Archive for the ‘Problem Solving’ Category

Learning Quickly Requires Purposeful Practice

January 31, 2013 Leave a comment

pongI have been enjoying the book ‘Bounce‘ by Mathew Syed and learning how 10,000 hours of practice is generally standard to gain real expertise. Mathew goes on to mention that this is not just ordinary repetition however, but something he calls purposeful practice. In essence this is working hard and working cleverly, using specially developed techniques to continuously improve. He refers to driving a car, where most people have spent more than 10,00 hours however very few improve significantly because they are just running on personal autopilot.

I was thinking about this after reading a very technical document and realized that purposeful practice applies at work too. I have spend years working in a certain areas however would say that I have expertise in only very few, even though I have spent way more than 10,000 hours in many. I am certain it is because I have not really had a singular purpose for many topics, with no real focus to produce a result that requires full immersion and practice. I have done lots of tasks on the topics I know best.

I also found the diagram below that supports my thinking that to gain real expertize, even for knowledge, it requires some kind of associated physical movement, it’s true for me anyway. Examples include writing a related summary or article, or sharing the knowledge with someone else through talking or presenting. Certainly I’ve bought and half-read dozens of books that I can barely now because I never really applied them.

I’m therefore now looking out of opportunities for purposeful practice, where I can take on practical tasks in areas I wish to develop, and move towards enlightenment. Or to put it another way, I hope to reduce the amount of time I waste on looking at things I then forget!


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Mining Big Data for Customer Service Experiences

December 20, 2011 Leave a comment

A tough one for sure, with service work so variable it’s almost impossible to use rule-based analytics to mine through service records (written, voice, social media) to determine valuable key facts, such as “are our service engineers any good?”, “are our customers really happy?”, “and are we providing what customers want?”.

The raw data is there, in troubleshooting tickets, emails, and whenever you hear “this call maybe recorded for quality control”, however mining it for insight remains largely an arduous manual task, or left to spotty and annoying surveys.

So in theory it’s possible to scan “Big Data” like this for specific patterns in request-response exchanges, however it’s the subtle and variable aspects of human interaction that still kills the effectiveness, consistency, and reliability. Ongoing progress in machine learning should turn this around, replacing the brute force keyword-type scans with intelligent interpretation that allows the system to decipher facts.

There is also another challenge right now – upfront cost.  Since service delivery is often considered a “cost-center” it is hard to make large investments in such development projects without solid evidence-based proof that the results will lead to a real return. Now, if-and-when a software organization builds a system that does this well, those upfront costs are reduced to licensing and maintenance, a much lower barrier to entry.

So my hope is that as Apple Inc has demonstrated with Siri, technology companies are starting to build the technology to understand the subtleties of human interactions, and so the complex analysis of human experiences, like service calls, isn’t far away now.

Gamification is not new

December 6, 2011 Leave a comment

Intrigued by the concept, I’ve been doing some reading/watching around gamification in the workplace and whilst reading this piece something finally dawned on me, gamification is already here.

For those keen to climb the corporate ladder, win new customers, and score the big bonus, the elements of game playing and competition are right there. Even those wishing to standout just enough to keep their jobs have to win the praise of management to achieve a a good performance appraisal score.

So I think gamification really just offers the icing on the cake, such as:

  • Better visibility into relative performance
  • More opportunities to compete
  • An engaging process and tool-set for competing
  • Opportunity to make things a bit more fun
  • Opportunity to use more technology!

Clearly there is a difference between competition and gamification, however the whole workplace could be considered one of many games.

Applying software-based games, in my opinion, should increase visualization and engagement, but without proper care is unfair and could be dangerous to enforce across people with different roles, goals, personalities, and unique skills.

Anyway, one amusing example is my daughters school just offered 20 house-points to any child whose parents bake a cake for the Christmas Fair, there you go Gamification in the wild!

7 Problem Solving and Analysis Techniques

September 8, 2011 Leave a comment

In working on my next book, Supporting Enterprise Applications, I am trying to help folks like me whose sole task in life is to troubleshoot and diagnose product problems. I’ve noticed many of the techniques used in supporting software can be applied elsewhere and indeed a lot of what I am including in the book originate from outside the I.T. industry.

Since all Customer Support teams are solving problems, here are some tips that apply to most types, including technical, business, billing, and general customer management.

