Everybody’s talking about … Big Data

8 May 2014 by in Business and finance

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for a few years you will have heard of Big Data. But is it all hype and hyperbole or will it really change the world?

Where did it come from?

The term Big Data was probably coined by John Mashey, chief scientist at Silicon Graphics. In the 90s if you were a Hollywood producer looking for cutting edge special effects or an intelligence agency looking for state of the art video surveillance you went to Silicon Graphics. The company was dealing with a huge amount of a new type of data and Mashey frequently gave talks on how this data would change the future, including one with the snappy title ‘Big Data and the Next Wave of Infrastress’.

Big Data gathered traction, especially in tech circles (i.e. people who actually knew what ‘infrastress’ meant). For the rest of us – it took a little longer. In 2012 Big Data burst out into the mainstream – it was a featured topic at the 2012 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. The US federal Government announced $200 million in funding for Big Data research programs and even the satirical cartoon Dilbert had something to say about Big Data.

big_dataBut what does it mean?

Basically Big Data is the term used for the collection of very large, often very complex data sets that can now be analysed in non-traditional ways to provide insights that were unheard of a decade ago.

To give you an idea of just how big, Big Data is … if you take all the data that was created in the world from the dawn of civilization until the year 2010, the same amount of data will soon be generated every minute.

This explosion of data has come from advances in technology. The smart phone in your pocket is now more powerful than your desktop computer was just a few years ago and is capturing data all the time, including where you are (via GPS sensors). Whenever you are connected to the internet, via your phone, tablet or computer, data is being gathered about what are you doing – playing an app, listening to music, using the internet or social media. Every time you share a photo, tweet, update your Facebook page, shop online, walk past CCTV, call a recorded customer service line, send an email, use an e-reader, watch Netflix or upload video you’re adding to Big Data. There are 30 billion pieces of content uploaded to Facebook and eight years of video uploaded to YouTube every day! In fact there are now nearly as many bits of information in the digital universe as there are stars in the actual universe.

But it’s not the volume of data that is the potential game changer – it’s our ability to store, combine and analyze it.

Where will I find Big Data being used?

Big Data is everywhere and its impact can be witnessed in everything from sport to health and fitness to medicine to entertainment to crime prevention and business.

There are now smart TVs that remember your viewing preferences and use face recognition to ensure children can’t access age inappropriate material. Book e-readers are gathering data about your reading habits. There are wearable devices that track your activity, calorie intake and heart rate to help keep you healthy. You can get smart carpet which can raise the alarm if your elderly mother doesn’t make her usual morning cuppa. You can even get a smart nappy which will send a tweet when the nappy needs changing! Obviously a swift sniff of the offending backside would do just as well but there are sensors in the nappy which can check the contents for signs of infection. Sensors in a baby’s mattress which measure breathing and heart rate could herald the end of cot death.

Not only are we gathering information and data that we simply didn’t have access to before but vastly improved computer processing power and complex analytics is allowing us to combine large, messy and previously unconnected data sets to find out everything from the bizarre to the life saving. For example the US retailer Wal-Mart combined in-house sales data with external weather data and discovered that the sale of Pop-Tarts jumped as soon as there was a hurricane warning! No one knows why but the beauty of Big Data is that you don’t need to know why because the data does the talking. Now Wal-Mart move the Pop-Tart display to the front of the shop when a storm is approaching and Pop-Tart sales skyrocket. The FBI has also combined data from social media, CCTV cameras, phone calls and texts to track down criminals and predict the next terrorist attack. There are apps that alert police to gunfire in real time. It’s also now possible, based on their twitter posts, to predict which mothers will suffer from postnatal depression. Professional sport is using big data analytics to find talent and improve performance and politicians are using it to figure out where they need to campaign to win elections.

Can I use Big Data?

It is easy to be overwhelmed by Big Data especially when you consider that most businesses don’t even use the small data they currently have access to never mind harnessing the potential of Big Data.

There is already a backlash as people increasingly question just how useful it’s really going to be. It’s certainly true that most businesses will never be able to compete with the Big Data giants like Amazon, Facebook and Google. Luckily they don’t need to.

