Is There a Disconnect Between Knowledge Workers and Business Leaders?

The past two weeks I’ve read a number of articles about the End of Agile and subsequent rebuttals. Yesterday I read an excellent article asking “Whatever Happened to Six Sigma?” Both of these articles are fascinating. The rebuttals to the first are incredibly enlightening. I don’t think these are the last of these sorts of articles. I expect to read “The End of Lean” down the road as well.

I think there are a few reasons, one of them is common between Six Sigma and Agile. Snake Oil Salespeople. Basically, what has happened with all methodologies (except for PMI’s Waterfall approach – which I’ll get to) there reaches a point in time where it becomes impossible to determine the quality of credentials for a given certification. At that point, the certification is valueless even if the training, like you dear reader received, was actually the top of the top. Because there’s no actual way to determine if the quality is any good or not.

I experienced this first hand while I was teaching Lean Six Sigma at AMD. I had some fantastic mentors when I was working there, that lived and breathed Six Sigma for their entire careers. They knew this stuff inside and out. Which made me gain a much deeper appreciation for the methodology. However, there was another small company in Austin that also taught Six Sigma to their employees, Dell. Whenever we hired people from Dell with a certification in Six Sigma, a Green Belt or even a Black Belt, we essentially had to retrain them. Many of them, did not truly internalize what they were taught, or the material was less rigorous. This was likely a trade off the Six Sigma training team had to make to ensure their team remained relevant to Dell.

However, whenever you cannot trust the training from an organization like Dell, it makes it a lot more difficult to trust training for any other organization. You just don’t know the standards. Agile’s currently experiencing the exact same issue. There’s been a huge influx of organizations giving certifications. Not all of them have the same level of quality.

I think as a reaction to this, the software development industry has created DevOps and DevSecOps. Which doesn’t have a certification process, but a general set of ideas, such as Trunk development, rigorous testing, continuous integration, and on the extreme continuous deployment.

I think all this goes back to a basic premise though. Knowledge workers, like engineers and software developers look at problems very differently than business leaders. I first experienced this while I was in college. I was studying Industrial Engineering (which pulls in elements from Six Sigma, Lean, Network Theory, Simulation, Human Factors, etc…) while a good friend was studying Business. We had a few conversations about how businesses should be run and it was very obvious to me, that we were talking about two completely different views of how a firm should be run.

I was arguing against (in 2003) off-shoring, because it decreased the efficiency of engineering and collaboration between manufacturing and engineering. Both Agile and Lean argue against off-shoring due to these reasons. Given the change in the approach, the salary savings, overall, didn’t make the effort worth it, because of the reasons I listed. My friend thought lowering cost was the right thing to do.

This isn’t just an anecdotal thing though. If you read books about Agile, Theory of Constraints, or Innovation, they all make the same arguments. The ideas taught in business school are causing business leaders to make bad ideas. Theory of Constraints was popularized in the book The Goal by Eliyahu Goldratt and came out in 1984. The ideas he espoused in that book were considered counter intuitive. If you read the Phoenix Project by Gene Kim which came out in 2013, which is written to model The Goal, you’ll find the characters running into, literally, the exact same type of thinking by managers and other team members. To me, this means there are other cultural organizations that are pushing back against the approaches technical leaders find work best and what our business leaders find work best for their goals.

The two most obvious cases for this are Accounting (which The Goal sets up as something of an antagonist) and Executives. Accounting has the weight of Law on its side, which is problematic, because Accounting organizations has their own reason for maintaining a status quo. They have their own certification process to become a CPA. From the executives standpoint, in many cases these folks are presented as having an MBA and excellent business training.

Despite that, they are still making poor business decisions for the technical team, poor decisions about how to structure their organization, and poor decisions about how to run projects. Most projects are run using a Waterfall approach, because that is the defacto approach we’re all taught throughout school. We manage to dates and push to get things done. The Project Management Institute has managed to corner the market on this approach, because most people can “do waterfall” without needing a certification. You learn through osmosis, by doing. The certification certainly elevates some PMs in some organizations. However, I don’t really think that having a PMP matters to most hiring managers.

