Monday, February 23, 2009

Don't surprise the customer!

I recently purchased a replacement toner cartridge for my laser printer.  I really, really wanted an OEM cartridge.  My experience with compatible ink jet cartridges were unsatisfactory and even though OEM was significantly more expensive, I believe that's the way to go for the best quality results.  Since I use my laser printer for business correspondence, it is important to have crisp, clear copies.  

Furthermore, as a toner cartridge for a SOHO printer ages, the light sensitive imaging tube becomes less sensitive and the copies start to come out grey.  So, simply refilling the toner powder won't do either.

However, I was horrified to see the prices for the OEM cartridge.  Nothing less than $75, some over $85, and then there's shipping! Yowza!  $120 for a cartridge -- I could practically purchase a new printer for that!  I seriously thought about it, but knowing that my wife would kill me for such blantant consumerism, I went back to looking for a replacement cartridge.

I Googled, and Googled.  Seriously searched for an OEM cartridge that would be less.  I would have been happy with $60 shipped.  I was delighted to find a site that was selling a cartridge for $32 shipped.  That's was the same price as the compatible and refurbished cartridges.  I check and double checked to make sure that this was an OEM cartridge.

The product ID was the same as the OEM ID -- "ML 1210D3".  Check

The product description was the same as the OEM -- "Samsung ML-1210 D3".  Check

The description did not say "compatible", "refurbished", "refilled" or any such thing.  No where did it use those words on the product page.  I even searched for them. Big Check.

I placed my order satisified that I had finally done it!  I found a site that was selling OEM cartridges for deep discounts.  I was ready to trumpet the value of this place.

However, when the product came, it was clearly a knock off.  I called and emailed the company.  I pulled my receipt.   Yep, "Samsung ML-1210 D3"  I was not expecting a knock off.

I got a response in less than 24 hours.  Here is the first line:  "If you would have read our paragraph about what we do on our homepage you would have read we provide toner replacements for expensive name brands(OEM)"

I never saw the home page.  I came to the product page from a Google product search.  I never saw -- and I looked for -- something that said I was purchasing a knock off brand.  In my mind, this is a complete failure on behalf of the company.  It's folly to assume that your customers are (1) going to enter your site on the home page and (2) read it if they do.  

This isn't right.  I will not ever do business with this company again for any reason whatsoever. There isn't any need to.  They have so much competition and their products and their service is an absolute commodity.  Plus, they surprised me and then blamed me for it.  By the way, I did look at the home page.  It does say that.  Right in the middle of a paragraph of text that I never would ever have ever read ever.

Here's the take away lesson:  Don't do this!  Do not suprise your customers unless it makes them very, very happy!

If you are in the product industry, you must make sure that your customer knows what they are getting and are satisified with the value of the product.  If you are in the service industry, you must ensure that your customer knows what they are getting and are satisfied with the value of the service.  Unpleasantly surprising the customer is the very best way to kill your up sale potential.  

But, Peter, you say, I can't spend all day hand-holding every customer.  Sure, OK, I'm good with that.  However, you can -- and you must -- ensure that your customer knows what they are getting.  Period.  Your promotional material, your descriptions, your literature needs to be complete and honest.  Because you can't afford to acquire a new customer for every single sale.

You might be interested in which company it was.  I was initially going to reveal that, but I decided not to make this a "bash the company" posting because I really want the lesson of good customer relationships to come out.  So, I'm not going to say.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Fixing a Mortise and Tenon Joint

The mortise and tenon joint is a strong and reliable way to keep two pieces of wood together. The Stokke Tripp Trapp chair uses them to keep the angled side pieces connected to the foot pieces.  All of our kids have used Tripp Trapps, or similar, chairs from the time they could sit up right long enough to eat (and were interested in solid food).  From toddler through third grade or so, the chairs brought every one to the table without high chair trays and other barriers.

However, as the kids got older, that mortise and tenon joint would loosen on each chair. Inevitably, I would have to disassemble the chair, glue up that joint and clamp it together.

Well, now we don't need most of those chairs and so we're passing them along. One of the chairs has a pretty loose joint so I bring it down to my shop.  I pull the foot plate off and take a look. Well, now, I had already glued up this puppy quite a few years ago and remembered it well.  

It was the first time that I had seen a tenon that broke off such that part of the tenon remained inside the mortise.  I don't find it a problem to fix a split piece of wood.  All those funny cracks and angles are extra surface area with which to make good contact between the two pieces. Frankly, I was rather surprised that it had failed again.  All that extra wear from folks much older than 8 years old using the chair took its toll and the chair needed to be re-glued.  I rasped off (most) of the old glue, filled it up and jammed the pieces back together.

