The symbiotic relationship between engineering and architecture

I’m entering a new phase of life as my children are growing up. My eldest son has passed his driving test, and now we’re touring university open days. He’s looking to become an engineer (as was I, before I failed my A levels and fell into computing, but that’s another story).

Last weekend, we visited the University of Bath, to learn about their Structural and Architectural Engineering course. In his introductory presentation, Senior Lecturer Dr Chris Blenkinsopp was talking about the relationship between engineers and architects, and it really struck a chord with me.

Dr Blenkinsopp was speaking about engineers as “born problem solvers”. Engineers focus on design – following guidelines and using their problem-solving skills. The architect does the big picture “drawing”, the engineer makes it work. Whilst a computer might be able to solve the maths, the engineer needs an ability to use a range of skills in an imaginative way.

Successful projects need collaboration between engineers and a variety of stakeholders. Critically, it’s vital that architects and engineers work together closely. And, for that reason, the University of Bath’s Design Projects involve both engineers and architects – collaborating at university as they will in their professional careers.

Whilst Dr Blenkinsopp was talking about civil/structural engineers and architects who work in the built environment, there are strong parallels with my world of information technology (IT).

Architects and IT architects

I have to be careful here, because I’ve been called out previously for calling myself an architect, which is a protected title:

“The title ‘architect’ is protected by law in the UK, under Section 20 of the Architects Act 1997. It can only be used in business or practice by someone who has had the education, training and experience needed to join the Architects Register and become an architect.”

[Architects Registration Board]

But all of that relates to architects who work in the built environment. In IT, architect is a broadly used term – and is recognised in the Skills Framework for the Information Age (SFIA). It’s also part of the job title in my employment contract!

The relationship between IT engineers and IT architects

Unfortunately, in IT, the term “architect” is also abused. It’s become common as a term to imply some seniority in the technical space. As a result, it’s lost some of its meaning. Even so, my role as an architect is less and less about technology and more and more about solving business challenges. In the course of that work, I work with lots of subject matter experts – the engineers of the IT world – who solve the problems that I give to them. My role is to draw the big pictures and join everything together. [Often, my tools are some whiteboard pens…]

Where I work, at risual, we run Consulting Skills Workshops, to help our subject matter experts develop the soft skills that are required to be a successful consultant. In reality, our consultants are on the first step towards IT architecture (whether they know it or not). Consulting is an engagement model and a set of soft skills. In terms of career progression, our consultants are no longer engineers – they are often required to work as technical architects.

But there is absolutely nothing wrong with being an IT engineer. We need those problem solvers – the people who know how to bring technology together and use it in imaginative ways. Just as much as we need the people who can take those technology building blocks and use them to solve business challenges.

Conclusion

As a result of taking my son to Bath and sitting in Dr Blenkinsopp’s presentation, my mission has changed. The work I’m doing at risual to develop and grow our Architecture practice needs to be tweaked. I need a slightly different focus. I still need to create great architects. But I also need to up the emphasis on constant collaboration with great engineers.

Because, to take a quote from Dr Blenkinsopp’s talk:

“The best […] engineering solutions require engineers and architects to work together from the outset.”

Professor Ted Happold

Additional Reading

What is IT Architecture? (part 1 of a series I wrote last year)

Developing IT Architecture Skills (part 2)

So, you want to be an Infrastructure Architect? (very old, but contains some useful diagrams)

Featured image: author’s own.

The paperless office

For decades, the paperless office has been a panacea, sought out by businesses far and wide. Ever since computers became a part of our daily work, there have been those who have prophesised on how we will no longer need to use paper.

And yet, I still receive so much of the stuff. Sure, I can receive most of my invoices and statements electronically – and we all know how print newspapers and magazines are in a state of decline – but paper is still used extensively. Some people just prefer to interact with analogue media – my wife likes a paper book, for example, and never got on with a Kindle. And some business models rely on shoving pieces of paper through the letter box (try opting out of Royal Mail’s “junk mail” deliveries and you’ll find it’s a lot harder than it should be).

