Values in an Agile/Lean/Innovative company

This is part of my Lean Disruption Series where I’m looking at Lean, Agile, Innovation, and Lean Startup.

None of these methodologies can be adopted for free. They require a great deal of firm introspection. Understanding how processes interaction with people and values is vital to adopting any of these approaches let alone a combination of these approaches.

Metrics are one of the best examples of how there can be conflicts between stated values, values in making decisions, how resources are handled and how processes are structured. The famous saying “You manage what you measure” is right in a lot of ways. Many companies claim that they value customer satisfaction, however many of these companies do not actually do anything with the satisfaction surveys they do get. Comcast is the most obvious example of this. Comcast doesn’t really value customer satisfaction because they measure their customer support on how much they can upsell to the customer anytime they are on the phone. This changes the processes their customer support must use, rather than designing processes to enable single call resolution, their processes are designed to enable selling more products. Their employees, the resources, are rated based on this and if they don’t meet those goals they are unlikely to do well. Considering the Verge’s Comcast Confessions series most of the resources at Comcast do not feel valued. This all points to the true values for Comcast being retention at all costs and more revenue per user measured in Churn and ARPU (Average Revenue per User) respectfully.

Agile Manifesto from ITIL’s blog

For a company to adopt an Agile approach to developing software, the paradigm of what the organization values must radically change to align to the Agile Manifesto. In most software development the concepts on the right are what are valued through a Project Management Office. The concepts on the left are typically considered only at the beginning or the end of the project or not at all. Working product is the goal of a project, while customer collaboration inclusive only in the beginning getting requirements.

Switching from the right to the left creates massive cultural upheaval at an organization, where power is shifted down and out. It is shifted down to the team level, where managers in the past made all the important decisions Product Owners, Scrum Masters, and developers make the decision now with the customers. Power is shifted out through increased collaboration with the customer. Customer centricity forces the company to understand what the customer really wants and more quickly respond to changes in their understanding of their needs. This does mean that the “requirements” change, however, in many cases due to the uncertainty in a technology, interface, or some other aspect it was impossible to properly articulate the actual need until there was an example in front of the customer.

With these value changes there must be process changes to that properly reflect the change in the way the values require work to be completed. In the case where Single Call resolution is the most important metric reflecting the value of true customer satisfaction, processes must be built to enable that – such as training, information repositories, and authority to truly address customer needs at a single point of contact. In software development rapid iteration with continual feedback is a process that must be built to enable that.

This changes are not free and require true commitment from leaders across the organization. Without their commitment any adoption of these frameworks is doomed to failure.

Is Uber really worth $40 Billion? What is value?

Today it was discovered that Uber raised about $1.2 Billion in its latest round of VC funding. This puts Uber at the stratospheric valuation of $40 billion. This valuation makes Uber worth more than companies like Haliburton, CBS, Yum! Brand (Pepsi, Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, KFC), Northrup Grumman Corp, Kraft Foods, and basically 72% of the Fortune 500, according to this Fortune article, that means there are only 140 companies in the world valued more than Uber. On the other hand, its revenue is only $400 million which is one fifth the revenue of the smallest company on the Fortune 500.

Clearly this means that investors expect a massive IPO and that the company will continue to double revenue every 6 months. This is one of the major reasons for this round of funding as well – Uber needs to be able to expand in Asia and this money will allow them to do so. They’ll have to hire staff, fight law suits, bribe people, and who knows what else. It begs the question, are we going to see Uber Rickshaws?

