“New & Improved” Isn’t Innovative

(AP) Redmond Washington.  After a much heralded launch, the buzz around Microsoft’s launch of Windows 8.0 is centered on the fact that when the computer crashes that users will no longer see the blue screen of death.  Instead, users will now see a friendly screen requesting that they restart their systems.

“Which is why we have decided to close the company at the start of 2012,” said CMO Droid Nelson.  “I mean when you spend two hundred million dollars just to market 8.0 and the only chatter is about the crash screen, the time has come.  We have not offered anything of interest to early adopters since 1997.  After all, what are we supposed to do?  If we continue on at this rate sooner or later we will hold a news conference for Windows 17.0 and Office 2024 and nobody will care.”

“How many times can we put a new ribbon around the same old software?  It is not like we can make it run any faster or any easier to navigate.  And Office is still Office.  When was the last time we added anything to that suite?  Most of our customers already cannot use half of the features we built, why should we keep building until we get that figure up to eighty percent?”

“The innovation train left the station around the time Starbucks came out with their half-caf-decaf with a double shot.  We made ourselves irrelevant.  Hell, I use an iPad and Google Docs.”

Can you name what Microsoft launched the last time you were willing to tailgate to be the first one to own it?  Nobody can.

Can you name the last time your customers were willing to tailgate to be the first one to purchase your firm’s newest offering?  Didn’t think so.

The thing to remember about new and improved is that it isn’t either.  If it was so brand spanking new, you wouldn’t have to tell anyone.

New is not a feature.

Improved is not a feature.

When Apple launched the first iPod their pitch was something along the lines of every song you every wanted to listen to in this little box.

Customers stand in line for innovation.  Is there a line outside your door?

IT Vendors: What’s not to like?

We were being entertained at a friend’s house whose interior looked like it had been designed by one of those overly made up, energetic divorcees who only take cash.  The walls were painted a stark white; the overstuffed club chairs and the couch were upholstered in a soft white leather.  The white carpet was thick enough to hide a chiwawa.

The hostess locked askance at me when she saw me seated in the club chair.  Perhaps my outfit did not look good on white.  A paperback which looked out of place lay on the end table next to my glass of Ovaltine.   I picked it up and began to read the back cover to get a feel for the storyline…which got me thinking about writing and authors.

The paperback story filled five hundred and seventeen pages.  Whether they were well-written, whether there was a story nestled inside, could only be learned by reading the book.  I read many books, and I read often, especially when I travel.  When I am unprepared I am forced to purchase a book at one of the shops in the airport concourse.  The purchase decision lasts only as long as it takes to read the back cover—the publisher’s only chance to make a first and last impression.

Those first impressions have fooled me often.  Ten minutes into the book I wind up stuffing it into the kangaroo pouch in the seatback in front of me.  More often than I would like, I find that the person who wrote the book summary on the back flap is a better writer than the person who wrote the book.  The summary writer is able to create an interest in the story and a need to see how it ends, an interest and need for which the book’s author is unable to deliver.

The book is rarely better than the back cover suggests it will be.  Often it is as good, sometimes it is not.  The book summary is the upper limit for what you can expect by way of enjoyment.

It works the same way in business only instead of paperback books they use brochures.  Never trust the brochure.  Whatever is written in the vendor’s brochure is the upper limit of what you can expect to receive.  Those who remember the dismantling of nuclear arms remember the adage ‘Trust, but verify.”  When it comes to dealing with vendors, I suggest ignoring the part about trusting.

Take software vendors for example.  What’s not to like?

The product never leaves you feeling the way you felt after reading the brochure.  Remember the photos?  Attractive people, smartly dressed, ethnically diverse.  Their teeth bleached so white the reflection of the monitor is visible in their incisors.  Seated in their clutter-free offices, they are all smiling.

Did your users look like them when they started to use the product?  Did you get your brochure moment?  In order to find customers, vendors have to position their product in the most positive light.