Frame It Up

You cannot troubleshoot or solve something you don’t fully understand. So break the problem down carefully, ask the what, where, when, how type questions and document the answers to create a complete picture. Consider the scope and extent of the problem and its various effects and impacts. Also consider what is and isn’t affected as this helps identify key relationships, dependencies, and of course validate any assumptions.

Also for problems that are not total failures, consider why this is deemed a problem, since sometimes inappropriate expectations are at the root cause.

Recreate The Scenario

Try to reproduce the problem yourself. Getting a true visual understanding of the issue adds context and subtle nuances that are often very important in understanding the issue fully and identifying its causal factors.

Study The Evidence

Most problems leave a trail of how they came about. To analyze this effectively you need to know what to look for, where to look for it, and the real meaning of what you are looking at. This comes with experience, and by looking at similar problems, but may also originate through good training and detailed reference material. Be patient, very methodical, and thorough.

Process of Elimination

Take time to list out what could be the cause of the problem.  Prioritize these based on likelihood, then validate the top ones, collecting either useful details or simply eliminating possibilities. Top Tip: Only get sidetracked during validation if that line of investigation is more likely to yield something meaningful than the next potential cause on your list. If not, note it down and move on.

Divide and Conquer

Define the problem area (or process) into logical sections. Divide this list into two halves. Check one half for evidence of the problem and causes. Discard that half if nothing is found. Continue with the second half by first splitting it in two and choosing which half to investigate. Continue splitting and eliminating until you have pinpointed the precise problem area. This is best suited to long complex processes that result in a vague problem outcomes.

Don’t Jump In

It’s easy to dive right into complex problem analysis and lose sight of the real goal. This is especially true for technical problems, and often a simple replacement component fixes an issue without the need to take everything apart. Similarly check all the basics before going in-depth, make sure the usage and setup of the product or service fits with what is was designed and implemented to do.

Use Tools

A modern mechanic just plugs your car into a computer to diagnose problems – it’s quicker, more thorough, very consistent, and generally more reliable. Well designed products and services come with similar management tools that allow for checking key information to help spot and prevent problems. Don’t forget to use these to save you time and effort.

8 Really Useful Homeworking Tips

November 23, 2009 Leave a comment

Ive been homeworking for more than 8 years now, for a large corporate company, and have learned a lot the hard way.

Hopefully some of these tips will help you avoid some of the pitfalls I hit, and general make the daily grind more productive and pleasurable (as it should be without the commute).

  1. Get a Reliable Internet Connection. Use a well known and stable provider (I use BT). Use decent, simple equipment (router) only.  Good broadband is vital for decent video, web conferencing and IP phone connections. Poor connections really impact your productivity, drive you crazy, and in the worse-case mean you have to drive into the office. As I live quite far from the office I used to pay for 2 connections from two different providers, one acting as a backup. Fortunately my primary is now so reliable that I’ve dropped the backup.
  2. Don’t mess around with your PC network or equipment. The more you play with it, the more likely it is to break. Try to keep separate work and play machines (or at least users).  This includes installing games, other software or indeed hardware that isn’t core to your job.
  3. Be Secure. With good office equipment in your house you’ll need a decent alarm, door and window locks, lighting, and to take a generally secure approach (I didn’t … and got burgled).
  4. Keep work locked away. If possible keep all work in a separate room, and don’t make it too easy to ‘just check something‘. Your real-life/family will thank you for it. Make it an effort to go to work.
  5. When at work, be at work. When working, keep to set hours and be strict to make sure other things don’t creep-in. I use my lunch hour for those household chores.
  6. Don’t get lonely. Some people visit the office once a week, others use online chat, radio and music players or other ways in which to feel part of the world at large. Think about your personality and choose accordingly.
  7. Get out.  Its great to get out into the real world at lunchtime (or whenever suits). Go for a walk or run, play some sport or visit the gym/swimming pool. Even going to the local shops makes a refreshing change. It all helps clear the mental-grime of the morning, and I often get some great ideas that I can action that afternoon. Be tough and make yourself take those breaks.
  8. Self-promote your achievements. You need to make more of an effort to be visible, so create pieces of work that you can show to others (and management) that clearly signify what you are doing and the success you are achieving.

Let me know any tips you have too.

Will Automated Knowledge and Social Networks Kill or Cure Customer Service?