The trick for turning the hype into practical business savvy insights is to be really clear on your strategy, work out what questions you need to answer in order to deliver that strategy and focus on collecting and analysing only that data. Unless you’re an analytic powerhouse, collecting too much data is as useless as collecting too little.

Plus you don’t need to have Big Data to benefit from Big Data. It’s now possible to source external data to cross reference with your own internal data. For example many retailers are combining their own sales or loyalty card information with weather data or GPS data to send out targeted promotions.

Like most innovations Big Data has potential but only if you don’t allow yourself to get bamboozled by the media furore and wacky stories of futuristic ‘smart living’. Find out what you need to know in order to be better and establish what combination of traditional data and Big Data will help you to deliver that outcome.


How to deal with problems at work

28 March 2014 by in Business and finance

by Jan Gillett, author of Making your work work

Problems crop up every day, but are there universal principles in dealing with them? Chapter 7 of my book, Making your work work, addresses the subject of dealing with problems. The everyday performance revolution is to start with Study, working around the Plan, Do, Study, Act cycle, using problems as a trigger for permanent improvement of how your work works in future. We describe a simple flowchart to guide managers through the questions to be asked and the approach to be taken as a consequence.

SMaking your work worktudy. The first step is to go and see. Whether it’s a river flooding a town, or a part causing problems with customers, there is no substitute for visiting, watching, listening. What is the wider system, what is the system trying to accomplish, is this problem a surprise to those close to it? How does the reality compare with the paperwork, whether it’s the staffing levels, their training, communications, or the management structure, anything about the system that helps or hinders successful routine operations.

Study. Be visible and honest. If you don’t know, don’t fudge. You are learning, and hope to share that learning with those involved in order to improve. Build trust through under promising and over delivering, and be patient, it takes years to build trust, moments to lose it. But you can, and must, start now.

Study. Confirm if the problem is a surprise to those close to it. If it is a surprise a specific investigation should provide the information needed to avoid a repetition. If it’s not surprise then the whole process or system needs examination and redesign in order to minimise the chance of repetition. This will take time, but the effort will be rewarded. Shortcuts lead to repeat failures.

Don’t. Trust the numbers. Numbers are never reality, they are an abstraction of reality. They may not be an accurate abstraction, they may not be accurately collected, they are subject to wishful thinking and distortion. You may need to re-establish what data needs to be collected in order to guide future decisions.

Don’t. Look for culprits, threaten prosecution or blame. 95% of problems are the outcome of a complex series of interactions across the system, and these will only be discovered by cooperation across all the people involved. Threats close down that cooperation.

This is not complicated, but it is effective, a revolution available to every manager, every day.

10 tips to achieve restful sleep

12 March 2014 by in Business and finance

by Kate Cook, author of The Corporate Wellness Bible

According to the BBC, 25% of the UK population experience problems with their sleep. At work, this can cause problems in terms of alertness (obviously) and knock on issues with stress. One third of people in the UK are classed as insomniacs, which includes those who can’t get to sleep as well as those waking in the night or waking early. Tiredness can lead to a vicious cycle in terms of reaching for caffeine (and issues sleep blogwith anxiety from caffeine), reaching for sugary snacks to try and pick up energy (not the right thing in the long term!) and even increasing alcohol consumption.

If you are suffering from insomnia here are my favourite top 10 tips for a restful night:

1. Don’t watch TV in the bedroom or have any other electrical equipment in the bedroom.  Switch your phone on to airport mode and the do not disturb function;

2. Don’t have the clock where you can see it! If you don’t know the time you can’t fret about how many hours you have until the alarm goes off.  Let go of having to know;

3. Make sure your room is sufficiently darkened at night (for the production of a hormone called melatonin, important in the sleep cycle);

4. Try moving your bedroom into a different configuration;

5. Don’t let your room get too warm, and sleep with a window open if there is no security risk;

6. Breathe! Learn mindfulness, a powerful technique to counter the stress cycle;

7. Try the Pzizz app. Designed by sleep experts to break the non-sleep cycle;

8. Avoid foods that contain an amino acid called tyramine (amino acids are the building blocks of protein). Some foods that contain tyramine are red wine, cheese, ham, raspberries, avocado and nuts;

9. Eat foods that convert into the hormone serotonin from the amino acid tryptophan (best consumed with a small amount of carbohydrate like brown rice – turkey, cottage cheese and eggs amongst other sources;

10. Cut down (or eliminate) caffeine. Remember caffeine can stay in the system for at least 6 hours – even if you think it doesn’t affect you, it probably does!

