Warm Coffee Cheese

(or: how to steal enough ideas that people think you came up with them on your own)

In northern Sweden and Finland, there’s this thing called “kaffeost” or “juustoleipä” which means “coffee cheese” or “cheese bread.” This cheese, very similar to cheese curds, gets dropped into a warm cup of coffee to both flavor the coffee and to flavor the cheese. It’s a culinary delight, with brown melty-cheese to eat at the end of a slightly-salty, poignantly-oily cup of otherwise-black coffee.

Recently, Starbucks has been pushing the Ember mug, and I, in a fit of indulgence, bought one for me and one for my business partner John. Ember mugs have a battery, a Bluetooth connection, and a requisite app so that you can program your mug to be the perfect temperature. I’ve found that 135° to be the best. A side benefit is that I get notifications when my coffee cup is empty, a rare event.

Wisconsin is famous for its cheese. Particularly, they’re famous for their cheese curds, which are served deep-fried at nearly every non-franchised restaurant in the state. One of our employees lives in northern Wisconsin and brought back a bag of Wisconsin goodness to the headquarters in the Northwest for all to enjoy.

So then I walked around the office with my perfect cup of 135° coffee cheese curds.


I didn’t come up with these ideas, nor did I do anything particularly innovative. Things were presented to me and I used them in combination and I talked about them to others. It seems that this happens to me a fair amount–I read books, follow Hacker News, listen to customers, look at new software releases, attend formal school–and every now and then an idea will form around multiple of these otherwise-independent thoughts. Steven Johnson wrote about this in his book Where Good Ideas Come From many years ago. What’s interesting is how much credit I get for putting these things together, credit that I truly don’t deserve! If I deserve any accolades, it is for my successful attempts to be at the places where ideas are shared.

And now I’m going back to drinking and eating coffee and cheese.

Atlas Obscura and Wikipedia have nice articles about Coffee Cheese too, if you want to read further.

Lawbook or Lawman?

Lucille tootled along I5, radio tuned to 91.5, the soothing voice of Terry Gross washing over her like honey on a warm buttered piece of bread. Her left hand held the steering wheel in a gentle grasp at the 6 o’clock position, right hand draped casually over the gearshift of her 2012 maroon Toyota Camry. It was a Saturday morning, a Saturday that made her want to giggle with delight–the leaves just turning color and occasionally drifting casually in the whirling eddies behind the semi-trucks, the midday sun just barely warming the crisp mornings beyond comfort when wearing sweatshirt, and loose clouds that spoke to her of hot-air balloons and the future. Her boyfriend was back to visit her and his parents, and she was looking forward to it; she had gotten a 93 on her first Macro Economics test; she had gotten paid; life was just fine.

Lucille was also going 86 miles per hour. And Officer Newman knew it.

As her car crested the rise, she saw the police cruiser sitting almost out of sight near the overpass, and she automatically took her foot off the pedal and glanced down to see her speed. “Blathering boisterous blisters!” she swore softly. Officer Newman turned on his lights.

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Not for the first time, Justin felt like punching the machine he had just fed his money into. The indicator light said that he would be “tasting the feeling” of a fizzy Cherry Coke soon after feeding his crinkled 1-dollar bill into the black maw of the vending machine. But Cherry Coke was out. As was the standard Coke. And the Coke Life, though he only selected it out of desperation, since he hated the fact that his little sister drank Coke Life because she thought it would make her skinny, despite his repeated attempts to get her to read the ingredient list. 

He briefly considered shaking the vending machine, before punching the “return my money you stupid machine” button beside the black dollar-feeder.

His dollar didn’t come out; instead, coins dropped into the tray. Justin shook his head and reached down to take his money, but before he could, the machine spit out more coins, then more. Quarters filled the cup, and a few even spilled out onto the floor.

In astonishment, Justin straightened up, looking down at the small pile of money. It had to be 25 dollars sitting there in coins, only one of which was his. He looked around–nobody was in sight in the brightly-lit hallway, nobody had seen. He could take the money and go. But there, just under the coin tray, was a little sign that said: “For problems With this vending Machine, please call Vinney’s Vending Machine Service At 1-800-222-7654.” The odd capitalization bugged him almost as much as the fact that the machine was out of Cherry Coke, but he knew there was a way to get the money back to Vinney (or his lackeys), so he couldn’t just take it. He wondered briefly what Vinney looked like, and what he would do if Vinney were standing beside the machine.

