Is Machine Learning the New EPM Black?

I am currently a data scientist & am also a certified lean six sigma black belt. I specialize in the Big Data Finance, EPM, BI & process improvement fields where this convergence of skills has provided me the ability to understand the interactions between people, process and technology/ tools.

I would like to address the need to transform traditional EPM processes by leveraging more machine learning to help reduce forecast error and eliminate unnecessary budgeting and planning rework and cycle time using a  3 step ML approach:

1st, determine which business drivers are statistically meaningful to the forecast (correlation) , eliminating those that are not.

2nd, cluster those correlated drivers by significance to determine those that cause the most variability to the forecast (causation).

3rd, use the output of 1 and 2 as inputs to the forecast, and apply ML in order to generate a statistically accurate forward looking forecast.


Objection handling, in my experience, focuses on the cost,  time and the sensitive change management aspect- how I have handled these, for example, is as such :

  1. Cost: all of these models can be built using free tools like R and Python data science libraries, so there is minimal to no technology/tool capEx/opEx investment.   
  2. Time: most college grads with either a business, science or computer engineering degree will have undoubtedly worked with R and/or Python (and more) while earning their degree. This reduces the ramp time to get folks acclimated and up to speed. To fill the remaining skill set gap, they can use the vast libraries of work already provided by the R / Python initiatives or the many other data science communities available online for free as a starting point, which also minimizes the time due to unnecessary cycles and rework trying to define drivers based on gut feel only. 
  3. Change: this is the bigger objection that has to be handled according to the business culture and openness to change. Best means of handling this is to simply show them. Proof is in the proverbial pudding so creating a variance analysis of the ML forecast, the human forecast and the actuals will speak volumes, and bonus points if the correlation and clustering analysis also surfaced previously unknown nuggets of information richness.

Even without the finding the golden nugget ticket, the CFO will certainly take notice of a more accurate forecast and appreciate the time and frustration savings from a less consuming budget and planning cycle.

BIPlayBook.Com is Now Available!

As an aside, I’m excited to announce my latest website: is finally published. Essentially, I decided that you, dear readers, were ready for the next step.  What comes next, you ask?

After Measuring BI data –> Making Measurements Meaningful –> and –>Massaging Meaningful Data into Metrics, what comes next is to discuss the age-old question of ‘So What’? & ‘What Do I Do About it’?

BI PlayBook offers readers the next level of real-world scenarios now that BI has become the nomenclature of yesteryear & is used by most to inform decisions. Basically, it is the same, with the added bonus of how to tie BI back into the original business process, customer service/satisfaction process or really any process of substance within a company.

This is quite meaningful to me because so often, as consumers of goods and services, we find our voices go unheard, especially when we are left dissatisfied. Can you muster the courage to voice your issue (dare I say, ‘complain’?) using the only tools provided: poor website feedback forms, surveys or (gasp) relaying our issue by calling into a call center(s) or IVR system (double gasp)? I don’t know if I can…

How many times do we get caught in the endless loop of an IVR, only to be ‘opted-out’ (aka – hung up on) when we do not press the magical combination of numbers on our keypads to reach a live human being, or when we are sneaky, pressing ‘0’ only to find out the company is one step ahead of us, having programmed ‘0’ to automatically transfer your call to our friend:  ‘ReLisa Boutton’ – aka the Release Button().

Feedback is critical, especially as our world has become consumed by social networks. The ‘chatter’ of customers that ensues, choosing to ‘Like’ or join our company page or product, or tweet about the merits or demerits of one’s value proposition, is not only rich if one cares about understanding their customer. But, it is also a key into how well you are doing in the eyes of your customer. Think about how many customer satisfaction surveys you have taken ask you whether or not your would recommend a company to a friend or family member.

This measure defines one’s NPR, or Net Promoter Rank, and is a commonly shared KPI or key performance indicator for a company.

Yet, market researchers like myself know that what a customer says on a survey isn’t always how they will behave. This discrepancy between what someone says and what someone does is as age-old as our parents telling us as children “do not as I do, but as I say.” However, no longer does this paradigm hold true. Therefore, limiting oneself by their NPR score will restrict the ability to truly understand one’s Voice of the Customer. And further, if you do not understand your customer’s actual likelihood to recommend to others or repeat purchase from you, how can you predict their lifetime value or propensity for future revenue earnings? You can’t.

Now, I am ranting. I get it.