And  a couple of bonus tips for you too:

Bonus one:  Remember we haven’t always slept in the pattern we do today – apparently in the Middle Ages people would get up after a few hours, have a party, then go back to sleep. After four hours, much of the restorative benefits of sleep are received – it’s mostly us getting in a state about not sleeping that causes the stress, anxiety and worry.

Bonus two:  Try and eat earlier so that your digestive system is not struggling and stopping you sleeping.

Happy Dreams!

Kate Cook is one of the UK’s top Wellness and Nutrition experts and is leading a campaign to promote wellness in UK corporations. For more information please visit Kate’s website or email Richard Burton to enquire about The Corporate Wellness Bible.

Make your work work better with management expert Jan Gillett

11 March 2014 by in Business and finance

Develop a process that puts the customer at its heart and you will find yourself with a business that’s streets ahead of the competition.


Pre-order now!

It may sound simple but as business management expert Jan Gillett points out it is essential that businesses do not get distracted from the big picture – creating a product or service that provides what the customer wants – by all manner of day to day management tasks.

This is particularly true now the economy is picking up. Companies have been so intent on keeping their heads above water that they haven’t felt able to take a long view of their business. But this is not a strategy that can pay off indefinitely. As Gillett says, “Organisations that focus on the owners, treat customers with disrespect and try to cut costs and get away with it are not rewarding environments in which to work, and apart from lucky times when they can dominate customers they are not very successful either.”

Many just don’t know where to start and while investment in generic tools or practices will get you so far, true business success can only be achieved when all key personnel take time to understand the way the business works and engage staff and stakeholders in a programme of change. In other words they have to think about how the work works.

Anybody familiar with the work of Dr W. Edwards Deming will realise that this idea is not new. His work based on these principles, his System of Profound Knowledge, formed the foundation of manufacturing success in Japan during the 1950s and has gone on to help businesses worldwide, and in a broad range of sectors, achieve long-term success. What is surprising is how few businesses have really tried to get to grips with Deming’s ideas. Perhaps it is down to our quick-fix culture – it’s true that this method requires more engagement than some ‘off the peg’ solutions. But it also delivers far greater rewards.

Over the last 30 years Gillett has worked with many clients through Process Management International, but is aiming to introduce a new wave of businesses to Deming’s revolutionary ideas with his book, Making your work work. Gillett provides all the ideas and methods managers at any level need in order to improve the performance of their department, division or company, and demonstrates how to use them. With the economy currently in recovery this could be the perfect opportunity for British companies to push themselves to the fore and emerge as market leaders.

About Jan Gillett (FCMI)
Jan learned from Dr W. Edwards Deming when leader of a quality transformation across 2000 people, when CEO of a textile services group in the 1980s. He experienced the remarkable benefits to be had when focusing the work on the customers, involving everyone in learning how it flows, and getting the results on target with minimum variation. Between 1990 and 2009 he built and co-led Process Management International Ltd, helping clients across the world to achieve better results by transforming their approach to their strategy and everyday work; as deputy chairman he retains a strong link with the company. He is co-author of Working with the Grain: Uncommon Sense for Leaders.

Making Your Work Work – Everyday performance revolution | Jan Gillett | 216 x 135mm | 17th March 2014 | 224 pages | ISBN: 9781908984203 | Paperback | £18.99 | BIC code: KJ – Business & management 

Contact at Infinite Ideas Richard Burton: richard@infideas.com

Author web site: http://www.pmi.co.uk


My book is with the printer. What can be the quality target?