With this astronomical valuation of the company, it makes you ask what is value, who is receiving this value, and how long can this valuation truly be valid? There are only two stakeholders that are truly receiving $40 billion in value, that’s the startup founders and the early investors. With the bad press that the company has been receiving, it’s clear that it’s not Uber’s customers, whom expect privacy and discretion on the part of Uber, whenever they are not receiving it. Ok, maybe that’s not completely fair, as a large number of people use Uber today, it’s clearly filling a void that aging regulations wasn’t really filling. However, it’s clear that this benefit is coming at great cost to the “employees” of Uber where aribitrary rate cuts in some areas prevents it from being possible to make a true living wage. Furthermore, this valuation will only last as long as Uber is able to continually grow, as soon as the company fails to show that they are continuing to grow, their stock prices (as they will be public by then) will eventually fall back to much more realistic prices. This is similar to what initially happened with Facebook and more recently with prices falling for Twitter. The major difference being that Uber has a much clearer revenue model than either of those companies that does not rely on ads, simply drivers and riders. Furthermore, we only know what the revenue for Uber is, we do not know what the profit margins on that revenue are, clearly they are looking good, because for a given city the overhead for Uber can’t be more than half a million dollars, which means they are likely doing rather well.

Compare this to companies that actually make things that drive the economy through providing many jobs, like Kraft, it makes you wonder where these valuations come from and what it is that investors truly see in companies like Uber. To me, it’s an interesting company that has an aggressive approach to business, but that isn’t worth that kind of money. Maybe I’ll see things differently if it comes to Portland.

Customers, Companies, and Power – imbalances drive inequities

I’ve been in the process of buying a house for the past month. It’s been a rocky process. Some of it has been on us, but a lot of it has been on the side of the lender. The first problem came when they basically started the process they day we were supposed to sign. This precipitated a series of events that as lead to the fact that it’s unlikely for us to actually fund the house on the last day we possibly could. Furthermore, they have been rather cavalier about the fact that we can just move closing dates without a problem. Essentially their poor processes have required us on multiple occassions to modify a private contract. We’ve been punished again and again because of their inability to meet their obligations. This strikes me as a serious inequity, especially since it’s not a big deal for them that we essentially lost out on a full month’s of rent from the seller. We have minimal to no recourse to address this loss.  On top of this, they still get paid. In my mind they’ve provided little to no value in this process and have in fact simply added a great deal of waste. They should no be paid and in fact should pay us the loss in rent we should have received from their inability to meet deadlines.

This sort of behavior is rampant in industries and companies that are essentially monopolies. Either their customers are fully locked in to a specific company because it is expensive or difficult to extract personal data or some other technical issue or the customers have no other option. In either case the company is able to act with a great deal of disregard for their customers. The goal of the business then becomes to extract maximum rents from their customers not to provide maximum value to the customer. This can create existential issues for a company that undergoes this transition, because many of the people that made that company great are pressured and have the quality of their employment decline without understanding why. Essentially these folks still try to do the right things and in many cases don’t agree with their corporate leadership. In many cases, such as with a Telecom, it’s likely they are exempt from the full rent seeking behavior of the company.

Thinking about these things have made me really frustrated the past few weeks. My job is to help my company deliver more value to the customer so seeing these actions is increasingly frustrating and counter productive to Lean principles. If companies aren’t adopting principles that improve value for end customers, then what can we do? Well, I think that in each of these cases the root cause comes from two totally different policy actions. First many of the issues we’re having are designed to protect customers so we enacted policies to that end. While the other problem, rent seeking behavior comes from the lack of policies to protect customers.

In each of these cases different government actions have lead to different actions for end customers. In actually these painful delays for our loan may for many other people, truly protect them. However, in our case, they aren’t. In the case of push deregulation on telecom the result has been monopolies and behavior designed to continually take more money from their customers. In each cases, these derive from two different philosophies around the value of government regulation. I think these situations highlight the nuances in this area.

In the end it’s important that we have real conversations about the underly reasons for different policy decisions. We need to understand that there are imbalances of power between customers and companies. In many cases those companies will exploit them to their best advantage. Unfortunately, these imbalances extend to the realms of politics as well. This of course is another area where we have issues and will continue to have issues. It is unclear how to address these imbalances, i’m not confident that we’re going to be able to do this in the next few years. If we cannot address these issues I believe they will continue to get worse as the economy remains flat in it’s growth.