So, where does this leave us? It leaves us with Knowledge Workers using ideas like Six Sigma, Lean, DevOps, Agile, and more to dress up their structured problem solving approaches to add structure and credibility. They need structure to compete with the Date Managed Waterfall approach. They need credibility of a methodology to put their approach on the same level as a PMP certification. In the case of Six Sigma, I’d argue its biggest success was internalizing the cost saving analysis. This helped translated the output in terms of money, which executives understand.

Every other approach tries to create an alternative measure. Elimination of Waste or “Working Software is the Measure of Progress” are nice alternatives to reducing costs or meeting due dates.

However, most share holders don’t care about that. They only care about what’s going to make them more money. Ethics and approach be damned. Until that is resolved. We’ll continue to have more fads or business fashions, as Knowledge Workers push back against Business Leaders.

Ethics in Technology Matters, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is Right, We Instill Our Biases in Technology

Some people are unhappy about what Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is saying here. People not like to imagine that software cannot have politics, intentionally or otherwise.

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Whenever I was earning my master’s degree, I took a number of courses on the ethics of technology and the history of technology in general.In one of my classes we learned that bridges, yes bridges can have politics. There was an architect, Robert Moses, that was hired by New York City to design and build bridges. Given that NYC is an island and there’s a lot of water there, building bridges is a pretty big deal. Robert Moses was a racist. He also hated poor people. So, if you’re hired to build a bridge from one part of the city to another part with beautiful parks and outdoor spaces that you wanted to have whites and rich people use but not poor people, how would you do that?

If you build a bridge that uses traditional arches underneath with no top support, any vehicle can cross. However, if you build a bridge that has a maximum height allowed, then you can limit that types of vehicles that can cross the bridge. If you built the bridge low enough, then you can prevent buses from crossing the bridge. Buses that would be carrying poor people of color.

It’s just a bridge, how can it be racist? A bridge is just a thing. Something built by people. However, those people have biases and intentions. These are built into that technology. While A bridge may not be racist, this one IS because of the racism used to build the bridge.

If a bridge can have biases intentionally built into it, there is no doubt that software will have biases built into them. We’ve seen time an again that beauty algorithms where the AI didn’t like dark skinned women. In those cases the people building the training set of images had biases. The engineers didn’t like dark skinned women and didn’t include a significant amount of them in the training set.

Soap dispensers aren’t able to detect dark skinned hands, because the engineers working on them didn’t think of test the sensor on someone with dark skin.

 

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These aren’t intentional biases. It’d be difficult to imagine a group of engineers all sitting around the room saying, “wouldn’t it be me great if we prevent dark skinned people from properly washing their hands? MWahahahahah.” No that’s not what happened. What happened is that the QA team was made of people that look more like me. The dispenser worked perfectly for them, QA passed! This isn’t an intentional bias, but it’s a bias none the less. It’s called the availability bias. If the only people that are available look a certain way, you don’t think about people that aren’t immediately available.

Everyone does it. More people are aware of the fact that there are people different from them. For white people this is critical. It’s similar to when a white person writes an article about how racism has significantly declined in a major news paper.

It is time that organization recognize this and create teams to ensure that ethics and biases are considered when developing and selling novel technologies – or in the cases of bridges old technologies repurposed for modern uses.

Black Mirror: Nosedive, Authenticity, and Lost Connections

I just finished watching Black Mirror’s episode called Nosedive, which is an interesting episode about the impact of continually rating people for every social interaction. It explores what happens when someone who was previously a very high rated person has a very bad day. It was, implied that it would happen throughout episode, that everyone was just a series of misfortunate events away from dropping from their current social hierarchy to a lower strata where they’d be unable to function in current society. Ratings indicate which jobs a person can have or not. Dropping too low indicates you’re not worthy of that job and in many cases, network effects and game theory type logic comes into play. Where you have to judge if a low ranking person or a person that’s currently out of favor would negatively impact your image.If that would drop you from a person of respect to a person of disrepute.

This episode made me uncomfortable to watch, because in a lot of ways it feels like it hits close to home as it deals with a major reason why I don’t like social media. I don’t like the constant need for validation through pictures, likes, and comments. I’ve tried to, in general avoid, Facebook lately, because it feels inauthentic, and creepy. Between Facebook, itself, tracking what you do online and partners with companies to track your shopping habits offline. Combing that with the desire to display the best of your life on platforms like Instagram, this can lead to depression.

