Wednesday, July 6, 2016

The Seismologists and the Street Department

A crooked curb in California is a perfect example of how difficult it is to manage important places in our communities.

Photo showing the offset in the curb along Rose and Prospect Streets caused by the movement of the Hayward Fault - photo from

For decades, scientists documented the curb along Rose and Prospect Streets in the city of Hayward, California as it was slowly pushed apart by the Hayward Fault which travels perpendicular to the street. Geologists and interested citizens frequently visited the curb as an active experiment and perfect illustration of the forces constantly working along the fault. A website called shows how the fault has moved since the early 1970s.

Earlier this summer, however, a city crew decided to fix the curb as part of general street maintenance. The scientific community was stunned and disappointed, but the city of Hayward said they had no idea of the significance of this curb. The city was simply acting on a mandate to provide safe streets to the public. The city said they would likely have worked with the scientific community had they been aware of the importance of this place.  While geologists lament the loss of this scientific landmark, they note that despite the city’s best efforts, the Hayward Fault will resume its work separating the curb.

The curb in Hayward shares three things in common with many other important places -  
1 – It is meaningful to a specific community – Geologists considered this an important site for observing seismic activity.
2 – This significance is not evident to those outside that community – The city of Hayward merely saw the curb as a hazard that needed to be fixed.
3 – It lacks any formal mechanism for protection – The curb lacked markers identifying the area, and had no regulatory restriction on activities such as street repair.

The curb also teaches us some valuable lessons. People who value places need to be aware of potential threats to these places, and should consider any steps necessary to protect them. Regulations may be an option, but many times simply reaching out to other members of the community can increase awareness of important places and improve options for protection.

Project proponents should consider the potential for their projects to affect important places, no matter how mundane they may seem. Open communication with the local community and other stakeholders can help avoid help avoid unintentional impacts, project delays, and negative publicity.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Being an expert doesn’t mean you have all the answers – or – “What a fisherman can teach an archaeologist.”

Researchers now believe that Roman troops used lead sling bullets drilled with small holes to create a sharp whistling noise to frighten their enemies (link to the full article here).

Previously archaeologists thought the holes were used to hold poison, but experiments revealed this to be an ineffective technique.

The insight into the purpose of these holes came from an unlikely source.

Archaeologist John Reid was discussing the problem of the sling bullet holes when his brother, an avid fisherman, suggested the holes would create a whistling noise in flight.  Reid, initially doubtful, soon realized his brother was on to something.

"I said, 'Don't be stupid; you've no idea what you're talking about. You're not an archaeologist,'" Reid joked. "And he said, 'No, but I'm a fisherman, and when I cast my line with lead weights that have got holes in them like that, they whistle.'"
"Suddenly, a light bulb came on in my head — that's what they're about. They're for making a noise," Reid said.

Archaeologists now believe that these sling bullets were used to intimidate and frighten in close quarter combat.

While this particular revelation is primarily of interest to Roman Archaeologists, we can all learn a lesson from Reid’s experience. Consider his position – he’s an expert, he’s spent his entire career thinking about history and archaeology. If anyone can figure out the purpose of these tiny holes it’s him. But all this knowledge, education, and years of experience failed to provide the answer that was obvious to his brother, the fisherman.

It’s easy to fall back to our comfort zone and rely on our experience and training. And for good reason – we put in all this hard work to get where we are. But we also risk missing something that seems clear and plain from another point of view. The key is to recognize when our experience simply isn’t enough.

Photo  - attribution - Creative Commons - By Peter van der Sluijs (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Thursday, March 31, 2016

How Bad Management can Sabotage Great Customer Service

At Orbis we often need to travel for meetings or project work and like many companies we fill this need by renting vehicles. We have been primarily working with one "enterprising" company and the staff at the individual offices have been very helpful - they are accommodating, flexible, and generally pleasant.

But we've had less success working with the corporate side of the company. The process of establishing our company account has been uneven at best. At times we've received inconsistent answers to questions, but at other times it's difficult to get any response at all.

I recently reached out to the corporate representative for our area to address some of these issues. After multiple messages she finally responded - we had a pleasant phone call during which she agreed to follow up with some information about our account. 

A week passed, but no response. So I followed up and the representative claimed she thought she had emailed the information (if she did, I never received it), but promised to resend it (still nothing).

On our call she claimed that she was happy to have our business, but she's doing practically everything she can to lose it. To be frank, I would have already moved on, but this company has the only rental cars available where some of our staff are located. Nevertheless, we're considering all other options.