His iPhone buzzed in his pocket, reminding him that he had 10 minutes to get to the client’s office, which was conveniently 15 minutes away. Justin grabbed four quarters and walked away quickly.

Just before he turned the corner, he saw a tall red-haired man stop in front of the machine and pocket the money.

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Zozo laughed again at the look on the case officer’s face at the Vancouver office of the Department of Revenue. She glanced over her shoulder at the flat-pack boxes neatly stacked in the back of her Subaru, a stack that had cost 254.22 at IKEA in Portland. Oregon, of course, has no sales tax, but Washington, the dear ol’ state Zozo calls home, does. And by the arcane laws that she’s privy to because of her job at a local CPA’s office, she knows she’s required to pay use tax on any purchases made in Oregon that are intended for use in her home in Washington. It doesn’t seem, however, that many people take the time to do this.

She managed to pay $21.35 after an hour in the office, and it was worth every penny to watch them turn in circles. But she might not stop there next time she runs to IKEA–especially if she gets that big sofa she’s been eyeing.

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Rachael clicked “I acknowledge that I have read and understood the above Terms and Conditions.” Without reading it. Without batting an eyelash.

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What about you, my dear reader?

  • When you know the rules, do you always obey them?
  • Do you only obey the rules when somebody is watching?
  • Perhaps you obey the rules occasionally when the risk outweighs the reward?
  • Or you interpret the rules your way and decide, according to your personal ethics, which need to be followed and which do not?
  • Do you obey the rules? or do you obey the person who made the rules? or perhaps you obey the perceived intent of the person who made the rules?

Conscientiousness

Johan woke up early, that day, that spring day in 2017. He crept downstairs in the dark house, after feeding himself his regular cup of coffee (small) and eating his breakfast (knäckebröd & ost). Silently, he picked up the shoes lying by his door, two pair shoes slightly larger than his feet, shoes left there by the surprise visitors sleeping further down in the guest bedrooms. He could hear them softly breathing further away, dreaming, no doubt, of the families they had left to come looking for work. Johan picked up the first shoe–size 12–and hefted it. It was a black shoe, a shoe worn to fancy dinner parties or to weddings or to church, a shoe used when the outcome matters, when you know people will be watching you. Upstairs he returned, upstairs to the kitchen table, neatly spread with yesterday’s newspaper. There, waiting in an organized black case, with gleaming gold clasps, was the Kiwi Premium Black Shoe Polish Paste, 1-1/8 oz, lying along side the brush, mink oil, and the Waterproof High-gloss Aftereffect (also Kiwi brand). He applied the polish with small, quick, circular strokes–dip in the can, rub lightly across the shoe, spread out as far as it will go. A quick glance was enough to satisfy him that the shoe was covered sufficiently, which he left to dry as he made his way down to the door to pick up the next shoe and repeat the earlier step. Four shoes were quickly, efficiently anointed, and Johan could now wait the remainder of the 10 minutes prescribed by Kiwi with his second cup of coffee (small) and his second knäckebröd (with ost).

The shining went as efficiently. Quickly, the brush was set to the shoes, one after the other, and in the same order the polish had been applied. The lamp above the kitchen table gleamed in the reflection of the shoe as he turned them just so. Stirring sounds were heard from the floor below, and the sun peaked in through the windows, its red sleepy gaze brightening up the workspace. Johan moved purposefully, without hurry, to return the shoes to their spot near the door, near to where the guests had left them, but laid straight and tucked more appropriately under the bench.

Johan is conscientious.

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From Wikipedia:

Conscientiousness is the personality trait of being careful, or vigilant. Conscientiousness implies a desire to do a task well, and to take obligations to others seriously. Conscientious people tend to be efficient and organized as opposed to easy-going and disorderly. They exhibit a tendency to show self-discipline, act dutifully, and aim for achievement; they display planned rather than spontaneous behavior; and they are generally dependable.

See, conscientiousness is critical to a lot of things, but it is especially important in an organization where you are entrusted to deal with the financial and sensitive personal information of others–in other words, every accounting organization everywhere.

