Posts made in March 2017

Cost versus Time versus Quality — An Essential Aspect of Critical Thinking

There is an old saying that goes something like this: Cost, Time, and Quality – pick two out of the three. That is, if you want high quality fast, it will cost you a lot of money. If you want high quality and low cost, it will take a long time to develop. And if you want low cost and quick development, the quality will suffer. In today’s global business environment, you want all three: high quality, low cost, and fast development. But in developing any new product or service, the job of management is to use critical thinking to consider the trade-offs among the three and select the optimal combination.

One facet of my first job as a software services curriculum specialist at Digital Equipment Corporation was to provide training for the field software specialists in their role as sales support, i.e., helping sales reps configure solutions and put together their sales proposals. The challenge was that the information they needed was spread across literally dozens of sources generated within the company, ranging from sales update magazines published by the sales training organization to technical product specification sheets produced by engineering groups to product brochures produced by various marketing groups. When I asked one of the specialists in my area how she kept up with all this information, she took me to her car and opened its trunk. The trunk was full of the mailings she received from various corporate groups. She estimated that if she stacked one month’s worth of the mail she received from these groups, it would be 12 to 18 inches high (per month!) – no wonder she wasn’t able to keep up-to-date.

[PLEASE NOTE: This was well before the introduction of the world-wide web, and while Digital had one of the largest internal networks in the world, the tools for creating what we now call web pages were years away.]

My solution was to create a “Network Presales Handbook” – a loose-leaf notebook that contained all of the information needed by software specialists in their sales support roles, with one tabbed section for each of the products in the networking arena. The notebooks would be updated once per quarter with the provision of any new or revised materials. Today, we would do this all on-line, but then there was no way of doing that, so we did it with print materials.

The response to this “training product” was overwhelmingly positive. But it took 6 months to get it out to the field. For the initial edition of the handbook, the development work was done in a little more than 2 months, but production seemed to take forever. I asked the production people why it took so long. The answer I got was that their standard operating procedures required them to go out to bid on each part of the job. That meant separate bids for the 3-ring binders, the tabbed sections, the printing of the materials, the printing of the tabs, and the assembly and packaging of the materials. And then, after getting the lowest bids on each job, the coordination of all the pieces so that the handbook could be assembled and mailed.

Once this was all done, and the initial mailings took place, I asked the procurement people to choose any one of the selected vendors and ask what the price would have been for that single vendor to do the entire job and, along with the consolidated price, to estimate how long it would have taken to do the entire job and have the handbooks ready for shipping. The answer came back that it would have added 27 cents per copy to the total price and that the job could have been done in 30 days. So, for a savings of 27 cents (on a total price of $37 for the four different vendors used) the publication of the materials was delayed for more than 2 months!

One of the key aspects of critical thinking is to question assumptions and beliefs. Was the savings from the use of multiple vendors in this case worth the delay in getting vital information to the field?

“Features” or “Benefits” — What is your salesforce selling?

When I worked for Digital Equipment Corporation through the 1980s, one of the challenges that we shared with much of the high tech industry was in teaching sales reps how to distinguish between the features of a product or solution and the benefits that product or solution would provide to customers.  Digital traditionally sold to technical customers rather than to management, and technical customers were interested in technical specifications, what we called “speeds and feeds.”  But as we tried to get the attention of a customer’s non-technical managers, our sales reps found that they were unable to communicate in “business-speak” rather than “tech-speak.”  We used to joke that the way most of our sales reps approached business managers was to put our technical product brochures in a leather binder rather than a paper binder.  Here’s one way that I tried to solve that problem…

I had found an article in MIT’s Sloan Management Review written by Michael Hammer and Glenn Mangurian titled “The Changing Value of Communications Technology.”  I envisioned how their “Impact-Value Matrix” (see diagram below) could be used by our reps to talk with customers about their business and how Digital’s technology solutions could enable new and improved ways for our current and potential customers to conduct their businesses. 

