Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Nuclear Conundrum

Some time ago, I wrote a post  about Bill Gates' talk at TED 2010 -  probably the very best organized talk I've ever heard.   Gates blew me away with his clarity and coherence as he took us through his analysis of the climate change problem.  Basically, he said, 'If climate change is the question, then nuclear is the answer'.

Gates outlined the argument that to attack global poverty, you had to attack climate change, because it was the poor who would suffer the most from climate change.  And if you eliminate all the ways that cannot solve climate change, you're left with nuclear power as the only option.   Of course, this option is anathema to environmentalists, but as Sherlock Holmes put it,“Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.”   One could rephrase that as "Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the answer."

In that talk, Gates introduced a new type of nuclear reactor which uses spent uranium (helping clean up the existing nuclear waste mess) and runs buried underground for 20 years at a time without the need to refuel or remove waste (the activities that introduce immense risk in current nuclear plants).  The technology was developed at TerraPower, a company led by Nathan Myrvold, former chief scientist at Microsoft.

Well, I recently read an article on telling of Gates' visit to China, where he had discussions about introducing this technology there.  Pretty interesting, I thought.  If there's a place that is likely to tip the planet over the climate change abyss, it's developing China.  Wouldn't it be nice if this technology delivers on its promise and China doesn't fuel its growth by building more dirty coal plants?

There's another interesting perspective on this visit in the Washington Post, lamenting that Gates had to go abroad to try to sell this revolutionary idea because the US has become a hostile environment to introducing such revolutionary technology.   As a person who follows innovation, and writings about innovation, pretty closely, that article is part of a chorus of voices disturbed over the US' loss of innovative leadership in the world.

Nixon's visit to China is considered to be pivotal in global affairs; Gates' visit could be even more significant for the planet.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Kobo Vox - worse than the Kobo

A previous blog post contrasted the Kindle and the Kobo.  Since then I have unfortunately discovered that a Kobo cannot survive getting crunched by an airline seat coming to upright position with a Kobo caught in the mechanism.  Sigh.

Still driven by the desire to access e-books from Toronto's wonderful public library, my husband and I decided to replace the Kobo.  When he was out shopping, the Kobo Vox caught his eye and he brought one home.

To make a long story short, we returned the Kobo Vox after a few days of playing with it.  I have already complained about the Kobo being slow in a previous post.  The Vox is even slower!  

I could not figure out how to download books from the library to Kobo Vox (despite previously having done this with the Kobo).  I went to to try to get some guidance on how to do that, to be told that Kobo Vox isn't supported on  As I was searching around the web for info on downloading from a library to the Vox, I read extremely negative reviews on the web features, so I didn't even bother to try that.  Besides, I have an iPad which I love (see my post on that).

My advice: don't buy the Kobo Vox.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Jobs and Jobs

In Steve Jobs, author Walter Isaacson mentions how deeply Jobs was influenced by Christensen's book The Innovator's Dilemma.  But there's another point of intersection between Jobs and Christensen. 

Clayton Christensen has popularized the notion of organizing yourself by considering Jobs to be Done.  Think of customers as people who hire your product to get a job done.  No one wants a 3/4" drill; they want a 3/4" hole.  Christensen advocates organizing your market research around understanding what jobs people need to get done, and to designing your products around getting those jobs done.

The Apple stores were designed around Christensen's idea of Jobs to be Done (although that connection is not explicitly mentioned by Isaacson).

Here's how it happened.  Jobs had decided that in order to control the entire customer experience, Apple had to have retail stores.  The board thought he was crazy.  Jobs knew the way to convince them was to build a prototype store for them to see.

He recruited Ron Johnson, who had been VP for merchandising at Target, to design the stores.  By October 2000, the prototype was just about ready to unveil: a stark minimalist style, designed with Apple flair, and organized around Apple products.  But then Johnson had an epiphany and realized the store needed to organized around the jobs that people want to do, like listening to music, or managing photos.

Apple store - Tyson's Corners
 There was an explosion as Jobs recoiled from the prospect of such a major redesign.  However, after sleeping on it, Jobs knew Johnson was right, and the launch was deferred for a few months in order to get it right. 

A new prototype was built, the board was convinced, and the first Apple store opened in May 2001 in Tyson's Corners, Virginia.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Why I Love my iPad

Two months ago, I didn't have an iPad.

Two months ago, I didn't know I couldn't live without one.

That's a picture of my iPad on the left there.  It has an orange cover because ING Direct Bank (where I'm a director) gave all their directors an iPad for receiving board information and of course ING Direct's colour is orange.  I had been planning to buy one the next day, so this was a very welcome suprise.  And the content management system we're using for board material is definitely a winner.

