Monday, March 31, 2008

Technolgies for Group Cooperation

Howard Rheingold presents an insightful talk on cooperation at He highlights key characteristics of technologies of cooperation and sharing economies:

  • easy to use

  • open

  • self-instructing

  • enable connection

  • group forming

  • leverage self-interests that adds up to more

He shows us a glimpse of the future with powerful handheld devices linking us in powerful groups and discusses the new wealth which will accompany this revolution. Check it out!

Friday, March 28, 2008

Trends: Instapreneur

Wired Magazine has a great article this month on business trends and a fascinating look at instapreneurs. This is a trend to watch, and participate in. The process seems simple: a designer uploads their design to a website such as ponoko, zazzle, or styleshake, and let buyers order the product. An outsourced firm manufactures the product with short lead time (like two weeks) and profits go to the designer.
Is this the beginning of the end of mass production? The long tail of the Internet demand curve allows buyers to specify exactly what they want, in nearly infinite variety, so a nearly infinite variety of products can be produced. Henry Ford invented mass production with the first assembly line... and the Internet is dismantling it in favor of lean, demand-driven operations exploiting information on what the customer wants, supplanting producer-driven marketing on what the producer makes.
Mass production will live on indefinitely, supporting commodity products such as raw materials. However, the future belongs to those who adapt; manufacturers must remember, the information economy doesn't stop at the factory door.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Simply Powerful Meetings: A Quick Overview

View from the Grove Park Inn, Asheville, courtesy of Grove Park Inn.

Simply Powerful Meetings are just that. We plan and execute meetings that matter. Subjects vary depending on your needs but can include

  • strategic planning SWOT analysis,

  • critical success factor development,

  • focused improvement,

  • action planning,

  • initiatives development,

  • matrix analysis

When you need to get a group together, we promise you will achieve far better results with us.

I have a new course on effective meetings... click here and create a new account to check it out!

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Cost Reduction

My toolshed contains ways to save money. We analyze cost drivers and exploit them to improve the bottom line.

Cost drivers, from Michael Porter’s work, are listed:
o Discretionary Policy
§ Wages
§ Technology
§ Mix
§ Service level
§ Material specifications
§ HR policies

o Learning
§ Plant layout
§ Schedule improvement
§ Labor efficiency
§ Design changes
§ Increased yield
§ Increased utilization
§ Tailoring raw materials
· Relationships

o Linkages
§ Internal
· Optimize
· Coordinate
· Inventory
§ External
· Channels

o Interrelationships
§ Share savings

o Integration
§ Reduce cost
§ Increase market power
· Macro Issues
o Location
o Institutional factors
o Timing (first to market, mover?)
· Volume
o Scale
o Utilization patterns

Art Imitating Life... Science

Left: painting by Gino Severini, Sea=Dancer, 1914 Source: Peggy Guggenheim Collection
Right: BrainBows: Credit: Jean Livet. Genetically engineering mice so that their brain cells express different combinations of fluorescent colors reveals the brain’s complicated anatomy. In the image round green neurons are interspersed with diffuse support cells called astrocytes. Source: Technology Reveiw
I had the opportunity to visit Venice some years back and fell in love with Sea=Dancer by Severini. This painting spoke to me and I stood in font of it, transfixed for what seemed like hours. Severini, a futurist, painted about dance, dynamism in art. You can imagine movement from his work portrayed here. I wanted to remain in the museum, but my schedule pulled me away. I bought the print and carefully hauled it back across the Atlantic. Neither the print, nor the small facsimile here, do this marvelous painting justice, so if you visit Venice, go to the Guggenheim and see it.
As I read Technology Review the other day, I read about experiments in brain imaging and was once again transfixed by images. An interesting correlation exists to the inner workings of the brain, as shown in the image of brain cells shown on the right, and Sea=Dancer. Severini portrayed a dynamism in Sea=Dancer that we now find, almost a century later, in the brain.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Asheville Retreats

A view of Asheville, NC in March, 2008. Photo by Bob Michel

"You seldom get what you go after unless you know in advance what you want. Indecision has often given an advantage to the other fellow because he did his thinking beforehand." Maurice Switzer

Deciding what he wants for his business is clearly one of the most important things a leader can do. Often the leader is well served having the input of key constituents on strategic matters. When a leadership team begins to stall, it is time to get clear in everyone's minds what is wanted... what is the goal.

I lead teams through excellent corporate events and retreats in Asheville, NC and other locations. I provide a proven framework to work through today's business problems and emerge with effective action plans that teams have developed and buy into. We also provide meeting facilitation training to develop key employees abilities and help transform their work groups. These trained facilitators generate process improvement profit with the team.