After the glue set, I put the chair together and noticed that it wobbled pretty badly.  That glue job stank.  The foot board, which has the tenon, wasn't even close to fitting to the vertical with the mortise.  The whole thing needed to be pulled apart and redone.  Back down to the shop.

It took some time and care to chip away the glue and carefully loosen the joint.  

Now I took a close look at that joint.  I fit the pieces together and measured a 3/16" gap.  Oh boy, that's a big gap.

I scraped off more old glue, rasped off a bit of wood that had swollen and tried again.  Nope.  I repeated the process for quite a while.  I got the gap down to 1/16", but no matter what I tried, I wasn't getting a flush joint.  This time, though, I was determined to get a flush joint.

Somehow I needed to figure out why the tenon wasn't going flush into the mortise.  There were doubtlessly high spots on both mortise and tenon that were keeping things apart.

I remembered something my dad, a dentist, did when he was fitting a new bridge or cap onto a patient.  He had these nifty pieces of red and blue paper and he would have the patient bite down of the paper.  Where red or blue was left was where the new tooth was too high and needed to be ground down.  I needed something similar; some way of marking the mortise so that I could see where material needed to be removed.

I took out my shop pencil and generously colored the tenon.  Then, I pushed it back into the mortise and tapped it into place.  The picture below shows the tenon covered with graphite where I first thought the problem may have been.  I later covered the entire tenon with graphite.

Sure enough, when I pulled the pieces apart, inside the mortise and rubbed away from the tenon were the areas that were making contact.  In the picture to the left, you can see the dark marks where the graphite was rubbed off the tenon onto the mortise.  I got out my dremel and rifling files and got to work.

It took a few repeats to find all the offending surfaces and then so smooth everything down to nice finishes.  I would take out the tenon, cover it with graphite from the pencil, tap it into place, pull it out and look for the marks.  Then, using dremel, rasps and sand paper, work down the offending area.  I worked the both the mortise and the tenon in alternating turns so that I wouldn't introduce too much of a gap.  I would rather repeat the process a few times than have a joint with too much space.  No matter how much glue I would then use, the joint would never be satisfactory.

After I repeated the process a half dozen times or so, I was satisfied with the way the two pieces fit together.  It looks like the way it belonged and should have been in the first place.  The final joint is on the right.  Nice and tight.  I cleaned off all the graphite and used Gorilla Glue to fasten everything permenantly and bound the foot board to the riser with to band clamps, one along the bottom of the foot and the other making a right angle with the riser.

Now that will be a nice joint that will take full advantage of the structural strength of the tight mortise and tenon joint and will let the next users of the chair raise their kids on it.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

A great demo movie

Boy, I wish I had an active project RIGHT NOW. Because I just watched the FogBugz demo at This was the most enjoyable and informative demo movie that I have ever seen. Bar none.

The CEO, Joel Spolsky, and one of the programmers, Babak Ghahremanpour, talk casually about FogBugz, which is a hosted or in-house project management system. Their dialog, which is friendly (except for when they rip into poor Milton Richie), informative and interesting, told me everything that I could want to know about FogBugz's functionality.

I am so excited about this that I have even done my normal due diligence of looking for reviews and independent assessments. I'm ready to start my free trial, just because I can!

Hmm, maybe they need a really great product manager. Gotta go.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

What is the biggest problem you have with your camcorder?

I've been wondering about this. For me, I have tapes that I can't see,
stuff I can't find and dozens of tapes to manage. I love having the
record, but what good is it if the media will decay and I can't see my

Please share your thoughts on the matter. I've made a poll on LinkedIn
with their new poll feature. Please come and vote at


Monday, February 02, 2009

Mysteries of On-Time & On-Budget revealed

Yes, true believers, now is the time of your enlightenment. For years have you stumbled in the dark, arms raised, hands reaching, gingerly feeling for obstacles. You have relied upon truisms and common sense to get you to your goal, knowing that if you only stay on the straight and narrow, you would succeed.

I, too, once believed the same. I, too, used to tout that the way to success was a straight and narrow path, fraught with danger and risk. "DO NOT STRAY FROM THE PATH!" I used to preach, "for the number of roads to ruin are immeasurable, but that way to enlightenment is straight."

Horse hooey and poppycock.

Now hear this: You can build successful products on-time and on-budget over and over again. Here is the secret: constraint. Yes, if you have the discipline to constrain yourself, then you will experience the joy of on-time, on-budget.

The way it used to be

Here is what we all used to do. Tell me if this doesn't sound familiar.