But I want you to understand that social media content that is available from understanding the social network spheres can fill that gap. They can help you understand how your customers truly perceive your goods or services. Trust me, customers are more likely to tweet (use Twitter) to vent in 140 characters or less about a negative experience than they are to take the time to fill out a survey. Likewise, they are more likely to rave about a great experience with your company.

So, why shouldn’t this social ‘chatter’ be tied back into the business intelligence platforms, and further, mined out specifically to inform customer feedback loops, voice of the customer & value stream maps, for example?

Going one step further, having a BI PlayBook focuses the attention of the metric owners on the areas that needs to be addressed, while filtering out the noise that can detract from the intended purpose.

If we are going to make folks responsible for the performance of a given metric, shouldn’t we also help them understand what is expected of them up front, as opposed to when something goes terribly wrong, signified by the “text message” tirade of an overworked CEO waking you out of your slumber at 3 AM?

Further, understanding how to address an issue, who to communicate to and most importantly, how to resolve and respond to affected parties are all part of a well conceived BI playbook.

It truly takes BI to that next level. In fact, two years ago, I presented this very topic at the TDWI Executive Summit in San Diego (Tying Business Processes into your Business Intelligence). While I got a lot of  stares ala ‘dog tilting head to the side in that confused glare at owner look’, I hope people can draw back on that experience with moments of ‘ah ha – that is what she meant’ now that they have evolved ( a little) in their BI maturation growth.

Optimizing BI Operational Reports with Internal IT Ticketing / CRM Systems


How often do you think about optimizing your operational reporting processes with your internal ticketing system / IT CRMs? Probably not as often as you would like –

Being a Lean Six Sigma Black Belt, I can’t help but think about these things.

In the process of promoting a report between a test environment and a production environment often involves customer communication in the form of an email – Why not standardize and automate that process?

First, you should have an inventory of your reports with an ID or CUID. This can be extracted from the BusinessObjects or BI provider auditor universe/logs respectively; in a worst case, start reporting off of your SQL data source instances or event logging tables.

Here is an example of C# code that automates the promotion process and generates a nice user friendly output which is standardized, and calls out the folder class where the report lives, provides a login link or if using SSO, a pass through token to log the user in auto-magically. Anything in maroon are comments for you , dear blog reader; anything in navy is a part of the actual email content.

“Your report has been created and placed on the TEST system for testing.

Please login (by clicking the link below) and test the report.

Your report can be found in: \\" target=_blank>\\<LOB folder>\<Department folder>\<Department subfolder>

The report name is: <ReportName>

Hide the CUID, Display the mapped report name only to end users like you see above.

Link using OpenDocument and append to C# code: http://<servername>:<port>/OpenDocument/opendoc/<platformSpecific><parameter1>&<parameter2>&…&<parameterN>

OR, you can go directly and get updated or new report here  :
You will have to login manually if you use this link. Remember to change the default Authentication (on the login window) to "Windows AD" or your respective authentication method (“Enterprise” or “LDAP” are your other choices).
Once the report has been tested please let me know by re-opening the ticket so I can move it to the production system.

Untested reports are purged every 30 days. Should you want to make any further changes to an existing report outside of data quality corrections, please open a new ticket but reference it to the old one for tracking purposes. Thank you for your kind consideration and adherence to the BI team report process.”

To obtain the document ID, navigate to the document within the Central Management Console (CMC).
The properties page for the document contains the document ID and the CUID. Use this value for the iDocID parameter.

Deployment leaders:New scorecarding software platform yields positive results in a Six Sigma & BSC technology environment

