Monthly Archives: October 2017

They Don’t Make It Like That Anymore

This Foodie Friday I am going to run the risk of sounding like the grumpy old man I’m slowly becoming. Rather than admonishing you all to get off my lawn, I want to share the sentiment I had a week or so ago as I fired up my smoker. My smoker, or as it’s lovingly known, “The Beast”, was made by the New Braunfels Smoker Company at least 20 years ago, How do I know that? Well, that’s today’s food and business thought.

The Beast is made of heavy steel that’s quite thick and it weighs well over 100 pounds even without my usual load of meats inside. As I was cleaning up the old Rancho Deluxe to get ready for its sale, the smoker was one of the very few things that I was adamant about saving for the move. Why was that, especially when I also gave away or junked a Caja China and two other grills? In a sentence:

Because they don’t make them like that anymore.

The New Braunfels Smoker Company was sold to Char-Broil 20 years ago. Almost immediately, the quality of the products went downhill, and this was especially noticeable on the gauge of the steel. The steel was thinner and didn’t hold heat as well. When a rust spot developed, it was difficult to sand and paint it without almost going through the area that has rusted. The products were similar in design and name, but that was about all that was the same. The bbq forums, home to serious meat smoking aficionados like me, were deluged with negative comments and, more importantly to the business, better alternatives to what had been a superior line of smokers.

This is something from which any business can learn. We’re always under pressure to improve our margins. Some folks look to cheaper materials, other to cheaper, less-skilled labor, and still others to cutting customer service. Sometimes we just skimp on quality control. While margins might improve, there is a strong chance that revenues will decline as the customer base figures out that “you’re not making it like that anymore.” As an Apple user, I recently switched to a Chromebook because my Mac OS isn’t as smooth and there are glitches that were never an issue before. For you cooks out there, Pyrex changed their formula and “new” Pyrex is not as good. Recent Craftsman tools, once the industry standard, are now made in China and aren’t nearly as good. I can go on and I’m sure you can as well.

If you’re successful, resist the temptation to cut corners. People notice (so does your staff). Don’t be part of a conversation that claims you don’t make it like that anymore.

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Filed under food, Consulting, Huh?

Do We Really Want Mullets?

Anyone remember the mullet? You know what I’m talking about: the haircut that’s “business in the front, a party in the back.” I think the last time the mullet was popular was when it was sported by members of the Pittsburgh Penguins when they won The Stanley Cup in the early 1990’s. Since then, it’s become more of an object of ridicule than a hairstyle to be admired. I think we’ve come to recognize that we can’t be both businesslike and a party at the same time.

I thought of the mullet the other day when I read that Facebook was testing resume-building features so that users can share their work history with their Facebook friends. They’re obviously trying to hone in on a space dominated by LinkedIn. The curious thing is that your “resume” doesn’t really display. It seems as if Facebook is simply gathering the information which one can assume they’ll use to fuel a service for headhunters and active job seekers. There’s actually a couple of points we can think about here.

The first is that most of the people I know (myself included) use different social sites for different purposes. Many of my Facebook friends are not work-related. We’re not generally connected on LinkedIn. I don’t cross-post (other than the screed) content on the two sites since I don’t especially think my business contacts care about what food I’ve eaten or what concerts I’ve attended or my political views. Conversely, I don’t bore my non-work friends with the three or four business-related articles I might come across that I find interesting.

From what I can tell, most users can distinguish between the appropriate content for the two sites. Frankly, I think Facebook knows way too much about each of us anyway, and I’m not sure that I want them to know much more about my work life, my contacts, or anything else I keep in the workplace. I certainly don’t want potential clients considering anything other than the professional qualifications available to them on LinkedIn – not my musical tastes, not my politics and not my sad attempts at humor with friends.

More importantly, every business needs a focus. Facebook, in particular, seems to have decided that anything is fair game. They’re trying to out video YouTube, to out marketplace Amazon, and to compete in areas such as food delivery. In the meantime, they can’t even decide if they’re a media business (hint: they are).  Each of us needs to figure out what business we’re in so we can channel our resources, focus on our competition, and understand what problems our solutions can solve to serve our customer base. Chasing the next shiny object or growing beyond our core competence generally is more trouble than it’s worth. That’s how we end up with a mullet and is that what we really want?

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Filed under Consulting, digital media

Winner Winner

Monday for is a day of some reflection since it inevitably follows a weekend of sports watching. This time of year one can watch just about any sport being contested at the highest levels. College and pro football are in full swing, as is world soccer. Baseball is in the playoffs as is NASCAR. The NHL and NBA seasons are just getting started, as is the new professional golf season. Not a Saturday or Sunday passes without a bunch of winners.