But our little company, Silvertrek, had a problem. I tend more toward the easy-going and disorderly side of the spectrum, not toward the efficient and organized side. We, self-described as Construction Accounting for the 21st Century, have a lot of stuff that’s just gotta be done right and just gotta be done on time. While I can’t change my core nature, I can change how our customers are interacted with, so when we recruit, hire, reward, and train employees, we stress the need for conscientiousness. We stress the need that we need to be dependable, we need to be organized. For us to be successful, in other words, we need suppress the spontaneity.

But this goes beyond accounting. Conscientiousness exists in all successful companies, and in any social structure that lasts.

Atul Gawande, in his ground-breaking book The Checklist Manifesto, describes the transition of highly trained doctors from arrogant, slip-shod behavior while performing surgery to precise, careful conduct. The surgery itself wasn’t done any differently, neither was the diagnosis or the recovery. No, Mr. Gawande merely introduced a humble checklist that asked the surgeon to stop, think, and communicate during procedures. Without the checklist, nobody questioned the surgeon, and no one person was in charge of critical steps. With the checklist, everybody was asked for help and opinions, and critical steps were taken by the full team. Without the checklist, the results of surgeries ranged from brilliant to mediocre to disasters; with the checklist, the disasters were averted while still allowing for the brilliancy. Surgeons, with all their training, with all their experience, must still be conscientious, and Mr. Gawande’s checklist forced conscientiousness upon them.

I am not, nor ever will be a conscientious person by nature. I am disorderly and tend to be easy-going when relaxed. However, Silvertrek cannot be disorderly, nor can we be easy-going when it comes to paying the IRS the appropriate amount of money. Thus compensation must be made so that where it matters, in the Silvertrek surgery room, Michael Kelley can be as conscientious as the next guy.

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Johan’s story is a true story, although the details were invented by yours truly, with names changed to protect the innocent. See, I was one of the two surprise guests snoring in the basement. I had a business trip pop upon me that took me near to old friends and I asked if I and a coworker could bunk with them to spare the monotony of a hotel room. They were happy to have us, and imagine my delight at having my shoes polished for a Big Important Meeting! And my shirt ironed, and breakfast made.

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In your business, where is there disorder where there needs to be order? Where is the unreliability where there needs to be dependability?

The Poetry of Programming

“The programmer, like the poet, works only slightly removed from pure thought-stuff. He builds his castles in the air, from air, creating by exertion of the imagination. Few media of creation are so flexible, so easy to polish and rework, so readily capable of realizing grand conceptual structures… Yet the program construct, unlike the poet’s words, is real in the sense that it moves and works, producing visible outputs separate from the construct itself. […] The magic of myth and legend has come true in our time. One types the correct incantation on a keyboard, and a display screen comes to life, showing things that never were nor could be.” –Fred Brookes

Active Communication

So, in all of our dealings with customers, our active communication should fall into three camps:

1) Relationship-building

2) Strategic thinking

3) Exceptions & Problems

There’s another kind of communication that happens all the time, that we want to avoid:

4) Information transfer

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Let’s think about these in detail:

1) Relationship-building: This ranges from the “how’s-it-going-nice-day-isn’t-it-yes-I’m-fine-too” stuff to the hugs and shared tears when a grandma dies. This, done right, makes everything easier. Spend time here, make it genuine, and if you can’t be genuine, pretend until after lunch.

2) Strategic thinking: This is all sorts of conversations, and it’s the kind that corporate boards and project managers and foreman chewing their lunch have all the time. It is the brainstorming, the improving, the criticizing, the making-things-better, the this-is-where-we-should-be-going conversations. This can’t be automated, and we need to take specific times to do this. This includes persuasion and sales when done correctly.

3) Exceptions & Problems: This will likely take up the bulk of our time communicating, and I believe that’s appropriate. As things come up that we’ve never dealt with before, we need to deal with them. We need to think about them, identify the real issue, and solve it as best as we can. If we have problems come up over and over and over again, it’s likely that we’re not solving the issue, but merely communicating information about the issue.

4) Information transfer: Wake up and smell the Starbucks app! It’s 2015–there’s no reason to verbally express information when it could be at your fingertips with a little organization and dedication. We have tools, freely available, that could make all the information that you generate and consume available right now. If you’re spending time talking to people to transfer information, you’re doing it wrong.