Digitising my life

Several years ago, I started to scan important documents at home. The theory was that everything gets scanned, and only the really important papers got filed in paper form – generally those that related to the house (mortgage, building works) or to me as a person (passport, certificates, medical, etc.).

The trouble was, that I got behind on my scanning. Years behind. Boxes of “to be scanned” and boxes of “might have been scanned – who knows”. And my old Canon scanner was not up to the task – too slow and with an unreliable document feeder. It was also connected to an old (slow) PC, and needed two powered USB ports to drive it (which was a problem on any of the newer devices that I had access to). Added to which, there’s still all the pre-scanning regime files that were stored in the loft until we converted that to living space (4 years ago…).

So, whilst I took a few days off over half term, I bought a new scanner. A 35 pages a minute super-duper Wi-Fi connected paper-eating monster from Brother… and I reworked my document scanning workflow. I’m now scanning through the backlog and thousands of pages of paper are being shredded and recycled each week. So much that I keep overheating the shredder!

What’s the point?

All of this is good – it’s making me feel good about the progress I’m making and my family will be pleased to have fewer boxes of paper in the spare room.

But then my friend Matt Ballantine (@Ballantine70) remarked that he didn’t understand – what did I need to scan? The only paper he gets in junk! And I started to wonder if I’m somehow unusual?

Matt has a point. Years of “business transformation” and “digital transformation” has meant that most of the companies I deal with offer options for electronic bill and statements. But not all:

  • Not all of my tax paperwork is digital. Increasingly it is, but not all.
  • I keep a copy of the latest Council Tax bill, and at least one set of recent bank statements for identity purposes. (Some organisations still won’t accept digital versions!)
  • DBS certificates, vehicle “log book” (V5), etc. are all paper documents.
  • Add to that the letters relating to investments, pensions, banking, etc. that don’t arrive digitally.

It’s still quite a lot.

Then there’s the backlog. Maybe I should have a big bonfire and be done with it. Except that my mental makeup won’t allow that. I need to sort through it and find *the important bits* and scan it all *just in case*. (I know. It’s just the way I am. Try living with me!). And, anyway, paper doesn’t burn very well, as I found a few years ago when I got rid of 20+ years’ worth of work notebooks that were a potential GDPR nightmare and just gathering dust.

A digital dilemma…

So, now my “paperless office” is getting closer. And I almost never print anything at work. But I create lots. Lots of documents that I write. Lots of photos that I create. Lots of digital files I download (instead of receiving printed copies) or scan (see above).

The trick is to make sure I don’t replace boxes and boxes of paper files with digital mayhem. A digital mess that’s spread across a variety of online services from Microsoft, Amazon, Dropbox, Google and Apple!

Advice and guidance is welcomed… comments are open below!

Featured image: author’s own.

Sorting a Word table of names, in Excel

I’m going to share a secret with you all, dear readers. I really like Microsoft Excel.

There, I’ve said it. Excel may not be the perfect tool in some scenarios (take my example last year, which should almost certainly have used Power BI) but it is the “Swiss Army Knife” of the IT world. End users and IT admins alike have taken the humble spreadsheet programme and twisted it to suit their purposes. I can do so many things with it.

The problem – a table of names in Word

Like a few weeks ago, when I was reviewing a document. The document contained a table with a list of stakeholders. So as not to offend (in a very hierarchical organisation), it had been decided that the names should be in alphabetical order. Except the author had done that by first (given) name, not by last (family/surname) name. Rather than going back and asking them to fix it, I decided I would do so – as it should only take a few minutes.

Word tables are not always that easy to work with, but copying the data into a spreadsheet would let me mangle it, and then paste it back again. Incidentally, Visual Studio Code is also a fantastic text editor and I often use it for complex search and replace operations.

Moving the data to Excel for processing

In this case, I took the two columns from Word (Name, Job Title) and pasted them into Excel. That gives me something like this (massively simplified for the purposes of this blog post – I wouldn’t really go to this much effort for a three-line table! I also made up the names for this example…):

Mark WilsonPrincipal Architect
Brendan ClarkeDirector
Roger QuinnManager

Splitting first and last names

Next, I added a column to the right of Name, and split the Name column, using Excel’s Text to Column wizard and a space as a delimiter. That gave me separate columns for First Name and Last Name.

