Category Archives: Business

A Day With Edward Tufte

 

Graphic of Napolean's March

One of the more iconic images Professor Tufte uses in his presentations. I have a mounted, autographed poster of this one.

 If you create reports, presentations, info graphics, or are in any way involved with presenting data of any sort, I hope you’ve heard of Edward Tufte. Even better if you’ve heard of his work, especially what I believe is his seminal book, “The Visual Display of Quantitative Information.”

As part of my job at Rocketdyne, I was privileged to attend an all-day seminar of his in Los Angeles in the Spring of 2007 or ’08. Upon my return, I wrote down some notes and impressions for my colleague who paid for the day. There’s some really good stuff in here. As a knowledge management professional, I’m a bit chagrined it’s taken me this long to share it. I truly hope someone finds Tufte’s words useful. 

Bill:

Here’s a quick recap of Edward Tufte’s presentation last Thursday. What I did, for the most part, was enter points he made as numbered bullets. Therefore, I’ll do the same here with the addition of some extra comments if I feel they are necessary.

1. Professor Tufte refers to the nature of the work he does as “escaping flatland”. He believes dimensionality is extremely important when using visualization to represent quantitative data.

2. Another aspect of visually presenting data which he emphasizes is data density, i.e. resolution. He repeatedly stressed the need to drive for greater and greater resolution when presenting data.

3. With respect to items such as run charts, histograms, etc., he believes it is far better to label the data directly, avoiding the use of keys, which he feels are distracting.

4. He presented a copy of Euclid’s Elements, which included many “pop-up” graphics used to illustrate his points. The copy of the book he had an assistant bring around (wearing white gloves) for us to view is 432 years old. It was awesome just to see it. He refers to these pop-ups as the “brute force” method of escaping flatland.

5. A key point he stressed is to enforce visual comparisons. The terms he used (should sound familiar) were, “it depends” and “compared to what?”.

6. The visual representation of data should show mechanism, process, or dynamics, i.e. they should present causality as an aide to understanding and clarity.

7. He also stressed the importance of showing more than 1 or 2 variables when preparing a chart.

8. Presentations must be content driven, i.e. they must embody the three elements of quality, relevance, and integrity. Integrity was a big theme of his and one I don’t believe most of us would find fault with.

9. Design can’t rescue failed content, which he referred to as “chart junk”. This is another point which relates to integrity, and one which he continually stressed throughout his presentation.

10. Whether it’s drawing or words, it’s all information. Don’t be afraid to use words to make your point.

11. I’m not entirely certain of what he meant by this point, but what I wrote down was the following: “Better to show info adjacent in space as opposed to stacked in time.”

12. He stressed that you should use small multiples, i.e. strive for high resolution of the data.

13. Another point which he used to continue driving home the importance of integrity was to show the whole data set. At the same time he stressed that one need not show the zero point, i.e. context is what’s important in making a useful, accurate presentation.

14. Detail does not mean clutter. If you can’t present your data in sufficient enough detail without making it difficult to understand, rethink your design; it’s probably faulty.

15. When presenting data always normalize, adjust, and compensate to provide greater clarity and integrity. The example he gave for this involved a situation where it was impossible to know the real changes in costs of consumer items without taking into consideration the rate of inflation over a period of time. Absent this adjustment, the changes appeared to be far greater than they actually were.

16. Perhaps this next point was specific to financial charts, but it seems appropriate for many others. Don’t trust displays which have no explanatory footnotes. Generally speaking, Tufte believes one should annotate everything. His philosophy appears to be to always err on the side of accuracy and completeness (see integrity).

17. He made a point of explaining the human mind’s tendency to remember only the most recent (recency bias) data it perceives. I don’t remember the exact context in which this statement was made, but I think it is related to Ed Maher’s assertion that we tend to focus on the out-of-family (I can’t remember the exact phrase he used) experiences rather than the steady state.

18. He used a word I thought was interesting to describe people who create fancy charts which don’t actually say much – “chartoonist”.

After going into some detail regarding how the Challenger disaster occurred or, more accurately, how it was allowed to happen, he suggested there were three moral lessons to be learned from the experience. He posed these lessons in the form of three questions one must ask oneself when producing information of this nature.