November 12, 2009 Leave a comment

connectedMore and more systems automatically capture knowledge, upon which intelligent decisions can be made. Whether its Amazon, Google or Tesco (links are examples), our habits and activities are being mined for insightful information. This information also extends to capturing information about solutions to problems. This ranges from simply helping customers fix problems themselves, to invoking and tracking additional services. All knowledge, tips and tricks are being captured.
For most products there is a critical mass, where the knowledge captured become large enough to able to serve a reasonably large proportion of the needs.

Even as product life-cycles continue to get shorter, knowledge capture is evolving at a faster pace.
Couple this with the leaps made in connecting people recently via Social Media networks (Twitter, Facebook, linkedIn etc), with enough people having access to enough information, the traditional customer service teams within vendor organizations could be set to experience a world where they’re simply not needed for a large proportion of service needs. Vendors having a monopoly on their product information may soon be over.

Some product vendors already accept this, and offer information freely, as well as provide platforms to encourage customers to create and share their own information.

Sometimes these platforms come at a price (essential the new service fee), sometimes they’re not and seen as an investment in eventually reducing service costs and general good marketing.

Models like OpenSource Software are similar, where the power of the many come together in a controlled manner to create real value. Interestingly enough, the services supporting open-source software were originally seen as a limitation to adoption (customers ask “where do I go if it breaks”), however in reality the community itself provides much of this, backed-up by vendors with some premium services.

This, I hope, is what may happen to many customer services. A base-level of help can be found using the extensive knowledge within the related community structure, with vendors providing an improved range of premium services that compliment (not just support) their products.

6 Simple Tips for building Self Assembly (aka Flat-Packed) Items

October 30, 2009 Leave a comment

Funny Instructions

After having passed through my “tight-budget 20’s” (using Ikea) and now into my “two-kids-that-need-stuff 30’s” Ive probably assembled about 20-30 items requiring self-assembly and have some nuggets of wisdom to share.  The items are usually furniture (although am also getting expert at toys too), with most items being things like wardrobes, cupboards, tables and chairs,  cots and beds, bookcases, and most recently (last weekend) toy boxes.


  1. Buying the Right Stuff – To be honest, these days if I can afford to avoid self-assembly items, I do.  This isn’t always possible, as the internet allows you to find just what you want, but means it has to come in a shipping-friendly way (i.e. self-assembly).
  2. Having the Right Tools – Usually you dont need more than a screwdriver, but even then you’ll sometimes be better with long-shafted and sometimes with short-shafted. Also make sure the tip fits properly in the screw, else you’ll make a mess of the screw head and will not be able to get it in, or out again.  Get a good range of decent screwdrivers, with nice soft handles too (makes a good xmas present).  Some people use electric screwdrivers/drills, but unless you’re skilled you can just make more of a mess with these.  A good set of your own allen-keys is also handy, especially ones with good grips for when you’ve got 25 things to screw in.
  3. Getting Organized- yes its boring and most people love to drive in, but I cant tell you how much time/frustration it will save.  Firstly set aside the the right amount of time – be generous, in this world 5minutes=1hour.  Next select a good workspace – near to the place it will go (since flat-packed stuff doesn’t travel well) and with plenty of room to lay stuff out. Finally very carefully select any helpers – usually you’ll need another pair of hands at some point (or you end-up tearing/breaking something – either the item or yourself) but too many cooks spoil the broth, especially amongst family members.
  4. Opening the Item Properly – more than once Ive got 90% through to find the next thing I need is missing or broken.  At this point most manufacturers tell you to send the whole thing back (dissassembled)!  Check the peices are there and good.
  5. Understanding the Instructions – easier said than done.  Don’t get upset, or interpret / guess too much, simple try it exactly as it says (without tightening things up), then take apart and try again.  Try to understand what you’re trying to do, before doing it. Never skips steps, take shortcuts or use extra bits – it never ends with a good finished product.
  6. Know your Limits – if you’ve got a friend who is a carpenter or know a friendly carpenter, ask if he’ll help, either for payment or for something he wants that you can do.  You can also try these guys who’ll do if for you, or find advice on the web (e.g. flatpackadvice). This is especially a good idea if you’re struggling and are about to break an expensive item (although you can often say it was broken/faulty and get a replacement).  Sometimes its just not worth the hassle – afterall you’re good at other stuff!!