Most people shudder when they hear Six Sigma focus within a technology company…They think creativity will be hindered and replaced with process controls…While on the surface, the textbook DMAIC program might contribute to that urban legend, the reality and practicality of it is that you probably wouldn’t want to introduce DMAIC first…In this example, I would recommend implementing more of the new process/product methodologies like DFSS, DMADV or SDSS or SPSS (coined by SBTI).
But, consider this…if a tree falls in the woods and no one is around to hear it, does it matter, even if that tree was the biggest, loudest, and most important tree in the woods? Equally, if a program is selected and implemented without metrics and controls, one never knows the health or the true state of their roll out, new product release; deployment –whatever; this concept can be applied to most anything in the business sector; it’s what I like to call ‘VOD – Voice of the Deployment’ which basically means "the health of their implementation". This is applicable to most any program or project. Metrics, when selected correctly, better known as KPIs, can be quite powerful (they can also be detractors, but that is discussed in my KPI selection blog entry from last week).
Selecting a tightly scoped set of metrics, relevant to your business leaders and linked to your strategy plan, cascaded through all organizational boundaries, from top to bottom line, will enable a deployment leader to prove success proactively. How…?
Well, we use MS Business Scorecard Manager for our BSC program…So, we should walk the talk and leverage the same concept (not necessarily the same structure) for managing our Six Sigma health metrics…Drinking the cool-aid and a true believer, this concept is new for us, and one that causes some trepidation…For us, selection of these metrics was a team effort, in which the black and green belts brainstormed the universe of potential metrics, in order to affinitize into logical subgroups and finally yield a tightly scoped list of metrics that serve two purposes:
1) they rollup to the corporate strategic objectives for the year and 2) they cascade from top through the BU and finally through the Six Sigma yearly objectives.  This will give you true light of sight and will help place the importance on the correct metrics, rather than just any metrics that you deem important.
Some of the KPIs that could be leveraged that go against the typical metrics that I have seen used (# of black and green belts trained) in a product development environment are:
# of black belts placed into a leadership position after in the 3rd year;
# of days spent per phase per belt of the development cycle
Total dollars generated as a result of design projects driven by a belt
# of iterations requested by the business to the design or scope post project charter
# of projects in pipeline for six sigma
# of Pri 1 bugs that shipped immediately after release (will tell you if your program is helping at all improve the quality of your dev team)
(% of total project list that are six sigma projects) – yield an idea of how much your program is impacting your product dev lifecycle and output of projects
It is important after Year 1 to start thinking about metrics and proactive reporting of your program and belt status and what better tool that the sharepoint based BSM that Microsoft offers. It is easy for end users, less easy to implement without consultant help, extremely scalable and extensible (though I wouldn’t necessarily recommend the latter as you should go out from the gate with controls in place about what type and in what look and feel for scorecards should be adopted).  MS also offers some cool scorecard tools for building more robust controls and metrics in their new product PerformancePoint 2007. In fact, you get 3 products for the licensing cost of 1, with the acquisition and integration of ProClarity with what was formally called Biz #. They now look at these in two buckets: M & A (Monitoring and Analytics which is where BSM & Proclarity fit in) and Planning (which is where the former Biz# fits in).
These tools wont help you select KPIs which is my personal bug-a-boo…I am a stickler to manually defining your strategy map, then your KPIs, then your vehicle, your frequency of updates needed, and lastly, the SLA of your IT support needed (if you implement outside of the IT department, and have to leverage them to support your productionalized scorecard platform).  Once all of this infrastructure is in place, you are ready to start the software selection process, if you have good traction in your manual program; i.e. good traction and user adoption.
Even better, if you are already leveraging Sharepoint for your intranet site, you will have achieved an easier roadmap towards user adoption because your users will already be used to navigating the same look and feel as offered by BSM. In fact, BSM is just a webpart in which you drop onto a web part page in Sharepoint. How simple is that?
Imagine leveraging this to measure your black belts and green belts with Red, Yellow, Green indicators or measuring the progress of your program by thresholding the amount of bugs that are getting shipped with the code you are implementing (hopefully with a decreasing trend if implemented correctly). It creates a background that is driven by process, but not at the expense of creativity.

Why would one purposely choose to go down the transactional / service path when they walk down the Lean Six Sigma (LSS) deployment roadmap?