The stimulus for me to finally buy an iPad was an upcoming five-week trip to India: I wanted to stay in touch and I wanted to store the thousands of photos I expected to take there, but I didn't want to lug around my regular laptop.  It felt like the right time to join the iPad tribe!

The iPad delivered everything I'd hoped for and more. In fact, I'm smitten. Let me take a note from Elizabeth Barret's famous sonnet "How do I love thee?  Let me count the ways".  I'll list things that thrill me about my iPad.  It's hard to put these in order, because they are all important to me.
  1. The iPad screen is absolutely gorgeous.  The picture displays are vibrant.  After I transferred my photos to my computer for storage and manipulation, it really brought home just how great the iPad screen is.  Compared to the iPad, the photos looked washed out on my computer.  They all looked in need of a bit of Photoshop juice to spike the brightness and colour.  
  2. The touch screen is, of course, totally addictive.  In a previous post, I described how much I like the Kindle.  I find myself touching the Kindle screen these days in the futile hope that it will respond to my fingers! I heard an anecdote about a young child of three who was fiddling on his father's computer.  When he touched the screen, nothing happened.  "Daddy, this computer is broken".  This device is forming the expectations of this new generation.  It won't be many years before the mouse will look as antiquated as the old DOS command line, or a rotary dial phone.
  3. The iPad's size is marvellous.  It fits in my purse.  It's always there for doing practical things like taking notes, or indulging in games.  I might feel this way about an iPhone, but I'm too cheap to pay the data charges - it's nice to be able to do everything on WiFi.
  4. The iPad turns on instantly!  On my laptop, I turn it on when I come downstairs in the morning.  Then I go and make my breakfast while it chugs along getting started.  Halfway through my preparations, I go and click on the browser to bring it up.  When I've finished making my breakfast, everything is (finally) ready for me.  As I become accustomed (or addicted) to my iPad, this clunky behaviour makes me more and more frustrated.
  5. I love the apps.  I've always been devoted to the game Boggle, and I love playing its equivalent Word Seek app.  A couple of my grandchildren are fascinated by this game as well.  Another granddaughter loves the Oven Break game, and my sister-in-law and I are enamoured of friendly Talking Tom Cat.  There's still lots to explore here.
  6.  The cunning magnetic foldable cover/stand for the iPad makes me smile every time I use it.  What a clever innovation!
There are a couple of disappointments with my iPad.  There are places in my house where I can't get WiFi connection on the iPad; I do get WiFi on my laptop in those same places.   Cleaerly, there's room for improvement in the WiFi's reception.  And I sure wish the battery lasted longer.  The cord is too short to comfortably use the iPad while it's plugged in.  But these are minor blemishes on a wonderful new companion.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Peter Singer

There was another great talk at Rotman this week, by Peter Singer, CEO of Grand Challenges Canada.  

With boyish enthusiasm and rapid-fire delivery, he described the scope of the global challenges in health and how we must bring rogether science, ethics, and business to address these problems.  Grand Challenges Canada is trying to do just that, innovating on all three fronts.

'Smelly socks' is a great example of on-the-ground - literally - science.   Motivated by the observation that mosquitoes were attracted to smelly socks lying on the ground after a game of soccer, researchers wondered if isolating what made the socks attractive could help in fighting malaria.  Bed nets protect you from mosquitoes inside your home; this can be complemented by placing something outside your home that draws the mosquitoes away.  The research in Tanzania by Dr. Fedros Okumu is being funded jointly by Grand Challenges Canada and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.  

There were several main themes in Singer's talk:

The imperative for innovation In my MBA course, we use this defintion of innovation: fresh thinking that creates value.  A few years ago, there would be quite a debate about whether the word 'shareholder' had to precede value; lately there is no such discussion.  I believe the applicability of innovation to non-business problems is much more accepted.  Singer advocates for integrated innovation, encompassing technological, social and business innovation.
 The need for business involvement:  profitable commercialization  accelerates adoption and distribution.  A to Z Textile Mills in Tanzania is Africa's largest producer of anti-malarial bednets.  Kick-started by funding from the Acumen Fund (a social investment fund), A to Z now produces 29m bednets a year, and provides jobs for 7,000.  This kind of growth is possible because A to Z has a viable, self-supporting business.  Serum Institute in India produces half the vaccines in the world, including meningitis vaccine at 50 cents a pop.  Of course, business involvement raises huge ethical problems too.  Is it reasonable to work with Monsanto, the poster child for bad corporate citizenship, on much-maligned genetically modified crop systems when those crops could save millions from starvation? 
The importance of local involvement:   A vaginal microbicide to fight HIV in South Africa is succeeding with South African sex workers.  Other parts of the world are not seeing the same success rate.  Singer hypothesizes that this is because in South Africa the women use the microbicide just before sex, rather than once a day elsewhere.  It was the sex workers themselves who argued for this approach, because they were working with local people they were comfortable talking to about this sensitive issue. 

