Archive for January, 2009


The Dreaded Product Recall

January 28, 2009

danger_wrongway1Today, peanut butter manufacturers have a problem: salmonella contaminated a huge batch, and hundreds of people have gotten really sick, six have even died. The tainted peanut butter was packaged for industry, not retail, and distributed around the country. Since it was sold to industry to be added to other products, the outbreak was stalled while the product was processed into everything from crackers to dog treats. The FDA and food industry can’t identify everywhere it went, so it could be virtually anywhere. That effectively makes everyone responsible and every candy bar and plate of Pad Thai a potential outbreak. The FDA appears to have tracked the salmonella to its source, but containing the problem is slow-going and far-reaching. The real question is why wasn’t this problem caught by the manufacturers or even via one of the distribution chains? Are food safety precautions not stringent enough or too slow, or was somebody trying to avoid consequences for something they hoped wouldn’t become serious.

I went through a product recall once in a past job many years ago. It was a small-batch production, but enough products had the same problem that a recall was issued. At the time, I was preoccupied with other projects, and my responsibility to adequately supervise assembly was sacrificed. The hardest part was accepting and admitting the mistake both with my colleagues and with my customers. Luckily, this was a low-quantity product, the problem was caught early, we had a personal relationship with every customer, and the potential consequences were minimal (aside from the damage to my ego). Our actions seemed straightforward, but customers appeared to really appreciate our proactive approach to retrieving the items, inspecting and fixing them, and returning them quickly. It certainly wasn’t the easiest thing to initiate, but it was the right thing to do and our customers were happy we did it. As a result of this experience, I still strive to remember that the delicate balance of properly supervising someone – somewhere between micro-managing and saying hello at the annual review – should be based on the needs of the employee, not my availability.

Kryptonite Locks once conducted an excellent example of what every customer hopes would happen when bad products make it onto the shelves. Kryptonite makes super strong locks for bikes and motorcycles. The locks are well known for their ability to stifle a thief. In 2004, after being the market leader for years, a video surfaced on YouTube showing a guy breaking into a tubular-cylinder lock in seconds with just the end of a $0.10 BIC pen. Not good for the lock business. Kryptonite initially offered a qualified recall for locks under 2 years old, but then they did the unthinkable – they issued a full and free recall of ANY of their locks using tubular cylinders and ran their manufacturing line around the clock to meet demand. “ANY lock” meant every over-used, 10-year-old, clunker well past its warranty. The Voluntary Lock Exchange Program ran for more than a year and freely replaced over 400,000 Kryptonite locks worldwide. They weren’t the only locks affected, but they were the only company to react so swiftly. It was a brilliant move that kept their reputation intact, although they might still be paying off the free locks and manufacturing overtime for years to come.

Bad things happen to the best companies. How long have you remembered the companies that got it right? How about those that got it wrong?

Photo credit: Enrico Corno


Visualize and win

January 25, 2009

Stay focused on success to avoid a crash

Whether you’re making a presentation or sitting in an interview, there’s no substitute for preparation. I’ve written before about the anxiety many feel while just preparing to do something. It can be debilitating thinking of all the things that can go wrong. However, once you’re committed, you have to push those thoughts out of your mind or they’ll eat you up.

Instead, think of exactly how you want things to go. Practice your witty joke to break the ice. Practice your response to a few tough questions. Imagine the best possible scenarios and think of all the ways you can get there.

That’s where you want to be.

Photo credit: Chad Schneider


The economics of energy conservation

January 21, 2009

Do you know how much energy the electronics in your life use when you’re away?

Recently, I ran a rough calculation to determine the extra cost of leaving my computer and monitors on overnight and over the weekend. Based on the manufacturer datasheets, my computer draws 189W, and my two 20″ widescreen LCD monitors 55W each. Using electricity rates for November 2008, if I just put that single computer into standby/hibernate or turn it off when I leave the office, I could save about $21 per month. That’s $250 per year per computer.

Also, based on this number, I estimated the carbon footprint of that energy usage (assuming it was produced by a coal-powered plant), and it comes to about 142kg of CO2 per month. For perspective, my Toyota Prius expels about 470 kg of CO2 per month going 15k miles per year, according to this Carbon Footprint Calculator.

