Posted by: malstott | September 16, 2016

A Wolf Tone in the Workplace

cello1Is a dissonance good or bad? Does it add a richness to the output or does it detract? If you play a stringed instrument you are familiar with the “wolf“. This is an overtone produced when a note is played that matches the natural frequency of the instrument. The wolf is an oscillation that sounds like an animal noise. It is annoying for a cellist or violinist and it is often dealt with using a “wolf eliminator”. If a cello is properly proportioned it will have this problem. It seems that the very best instruments have this characteristic. Many musicians buy eliminators to dampen this noise. But some cellists choose to embrace this flaw and actually write music with the wolf in mind. Naldjorlak I is a piece that capitalizes on the wolf tone. Some cellists work around and with their cello’s wolf tone rather than putting an eliminator on the instrument for fear of dampening the richness of the other tones. Perhaps they have discovered that a little dissonance can be used to advantage.

In our workplaces we often find annoying “characters”. They find a way to stir things up and call to attention all that is wrong. Often they are different from the rest and don’t blend in with the gang. There are several ways to deal with this kind of person and each way has its consequences.

  • Kick ’em to the curb: There is no time for people problems. Teamwork is the highest priority to get the job done. If this is your situation then eliminating the annoyance will optimize the team’s output. You can try to coach and cajole but you will likely not get to a place where this “wolf” is tamed. Dissonance will persist. However, if you eliminate the problem it is likely that you will also eliminate a skill or set of experiences that created some synergy for the team.
  • Ignore and let the organization work it out: Usually the people with the annoying habits or ideas have something to bring to the table or they wouldn’t have been hired. They have deep experiences or unique skills. Perhaps they are jaded and maybe they have some quirks based on that experience but they are tolerated based on what they bring to the team. Letting the organization work it out is a typical management response. The logic is that there is more benefit than harm and everyone is a grown-up. The organization should work out their differences and move on. This response usually results in inefficiency and frustration. In the extreme the result is the loss of good people.
  • Harness the wolf and find synergy: This third alternative creates the most organizational value.  Different styles and personalities will usually bring the best results. Dissonance and disagreement will help deliver a stronger product. However, there is a technique to optimizing the result and the best organizations work to maximize teamwork while maintaining differences.
    • Teach the team about their own and other’s personalities. Techniques such as Meyers Briggs and Strength Based Leadership are often used to help a team figure out how to optimize their own strengths and quirks while working with others.
    • Allow for disagreement, but then insist on a “commit”. While at Sun I worked with a leader who used the phrase, “disagree but commit”. He was tolerant of discussion and disagreement up to a point. Once the decision was made, he insisted on commitment to the decision with no back-channel negatives.
    • Lead through the dissonance. Purposefully designing an organization that has differing views is a way to enhance results but leadership is needed to guide discussions and allow for a reasonable tension without too much delay. A leader who is self-confident and knows how to bring out the best in a group of people is hard to find but once in place this type of person will be a star.

Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.
― Rob Siltanen

Posted by: malstott | July 25, 2016

Disfluence: Learning is a Mess

Image result for image of writing in finger paintsI always carry a notebook. This has been part of my work life since its inception. I’ve always known that if I write it down in my messy handwriting, I remember it better. Even when I’m told in a meeting “No need to take notes; I’ll send you the PowerPoint”, I still take notes. Sometimes I do it self-consciously since it seems I’m the only one with a pen in the room. But it helps me soak in the information. Now that I understand the concept of Cognitive Disfluence I will pull out my pen with pride. Cognitive Disfluence is a fancy way of saying that you learn more when you interact with what you are trying to learn.

In 2011 a study was done at Princeton. Subjects were asked to read about complicated, fictional biologic taxonomies. One group read in the common Arial font and the second read in Comic Sans MS. The group that read in the more unusual font remembered 14% more. This study has been done in a number of ways and the results are the same. The same concept is true with numbers. If you have to graph the data yourself on a piece of paper, it will stick. If you do the math by hand and not with a calculator, you will remember it better. If you punch in someone’s cell phone number a few times into your phone, you will remember it.