MarkWilsonPrincipal Architect
BrendanClarkeDirector
RogerQuinnManager

Sorting the data

I then sorted the data on Last Names:

BrendanClarkeDirector
RogerQuinnManager
MarkWilsonPrincipal Architect

Combining first and last names

Next, I used Excel’s Concatenate function to merge the sorted names back into a single field, for example:

=CONCATENATE(A1," ",B1)

The result is something like this:

BrendanClarkeBrendan ClarkeDirector
RogerQuinnRoger QuinnManager
MarkWilsonMark WilsonPrincipal Architect

Moving the processed data back to Word

Finally, I took the processed data and copied/pasted the combined Name and Job Title text back to Word.

NameJob Role
Brendan ClarkeDirector
Roger QuinnManager
Mark WilsonPrincipal Architect

Featured image by PublicDomainPictures from Pixabay.

A cyclo-cross racer’s equipment list

After last weekend’s UCI Cyclo-Cross World Championship races (with excellent results for Britain’s Nathan Smith, Zoe Backstedt and a lesson in how to ride a course with no mud from Tom Pidcock), the 2021/22 cyclo-cross season is drawing to a close.

Those who follow me on Twitter or Instagram will know that my eldest teenager is a keen cyclo-cross racer and this year has seen me supporting him at all six National Trophy rounds and the British National Championships as well as a few league races. February means I get some weekends back in a temporary lull before road and MTB Cross Country (XC) take over.

Whilst I’d love to travel to races in a van, or even a motorhome, my budget means that transport is an estate car (currently a Volvo V60 D4) and accomodation is often a Premier Inn. So what does an aspiring cyclocross racer need their support team to take?

A few years ago, I wrote a post about the tools in my box. Since then, I’ve added the following:

Then there are the cyclo-cross specifics (although many of these come in handy for other race disciplines too):

  • Water (10 litre AdBlue containers are a good size for transport – I take 4 to a race, inside a 64 litre Really Useful Box to avoid spillages – a lesson learned from experience).
  • A battery powered pressure washer (and spare battery). I use a 20V model from Worx (and newer models are more powerful). There are people who will tell you that a battery washer is no good and that a high-pressure petrol washer is a necessity. Whilst a petrol washer will undoubtably get a bike clean more quickly and I’m always happy to use one if I’m with a team-mate: a) they are unreliable (the battery one is a good backup); b) they are dreadful for the environment (both petrol fumes and volume of water used); c) the better race organisers are now providing decent wash equipment (e.g. the Clanfield Cross event that was sponsored by Kärcher, or the new Hope setup featured at Round 6 of the 2021 National Cyclocross Trophy).
  • A selection of brushes (I use this Muc Off set) and rags.
  • An inverter (to charge stuff using the car’s 12V power supply) – mine is a fairly low power model (150W) as higher Wattag need to connect to the car battery, rather than the 12V socket.
  • (Solar powered) battery pack (and Shimano Di2 charger, for those using electronic gears).
  • Spare bike… cyclo-cross is a muddy business and bike changes mid-race are expected, especially later in the season.
  • Spare wheels (with different tyres/tread patterns).
  • A collapsible trolley. Make sure you get a decent one… I bought cheap and bought twice – the first one only lasted a few weeks of being dragged across muddy fields before it became “permanently collapsed”. The replacement was this model, which seems to have got through two seasons now.
  • Rollers (Elite or Tacx – there are plenty second hand on eBay, though you’ll probably have to collect them as they are awkward to post).
  • Luggage (modular sports bags from Kit Brix are really good, though the zips can be cumbersome).

All in all, a pretty full boot…

Estate car filled with cycling equipment

Featured image by Owen Lake/Monument Cycling.

Recruitment

The last quarter of 2021 was manic. I’d already “lost” one of my team, who was working his notice period before joining a competitor, when another team member told me he’d decided to follow opportunities outside the company. All of a sudden, my delayed decision to recruit (over concerns about keeping the team busy) became an urgent need to recruit two experienced Solution/Enterprise Architects, just as our workload hit a spike.