So, like most things, it’s simple–create systems to automate information transfer, and communicate about the rest!

Perfection is the Enemy of the Good: Hiring

We have four core values at Silvertrek:

  • The desire and ability to learn
  • The ability to do something without waiting for it to be perfect
  • The desire to take ownership in what you do
  • The ability to be upbeat and positive, even in the face of adversity

We hold ourselves accountable to these core values, and we rank each other on our progression or regression in these things. But we also look for them in the people we hire. We recently hired Owen Granger, and the conversation prior to his getting hired was much more about our perception of these items than it was about his knowledge, schooling, or experience.

In a perfect hiring situation, you first weed out the people that don’t fit your core values, and then you begin to look at their abilities. Say you’re a small manufacturing company, hiring to replace the procurement manager that’s retiring after lo these many years. Somebody in this position needs to understand the domain (electronics, engines, brake pads, whatever you’re making), they need to understand the importance of purchase agreements and their relationship of cash flow, they need to understand the rules surrounding the accounting and taxing of inventory, and they need to understand whatever obscure and/or obsolete MRP system you’re using (95% of the time this is Excel). However, most people seeking employment have relatively plastic brains, and most people can learn those things. Whats harder to “learn” is the drive you’re looking for, the work ethic you’re looking for, the intelligence you’re looking for, the attitudeyou’re looking for. It’s harder to teach a new hire to be less sarcastic then it is to teach them to lower inventory right before fiscal year end. It’s harder to teach a new hire how to go about exploring all the options for a new robotic inventory system then it is to teach them to fill down on tab x84 of the spreadsheet named “Parts-version 4(joe).xlsx” It’s harder to teach somebody the nuanced difference between argument and debate than it is to teach them how to fill in a timecard.

Obviously, you need to know what your core values are. Also obviously, you have core values. It would actually be downright astonishing if you could articulate them–Silvertrek’s core values were years in the making, and only emerged after serious effort.

You don’t need the perfect employee, in terms of job ability. You need an employee that fits your core values, and is good enough at the job put in front of them. Don’t ruin your team by hiring a perfect ass.

Thoughtfulness and the System

I’m living right now in Kiruna, Sweden, and the endless contrasts between the cultures, attitudes, and systems of Sweden and America afford me a wonderful chance to contemplate my opinions of things. This is a topic that rarely wears itself out, but there is one particular difference that highlights a choice that businesses must make—driving laws.

In Sweden they follow very similar laws to the U.S. and in fact, a first-time American driver, fresh from the airplane and fighting jetlag’s initial battle really won’t notice much difference at all. Here, they drive on the right side of the road. They stop at stop signs that read STOP in very good English, and they have crosswalks and driver’s licenses and alcohol limits and speedlimits and police cars to enforce it all.

But they also have roundabouts. And they have uncontrolled intersections. And they have certain “head” roads where rules change. And they have this weird propensity to allow others to pass them.

In a roundabout, the person who is in a roundabout has the right-of-way. In an uncontrolled intersections (which, I might add, two of every three are uncontrolled) the person approaching from the right has the right-of-way. Except when one of the roads in the uncontrolled intersection is a “head” road, in which case they have the right-of-way. And when somebody is approaching from the rear, you pull over and let them pass.

Um… Michael, I can hear you saying, these are really no different than what I’m used to. Well, that’s true in principle—there are laws enacted in the States that address all of these things. But really those are fringe cases; I can think of one uncontrolled intersection in my little home town in Washington. Here in Kiruna, with a comparable population, there is exactly one intersection that is controlled by stop signs, and only four that are controlled by lights.

So in practice, there’s a large difference—in the States, you drive and follow the obvious, pre-defined rules. In Sweden, you pay attention to what’s going on around you. Are you on a head road? Is that car approaching from the right? Are you approaching an uncontrolled intersection? Are you overtaking that car? You are forced to think the entire time. You’re forced to be considerate.

It’s almost like in our quest for efficiency and order, the States designed the road system to allow for a driver to drive without thinking, to just trust that the system will take care of you, while in Sweden they demand a certain presence of mind, a certain level of attentive selflessness.

This Swedish attentiveness allows for the drivers that are outside the norm, for drivers in the third standard deviation. It allows for large tracked equipment and for daddies with their strollers and for underage drivers in their underpowered cars and for road construction without flaggers or traffic control. The American system optimizes for the 1st standard deviation, and as long as you stay inside the confines of “normal” you’ll get to your destination faster and easier.