Working with the late Michael Hammer, then a professor at MIT, and Glenn Mangurian of the Index Group, we created a sales training program that was very different from Digital’s longstanding approach to sales training that focused on specific products and their configurations.

We asked the sales reps to come to the training with all the background information they had about one of their toughest prospects – a company that was already doing business with our major competitors and that wasn’t interested in our technology.  After presenting the impact-value framework and providing examples of how our solutions could be matched to the various benefits outlined in the matrix, we asked the reps to prepare a presentation for that customer based on the matrix, so that when they left the training they were immediately able to go back to that customer with a new approach that focused on the benefits of Digital solutions, rather than the technical features of those solutions.  The results were excellent, with many reps reporting that they were finally able to get their foot in the customer’s door and start a dialogue with the customer that would produce sales in the short term.

Do your sales reps focus on the features of your company’s products and services or on the benefits the customer will reap from implementing your solutions.  If the focus has traditionally been on features, the use of the impact-value matrix, or another framework of your choosing, can spark new ideas and new sales.

Be a “Smart Dummy”

One of my first jobs strictly in the training field was as a curriculum specialist for networking products in the software services training organization at Digital Equipment Corporation.  In this job, I received information on new products and product revisions, then planned what training would be needed by field software specialists to support the products.  I then contracted with an internal training development group to create new or revise existing training materials.

The training group I joined had been in existence for many years before I arrived and had longstanding methods and systems to accomplish its work across all of the company’s products.  I saw my two major challenges in this job as follows:

  • There was no master calendar of product introductions for new or revised products. My information on these products came from a variety of sources:  engineering, customer services software engineering, product managers, or marketing managers.
  • There was no standard way of determining what training would be needed for any new product. What was needed could range from a simple update to product documentation to a quick computer-based training module, to a new instructor-led training program or the revision of an existing instructor-led program.

As a result, I found that I was spending about 30 to 40 percent of my time answering questions from various corporate and field offices about what training I was planning for various new and revised products.  My colleagues, who had responsibility for other product groups, were similarly spending as much time with the same tasks.

My solution was to convene a quarterly meeting with the heads of product management, engineering, marketing, and other relevant groups to create a master calendar of the products in the pipeline over the next six months and, for each product, to discuss what level of training or information provision was needed.  I then created a master calendar, which I updated quarterly, from which I could plan development efforts and provide information to the field software support groups.  As a result, the amount of time I spent on the phone answering questions was reduced from 30 to 40 percent to about 10 percent, and I was able to spend that additional time working on the quality of the training products.

The group I worked for had been doing the same things the same ways for more than 10 years, and they got the job done.  My approach of convening the advisory group and creating the master calendar was adopted across the group and greatly improved the group’s efficiency.  Was this a revolutionary improvement in training methodology?  No, but we all fall into the trap of continuing to do things as they have always been done because we know the methods, are comfortable with them, and know they get the job done.  It is often helpful to bring in someone who is not familiar with the old methods to see if there might be a better way.

A senior vice president at a Fortune 500 company once told me that when he put together a task team to tackle a longstanding challenge, he always included a “smart dummy” on the team.  A “smart dummy” was a very bright person who had no background in or knowledge of the problem under consideration – someone, he said, who could ask the “dumb questions” that no one else would ask and question the assumptions under which the others were working.  This is the essence of “critical thinking” – being able to question basic assumptions and biases that affect peoples’ judgment and behavior.

When I first suggested the approach of putting together the advisory group and the master calendar, my group’s manager said that it couldn’t be done – the product managers, engineering managers, and others I planned to invite were too busy to take time to meet with me, and that these people considered training as more of a necessary nuisance that as an added-value service.  I found that these people were anxious to participate because they too were constantly interrupted by calls from people wanting to know what was planned.  So my solution not only benefitted me in my work, but also was a benefit to them.

Have you really looked at the assumptions and biases you carry with you every day and which affect your decision making?  Try being a “smart dummy” for a while and see if you can identify ways in which longstanding beliefs and practices are holding you back.