Monday, June 23, 2008

Mining the Data Store

A few days ago I sat through a very interesting session, a statistics class (did I say interesting?). This was one in a long-running series we’ve been going through, helping our staff better understand, analyze, and use data. In this particular session we used work order data on carpet cleaning requests as our example, and learned a few things. But specifically, this session was about how to ask questions of the data. Here is a short outline that you can use to ask your own data questions. Listen. You might be surprised at what it tells you!

Getting your head around the problem:

  • State the problem (We have too many carpet cleaning requests to handle without affecting other work)
  • Research what question to answer with data (why is carpet cleaning one of the top three work requests?)
  • What questions will help you answer the research question (what, who, where, when, why, how much)?

Getting your head around the data:

  • What datasets will help answer the questions? (where can you get reliable information from?)
  • Which observations from these datasets? (what does the information tell you?)
  • What time period should you focus on? (can you clarify the observations based on delimiters, such as time of day, etc.?)
  • What are potential confounders (issues that muddy the data or conclusions)?
  • Assumptions to check

Getting your head around the solution:

  • Possible actions, answers, solutions to the problem

In our case we discovered a disconnect between contracted service levels and staff expectations, that the incident count was too high due to multiple requests for individual incidents, that we have a very small number of staff who produce a disproportionate number of the requests, and that a small number of spaces represent a significant number of requests. All of which led to action plans to increase service in problem areas, to better communicate expectations with staff, and to clean our data before using it for analysis.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Looking Back, Looking Ahead

Every once in a while society and life seem to go through fundamental transitions. I’ve got a strange feeling that we are in the midst of one now, and that it may not be all that pleasant for us. Naturally, our current economic woes are cause for concern, but there are a lot of other current and emerging issues as well. If you look back over the last several years and then think about current issues and where they could lead, it can be rather sobering.

Over the last few years the U.S. has experienced the following;

  • Prolonged wars in Iraq and Afghanistan increased political and fiscal stress
  • Sustainable building moved from the fringe to the mainstream
  • The price of oil jumped from $45/barrel to $138/barrel (as of this writing)
  • The housing boom went bust
  • Mobile communication became ubiquitous

I am not a fortune teller and, truth be told, I never go to the race track. Las Vegas only sees me when there is an air show in town, not a prize fight, and I’ve never won a lottery jackpot (have to play to win, right?). Never the less, I will take a shot at predicting the future (warning, some of these are intentionally “out there” in order to get your over the horizon perspective geared up).

As we look ahead to the next decade we can guess that some of the following may occur;

  • Emerging nations will continue to consume resources at an increasing rate, driving up the cost of goods even as U.S. consumption of strategic resources declines
  • Increased global demand, concerns over supply life cycle, and geopolitical issues maintain price pressure on oil
  • Global warming debate sees real international agreements to limit carbon dioxide emissions
  • A carbon credit arbitrage marketplace will emerge
  • Fundamental changes in workplace strategy will include incentives for those who use mass transit (somewhat common now), penalties for those who don’t (less common now but gaining momentum), and mandated telecommuting two days a week for some workers
  • Workplace strategy changes in turn contribute to a period of commercial Real Estate instability
  • Younger generations of workers will choose to live and play closer to work, causing a reversal of the “Burbs Boom” of the last century and helping to revitalize cities
  • Older workers exit the workforce en mass, creating knowledge gaps in companies and stressing social systems
  • Meaningful immigration reform will be adopted in some fashion
  • A major terrorist incident in the U.S. causes economic disruption and tighter security protocols
  • The U.S. airline industry, hammered by energy prices and reduced appeal of air travel, contracts to two major airlines
  • Private enterprise goes into space, taking tourists along for the ride

Looking still deeper into the crystal ball and gazing decades into the future, we might suspect that;

  • South America and Africa become economically and politically aligned with those who benefit them the most – the new super powers China and India
  • The U.S. loses its technological pre-eminence as the interest on a decades-long slide in the quality of education comes due
  • All of those unmanned exploration devices sitting on the surface of Mars will be visited by humans
  • Increasing influence of growing Muslim populations in western Europe increases social stress and emotionally charges policy debates
  • Someone is going to find a cure for cancer.
OK, you say, what does that have to do with me and my company? Why does an FM care about all of this economic and geopolitical stuff? Here’s why;