There is a joy in driving in Sweden that there isn’t in America, and there is a relaxing ease in driving in America that is missing in Sweden.

Are you going to create a system that is slower, safer, and more considerate? or are you going to create a system where the decisions have been made and the fringes have been ignored? Do you want the workers in your system to be forced to make decisions at every turn? or do you want the majority of small decisions made for them to allow them to better concentrate on the big decisions? Do you want thoughtfulness or efficiency?

Secret Sauce

Our least-kept secret is our processes, and it’s the only reason that we’re successful now and that we will be even more successful in the future. See, we do this thing called “checklists” that makes it really easy to get things done–you choose your task, and follow the checklist. There’s a checklist for payroll, there’s a checklist for uploading billings to persnickety customers, and there’s a checklist to get a lead to a customer. We run our weekly meetings using a checklist, we solve our issues using a checklist, and we use Basecamp to hold these checklists. We love our checklists. In fact, a good chunk of my inspiration for our little system came from The Checklist Manifesto, by Atul Gawande.

The checklist is our “What” and “When“–it specifies what to do and the order in which to do it.

For many of our processes, we complement the checklist with a handy-dandy Powerpoint document collectively called Silverdocs. They go into quite a bit of detail on exactly how to get a task done, including screenshots of computer programs. Note that we don’t have a Silverdoc for every checklist, but we do for the ones that are highly critical or likely to change hands often. Payroll, for example, is well-documented.

Silverdocs are our “How.”

We use Basecamp to run our checklists–each customer, each external job, and each internal project gets it’s own Basecamp Project, usually pre-loaded with checklists. See, our company is spread far and wide–I’m in Kiruna, Sweden, and there’s employees in Minnesota, Washington, and Alaska. It’s important that we have a tool to communicate between us on tasks, and Basecamp works perfectly. We can also create checklists fairly painlessly using email, and we hope to use their API to automate this even more.

Also, we have an Accountability Chart that clearly defines the roles of each person. This makes it pretty obvious who “owns” each checklist–for example whoever is in the Tax and Insurance role “owns” the quarterly tax checklist for each company. Basecamp makes it easy to assign To-dos based on this.

Together, the Accountability Chart and Basecamp show the “Who.”

But, as with most successful systems, there’s a meta-system that is worth talking about. No process, no checklist is perfect. And even if it were, it wouldn’t be for long–the world is a’changing, and we gotta be a’changing with it. We have a specific time every week for discussing these checklists–a one hour meeting–and during the week there is chatter about the best use of the lists. The checklist and accompanying Silverdoc will always change.

And lest you think we’re all robots–it ain’t true. We like our checklists not because they force us to do things the same way, but because they free up our time. We can do things quickly while knowing that we did it right. And when we’re done working on the stuff that has to get done, then we can work on stuff that’s fun, like dreaming up the next feature of Silvertime, or helping a customer plan a new branch in a new state. And that, dear reader, is the the “Why.”

PS – For the astute visitor of michaelonsystems who feels they are missing something, we submit that the “Where” is irrelevant in 95% of our work. Numbers are easily transmitted via fiber-optic cable, and little packets of information often are springing hither and yon.

Just do it NOW!!!! (Or What I Learned from Observing my Wife)

I thought I was being smart. See, I figured if I just waited for a while, their would be less effort spent on doing the dishes. You can pile them all up in one spot, and then you can batch-process the whole lot. And the clean dishes in the dishwasher? if you need ’em, just take them straight out of there–saving the time of putting them away at all. As long as you put the food away, the dishes are more easily done once per day (maybe even once every TWO days). Work like a madman for 45 minutes and whambam you’re done.

Except it isn’t really all that pleasant. That means that there’s nearly always nasty crusty dishes lying in your sink, taking up the space you might have used to fill your water cup. That special long-handled spoon that you bought in Europe to get jam out of the jar  is underneath the frying pan, covered in chicken grease. There’s no clean coffee cups. And the kitchen, a place that normally is for visiting and for “being family” in is transformed to a barely functional food storage, a place to enter when rumbling tummies or whining children demand, and to exit again as soon as possible.