Humans are meant to interact with their surroundings. Our brains are wired to forget the easy stuff and hang on to the stuff we wrestle a bit with. Knowing this can help us absorb the data and information that comes barreling at us day in and day out. Below are some ways to better grab onto what is flowing past.

  • Use the whiteboard: For those of us working in offices whiteboards are ubiquitous. Have you noticed that some people are fast to jump up and use the board and others hang back? Be one of those board doodlers. As a discussion progresses, note the key points. Write down the dates and make a timeline. Assign owners. Draw a picture of how it works or who is connected to whom. If you are the leader of the meeting feel free to hand over the pen to others to pull them in. You will find that the room is more engaged and that the concepts are remembered. You and your team will think about this meeting more than most because the team was actively engaged.
  • Take notes in meetings, during the lecture or sermon, as you read: Keep a notebook close at hand to jot down something that inspires. Draw a picture of the image that comes to mind. Even if you are doodling or writing key thoughts or names, this is enough to engage a different part of your brain and you are more likely to retain what you are hearing.
  • Graph out your expenses or revenue or miles run over time: I’m a big proponent of dashboards in business. These simplify the noisy data and give leaders key performance metrics to be sure that they haven’t lost control. But the very best way to get to this information is by graphing it yourself. Those shop floor charts where the data is added one point at a time (remember TQC?) are the best. Maybe a good combo is to look at and manipulate key pieces of information. If you see the trends going in the wrong direction dig down a level. See what the key contributors are and normalize by doing some math.
  • Write a list of things to do: Lots of us have “to do lists”. Crossing things off feels so good. But maybe the act of writing something down puts it into our heads to complete as well. We think about the task, consider how big the job is, break it down further and actually visualize the act of doing it.
  • Write stuff on sticky notes and move ’em around: A Kanban board or Scrum board is used in businesses to track, prioritize and pull through work. There are tools available to put this online and manipulate virtually but many companies and teams find that a good old fashioned white board with columns and sticky notes work the best. Why? Because you are engaged with the work. You can write on it. Add thoughts and move them around.
  • Argue from another perspective: One of the most interesting “features” of our brains is the tendency to find and stick with a simple frame of understanding. This saves us time. It helps us get through the day. We know how to drive our cars without a lot of brainpower. We can get ready in the morning without being totally awake. We have a perspective on life and we filter everything to comply with that perspective. The downside of this is that we don’t easily learn and change based on new information. We are blind to changes that can be very important in the running of our businesses or families. To shake ourselves out of this rut, try re-framing a situation by taking the other side and arguing it. It is helpful to hire or befriend people who are not going to simply feed you information that you already know or agree with.

The most successful people are ones who are exceptional learners. They digest new information, absorb new insights and aren’t afraid to look beyond their frames of reference. Many of these successful learners try crazy new things just to shake it up. Resolve to get out of your comfort zone and amp up your learning.

Learning is an experience. Everything else is just information.        Albert Einstein


Marcy Alstott is an Operations and Supply Chain Consultant with diverse product and technology expertise, multinational management credentials and extensive transformation know-how.  



Posted by: malstott | June 25, 2016

Fair and Good Trade

datsunI made the trade for a Ford Taurus. By then my little red Datsun 210 had traveled from California to New Hampshire. It had carried me through my masters degrees, my early career days, into a marriage and kids. The seat fabric had rotted and split. The paint finish was crackled and faded. A family of mice had decided to store dog food pellets in the fabric roof lining. (We have ever since stored dog food in metal cans!) But this car meant something to me and it was a hard possession to give up. But I needed a car that didn’t slip and slide in the snow and that carried me with a little more dignity to my engineering manager job. So I made the trade. It was fair. It was good.

These days, in the midst of isolationist leanings, there is a great deal of talk about fair trade. The treaties that were enacted over a decade ago are being blamed as the root cause for all of our economic woes and lack of full employment. The US has 14 trade agreements in effect with 20 countries. We are in the process of examining and likely will be rejecting an additional Asia-Pacific trade agreement, known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) Agreement and are in negotiations with the EU  regarding the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (T-TIP). Why are these agreements in place and are they fair and good? 

