Stephen Smith's Blog

Musings on Machine Learning…

Archive for January 2009

Root Cause Analysis

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I’ve been running a test pilot root cause analysis project. Root Cause Analysis is a technique to prevent defects by really studying a few defects, where the end result isn’t so much as to why they occurred, but how to prevent them happening in the future. For some background see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Root_cause_analysis.

Basically there are six phases:

  1. Problem Identification
  2. Data Collection
  3. Data analysis and assessment
  4. Corrective actions
  5. Inform and apply
  6. Follow up, measurement and reporting

For problem identification we are using customer reported problems that resulted in hotfixes being issued. Since these are quite serious problems that escaped the usual development/QA processes. For Data Collection we send a survey of questions to everyone involved.

For data analysis, we are using the Toyota 5 Why program. This is proving to be really intesting where you keep asking why 5 times to really delve into the problem. So far these interviews have been giving extremely interesting results.

It is a lot of work to perform this depth of analysis on a given problem. But if you really want to prevent them in the future, you need to do this, so you can intelligently change your process’s. Analysing these problems also makes you stop and focus on one problem and solve it thoroughly rather than just handling the dozens of problems that go by you each day as quickly as you can. Hopefully tackling these one by one will start to have a positive effect on how well our processes work. I guess its the usual mantra that a thousand mile journey starts with the first step (but hopefully with this technique, they are quite big steps).

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Written by smist08

January 29, 2009 at 3:48 am

On Being Customer Connected

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As new features are chosen and developed for a software application, it is important to be connected to your customers. Often these initiatives are called “Voice of the Customer” programs. This starts with doing the  initial market research, talking to actual active users of your products, to find out what their pain points are, as well as what functionality they are missing to do their jobs more  effectively, or to manage their businesses more effectively. This doesn’t just mean talking to existing customers but talking to potential customers, whether these are customers or a competing application, customers of applications either up market or down market from you, or just plain non-consumers (no current application).

This is really just the first step, gathering potential requirements. To really stay customer connected, you need to keep the customers involved in every step of the software development process. When you choose the requirements, run the list by your customers to ensure you have prioritised them correctly. When you do the initial designs, run it by the customers to ensure you are on the rights track. Have frequent check backs with real customers throughout the Software Development Lifecycle to ensure you are staying on the right track and not straying from the customer’s true business needs. This takes a fair bit of work. One is to prepare presentations or documentation in a form customers can understand (rather than programmerese) and the other is to find and stay in touch with a good sampling of customers who are willing to participate.

Here in the ERP space we also get lots of help from consultants, accountants, resellers; the whole business partner community really. This is really helpful and their are people with 20+ years of experience in ERP applications here to draw on their experience. But we have to be careful that we do go back to real customers as well for ultimate validation.

We also have to watch the current competitive landscape, what are all our competitors doing. What are they learning from their customers. How will they sell against us, if we take one route versus another. What is on their roadmap and how will we sell against that. All this needs to be factored in. But whatever is chosen needs to be validated with customers in the end.

As software applications, we also need to take into account trends in the software industry. How do we fit in with new trends like Social Networking? A lot of time this lead to idea-ations and requirements that will lead the customers. But ultimately we have to validate back to the real customer to ensure it will be useful. Plus there are many trends and fads that die out quite quickly. Here we need to listen to the customer to weed out what is real and what is hype.

Basically we are in a complicated competitive industry where we need to listen to input from many sources. But in a way with a  good “Voice of the Customer” program, things become much simplified and direction can be set with a much stronger sense of confidence.

Written by smist08

January 25, 2009 at 6:34 pm

The Economy and Selling ERP Solutions

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With the economy all over the place. With perennially strong companies like Microsoft, IBM and Intel having large layoffs and reporting bad earnings, what’s the prospects for companies like Sage that sell ERP solutions. A long time ago I read a book on the history of IBM. One thing that stuck with me from that book was how IBM transformed from being a small company to a huge corporation during the great depression in the 1930s. Basically IBM was in the business of selling giant desk sized mechanical calculators. During the depression these started to really sell. This was because companies were really concerned with controlling costs and investing in technology to help them control costs considered a huge benefit.