I have a new course on effective meetings... click here to create a new account and check it out!

Monday, March 24, 2008

Shadowboards Matter

Tolli and I visited Alcatraz during our California trip last year. The tour was excellent and provided a look at early 5S principles at work. Normally when we apply workplace organization methods we emphasize the importance of "a place for everything and everything in its place" because of efficiency. At Alcatraz, it was a matter of life and death.

Alcatraz inmates were considered the most dangerous of all prisoners and were held in cells most of the day. The exception was at meal time, when any prisoners who weren't in solitary confinement would eat together. There were prisoners who helped in the kitchen. The challenge for the guards was making sure this was done safely. Shadowboards enabled guards to account for every piece of cutlery.

Here you see an example of a shadowboard used in Alcatraz prison to alert guards when inmates had not returned knives.

It is hard to imagine in today's prisons that tools like these might be available to inmates, but at Alcatraz, they found a way to deal with them effectively, by employing a shadowboard.

While today's workplaces are much safer than the Alcatraz of the past, employing best practices, such as workplace organization -- including shadowboards -- sets apart top performing companies.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Responses to economic slowdown

Higher energy prices drive the US economy toward a slowdown. What are businesses doing in response?

In casual conversations over the past week, here is what I've heard:

  1. Cut travel costs first, it is the easiest and most logical place to start
    Cut operating costs, outside of personnel; use layoffs as last resort
    Work to retain clients: avoid losing customers as a first defense
    Retrench: bolster your market position by reinforcing your strengths
    Innovate: develop new products and launch them now to offset sluggish sales

"Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.
Thomas Alva Edison

What is your experience, your plan, your method to turn this opportunity into profit? Share your comments...

This may seem like a crazy time to start a business, but that's what I'm doing! Businesses need help in this economy... to generate profit from process improvement, to cut costs using virtual meetings, to harvest ideas from teams and employees, or to gain alignment with key constituents. To that end, my business offers solutions to today's toughest business challenges. My website will be up and running soon!

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Exporting... where to start in NC?

I attended a session of the Blue Ridge Entrepreneurial Council (BREC) on networking the other night, and I heard about an upcoming program that caught my attention. The North Carolina Department of Commerce is hosting several sessions on how to export to various markets. There will be trade representatives from several countries at the sessions, and local businesses can schedule free meetings with the representatives to ask questions, show their products, and find out what they need to do to begin global trading. Countries to be represented are Germany, Hong Kong, Canada, Mexico, Japan and Korea. Additionally, there will be seminars on how to do trade in various markets. The first session is on trade with China and it will be in Charlotte, March 31st. April first, a seminar on doing business in Canada will be presented in Asheville. See the program information here.

To register or for additional information on any or all of these free Lunch and Learn sessions, please contact:
Katie Newcombe: or 919-733-7193.

Exporting is an excellent corporate retreat topic: gathering ideas on what to do, and how to do it, can be a great topic of a staff retreat to Asheville.

Developments In China

It will be 30 years since the establishment of formal communications between the US and The Peoples Republic of China this year. By all accounts, the relationship has come a long way in 30 years. It is important for businesspeople to know about developments in China, as this nation is swiftly becoming an overwhelming force in the global economy.

Recently, Zhou Wenzhong, The Peoples Republic of China's Ambassador to the US, spoke in Ohio about developments in China. I read his speech in Vital Speeches, and provide a summary here. Zhou spoke of peace and development being the overall themes of our relationship, and that the most prominent trend is globalization driving increasing international trade and transnational direct investment. He remarked that these trends underscore the interdependence now in place between the US and China.

There will be "no glorious isolation" in tomorrow's world, based on this interdependence. There will be continued Chinese economic growth. He said that China will apply a "Scientific outlook on development," aiming to moderate growth to a manageable ongoing level. Further, China aims to continue reform and opening up, enhance social harmony, quadruple per capita GDP by 2020 (from 2000), and build a moderately prosperous society. Zhou then said China, recognizing the imbalance in trade, will try to increase imports from the US.

