operations, and law are combined.
  • Real-world experience is explicitly integrated. Every first-year student is required to complete a year-long consulting project for a local company. Many (if not most) second year students engage in unpaid, for-credit work projects: managing teams of undergrads, consulting for area businesses, managing the school’s endowment, or starting a business in the school’s incubator.

Babson is the entrepreneurship school. Most students don’t start their own companies but the focus throughout our two years is on identifying and realizing opportunities. For employers who primarily want someone to do valuations, or design marketing plans, of do cost accounting, we might not be the best choice. But for the sorts of businesspeople Seth Godin imagines, Babson could be just the right program.

Posted by: herzigma | March 28, 2007

It’s like a bar-mitzvah party

Drakkar NoirListen up, folks: chicks dig Drakkar. What we suspected in middle school turns out to be true. How did I learn this?

My wife started sniffing my face. It took a while to figure out, but apparently my new aftershave smells just like what she still loves from her (clearly mis-spent) youth.

Gillette Fusion HydraCool after shave lotion

Not only have I spent the past few weeks living in an Axe ad, but it’s really nice after shave.

hand-written gantt chart

Earned value, percent complete, and other measures of work performed on a project have always seemed useless. Perhaps that’s why I like Scrum so much–it only requires participants to estimate the hours of work remaining. Johanna Rothman wrote a short but important piece: Managing Product Development: There is No Such Thing as Percent Complete. While some of the comments are critical, I think they highlight the real challenges of giving a percentage. To pull out two:

The difference between Physical Percent Complete and Percent Complete needs to be clarified. On software projects where the delivered features are produced through Work Packages the comcept of Physical Percent Complete can be used. (Glen B. Alleman)

This is only a problem if you take the percentage as a percentage of time. A percentage of requirements fulfilled works just fine. (Michael Lucas Smith)

To be confident in % complete, you need to be confident in your estimates, in the amount of work completed, in the amount of work remaining, and in the speed at which the remaining work can be completed. That’s a lot of moving parts and merely watching the percentage change over time provides little insight into those underlying numbers.

When you ask a team member for percent complete, you’re generally only trying to learn two things: when will their work be completed and how will that timeline affect other parts of the overall project. Ask only the questions you need answered and you’re more likely to get the answers you need. The fact that it takes less effort to answer smaller and narrower questions is just gravy.

Photo by juliehicks75

Posted by: herzigma | March 2, 2007

Too bad I don’t like his music

Marilyn Manson, metal musician, has been frequently blamed for the fall of American youth and the destruction of our culture. As the perpetrators of the Columbine Massacre were said to cite him as one of their inspirations, he was interviewed by Michael Moore for the controversial documentary Bowling for Columbine. Frankly, he was the only adult in the movie who came across as at all intelligent or sympathetic.

So, I was pretty excited to see that Manson had recently been interviewed by talk show bully Bill O’Reilly. Now, O’Reilly and Moore couldn’t be more different so I was please that Manson still avoided taking the bait and responded to all of the questions thoughtfully, intelligently, and with humor. 

Manson seems like a neat guy – too bad I can’t stand his music.

Posted by: herzigma | February 27, 2007

Project triangle and design for manufacturing

The project triangle posits that for any project, you can’t simultaneously specify the cost, the timeline, and features/functionality/quality. New product development, of course, is just another kind of project and therefore subject to the same constraints. So, when specifying your new product development project, which of the three are most important?

Classic new product development starts with features, functionality, and quality. Customer needs are surveyed and researched, requirements are written, prototypes are designed and analyzed…and the entire effort is either time-boxed or budget-boxed, depending on the industry. Good companies know whether time or cost is more important, but those are generally secondary to actual functionality or final product qualities.

I’d like to propose that for emerging and innovation-driven markets–like high tech–features and functionality represent the least important corner of the triangle. I think that some of the most innovative companies start by specifying the cost and timeline for new product development, and take a more hands-off approach to actual functionality. Companies like Google and 3M, which explicitly require employees to devote time to personal projects (PDF) already do this. Events like Hackday are even more explicit.

The different product development focus looks a lot like Agile software development methodologies. Instead of asking, “What should our new product be?” it asks, “What cool things can we do cheaply?” I think this makes the most sense in innovation-focused markets because these are places where we know the least about what customers really want. The less you know about what customers really want, the less value you can expect to get from a product specification process. Agile methodologies, similarly, teach us that it’s unlikely you’ll get anything right on the first try, so you’d better make each iteration quick and cheap (Google cache) so that you can get it in front of a customer as quickly as possible.

Even though this kind of product development may make sense for technology companies, it will be seen as a challenge to the traditional product management role. Their job no longer consists of telling people what to do. Since essentially they’re being handed stuff (Engineer: “I noticed that with only a few more lines of code, our Wiki software would make a pretty good MS Project killer!”) they become advocates, influencers, cajolers,  and evangelists. It becomes a zen role: each new product becomes a surprise, an opportunity you cannot own, and a leap of faith to let others do what you had believed was your job.