In many articles it’s because of the fact that you’re comparing your messy every day life to what people are willing to post, which typically represents the best parts of their life. Their happy dogs, walking in a vineyard, going surfing, or some new thing that they bought. Even if you know that you are doing this, doesn’t really help. However, I think there’s a few reasons beyond that. For one, it forces you to live an inauthentic life, which is one of the major themes in the show Nosedive. The character knows she’s putting on a show and clearly has some serious anxiety around behaving that way. Her brother, who lives a more authentic life, doesn’t care as much about his social media score and directly asks for Lacie (the main character) to return to her authentic self (“remember when we had real conversations?”)

Being an inauthentic version of yourself is a type of acting as well pushing down the values you actually believe in. This is something referenced in Lost Connections as a root cause of depression. Where our intrinsic values do not align with society’s values and we must adopt society’s values over our own we become depressed. In the episode it Lacie only became aware that it was a possible to reject those norms when she was picked up by a trucker with a rate of 1.4/5. This woman allowed her to reflect on her experience as her rating declined and bottomed out.

However, it wasn’t until she’d been rejected by the society and put into a prison of sorts that she was able to find a truly authentic interaction. It was rage filled, but eventually became filled with joy as the two people in prison were able to be an authentic version of themselves.

In our society, while we don’t have the intensity portrayed in the episode with social media, it is possible we could move into that direction over time. For us to really have authentic interactions, we need to find people that support us being our authentic selves even when there are people in our lives that might not fully support our decisions. Or people in our lives that make it more difficult to be authentic.

On the Efficiencies of Business

So, I’ve been going to therapy for a few months now to deal with depression. One of thing that has come up is how I don’t really release a lot of the emotions that I am feeling and one of them is anger. I typically swallow that to stay diplomatic and deal with whatever situation as well as I can. I think that I’ve been stewing about this for a while and mentioning it to my friends periodically. I don’t feel that business leaders respect my career path and don’t understand how to actually make their businesses more efficient.

Excluding the past two years, the majority of my career has been focused on Lean, Six Sigma, or Lean Six Sigma (yes all of them are different in terms of how you approach continuous improvement). I have run projects, developed courses, facilitated strategic planning events for companies like AMD, but the entire time, I never truly felt secure in my role. At Samsung, we had lay-offs and last some employees, at AMD, we definitely lost some and my Director actually decided to be let go to save a number of my coworkers. This is in spite of the fact that our group had saved the company measurably millions of dollars over the 1.5 years I worked at AMD. We were always on the chopping block. Then while working at Cambia (Regence Blue Cross Blue Shield) I was laid off, even though the result of my training program included winning a national Blues award and saved the company a lot of time and money. My team easily paid for itself more than once over while we were there (my team was me and my employee Phil).

As we all know Insurance companies are always raising premiums. The underlying assumption is that these businesses are actually working to continually drive down their financial overhead, but those damn regulations keep getting in the way to drive up cost. This is just flat out wrong. These businesses don’t actually know how to drive improvement in their organizations. The only way they can even imaging improving their business is to hire an organization like McKinsey or BCG which costs millions and gets little to no result. The results they do provide are typically brought about by recommendations internally to the organization that leadership is unwilling to implement unless told about them by an expensive consulting group.

This is problematic because it doesn’t actually change the culture of the organization to drive continual improvement and innovation. As I’ve written in the past Innovation and Improvement are positively correlated. Furthermore, these training classes help expand people’s networks, which also significantly improve innovation as well.

So, first of all, I’m pissed off at corporate leaderships for not understanding the value of continuous improvement. Second, I’m pissed off that it’s just accepted that businesses always figure out ways to be more efficient. This isn’t true. If it was true there wouldn’t be a large number of people in their mid-50’s looking for work after a very successful career in continuous improvement. If these businesses didn’t think that the best way to improve efficiencies was to cut costs and then have someone else do two people’s work, this wouldn’t be a problem.

