Archive for the ‘Business’ Category

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What makes a great teacher?

February 22, 2009
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Is there a message in there?

Who are your teachers? Whom do you learn from?

Whenever I talk to someone, or read an article, or finish a project, isn’t the goal that I come away having learned something? Isn’t that what makes Seth Godin’s stream of content so interesting?  He seems to find insight where others walk on by. Is that because he is a great teacher? He clearly has a lot to teach us. But, perhaps it’s that he is a great student. He’s more receptive to learning something new. Can we be as receptive?

My list of “teachers” is pretty long, but I’d guess none of them are aware of it. I don’t pay tuition, I don’t have tests, but if I don’t pay attention, I may get left behind. 

Are you looking for a teacher, or perhaps you have experience to offer someone else? The American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) has an eMentoring program that pairs young engineers with experienced ones. Do other societies have similar programs?

You don’t have to be in a classroom to have teachers. These are simply people you learn from, and they can be everywhere, if you’re listening.

Photo Credit: Rodolfo Clix

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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

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Visualize and win

January 25, 2009
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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

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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

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Take this job and …

January 8, 2009
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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

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Train hard, fight easy

January 5, 2009

lecture_room1Preparing to do something is often much harder that actually doing it. There’s often anxiety, stress, physical and emotional hardship, etc. In the end, most people sigh and quip, “That wasn’t so bad.” So why do we focus so much of our fear on the act itself?

Whether it’s giving a presentation, sparking up a conversation at a networking event, or sitting down to an interview, the act itself is often insignificant compared to the hours or even years put into preparing for this moment. Plus, let’s gain some perspective; unless you are actually training for a fight, the consequences are usually much less than we imagine. Is someone going to rudely quip that you’re stupid, yell at you in front of a crowd, or slap you across the face? Not likely.

Get out there. Revel in the good experiences, learn from the bad ones, and gain confidence either way. And, when you think, “What’s the worst that could happen?”, be realistic.

Photo credit: Fred Kuipers

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Keep your resolution this year

December 28, 2008

This year, don’t just make a New Year’s resolution to work out and sign up for a gym membership. You need a commitment to keep you going. You need metrics to show you how well you’ve improved. 

Register for a marathon. Plan your year: a 10-miler in January, a half-marathon in May, and a marathon in October. 

Tell your friends about it. Even get them involved. Don’t be afraid to fail in front of them. You can’t fail. By showing up at all, you’ve succeeded in meeting your goal. 

Make this a year to remember. 

The Al Lewis 10-miler is on January 3rd. Hope to see you there.