Business has seasons but they’re generally not as cut and dry as those in sports. It’s pretty much a year-round effort, but it does have quite a bit of winning and losing that goes on. Every day can bring about a victory: a new contract won, a great new hire, a new position or job, or an improvement in the bottom line that the entire team worked to bring about. It’s important, however, to think about what winning means to you. What does it mean to win?

That implies a few other questions you should be asking yourself and your organization. Why are you doing what you’re doing? That question gets at your purpose and begins to provide the measuring stick for victory. We succeed by effort and by striving to reach a goal or goals. Defining what they are is an important piece for each individual and for the common goals your team needs to have.

As businesspeople, we need to remember that winning is different for everyone. We need to foster an environment where each person can win by their own definition. How can we help one another to improve? How can we put ourselves and our organizations in the best position? The answers to those sorts of questions are what fills up sports TV pregame shows and the analysis of how well each player and team accomplished what they set out to do is postgame fodder. Maybe we ought to do pre- and post-game interviews in our places of business since it would become fairly obvious if we’ve defined winning and set ourselves up to achieve victory. What do you think?

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Learning Management From A Chef’s Life

It’s Foodie Friday and this week I’d like to highlight a business lesson I was reminded of while watching “A Chef’s Life.” If you’re not familiar with the show, it’s a series (now in its fifth season) that features Vivian Howard, the chef at a restaurant in eastern North Carolina, as she runs her restaurant, raises her kids, writes what is now an acclaimed cookbook, and improves her craft. I watch it both for the great storytelling as well as to learn about the local food traditions and recipes of the Carolinas

As the series has progressed and Vivian’s star has risen, she has sent some time ruminating on the fact that she spends far less time in the kitchen of her restaurant than when she opened it. She also talks about how strange it feels when she actually does go back into the kitchen, whether it’s to develop new dishes or to do a quality check. This resonated with me even though my business has nothing to do with running a restaurant.

Executive chefs are really managers. While they were once line cooks, the amount of time they spend cooking is inversely proportionate to the responsibility they have. Like any manager, their job is to make sure that the entire operation is moving in sync and that the people who do the actual work have the tools and materials they need. They teach where necessary but other than in emergencies, they don’t step in and actually do the job that is the responsibility of their subordinates.

This is probably the hardest thing for new managers to understand. I remember that when I began managing people it was extremely frustrating to watch my subordinates take more time to do projects I could do in a flash. Their work was often full of errors, mistakes I wouldn’t have made just because I had a lot more experience. But doing the work for them would have been just as big an error since they wouldn’t learn and I would not be working with the other members of the department.

On the show, Vivian remarks that show doesn’t feel as if she’s doing anything when she’s in the restaurant’s kitchen now because it runs most days without her. I used to feel the same way as I was learning that my job entailed different “doings.” Wandering around and listening, clarifying goals, working with other department heads, giving a pat on the back to someone and a kick in the butt to another are all part of the manager’s job but when you’re used to having an overloaded project list and deadlines, it doesn’t feel as if you’re doing much at all. In reality, Vivian has done a fantastic job managing since her operation runs well on its own. She can focus on the next project – new dishes, new restaurants, the next book – while knowing her business is operating efficiently. Not a bad model for any of us!

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Filed under food, Thinking Aloud

Truthiness Wins

If you’re not familiar with the term “truthiness,” you should be. Coined way back in 2005 by Stephen Colbert, it’s a term that refers to

"I created this cartoon illustration in c...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

the belief or assertion that a particular statement is true based on the intuition or perceptions of some individual or individuals, without regard to evidence, logic, intellectual examination, or facts. Truthiness can range from ignorant assertions of falsehoods to deliberate duplicity or propaganda intended to sway opinions.

It was meant to be a term of satire, generally describing a politician departing from an obvious set of facts to espouse something that seems like the truth but isn’t. A dozen years ago, that was a circumstance that was relatively unusual. Today, it’s the norm, both in business and out. If you’re reading today’s screed thinking that I have an answer, you can stop here: I don’t. There are way too many vested interests that have come to rely on truthiness as a way of doing business, and that’s a shame.

Facebook recently admitted that Russian agents used its network to distribute disinformation to roughly 10 million U.S. users in order to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election. They and other social platforms are trying to figure out how to readily identify “fake news“, all of which fits the definition of truthiness to a tee. To paraphrase Cassius in Julius Caesar, the fault, dear reader, is not in our stars or our social platforms, but in ourselves. We believe what we want to believe thanks to confirmation bias, and the explosion of content sources has made it possible for us never to hear a point of view to the contrary.