  • Your energy consumption may go down but the cost most certainly is going to go up
  • You will be challenged again and again to improve your environmental stewardship, including new reward and penalty systems for companies and individuals
  • The cost of construction will continue to rise as commodity prices are driven up by expansion in emerging nations
  • You will be challenged to provide better connectivity and collaboration tools that truly enable the any thing-any time-any place work model
  • Real Estate strategies will shift as fewer people are entitled to private work space
  • You will need to identify and “secure” future leaders much sooner than before
  • Cross-border/off-shore staff recruitment will be increasingly important
  • Teenagers will still be teenagers

Okay, maybe that last was a bit obvious, but you get my point. Despite all of the changes that will happen, life and business will go on …. and you will be challenged to keep pace with it, be a part of it, and even lead your organization through one of the most exciting times in human history

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Balancing Customer Service Initiatives and Infrastructure Health

Every once in a while you see an organization that makes improving customer service a top priority. All well and good - up to a point. It takes time, energy, resources, and dollars to effectively change corporate culture. Sometimes the cost grows in ways that may not be immediately apparent, leading to an erosion of assets that underpin products and services. If the foundation isn’t solid then at some point the emphasis on customer service, interaction, and communication is going to fail. I may be impressed with your customer service system, but if the product or service quality does not meet my expectations then someone else will be getting my business.

Granted, it is a balancing act. Resources are always limited and tough decisions often have to be made. However, sacrificing infrastructure that supports core business functions to a marginal or dangerous level is not a wise move. Penalties in the form of cost escalations, performance and quality losses, early equipment replacement and other symptoms will simply burden the budget and organization. If these are allowed to continue then instead of improving customer service you will have, in effect, cut the legs out from under it.

One approach to maintaining a proper allocation of resources to support new initiatives and existing operations is to focus on overall customer satisfaction. Measuring satisfaction across a range of domains, including internal processes and customers, provides a more complete picture of your overall health, including customer service. The goal here is to gain an understanding of relationships between infrastructure and products/services, and how changes in one affect the other.

In short, when you are busy focusing on the details of customer service initiatives, don’t forget to keep your eye on the big picture.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Increasing Importance of Collaboration in Research Facilities

The need for increased space efficiency, sustainable building requirements, and the war for talent are all combining to drive an increased effort to maximize collaboration in research labs. Those who contribute and fund university and foundation research efforts are picking up on these core issues as they lead the charge to build a new generation of research facilities.

Scientific integrity mandates an honest response to our planet’s environmental issues. Scientists charged with conducting research of all kinds see this as a moral imperative and demand viable and real efforts. As the pool of premier scientific talent in the U.S. continues to shrink, the leverage of star researchers is increasing – and they are using it. They have important economic constituencies and are vocal in their quest to do the right thing – up to and including voting with their feet. You may not lose a senior researcher to more money, but you better believe that the quality of facilities and research support are key boxes on their ballots.

There are a few trends in lab space design that are beginning to emerge as new lab design benchmarks to support increased collaboration.

  • “Dance Floor” labs utilize mobile lab benches and carts that can be moved as needed and when needed without rearranging walls.
  • Overhead Service Carriers support this mobile environment and help increase flexibility, delivering everything from power and telecommunications to gasses.
  • More test equipment is coming to the labs as bench top equipment, not freestanding. And, like the computer rooms that most of us deal with, it is more power hungry than its ancestors. It is also heavier, forcing increased floor loading demands onto most new labs under development.
  • Computing infrastructure needs continue to increase, driven by new modeling and simulation applications. This change is forcing space trade offs between research space and computing spaces, and increasing overall cooling and power requirements at a larger ratio than is being experienced in commercial data centers.
  • Boundaries between offices and labs are disappearing. Labs are now being designed with personal spaces at the periphery of the research space, but without walls. In some cases, researchers literally sit in their “office” with nothing between them and their research. This model brings them closer to their bench work and improves productivity, while decreasing the circulation factor and contributing to space efficiency gains.
  • Even though more expensive, glass is becoming the wall material of choice. This change supports two key demands of today’s researchers - increasing visibility and therefore collaboration, and improving the research environment by bringing the outside in.