The reward is profitability. The high-margin reward of being “first mover” can be overwhelmed by the sunk costs of the product development process. Explicitly starting by minimizing costs and decreasing cycle time means your margin of success is lower.

Posted by: herzigma | January 5, 2007

More on catastrophic health insurance

Yesterday I commented on Jeff Cornwall’s assertion that health care would be less expensive if only catastrophic illnesses were insured. A post on The Health Care Blog titled Not much employer backing for HSAs suggests that this is not the case.

According to the quoted report, there are only one fourth as many health savings accounts as high deductible health plans. This would only make economic sense if health plan members anticipated having no out of pocket health care expenditures. How could this be the case? Only if these members were significantly healthier than the population as a whole, or if those members were foregoing cost effective preventive care (though some disagree on the cost effectiveness of preventive medicine). Therefore, high deductible employer-sponsored health plans would be one means (and an economically inefficient one) for employers to shift the cost of health on to the overall society.

Posted by: herzigma | January 4, 2007

The Entrepreneurial Mind misses the point of insurance

Normally, I really like Jeff Cornwall’s posts. However, his most recent, The Elephant in the Room, comes to some erroneous conclusions regarding health care.

I believe that there are two fundamental principles that must guide us through the inevitable health care crisis that is looming on the horizon. First, we must bring personal responsibility back into the payment of health care. Health insurance was originally established to cover only catastrophic illnesses. Over the years, it has moved toward a semi-socialized program that has most of the costs covered by employers and the federal government. But in the end, all these two entities do is take our money through lower pay and higher taxes. We need to take these “middle men” out of the system for all routine health care. It would cut out huge administrative overhead costs that corporations and government spend that if we kept in our pockets would give us more money than we now have to spend on health care.

Second, we need to bring the market back into health care. Government controls health care at the local, state and federal levels. The pages of laws and regulations that control health care would make the 60,000 pages of the tax code look like a short story. The percentage of health care dollars that actually go to direct health is incredibly small. Some studies over the years have shown that 80% of the dollars in the system go to administrative costs. Government’s attempt to manage health care have contributed more than any other factor the the health care cost crisis.

For his conclusions to be correct, the following would need to be true:

  1. Non-managed (“traditional”) health plans would need to be less expensive than managed care plans. However, the decision of most corporations to select HMOs, EPOs and other managed care options suggests the opposite.
  2. Government managed care, such as Medicare, would have to be more expensive to administer. Though there are plenty of contradictory articles on the web, research suggests that government Medicare is less costly to administer than private Medicare HMOs, though those HMOs insure healthier patients.
  3. Some significant portion of health care costs would need to be “discretionary” rather than urgent or emergent. The opposite, in fact, seems to be the case. Health plans find themselves needing to incentivize members for preventive care. These plans find such incentives to come out positive on a cost-benefit analysis because they avoid the sorts of catastrophic conditions that Jeff suggests should be the true use of health insurance. Moreover, without middlemen negotiating rates, physicians and facilities would be free to charge whatever they liked.

I’m not sure where Jeff gets his data–I don’t want to dispute his assertion that 80% of health care dollars are spent on administration but I would appreciate cited sources. More important, though, is that he seems to ignore the fact that good health is a very real public good. People with overall poor health, whether from poor nutrition, poor lifestyle, or poor preventive care, are more susceptible to the contagious diseases that are at the center of concerns about pandemics. Access to health care could even be considered a homeland security or national defense issue: healthy individuals are less susceptible to bio-terror attacks and would be better able to join the military in a time of true national emergency.

Posted by: herzigma | December 31, 2006

Learning to make molé and tamales: best xmas present ever?

My mother in law came up with the best present for me: cooking lessons with two of her Mexican friends to teach me how to make molé and tamales.

For the molé, first we softened the chiles (arbol and black) on a hot skillets, and then soaked them in hot water. After soaking, we pureed them in a food processor with chocolate:

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The puree is poured back in to a hot, smoking, oiled skillet. Cooked chicken pieces are folded in, the entire thing is heated and served.

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I got to cheat a bit with the tamales: they brought along pre-made masa and pre-cooked beef filling:

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Instead of spooning the dough into corn husks, they had me use a tortilla press:

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I’d carefully lay the flattened disk of masa onto a corn husk and fill with the shredded brisket, some cheese, and a few hot pickled peppers.

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Finally, the whole bundle was tied up with thin strips of corn husk:

IMG_0025 IMG_0033 

Nestle them into a big steam pot, cover with plastic, and steam them for 90 minutes or so, and you get hot tamales. And the pot is mine now, too! Making tamales is definitely a process, and I guess traditionally they’re made in parties.

IMG_0023 IMG_0061

What a great present!

 

Posted by: herzigma | December 29, 2006

Ask the Readers: Say yes to mess? – Lifehacker

I had a Persian boss once who repeated a saying from her grandfather: “A messy desk is the sign of a messy mind; an empty desk is the sign of an empty mind.” Guess which I had? Say yes to mess? – Lifehacker

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