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Post-Its are Ectoplasm

Post-Its are Ectoplasm

Don’t get me wrong, they can be useful. There are those workshops where people slap them around on walls with words like ‘OPTIMISM’ and ‘EMPOWERMENT’ scrawled on them. I am sure that can help but it’s a bit earnest for my taste. I prefer quiet reflection with a cup of tea and a chocolate digestive to oil the thinking cogs.

Anybody who knows me will be familiar with this neurosis. With some people it’s peas or tomatoes, with others it’s spiders. Mine isn’t a phobia, it’s an intolerance and sometimes it just helps to talk about it. My first anniversary at Fireco was celebrated by my car being covered with Post-It notes, a sure sign that a certain lack of balance is at play. So what’s this about, I wonder?

My theory is that when these things are scattered around in the work environment, they are an ominous sign. A screen surrounded with little coloured notes shows that the user of the screen doesn’t know how to use it. To them, it’s the black bit in the middle. A despatch area running on Post-Its is likely to be sending the wrong stuff to the wrong person on the wrong day. A receptionist passing messages by Post-It will lose more customers than they can ever get back by being polite and friendly on the phone.

The Post-It is not the problem, it’s a symptom. It is the remnant of the spirit of disorganisation, the ectoplasm of the ghost of chaos. In companies, these visitations are very costly, so exorcising them should be a good manager’s preoccupation. When I started at Fireco, I did all in my power to facilitate. We have the miracle of what we call The Google, a mix of G-Suite, including Google Apps, Drive, Google app engine and a Google hosted database all knitted together within our own domain. But how does it help?

Two years ago, in my first months at Fireco, I reached a crisis point with our Quality Management System. I thought it overblown, irrelevant and frankly an ocean-going nuisance. It was not helping the company, it was holding it back. Michelle, our Operations Director agreed and she took the initiative. She slapped a non-conformance on the whole thing (no, not a Post-It) and set about redesigning a completely new QMS. She worked to the new 2015 version of ISO9001 and last year we were one of the first companies in the world to become accredited to the new standard. Michelle used The Google extensively, linking documents together in a structured way, using Google Forms to collect data and Google Sheets for live KPI dashboards.

The external auditor who came to do our three year renewal last week was impressed. Mainly this was down to Michelle’s thoroughness and competence. He did also mention that he liked our systems and that for every question he asked from whomever he asked it, an answer would pop up on a screen somewhere within seconds. He could not find even minor non-conformances. “I can’t even make any recommendations for improvement,” he said.

The Next Cucumber

The Next Cucumber

Notices are one of those things that give me nervous twitches. If you want a clue about what an organisation is like, read its notices. A notice is so often a sign of a glitch in the works. For the sake of my sanity, I have named these gltches cucumbers, as explained in a previous post.

This is only partly a neurosis. My reasoning comes from reading notices and observing that they are so often forbidding or negative. Sometimes they are documented proof of procrastination – why fix a problem today when you can stick on a badly written notice? Some of us use a notice to relieve frustration: wild and underlined scribbles about ‘please shut the bloody door’, for example. Finally, notice writers have a habit of using negative, official and even poorly spelt phrases. ‘These Gent’s are OUT OF ORDER for Decorating Purposes. Use the floor above’ might be replaced with ‘these loos are being decorated to make them nicer for you. They should be fresh, bright and ready again on Friday. Please use other loos upstairs in the meantime’. We would probably all agree that reading the second notice might at least put us in a better frame of mind, and may avoid inconvenient misunderstandings.

In companies, angry notices are often for the benefit of employees, which is bad enough. The notices that I find most puzzling are those which are used to boss customers around – or even worse to announce that a product or service is lacking in some way. Hotels with ‘guests are kindly requested…’ notices are really saying ‘we find you troublesome and would rather you didn’t keep doing irritating things’. For ‘please queue here’ read ‘get on the naughty step’. In my head, the best thing is to design an environment so that you don’t have to bark at your customer in parking ticket language. If something is broken, fix it. If you want customers to queue, design your floor so that it’s just easy and obvious to see where to go.

And so to the Next cucumber. I was in a Next store recently. I had already noticed that they were behind with their payment systems – you can’t pay with contactless. More and more customers want to use their contactless cards and even their phones to pay. The two important words in that sentence are ‘customers want’. Instead of caving in to what customers want, the company remains obstinately chip and pin years after the introduction of the friendlier ways to pay. All the machines in the store had the same notice on each handset ‘not contactless, sorry’. It was someone’s job on a particular day to write it out a hundred times, like a schoolchild in detention.