Frontline employees are often the face of customer service and can receive the bulk of attention when things go wrong between a company and those it serves. But if the corporate management isn't aligned with the frontline staff, it can severely damage the customer relationship, despite the staff's best efforts.

Ask yourself - as a business leader - are you treating your customers how you would like your employees to? Are your habits aligned with your corporate values? If not, you're doing more damage to your company than you know.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Insurance - Are you covered?

Many small business owners prefer to focus their energy on the external aspects of their business, rather than be caught up in the day-to-day minutiae. After-all, isn't the saying "Work "on" your business, not "in" your business"?

While it's true that leaders at small businesses can fall into the trap of working on tasks better delegated to other employees, or subcontracted to outside experts, it's easy to take this mindset too far, and simply ignore important things, until it's too late.

Take insurance coverage for instance. For small businesses, this can be a major expense, but coverage for general liability, workers compensation, auto, and professional liability are essential. Many times these, and other coverages are required by contract terms, and may protect your company from being ruined by an otherwise straightforward claim.

Small businesses in particular, however, are vulnerable to the assumption that previous coverage remains suitable for the future operation of the firm. New, or fast growing companies can quickly outgrow current coverages by adding new staff, buying new equipment, or expanding into new locations, or adding new services. This growth, while positive, can expose your company to additional liability and unexpected costs.

Here at Orbis, we're reviewing our current coverage with our insurance broker to identify any gaps in coverage, something we've done on an annual basis each spring. I recommend any small businesses do the same - very fast growing firms (>100% annual growth) may need to review more often.

Don't let something that should protect your business become a threat. If it has been over a year since you have reviewed your current insurance coverage call your agent or broker today.

Monday, January 11, 2016

What a Kicker can Teach you About your Own Mistakes

We all make mistakes. It's part of what makes us human beings. We hope to learn from them, but without understanding more about why these mistakes happened, this can be difficult. Sometimes it can be hard to take an honest look back at a mistake, but often this is the only way to find out why it happened in the first place.

This past weekend two National Football League teams lost playoff games they could have easily won. A real time statistic called Win-Probability showed that the Minnesota Vikings had a 78% chance to win with 22 seconds remaining in their game, while the Cincinnati Bengals were even bigger locks to come out ahead, having greater than a 90% chance to win with less than two-minutes to play.

But both teams made crucial mistakes that cost them their games.

The Bengals had just intercepted the Pittsburgh Steelers, and only needed to run out time remaining on the clock. But shortly after fumbling the ball back to Pittsburgh, the Bengals were called for two major penalties. What's important to know is that these were conduct penalties given when a player loses his temper - essentially a mental error - rather than for a physical mistake. Pittsburgh took advantage of the better field position as a result and kicked the game winning field goal.

In the other game, the Vikings were lining up to kick a 27-yard field goal with 22 seconds left in their contest against the Seattle Seahawks. A kick at this distance is virtually a lock, and was something their kicker had done over and over again all season. In fact he had only missed once at that distance in his four year career, and only two kickers in the entire NFL missed a field goal under 30 yards this season. But despite these odds, he missed badly, and the Seahawks held on to win.

Today players and coaches from both teams are asking themselves "what if?”, wondering if there was anything they could have done differently.  While most of us may not work for professional sports teams, we can relate. If you work anywhere long enough, eventually you're going to make a mistake. Maybe it's something small, but maybe it's a big one. It could be embarrassing, cost your company money, clients, or customers. You might find yourself in the same place as these two football teams - asking "what if".

As I said earlier, it's important to step back to look at why these mistakes happened. Both teams wish things worked out differently, but these were two very different types of mistakes.

The Vikings had put themselves in the position to win the game. Their kicker had made kicks like that one, over and over again in games and practices. He could probably go out there today and make it right now. His preparation and skill has made him one of the best kickers in the league. He just missed.

But for the Bengals, there's more to it. Despite a similar physical mistake - the fumble - they were still leading and likely to win. But they lost control of their situation, and by committing those penalties, put themselves in the position to lose the game.

Look back at a recent mistake at your organizaiton. Did you put yourself in a position to be successful, or did you set yourself up for failure? Be honest.

Sometimes you do everything you can, and you just miss. Maybe a competitor underbids you, or maybe a quirk in the weather affects your inventory. If your processes are good, trust in your experience. Don’t overreact to a single miss.

Monday, January 4, 2016

Organizational Health - Have a Plan - or - "How to avoid the rabbit hole"

"If you don't know where you're going, any road will take you there."