The benefits of mixing 'big science' and 'small science':  The Gates Foundation is a good example of an organization that first funded big top-down science and is now also funding many smaller initiatives as well. It's one thing to do the big science to develop antiretrovirals, but how do you get them to the children of HIV-positive mothers in the crucial hours right after birth?  If you can do that, you can prevent or at least vastly reduce the virus' ability to lodge in the child's body and develop into AIDS later.    How about putting in an aluminum pouch, such as we use for ketchup, and giving it to a woman any time during pregnancy with instructions to use it right after birth?  Not big science, but big impact.

The value of collaboration: - Grand Challenges Canada has worked with the Gates Foundation, the Canadian government (who channels some foreign aid money through GCC), the Norwegian government,  and the World Bank to amplify their efforts.
Singer is passionate in his search for solutions to global grand challenges.  He bubbles with a dazzling array of ideas, more than I can cover in a short post - saving lives at birth, unlocking intellectual potential through proper treatment of children, He believes is starting small, in looking at at approaches, and, most importantly, in bringing these initiatives to scale.  Not just scale on individual projects, but finding a way to bring a plethora of projects to scale, simultaneously.

Daniel Kahneman

I first heard Nobel-prize-winning Daniel Kahneman at TED a couple of years ago, when he talked about the difference between experience and the memory of experience (see my post here and watch the TED video here).  Kahneman is a great thinker, and delightful to listen to.  He introduces ideas in a very gentle, intuitive way and takes rather simple and intuitive concepts and formalizes them.  As you reflect on these ideas, their significance grows and sheds light on other things you've observed.  So I signed up quickly for his talk in the Rotman Speaker Series this week. 

In this talk, Kahneman was presenting ideas from his book Thinking, Fast and Slow.  He described two modes of thinking, which he calls System 1 and System 2.

System 1 is all about fast thinking; in the blink of an eye we exploit our past experience, our intuitive reactions and our emotions to come to an answer.  We make all kinds of decisions without even knowing we're making them, using our automatic thinking processes.  It's good to have System 1 thinking, because it would be too exhausting to think through everything with System 2.  For instance, we judge a person's mood by looking at their expression unconsciously and automatically.  We handle the myriad decisions around driving a car in a sort of auto-pilot mode.  When someone says 2+2, we immediately respond 4.

System 2 is more deliberative and thoughtful.  It is more logical.  We are aware that we are thinking.  But it takes much more energy and time.  We would use System 2 to come up with an answer to 17x24. 

Kahneman points out that people are lazy, and we often use the effortless System 1 to answer a question, avoiding the thoughtful effort of thinking it through with System 2.  Take the old chestnut question about a bat and a ball:
A bat and a ball together cost $1.10.
The bat costs $1.00 more than the ball.
How much does the ball cost?
Most people whip out the answer ten cents, without taking time to check the answer, which is patently wrong.  Ten cents is a System 1 answer, given instinctively and without thinking.  Since System 1 thinking is easy, we often don’t apply System 2 thinking when we should and we don’t even use it to check our System 1 thinking.  Kahneman pointed out that giving the wrong answer to that question is not a case of ignorance – even students at MIT get it wrong about 50% of the time, and at some universities up to 85% get it wrong.

When a question is really hard, and demands effortful System 2 thinking, we often substitute an easier question and use System 1 to answer that question.  He described an experiment where students were asked “How happy are you?”  It’s a fairly hard question to come up with an answer to how happy you are because it involves so many factors.  After answering this question, students were asked “How many dates did you have last month?”  This is a relatively easy, quantitative question with a single answer. When asked in this order, there was no correlation between the answers to the two questions.  However, if the students were asked first about the number of dates and then about how happy they were, there was a high correlation.  The students were using number of dates as a proxy for the happiness question – in other words switching to an easier question and using System 1 to answer it.

System 1 is extremely weak at dealing with statistics – it prefers to deal in stories.  And the more coherent the story, the more (unfounded) confidence we have in our System 1  conclusions.  Kahneman described an experiment where people were asked the following two questions before taking a trip, around a time when there had been significant news about terrorist activities:
How much would you pay for travel insurance that pays $100,000 in case of death for any reason?
How much would you pay for travel insurance that pays $100,000 in case of death in a terrorist incident?
People are willing to pay more for the second type of insurance.  The explanation is that System 1 thinking is involved in the second question – the words ‘terrorist incident’ arouse emotions that cause us to make an intuitive System 1 response, although paying more for the second insurance than the first insurance is not a rational decision.

Kahneman told a cute story about himself.  He ran into a colleague in a small hotel in Australia, and was greatly surprised at the coincidence.  What’s the probability, after all?  Two weeks later he met the same colleague at the theatre in London.  Clearly the second incident had even lower probability.  But Kahneman observed he was less surprised in London – he’d already laid in the experience that he tended to meet this colleague in unusual places.  His reaction was based on System 1.