The argument for international trade agreements is that they reduce barriers to U.S. exports and protect U.S. interests and enhance the rule of law in partner countries. The reduction of trade barriers and the creation of a more stable and transparent trading and investment environment makes it easier and cheaper for U.S. companies to export their products and services. This is goodness if both parties have something valuable to exchange and if each side ends up satisfied with the arrangement. Right now in the US we are not satisfied. We have lost over 5M manufacturing jobs since the beginning of the century. Our annual trade deficit was $500B or 3% of the GDP last year. That money is used by foreign investors to buy real estate or businesses or other assets. But these stats don’t tell the whole complicated story. The complex story makes the solution complex. The WSJ covered this recently in an article on the Future of Manufacturing. If we close our borders to trade or if we heavily tax imports to slow down in the influx of goods, there are consequences.

  • We export more services than we import to the tune of about $300B. If we slow imports we could slow exports of our service industry thus hurting those US businesses.
  • If we tax imports of cheaper goods we are creating a regressive tax. In other words we will hurt the people with smaller incomes who can’t afford it.
  • We could lessen the value of our currency making imports look more expensive but that again will be a regressive action, hurting the wrong people.
  • Moving quickly could cause an economic backlash that could push the US into a recession.

None of the ideas above are easy to implement without repercussions. But we can take positive action to increase our competitiveness and move back to a positive trade balance. However, these ideas require leadership, partnership with government, some patience and a bit of altruism. We as a country seem to be short on those things right now.

  • Measure the costs: Company executives should measure the full, true cost of off-shoring. Doing the math rather than just following the crowd could accelerate the trend to keep manufacturing in the US.
  • Train workers: There is a gap between manufacturing workers needed versus available even today. This gap will increase as our baby boomers retire. We need to create training programs and apprenticeships like are available in Germany and other countries.
  • Embrace Technology: There are ways to improve our competitiveness and the time is ripe. Additive manufacturing, Internet of Things (IoT) and collaborative robotics are ways to use our technical prowess to beat the competition. US universities have developed and progressed these capabilities and progressive companies are employing them to improve productivity and features. The government should encourage investments in manufacturing technology. US incentives for investments in factory automation and research lags behind our competition.
  • Employ Lean and Agile Methodologies: Productivity in the US (GDP/hour worked) has increased year over year for 3 decades. In the first quarter of 2016 it actually decreased by .6%. We need to find ways of doing more with what we have. Lean for Manufacturing and Agile for Innovation are two proven ways to improve efficiency and speed up results.
  • Create Manufacturing Ecosystems: Regional governments have been encouraging a resurgence of focused manufacturing capabilities. Examples are the growth of automotive manufacturing in the Southeast or capital machinery in the Midwest. These clusters are attracting the right kind of workforce, setting up supply chains and are working with regional governments to create workable tax schemes.

We will not rewind time to the days when you could provide for a family and retire on one assembly worker’s wages. But it is possible to generate a good living with the new jobs that are emerging. A robot technician’s salary is about $60K.  A CNC programmer and operator earns about $40K. With the right kind of training and infrastructure we can revitalize manufacturing in the US and embrace good and fair trade once again.

Good and fair trade is within our reach. I gave up my Datsun with thoughts of better driving days to come. Similarly, we need to let go of the past and embrace a new manufacturing reality of automated factories building products the rest of the world will want to buy.

Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.      Barack Obama

Posted by: malstott | April 26, 2016

Agile for Lean Innovation

Agile=Lean for Innovation (2)

Posted by: malstott | April 5, 2016

Trickle-up: A Path to US Manufacturing

fountain2This is not a political post. It is a call to personal reflection and action. Politicians and policies can help change the rules but we are the change agents in our companies. We have gutted our manufacturing prowess here in the US. We can blame trade agreements, tax burdens, short term quarterly reporting or politicians. But we also need to look at executive leadership. I am guilty. I’ve been a manufacturing executive during the biggest downturn in manufacturing…ever. Since the 90’s we have been shuffling manufacturing off-shore at an amazing rate. We have lost over 8M manufacturing jobs since the peak in 1979 with most moving to Asia since 1999. While this trend has slowed and there is some evidence of a reversal (~800K net increase in manufacturing jobs returning since 2010), it isn’t enough and we need to take action. The economics are just about there. What isn’t clearly showing in the numbers yet is the longer term benefit of having a return of the manufacturing base. I call this a trickle-up effect.