Identify functionality (often in a room full of executive and managers). Document and define functionality. Design application -- user interface, object model, database schema. Finely define functionality for each component, estimate the work involved, identify risks and opportunities, weight the estimates with the risk category and produce a schedule. Assign costs to the schedule and develop a budget. Add padding. Review the preliminary specification (which hardly anyone would read), the preliminary schedule (which would invariably be pulled in for "business reasons"), the preliminary budget (which would be reduced). Revise, regurgitate. Stamp with seal of approval.

Begin work. If you were good, you would track progress against estimates. Within the first 25% of the project you were either on time, or you were slipping. If you were good, you would fix the causes that were making things slip, but for most of the projects, most of the time, you simply raised the flag "We are slipping." No one paid any attention until the last 25% of the project, desperately trying to fix something in the last 10%. Herculean efforts, late nights, long weeks, weekends, etc. You finished.

Congratulations, you had 85% of the functionality, were 20% over budget and 15% over deadline. Or something not too far from that.

You had a party, celebrated the success and kicked off the next project the next morning. After all, you had sufficient headroom and padding to ensure that even with this scheduling and budgeting failure, the product worked.

In reality, the majority of efforts did not produce a successfully released product. This is still true today.

The way it will be

Here is how you will change your life and be successful in producing remarkable products.

You will talk to your customers. Even if you are creating a brand new product for a new market that doesn't even exist yet, you will be selling it to someone. Find them. Talk to them. Call them. Ask leading questions. Listen. Ask and listen again and again.

This process will still produce a list of functionality. However, because you have gotten the pulse of real consumers who would pay real money for your product, you will know what is important to them.

Put the most important functionality at the top of prioritized list. Now figure out what is the least amount of work that it will take to produce the most important functionality. You are permitted to deliver only the top most item if necessary.

Now you may go ahead with your process. Design the user interface, object models and database schema. Break down each component and make work estimates, identify and assess risks and produce a weighted work effort. Apply costs to the work effort estimates to create a budget. Do not pad. Your weighted work effort already includes risk factors.

This is where you stop and take a breath. If the costs of producing only the most important functionality are greater than the market opportunity, then there is no justification for producing the product and you are done. Shelf the idea and go onto the next thing. You just saved yourself a huge bundle of effort and money.

However, if the cost/benefit equation is positive, then you know exactly what it will take to make a product with one tightly focused set of compelling functionality. Now it is time to begin your race.

Your purpose is to produce the most important piece of functionality first. Make it work to the exclusion of all else. You are in a race against time and dollars. Every day, whether you are using Gantt charts or Backlogs, you must make this assessment "Are we doing the right work to produce the most important functionality?"

Here is where you ability to constrain yourself and your team pays off. New feature requests? Put them in the parking lot. Changed functionality requests? Parking lot too. Your ability to focus your team to constrain their work will bring you success.

Plus, you will have noticed that you have a much, much shorter time line then you used to produce. The old way had you implementing all the identified functionality. Now you are implementing on the most important functionality. In my experience, my time lines went from six months to three weeks on average with this approach. Assuming only 4 weeks per month (it's really about 4.3 weeks per month), then I can do eight iterative cycles in the same six month period. EIGHT! That is a lot of opportunity for addition and improvement.

By the way, your team includes the executive staff, management staff, and line staff. It includes Marketing, Sales, Operations, Engineering, and Customer Support. After all, your company is the vessel and if there is a hole in the bow, the stern goes down too, so everyone is responsible for keeping things ship-shape. Keeping your entire team focused on accepting the constraints will keep everyone happy with the end results.

Here is the final key. You will STOP and deliver when the FIRST of these three things occurs:

1) You have completed the functionality you intended. OR
2) You have hit the milestone you identified. OR
3) You have spent the budget you identified.

"But, but, but" I hear you sputter, "But what if I hit the milestone and the work isn't done?"

How could that be? Didn't you identify the least amount that needed to be done? Was it really the absolute least amount? Didn't you design the components to fulfill only the least amount of functionality? Didn't you estimate the work and weight those estimates? Didn't you stay focused on delivering only the functionality identified? Didn't you resist the requests, demands and temptations of adding or changing functionality?

If you really did those things, then you really will hit one of those targets successfully.

What happens too often is that the design accounts for future expansion. Or the UI adds additional features that add complexity but are not required implement the most important functionality. Or the database incorporates infrastructure for expansion, growth, additional reporting. In summary, you failed to constrain the work to the most important tasks.

It is very easy to fall into those traps. Which is why company after company, product after product, program, project, etc. make these mistakes over and over. If you can avoid these mistakes, then you can lead your company into iterative, focused product development and enhancements that will keep your efforts prioritized by value to the company. Plus you will deliver on time and on budget.