People in marketing understand this dichotomy.  For better or for worse, appealing to System 1's intuition and emotion can be more compelling than appealing to System 2's logic.  The same is true for fundraising: a pure System 2 appeal is not likely to be effective for most people.

For me, Kahneman’s message was rather discouraging.  It put more scientific evidence around what we often observe when people make decisions solely on emotion, undeterred by facts, whether in response to a politician or a commercial.  When Kahneman was asked how one might train children to be more reflective and use System 2  thinking more often, his only suggestion was to lead by example.   So, get out there and use System 2 thinking as often as possible.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

TED Book Club Selection - November 2011

 Today, the lastest TED Book Club Selection arrived, Walter Isaacson's biography Steve Jobs.  What an appropriate choice!  Both TED and Jobs stand for Technology, Entertainment and Design. I've received many comments on my posts about TED book selections, showing that many people enjoy hearing what the folks at TED have chosen.  So I decided to post this, even though I've barely begun the book.

Jobs life is linked to three inspirations in my own life: Clayton Christensen, TED and Ian Sharp. 

It's said that Jobs was inspired by Clayton Christensen's book The Innovator's Dilemma, and that it was pivotal in molding his views about innovation.  I've talked about Christensen's ideas in previous posts (such as this one).  I celebrated the fact that The Innovator's Dilemma was chosen as one of the six best business books of all time(click here), and that Christensen was named the top Business Thinker (click here).  These posts explain why I think Christensen's ideas are so important, and if you examine the trajectory of Jobs' career, you can see his products as an illustration of Christensen's theories.  Consultants from Innosight (the firm founded by Clayton Christensen) had a great article about the innovation lessons learned from Steve Jobs.  I've seen lots written about Jobs recently, but that assessment is my favourite.

Jobs' life is an illustration of the very essence of the TED conference.  So many conferences bring together people with shared interests in a particular field.  They are very focused, and can often provide deep information, but seldom any true inspiration because they simply reinforce an industry's entrenched way of thinking.  TED is different - it brings together people from a wide variety of disciplines and the sparks of creative and innovative thinking fly.  Jobs similarly capitalized on the breadth and depth of his interest in technology, entertainment and design in the breathtaking innovation in his products.  In just the first few chapters, there have been appearances by people I've met at TED like Larry Brilliant and Stewart Brand, and the index reveals more to come.

The description of those early days in Silicon Valley brings back memories of my early days in  timesharing (now called cloud computing) in the early 70s in Canada.  I worked for I.P. Sharp Associates, a pioneering software and network communications company, led by the brilliant and unassuming Ian Sharp (shown at left).  Ian's penchant for hiring bright people resulted in a company full of them.    Like Jobs, many 'Sharpees' had dropped out of university  (often leaving the US motivated by the Vietnam draft).  Like Jobs, some of them had nevertheless earned a BA (brilliant & abrasive) or a BE (brilliant & eccentric).  Ian exhibited huge tolerance of eccentric behaviour as long as people were contributing and were respectful of their colleagues and focussed on solving customer problems.   Jobs' success arose, at least in part, from the diversity of his interests and his appetite for ingesting ideas from many fields. Ian's disregard for people's area of specialization meant that I.P. Sharp was seething with people from diverse backgrounds - computer science as well  as education, mathematics, biology, music and many fields.  (It was also full of 'minorities', because Ian seemed blind to nationality, religion, skin colour, or sexual orientation).

Authorized biographies often present a somewhat varnished version of events.  What has surprised me so far about this book is that it shines a glaring light on both Jobs' brilliance and his less desirable traits.  Jobs and Wozniak have just founded Apple, and Jobs' trademark chutzpah, passion and single-minded drive are already evident.  The reality distortion field has made its appearance.  So has Jobs' arrogance, although that aspect of his personality remains to be polished and honed.  His penchant for abuse and his 'anti-loyalty' is disturbing to read about.   Perhaps it's a final comment on Jobs' unfailingly high  self-esteem that he was willing to support a book that could present him in such an unforgiving light.


Sunday, November 20, 2011

Glenburn Tea Estate

Our last stop in India was at the Glenburn Tea Estate, a large working tea plantation at an altitude of 3,200 feet in the Himalayas.  From our room we could see Mt. Kangchenjunga, the third highest mountain in the world at 28,169 feet.  (For reference, Everest is 29,029 feet.)

We had to get up early in the morning to see the mountains, because by 7 a.m., they are cloaked in cloud.  It really brings home the tales of climbers who wait for a break in the weather to make their final ascents on these huge mountains.