Well, I’ll tell ya! It does…
Part of the reason I chose to become a black belt focusing on Lean Six Sigma in Service / Contact Center Operations is not merely because I am a born-analyst, dubbed a ‘cracker jack’ because of my ability to apply the application of LSS to many business situations — It doesn’t take rocket science folks to solve most service situations, which I hate to break to you, to use the advanced tools, like applied statistics, in both a practical and analytical/graphical ways — Where I really wanted to make a difference was in mentoring other belts throughout my organization. Given the opportunity, not task, to mentor others (primarily our Green Belts), this became the primary driver of my career path, with a track to becoming a Master Black Belt by 2008  — Each wave of new belts that entered our org, which was about 4 x per year, would introduce about 3 belts to my team of mentees. The 1st and 3rd quarters of the year were always light in my mentee load, with some belts brand new while other waves of belts were rolling off having completed their projects. The 2nd and 4th quarters were always heavier in nature since our GB projects tend to last about 4-5 months, so there was always overlap between Green Belt waves. I believe that successfully completing a project truly requires a change agent to drive the project modifications throughout the organization, not just a set of tools to be used.
In addition, I bring with me a fresh eyes perspective, having both held the roles of BSC deployment leader, program owner & evangelizer of the BSC principles throughout my company — For those of you not in the BI/PM industry (business intelligence / performance management), the BSC concepts were fathered by someone of the most ingenious minds of our lifetime, Drs. David Norton and Robert Kaplan, who indoctrinated that the balanced scorecard (BSC) framework needed to be cross functional in an org, with all performance indicators tied to the top line $$ and ideally, cascade down from the executive/corporate strategy down to the business unit, cascaded further down to product lines, where many companies then stop, another shortsighted action in my opinion. We continue to parachute down to the individual employee and how the work they do can be measured and tied to what their department is focusing on to reach their targets, which can be rolled up into the exact company wide target that our CEO is attempting to achieve each year, followed lastly by the final one metric that our shareholders care about (though we are not there yet, we have tied all KPIs from our BSC to the top line goals that are CEO is held to and that our operating President must achieve. Not only did I build the overall program and strategy for deploying both two types of programs: a) a proof of concept program, nesting within a business unit like operations, addressing mostly operational inefficiencies in our Global contact centers and fulfillment operations and b) enterprise-wide across IT, product development and customer loyalty, specializing in project tracking and measurement reporting, building ties between performance indicators (KPIs) and financial returns/costs. In the most simplistic means possible, it provides a pictorial view into the Voice of the Process (VOP) so ubiquitous in nature, that any black belt or PMPs can speak the same financial language as the CEO or President, because satisfaction for the sake of satisfaction is qualitative in nature, which by design, is subjective and can be argued. By cascading Cost of Sales (COGS) down from an aggregated % of some total like COGS as a % of margin or revenue to the individual buckets that make up the cost of good sold, eg. Total Direct People costs [Laura’s Tip: I always say "the best resolution takes one more zero out of the solution" or one should break out a number into as much granularity as possible without costing too much $$ in terms of data defects or wasting too much time trying to collect your data. In this case, I recommend parachuting down once more to street level and breaking Total Direct People Costs out into 2 primary buckets, again keeping costs in mind which are 1)Headcount costs, and 2) Other direct people costs, the latter of which is a representative bundling of the other costs an org pays for its employees, like benefits, attrition costs, vacation/time off, FMLA/disability costs and bonus or raises. And this is only 1 bucket of COGS.
<diverted rant time>…feeling dizzy yet? I am…But persevere…I promise that the short-term pains that come with contact center LSS projects are always worth [yes, the short term gains] in the end — We have the opportunity to make our mark as the true "Toyota of the Service Space" company, using what’s applicable from the LSS methodology and applying it to a nontraditional internet travel company filled within archaic yet germane processes with a desperate need for a process overhaul in their operations and contact centers, though only in the minds of quality specialists and our belt program participants. Remember, staying on the cutting edge (which BTW, you are, if you searched for any of the keywords that brought you to my blog, eg. balanced scorecard, six sigma, lean, etc) requires living a life that’s rather disruptive in nature, which if immersed for long-enough in the transactional/service space to know what you are talking about, will become your defining achievement.
<back on track>Driving capabilities and a much needed steady state into any contact center, when you have the normal waste seen in most companies will take patience and ability to read between the lines. In the centers, you will experience the powerful effect of human intervention and subjectivity on a transactional or service related process. Why…? Think of a Waste Map…Modern thinking has a waste called ‘Human Intellect’ on the newer LSS maps which, as any contact center person will tell you, is often non-leveled or resourced efficiently, resulting in wasted opportunities. As many in the industry continue to misalign their call center agents with their assigned workload types, you will be to achieve an optimized staffing model with leveled out work to such input factors as tenure, natural skill and quality scores along with Takt time, OEE and first call resolution rate. This will ease your assignment of work load across your population of agents. Even better, if you are one of those lucky companies that has been graced by visionary leaders, who saw the future of telecom and invested early in a dynamic network/call routing system, than I want to be your friend. If you are like most, who is reading my blog right now,  how helpful would it be to be reading a passage on visionary call centers who admit to no mistakes in their operations centers? Silly..and you wouldn’t continue to read … I propose a solution based on those who have what I call a visionary "6-STUD" system in place, which is introduced once a company learns from past mistakes, and takes those lessons learned to deploy (or redeploy) a LSS program only when true readiness has been achieved — Not all of the "visionary giants" out there were visionary from the start; in fact, many of them have acknowledged and learned from their prior mistakes, even if it meant taking a short-term hit in the stock market (a common mistake in LSS rollouts is the common misconception that terminating a young program in its infancy due to a short-term decrease in the value of your company’s stock). Furthermore, those former failures, turned practice leaders, gained much knowledge about how to parallel path or fast track deployment steps, and while some of you may be cringing while reading this, it is more often the case, in today’s workplace, that your belts will be asked to "speed up the process/project."
Remember, it is ok to introduce common applications that are associated with some of the disruptive changes in the performance management thought process in a parallel path motion at your company with one caveat: if the functionality is too similar, eg. a PM system, business intelligence platform, & strategic scorecard / BSC tool represent different but very similar tools in nature and should not introduced at the same time, or you risk end-user knowledge over saturation of PM-related information — The result: the sum of the parts is greater than the whole: you will dilute the entire pool that any one tool would have if it were stand alone when introduced to market — it’s a laugh, but we are still on the old school routers with manual intervention required by folks who hard code %-based allocations to a given set of centers for a standard, static call type…It’s laughable, but in deed, it is plausible!
<back in thought track> But my point is, if you have DNR, this becomes even simpler and your speed to market your new process/product becomes that much faster…But lets face it…not everyone has a fancy Avaya system which can answer your phone or heat your lunch–I have even heard it can wipe your ___, if needed — you get what you pay for in the Telecom space especially, and anyone can run a Telecom operations like AT & T if they bought enough of the add-in components and plug-in modules that are offered with the base Avaya package. (BTW, don’t think that I don’t know what you’re thinking…TMI, Laura – What a visual to create –> but I ask this, did it not put a visual in your head immediately? Pretty effective when you assign the "spin-factor, no?"
OK…Back to the example…