I think we are in the same situation again today. Companies can’t just look to grow out of their problems. They have to really address controlling costs and maximizing the use of their money. Companies are looking for technology to really help them control their business processes. To really understand how their business’s work, where all the money is going. How to do things more efficiently.

If an ERP vendor can really present a vision to help companies do this (which all strive to do), then they have a real competitive advantage and their customers have a real competitive advantage. This kind of win-win relationship can really fuel growth, and allow companies to do well even in really tough economic times.

Another thing that helps is strong leadership. Look at the results of Google and Apple which have done exceptionally well even in the current economy. I think this can to a large degree be attributed to strong innovative leadership.

Written by smist08

January 24, 2009 at 4:59 am

Posted in Business

Bad Day for Microsoft, IBM and Intel

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Microsoft, IBM and Intel reported quite bad earnings today. In contrast Google and Apple reported exceptional earnings. Microsoft once had an iron clad monopoly on the operating system market. No more. With all the problems with Vista, MS is losing market share to Apple and Linux (via NetBooks) in droves. Its not just a matter of slightly denting MS’s growth anymore. Vista sales actually dropped 8% last quarter. Truly exceptional. This really indicates a turn around in the PC market. Meanwhile Red Hat’s market capitalization in about to pass Sun’s. And Red Hat is just one of dozens of Linux companies.

I think this really marks the beginning of the Internet defining PC purchases. People mostly just need a viable browser (like Chrome, Safari or FireFox). What the operating system is, really doesn’t matter as long as they can connect to GMail, Facebook, LinkedIn, WordPress, etc. Office programs are all pretty much the same whether from MS or OpenOffice, and for that matter people can just use Google Apps with all its collabaration features.

I think this is going to lead to very interesting days ahead as the market changes and there will be many major corporate upheavals, not just GM and Bank of America.

Written by smist08

January 23, 2009 at 3:37 am

Posted in Business

Open Source Software Development Tools

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It seems like open source software development tools have really taken off. It seems like there are strong entries in every area from code editor to testing tools. They all seem high quality and well supported via open forums. It seems like the Apache organization, the Eclipse foundation, GNU and Linux have really put together a winning collection of tools. It seems like whenever I need a new tool, I can easily find an open source one; I don’t even bother looking at commercial or shareware ones anymore. I’m really impressed with what I can do with Eclipse, JMeter, Tomcat, GNU, Subversion and dozens of other tools. The big win is that they can be deployed to all developers instantly without going through a PO process, they don’t use up my budget and they get me up and running really quickly.

Anyway not really sure what the future is for companies like Borland, Compuware or even Microsoft’s development tools division are. Anyway back to economical, high powered software development. I’m really impressed how fast these are advancing and how quickly they can be put to use.

Written by smist08

January 22, 2009 at 5:06 am

Computer Upgrade Cycle

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Quite a few companies depend on IT departments upgrading all their computers on a three year or so cycle. I think this is coming to an end. The unpopularity of Vista caused many to miss a cycle and as a result many saw that their computers were quite capable of performing word processing, email and web browsing. The most un-reliable part of a computer is the hard drive. Now with new solid state flash memory based permament storage, this component is removed. This leave really the keyboard and mouse as the only components that can’t easily last 10 years. I think going forwards the computer upgrade cycle is going to lengthen and companies like Dell, HP and Microsoft are going to suffer as a result. I think other software manufacturers need to take note as they need to provide value for these customers and not require future hardware/operating systems to operate. This is a definite advantage to browser based software as they tend to run just fine on older hardware. Firefox, Chrome, et all can easily be installed and effectively run on older computers.

I think long term this will be a good thing, as IT departments can use their budgets to provide value for their customers as opposed to just spending it upgrading hardware, operating systems and office.

Written by smist08

January 20, 2009 at 3:36 am

Posted in Business

Introduction

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This is my first attempt at writing a blog post. I think to start with I’m going to play around with this site to see what I can do before trying to write any real content. Anyway just a start. I hope this doesn’t turn out to be like Arnold Rimmer’s diary on Red Dwarf where it has an introductory paragraph on how he’s going to keep this diary to track his brilliant career through the space corps so future generations can learn from him, etc. etc. Then there are no further entries.

Written by smist08

January 18, 2009 at 12:29 am