It's hard to express how awesome these mountains are.  That picture above was taken from 130 kms away, tipping the camera up.  On the first morning, we missed the view of the full mountain, but we now suspect the very tops of the mountains were visible that day and we mistook them for clouds.  Your eye just doesn't look that high for mountains, until you see the full range and realize "Oh my goodness, those mountains really are touching the sky!"

Burra Lodge  at Glenburn is the original bungalow built in 1859 by a Scottish tea company, and magnificently restored by the current owners.  The Water Lily Bungalow (shown at the left) was built in 2008 and has been furnished with antiques and tasteful decor, right down to traditional antique baths and gorgeous teak floors.

Our room in the Water Lily Bungalow was named the RungDung Suite after the nearby river. 
That window seat was my favourite spot to sit and read and absorb the mountains.  My husband chose the patio for the same view.

One of the lovely features of Glenburn was the large dinner table which seated all 18 people staying there.  (There were several children as well, who were fed before the grown-ups.)  Glenburn is very popular with expats who live in Delhi and want to escape the chaos for a serene holidays, and most of the guests fell into this category.  Our place cards seated us with different people each night and the conversation was lively and entertaining.

Another great thing about Glenburn was the wonderful gardens.  We hadn't seen a lot of flowers growing in gardens in India.  (In fact, I was always curious where those thousands of flower petals came from for all those rangolis we saw).  But Glenburn was a refreshing burst of flowers for souls starved of flowers.  We talked to the gardener one day, who said he had been taking care of Glenburn's gardens for over 50 years!  Here are some of the lovely flowers:

Saturday, November 19, 2011


During our recent trip to India, I became fascinated with turbans.  There were many beautiful turbans, in a variety of colours, and wrapped in rather exotic patterns.  One man demonstrated to me how he wrapped his turban - he did it so efficiently it was amazing.

These turbans aren't simply decorative though.  The colours of the turban indicate who you are; for example in one region shepherds wore an orange turban, in another area yellow.  Although we were assured many times that the caste system is dead in India, most of our guides self-identified the caste they were from, and often identified others that way.  So it still seemed fairly top of mind to me.

I've appended some photos of turbans I particularly liked.  You'll notice that most of the men wearing these turbans are older, so perhaps the practice is melting away with the younger generation. The exception is where I was taking pictures of hotel employees wearing local dress; they were much easier to pose so there are a few of those

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Best 50 Business Thinkers

Clayton Christensen has been ranked #1 in the Thinkers50 assessment of the best business thinkers of our day.  The Thinkers50 uses ten criteria to evaluate thinkers: originality of ideas; practicality of ideas; presentation style; written communication; loyalty of followers; business sense; international outlook; rigor of research; impact of ideas and the elusive guru factor.  The thinkers are judged by a panel of advisors and includes votes from people who have answered the question "Who is the most important living management thinker?"  

Christensen's work is covered in several books, but his most influential contribution comes from the formulation of disruptive innovation theory first proposed in The Innovator's Dilemma, recently named one of the best six business books of all time by The Economist.  (see my post on this topic here).

Christensen's acceptance speech is a departure from straight business talk.  He waxes philosophic about the parallels between business theory and its application to personal life.  He refers to Mintzberg's work on the difference between deliberate and emergent strategy - the deliberate  being a unwavering pursuit of a specific intention with a fixed strategy, the emergent being a process where a series of actions in response to external situations or realities develop into a strategy.  Clay uses this framework to conclude that he doesn't want to leave it to chance what kind of person he wants to be (deliberate strategy), but that he entrusts how he gets there to emergent strategy that adapts to unknown threats and opportunities.  He is integrating this kind of thinking and discussion into his teaching at the Harvard Business School.

 I was proud to see several Canadians featured on the list.  
Roger Martin, Dean of the Rotman School of Management (and my boss, since I teach there as an Adjunct Professor), vaulted to sixth place.  Martin is best known for the concept of integrative thinking as a way of solving business problems, and design thinking as a path to success in business. 

At the ninth rank is another Canadian (who also happens to teach at Rotman), Don Tapscott,  who writes on impact of technology on society, including such books as Growing Up Digital and Wikinomics.

Can we count Malcolm Gladwell as Canadian?  He was born in England and now lives in the US, but he grew up in Canada.  So let's count him as Canadian.  Gladwell is one of those journalists who investigates patterns and presents new possibilities in clear and understandable language.  Books such as The Tipping Point, Blink, and Outliers have engaged the public in presenting new ways of thinking of things.  Gladwell made it as #10.

Coming in 30th position was Henry Mintzberg of McGill University, recognized for his work on organizational theory and emergent strategy (as described above).

