Thursday, November 13, 2014

Leaking business value

It was frustrating to sit with the General Manager and the owner's representative at a business in the Middle East earlier this week. They're leaking tremendous value from the business and don't seem to realise it.

The General Manager was trying to drive down production costs, say by an extra 5% year on year. He'd already got piece costs down to 22 cents per item compared to European costs of more than 70 cents.

He was trying to argue that he couldn't invest in new stuff because his prices weren't as high as the Europeans'. Instead of holding prices and cutting costs to give him the margin for his investment, he was just cutting sales prices, while costs might well be rising...

I soon realised it wasn't worth pointing out he was comparing apples with oranges: I'd guess that factoring in the difference between regional wage, tax, property and utilities rates would bring the numbers more in line between the European and Middle Eastern regions.

Instead, I suggested that his strategy of 5% year on year cost reduction would fail because it's not possible to maintain quality while always reducing margin. And they weren't making any provision for capital equipment replacement. Eventually they'll be unable to maintain production, even it they haven't lost all their customers to a higher quality competitor before that happens!

A much better strategy would be to increase prices and justify the increase with additional services, quality differentials and more. For example, a quick tour of the factory floor showed a mass of workers but no controls! Most stages of the production process had no visible measurement and reporting tools in place; where tracking was in place, it was in the form of paper on clipboards, but no way to join up the observations, or to track during the production process. The best they might hope for would be to get some visibility after goods had left the factory and somebody had typed the paper into a spreadsheet.

With almost all the desks in the office clearly never occupied, and only a couple of the desks with a computer, I can't imagine they do they even that!

Trying to explain that data is the new currency; that they could be generating loads of it as a natural by-product of their production process; that they could be gaining insight into their own operations, and those of their customers; and that some of these insights could be turned into additional saleable products and services ... None of this made sense to them and I left with a mental image of a gush of their local currency pouring out of the factory and running, wasted, down the street and trickling away, into the sand of the desert...

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Apple Watch doesn't need Touch ID - killer feature

When Apple Watch was announced last week, like many I was surprised that it didn't include the Touch ID fingerprint security first revealed in the iPhone 5S. But it doesn't need it; and this could be key to awesome value from the Apple Watch. A killer feature.

We know that the Apple Watch will need to be unlocked, authenticated, once each day. But that it'll remain unlocked as long as it's on your wrist. However we don't know how it gets unlocked. Tapping in a passcode on the watch screen would be a step backwards after Touch ID.

Here's a better plan: we know the Watch needs an iPhone. Place it on your wrist for the first time that day and let the watch communicate with your nearby iPhone for you to confirm your identity, ideally with Touch ID rather than a passcode. Then let the iPhone confirm who you are back to the Watch and it can remain unlocked so long as you keep it on your wrist. Great.

But it gets better: once the Watch knows it's securely on your wrist the authentication can go the other way: the Watch can unlock each of your Apple devices (and selected other smart objects, like door locks or cars...) Imagine your iPad or Mac or iPhone just being ready to use without any login. Each device would stay that way, so long as you and your Watch are within Bluetooth range. Step away from your device and it'll automatically lock. Options in the setup would let you choose to get an alert from the Watch if you walked away from your iPhone or iPad. Another option would allow for your devices to lock when you're out of range and automatically unlock as soon as you return.

Combine this ease of use with Keychain Access that supplies unique, complex passwords and other info for websites and suddenly Apple has solved the problem of re-use of insecure username and password combinations. It'd be a massive leap in usability. A true killer feature that would make owning an Apple Watch almost a no-brainer. And, as Tim Cook said of Apple Pay, it's "something only Apple can do!"

All the pieces are in place, just as soon as Apple Watch becomes available. The only other thing is to write the software to enable this. But we know that the security infrastructure is in place with Touch ID on the iPhone; combined with the secure communication between Apple devices using Bluetooth Low Energy and other protocols...
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Monday, September 8, 2014

“Squeaky clean since 1918!”

“Squeaky clean since 1918” is the tag line for the Paragon laundry group, a family-owned business with >600 staff and an impressive slice of the UK commercial laundry market; along with some interests in the Middle East and elsewhere…

From Monday 8th September I’m thrilled to be appointed as head of NewGen International, the group’s software subsidiary. It’s an interesting time with some pioneering “Internet of Things” work, including embedding RFID tags in laundry items to add value in a number of innovative ways.