With a lack of internal candidates coming forward (often the good technical Consultants want to stay close to tech), I discussed the issue with my senior management team and we advertised externally for two Enterprise Architects.

Finding the right candidates

I’ve recruited before, but this was the first time I’d been a Hiring Manager at risual. In my experience, every company has a different approach to recruitment and practices change over time too. I was fortunate to be working with a fantastic HR Advisor, who helped me specify the role (having an up to date Job Description helped too). Over the next few weeks, adverts went out on Indeed, on LinkedIn, and through various recruitment partners. Slowly, but surely, the CVs came rolling in.

Whilst we all put a lot of effort into creating CVs, they really are just the “foot in the door”. The first sift happened before they even got to me. Of those I saw, I rejected some because they didn’t seem to relate to the role as advertised. Maybe those candidates had the experience, but it wasn’t clear from their CV. I was recruiting for two senior roles and some people seemed to take an opportunistic approach. Other CVs were too long, listing everything the candidate had ever done over an extended period. There’s a fine balance between not enough detail and too much. Just remember that, although you put hours into writing that CV, it may only get a 30 second skim – or perhaps a bit longer if you manage to grab the reviewer’s attention.

I also saw CVs with typos. And I wanted to meet a candidate who looked fantastic but had neglected to include contact details. And, sadly, I saw well-formatted CVs that had been butchered by the recruitment agency’s topping and tailing.

In the end, I decided to meet with around half the candidates whose CVs I’d reviewed. Actually, it was slightly more than that but we had problems contacting at least one candidate (as mentioned above) and others had already accepted roles elsewhere (including one who only told us when we contacted him a couple of hours before his planned interview). This is a fast-moving market and, right now, it’s definitely favouring those looking for a new job over those looking to hire.

With CVs sifted, the remaining process would be an interview with myself and my manager (as the hiring team), some personality and numeric/verbal reasoning tests, and finally an interview with the Chairman and the CEO. The aim was to move quickly – from first interview to offer in around a week.

Interview criteria

I remember the first time I ever took part in an interview (from the hiring side). My then-Manager, a wise Managing Consultant by the name of Mark Locke, told me that it’s quite simple:

  1. Does this person know what they are talking about?
  2. Can I work with them?

This advice still holds true today. It’s pretty obvious, pretty soon, when an interview is going badly. The good ones are pleasurable.

Looking back, I can call out some really enjoyable discussions at interviews that went on to be great hires. One in particular (back in my days at Fujitsu – and before Microsoft Teams) was unavailable when I called his mobile phone (he’d been driving for work and struggling to get a signal at the appointed time) but, after we rescheduled and finally got to speak, my initial impressions were overturned by someone who turned out to be an extremely talented Project Manager with a passion for technology. We went on to work together before his career went from strength to strength. These days he’s a Senior Program Manager at Microsoft and he’ll know who I’m writing about if he still reads this blog.

As a candidate, I’ve written previously about some shocking experiences but my risual interview was different. I was a bit put off when Alun Rogers told me he reads my blog (back in the days when I used to post more!) but it felt like it had gone well as I drove home later. It really did feel like “just a chat” and I enjoyed meeting Al and Rich (Proud). Similarly, when David Smith had interviewed me a few years earlier to join his Office of the CITO at Fujitsu, I just had a feeling that things had gone well.

For my recent hires, I had formal criteria to assess against but my Manager and I had also worked out a set of standard questions to structure our conversations with the candidates. Each hour-long interview had at least that long spent writing up and reviewing the notes, as well as prep time. And all of that had to fit around my management and delivery roles – so November and December 2021 were intense!

What did I learn?

The whole experience taught me a lot. That’s why I’m sitting here, in the gap between Christmas and New Year, writing about it (whilst it’s still reasonably fresh in my mind).

First of all, I realised that the same question can elicit very different responses to the one that was first expected. And, just because someone has a different view to me, doesn’t make them wrong. A gut feel about being able to work with someone is good but, if you only look for people who think like you, it won’t do much for the diversity of the team.