 I heard recently that publishers estimate that only 30% of the business books people buy are actually read.  This kind of honour helps filter the books that I really should be out reading.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Ultimate Question

Fifteen years ago, I attended a talk by Fred Reichheld, then a Bain consultant and now a Bain Fellow.  Reichheld's message was simple.  Treat your customers right and earn their loyalty.  That's cheaper than being trapped on the treadmill of constant customer churn and the expense of attracting new customers to replace those you've lost or driven away.

Reichheld supported his argument with cold facts showing the increased profits and growth that came from a focus on customer retention.  He later compiled that material in The Loyalty Effect published in 2001.

His message resonated with me, because I've always believed that if you keep your customers happy, revenue and profits will flow.  The fact that it resonated is probably why I remember the talk to this day. 

Last night I heard Reichheld again, in conversation with Roger Martin, Dean of the Rotman School at University of Toronto, who's just been named one of the Top 50 Business Thinkers.  Reichheld talked about his new book The Ultimate Question 2.0, the follow-up to his previous book The Ultimate Question.

To Reichheld, the ultimate question is "How likely is it that you would recommend our company to a friend or colleague?"  Responses are scored on a scale of 1 to 10, ranging from 'not at all likely' to 'extremely likely'.  The Ultimate Question introduced the concept of a Net Promoter Score which is obtained by subtracting the percentage of people who respond 1-6 from the percentage of those who respond 9-10.  In other words, the score is intended to measure the people who really really like your product or company after netting out the people who don't like your product or are indifferent.  It's a harsher metric, but one that gives you a better idea of how people really feel.  We know that people can err on the side of politeness when  answering such polls, so neutrality should really be considered a knock on your product.

The Ultimate Question 2.0 fleshes out the concept with examples of companies who have adopted  the Net Promoter Score as the core of their business philsophy.  You can't just start surveying people and calculating a Net Promoter Score - that is just a superficial and meaningless approach.  You have to follow up with the people who responded to the survey and get to the bottom of why they rated you the way they did.

Reichheld talked about Intuit, the software company behind Quick Books and Turbo Tax software.  Intuit has adopted NPS and embedded it deep in their culture.  Product designers talk about the Love Factor: at Intuit, it's not enough to keep customers satisfied, you need to make them love the product.

Reichheld is wonderful to listen to - down to earth, articulate and avuncular. He talked about good profits versus bad profits.  Bad profits are when you make a short term gain, but at the cost of alienating your customers.  He gave a couple of examples of such bad profits - phone companies that lock you into miserable contracts, or airlines that falsely advertise low prices and then stack on the extra charges.    Reichheld argues that although they may deliver a quick hit to profits, such tactics will never result in a company that is successful in the long term.

Reichheld acknowledged that he was becoming more moralistic as he grew older.  Age gave him the freedom to advocate his ideas, not just because they make good business sense, but simply because they were the right way to treat customers.  What a nice philosophy.


Jodhpur is an interesting city of a million people.  It's called the Blue City because of its indigo painted houses.  This is done because there is something in the paint that repels insects - another example of ecologically sound traditional practices in India.  Our hotel, the Raas, featured lots of red stone cut in interesting shapes, and had the upper stories painted blue.

We had a beautiful view of the Mehrangahr Fort from our hotel balcony.  This picture of the fort catching the sun at dawn also catches the hotel pool - a touch of the old and new together which rather appealed to me.
What the picture doesn't capture is the mosque that was just off to the right with the loudspeaker that announced prayer at 4:45 in the morning, right at the level of our room.  If there's a scale for how loud a loudspeaker can be, this one had to be a 10!  The hotel handed out ear plugs, but they were insufficient.  It was a shame, because it was such a nice hotel in every other way.

We visited the fifteenth-centry Mehrangahr Fort, perched on the hill above the town.  Legend has it that to build the fort the local ruler had to displace a hermit, who promptly uttered a curse that the place would always suffer from water scarcity.  Although he built a house and temple for the hermit at the fort, the ruler felt compelled to bury a man alive in the foundations of the fort to propitiate the gods and remove the curse.  The family of this man still lives in Jodhpur, supported by the local ruler, and the extended family is invited to special events as honoured guests.

Another grisly aspect of the fort was the plaque with the handprints of the 30 wives who self-immolated upon the death of their husband in 1843.  Sati is now banned in India but it is amazing that it was still being practised as late as the 19th century.

The fort had many lovely rooms and a good museum. A  sign that had me laughing out loud was the no smoking sign.  This sign was posted outdoors, something we saw a few times in India.  One of the remarkable things about India was the dearth of smokers we saw around the country.  Almost all the smokers we saw were Europeans.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011


In Mumbai, about 5,000 dabbawallas deliver 200,000 lunches a day to city workers.  The system started in the 19th century and perseveres today, although apparently the number of lunches has started to decline.