Add to the Total Direct People Costs the following cost bucket that roll into a typical P & L for a given cost center: direct costs (overhead, telecom/IT, facilities/rent), discretionary spending and expenses (this is where I am binning outsource related costs from my insourced cost centers), you can then cascade the individual buckets, eg. Headcount costs, with the actual FTE that are part of the ‘Headcount’ calculation; for us, this includes our internal call center call center FT agents, supervisory staff, quality, IT and Telecom, Management, Executives (in center), Rent, Credit Card expenses (for agent errors, trip protection, etc),  associated how much an individual agent is costing you total time to resolve an escalated incident to Tier 2 or 3 in your contact center, for example,  can read the same document as the call center supervisor or project manager regarding a cost or return as associated to their own performance as a leader and communicate  n customer retention, segmentation and satisfaction as measured  , but I worked again as a mentor and change agent to the rest of the org to help them learn about the 4 perspectives within a BSC and how the program could help them (naturally, getting to the WIIFY, or ‘What’s in it for You’ concept as soon as possible is key to executive buy-in, with the importance stressed on the ‘soon as possible’ part–this goes back to the quick wins will buy many supporters of any quality program) But, we are not in it for the short term. Instead, I see mentoring as part of a holistic roadmap for building line of sight from the executives down to each, individual call center agent, both insourced and outsourced.
With my niche background, I have also been asked to speak at many conferences about leveraging a similar proverbial toolkit filled with a generic set of quality tools and programs for transactional industries, inclusive of call center services, help desk operations, new product development / IT and my personal favorite, new process development or what I call the Expedia "6-STUDS" program (or "6 Sigma Toolkit for Updating  Designs for Service") — This roadmap also allows for full utilization of the tools offered to the belts germane to the methodology (a standard prescription advised to the belts during almost any training program) and, most importantly, it also builds clear synergies between your new initiative and any existing quality programs:  for us, we introduced the Customer Sat survey program first (a traditional quality program), followed by the more disruptive or new programs like BSC first, followed by LSS and lastly, DFSS/DMADV).
While the order of the programs you deploy isn’t the make or break it point, I strongly recommend launching Lean before DMAIC, if going with the traditional, stand alone programs. However, the two may be deployed together, if and only if your organization is going down the newer LSS path, especially if your program is new to the general concepts of Six Sigma. Moreover, starting with Lean, if you are building a stand alone program and are looking to save costs quickly, is the better choice as you can achieve some quick wins to prove out your business case before diving into the longer term DMAIC projects. I caveat this by saying that you should push back for your belts regardless if your management wants to see overnight results, and explain the core principles of the Six Sigma discipline. In summary, if you are looking to creating a faster time to process or answer calls in your call center or to save COGS in your operations unit, some form of Lean is the way to go. Don’t forget that time and quality are functions of cost, so by reducing time or defects, you reduce cost, while at the same time, you can attain some quick wins, and prove/justify the merits of your program.
To be more explicit, to execute upon this concept, I recommend using the concepts of Kaizen, BSC (structured using the A3 [Toyota concept]) and 5 S, when you are looking to optimize your call centers because those projects tend to be shorter in nature than true Six Sigma projects (eg. the Kaizen concept resolves the problem during that event, often 5 – 10 days max before you achieve visible results, though not necessarily monetary in nature), and always involve a orthogonal structure with who you chose to study in the center, meaning the SMEs from the floor should include agents from both sides of the quality coin: the fastest ones as well as the slowest agents; those with a ton of tenure vs. the newbie’s fresh out of training & nesting.  We do this because the pairing of the two provides the belts with an interesting dichotomy to analyze against the key drivers and results that the belt is looking to achieve.