1. Where is the causality?

2. Is all relevant data included?

3. What do I really need to see if I’m going to decide this?

He guaranteed if these three questions were adequately addressed, the chance of getting the decision right were greatly increased.

He then went on to lay out a list of rules for presentations, as follows:

1. Get their attention (he gave an example of what he called the “stumblebum” technique, where a presenter purposely made a mistake – which the audience was more than happy to point out – in order to insure everyone was paying attention (presumably to see if they could catch him again; which they never did.) He made a point of suggesting this probably wasn’t the best technique, unless you’re really good.

2. Never apologize – don’t tell the audience how you didn’t sleep well the night before, etc.

3. PGP – Start with the particular, move to the general, return to the particular.

4. Give everyone at least one piece of paper; something tangible they can leave the room with.

5. Respect your audience’s intelligence.

6. Don’t just read from your charts.

7. Forget K.I.S.S. – Be thorough and accurate, not simple and vague.

8. He stressed the importance of humor, something he was excellent at. He did caution appropriate use (duh?).

9. If you believe what you’re presenting, make sure the audience knows it.

10. Finish early

His final points to improving one’s presentations were directed to the presenter and the presentation, respectively. The first point was to practice or rehearse so the presentation goes smoothly and you are able to get through it without stumbling or going over your allotted time. The second was to have better, stronger content.

Professor Tufte’s presentation was extremely engaging, from my point of view. He knew his stuff and made it interesting, fun, and funny. I confirmed that most of what he discussed is contained in one or more of the three books I took from the seminar, and I’m looking forward to reading again what I think I learned from him. Much of what he had to say was common sense, which I have encountered previously from the years I’ve spent putting together presentations. Nevertheless, I believe he had a great deal to offer which will ultimately improve my ability to present information, whether in a briefing or on a web site. I really enjoyed seeing and listening to him. Thanks for the opportunity.

Rick


Program Management By Ouija Board

image

Going back to work after nearly five years of “retirement” has been both interesting and instructive. When I was asked if I would be willing to do scheduling, which is something I had done many years ago, I happily said “yes”. I would have probably agreed to almost anything they wanted me to do, as I was anxious to supplement my meager retirement income. Actually, I first learned scheduling software using a mainframe tool called Artemis. Shortly afterward, we were introduced to a PC version of Artemis which, if memory serves, was called Schedule Publisher and, within another very short period, it was spun off into a product from Advanced Management Solutions, called AMS REALTIME Projects.

This was somewhere around 1994 and, at the time, Microsoft Project was comparatively bare bones and nowhere near as useful (in my opinion at the time) as REALTIME Projects. Having long been very much a visual person, I find the visualization provided by Gantt charts to be particularly useful when looking to see how the logic in a schedule affects downstream activities as time, and the work contemplated in the schedule, moves forward. Until Project introduced the Timeline view, which allows quick zooming and panning, I was not terribly happy with it compared to the AMS product, which offered a useful timeline capability.

So . . . since I had done scheduling for a few years during the 90s, I readily accepted the challenge and, upon my return on January 19, 2015, I was amused to see the company was still using Project 2002 which, although newer than the version I had struggled with, was still well over a decade old. The main reason for this, I was told, was because a set of macros had been developed over the years that allowed schedules to be matched up with the organization’s earned value management system, which is Deltek MPM.

Unfortunately, using such an old piece of software presented some interesting problems. One of the most egregious, from my point of view, was its inability to run in any of the conference rooms in my building. This was — and still is — due to an IT rule put in place that won’t run software in conference rooms if it’s more than two versions older than the most current one available. In the case of MS Project, the latest version available when I returned was 2013. Also, MS had released a 2007 and a 2010 version, which put the one in widespread use more than two versions behind and, as a result, clicking on the tool (which was installed in all the conference rooms) invoked Project but, instead of seeing the tabular data alongside a Gantt chart, all one got was an empty box with a small red “x” in the upper lefthand corner.

In my experience, scheduling is an activity that absolutely must be done collaboratively. A good, useful schedule requires (at the very least) a great deal of understanding of not only the work to be done, but the ways in which the logic of its progression needs to be modeled in order to accurately reflect how downstream activities are impacted by small changes as work progresses . . . and changes are absolutely unavoidable, especially in large, complex projects such as rocket engine design, manufacture, and test.