Check out this page at for instructions on how to setup your PC or Mac computer to standby and hibernate. They also have a list of more ways to minimize your energy use and affect climate change.

Chad Schneider

Photo credit: Chad Schneider


Cross-train your brain

January 18, 2009

datastreamIf you’re going to run a marathon, or participate in any sporting activity, most experts agree that cross-training is important to improve your overall fitness. Focusing too hard on one set of muscles leaves other muscles weak and prime candidates for injury. As an engineer, focusing too hard on a small skill-set may leave other parts of your brain starving for stimulation.

The internet is FULL of great content. Let your brain do some cross-training by expanding your input stream. Instead of listening to another webinar on the features of the next Solidworks release, maybe you want to stretch out and listen to an interview with Seth Godin on marketing your small business or check up on the state of innovation in the medical device industry for 2009. Not only will you have new things to talk about at dinner parties, but you might learn something related to your everyday.

Who/what are you paying attention to? Please share in the comments.

Photo credit: Rodolfo Clix


The Imposter Syndrome

January 14, 2009


Now that you’re in, are you qualified? Are they going to find out you’re really an imposter?

Maybe you just got into grad school, started a new job, or landed a new project. A case of the “Imposter Syndrome” can grab you no matter your experience or accomplishments. It’s the feeling that you don’t really belong, that you’re a fake or a fraud.

Actually, it’s a feeling that’s not uncommon, as I found out when I entered grad school. I’d gone back to school after a few years of working, so some of my technical skills were a bit rusty. I was hitting the books hard and putting in hours at the lab, but I was feeling overwhelmed and not sure of myself. Everyone else seemed to have it together.

Then I found out about the “Imposter Syndrome”. Apparently, it is well-known in grad-school circles, although not recognized among psychology professionals as a real disorder. For me, just knowing that people much smarter than me were having the same feelings helped. Hmm, I guess it didn’t occur to me at the time that this could have made me feel worse.

Confidence is often a fine line. Don’t dwell on your failures OR your successes. Be honest with yourself. Recognize your accomplishments, learn from your mistakes, and move on.

A few relevant links:
Cal Tech Counseling
Chronicle of Higher Education
Overcoming the Imposter Syndrom

Photo credit: Meliha Gojak


Brainstorming technique

January 12, 2009


Brainstorming is a great way to identify new concepts and “unstick” a design. There are a variety of techniques, but the secret to any good session is organization. A well-organized brainstorming session can generate lots of great ideas – more than you often need – reducing your need to slip in the shower and hit your head to have a lightning-strike epiphany. Here is a general guideline to brainstorming that should help you avoid unnecessary head trauma.

Step 0 – Understand the ground rules

  1. Turn off the filters. No ideas are stupid. Voting indicates popularity but not how well an idea will work in the product.
  2. Release idea ownership. Once you’ve announced an idea, the group owns it. This goes for everyone. It may be brilliant, it may be stupid, but it’s not yours. Don’t consider it as a solution unless it has value.
  3. As the designer and host, you’re collecting ideas. You’re not beholden to use ANY of the ideas generated at this session. You might use an amalgamation of 5 ideas in the end. Don’t try to work out the solution during the brainstorming session.
  4. If participants don’t follow the rules, you need to moderate the session. Reiterate the rules. Keep the session on track to get the most out of it.

Step 1 – Create the guest list

The act of brainstorming can involve a group of people or just yourself.  Having more people often provides MORE ideas, but not necessarily better ideas, and not necessarily better value. Remember, people are being paid to be at your session and not performing other work. Consider the value of each member of the group when creating the list of attendees.

Ideally, you want a group diverse in experience and expertise. If you’re really limited to yourself, some of these techniques can be helpful, but a small group of about 4-6 people is preferable. You want to have 1-3 people that have been involved in the project, either intimately or peripherally, but you also want to bring a few people that don’t know much, if anything, about it – sometimes called “fresh faces” or “cold bodies”. These people often bring the most value because they have the broadest starting point. However, they need to have expertise you can use.