You can reduce headcount and drive up efficiencies, but only if you provide your people with the right tools and the requires true investment in the business. Although, all continuous improvement efforts pay for themselves if you aren’t just looking at how much a few people cost that are part of the team. You need to weight that against the positive gains they are making for the organization.

I’m pissed off about this because I feel like Michael Bolton from Office Space “I shouldn’t have to change, he’s the one who sucks.” I have had to completely change my career, which I was really passionate about because I don’t trust corporate leaders to try invest and buy in to continuous improvement. Maybe this is short sighted and I just need to find the right company. But I’ve looked I’ve been at a number of them and I’ve heard stories from other people that have been laid off (while i was interviewing for the position Phil filled) for exactly what I’m talking about here. So as a response I’ve tried to protect myself from that by avoiding applying for those jobs.

I loved doing that work because I knew at the end of each day and each project, I made someone’s work life better. Which is awesome. You listen to their problems, which helps them, but then you provide them with the tools to make change and to fix their current situation. When they look at how that aspect of their job is going to work after you finish the project, you can just see how much happier they are. You can see that it allows them to focus on the thing they were hired to do, not deal with some bullshit that was there because it’s always been there.

Businesses need more of this. The culture needs to change from top to bottom. It’s the role of the Lean Manager to change the culture so that people want to do continuous improvement. It’s the role of the business leader to provide the right incentives to do this as well.

Tech and Art

Last night I asked for a writing prompt, not for my blog, but for my planned creative writing stream on Twitch.tv. Instead of a fictional writing prompt, I got one requesting I write about the intersection of technology and art. This is a pretty interesting space to be honest as there are folks that are building crazy things for Burning Man, Soak in Oregon, and just for fun.

The laser reflecting on the windmill is pretty interesting. I haven’t see anything quite like this before. When I used to drive between Austin and Santa Fe on a regular basis the wind mills in east Texas, always got me excited, even when it was just the flashing light on the top. The elegance of the blades juxtaposed with the barren landscape was really a great site to behold.

This gif also brought to mind another Dutch technologist/artist though. This creator uses a form of machine evolution to create super interesting “animals” that move around on beaches without going into the ocean and that move around more efficiently.

A book I read a number of years ago, called “Design Driven Innovation”  talks about how using art along with an understanding of how people use objects allows a great deal of innovation in our products. What might seem useless today, such as a laser on a windmill may actually help pave the way for new energy transmission methodologies or perhaps another way to enhance the amount of energy a windmill actually creates.

I’ll close this with my thoughts about an event in Eindhoven, The Netherlands that I really loved. It was a Glow Festival, which really makes sense because it was a city large built upon the successes of Philips. It is a festival where the entire city center is turned into a series of light art exhibits. It combines the aesthetics of the old city, with modern lights. I really enjoyed it and if you’re living in Europe I strongly suggest you check it out!

Capitalism vs. Robots – which is more terrifying?

In an article that recently resurfaced on Reddit, Famed Astrophysicists Stephen Hawking argues that we should fear capitalism more than robots. I think the timing of this is somewhat interesting, being an election cycle and the two populist candidates are opposites in many regards especially in terms of Democratic Socialism vs. Crony Capitalism (Sanders v Trump). In the broader context of emerging technology this is important as well though, as many other technology leaders have expressed fear of AI, such as Elon Musk, while other leaders are running full steam ahead towards more and more automation.

Hawking isn’t the only person thinking about the economy and technology though. Warren Buffet just released Berkshire Hathaway’s annual report with some pretty stark warnings about the future of capitalism in action at the corporate level. Indicating that innovation does have a darkside. While he’s speaking as a manager, there are economists looking into this and in the book Second Machine age, the authors argue that the best is still to come, because man and machine work best together, not separately.

Unfortunately, this will only push the ceiling up on skills required for jobs, rather than expanding opportunities. A perfect example of this will be Uber. Being an Uber driver isn’t a difficult job because of skill requirements, but because it’s a boring job that is relatively tiring. Uber has been pushing down their prices over a multi-month/year process which will continue through the introduction of “Autonomous” Cars, or RobotCars. At this time a large number of low skilled workers will find themselves out of a job, including people I know and probably people you know. This has been Uber’s plan for a long time as they understand that people are the biggest costs and risk for the company. Especially in light of the mass shooting in Michigan.