Since it was impossible to use the tool in a conference room, where I could sit with the Program Manager, one or more Control Account Managers, and various Engineers (Design, Quality, Manufacturing, etc.) developing schedules became somewhat difficult and inordinately iterative, requiring dozens of communications back and forth between me and the Program Manager, as well as others who we needed input from. As work progressed, I was able to get IT to agree to allow me to log into my computer remotely from any one of the conference rooms, which made working on the schedule much easier. However, the resolution in the conference rooms was far less than that available to me on my Dell all-in-one. Its screen is 23″ diagonally, plus I have an extension display that gives me another 19″ off to the side. What I see on screen in conference rooms is not as inclusive as what I normally work with and it takes a bit of adjusting, which cuts into the speed with which I can get things done.

As I both refamiliarize myself with the scheduling process and learn how the tools have advanced, I’m learning a lot about how best to do it. Perhaps more importantly, I’m also learning how little most people know of the power of a good piece of scheduling software. There are people here who still use Excel spreadsheets and date functions to create schedules. Maybe I’m missing something, but MS Project and other similar tools provide not only calendaring functionality, but also the kind of logic necessary to accurately model the interplay between design, quality, procurement, operations, testing, and numerous other ancillary and important processes that make up the entirety of a program.

Inasmuch as Project also provides for highly detailed resource loading (quite literally down to the gnat’s ass, if one is so inclined), I’m unclear as to why we don’t use it for at least first cut proposal activity. Were we to do so, I’m convinced it would not only speed up the initial process of pricing a decent proposal but, when completed, there would be no need to then create a schedule from scratch, which is generally the way it’s done now. I suspect there are some people out there who actually do what I’m suggesting but, for all I know at this point, my perception could be wildly innacurate.

So . . . I’m kind of hedging my bets and, while I’m agitating for people to consider using MS Project more widely and for deeper resource planning, I’m mostly looking to understand the tool a little more each day. It, like many tools available to organizations of all kinds and sizes, is far more powerful than most individuals understand or are interested in learning. I’m constantly finding myself believing we are crippling ourselves by not using it far more extensively but, as many have pointed out, changing direction in a reasonably large organization, especially one which depends largely on government contracts and oversight, is like turning an aircraft carrier with a canoe paddle. On the bright side, it could keep me working for another decade, the prospect of which does not bother me in the slightest.


With My Thumb Up My . . .

Experimenting with some short form blogging. 
I’m sitting in a conference room where I was supposed to meet with a couple finance people to go over our integrated master schedule. Nobody is here except me.

It’s kind of nice not having to deal with anybody, and I log onto my computer at my desk, but it’s just not the same and I’m bored.

Now I’ve moved into another conference room and it looks like I’m gonna be doing the same thing. At least I’m being taken out to lunch today, by one of the very people who’s supposed to be here right now. He will hear about this.


Déjà Vu All Over Again

I’ve been giving some thought to why I blog, what it is I’m trying to accomplish. As it turns out, I have several motivations that are, in no particular order: Share my observations of the business world; discuss politics; wonder about space, time, and infinity; wax philosophical about religion and spirituality; share my experiences with aging as a point-of-the-spear baby boomer; complain about assholes and assholishness; and blabber on about anything that intrigues me. I guess that pretty much covers everything.

Deja Vu

I could swear I’ve thought about these issues before!

I feel fairly confident in my ability to write about most of these things, but I do have one area in which I’m somewhat reluctant to hold myself out as knowing anything. That subject is business. This isn’t because I haven’t picked up anything useful in the past 52 years since my first “real” job at McDonald’s, but rather because I’ve spent the vast majority of the last three decades working at an organization that is a government contractor and I have a tendency to think we’re very different than other, commercial organizations.

It recently dawned on me or, perhaps after nearly five years of retirement and a return to the organization I retired from, it came back to me the success of the comic strip Dilbert should make it abundantly clear most all reasonably big organizations are very much the same when it comes to bureaucracy, organizational stupidity, and waste. So . . . I’ve now come full-circle I believe and should have no trouble writing about my observations.