Sales person: foe or strategic placement of ideas

 Sales folks present an interesting dichotomy in nature; these hunting pariah, tracking their consumer prey; asking whether you like the Sonics, you falling victim only once, but painfully so that one time: here’s how to avoid the same: while shooting an air pistol followed by the audibly annoying sound their forefinger makes when depressed on their "hot" shoulder (think ‘stzzzzzz’ sizzle sound that one makes when you do something awesome – like you are the sh*t), just know that they are about to tell you that they scored two court-side tickets because they have self-proclaimed "connections in the biz," waiting for you to bite at their bait before asking you to tag along;
OK – seems harmless, no? Absolutely, not!!  Here are the aforementioned clues to look out for:
  1. First, the air pistol and "drop it likes it’s hot" finger sizzle motion when someone touchs someone else the think is "hot", are both played out;
  2. Second, sales folks can be disingenuous at a disproportionately higher rate than many other, equally popular industries;
  3. Third, while you may think they will leave work at work, come on now, they are sales people after all, often carrying the belief that one must "sell" at all times, everything in their life; playing devil’s advocate, one might say that this isn’t so good, as they tend to "fake it ’til you make it" and in some situations, this tactic, when employed tactfully, can be extremely powerful for the people involved.
  4.  Fourth, people skills beyond that of the norm, which are innate, by definition, for the good ones, intrinsically generated and often represent a skill-set that cannot be learned or taught to others (at that level) ;

Sorry to break it to ya…

Conference circuit: friend or foe?


Every fall, I am asked to participate in the conference circuit, traveling from hotel ballroom to hotel ballroom hosting workshops, leading sessions, representing my company in an executive leadership circle, acting as a keynote, track B or C speaker, and other common conference terminology, basically all defined by Miriam Webster to mean conference speaker/participant.

Naturally for those that know me, I only choose to speak when the topics happen to align with where my business thought process is at that time, or when the operational strategic goals that are assigned to me or my BU, when I can complement the knowledge that the audience brings or lastly, when their need for knowledge is equal to their willingness to attentively listen & attempt to process the information at the “track-topic-du-jour” level.

These typically fall into two buckets:

  • topics related to how organizational excellence can use the Balanced Scorecard (BSC) Approach to deliver quick, net-positive wins, even if yours is a cost center – Why?

    • By building a scaled down yet pocket team of excellence, in effect, you are serving up a model or ‘proof of concept’ to the rest of the organization with minimal risk exposure. Once optimization is achieved, you can replicate with greater ease than if you tried to launch across vertical & horizontal channels and lines of business.

  •   For example, take my BU: Contact Center Operations; an easy to say but highly generic & confusion-inspiring at best. Now, let’s parachute down 1 level and stratify this BU into departments:

  • 1.     customer support

  • 2.     telesales

Does this help us or not? Well, the answer is YES! Anytime a measurement system offers a better (smaller) resolution, or finer granularity to apply against your dataset, use it! Start at the finest resolution you can AFFORD – wait…

stop – make sure you understand what I have just said.

If you can afford for your expensive black belts or analysts to sit around measuring to the .0000000001 decimal point or degree, I would challenge why you even have a six sigma program (implicitly stated) as it appears your company is willing to waste money trying to determine whether the sample of steel, for example, is .000000010 or .00000011 inches – does this apply to you; probably want to continue reading – But most are not in that boat with you, so you can sail through this section as it doesn’t apply to your situation. If you are like most who find the above insignificant to their process (if you are building air planes, you might need this resolution precision; but most will not), segmenting customer service from telesales is a step in the right direction.