In business schools these days, there is a lot of talk about the voice of the customer.  An equal amount of time is given to employee engagement. Billions are spent searching for clues about what customers want and what will make employees more productive. And yet the clues are there to see – just look on the notices, stickers and banners under our noses.

I have just about enough self-awareness to realise that I might be wrong. It may be that notices are the way ahead. Perhaps we are all so bored with nice, polite communication that a terse scrawl is the best conveyor of messages and ideas. If so, just to cover a potential hole in our company’s marketing collateral, PLEASE READ THE FOLLOWING:

The Chicken and the Wheelie Bin

The Chicken and the Wheelie Bin

I used to be quite calm about door wedges before I worked at Fireco. Even on fire doors. In hotels, solicitors’ offices, doctors’ surgeries, schools, universities, factories, communal areas in blocks of flats, village halls – in any place you can think of, the door wedge rules. It’s cheap, it’s effective and it’s lethal.

So calm was I that I never noticed them. It seems that I was typical of most of the world’s population. When the fire door is in the way, you wedge it open. Obvious, really.

Fire doors can indeed be a nuisance anywhere where people want access. Guests in hotels with heavy suitcases get stuck between fire doors like wasps in jam jars. Trays of nibbles at corporate events are sent flying by them. Residents in care homes are too weak to push through them and become isolated. Students in halls of residence are frequently injured by them.

So, it can be difficult to accept that a properly used fire door is a vital lifesaver. Even the simplest risk assessment anywhere with fire doors with the slightest human traffic will identify a wedge as a very significant risk. Clearly, compliance is a problem and there are serious repercussions if you do nothing. Such fire safety breaches are viewed gravely by the courts which hand out prison sentences to serious offenders.

Fire doors can cause problems for students

You can retain fire doors electrically, but it can be expensive and difficult to chase cables back through to the fire panel. At Fireco, we exist to make compliance easy, so we have safe, legal and simple solutions to this problem.

We have got rid of the wires by making battery operated systems. Over six hundred thousand Dorgards have been sold in the UK. The problem is, that with 30 million fire doors in the UK alone, I still encounter a lot of dangerously wedged doors when out on my travels. Now I know how easy it is to be compliant and how dangerous they are, each wedged door leaves me as calm as a chicken stuck in a wheelie bin.

We are on a mission to make compliance even easier with the new Dorgard Pro.  It hears the sound of the fire alarm accurately without being falsely triggered by children, drills and vacuum cleaners. Its battery life is being extended to five years, lasting as long as the fire door itself in some cases. It is being made more rugged and hard wearing. It can also communicate by radio to a central point where you can monitor all your Dorgards to check that they are working. So if you already benefit from Dorgard, call us to find out how we will make compliance even easier.

Do Gnats Get Verrucas?

Do Gnats Get Verrucas?

Pneumatic Vice – Child’s play?

When I was ten, I remember playing with a compressed air vice where my Dad worked designing and selling automation products. He was in his office, probably wondering which hydrocheck or solendoid operated valve to use and happily smoking. In the workshop next door I too was absorbed, entertained, and probably in significant danger of losing a limb. It was an important start in life and led to my permanent fascination with engineering.

My uncle helped too. Don would occasionally turn up at our house, usually on a Sunday. He worked as a Technician at the BBC research labs and was therefore a target for my questions about electronics. He taught me how to bias a BC107 transistor and how to use a 555 timer chip to flash that newfangled device: a red light emitting diode.

It was a fun time, the 70s, but everybody smoked everywhere. When Don’s work colleague was repairing an expensive valve amplifier in his lunch break, it was time for a practical joke. Don rigged up a length of plastic tube into the back of the amplifier. At the moment of truth, the amplifier was switched on for testing. Unseen, Don took a hefty drag on his cigarette and blew down the tube from his nearby desk causing just just the right amount of panic and confusion followed by enough tear-rolling laughter for his ex-colleagues to still talk about it now.

Modern Components - Smaller Than a Gnat's

Modern Components – Smaller Than a Gnat’s

At Fireco, we are in the final stages of product development with a much improved version of Dorgard due out in January, so an engineering background has been useful. Things have changed a little since the 70s though. A resistor is a simple component with two legs. Well it used to have legs and look rather like a wasp with a wire coming out of the front and the back. Now, a resistor is smaller than a gnat at 1mm long and half as wide. Time has passed, and my ability to see small things has diminished with it. It’s a young person’s game now; you have to be able to see a verruca on a gnat to survive. The photo above shows two resistors on our Transmitter prototype board. The huge slab of copper next to them is a one pence piece!