Maybe there should be a cigarette-like warning printed on every software vendor’s brochure, something like this:

  • We hired the people pictured in the brochure—nobody is ever that happy
  • Most of you will never learn how to use all of the functionality
  • To have any chance of getting the software to do what you need it to do will probably cost you twice as much as you contracted
  • There is no way you will implement in the timeframe you discussed

They know, and we know, nobody implements brochures.  If we did, IT departments would be much smaller.  Maybe that is why vendors give away pens and T-shirts to all of their customers, to soften their sense of guilt.

When IT projects Fail

The mind is a terrible thing.  Last night I stumbled across part of the movie Kill Bill Volume 2. There is a character in Volume 2 named Esteban Vihaio, an eighty-something Hispanic bon vivant.  His is a small role, but performed beautifully.  Uma Thurman, our ninja protagonist, meets Esteban and asks him ‘Where’s Bill?”

With a thick, refined Spanish accent, Esteban repeats the question, drawing out Bill’s name “Where is Beeeeeeel?”

Anyway, today I am on the phone.  And can you guess the name of the person with whom I am speaking?  That’s right, I was talking to Beeeeeeel.  He did not have a Spanish accent; nonetheless, I could not stop the voices in my head from trying to translate every phrase so that it sounded like Mr. Esteban.  Needless to say, the call went downhill rapidly.

When I think about software implementations the phrase “Help, I’ve failed and I can’t get up” comes to mind.

For many people, the goal of a software implementation is to get to the end, to see the vendor leave.  In many minds, that event signals that the work is done, and the departure of the vendor signals that the software was implemented correctly.  Not true Mon Chéri.

In case you did not get the email, IT has become big business in most corporations, and it takes a group of highly paid bureaucrats to administer it.  And you know what happens when you give the bureaucrat a clipboard and ask them to oversee the implementation of a new email system, by the time the dust settles you have spent a few million dollars on a new sales force automation tool—Rube Goldberg on steroids.

Once you start spending it is difficult to stop.  And people do not keep spending in the hope of reaping additional ROI; they do so in order to try to salvage a project that in its current state is a white elephant.  Most of the cost of an IT project is to get it to do what you thought it would do.  This is a classic example of when you are in a hole, stop digging, or at least let me hand you a bigger shovel.

Poor Project Planning–Musings of a drive-by mind

It takes a lot of energy to dislike someone, but sometimes it is worth the effort. It is not easy being a consultant.  One client required me to shout “unclean, unclean” as I passed through the hallways.  Maybe that is why I leave newspapers scattered around the floor of my desk, so nobody can sneak up on me without me being able to hear them.

I have a knack for complicating simple things, but the voices in my head tell me that is better than simplifying complicated things.  Either way, I appreciate those of you who continue to play along.  Just remember, if you choose to dine with the devil it is best to use a long spoon.

You’ve probably figured out that I am never going to be asked to substitute host any of the home improvement shows.  I wasn’t blessed with a mechanical mind, and I have the attention span bordering on the half-life of a gnat.

I’ve noticed that projects involving me and the house have a way of taking on a life of their own.  It’s not the big projects that get me in over my head—that’s why God invented phones, so we can outsource—it’s the little ones, those fifteen minute jobs meant to be accomplished during half-time of a football game, between pizza slices.

Case in point—touch-up painting the trim in your house.  Can, brush, paint can opener tool (screwdriver).  Head to the basement where all the leftover paint is stored.  You know exactly where I mean, yours is probably in the same place.  Directions:  grab the can with the dry white paint stuck to the side, open it, give a quick stir with the screwdriver, apply paint, and affix the lid using the other end of the screwdriver.  Back in the chair before the microwave beeps.

That’s how it should have worked.  It doesn’t, does it?  For some reason, you get extra motivated, figure you’ll go for the bonus points, and take a quick spin around the house, dabbing the trim paint on any damaged surface—window and doorframes, baseboards, stair spindles, and other white “things”.  Those of us who are innovators even go so far as to paint over finger prints, crayon marks, and things which otherwise simply needed a wipe down with 409.

This is when things turn bad, just as you reach for that slice of pizza.  “What are all of those white spots all over the house?”  She asks—you determine who your she is. if you do not have one I can let you borrow mine.  You explain to her that it looks like the way it does simply because the paint is still wet—good response.  To which she tells you the paint is dry—a better response.