This quote is often attributed to Lewis Carroll, the author of Alice in Wonderland. While it actually paraphrases longer dialog between Alice and the Cheshire Cat, the message remains clear. Without a plan, you're likely to end up just about anywhere.

Consider two organizations. Both operate at the highest level in their industry. They are direct competitors, each with an extremely loyal customer base. But the similarities end there.

Organization 1 - This organization has been owned by the same family since the 1930s and has had only three changes in leadership since 1969. This organization is widely regarded as one of the most successful groups in its industry and typically performs well each year. It has been the top performing organization in the field six times since 1975.

Organization 2 - This organization has undergone numerous ownership changes and has changed leadership five times since 2008. The current owners have hired (and subsequently fired) nine individuals to fill their most publicly visible employee spot since 2012. This company tends to struggle, and according to a major metric, has had only one successful year since 1999.

It's not difficult to see why one organization succeeds while the other struggles. The first group clearly has a well-defined organizational strategy, with support from ownership through the front line employees.

The second group obviously lacks any cohesive organizational plan and has little alignment between ownership, management, and the employees. With that much turnover, everyone might need to wear name tags.

Of course stability doesn't guarantee success, but chronic instability makes success very difficult, if not impossible. Imagine working for a company that institutes sweeping changes every few years, and each time the new leaders claim "This time, we're going to do it the right way." They do this while knowing that the last team was fired after only a year or two. This creates an unhealthy, toxic environment where people are focused on self-preservation rather than organizational success.

The two organizations I've described above are two teams in the National Football League.

Organization 1 - Pittsburgh Steelers
Organization 2 - Cleveland Browns

You might say - "Well, these are professional football teams, the talent of the athletes on the field is what really matters, not the health of the organization."

Sure - any team may have a short run of success driven by pure talent and a bit of good fortune, but sooner or later, luck will run out. This holds true for professional sports, major corporations, small businesses, or any local organization.

Well defined strategic goals, metrics to track performance toward those goals, and alignment throughout the organization to achieve those goals can help any organization be successful over the long term.

Take some time to evaluate the goals of your organization and establish ways to track your progress. If you've created a solid plan, be patient, trust in the process.

Otherwise you'll spend all your time falling down rabbit holes.

Friday, October 30, 2015


Doing one simple thing can help you stand our among your peers and competitors, while also improving your relationships - both professional and personal. No matter where you work, or whether you are still in school; if you volunteer at a Not-for-Profit or at a community organization; own a small business, or work at large corporation; or belong to a hobby group; you can do one simple thing to stand out among your colleagues, peers, and competitors. What is it?


That’s it. Respond. Be responsive.

In an increasingly connected world, there is relatively little ‘new under the sun’, but you can differentiate yourself from the crowd by simply being responsive.

Look – I’m not pretending that I’m the first one to make this point, but if experience is any indication, many people continue to struggle with this very basic act.

Think about the time you tried scheduling a contractor for a project at home – and the genuine surprise you felt (if you were fortunate) when the person returned your call, or more likely the frustration (if you weren’t), as you left message after message.

A friend of mine recently needed a floor refinished at his newly purchased home, but after agreeing to a job with a contractor onsite, he found himself having to hire someone else because the original contractor simply wouldn’t call him back. The company lost not only the original project, but any subsequent work or referral jobs.

“I meant to call back, but I’m too busy” – you say.

Again – I’m not breaking any news by saying this – we all have the same 24 hours in each day. By choosing not to respond in a particular situation you’re simply deciding that situation is not a priority for you. Maybe that’s fine, but be careful that your actions align with your actual priorities. If you find yourself so harried and disorganized that you are unable to be responsive, you risk damaging meaningful personal and professional relationships at the expense of trivial interactions.

Stop prioritizing things that detract from your true priorities and you’ll have time to deal with the meaningful things in your life. By doing this one simple thing you’ll notice improved interaction in all your relationships, professional and personal (no more awkward Thanksgiving Dinners…).
I’m not suggesting you drop everything each time the phone rings or for each app notification. If you are truly busy, simply acknowledge the call, email, text, etc. and request a better time to follow up. You will find that most people will be perfectly happy to reschedule, satisfied in simple acknowledgement of their contact. This goes both ways – people will be also more likely to help you if they’re not spending all their time tracking you down.

We've all had experiences where simple responsiveness helped to land a project, or avoid potentially damaging misunderstandings. And unfortunately, I'm guessing many of you have been frustrated by a lack of responsiveness - it may have even contributed to a larger problem. Feel free to share any stories in the comments. I'll respond - I promise.