Not perzackly. When I first returned to work in mid-January of this year, I ran up against the reality that a large portion of the business, thanks to an acquisition by Aerojet, was now defense and missile related and our work on space exploration was more developmental than production oriented. In fact, I am currently working on what used to be referred to as a “Star Wars” program, a ground-based intercept vehicle designed to “get in the way” of incoming ballistic missiles. As a result, one of the first training modules I was required to take and pass an exam on was regarding Operations Security.

The material wasn’t all that comprehensive, so it requires some real judgment to decide on what I can talk about and what I should not share. It gave me pause – still does, actually. However, I am coming to the conclusion I can speak about any part of normal organizational issues that others (for whom Dilbert continues to resonate with the “truth”) struggle with as well. I think this means issues of communication, knowledge sharing and retention, organizational silos, and cultural constructs that block meaningful progress are probably available targets. Let’s see how good I do.


Why Can’t You Learn, Old Dog?

I am both amazed and highly disappointed at the number of people who believe the ability of colleagues to talk to each other via a tool that is either fairly ephemeral and basic (e.g. MS Communicator) or more persistent and inclusive (e.g. MS Yammer or Cisco Jabber) is a waste of their time. One of my least favorite things to hear is “I’m too busy to learn how to do that” or “I don’t have the time to waste on these things.”

Tin Can Phone

How can I help you?


“These things” are designed to improve our ability to share what we know and to find out what others know; not as a lark or just because, but in support of the work we do every day. How often have you remembered there’s some information that’s available to help you out, but you can’t quite recall where you last saw it or who told you about it? Imagine being able to essentially broadcast a question and have it reach dozens or more people, any one of whom might be able to answer the question for you. How is that a waste and in what way is spending 10 or 15 minutes to learn how to use a tool wasteful given how much time it can save in the long run? Even if you only saved 5 minutes per month, you’d be in the black after only a third of a year.

The business world is changing; grudgingly – at least in many places – but nevertheless changing. A long time ago one of my colleagues who had been a student of Deming’s and who was deeply involved in the understanding of systems, offered his belief that the main reason we survived as a company wasn’t so much because of how good we were at what we do. Rather, it was in large part due to the reality that everyone else was much worse. He wasn’t talking about our organization’s technical skills, but rather about our systems and procedures, most all of which exude bureaucracy from every corner.

I believed him then, and I’ve seen nothing to dissuade me from believing it still – even after a nearly five year hiatus and having been back for over six months now. I’m not sure how much longer any organization can continue doing business the way they’ve always done. I can’t possibly predict when it will be too late to change; when another business will match our technical skills and outperform our organizational skills, leaving us – eventually – in the dust.

It will undoubtedly take longer in aerospace than it would in, say consumer electronics, but even with long-term contracts and government funding there has to come a time when failure to learn and modify how things get done, especially those things that rely on people talking to and working with one another, will mark the end of an organization’s viability. I don’t dwell on it, but I do find myself occasionally listening for that other shoe to drop. You?


Shake, Rattle, and Rolling Along

 I’m beginning to see the effects of aging on my proficiency in much of my work; not just the slow and inexorable deterioration of mental acuity, but the slight discomfort I sometimes experience when either writing or typing. Due to my essential tremors, and the loss of flexibility and dexterity that can’t be avoided with aging, I frequently find there are times when I can barely do either. I have experienced instances when the shaking has been so bad I had to stop, stand up, and walk away until the shaking subsides.

For many years I’ve believed as long as I had the ability to type and use a computer, I would be able to communicate and, more importantly, work and earn at least a bit of income to supplement what retirement income I have. Now I’m faced with the possibility a time will come – perhaps not for another decade – when I will not easily be able to do so. I’ve experimented over the years with apps like Dragon Dictate, but I’m so much more comfortable actually having my fingers on a keyboard. If I am forced to do it, I suppose I’ll adapt. The prospect isn’t terribly exciting though.


Why I’ve Seldom Written On Paper

I work in an engineering company and engineers like to write things down, as well as illustrate their points when describing why they did something or how a component/tool/machine works. To that end, just about every one of them carries around a hardcover journal. I, on the other hand, have seldom written things down. In my entire school career, which includes two postgraduate degrees (but no undergrad school), I may have taken a few pages of notes, but that would be it.