The natural question comes up when you see those two buckets, if one if from the contact center industry —  more than likely, you will ask which areas of customer support are the most relevant or important to that measurement; (anecdotal note: since operations science folks, unlike others in the management ranks, tend to get off on the mathematics and statistics of it all; wanting to stratify beyond the normal limits, to find root cause by finding the red herring that their gut, framed as a professional and scientific hypothesis, always knew existed in the data and merely needed to be mined by one as skilled as they).  The key: measure using a system that offers multiple levels of resolution: measuring feet (entire ruler) isn’t as effective as measuring in inches (1 ruler=12 inches), which isn’t as effective as measuring in cm or mm).

b.    Analysis Paralysis – marked by an inability to mine or mull through large volumes of data, thus rendering the analyst useless for a certain time period; in layman’s, if you define SOPs or measurement systems with too generic a taxonomy or one built inconsistently across divisions or teams, later on down the line, the scalability gaps will become larger and erode over time.

c.     Extensibility/scalability – catch-words to imply your BSC has the ability to scale rapidly as adoption & usage of whatever scorecard platform you utilize, tend to increase exponentially after they pass that initial learning curve that will effectively prove the value in BSC without demanding upfront investments based on a purely projected ROI; by doing this and proving out this value, as we did, you are able to justify procuring the associated BSC software with funding generated off of the momentum of your pilot program or POC.  Down stream, the conference circuit hasn’t really focused on an area in which they are really missing out – the BSC is a perfect companion to a Six Sigma organization to help facilitate or aid in the project selection process; we assign projects by benefits returned according to the performance indicators that matter most to the business; these and only these should end up on the executive view of the BSC whether in an expanded view or at the 60000 ft view; if one wants to peel back the onion, they will inquire further. Keep your KPIs to a minimum (5-9 max). Projects can be further divided into:

                                                             i.      ‘quick wins’ (less than 3 months from concept to results; solution is not known upfront)

                                                          ii.      ‘Just Do It ‘(less than 6 months from concept to post implementation/results tracking; solution is already known at onset)

                                                       iii.      Lean Kaizen events / Workout projects (3-6 months in project duration; non-political; where the end is achievable & only light statistics are necessary to deliver quick but meaningful hits; often suited for more nimble organizations though efficient, process focused large companies can also benefit from this concept.

2.     I call a concept near and dear to the social invisible network that exists in any organization “management-congruence”’ and have found that if & only if it is achieved will true line of sight replace the archaic, ‘silo’ed mentality or line of business focus. Each year, management across a flat org chart is kept to visionary leaders, with strategic focus and a P & L responsibility; each employee comes together to review the goals that are set each year at a company level, bi-annually at a BU level & quarterly at a team level (more short-term) as well as or those set by our shareholders 1-3 years out (long-term) or those that have a greater impact to our Cost of Poor Quality (COPQ);

a.   stratify this further into 4 views or another concept I like to call ‘voice of perspective’ – What is ‘Voice of Perspective’?

                                                             i.      For starters, it is a concept I have had the opportunity to speak at great length about, with consistently positive reviews coming back from the audience / participant comment cards. 

b.    Voice of the customer (VOC)

c.     Voice of the supplier (VOS)

d.   Voice of the process (VOP)

e.     Voice of the business (VOB)

As the strategic use of a balanced, cascading scorecard, in conjunction with an organizational wide six sigma deployment or achievable goals & targets are achieved, driving operational & process excellence into and out of one’s Contact Center, you will have to find new ways to optimize and create efficiencies, across both the internal or in-sourced contact centers as well as your outsourcers, while infusing change management practices to help minimize the impact felt downstream due to:

1.     Crisis management

2.     Corporate restructure

3.    Loss of employment due to layoffs


So, that’s easier said than done, I know…And, pigs will fly when your top leadership lets any dashboard driving their strategy planning? Some people are shy at conference workshops and will not ask a question in front of the group; you know, for fear of sounding stupid all the while daydreaming that you were that person that we all hate; you know the one…that one person who can stand up, in their designer clothes and manicured nails (yes, men included), spout of a load of crap about any given subject before handing you a business card intended for your CFO (as if you ever would!) *special attention should be paid to the e-commerce or BI / OS sales conferences; the once nerd herd now socially & financially secure, having been graced by the ‘web 1.0’ *get the pun?* start and fall of corruption in the workplace, frequently attend these events;