It’s amazing what changes when Rebecka, my wife of seven years, is around. She doesn’t wait to put things in the dishwasher. She doesn’t stop to do a full motion-study of just how the dishes need to go from left to right to save three motions. She doesn’t wait until the floor is really dirty before she sweeps. She’s constantly in motion, patting here with a cloth, sweeping there with a broom, and dishing steakpans and coffeecups while they’re still warm.

And the kitchen is cozier because of it.

When considering individual tasks, my way is better–it takes less effort. But looking at our family life as a whole, as a system, it’s clear that her method is superior.

And then it hit me–this is exactly what I want in my business, for me and my customers. I want the work done when it is right in front of us. Let us strike when the iron is hot, even if it seems like more work. While allowing for periods of concentration, deal with that email when it comes in, the first time you read it. Don’t let that customer lead get stale. Don’t allow that expense report to go un-reported. Update the bank reconciliation more than once a month. Bill your customers every day, not every 30 days. Assign somebody to the Firemans’ seat, where their job is to respond to customer requests within 5 minutes. Take phone calls instead of just returning them.

I’ve been batch processing too long, and the smell of the chicken grease is starting to get to me.

Focusing Stone

I’m all over the place. I’ve got people calling me from all of my various clients asking me to help them with this-or-that, I have two clients waiting on proposals, I’m starting work on an unrelated building project, I have financial statements I’m cleaning up, I’m trying to be home with my wife and four kids, I’m pursuing a job in Sweden, I’ve got three hobbies that I work on and 10 more that I would like to work on, I have a blog to write, plus I’m trying to get enough exercise and sleep.

And because of the way I roll, doing all of that is impossible.

It’s impossible because I try to do everything at once.

It’s impossible because with too many demands and too much stimulation I freeze up–and wind up doing nothing.

It’s impossible because each task demands more attention than I care to give.

It’s impossible because I’d rather go chase the next new thing rather than finish the old boring thing.

But what’s so cool is that I’m getting it done anyway through the help of what I call my Focusing Stone. See, even though I’m borderline ADD, I’ve got a couple of things going for me. First of all, I’ve got good help. My wife’s amazingly good at coping with me, and keeping me on track with everything on the home front. And David, my IT/Programmer/Bookkeeper/Personal Secretary pushes me when I’m slacking and helps me up when I fall at work. Second of all, I’ve got good systems.

My internal Focusing Stone is broken. (Some might even say it’s a mirror, causing to me to arrogantly focus on my own self-interest, but I digress.) So I had to build an external Focusing Stone–a crutch–to help get me through the day. Here’s what it consists of:

  1. Delegate. I mentioned I’ve got good help, and I use them as much as I can. My wife pays the bills at home, and David pays the bills at work, for example.
  2. Don’t waste time. My secret obsession is a news site called Hacker News. I don’t know why I’m so addicted, but whatever. But I’ve found that if I’m not careful, I can spend easily half-hour to an hour reading through all that is interesting but non-essential. To fight this, I installed Leechblock, an addon for Firefox that allows me to screw around for 10 minutes and no more per day. (There’s a similar one called StayFocused for Google Chome)
  3. Schedule. I use Google Calendar aggressively, and it syncs with my Windows phone. I try to commit myself ahead of time–for me, uncommitted days are timesinks in which no productive work gets done.
  4. Team up. If I have a living breathing human being working alongside me, I just don’t get distracted.
  5. Email filtering. I get emails from people that I never see, simply because I’ve been able to sense a pattern and build a filter in my inbox to deal with them. Bookkeeping client? BAM!automatically delegated. Automatic receipt? Into the accounting inbox. Amazon or Newegg ad? Deleted. Group email that I was somehow included on? Tagged and archived. I can’t afford the external distraction. I distract myself enough as it is. I use the Google Apps webmail client, but you can do the same thing with Outlook rules.
  6. Freshdesk. This one is new to me, but it’s a ticketing system that puts all our bookkeeping tasks in order, sorted by date of submission. It’s been helpful simply because it means there’s less need for communication. It’s already obvious what needs to be done, no need to talk about it.

None of this is perfect. Just today, I missed a meeting with a client that I had scheduled because I overslept. I spent at least 15 minutes just chit-chatting with people.

I can’t change my nature, but I’m more than willing to build a system or two to help cultivate it.

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