Step 2 – Break down the problem

The most common error when holding a brainstorming session is that everyone sits down and tries to solve the whole problem. Don’t tackle it all at once. The primary problem needs to be broken down into sub-components. For example, instead of asking the question, “What is the best paper clip design?” focus on smaller components of the problem and integrate the results later.

  1. “What are different ways to attach any two items together?”
  2. “What are some reasons papers need to be attached?”
  3. “What are some current ways to attach paper?”
  4. “What are the problems with these current paper-attaching techniques?

As the host, develop these questions ahead of time, but do not reveal them to the participants. You need a plan to guide the session. Plan to spend about 15 minutes per question, so consider how long the session should last. Remain flexible. Feel free to change or replace questions during the session based on ideas from the group. Impromptu questions may turn out to be more useful.

Step 3 – Get the party started

Give participants the minimum amount of background to be useful. You want to avoid tainting them with everything you know because you might get them stuck, too. You’ll reveal a question, and each participant will spend three minutes individually thinking of all possible answers. This is the time when no answer is shot down. Absolutely none. Seriously. Turn off the filters.

We usually write down each answer on its own post-it note to be stuck on the wall to compile answers. To make everything legible, you’ll want thick markers and large post-it notes, maybe 4″x 4″. Finally, you’ll need stickers as a voting means – approximately 5 stickers per person per question.

Go around the table. Each person offers only one note at a time. Others can turn in similar notes at the same time and discuss clarification or expansion of the thought. Limit discussion if necessary. As the host, you’re only collecting ideas. Don’t try to design the solution now. Participants can continue to write down ideas if anything strikes them, particularly as other thoughts are proffered. The filters are still off. Don’t allow anyone to shoot down an idea.

Once all of the notes are collected, organize the notes into whatever groups might be applicable. Have everyone come up and vote on their favorite ideas. Now the filters come back on. Ideas will be inappropriate or just plain fantastic. Release ownership! People often think their ideas are the best. They’re not. Encourage participants to be objective. Everyone gets 5 votes to put anywhere they want. They can put all 5 votes on one idea if they want.

Move on to the next question. Create new questions if it’s appropriate. Mind the time. This is a high-stress activity. One hour is a decent length session. Bring snacks if it’s going to be longer, and allow for breaks.

Step 4 – Tally the results

Use the voted ranking as a guide. As the designer, you did not reveal everything about the project to the group. They won’t know all the constraints. You might find the top 3 ideas don’t fit into your budget or projected manufacturing technique or recycling plan. That’s okay. Keep all of the ideas. In the end, you’re only looking for one.

Step 5 – Go back to your desk

Now is the time to sift through the ideas. Sit back and see what comes. Hopefully, you can look at things differently. You might even have a possible solution to work out. Feel free to congeal a few ideas into one. Feel free to throw it all away and host another session with different people and different questions.

Organized brainstorming can be a powerful design tool. Practice the technique. It works, but it may not work for you as stated. Tweak it as necessary. At Key Tech, we often call on brainstorming even before we’re stuck. It’s a great way to kickoff a project.

What are your favorite brainstorming techniques? What are the best ideas you’ve had as a result of brainstorming?

Photo credit: Willi Heidelbach


Take this job and …

January 8, 2009

Build bridges instead of burning them.

I recently wrote a glowing recommendation for an old friend and ex-colleague. A bit ago, he moved on to greener pastures, or taller mountains, to improve his work/life balance. He’s an excellent engineer, and I hope to work with him again. He just needed a change. He tied up loose ends, simplified turnover, and even identified a candidate for his replacement. He reminded me that perhaps how we end a relationship is as important as the way we once cherished it.

This can be easier said than done, particularly when it comes to personal relationships. But, in a professional relationship, it’s generally not a personal issue. There are lots of reasons to leave a job or take your business elsewhere. Maybe you want more pay and less hours, or maybe you need a vendor closer to home to cut your annual shipping costs. However, don’t let these issues sour your professional relationship or conduct.

As satisfying as it might be to tell off your boss or vendor, nothing good can come from it. You’ll be much better served by acting professionally and graciously. Not only are you keeping your network intact, but you’re also leaving a trail of possible recommendations in your wake.

Photo credit: Julie Engal