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.

Extended warranties (and my experience with Samsung Care+)

In the UK, it’s common practice for retailers to try and sell extended warranties with their products. Dixons Carphone (Curry’s/PC World) were early proponents of the practice, and most consumer electronics have some form of extended warranty on offer.

I generally don’t buy these warranties because:

  • UK consumer protection law is pretty good (thanks to our previous affiliation with the European Union).
  • If I break something, I’ll generally pay for the repairs, replace the item (for low value goods), or fix it myself.
  • If it’s really bad (like when my son broke our 4K TV), we have accidental damage cover on our household insurance*.

Last year, I bought a new mobile phone (Samsung Galaxy S20 5G). I decided to pay a significant sum for the Samsung Care+ package because of previous experience of paying for repairs on my sons’ S10 and Note 10 phones and I knew it was very expensive. I also knew how easy it is to chip the curved edge on the screen (which is not covered by a screen protector).

Samsung Care+

Samsung Care+ is meant to be a bit like AppleCare+. I say “a bit like”, because it’s intended to cover consumers for out of warranty repairs. It’s also clearly named to sound similar. Both are insurance-backed but my Samsung Care+ experience has not been a positive one.

If you go to the Samsung UK Support website, there are various options for repairs including at doorstep, pickup, and in-store. I found that Samsung Care+ only offers a pickup service. A courier collects the phone and takes it to TMT First, who assess the damage and provide a quote. After paying the excess, the phone is repaired and sent back. Samsung quotes 7-10 working days for this service. Mine took longer because, after the screen repair, it failed quality checks and needed more work before it was delayed again “due to limited staff”.

7-10 working days is around 2 weeks without a phone. This is when you realise how important these things have become in our lives. My phone is my primary camera. I use my phone as a digital wallet. I use my phone for mobile access to various Internet-based services (web, podcasts, apps). I use my phone for second factor authentication. I can’t even log on to my bank’s website without a digital access code from my phone. Not having my phone for weeks at a time is a major inconvenience. I could put my SIM into another device but it wasn’t my primary phone and I didn’t want to re-register all the services (although had to anyway after my S20 was wiped). This is why I paid for an extended warranty. I would have been better paying for a doorstep repair.

Samsung Care+ is supposed to make it easy to get your phone fixed. Indeed, quoting the Samsung website:

“Made by Samsung. Fixed by Samsung. You can’t stop accidents from happening, but you can be protected with Samsung Care+. Simple, affordable and comprehensive insurance from the people who know your Galaxy inside out. Not only are you covered for a wide range of mishaps, you’ll enjoy first-rate support when you need it the most.”

Samsung Care+ | Tablet and Phone Insurance | Samsung UK (checked 31 August 2021)

First-rate support. Hmm… My experience was not first-rate. It didn’t even save me much money (though I suppose it will if I have to make a second claim in the next year or so).

What would Apple do?

Why compare to Apple? Well, because Apple and Samsung are the western world’s biggest OEMs for premium mobile phone handsets. And because the naming of their insurance-backed extended warranties suggests that at least one of those brands is trying to compare itself with the other…

Apple owners tell me that AppleCare+ is better. This Tech Radar post tells me that AppleCare+ includes “same-day carry-in; mail-in with a prepaid, overnight delivery box; or on-site repairs at your home or office” and “a temporary, express replacement phone sent to you before you send in your defective unit”. Those repair options are clearly better and the replacement device would have saved me a lot of hassle. AppleCare+ and Samsung Care+ are similarly priced, but it’s worth noting that the equivalent iPhone would have cost more than my S20 did… so I guess you pay for that service.

Once bitten, twice shy

Regardless, I won’t be buying Samsung Care+ again. And I’ll be thinking twice before I buy another Samsung phone, however good it is…

 

*Beware, this can be an expensive approach for low-value items. I once fell into the sea whilst taking photos of my children and destroyed an iPhone 6S. The 6S was the last iPhone model to not be water-resistant (though I’m not sure anything will survive salt water). After paying the insurance excess, the payout was not huge, and the premium increase for the next few years probably wiped out any benefit.

 

Image credit: screenshot from the Samsung Care+ website, taken on 31 August 2021 as fair use for quotation, critique or review under the UK Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988.

J’ai un mal à la gorge. En Angleterre, nous avons le “TCP”

My family’s recent bout with non-specific cold-like illnesses included a sore throat for one of my teenage sons. He must have been feeling bad, because it was enough to convince him not to race his bike for a week. (In fairness, reminding him that previous attempts to compete whilst ill didn’t work out well was also a factor.)

“You need to take some TCP!”, said his Uncle.

“Already on it!”, said I.

For those who are not familiar with TCP (not the networking protocol), it is a particularly foul antiseptic substance that can be diluted and gargled to attack the bacteria that cause sore throats. It’s not nice. But it is effective.

Trying to buy TCP whilst on holiday…

TCP seems to be a very British thing though. I know ex-pats in the ‘States who bring it over from the UK and this incident reminded me of trying to get some in France. We were skiing, in Tignes, and I had a sore throat. Not wanting to miss any time on the slopes, I was willing to take some strong stuff to try and get better.

