Insights from Nebo

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January 11, 2010

The Simple Reason Most Vision Statements Suck

Most vision statements are useless. It's not because vision statements are "bad." Instead it's because they rarely stand for anything. Where most vision statements fail is that they don't acknowledge a basic rule of writing. They rely on worn out cliches and phrases. They feel generic and insipid. In short, they're the epitome of bad writing.

George Orwell once described the first rule of writing as:

Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

This is easier said then done. Cliches are easy to come up with, familiar and safe, but they're not helpful. What does "leading edge" mean? How does the goal of becoming a "thought leader" help you decide if a feature should be included/excluded?

If you can't make your vision statement concise and meaningful, then you're better off not having one.

January 8, 2010

Why The Neapolitan Pizza Is Regaining Popularity (And What You Can Learn From It)

Users enjoy having options, but there's also such a thing as too many choices. Sometimes maintaining a higher standard design is made significantly easier simply by reducing the options to only the appropriate choices, eliminating the opportunities for bad decisions.

In the early days of the American pizza industry, the pizza market was dominated by Italian immigrants from the mainland city of Naples. They believed in only two types of pizza: the margherita and the marinara. There was no question of adding, substituting, or removing toppings. The pizza came as the pizza was.

It's easy to see that the American pizza market has changed significantly since those days. Pizza chains now dominate the scene and, to their success, they've given customers a plethora of options for cheeses, crusts, and toppings.

However, Americans are now starting to realize that choosing the pizza chains means accepting a lower quality pizza. While there are a variety of reasons that the large pizza chains are unable to maintain a level of quality on par with the authentic Neapolitan pizza, the plethora of choices they give their customers is a contributing factor.

In the mid 90s, a new generation of Neapolitan pizzaiolis started bringing American pizza back to its roots. They use the same methods and toppings that they've been using for more than a century in Naples, and they don't give the customers any flexibility when it comes to the crust, cheese, or toppings. For these pizza aficionados, there is only one right way to make a pizza, and they're not going to let the customer screw it up. While this can sometimes baffle the American pizza lover who is used to the have-it-your-way style, they usually agree that the authentic Neapolitan pizzas are the best.

Giving your customers options is only a good idea as long as the options don't hamper the quality of the finished product. Empowering your customers can be a useful tactic for pleasing your customers, but the enjoyment will only be temporary if you allow them to frustrate themselves with poor decisions.

January 6, 2010

The 5 Whys — The Simplest Way to Get to the Root of any Problem

Toyota is famous for their production process. They designed a system that eliminated waste, stress and inconsistency to levels that were previously considered implausible. Books have been written on the process. But, what isn't well known is that their paradigm-shifting production process was based on a very simple insight originally developed by Sakichi Toyoda.

Sakichi was the father of the Japanese industrial revolution. He cut his teeth building weaving devices and looms. When trying to perfect an automated loom, he actually conducted a year long experiment that had his looms running against his competitors in a real world environment. As each of his looms failed he focused on how to improve their performance.

The methodology he used was simple. Like any good problem solver, he started by asking "Why." But, he realized that you can't get to the root of the problem with a single question. A single question only identifies the symptom, not the root problem.

Like a child trying to figure out why the sky is blue, he repeated the question a minimum of 5 times in order to get to the root of the problem. This simple insight was the birth of what is known today as "the 5 whys method."

Why did the loom break? Because the gear jammed. Why did the gear jam? Because it ran out of oil. Why did it run out of oil? Because the operator didn't add it. Why does the operator need to add oil? Because oil isn't automatically added. Why isn't oil automatically added? Because there isn't an oil pump.

Sakichi's method of root cause analysis is now taught in MBA programs around the world. But, his genius wasn't related to some magic insight. The "5 Whys" method is applied common sense. It's development was the result of his fierce tenacity in trying to get to the root of his problems. His brilliance was that he institutionalized this tenacity among his process engineers. He "made it stick" by giving it a memorable name ("the 5 whys") and in the process he revolutionized process manufacturing.

So next time you're asking yourself, "what went wrong?", remember Sakichi Toyoda and the 5 whys. It may annoy your co-workers, but at least you'll be closer to the root of the problem.