And I’m excited that the group MD’s have spotted some great opportunities with the Red Starfish software. I’m delighted that I’m retaining my interests in Starfish CI alongside this new role. 
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Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Could an '#iWatch' kill passwords? (speculation)

I've been enjoying the new iOS 8 and OS X Yosemite betas and look forward to the imminent public release as early as next week. I've also been dreaming about the fabled iWatch idea and wondering about just how smart Apple can be with the technology ecosystem that's unfolding. For example

  • What's the betting that an iWatch includes the same Touch ID fingerprint authentication that the iPhone 5S has? Once the device is strapped to my wrist and I've authenticated with my fingerprint, there'd be no need to check my identity again, unless I take off the watch - when it would lock again automatically, requiring a new fingerprint check to unlock. Brilliant!
  • Wouldn't it be great if the watch could then wirelessly authenticate me to my nearby iOS and OS X device(s)? That's something that could easily be accomplished using the Bluetooth Low Energy or WiFi communications capability that iOS 8 and OS X Yosemite are using for the 'continuity' and 'handover' features; along with the secure design of Keychain Access...

  • I guess the feature should be optional; but I think many of us would value the convenience of not having to enter a passcode into a phone, or type a password to unlock a computer. And it'd be secure: remember, the 'iWatch' has me authenticated with my fingerprint, and I remain authenticated unless/until I take the watch off. At that point, my watch and all my nearby devices get locked; and my devices get locked (with the passcode/password login enabled) as soon as my watch moves out of 'nearby' wireless range. 
  • Once I'm logged in to my iOS and OS X device(s) then Keychain Access saves me having to remember endless complex username and password combinations for my web and other services. And I trust it, along with iTunes, with some of my payment card details, too. All that is at risk, though, if someone's able to bypass my 4-digit passcode on the phone, or the password to my Macbook. The iWatch + Touch ID could add a really secure front end to my private information, making it much, much harder for my password and card details to fall into the wrong hands.
  • We already have a feel for how good the 'continuity' and 'handover' features of the iOS 8 + OS X Yosemite combination can be: it's great to start an email on the iPhone and finish it up on the iPad; or get map directions on the Macbook and transfer them to the phone; or carry on reading in iBooks, picking up where I left off from one device to another... It seems a natural extension of this usefulness to move beyond the cumbersome and 'broken' passcode/password system. And this 'simple' combination of technology that Apple already has available, when introduced to the hoped-for 'iWatch', means that Apple's really well poised to introduce the kind of usability innovation and elegance that they're renowned for. And save us endless hours of typing in passwords.
I, for one, am hoping for this: it's one sure-fire way to help me to justify the expense of a new device to replace my perfectly functional choice of existing watches.

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Tuesday, May 13, 2014

iOS productivity

I absolutely love my Macbook Air with OS X. I flip up the lid, type in my password, and within seconds I'm working. No waiting for the device to spin up out of hibernation.

But I'm beginning to think that I get more concentrated work when I'm using iOS on the iPad or iPhone. Whatever I'm working on takes up the whole of the screen automatically. So I focus more easily without the distractions of a Twitter feed in the corner of the desktop, or a notification badge for another email to read, or a browser tab just a click away...

We no longer 'just' watch TV. We always have a second, or a third, screen to hand. On the one hand I convince myself that I am able to multi-task; on the other I fret that my ability to concentrate on a single task without distractions is diminishing.

So, Macbook's going to sleep for the rest of the day. I'm going to do everything I need to do today from the iPad and see just what impact that has on my concentration on the matter at hand.
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Thursday, May 8, 2014

Lean Startups: Attitude

A friend of mine asked for some war stories of entrepreneurship over a couple of beers.

My best advice was to point him in the direction of Eric Ries super book, almost a manual, certainly a must-read ... The Lean Startup.

At its heart, though, my experience is one of focusing on a few simple principles:

In addition to the necessary and sufficient test, and turning Weaknesses into Strengths, we actively use our geography to help us. And it's really all about having the right attitude.

We can see problems as obstacles, or as hurdles to be overcome. I no longer expect problems to disappear, but to change and be replaced by new things. Provided that the challenges are changing then, crudely, we're making progress!