This is bad in real life and could be fatal in business. If we only pay close attention to evidence and arguments that support our own thinking on various business issues, and to toss out or ignore contradictory evidence, the odds are good that we’ll fall for something that’s truthy rather than true.

It’s 2017 and truthiness has won, or at least it’s holding the high ground and doing an excellent job of fighting off reality. Our job as business people is to win the battle and put truthiness back into the hands of the satirist from whence it came, both in business and in real life. Are you with me?

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Filed under Reality checks, Huh?, Thinking Aloud

You Can’t Handle The Truth

There has never been a time when it’s been easier to get information. If you don’t believe me, pick up that computer you keep by your side most of the time (that would be your smartphone), push whichever button activates either Siri, Google Assistant, or whatever flavor of virtual assistant you have installed, and ask what the weather will be tomorrow. Ask who the Prime Minister of Denmark is or a few ways you can cook a turnip. We have the world at our fingertips.

That can be true with business information too. Traffic to your media properties, interactions with your content, results of your ad and social media campaigns, and feedback on how your company or brand is interacting with the world at large are all readily available for analysis and action. So is customer data, market predictions, and just about anything else you’d need to know. Pretty awesome, right?

The problem is that not everyone wants to know the truth about these things. Take the manager whose staff is leaving in droves. They “hear” it’s because of a better offer but they don’t take the time to sit down and dig into if there is an underlying problem in their operation. They couldn’t handle it if the problem was really them and their management style so they avoid the question.

Then there is the web person who is under pressure to keep growing traffic and doesn’t bother to exclude the kinds of traffic that inflate the numbers. You know: your own internal use of your website, traffic from places where you don’t do business, referrer spam or other obviously fake traffic. They know the truth but their bosses can’t handle it.

The problem with having information is that it compels you to act. We can always deny there is a problem if we don’t know about it or if we think the information we have is inaccurate. As with the law, ignorance is no excuse in my mind. I’ve been in meetings where some excellent forecasting predicts a downturn in a company’s business but several members of the management team want to expand their spending. The forecasts are subordinated to the feeling that more spending will yield more revenue despite the fact that the company’s share of the market has been steady for years and probably won’t increase in a downturn (which is basically what the managers are predicting). They couldn’t handle the truth: they need to tighten their belts and ride out the next few quarters. They’re no longer in business, by the way.

We hear an awful lot about fake news and there certainly is some out there to be ignored. Your business analytics don’t fall into that category and you ignore them at your own peril. If you can’t handle the truth, you can assume that reality will handle you one way or another. OK?

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Filed under Reality checks, Consulting

Techniques, Not Recipes

It’s finally Foodie Friday again and something I cooked last week sparked a thought. I was trying to find a recipe for a dish I liked and found several versions, each slightly different. The one thing that they had in common, however, was how they were prepared. The process of pulling the dish together was nearly identical in every example. Each used a few common terms to represent techniques: saute, fold, and others.

A cook sautees onions and peppers.

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This reminded me of a very basic thing I heard a long time ago: it’s learning techniques that matter, not learning recipes. One of the world’s culinary masters, Jacques Pepin, wrote a book decades ago called “La Technique” which is an encyclopedic look at everything from boning out a leg of lamb to making garnishes out of fruit. As a cook, learning technique is what frees you up to explore food and create your version of anything. It’s a process that never ends, by the way. Despite my years in the kitchen, I’ve only learned to sous vide and to use a pressure cooker in the last couple of years. Both techniques have become skills I use on a regular basis now.

Of course, this thinking doesn’t just apply to cooking. If you play a musical instrument, you’re probably aware that you spend an inordinate amount of time learning everything from how to hold the thing, the proper fingerings to produce certain notes, and what notes are in which scales. As a guitar player, I learned patterns, bends, and hammers as well. Once you understood what each of those techniques produces, you were freed up to make music: YOUR music.

Business isn’t any different. The problem, however, is that many folks don’t take the time to understand that they must learn technique before they can make their own music or create their own food. They try to produce the recipes that make for success in business without having the skills required. Without those techniques, the results will take far longer, if they’re achieved at all. Moreover, it’s nearly impossible for them to make their own music.

Which techniques? Analyzing, communicating, synthesizing, negotiating, budgeting, and presenting are good places to start. There is another dozen I could add to the list, but You get the point. In the office or in the kitchen, having an understanding of the basic techniques which underpin business or cooking, respectively, is a critical element in your success. Otherwise, just trying to duplicate someone else’s recipe will be the best you can do, and even that might be a long slog. Make sense?

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Filed under food, Helpful Hints, Thinking Aloud