Trickle-up is not a new term but is new in this context. The trickle-up effect or fountain effect is an economic theory used to describe the combined demand of middle-class people to drive the economy. The theory is credited to John Maynard Keynes early in this century. Because each manufacturing dollar supports $1.33 in output from other sectors, it creates a trickle of economic value. Manufacturing has the largest multiplier of any other industry sector. Reshoring is a way to multiply jobs and economic value for our country. In addition there are intangible business benefits like increased creativity, faster time to market and increased customer responsiveness.

The late Andy Grove said in a 2010 New York Times essay, that what creates tech employment is scaling. “Scaling is hard work but necessary to make innovation matter.” And now scaling is not happening in the US. The big tech legends like Intel, Tandem, HP, Sun, Cisco all scaled in the US when they started. Then we shifted manufacturing to Asia. Now, companies like Foxconn and Flextronics build our electronics products with millions of engineers, technicians and managers located in Asia. Let’s tune our innovation engine to include scaling. Tools such as additive manufacturing, collaborative robotics and IC manufacturing equipment are developed here. Let’s use them here.

If we agree that it is best for our country to bring these jobs back, how can we accelerate? We need to examine our decision criteria. In some cases the numbers are in our favor already. In other cases we need to take action as leaders to change the equation. Here are some practical actions to take:

  • Calculate the total cost of manufacturing before deciding where to build. Labor costs have increased in Asia and have decreased in the US. Energy costs are competitive. In some parts of the country the real estate is less expensive and local governments are interested in attracting industry by offering tax breaks. Automation can be used to increase quality and increase efficiency further. The Reshoring Institute has developed a Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) estimator that is free to use.
  • Assign a value to time. Manufacturing close to a development team accelerates time to market. Learning quickly through rapid prototyping and iterating designs based on real manufacturing input will shorten your time to volume manufacturing and that in turn gives you an edge over the competition. If your product goes to market 1-2 months faster, what is that worth?
  • Value Superior products. New technology needs an effective ecosystem in which technology accumulates. This happens between functional areas and between inventors and makers. We are missing an element of the creative process if we don’t include manufacturing in the cycle. It can be done with Asian partners but it often isn’t. Designers often don’t even see their product being built. They don’t interact with the builders of the product and they learn only through second-hand feedback.
  • Consider the cost of quality.  Ideally when there is a failure early in a product launch, it is quickly understood and either the product or the process changes to avoid that failure the next time. Tight feedback between design and build is the key to this rapid improvement process. Proximity matters. It doesn’t guarantee the close interaction between design and build but it takes down an obvious barrier.
  • Lower inventory levels.  Do this by moving manufacturing closer to the demand. This has been called “next-shoring” or “right-shoring”.  Companies can respond to changing demand because there is less inventory on its way. The need to commit to next season’s fashion a year ahead of time goes away. Colors, fabric, quantity, sizes can change as demand is better understood.  Inventory is expensive to store, ship, scrap and obsolete. The money saved by placing build close to demand can be taken to the bottom line. Companies like Nike, GE and Brooks Brothers are working on “next-shoring”.
  • Train. One of the biggest gaps we have is the readiness of our workforce for this strengthening in US manufacturing. As business leaders we should be readying our workforce to take on manufacturing jobs through apprenticeship programs, on-the-job training, internships, partnerships with local colleges and universities and funding for skills training.

Increasing our manufacturing base in the USA will trickle up jobs and prosperity. The jobs are good ones and they are multiplicative. Job creation matters. We have an financial obligation in business to sustain the society and infrastructure on which we depend. It isn’t altruistic. It is a long term fiduciary obligation. Our children will be better off. What kind of world will this be if we only have highly paid professionals designing products and the rest are unemployed or serving those who are highly paid? We need to take action to bring manufacturing jobs back to the US. It is the right thing to do.