Having said that, for the candidates who looked me up on LinkedIn (and there were some – good interview preparation, I’d say), you don’t have to go far back on my blog to see a post about what I expect to see in an IT Architect

I also (re-)learned that interviewing is hard. Not only is it demanding from a cognitive perspective but there is a lot of work to do both before and after the interview. And not doing that is not giving the candidate the respect that they deserve – I will always put in the effort.

Interviewing is enjoyable too. No-one wants to see anyone struggle and, as I wrote earlier, I genuinely enjoyed some of the discussions I’ve had in the past and the same can be said for the ones in recent weeks (though I’m not going into specifics here for reasons of confidentiality).

I learned some other things too – things that I can’t write about here because they relate to specific details of individual hires but which were nevertheless valuable in me learning to trust my own judgement (e.g. after having to interview alone, instead of as part of a team).

And I learned that not all the advice given by recruitment partners is correct. Again, I won’t go into details but the right candidates are out there.

I was also intrigued by the personality tests. So much so that I asked if I could do them myself. I completed them before I left for the Christmas break and I’m looking forward to seeing how I compare to the candidates we’ve recruited when I get the reports. Again – I’m not looking for people who think like me… but I am looking how the tests assess me and how that relates to the way I think. It might also be useful to see how middle-aged me compares to younger me.

Looking forward and rebuilding the team

Now, as we go into 2022, I’m really excited to have two new starters joining my existing team, to help shape our future and support the company’s growth plans. As for the guys who moved (or are moving) on – I genuinely do wish them well. I know one is having a great time in his new role and the other has an exciting opportunity lined up. I’d rather we were all working together (new hires and “the old team” together), but I’m also a realist and sometimes the best thing to do is to support people in taking their next steps.

As one former Managing Director used to say when signing off his communications… Onwards!

Featured image by VIN JD from Pixabay.

Step back from the problem and think about what “good” looks like

A few weeks ago, I sat down with a Chief Information Officer (CIO) who has a problem. He’s in the middle of a messy “divorce” (professionally, not personally). He is transitioning services from a shared services agreement with another public sector body to a new managed service. His own organisation’s IT maturity is low. There’s an expectation that the new managed services partner will take on everything (except it’s not in a state that is ready to take on). And the shared service provider is both making transition difficult (preserving its revenue stream) whilst ramping up the price to carry on providing services. The divorce metaphor is very apt. 

I was brought in (alongside a colleague with relevant sector experience) to help smooth the pain. I needed to understand what’s holding up the process – why is it so difficult to provide basic information for the managed services provider to take on the service? What are the gaps? How quickly can they be filled? And what is needed to move to the next stage? 

It’s not my usual role, but I’ve been around this industry long enough to be able to take a step back, look at the problem, and try to work out what “good” looks like. 

The challenges

The CIO presented me with two challenges: 

  1. Visibility – of what’s happening. What will be done by when and how far off the target is the transition?
  2. Passiveness – don’t just sit and wait. Bang down some doors and ask for information. If it’s not forthcoming, then flag it. There is no time for delays. 

Searching for a solution

The next day, I was mulling over the issues and I bumped into a friend (on the market in the town where we both live). We went for a coffee, and I told him about my problem (without compromising any confidentiality). My friend has a military background, followed by IT Service Operations and, more recently, security (he’s a Chief Information Security Officer – CISO) so I shouldn’t have been surprised by the advice he gave me. The way he saw it was that there are a bunch of service transition “packages” but the business as usual (BAU) service isn’t complete. Meanwhile the CIO has no visibility and would like to see where things are and the plan for where they will be.

After our conversation my mind was clear. I needed a way to track progress. I wanted a dashboard to tell me the state of each service component or process. Then, the applications, servers and other infrastructure could fall in beneath – but I needed to know there is a service to transition them into. 

There are many problems with dashboards (though the etymology of the word is about protecting riders on carriages from what might be thrown at them from below… so maybe that’s quite appropriate after all). Red/Amber/Green (RAG) statuses can be problematic too (both for cultural reasons and because of accessibility, although that can be overcome with appropriate design). But I didn’t want perfect – I needed functional. At least for the first iteration.