18 February 2014 by in Business and finance

by Jan Gillett, author of Making your work work

After nine months of thought, research, writing and checking, Making your work work is in the hands of the printer – it’s too late to change anything now. In a few weeks several thousand copies will arrive.

Readers are likely to have high expectations about the quality of a quality-management related book. But how can we assess the quality of a book? Does the quality management world provide meaningful targets, or do we have to look elsewhere?

Have I got it ‘right first time’?

Well, the answer depends on what you mean by ‘right’, and ‘first time’. It’s a little longer than the original estimate, so in that sense it’s already not right. It’s been read by half a dozen people, and I’ve incorporated most of their observations, so right or not, that’s hardly ‘first time’. After considering proof reading it’s actually more like third or fourth time. Is that an indication of success, or failure?

Actually it’s inevitable. In addition, when the intended market (readers who don’t already know very much about using process or quality management for everyday work) sees it, it’s virtually certain that their feedback will lead to changes for a second edition. So, no, it can’t be ‘right first time’, and in fact having such an aim would paralyse creative work.

But I do of course hope that it is right enough to get a good reaction and for people to recommend it. Then we could do a second edition, which would also take several iterations in development.

So ‘right first timer isn’t a helpful target in this case. But it can be. Consider a self-assembly furniture item. Having a high level of right first time achieved by the customers would be great.

Are there ‘zero defects’?

Another deathless phrase, swallowed without thought by many big companies as a target for a change programme before it collapses in the face of real products and services, real customers. It sounded fine in concept, but application shows the arbitrary nature of virtually all definitions of a defect. Agreement between producer and user over an extended time about what a defect is, is effectively impossible.

No doubt there would be as many definitions of defect in a book as there are readers, so this target is not going to work.

Some zero targets, such as deaths from accidents, are real enough, in fact in that case any other target is an insult, but they are the exception.

Could the book achieve ‘Six Sigma’?

If not zero defects then, what about the six-sigma target of about 3 errors per million opportunities? Since PMI is a leading consultancy and training firm in Six Sigma we should be able to achieve that, shouldn’t we? But, and it really isn’t an excuse, let’s consider this one carefully too.

If, regardless of the above, we assume we could agree what a defect is (the customer’s tolerance) my book, with about 70,000 words in all, would need to have no errors at all. Hmm, anyone who has written more than a page or two will see the nonsense here. A Six Sigma achievement would be one error in the entire contents of a small library. In fact, one error per chapter would be pretty impressive, and that with a lot of effort in multiple reviewing, proof reading and so on. That’s about Four Sigma, apparently not much to shout about.

In fact this shows that ‘Six Sigma’ as a target should be used with great care. When used as originally by Motorola to drive up the quality of mass production of new electronic devices, it was transformational. The problem is that it has been adopted so carelessly that for many it is devalued. As a target for publishing it’s no help. Incidentally, if six-sigma as a target isn’t sensible for an organisation, then Six Sigma as a programme name is also not helpful.

How about an older ambition ‘on target with minimum variation’?

Going back more than forty years, in fact to the early 1960s, we arrive at this phrase, credited to Genichi Taguchi. Although it somehow seems less demanding than the specification-based western rallying cries of zero defects and so on, it is in fact a profoundly rigorous term, that you can apply to every circumstance.

If you seek to get your outputs ‘on target with minimum variation’ you need to:

  •  appreciate what your customer values;
  • establish criteria that you can measure, both of the customer characteristics and of your output;
  • understand the process that leads to the output, and its context (how the work works);
  • optimise the operation of the process to get the mean of the outputs close to the target, and with minimum variation about the mean.

If you are making crankshafts this philosophy enables you to achieve better than six-sigma, in fact it’s pretty routine. Those who have watched Don Wheeler’s video ‘A Japanese Control Chart’ will recall that the factory produced many millions of parts with none out of specification.

And it works just as well for a call centre manager trying to do their best with the variety of queries coming in on the phone.

Will Making your work work be on its target, will the variation be acceptable?

I have tried to keep in mind as my target audience everyday managers trying to achieve better and more predictable output from their work. Regular managers don’t have time for complications, but do need some analogies, inspiration and explanations. Thus every topic presented temptations to expand, to illustrate or to go into more detail, but doing too much would be going off target. Time will tell if I have achieved an acceptable compromise.