Be courageous. I have seen many depressions in business. Always, America has emerged from these stronger and more prosperous. Be brave as your fathers before you. Have faith! Go forward. Thomas Edison

Posted by: malstott | March 8, 2016

Step It Up

Image result for international women's dayOn March 8, 1917 women in the city of St. Petersburg marched in the streets to end WWI, food shortages and the rule of czars. This International Women’s Day event was called a march for “bread and peace” and it kicked off a revolution. In 1965, March 8th was declared a national holiday in the Soviet Union, meant to recognize the heroism and selflessness of women and to celebrate the contribution made by women toward the establishment of peace and freedom. Since then the holiday has been adopted across the world and is now a day to reflect on progress made by courageous and inspiring women in all walks of life. Google’s doodle  today is a montage of the many roles and the many possibilities for women. And what wonderful possibilities there are!

This year the United Nations called for Gender Equality by 2030. At the rate we are currently going we will not achieve parity across the world until 2095. We need to step it up.

Some key targets of the 2030 UN Agenda:

  • By 2030, ensure that all girls and boys complete free, equitable and quality primary and secondary education leading to relevant and Goal-4 effective learning outcomes.
  • By 2030, ensure that all girls and boys have access to quality early childhood development, care and pre-primary education so that they are ready for primary education.
  • End all forms of discrimination against all women and girls everywhere.
  • Eliminate all forms of violence against all women and girls in the public and private spheres, including trafficking and sexual and other types of exploitation.
  • Eliminate all harmful practices, such as child, early and forced marriage and female genital mutilation.

Let’s join in to support these goals and step it up to achieve gender equality. You can pledge your support here: PLEDGE SUPPORT. You don’t need to pay anything, leave an email address, sign your name. You just have to say you will participate in change.

Let us devote solid funding, courageous advocacy and unbending political will to achieving gender equality around the world. There is no greater investment in our common future.  UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon



Posted by: malstott | March 3, 2016

Hire a Learner

When I was 20 years old I worked at GM as a co-op student in their tech center in Michigan. While working on the engine dynamometer, I met Bob and Hank. They were technicians of the highest caliber. Both were Cessna pilots. I tagged along a couple of times and for my birthday at the end of the summer Bob asked his instructor (he was getting an instrument rating) to give me a lesson. I couldn’t stop there and when I had my own funds a couple of years later I got my pilot’s license in California where I moved after graduation. There was nothing quite like the challenges of reading maps, mastering the radio, understanding the plane and knowing that controlling that airplane was in my hands. The learning curve was steep and worth it.

Years later I’ve mastered much that has involved starting from nothing and ending with taking control. The skill of learning something new is the most valuable arrow in my quiver. Nothing beats the adrenaline around figuring something out especially when the stakes are high. While I continue to learn even after decades in the working world, I see others in the workplace who are not so willing to jump into something new.  Often, managers and recruiters bias toward hiring those who have been there and done that. Some proven skill is necessary but not sufficient. The best employees are those who are curious, unafraid and driven to learn. When hiring, look for and ask about these things:

  • Adaptability – Ask your candidate to tell stories of transition. Dig when you hear about something that was tough to overcome. What did she or he do when placed in an unknown situation? International travel, cross-functional projects and joining companies involved in a new technology are fertile grounds for stories of adaptability.
  • Growth – An exceptional candidate will show a track record of jumping into new challenges. There is value to longevity in companies and roles but be careful when someone has only moved on when forced. A curious learner will look for ways to stretch and will not be satisfied in a stagnant job. When relating accomplishments, a learner will enthusiastically talk about the journey. Ask questions. (e.g. What challenged you in that job? What skills were mastered? How are you better prepared now because of your history? What attracts you to this job?) Answers should point to a growing set of skills and experiences and an aptitude to learn and change.
  • Emotional Intelligence (EQ)- This term was developed by Daniel Goleman in 1995. The book by the same name describes EQ as an ability to recognize one’s own and others’ emotions and to use that knowledge to guide thinking and behavior. This is closely correlated to learning agility especially as it relates to how you react to your own emotions. Fear can be an inhibitor to learning. Recognizing those butterflies in your tummy as something you’ve felt before and have worked through keeps you going forward. It is easy to let those feelings of uneasiness slow down your growth and learning.
  • Curiosity – The most valuable colleagues with whom I’ve worked have an insatiable curiosity. They aren’t stuck in their pay grade or functional slot. They reach outside of their comfort area to ask questions and to understand context. They sit at the lunch table with others in the company and learn about projects, technology, marketing launches, financial challenges. They combine their EQ with their curiosity to pull out information from others. They sincerely want to know what is going on outside of their cubicles. Hiring someone with this trait will land you a cross-functional connector. That person is worth her weight in gold.

Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.

Mahatma Gandhi

Posted by: malstott | February 22, 2016

Startup Part Three: Forget Your Lessons

skiing in snowstormStarting a company is like skiing in a snow storm. Starting a company is like scraping gum off of your shoe. Starting a company is like riding a unicycle for the first time. Starting a company is the most fun and frustrating thing you can choose to do. If you thought that the process was straight forward and that you could simply use what you know to launch a company, then think again.  It will turn the lessons you’ve learned on their head.

I’ve been part of 3 company start-ups. Each one has reinforced the same hard lessons. The similarities are what I will talk about although truthfully, you can’t count on history or other people’s stories to predict your own start-up experience. Knowing that you can’t know how it will go is the surest wisdom I can share. What I’ve covered below are pieces of advice that ring true to those I’ve talked with in the start-up world.

  • Patience is a questionable virtue – Larry Page did not tolerate debate at Google when the company was young. When discussion came up his typical response was “just do it.”  When you are starting a company it is your baby. It is the most important thing you are doing and of course your product is the best there is. Why aren’t people returning email or answering your calls? Why don’t they see the value in what you have to offer? Whether you are selling a service or a product or an idea, it is important to keep in mind that you are one of many “interrupts” for your potential customer or investor. So patiently and politely waiting for a response is the only logical response. Or is it? Because you are competing with others for attention it isn’t good enough to be one of the crowd. Consider how you can stand out and be noticed. Connect personally with the right people. Use your network to make an introduction. Put a pitch together that “wows”. Go after it each and every day. When a targeted VC didn’t  answer emails or phone calls, we found a connection who made a call. A meeting was set-up. Persistence and impatience paid off.
  • Be a control freak – At Apple, Google, Ford and Amazon the founders were control freaks. They were in the piddly little details. Steve fanatically cared about color and finish. Larry eliminated all project managers to be closer to the engineers. Henry designed conveyor belt production lines and Jeff obsessively intervenes for the customer. While this doesn’t scale easily as a company grows it can be helpful as a company launches. Be a perfectionist and pay attention to the details. I’ve reviewed and rejected PO’s under $100. Enough of those make a dent and the message sent is that every penny counts.
  • Play the short game –  Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia needed some cash and so rented out their loft during a busy conference week in San Francisco. Instead of using Craigslist they built a site, called it Airbnb and made $240. Then requests came in for more and the company launched. “One day at a time” should be the mantra. Dealing with today in the best way you are able is the key to success for a company just starting out. It is easy to feel discouraged by the daunting tasks in front of you. Step forward and beat those problems down to keep the progress going and you will look back over time and be amazed at what has been accomplished. Optimism is a characteristic that is very valuable when starting something new. There will be naysayers. They can even be family members, customers or investors. Don’t allow the negative inputs to weigh you down. Take the information on-board and look at the glass half full. At my last start-up company we launched a product and then stopped and pivoted to a new product. One day to the next my problems were flipped on their head.
  • Don’t be so analytical – Uber never should have worked. In 2008 Travis Kalanick and Garrett Camp were in Paris talking about how hard it is to get a cab in San Francisco. There were over 1000 taxi medallions issued in SF at the time. Too much competition. Too many obstacles. Nope.  As an engineer and operations executive I’ve always led with analysis and facts. It is good to have the data before plunging forward. It is also impossible to have all of the data when you are talking about a business that is not off the ground in a market that doesn’t yet exist. Sometimes you have to estimate, extrapolate or imagine the future state in order to put a financial plan, cash flow or P&L together. You will be wrong. Acknowledge that and stay light on your feet.  As Dwight D. Eisenhower said, “Plans are nothing; planning is everything.” I’ve modeled a monthly P&L out 5 years knowing that our ability to predict the next month was shaky. It calmed our investors and secured a Series B round.
  • Contradictions do not need resolution – Steve Jobs was himself a contradiction. He was both a hippy /Buddhist and a billionaire businessman. Many creative founders are a combination of genius and awkward. There is usually conflict in the beginning with people, ideas and styles.  What works in a start-up might not scale to a larger company but strong personalities with unreasonable obsessions are what launch companies. I’ve bitten my tongue many a time when my first response was a logical rebuttal to an illogical founder’s request. And then it turns out, the founder was right.