The chosen approach

The Microsoft-focused Solution Architect in me was thinking Power BI but I lacked the skills, time and access to licenses. I needed something that could be developed quickly and updated easily. My initial PowerPoint deck with, “this is what we said we would do”, “This is where we are today” and lots of red, turning amber then green was quickly pushed aside by a colleague in favour of Excel. In fairness, the world runs on Excel – and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. With the addition of a few formulae, some data validation and some conditionally formatted cells, we soon had a dynamic report. It highlights missing information. It highlights support status. It highlights key dates (and missed dates – because I’m also realistic).

Answering the exam question

The summary sheet should answer the CIO’s visibility issue (once it’s securely shared) and constantly pushing for the detail should strike out any perceived inactivity or a lack of initiative.

It’s not innovative, but it is elegant. And it works. 

So I have the tech in place – now for the difficult bit (the part that involves people) – dragging out the missing information to turn cells from red to amber to green. And the good thing is that, based on a meeting yesterday, it feels like there are a bunch of people in the managed services organisation that can see the value and are invested in the solution (they are even adding sheets for extra information – like tracking risks, issues and dependencies). That’s half the battle. “All” I need now is to get the various projects that hold the information on the various applications, servers, etc. to join in.

I may return to this subject with an updated post when everything goes live. Or I may not, for commercial reasons, but here goes… wish me luck! 

Featured image: author’s own.

Not-so-helpful social media “help”

Social media is big business. And almost every major business to consumer (B2C) organisation has at least one account on each of the major social media platforms (at the time of writing, that’s Twitter, Facebook and Instagram but I’m sure it will change over time). 

Unfortunately, there’s a concerning trend starting to emerge – one where the “conversation” is moved to control the brand image. Many brands have set up <brandname>Help accounts for their customer service so that the main brand account is “clean” – pure marketing, untarnished by customers expressing concern about the products and services. Meanwhile, the “Help” account may be operated by a communications agency, simply offering a face and redirecting customers to other channels. 

And that’s where the problem lies. If you want to offer omnichannel support, then you need to meet your customers where they contact you. It’s no good offering “help” on Twitter when all you’re really doing is advising customers to phone your contact centre. That does not help. That’s obfuscation. It’s a blatant attempt to preserve the online image of the brand, whilst offering shoddy customer service. 

So, here’s my plea to brand managers across the UK. If you offer a <brandname>Help account, then make sure it provides real assistance and is not just signposting to another channel. 

I’ll provide an example here, from @KwikFitCS (who responded to my tweet for the main KwikFit account… more on that in a moment), but they are not alone…

Then there’s the issue of the information that <brandname>Help accounts ask for to verify you before they will provide help…

In the example above, @BootsHelp replied to a tweet sent to @BootsUK. And the issue I was reporting was a website problem that was not specific to a single account – the web team could investigate without my personal details. Maybe I should be the one looking for the verification here… not them? That may sound a bit extreme but what’s to stop anyone from setting up a spoof <brandname>Help account and harvesting information from disgruntled customers? (In fairness, the @BootsHelp account has been verified by Twitter, but the @KwikFitCS example earlier was not).

And Boots is not alone – here’s another example from @Morrisons, the UK supermarket chain:

The request went on to a second tweet:

So, come on B2C Twitter. You can do better than this. How about providing some real help from your social media channels? Preferably without requiring a long list of personal details.

Featured image by Biljana Jovanovic from Pixabay.

A little bit of music theory for guitarists

Picking up from my post about learning to play a guitar, I thought I’d add some notes of some of what I’ve learned along the way.

First up, reading music. Not necessary. I used to be able to read music, back when I played classical guitar in the 1980s, but I’ve fallen out of practice now. FACE, EGBDF, treble clefs and their ilk are all a distant memory. These days I read chord charts and lyric sheets with a few strum patterns!

The three chord trick

I mentioned in my last post that the chords A D and E were useful for playing basic pop/rock songs. There’s a huge range you can play with these three chords. That’s because of something called the three chord trick.