A dabbawalla picks up freshly made hot lunches from homes in the suburbs in mid-morning.  Our guide pointed out that you better have the lunch ready when they arrive - even if it's a bit before their scheduled time - because if it's not ready they go without it!  One dabbawalla collects many lunches and takes them on special dabbawalla trays, loaded onto bicycles, pushcarts or carried on their head, and takes them to the train, where they are placed in a special car on the train.  When they arrive at the Churchgate station in central Mumbai, they are picked up by more dabbawallas and sorted for delivery to their final destination at 12:30.  Empty tiffin boxes are returned home in the afternoon.  The tiffin boxes pass through several hands and travel on bicycles, handcarts, trains or on heads to reach their destinations and undergo several sorting processes along the way.

The amazing thing is that this is a totally manual process, and is based on a proprietary (some say secret) coding scheme that is used by the dabbawallas, many of whom are illiterate.  You can see the coding painted on the traditional tin tiffin box below; magic markers are used on the cloth bags and thermoses which are more the modern fashion.  I got a picture of a partially sorted tray of tiffins.

Does the central sorting station make you think of FedEx's hub in Memphis?  It certainly did for me.

And it's not quite fair to say the entire process is manual.  Dabbawallas are now accepting orders through SMS.  It is also SMS which is also killing the old habit of slipping messages into the tiffin box - why do that when you can fire off a text message?

Being a dabbawalla is a traditional job mainly held by people from the Pune area of India. The organization has very little management superstructure and is held in a charitable trust.  Dabbawallas have to make an investment of two bicycles, a wooden crate for the tiffins, white cotton kurta pajamas, and the trademark white Gandhi cap.  All the profits are distributed at the end of every month and come to about $40-$80.  It costs less than $4 for the customer to have this amazing delivery service for a month!

What is astonishing about this system is its incredible accuracy and timeliness.  Forbes magazine awarded the system Six Sigma certification in 2001, based on its 99.999999% accuracy rate which implies less than 1 error in 16 million.

Having read about this system, I was fascinated to see it, and expected to observe high intensity and even frenzy at the sorting stations.  However, we watched the tiffin boxes being sorted on the sidewalk outside Churchgate Station and the scene was totally calm, even leisurely, although very organized.  We'd been told the dabbawallas weren't fond of people getting in their way and taking lots of photos (understandable), so I have limited good pictures of the whole exercise.  Here's a picture of some of the trays ready to go; it's a heavy load for one person to carry or push.  Some bikers head off with tiffins hanging from every part of their body and the bike!

For those who think that a successful organization absolutely requires rigid top-down management, the Nutan Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers Charity Trust of Mumbai is a great counterexample.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Towers of Silence

Indian Parsis (or Parsees) are members of the Zoroastrian religion and descendents of the original Parsis in Iran.  The number of Parsis in India has been dwindling, and may number as few as 50,000, mostly concentrated near Mumbai, with forecasts that the number will fall further to about 23,000 by 2020.

Zoroastrians believe that a dead body is contaminated and must neither be buried (where it would pollute the earth) or cremated (where it would pollute fire).  In order to avoid this pollution, dead bodies are placed near the top of an open circular tower, exposed to sun and to birds of prey.  After about a year, the bones are collected in an ossuary pit at the bottom of the tower, and the final deterioration of the bones is assisted by applications of lime.  Eventually rain water washes the remains through various filters out to sea.

The name Tower of Silence was given to these towers by a British translator in the 19th Century. I had heard of Towers of Silence from two separate sources: an article four years ago in The Economist, and in A Son of the Circus set in Mumbai and reviewed in a previous post.

We visited the "Hanging Gardens" at the top of Malabar Hill in Mumbai, an upscale residential area in Mumbai.  The Gardens are a lovely urban oasis in a busy city, with a pleasant view over the smog-covered city below.  They sit immediately adjacent to the Mumbai Tower of Silence.  The park is built on top of an enclosed reservoir; it's said the reservoir was originally enclosed to avoid contamination from the Tower of Silence.

There is a major problem these days with the towers: the vultures on whom they depend are being devastated by diclofenac, a drug used to treat cattle (as described in detail in this article from The Economist).  Vultures not only help with human bodies in Towers of Silence; they are a key part of the Indian ecosystem in getting rid of the carcases of cattle and buffalo.  Since Indians don't eat much beef and revere sacred cows and since there are about 200M cattle and buffalo in India used exclusively for milk, Indian farmers have depended on vultures to dispose of their carcases.  These cows have been the carriers of diclofenac to the vultures.

Both vultures and Parsis are dwindling in numbers.  Sadly, it's a question of who will outlast whom.  The good news for the vultures is that diclofenac is now banned (though farmers are allowed to use up their old stocks), and there are conservationists breeding vultures in captivity.  Meanwhile, Parsis are experimenting with other techniques such as installing solar relectors to speed up the action of the sun.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Riding a Camel in Jaiselmer

Riding a camel is not quite as easy as it looks when you see Lawrence of Arabia loping across the sands in a movie.