When everything seems to be going against you, remember that the airplane takes off against the wind, not with it.    Henry Ford

Marcy Alstott is an Operations and Supply Chain Consultant with diverse product and technology expertise, multinational management credentials and extensive transformation know-how. She can be reached at Her website is

Posted by: malstott | January 25, 2016

Hitting The Mark With Your Consulting Dollars

ElmerfuddAnd then he said, “Your input was spot on and the way you structured your analysis clearly points us in the right direction. The team values your leadership and wouldn’t have made this kind of progress without your help…..It is too bad that we won’t be implementing.”

“Ready, Fire, Aim” seems to be the way many companies approach hiring a consultant. They know that they need help from an expert. They don’t have an internal resource available to move the problem, analysis or team ahead. And sometimes they simply want another perspective that will open their thinking or cause them to look at the landscape or strategy from a different angle. But in many cases the “aiming” of this resource doesn’t happen upfront and an opportunity is missed.

There are many ways to avoid this pitfall but if the following big five are followed, your consulting dollars will be optimized.

  1. Begin with the end in mind – As Steven Covey describes in 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, it is important to envision what you want in the future in order to work toward it. With a consultant this idea is a money saver. Consider what you would like as an outcome before you bring in a consultant. If your objective is something general like “coach the team”, “review and input to strategy”, “assess state of business”, then it is even more important to think through an outcome. If you don’t have time to put this in writing, ask the consultant to do it as a first step or even a step prior to hiring. Getting an agreement about outcome will help you and your staff focus and will give the consultant some momentum when starting.
  2. Shore up internal resources – The best consulting arrangement is when a strong internal team and well-defined sponsor couples with the consultant. There are several benefits to this. The first is accountability. The consultant has a participatory audience who will quickly feed back if the work is on track or missing the mark. The second is synergy. Having internal resources involved keeps the company culture and priorities front and center. The third is long-term results. Internal resources are there to stay and will take ideas, action plans and analysis forward.  If you light a match you will see better but if you use the match to light a bonfire, the heat and light will remain after the match burns out. Leverage your consultant to drive permanent change into your organization.
  3. Pick a consultant who will partner – But sometimes the objective changes. Sometimes external factors change or the consultant will learn more about a situation and that should drive a redirect. If your chosen consultant has the right approach to the job, the new information will be quickly disclosed to you and your team which will in turn drive a conversation about a new way forward. If there is a weekly status meeting between the consultant and her sponsor, time will not be wasted. Don’t be afraid to simply put the work on hold until it is clear what the next steps should be. That is one advantage of having a consultant rather than a full-time employee. The resource can be deployed very surgically and can be removed if not needed.
  4. Invest – The old adage, “you get what you pay for” is true in consulting.  The hourly cost should be considered for the worth and not simply compared to internal salaries. Look for consultants with specific expertise. Look for hands on professionals who have implemented in the past and are steeped in practical reality and not simply theory. While the big consulting firms do have consultants with both theory and practical experience you are more likely to get theory and analysis with the big firms. Whether hiring from a big consulting firm or looking for an individual with the skills you need, you will need to check the backgrounds of those hired. Ask specific questions about experiences in the areas in which you need the help. Look for professionals who can give you examples of change management success. It is one thing to know what works. It is another to get others to change to that new working model.
  5. Course correct – Don’t hesitate to change the direction of the work. If the results are not what you are looking for, ask for a change. If the information isn’t being delivered in a way that can be absorbed, ask for a change. If the cultural match isn’t there, change before investing too much in an arrangement that won’t move the organization forward. Don’t allow a consulting engagement to be “open loop”. Tighten the feedback loop for optimal results.