Basically, for a given key, there is a set of three chords that will work together musically. These are the 1st, 4th and 5th. In the key of A, that’s A D E. For G it’s G C and D. (Musical notes only run A to G, then they start again for the next octave).

There are other things to consider – like major and minor keys; and subdominant, tonic and dominant seventh chords but the 1, 4, 5 is really helpful to know. Just play around and see what you can play/make up with three chords.

Using a capo

If you want to adjust the key, but don’t want to move away from simple open chords like A, C, D, E and G (Bs and Fs make things complicated on a guitar), then a capo comes in handy. Basically, it’s a bar that’s placed across the strings at a given fret and it effectively shortens the strings (acting in place of the neck of the guitar), adjusting the key without retuning.

Barre chords

I’m at the stage where I’m just starting to learn about barre chords. Basically, a barre chord uses a finger, laid across five or six strings in a similar manner to a capo. Add in an E shape (6 strings) or A shape (5 strings) chord and move up and down the fretboard to play all of the major chords.

Featured image by Thorsten Frenzel from Pixabay

40 years of learning to play a guitar

40 years ago, I started to learn to play a guitar. I was 9 years old – I didn’t know what I wanted to learn! After 4 years, 3 grades of classical guitar, and not enough practice, I gave up. My Mother was not impressed after all that money spent on lessons. We just hadn’t found the right teacher, or style.

Then, in my 20s, I was travelling in South Africa with some friends. Two of the guys on the trip had guitars with them and would play on the bus/around the campfire. I loved it… a bit of ‘Stones… some other classic pop/rock. This was what I wanted! I bought a copy of Guitar for Dummies and tried to teach myself. It didn’t work. The book sat on the shelf for years and my guitar gathered dust in the loft.

In my mid 40s, I saw a local group of musicians advertising a guitar workshop in the town where I live. Come along and join in, learn to play, no experience needed – all ages welcome. So I went down with my elderly classical guitar, met Ian (Roberts) and Trevor (Aldred), learned a few chords (A, D and E) and was soon playing old Elvis Presley songs. A few months later, I’d learned a few more chords and I bought myself a new guitar (a Faith Blood Moon Neptune cutaway electro-acoustic). Not long after that I played my first gig. OK, “gig” is a bit strong but it was me and some of the other students, in a pub, playing a few pop/rock songs like American Pie and Chasing Cars.

I still don’t practice enough, but my family complain when I sing (which directly impacts my practice). I’m working on Heroes and Times Like These right now. And I’m trying to perfect my strumming. Recently, I realised just what a difference changing my strings makes to the sound of the guitar – it’s like new again (thanks to Newport Music).

Whilst I still play with my local group on a Saturday morning (although we didn’t meet for a year because of the pandemic), I have the basics and can learn a bit more on my own. I still find books unhelpful (mostly) but there are some fantastic resources on the ‘net, and I really rate Justin Sandicoe (JustinGuitar)’s and Andy Crowley (AndyGuitar)’s websites and YouTube channels.

So, if you fancy learning to play the guitar, my advice after 40 years would be:

  1. Work out what you want to play – electric or acoustic; pop/rock, folk or classical.
  2. Practice.
  3. Don’t give up.
  4. Practice more.
  5. Find some others to jam with (it really builds confidence and hides your mistakes).
  6. Have fun!

(Maybe one day I’ll build the confidence to play solo at an open mic night…)

Featured image: author’s own.

Failure Demand in action

Recently, my work has involved some analysis of a local authority’s business processes. As part of that I’ve been thinking quite a lot about the concept of “Failure Demand”. For those who are unfamiliar with it, Failure Demand is described by the occupational psychologist and author John Seddon as:

“It is demand caused by a failure to do something or do something right for the customer. Customers come back, making further demands, unnecessarily consuming the organisation’s resources because the service they receive is ineffective. ”

Failure Demand – Vanguard Consulting Ltd

Whilst the Vanguard page is worth a read, there’s another great example of Failure Demand in the “How to break the first rule of Systems Thinking” post from ThinkPurpose.

What does Failure Demand mean in practice?

Any system used to provide a service has a given capacity. To use this efficiently, there is a balance between reducing resources and managing demand.