“Why is the other paint shiny, and the spots are flat?”

You pause.  I pause, like when I’m trying to come up with a good bluff in Trivial Pursuit.  She knows the look.  She sees my bluff and raises the ante.  Thirty minutes later the game I’m watching is a distant memory.  I’ve returned from the paint store.  I am moving furniture, placing drop cloths, raising ladders, filling paint trays, all under the supervision of my personal chimera.  My fifteen-minute exercise has resulted in a multi-weekend amercement.

This is what usually happens when the project plan isn’t tested or isn’t validated.  My plan was to be done by the end of halftime.  Poor planning often results in a lot of rework.  There’s a saying something along the lines of it takes twice as long to do something over as it does to do it right the first time—the DIRT-FIT rule.  And costs twice as much.  Can you really afford either of those outcomes?  Can you really afford to scrimp on the planning part of IT?  If you don’t come out of the gate correctly, it will be impossible.

Back to my project.  Would you believe me if I said I deliberately messed up?  Maybe I did, maybe I didn’t, but the one thing I know with certainty is that I now have half-times all to myself.

EHR–“Our Lady of Perpetual Implementations”

“There is no use trying,” said Alice;
“one can’t believe impossible things.”
“I dare say you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen.
“When I was your age, I always did it for half an hour a day.
Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as
six impossible things before breakfast.”

There are a number of people who would have you believe impossible things.  I dare say some already have.  Such as?

“My EHR is certifiable.”

“They told me it will pass meaningful use.”

“We’re not responsible for Interoperability; that happens at the RHIO.”

“It doesn’t matter what comes out of the reform effort, this EHR will handle it.”

“We don’t have to worry about our workflow, this system has its own.”

Sometimes it’s best not to follow the crowd—scores of like-thinking individuals following the EHR direction they’ve been given by vendors and Washington.  Why did you select that package—because somebody at The Hospital of Perpetual Implementations did?

There is merit in asking, is your organization guilty of drinking the Kool Aid?  Please don’t mistake my purpose in writing.  There are many benefits available to those who implement an EHR.  My point is is that there will be many more benefits to those who select the right system, to those who know what business problems they expect to address, to those who eliminate redundant business functions, and those who implement proper change management controls.

ICD-10’s Hidden Cost

The characters on the train into Philadelphia, while never dull, were more interesting than usual this morning.  The woman across the aisle from me wore her hair in a style that could be described best as resembling a termite mound.  The ride felt so much like bumper cars that I was tempted to ask the driver if he had to pass some sort of training program to get his license, or if all he had to do was to collect a certain number of bottle caps.  It gives me the feeling that there should be a lifeguard at the gene pool.

The med student seated next to me on the train reads his book, but then, everyone one the train reads. I asked him what he was reading.  Turns out it was a book about converting from ICD-9 to ICD-10.  Medical coding.  Those little numbers, charge codes, on your doctor’s invoice that enable the doctor to charge you for the specific services provided.  There didn’t seem to be much of a plot, and he did not seem to be very engrossed in the material.

The conversion from ICD-9 to ICD-10 may be the biggest gotcha on healthcare’s horizon, especially with regard to hospitals.

Money will be spent and money will be lost—lots of it.

Health and Human Services (HHS) estimates that the cost of converting can be broken down into three categories, and it estimate the relative cost of those categories:

  • Training                              22%
  • Lost productivity               35%
  • System changes                43%

Two of these, training and system changes, are controlled variables.  They relate to things the service provider will be doing.  The other, lost productivity is the result of how well the service provider managed the other two.

HHS estimates productivity charges will range from 6-10% due to the fact that it will take people between 500 and 1,000 hours to become proficient in the new codes.  Others have estimated that for hospitals with more than 500 beds the total cost of the conversion (actual cost plus opportunity cost) will be more than ten million dollars.

So, in layman’s terms, what does that mean with regard to the business of managing the hospital?  How does one develop a project plan for lost productivity?  What are the tasks?

Let’s look at what is involved.

System Changes:

Everything will be changing; business rules, business processes, forms, reports, and systems.  Ask yourself which systems that you use involve coding?  Now ask yourself if you like using those systems.  Are they easy to use?  Are they easily understood?  If the only thing changed in those systems is the codes, they will still be just as tedious to use and those systems will be less usable.