When a consultant’s work isn’t used at the end of the project it isn’t a total waste because typically something is learned and much is uncovered about the problem. On the other hand, the money spent is likely higher than need be. If the problem is defined in the beginning, regularly course corrected by people within the company who will live with the results and if the right consultant is chosen who will adapt and communicate, you will optimize your results.

“I hope you can hewp me mister game warden. I’ve been towd I can shoot wabbits, mongooses, pigeons, dirty skunks and ducks. Can you teww me what season it weawwy is??!!”       Elmer Fudd

Posted by: malstott | October 29, 2015

Deciding Which Way…

In Rotwo-roads-diverged1bert Frost’s poem, The Road Not Taken, a choice is laid out in the form of two diverging roads. While many interpret this poem as an encouragement to take a less traveled road, the poem doesn’t say this. Frost presents us with two paths that really look about the same. While he would like to have tried both ways, he had to decide and then “way leads on to way”. He won’t return to try the other path. A choice is made and then Frost tells us how he will describe this decision in the future.  He admits that he will likely point to this decision as one that made a difference. “Telling this with a sigh”, how can we make good decisions and then how do we live with decisions we have made?

  • Gather the facts: It is best to start out in an analytical mode. Understand the financial implications of a decision. Learn about the players already involved. Get information on the product if this is a career decision. Put information about an offer in writing and solicit input from experts on what is fair and appropriate. If you are deciding about a more personal matter the same concepts apply. What is the personal cost of proceeding? What will change in your life and does it matter? Size up the pluses and minuses. Write them down if that helps you get organized.
  • Consider the “way leading on to way”: Many choices we make will lead us down a path. Usually we can tell if the path is a good one. A degree in education will likely lead to a teaching job at lower pay but at great personal reward if this is your calling. A degree in engineering will open up many doors but will likely lead you to a desk job with less freedom to take blocks of time off or to work at home. Deciding to join a more established company could lead you to a number of job possibilities within the company but you will be a small fish in a large pond. Picking a smaller company will give you more chance to lead but you will not learn as much from others as you will likely be the only expert in your area. As you consider how the way will lead to another step, think about whether that path is where you want to be.
  • Heart check: While an analytical approach is a good backdrop for any decision and should shape how you feel, the tie-breaker is almost always the heart. More often than not there are two paths that both look pretty good. Perhaps like Frost one of the paths looks a bit more worn than the other but it is hard to see very far down the path and really there are few paths that haven’t been trod. What alternative feels right to you? Where is your passion. What do you wake up thinking about? Even if the direction you are leaning is the least understood, it might be the best for you if your heart is there.
  • Be brave: When you have weighed facts and honestly reviewed your heart’s desire, it is important to be brave with the decision. Have confidence in your abilities to do a job or make a move or change a career or launch a project. There is little that can’t be figured out with the right attitude and some passion. If we are not brave in our decisions they get made for us. Sometimes the options go away. Sometimes time and resources force our hand. So, when there is a decision to be made, make it and move.
  • Move forward knowing that you will spin the tale: This truth is a bit of a relief. We pick a path and it makes us who we are. When we look back we usually tell the story that our wise decisions got us to where we are. And honestly, we are right in part. If we make our decisions with the facts coupled with the heart and we bravely move forward we are likely to lead a life of adventure and learning. We are likely to be satisfied with what we have become. We are likely to be happy with our choices.

We all have choices to make. Be thoughtful, heart-full and brave and then pick your road. And God bless you on your journey!

The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

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