On the resource side, we can look at how resources are used:

  • Do we have the right people and skills?
  • Are they motivated and focused?
  • Are processes efficient?
  • How is IT used?
  • Can self-service help?

When it comes to demand, the first question to ask is not be how effective the use of resources is. We should really ask are they doing the right thing? Does it meet the customer need?

If it doesn’t then there will be repeat contacts, often relating to Failure Demand – where the volume of work is increased by managing incidents of failure within a process. Examples of Failure Demand include “you’ve sent the wrong item” or “the person didn’t meet the agreed appointment”.

It often takes longer to put something right than to get it right first time. An organisation can implement the very best systems but if it doesn’t meet customer needs in will fail. This is true whether that customer is internal or external; paying for a service or not; client, citizen, traditional “customer” or student. Customers will become frustrated and annoyed that they have repeated contacts to avoid issues. Staff suffer reduced morale as a result of their increased workload.

A real world story of Failure Demand

I spent a good chunk of one day last week working from a car dealership. It doesn’t matter which one… this could have been one of many up and down the country. I also know they are really hot on customer satisfaction. I’d like to make it clear that all of the staff involved were friendly, attentive and did their level best to help me. This is not a complaint, just a true story that helps me explain the Failure Demand concept.

My car is 3 years old, so it was booked in for a service, statutory MOT test, warranty checks, and a quote for an extended warranty.

As the day went on, I saw the Service Manager getting more and more stressed. He wants to do the best he can for his customers but the team is down from 4 to 2 at the moment. That’s going to be tough, but then we layer on the Failure Demand.

At 12:30, my car was nearly ready (it just needed cleaning) and I paid the bill. That was proactive, working to close my account and get me on my way. Great customer service, nothing so far to detract from the outstanding feedback that the dealer hopes to receive (maybe I’ll come back to that in another post).

But I asked about the warranty quote I had requested a week earlier. The person who could deal with that was off work (for understandable personal reasons) but the receptionist who had booked my appointment had assured me it would not be a problem. so, a message was left and someone will call me back after the weekend (Failure Demand 1).

At 13:30, I chased up to see why I was still waiting for my car. It hadn’t been cleaned (Failure Demand 2).

At around 14:00, I got my car back. The service handbook had been stamped and details added for the third service but the second was blank. I always take my car to this dealer, so it must have been missed last year. So the Service Manager looked up the details and added them to the book (Failure Demand 3), once he had found his stamping machine.

By now, I was embarrassed that I kept on going back with “things to fix” and I drove away. As I left, I found that my seat was in the wrong position, the dashboard display was unfamiliar, the doors automatically locked (and much more besides). The profile settings associated with my key were missing!

Having heard the receptionist fielding calls to try and let the Service Department focus on customers who were already in the building, I knew that phoning would not get me an answer any time soon. So, I returned to the dealership to see if the settings were lost for good, or backed up somewhere (Failure Demand 4).

Another Service Manager confirmed that they are not backed up. Some software updates are non-destructive. Others less so. So I left again, disappointed.

Except, as I started the car, my seat moved itself, the dashboard was set up as I expected! My profile had loaded but, presumably the software update had been incomplete before. Now it had finished, everything was back (phew).

Later that day, I received a text message. It contained a link to the video report of the inspection on my car during the service. Nice to have, except I’d authorised the repairs hours previously. Not exactly Failure Demand, but potentially another issue to fix in the process.

So, what’s the answer?

The intention is to move to a position where available system capacity is focused on “Value Demand”. Value Demand is characterised with things that deliver value to the customer or to the organisation, such as provision of information, or just getting it right first time.

If the warranty quote was ready when I paid the bill, the car had been washed when I was told it would be, and the service handbook had been stamped first time then I would have been happy and three items of failure demand could have been avoided. If the Service Manager had known to tell me that software updates might still be taking effect when the car was restarted I might have been less concerned about the missing profile.

The customer would have been happier, the Service Department’s workload would have been lower, and the Service Manager would have been less stressed.

It seems that spotting these issues as a customer is easy… the trick is working out how to fix them in my own work processes…

Featured image: author’s own.