According to Daniel Workman, "zinc, nickel, lumber, mining & oil equipment lead China's fastest-growing exports to U.S. while tobacco, corn & precious metals are popular American imports in China.…

China Imports from U.S.
Of the $55.2 billion in American exports to China in 2006, the following product categories had the highest values.
  1. Semi-conductors … US$5.9 billion (10.6% of China from U.S. imports, up 74.7% from 2005)
  2. Civilian aircraft … $5.3 billion (9.6%, up 39.7%)
  3. Soybeans … $2.5 billion (4.6%, up 12.5%)
  4. Plastics …. $2.2 billion (3.9%, up 18.8%)
  5. Raw cotton … $2.1 billion (3.7%, up 47%)
  6. Industrial machines … $1.97 billion (3.6%, up 29%)
  7. Copper … $1.86 billion (3.4%, up 99.7%)
  8. Computer accessories … $1.82 billion (3.3%, up 27.5%)
  9. Aluminum … $1.7 billion (3.1%, up 90.3%)
  10. Steelmaking material … $1.69 billion (3.1%, up 11.9%)

Fastest-Growing Chinese Imports from U.S.
Below are American exports to China in 2006 with the highest percentage sales increases from 2005.

  1. Unmanufactured tobacco … US$61.4 million (up 3127% from 2005)
  2. Corn … $22.6 million (up 2963%)
  3. Oilseeds & food oils … $60.7 million (up 970%)
  4. Precious metals … $305 million (up 205.2%)
  5. Railway transportation equipment … $220 million (up 146%)"
With today's falling dollar, astute managers look to China and other nations as potential markets. Some ideas of "how" in my next blog entry...

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Ideas Change the World

Time Magazine's cover story this week is "10 Ideas That Are Changing the World." They say that "ideas are the secret power that this planet runs on." The first story is about the idea Time feels has the greatest potential to change the world, namely, that we belong to a global community and gain more by cooperation than competition. They claim "the defining challenge of the 21st century will be to face the reality that humanity shares a common fate on a crowded planet." The article calls for a new approach to global problem-solving. It's worth a read.
A new approach to problem solving... a very powerful concept that weaves in my business and community service life.

I help teams to implement a new approach to global problem solving -- by providing online meeting facilitation training.

Friday, March 14, 2008


The person who can combine frames of reference and draw connections between ostensibly unrelated points of view is likely to be the one who makes the creative breakthrough

Denise Shekerjian quotes

Title: Connections I
Artist: Eve Shpritser

What makes a "simply powerful meeting?" The interconnectedness of our thoughts, abilities, and memories make it possible. The skillful melding of planning and flow result in something new and different, exceptional. This is how process improvement profit is generated.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Patterns of Crises

The direct translation of these Chinese characters, which mean crisis, is "an opportunity riding a dangerous wind." Although crises present opportunities, most crises are unwanted and we feel better off without.

In his book, Will Your Next Business Mistake Be Fatal? Avoiding a Chain of Mistakes that Can Destroy Your Organization, Robert E. Mittelstaedt, Jr. describes a pattern traced back from crises. Mittelstaedt finds that the pattern includes these components (and I quote, from the book):

"- An initial problem, often minor in isolation, that goes uncorrected
- A subsequent problem that compounds the effect of the initial problem
- An inept corrective effect
- Disbelief at the accelerating seriousness of the situation
- Generally, an attempt to hide the truth about what is going on while an attempt is made at remediation
- Sudden recognition that the situation is out of control or “in extremis” (In extremis is a Latin phrase meaning "in the furthest reaches" or "at the point of death".)
- Finally, the ultimate disaster scenario involving significant loss of life, financial resources, or both, and ultimately, the recriminations."

If this pattern seems familiar, it should, because most business problems that become crises follow this pattern. Also, the large crises our governments face can be traced back through the same pattern.

What to do, then, to avoid these crises? Clearly, the chain of escalation must be broken. The first component of the pattern is the initial problem. So many crises start out small, in a manageable scope, yet go unfixed. An effective method of problem detecting and corrective action nips these problems in the bud.

When the initial problem gets past the first wave of defence, an interacting problem often amplifies the first one. Now a real mess is brewing. If corrective action fails here, the next phase in escalation is when those responsible begin hiding the problem or downplaying its significance. This can be done through filtering information as it goes up the chain of command. A boss can work to avoid filtering by having several lines of communication to compare messages and validate what he or she is hearing. When there is a disconnect, one of the sources is either filtering information or out of touch. Regardless, this is when help is needed but somehow doesn't show up.

Next, the crisis erupts in some undeniable way. People ask, "how could this happen?" There is enough blame to go around and lessons are learned and spread throughout the organization, but the key question is, is there a system in place to root out problems in their infancy and solve them completely? If not, be ready for more "opportunities riding dangerous winds."

With years of problem solving and corrective action experience, The Flying Toolshed implements corrective action systems so crises may be avoided all together. We believe creating opportunities for our clients rather than having opportunities thrust upon them.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Solving Global Warming Is Like Solving World Hunger?

