ALTOM: What can business learn from techies?

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Tim Altom

Two of the more intimidatingly large shelving areas of a good bookstore are the business and technology sections. In some stores, they’re right next to each other. But that’s usually as far as the sharing goes. I rarely see browsers in one section sidle over into the other. But I do, and it’s made a great deal of difference in how I think. There have been some technical materials that have taught me a great deal about how business should be conducted. I’d like to share a few with you.

When I use the term “technical,” by the way, I mean an audience that’s presumed to apply the knowledge in ways that aren’t in the business mainstreams of finance, accounting, sales and so forth. That’s why they’re often overlooked. But to me they’re valid crossover hits, books and authors that can teach both sides of the house something new.

There is actually a pair of books that constitute my first crossover hit. The first is “The Mythical Man-Month” by Fred Brooks. Brooks managed the development of the legendary OS/360 for IBM in the mid-1960s, a project that consumed 5,000 person-years.

This and other big projects taught Brooks the futility of having a baby in a month by putting nine pregnant women in a room together. More practically, he writes about how communication and productivity rapidly deteriorate when teams grow beyond a half-dozen members.

In today’s virtual business community, where projects can involve multiple small companies, Brooks’ insights are even more valuable than they were when he first published them in 1975. He notes that one of their errors in the OS/360 project was neglecting to plan for all the ancillary functions around programming—the management, testing, meetings, and so forth. His lessons apply equally well to any swollen project in any discipline.

So do the lessons from “Death March” by Edward Yourdon, a well-known pioneer in software engineering. Yourdon explains why some projects suddenly balloon at the end, causing late nights, pizza overload and general mental breakdown, creating a “death march.”

He attributes death marches to many things—inadequate planning, mismanagement, ego, among others—and offers antidotes to many of them. I’ve seen numerous software projects lurch into death marches, but I’ve seen other business-related projects do it, too.

Like Brooks, Yourdon warns that we should spend a sizable percentage of project time in planning, rather than the “ready, fire, aim” mentality of over-eager management. The number of abandoned or failed projects throughout the business landscape is appallingly high, as much as 70 percent, by some counts. Whenever I’m tempted to cut corners during the runup stage to a project, I think of Brooks and Yourdon.

Another big crossover hit for me was the physicist, engineer, quality expert and ultimately management consultant W. Edwards Deming, who was one of the pioneers and popularizers of statistical process control (SPC), the forerunner of programs like Six Sigma.

Quality assurance decades ago was an arcane engineering function that focused on the product at the end of the assembly line, and blamed employee laxity for excessive numbers of rejects. Deming demonstrated that “good” employees were good primarily due to random luck, and that true quality lay in measuring processes and improving them over time.

The problem was that he couldn’t demonstrate it to American companies initially, due to lack of interest; instead, he demonstrated it to the Japanese, who in turn demonstrated it to Americans when their products became so high-quality that American goods were left languishing on the shelves and showroom floors.

Deming later expanded his methods to include all business functions, and showed how proper data collection and statistical analysis could reveal the obstacles in any areas of business. Remove the obstacles, and efficiency goes up, all without berating employees.

Motorola, for example, took Deming’s lessons so much to heart that it created the famous Six Sigma program, which to date has saved Motorola $17 billion, according to the company. Honeywell and General Electric also report huge savings from their Six Sigma initiatives.

Probably my favorite Deming book for beginners is “Four Days with Dr. Deming,” a reasonably in-depth but easy-to-read introduction to his principles. But perhaps his most famous work is “Out of the Crisis.” Originally published in 1981 with the unimaginative title “Quality, Productivity and Competitive Position,” it states Deming’s core belief that American business can work its way out of crisis if it’s willing to transform the way it does business. He advocates heretical things like eliminating numerical quotas and slogans for the work force, using a single supplier, and ceasing to rely on inspection for quality.

This is radical stuff, but companies are making it work. Remarkably, the technical Deming, along with technologists like Brooks and Yourdon, can help the business side succeed, too. The next time you’re in a bookstore, check out both sides of the shelves.•


Altom is an independent local technology consultant. His column appears every other week. He can be reached at taltom@ibj.com.


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