It’s a strange thing about innovation, new features and products – it often attracts the wrong sort. People who often like to call themselves inventors think that the world is on the edge of its seat agog for their next flash of brilliance. For example, who designed the Sony BKB50 keyboard to go with the Xperia Android tablet? Own up at the back. You put an LED on the edge which flashes in the dark like a demented firefly. What for?  It helps nobody and means that your product wakes up your customers in hotel rooms when they least want to be roused. It makes them stumble about in the middle of the night looking for a lightproof bag into which they can dump your invention so that they can get back to sleep. This is what I described in my last rant as a cucumber.

Pointless Flashing LED. Stop it, Sony.

Pointless Flashing LED. Stop it, Sony.

So, we are busy avoiding cucumbers in our new products. Will Dorgard have a USB socket in the future? An inventor will claim it’s a great feature to allow new software to be downloaded and secretly they probably want to fix bugs after the product is sold.  No, we are providing a fully featured and working product as new. Will Dorgard learn the sound of a fire alarm? No, it already knows what a fire alarm sounds like out of the box. Does it have a display? No, we do not want to give our customers holes in the knees of their trousers.

Our new Dorgard will be even better than the existing model which has already sold many more than half a million units. It will be even more reliable, it will last longer and it will make it even easier to comply with fire regulations.


Cats and Cucumbers or Why We Don’t Buy

Cats and Cucumbers or Why We Don’t Buy

There are many videos on YouTube of cats; cute ones, stroppy ones, cats doing tricks and cats jumping out of boxes. One cat video that I found particularly fascinating was the cucumber trick. While the cat under test is chowing down on its dinner, our YouTuber puts a cucumber on the floor behind it. When the cat finishes and turns around, some primeval instinct takes over and makes him jump feet into the air with fright. It’s as unexpected as it is interesting – an artefact of the primeval brain that is hard wired to run from danger.

Books on Neuromarketing will tell you that it’s the same part of the brain which makes buying decisions as makes cats jump at unexpected cucumbers. This means that we are all frightened away by strange things before we buy. Phone menus, rudeness, complexity in products, unreliability: these are all cucumbers which companies should be very wary of allowing near their customers. The list is not complete, customers can be put off by the most unexpected things and these things are hard to diagnose. When we are quizzed about why we don’t buy something, most of us lie and say that the reason is to do with price. When I hear a customer tell me a product is too expensive, I smell a cucumber.

When I started at Fireco, it was the natural thing for me to begin by identifying what it was that we do; our fundamental “raison d’être”. Whilst I have always been more than a little sceptical of a grinning Californian business culture which must have its vision, its mission, its goals and so on, the benefit of this in my mind is to help everybody understand what we don’t do – so we can avoid getting distracted. It became clear after careful investigation that we were quite good at making it easy to comply with fire regulations. Dorgard has been doing this for 20 years and doing it well. So, we now have our strapline “Compliance Made Easy”. Straight away, that resonated with me as it hints at the absence of cucumbers for our customers.

Unnecessary complexity?

The removal of cucumbers has become so natural now at Fireco that my colleagues and I find their appearance elsewhere remarkable. Alarming even. In a review of competing products, I was surprised at the cucumbers I found. I encountered difficult and time consuming setup, poor consistency, poor reliability, complex instructions, each of them capable of making a customer jump. It’s one thing to be faced with such things if you have bought something yourself, say a TV and you are faced with these things in the privacy of your own living room. It’s quite another if you are installing them for someone else on their premises. In that situation, ease of installation, reliability, consistency are everything. You want the products to be as ‘lick and stick’ as it gets.

Here at Fireco, the cucumber hunt goes on. We’ll be improving our call handling, our order processing will become much slicker and we’ll make other customer service improvements over the next year. New products will come out next year and they have been vetted for cucumbers. We have an electronic form called a Code of Practice report which anybody at Fireco can fill in when they spot something that’s not right – I should rename it Cucumber Watch.

When you are choosing products, whoever you are, you may think that you are calmly and logically assessing columns of numbers, weighted factors and adding them all up. The relatively new science of Neuromarketing says that in fact you are not. So, look out for the cucumbers and try to consciously take them into account. And if you see any that I should know about, please let me know.

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