Uber isn’t the only major company looking to replace workers like this. In fact, it’s likely that a lot of White Collar jobs are going to go this route as well, including in industries that notoriously relied on people that then made unethical decisions, such as the financial industry.  We’ve heard of High Frequency Trading, which is basically a set of algorithms to make decisions on buying and selling stocks based on microtrends. However, this is going to continue to expand into newer areas. It’s been well remarked that most brokers are no better than a coin flip (Black Swan; Drunkards Walk; Thinking, Fast and Slow; all reference this) so it is highly likely that algorithms will do better than people in picking winners and losers on the stock market. It’s also likely that those algorithms will have access to more data faster than any person could eve analyze and act upon.

This interaction between capitalism and automation creates huge risks for the economy. A few years ago, there was a “flash crash” which was basically caused by those HFT I mentioned above. As more and more portions of the financial industry come under the purview of robo-traders, these sorts of events are going to be more likely. These institutions still have pushed most of the risk to the public, while retaining the bulk of the profits from these robots.

As these trends continue across industries, the local optimization of companies to automate and create more robots is going to gradually push people out of jobs at a more and more rapid pace than new categories of jobs can be opened. I think it likely that will be likely that we’ll see more companies going the route of Uber. Using tools like Amazon’s Mechanical Turk to get processes started before they invest effort and energy into automating processes. Once they are shown to be successful, the effort to remove the human element will continually increase until those workers are out of a job. What we will eventually see is a white collar migratory worker going from one type of tech job to another only to be replaced by automation in the long run.

The impact to the economy in the long run and the human condition in the short term will be catastrophic as our current institutions are not designed to handle this sort of change in labor type. The incentives for this behavior has been in place for decades and have been pushing bad actors to be worse, such as the Turing Pharmaceuticals’ CEO price gouging dying patients, because the market could support it.

Continual Computing Innovation

Several years ago, I wrote a few blogs about where I felt that the future of computing is heading. The main premise focused on high speed internet, essentially a mesh network with the speed of Google fiber. I feel pretty good at some of the things I predicted have come true, like the personal cloud in some form or another. The other key component that is slowly starting to come true is the phone that you can plug in and use as a computer. HP announced another version of this at the Mobile World Congress to pretty bad press reports. I’m not convinced I agree with TechCrunch’s prognosis, but I also don’t plan to run out and buy one of these phones. I believe that for HP’s product to be successful it really needs to build on the Surface Book. A phone, even a large phone, is nice for some applications, but definitely won’t have enough power for other applications. Especially graphically demanding applications. I’m sure that we’re getting to the point that tablets are getting to be laptop replacements, in the right form factor. I don’t think phones are there yet. What needs to happen, is that the dock for the HP V3 needs to have the ability to enhance the performance of the phone. Furthermore, the switching between docked and undocked needs to be seamless to the point the user doesn’t suffer major slow downs in opening applications that are expected to be used in phone mode (texting, email, etc…). I think we’re finally getting to the point where we’re going to see more and more of these products.

Another more interesting advance in cell phones is the LG G5, which has the ability to add new hardware components, after market. Right now the portion that comes off, removes the battery, but I have a feeling there will be an aftermarket version that will change how that works. I believe that this phone has some serious potential to have an attachment that docks similarly to the HP V3, but with the ability to increase performance of the phone. This is going to be a big deal as more and more people are looking into turning Android into a successful desktop operating system (or maybe laptop operating system). I can imagine a monitor that has the capability to dock with a phone of one kind or another will be developed to further support this ecosystem. It would be easiest to create a dock with an USB-C adapter based on the amount of information and that these are already being used to allow for Graphics Amplification.

I think over the next few years the innovations around the blurring of smart phones with these applications is going to increase. We’ve seen it to some degree with Smart TVs, albeit mostly unsuccessfully compared to set top boxes like Apple TV and Roku. However, with the way phones plow through batteries and the continually evolving use cases of smart phones and computers, this convergence is going to continue and within the next 3-5 years we’ll have at least one company offering a suite of products that is all inclusive to the smartphone as a replacement for computer. Especially, if we’re able to get unlimited 5G on said phone (5G speeds are expected to be in the range of Fiber).