A large hospital will spend five million or more dollars to change systems and the end result will be that those systems, at least for the first 500 to 1,000 hours will be less usable.  I believe those hours are underestimated.  Most systems are tied to other systems into what has become a bit of a kluge.  Changing integrated systems is a lot like playing the children’s game Pick Up Sticks—touching one stick often winds up making things happen to the other sticks.  Changing one system will cause things to happen to the other systems.  Ineffectiveness breeds more ineffectiveness.

Lost Productivity:

According to estimates, thirty-five cents out of every dollar spent on the conversion will be allocated to lost productivity.  This is like buying a gallon of milk and having to pour a third of it in the sink before you placed the carton in the refrigerator.

What are the why’s and where’s of the productivity loss, and what can be done about it?  Interpreting the HHS estimates, they are essentially stating that while the conversion will be done, it will not be done well.  In fact, those in the know published that hundreds of millions of dollars will be lost converting to ICD-10.

Will your hospital be contributing to that loss?  Without question; unless you figure out the causal factors of that loss, and put a plan in place to prevent it.  HHS calculates hospitals will lose thirty-five cents on the dollar even after having spent twenty-two cents of every dollar to train people.

Plan on fifty-seven cents of every dollar spent on the conversion to ICD-10 being wasted.  Get that milk carton out of the refrigerator and pour some more into the sink.

Training:

The training program envisioned by HHS that hospitals will undertake will result in a planned productivity loss of thirty-five percent.  What will your productivity loss be if your training program is less effective than whatever HHS was envisioning?  Clearly they are not holding out high hope for the success of ICD-10 training given that it is estimated that becoming proficient in the new coding could take one thousand hours.  (It only takes about 50 hours of training to obtain a private pilot’s license.)

Training, the variable over which a hospital has the most control is the area where the hospital has the least experience.  After all, the hospital has never had a business system designer design an ICD-10 training program.

Training will be about learning to use correctly new screens and forms and new business processes and business rules.  It must include those in finance and IT, coders, and healthcare professionals.  To be effective, it should be role-based; customized.

Left up to the usual way of doing it, hospitals will provide classroom study, 24-40 hours. They will probably develop a train-the-trainers program, and the trainees will be presented with a nice-looking ICD-10 training certificate.  Good luck.

Training may be needed for more than half of a hospital’s employees.  For training to be effective and to minimize the loss of productivity it must be designed.  It must include:

  • What will the altered systems user interface (UI) look like
  • Should people be trained on that UI, or will changing the UI result in much less training
  • What will the altered forms look like
  • Should people be trained on those forms, or could designing new forms result in much less training
  • Can the training be designed to be delivered online
  • Can the training be designed to be delivered on portable devices
  • Can the training be designed by roles
  • Can the training be designed by person to assess what areas need more training

The answers to these questions are Yes.  Whether it will be is up to you.  Designing a training program will significantly decrease the cost of training and significantly decrease the productivity loss.

Project Management’s Biggest Mistake

Today’s headlines; Paula Dean drops two pants sizes and, based on six years of research in the Pacific Northwest, graduate researchers at Chicago’s School of Anthropology have confirmed that in fact, consultants do eat their young.

Observation may be one of our best teachers, but we often ignore what can be learned from it.  Here is a real-life example that occurred to me from having watched a human interest story on the local news about neighbors banding together to try and rescue someone’s pet cat which they surmised was stuck in a tree.

Here is the observation; how many cat skeletons have you seen in trees?  What can be learned?  Maybe cats do not need rescuing.

Project management and business in general have many similarities with cats stuck in trees.  Somebody thinks there is a problem, and like good little workers, we throw resources at the problem trying to rescue it.  We establish committees, have meetings, and create reports.  We discuss the problem, we recall what happened the last time we had this type of problem, we bring in experts whose skills are particularly attuned to solving this problem, and then we attack it.

The one thing we fail to do is to validate whether the perceived problem is really a problem.  Chances are that the cat in the tree is doing just fine and does not require any help. If it does, there is always gravity.