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Lean Startups: Time matters

A friend of mine asked for some war stories of entrepreneurship over a couple of beers.

My best advice was to point him in the direction of Eric Ries super book, almost a manual, certainly a must-read ... The Lean Startup.

At its heart, though, my experience is one of focusing on a few simple principles:

In addition to the necessary and sufficient test, and turning Weaknesses into Strengths, we actively use our geography to help us.

My programming colleagues have continued to be based in America, though not necessarily where I used to live. I'm now operating out of GMT time zone again from the UK. Sure, there are some costs and inconveniences that this brings.

But overall it's a huge benefit ... By being rigorous in our use of project management and communication tools we can extend the working day. Many is the time when I've done background research, assembled resources and started a ball rolling with, say, a database schema set up so that my US-based programmer can hit the ground running when he wakes.

And there've been times when he's worked on in to my early hours, writing code, doing a build of a test application, documenting a problem while I sleep. I can wake and do some testing, or find a solution to the problem, before he wakes so that we don't lose momentum...
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Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Lean Startups: Weaknesses can become Strengths

A friend of mine asked for some war stories of entrepreneurship over a couple of beers.

My best advice was to point him in the direction of Eric Ries super book, almost a manual, certainly a must-read ... The Lean Startup.

At its heart, though, my experience is one of focusing on a few simple principles:

In addition to the necessary and sufficient test, we actively try to turn our weaknesses into strengths. For example, we don't have to waste resources on expensive office premises. We have a small team so the communication overhead is low; we don't have to have extensive group meetings to ensure everyone is co-ordinated around the same goal. We can iterate fast and often, making tiny steps that subtly change direction to hit what has become a new priority...

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Thursday, March 6, 2014

Lean Startups: Necessary and Sufficient

A friend of mine asked for some war stories of entrepreneurship over a couple of beers.

My best advice was to point him in the direction of Eric Ries super book, almost a manual, certainly a must-read ... The Lean Startup.

At its heart, though, my experience is one of focusing on a few simple principles:

  • Test everything, is it necessary? I'm constantly shifting and re-evaluating to make sure that what we do is actually the right thing to be doing: we don't want to waste effort on doing stuff we don't have to.
  • Test everything, is it sufficient? When I've got my list of necessary, and only necessary, things; I run a second test, to make sure that we're not missing anything. It's surprising how often that second check throws up something that really is necessary.
So these two tests, necessary and sufficient, are about focusing our energies; and concentrating on the things immediately at the top of the pile.

We use a fairly sophisticated project management system that enables us to keep track of all the things on the list; and to re-sort and re-prioritise to make sure that it's only the currently necessary and sufficient things that get worked on now. 

As we tick them off the list as completed, new items rise to the top. In this way, we get through a phenomenal workload in a quick time.

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Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Progress: this week's problems are different

For years I've battled to get rid of problems. Now my attitude is different.

It's not realistic to try to remove problems, life is always full of challenges and outright difficulties. Instead, I'm trying to make sure that this week's problems are different from last week's. That way, there's a real measure of progress.

You see, if all I do is go round in circles trying to fix the same old problems then nothing much is being achieved, and it's costing a lot in the process.

But if I knock some problems on the head and move on to the ones that follow then great!

One of the best ways I see this working is when the problem of needing a customer gets solved with an order; then the problem becomes one of growing capacity to resource that order ... That can start off a virtuous spiral of activity through which growth occurs; but always with problems to solve on the way.
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Monday, January 20, 2014

Check my maths? Payback in less than 200 operations

Sadly maths is not my strongest point. Can you check my calculations?
With a 58% cost saving this customer will have paid for the iPad and software in much less than 200 data entry operations...
  • One of our customers measured their data input operation at 6 mins/form conventionally; vs 2.5 min with Red Starfish
  • So that’s 10 forms/hour conventionally; 24 forms/hour with Red Starfish.  
  • At their admin cost of £26.50/hour that’s a Data Input processing cost of £2.65 / form conventionally and £1.10 / form with Red Starfish ...
So Red Starfish costs 42% of the conventional approach; or is 58% cheaper!

If they're saving £1.55 every time they do data input via the iPad rather than conventionally then the iPad and software is paid for in rather less than 200 cycles.

Am I right?
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