White boards are also the domain of engineers and scientists, and every conference room generally has numerous illustrations and equations written on the boards on their walls. As a southpaw who writes backhanded, I’ve never been comfortable writing on a chalkboard or whiteboard. I just end up smearing everything. In fact, even on paper I’ve been known to fill out a form from the bottom up, just so I wouldn’t smear the ink before it had time to dry.

Folio

It’s so elegant, it almost feels like a crime to write anything in it. Weird, huh?

Still, just recently I decided to carry around one of the ubiquitous journals the company provides for everyone to use. Not only that, I purchased a really nice Moleskine Folio Professional Notebook, a leather pencil/pen case, and am seriously thinking about some high-quality pens. I did this in an effort to force myself to write more frequently. Unfortunately, I still have a problem getting anything down.

It’s really been bothering me as, at 68 years of age, I’m not sure how much time I have left, either in my life or in my ability to write coherently . . . and to remember what it is I’m doing. I have managed to write a few things down and, especially at work, I’ve found it helpful to keep notes about what I need to do in a journal, rather than on separate sheets of paper, which is what I’ve been doing for a while.

The problem for me is multi-faceted. As a leftie, I’ve never had terribly legible handwriting. Since I had no intention of becoming a physician, a profession where legible handwriting doesn’t seem to be a prerequisite, I gave up years ago and only print, in CAPS. When I actually write something down, that is. I learned to type in the seventh grade and during my second year of law school I got a job as a legal secretary, where my typing speed steadily improved until I was at about 85 wpm. Not blazing, but much faster than I can write/print. The attorney I worked for got an IBM memory typewriter, for which I spent a full day in class at one of their offices. I was enamored of word processing and, shortly afterward, he got a somewhat more sophisticated computer called an Artec Display 2000. It used 8″ floppies and I assembled wills, trusts, pleadings, and interrogatories with it. Keep in mind, this was in 1974 or 75 — forty years ago.

Since that time I have worked with quite a few word processing tools: Wordstar, with which I wrote many a module in dBase II; WordPerfect, which I learned on-the-fly when I answered the call for a temp job at a law office and again at an insurance agency; Lotus Word Pro and a homegrown (Rockwell International) competitor, with which I wrote reports at Rocketdyne, my alma mater and current place of employment (though it’s now Aerojet Rocketdyne – after being Boeing and UTC’s Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne); and, Scrivener, with which I hope to write my memoirs soon, providing I can remember anything clearly.

The thing is, when you write something down on paper it’s very difficult to do much editing whereas with a computer (or even a phone or tablet) editing is essentially a piece of cake. Hence, the problem I have with physically writing anything down is my belief that if it’s anything useful, I’m going to want to save it electronically so I can both edit and post it (if it’s worthy and, frankly, maybe even if it isn’t). That will require a duplication of effort my experience in knowledge management makes it very difficult for me to contemplate. Yet, I will try and find those circumstances where writing something on paper makes sense. So far I’ve put about a hundred words in to my Moleskine.

How about you? Do you take notes? Do you ever write anything down except the occasional phone number when you’re hurriedly listening to your voicemail?


Just Flew In. Boy, Are My Arms Tired!

Equipping my new cubsicle

I got a phone and a Dell desktop with Windows 7 and IE . . . while I was there.

I survived my first day back on the job, reasonably intact. I knew I would get a bit of a workout just walking from my car to my desk, but I ended up walking about 3/4 of a mile and climbing around 10 flights of stairs. The first flight I climbed was a mistake. I ended up at the end of a hall where there was a secured door to a clean room. I knew that was the wrong place to be and had to turn around a go back.

I saw close to two dozen former colleagues, the majority of whom I hadn’t seen in nearly five years. Amazing how many of them remarked on how the company would let anyone back in.😉 They know me well.

I am prepared to put up with a boatload of shit coming from what I know is a very old-fashioned aerospace enterprise, but I think it’s going to be even worse than I imagined. Not so much because of the hierarchy, the layers and layers of rules many have forgotten the origin of, or the command-and-control mentality that I know still informs the actions of many of the org’s leaders. There are other, more subtle reasons.