Image courtesy

In a new article, The Washington Post describes one scientist's view that to stop global warming, we need to go to zero emissions output sooner, not later. The article explains that there are no technological reasons why we can't get to zero emissions now, only political and economic reasons. There are no descriptions of how to implement zero emissions technology globally, only references to the old fossil fuel technology (burning fossil fuels has been around a while), implying that new technology is the answer. So it seems, according to the article, all we need to do is decide to fix the problem and do it. This argument is reminiscent on solving world hunger, as well. We have enough food, we have the technology. All we need is the will to fix these problems. So why don't we?

Let's analyze the global warming problem.

First, the problem: the earth's average temperature is trending upwards causing the climate to change. Figures indicate an average increase in temperature of .76 degrees C in the last 100 years. There are many who dispute this finding, others who would argue its significance. For now, let's accept it and go on to the next step, option finding.

What are options to reduce global warming? Here are some of the ideas found on the Web:

Next step: option selection. Here is where global warming and world hunger share a common action-limiting feature: lack of consensus. Until a group (or community, or global community) arrives at a common understanding of the problem it cannot come to consensus on options, therefore selecting a solution is impossible.

This is a common roadblock in solving group problems. We find it in many businesses and non-profit organizations. Problems requiring cross-functional or group action must be recognized as problems first, defined, then options listed, chosen, and implemented. Lastly, the corrective action's effects must be measured and evaluated to ensure solution. Then the group can go back and find another problem.

Our Simply Powerful MeetingSM methods bring groups along this path quickly and effectively so problem definitions are established and options are developed, hurdling over the roadblocks which hold many global or cross-functional solutions at bay.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Envisioning Progress

I am experimenting with visualization techniques on Here are two examples of text clouds which demonstrate the relative frequency of word use. The top text cloud resulted from an exercise in determining how to overcome barriers to success for a non-profit group, the Ski-Hy Chapter of the American Business Women's Association here in Asheville. The second text cloud comes from the improvement plan.

I am also experimenting with using small multiples, as shown below. Here I have tracked key word usage from the beginning of the workshop, "what success means," through identifying success factors, barriers to success, overcoming barriers, combining success factors, and finally, the improvement plan. You can visualize how the session evolved using this image.

Comments welcome... what would be your preference? What other ideas are there to take words into the visual realm?

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Neuroprosthetic System

From this month's Technology Review: The Power of Thought
Miguel Nicolelis continues to lead the way in neural-implant technology.

"In January a rhesus monkey named Idoya did what no other creature has done before: she made a robot walk just by thinking about it. All Idoya had to do was imagine taking a step, and the robot would actually take it."

What are the implications of neuroprosthetic systems… beyond the miracle of a paralyzed person being able to control a robot to act on his thoughts?

Monday, March 3, 2008

Problem Solving Approach Defined

We lead teams through a problem solving approach broken into two phases marked by different thought processes. First is the expansion phase, where problems are identified, a problem statement is created, and options are developed. Divergent thinking is required here. Next is the closure phase, where we select an option or options, action is planned and executed, and results are evaluated. Convergent thinking is required in this phase. To close the loop, the process is then repeated, and in high performing organizations, this is an ongoing cycle.*

Problem finding seems easy, because usually they jump up and bite us. Finding hidden problems is often an overlooked step in problem solving. Take for example a low grade "under the radar" quality problem. Often this problem gets a superficial fix and is forgotten. If after time, this problem becomes a repeated headache for a customer, it escalated to cost business. Finding the problems, therefore, is an overlooked step that can be crucial.

Problem stating is an important defining step. What is the problem and what is it not? Can you state succinctly what the problem really is? Often teams get this wrong and end up working on too broad a scope rather than zeroing in on the exact problem.

Option finding is the last part of the expansion phase, where potential solutions are generated. Here we go for quantity, developing as many creative ways to solve the problem as possible.

Now we switch gears to the convergent thinking with the decision of which options to pursue. This is done using data and experience from the process results. An action plan is developed and executed, and when completed, evaluation is made as to the effectiveness of the solution.

The next step, once that problem is solved, is to find the next problem. And the cycle goes on, and we generate process improvement profit.

We use this approach in solving problems of all kinds and we apply various tools to achieve resolution. We use lean and six-sigma approaches as well as 8-discipline approach. We provide strategic planning to work on longer term problems and develop new markets. We stick with our clients from start to finish, helping to implement solutions if desired. One of the first things we do with new clients is to sit down and discuss their process improvement problem or concern in a free initial consultation. Contact us at 828-505-1695.

*Adapted form Karl Albrecht's Brain Power.