When we were in Jaiselmer, our tour included a late afternoon ride across the sand dunes on a camel.  We had been in the Thar Desert for some time now, the third largest desert in the world after the Sahara and the Simpson in Australia.  Most of the desert has been rocky desert and, after the best monsoon in years, it has been uncharacteristically green. However, there is a small area just outside Jaiselmer with dunes. 

Jaiselmer is a major tourist magnet. Jaiselmer itself boasts a huge fort on the hill, like many places we've visited, still populated by 5,000 people inside that fort. It had many havelis (mansions) with richly carved ornamentation. It was the first place we really felt the press of tourists, as we met many tour buses on the road to and from Jaiselmer, intermingled with the many army vehicles (Jaiselmeer is only 100 miles from the Pakistan border and the military is quite beefed up here).  Many of the tours were domestic tourists.  Jaiselmer is the setting for many Bollywood movies, and that draws Indian tourists the way Salzburg draws fans of The Sound of Music.

So, you've been waiting to hear about that camel ride. We had seen camels beside and on the road for a few days as we headed west in Rajasthan, but at the Sam Dunes, as they're known, there were hordes of camels, with their brightly colored saddles and streams of people setting off single file to the dunes.

Our guide picked out a camel for me and then led me around the left side to mount the camel, which is sitting low on the ground with his knees folded under him. Suddenly the camel jumped up, much to the dismay of the guy holding the reins, not to mention me!!!!! So, on to choose another, hopefully calmer, camel. I gingerly sat in the saddle, and the camel straightened his back legs. At this point, one is perched precariously at about a 70 degree angle pitched forward toward the ground. The camel then rockily gets off his knees and stands up straight and you breathe a sigh of relief that you haven't pitched forward off the beast. 

The most uncomfortable thing is that the camel is very wide, and the saddle holds you in a tight position, so your legs are spread very wide, resulting in a lot of pressure on your hips if you're built like me. Anyway, we got off to a lumbering walk, accompanied by two guys, one young and one ancient, holding the reins. 

Except for when the camel was going downhill, or when he lowered his head to crop some brush, it was relatively comfortable swaying ride, except for those darned spread legs.  So I decided to call it a day and head back to the 'camel parking lot'. Immediately, the two guys, both the young and the old, whipped out their mobiles to call back to our driver who came out partway to meet us and put me out of my misery - quite literally. Quite an experience all in all.

Highway Driving in India

It's said that you need three things to drive in India: a good horn, good brakes, and good luck.

Horns are used incessantly in India to indicate that you are about to overtake and virtually never to show impatience or irritation. In fact, trucks usually have signs on the back requesting you to 'Blow Horn' or 'Horn Please'. A rear view mirror seems to be the appendix of an Indian vehicle, a vestigial organ of no discernible current use.

Turn indicators are also vestigial organs. However, manual turn indicators are sometimes used. On the busy road connecting Mumbai to Delhi we were trapped behind a long line of transport trucks which our driver deftly passed, often a few at a time. We were puzzled by the man hanging off the left hand side of a big touring bus in front of us standing on the running board. (Remember we're driving on the left hand side here). We finally figured out his task; after the big bus had overtaken a truck, his task was to warn trucks that the bus was coming back in to the left lane and the truck had to slow down to let him in.

Brakes are important because you never know when you're going to have to slow to a crawl for a piece of road that has been completely washed out by the monsoons or for a speed bump which may appear even in a 4-lane highway.  And then there are cows, sheep, goats, bullocks, camels, water buffalo, pigs, chickens, and dogs which may amble, stand or lie in front of you. Then there are the vehicles overtaking a car from the other direction and straying into your lane. The oncoming vehicle is expected to slow down to give the driver time to return to his own lane, or perhaps take to the shoulder to let him keep coming. Size matters in these contest. Everyone gives way to buses or trucks. Then come jeeps, cars and vans like ours. The auto-rickshaws are lower on the totem pole, and motorcycles and bikes bring up the rear.

Our driver was always alert, cautious and we were very thankful to have such a competent driver in these conditions.

Most of the accidents we saw were overturned vehicles, not too surprising, given that so many vehicles are wishfully loaded - 'I wish I had a vehicle that could legitimately carry this much stuff'. 

Whereas in Canada a pedestrian can be fined for jaywalking, in India, pedestrians always have right of way.  Simply walk into the road, raise your hand just above waist height and give a gentle to and fro waving motion and the cars (mostly) stop for you.

Driving - and crossing streets - in India is an adventure!

** Apologies to anyone who has read before.  I accidentally deleted several posts and am restoring them