One of the first things I noted was everyone communicating with email; for everything. This wasn’t all that surprising, but it was a bit disconcerting to discover I had a shortcut to Cisco’s Jabber and nobody seemed to know anything about it. I have my work cut out for me. Bottom line, really, is I’m thankful for the opportunity and it couldn’t have come at a better time financially. The fact that it puts me smack dab in the middle of the struggle to be more effective as a team, a community, an organization makes this all the more sweet.

I’m going to try to share what I learn as I learn it. I hope some will find it useful. It’s possible just sharing it will improve its utility to me and, if that’s all I accomplish, I will consider the effort a success.


Kicking Up My Heels At 67

Six RS-25 Rocket Engines

A row of RS-25 engines, formerly SSMEs (Space Shuttle Main Engines).

I had a great two-hour meeting with the man who will be my new manager starting Monday, and to whom I’m deeply grateful for bringing me back to the company I lived at for over two decades. My feeling about returning is probably best summed up by an old friend/colleague who still works there. She commented on a Facebook post where I told my friends I had jumped through the final HR hoop, saying “Welcome home“.

I don’t know how many of you have been lucky enough to work at a place where you can feel that way, but I have. Despite the fact I worked for three of the larger, more (shall we say) staid aerospace companies – as parent organizations; mother ships – in no way diminishes the camaraderie, affection, and deep respect I felt for so many of my colleagues.

Also, I think I had a bit of an epiphany yesterday, a few hours prior to meeting with Geoff. I was thinking about how much hierarchy and command-and-control organization are anathema to me, when I realized that I also work best when I’m involved with a team. I need to be around other people from whom I can learn and share experiences with. It’s my nature. The latter is what gives me the strength to live with the former, and I always have the opportunity to make things better. That’s what I’m ostensibly there to accomplish.

These, then, are the continuing adventures of a 67-year-old man, prematurely retired by circumstances partly beyond his control, who now returns to approximately what he had been doing nearly five years ago. I’m really looking forward to this next part of the journey. I have also discovered I have a great deal of difficulty writing about the things I’m deeply interested in – the business concepts and practices I worked on before retirement and have carefully studied since then – if I’m not involved with them. I just don’t feel I possess the gravitas sitting in my home office that I will have when I’m out there actually working with a group of people to make things happen. I think this move is going to change, if not improve, my blogging and posting habits. Time will tell.


Heading Back To The Ol’ Homestead

Truth to tell, I never wanted to retire. I grew up around men who worked until they dropped dead and I had every intention of doing the same. This was especially so because I wanted to be part of humanity’s return to the Moon and our venture to Mars. It looked like that was not to be when the Space Shuttle program was winding down and those of us working on the Shuttle main engine (SSME) – and other rocket engine programs – who were over sixty were offered a decent severance package, which I accepted. I believed it was the best of several not optimal choices.

Asteroid Strike of Earth

It’s happened before. It WILL happen again.

Today I received a package from the agency that handles contract workers for what is now Aerojet Rocketdyne, and it looks like I will be brought back and will have the opportunity to be a small part of our space program once again. This is no small thing for me, as I have long considered it an absolute necessity for humans to establish not merely a technological, but especially a cultural presence off this planet; if for no other reason than the statistical certainty there will be an extinction level event before long. As long as the only presence we have is on this rock, it becomes a binary event. Having at least a seed colony elsewhere could make all the difference in terms of our ability to come back from such a catastrophe.

To say I’m excited is a bit of an understatement. I had pretty much come to the conclusion it wasn’t going to happen and I’m quite capable of dealing with that possibility. Assuming it works as planned, though, is like a lagniappe; an extra helping of dessert I wasn’t expecting. To think it came about because of a chance conversation with an old colleague at an event held by our children’s elementary school is really sweet.

I should also point out I am only going back as a temp, a contractor, and I have no reason to expect this employment will go on for long. In fact, I’m hopeful it will turn out to be more part time, but on a long-term basis, if that’s at all possible. I like some of the other things I’ve become involved in and I have a few obligations I need to conclude as well. l believe it can all be worked out in the next couple of months. I know I’m committed to making that happen. I hope everyone I’m working with is flexible enough for this to be a good thing for all of us. There’s nothing like the ol’ win-win.


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