What about errors? Well here’s a minefield illustrating exactly the problem with defining what a defect is. Obvious ones like spelling surely? Well yes and no, for US or Indian English is not the same as English English. Well how about punctuation and phrasing? Much of that is opinion, with academics disagreeing. Some errors would really be wrong – at one stage in the writing process I found I had written customer when I meant supplier, and I’m glad to have spotted that! But most are not even likely to be noticed! At PMI we found an error in one of our manuals recently that can be traced back to the early 1990s. Nobody had spotted it before. This is a manifestation of the age-old question ‘if a tree falls in the forest, but no-one is there to hear it, does it make a noise?’ which I explore at some length in the book.

None of which means that we have not tried very hard indeed to eliminate errors, but no doubt some will have slipped through. Most readers will have examples of how inspections fail to pick up errors, so I must brace myself for being informed of some that we missed, and to figure out how to respond!

Conclusion: the most important characteristics are unknown, and probably unknowable

MakingyourworkworkThis was one of Dr Deming’s many infuriating claims in the 1980s that would cause a regular manager (as I was in those days) much frustration. Only after a lot of reflection did it make sense. We had all been captured by the finance discipline, so that we were used to putting everything in numbers. In fact one particularly useless cliché that still survives is: ‘If you can’t measure it you can’t manage it’. Dr Deming said that was wrong, and that was hard to take. But he was right of course. Numbers are an abstraction of reality, not the reality itself. The appeal of a Lexus over a BMW, or vice versa, is a matter of opinion, worth billions, but not actually measurable.

So I hope my book appeals enough to people to inspire them make their work work better, and that they also come up with ideas that will help me make the second edition better still.

A game-changing formula? Jan Gillett holds the key to making your work work

7 February 2014 by in Business and finance

Last month, when process management expert Jan Gillett blogged about his forthcoming book, he noted an absence of non-specific management titles. He found practical books on ‘hero figures, of academic studies, about a single aspect such as leadership or selling, and finance’, but so far nothing has been published for ordinary managers in everyday situations to help them create optimally functioning systems and businesses. At least, not until now. That’s about to change in March, when Infinite Ideas will publish Making Your Work Work, a practical guidebook that will enable managers to achieve long-term success whatever their area of business.

Put simply, process management is a holistic approach to management whereby performance is optimized using thorough planning and monitoring. You may be able to think of a situation in the past year where a project could have benefitted from a more detailed schedule, an effective way of tracking success, a properly devised budget or a more precise P&L. But you’ll also know that when things get hectic, it’s easy to sideline vital parts of the business in favour of meeting deadlines and satisfying clients.

Jan Gillett proves that you can have your cake and eat it in Making Your Work Work

Jan Gillett proves you can have your cake and eat it in Making Your Work Work

With the right frameworks in place and using well-chosen methodologies it is possible, even in business, to have your cake and eat it. The key to success is knowing which systems and processes work best; which frameworks and methodologies to use, and how to implement them. Dr W. Edwards Deming dedicated his life to specialising in process management, and his theory-based System of Profound Knowledge has underpinned performance revolutions across Europe, Asia and North America in sectors as diverse as the motor industry, pharmaceuticals, banking and health care.

You probably don’t have acres of time to sit poring over the minutiae of Deming’s theories. Gillett draws the most important ideas from Deming’s research and calls the reader to action by asking ‘How are you ready to change?’, ‘How well is the central part of your function working?’ and ‘What kinds of waste can you identify?’ So rather than immersing yourself in theory and asking ‘but what does it all mean for me?’ you can apply the ideas as you go.

Making your work work will help you to think smarter, identify areas for improvement and implement the best business solutions on target; whether the result is a promotion, healthier P&L or simply a more fulfilled you, it will revolutionize the way you work. So pre-order a copy now and soon you’ll be learning how to make work work for you. Easy!

Just as Renault found with the Espace, Apple with the iPhone and Fosbury with his high jump, I think we might have a game-changing formula.  – Jan Gillett