So, off to “la pharmacie”, I tramped… and in my best schoolboy French (GCSE grade B, Kingsthorpe Upper School, 1988) I said to the assistant:

“J’ai un mal à la gorge. En Angleterre, nous avons le ‘TCP’. En avez-vous?”

I also pointed at my throat and attempted to gargle, for effect.

The perplexed shop assistant looked at the mad Englishman on the other side of the counter, shrugged, and pulled out a bottle of cough syrup. Basically it was a sugar mix (certainly not TCP), but that was as far as I was going to get with my limited grasp of the language. Ironically, as I was writing this post I found that TCP is produced in France, for sale in the UK.

I don’t recall whether I missed any skiing time. I certainly didn’t let a sore throat ruin my holiday, but I’m equally sure I wasn’t able to buy any antiseptic for my throat. These days, a small bottle of TCP is a permanent item in my travel bag.

NOT A SPONSORED POST!

Image credit: author’s own.

Taking time “off sick”

My family has had various lurgies over the last few days. Stomach bugs, sore throats, colds but mostly feeling “non-specific urgh”. Or just “meh”.

It might have been the ‘rona, but we all tested negative so it’s more likely that 18 months of not mixing with other humans means that, when we do, we pick up their germs and get ill.

After a weekend of broken sleep and with a headache and a sore throat, I needed some rest and I called in sick at work.

Pressure to work

I’ve been based from home for a long time. Remote work is not a new thing for me that started with the pandemic (although exclusively working from home is). A side effect of that is that I rarely take time “off sick”. I might not be well enough to travel to an office and mix with others (potentially making them ill too), but I can generally drag myself to my laptop and push some emails around. And anyway, what about that meeting? Or, if I don’t do that work today, it will only add pressure later in the week. Normally, I’d dose myself up on paracetamol (or similar) and “man up”.

Except, is that really a good mindset? If I’m not bringing my a-game to work, then maybe I should rest up and come back when I am properly fixed. Take some time to recover, step away from the screen. Unfortunately, because I felt able to do something, I felt like a fraud.

I got back from the pharmacy and had woken up. Maybe I could (should?) just check those emails?

Whilst I’m very disciplined at keeping away from work on my weekends and holidays, it was a lot harder when I wasn’t feeling well, but I wasn’t completely ill and confined to bed either.

Is this just a sad indictment of modern life? Implied pressure to contribute at all times. Being a consultant and knowing that it’s an important month and every billable day counts. Or, as one person (who I’ll let remain anonymous) put it:

“You definitely shouldn’t be feeling you have to work because years of conditioning of the UK workforce has led us to a place where unless a limb is hanging off you’re ‘fine’.”

Get well soon

In the end, it was these wise words that I decided to stick by:

“Commit one way or the other. It’s horrible when you half commit to work and half commit to putting your feet up and do neither very well. (Get some rest).”

And, when I got back to work after some proper rest and recuperation, I could bring my a-game with me.

Featured image: author’s own.

Rebooting the blog

This blog is poorly. It has been for a while. What started in the mid-naughties heyday of the blogosphere, has been limping along for a while now with barely a dozen posts each year.

It long since ceased to be commercially viable, ever since Google’s “Panda” update relegated blogs and promoted Q&A sites. It’s also changed focus as my work has moved on. These days I rarely get involved in tech. And I don’t even do as much strategic consulting as I’d like. I’ve been managing the odd post here and there but I seriously considered shutting it down.

Except I have a lot invested. I know it’s just a sunk cost fallacy, but about 17 years and just under 2500 posts is a lot to throw away.

Inspired by my polymath friend, Matt Ballantine (@ballantine70), I tried writing weeknotes. Unfortunately, they became another task to fit into the Thursday night list as I shut down my work for the week, or something that ate into my Friday off, or sometimes something I still hadn’t done on Sunday night.

So I’m going to try something else that Matt does. More frequent, short posts. 200-400 words on something that’s happened and made me think. When the mood takes me. Hopefully you’ll still appreciate the content (it may not all be tech-related), and maybe the blog will get its mojo back too.

Featured image from Max Pixel.

Customising the “New” button on a SharePoint document library

Microsoft SharePoint gets a lot of bad press, but that’s largely down to organisations that use old versions “out of the box” and don’t try to make it work for them. Even worse, they don’t keep the platform up-to-date and wonder why their SharePoint 2010 intranet looks so old fashioned…

This post isn’t an advert for SharePoint. Sure, it has its foibles but it can also be pretty useful and it is not going away any time soon. In fact, SharePoint is a key workload in Office 365 and it underpins both Microsoft Teams and OneDrive for Business. So, let’s try to embrace it and make it work for us… to make life a little more simple.

One of the things we’ve had in place for a while now in risual Consulting is a custom New menu on the document library that contains our templates. If I go to create a new document, what I see is this:

Our menu has a selection of different document types, each with their own template.

To set this up, all I have to do (as a site owner) is click the Edit New menu option and then select or re-order items:

To add new templates to the list, just use Add template. I’m not sure where SharePoint stores the templates, because they don’t appear in the list of documents in the library.

As I write this, I’m considering removing the capability from our team site… because new documents get created as Document1, Document2, etc. in the document library, and we have a much more precise naming convention to enforce, but it’s still a really useful feature that’s worth calling out.

There’s more information about customising the navigation on a SharePoint site on the Microsoft website.