Six Sigma Online

First, some definitions…
DMAIC – Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve, Control — the 5 phases of Six Sigma
DFSS – Design for Six Sigma
DMAIC – deals with variation/defects in existing processes
DFSS – deals with designing new processes/products without defects correctly the first time
Employing DMAIC at an internet-based company, reading between the lines, means that the product offering you are serving up to customers, has errors; plain and simple. Those errors could be related to design, customer experience, the support offered post-purchase; and many other features and functionality that comprise most eRetailers and other Internet companies.
Looking at DFSS, this seems like a better option since it deals with the design aspect up front – imagine a world where your computer doesn’t crash or you don’t have to find your installer files in order to make your Windows software or other OS work — Seems like a fantasy world, right?
Well, the whole goal of DFSS is to ship products defect-free, even at the expense of the launch date slipping (usually, associated with an opportunity cost). What most people forget or perhaps believe, is that the opportunity costs are usually diminished by the impact to the bottom line because of the incurred ops and labor costs incurred to fix something already shipped, in terms of calls to the call center, help desk technicians on a 24/7 schedule can be costly, and if you outsource your phone volume, there is the whole argument that US customers want to talk to US agents. OK – so you say "we will use email and self-service online only." Speaking from experience, unless you are Amazon, who are the only online presensce to successfully service their customers online, thus, prompting them to bury their (800) support # <tip: Google can help you find it>. But for everyone else, customers want the comfort when they make a purchase, of a customer support numer, especially considering that customers are still not fully comfortable entering their credit cards online to purchase. Paypal and phone-me-back options are becoming much more common, as providers realize customers are growing less comfortable, rather than more comfortable, entering their personal details on the web.
Depending on whether you care about the top or bottom line, one of these two cost risks, will rise above and become your priority.
In a start-up, usually, it is the top line growth; sacrifice service costs for the revenue growth opportunities; which I would agree with. And, neither DMAIC or DFSS should be employed.
But, for more stable, operating corporations online, DFSS, becomes a key to your success, but only after you launch a successful DMAIC program with black belts and green belts infused throughout your organization hierarchy.

Balanced Scorecard Collaborative (BSCOL) and Microsoft

I often am amazed when I find out how advanced we are at EXPE with regards to our Scorecard program — Over the course of the last 2 years, I have presented at a handful of conferences, including CFO, CIO magazines, ICPQ Quality, and BSCOL, where multiple people would approach me afterwards to ask me how they can mirror our work.


Well, let me start by saying that it has taken us almost 3 years to work through the issues that come when any company deploys a brand new quality program or measurement system — Often, you’ll have integrity issues with the data requiring ETL or transformation/cleansing of the data, something that often is hidden within disparate databases, silo’ed across your company. Next, you have the problem of ‘jumping into the weeds’ too soon Vis a vie the overexcitement that comes with having clean data ready to extract and publish in a balanced scorecard format. I find that people, when presented with the option of what data should constitute their most important performance indicators or KPIs for their scorecard, will act as if it is a ‘Chinese Menu’ and try to order 1 of everything, thus bogging down the scorecard with too much information. While anyone who reads my blogs know how I feel about business metaphors like ‘jump into the weeds’, it is apropos to mention at this point that ‘staying at the 30,000 or 60,000 foot view’ for as long as you possibly can is critical. I recommend not having the project manager or program manager who will eventually maintain the ongoing balanced scorecard from an administrative perspective be involved with the strategic decision making with regards to determining relevant and strategic KPIs that cover all 4 perspectives outlined by Kaplan and Norton’s balanced scorecard methodology. And, you do not have to launch out of the gate with the perfect version of your scorecard with all 4 perspectives included. At EXPE, we started with the VOC, or Voice of the Customer, perspective, followed by our finance perspective, internal voice (i.e. your employees)/learning and development. While we weren’t truly balanced when we launched nor were our KPIs perfect from the get-go, we took the next 3 years to manually create and iterate on the scorecards while we went across the company on a ‘road show’ to build support and executive buy-in to our program. This is the next piece that is critical for any quality program to be successful. As Fred Reichheld talks in ‘Good to Great’ and ‘Built to Last’, what is the point of quality if it isn’t tied to the bottom line? Quality for the sake of quality is a slippery slope (oops…another metaphor), often causing companies financial pain if they go with guns blazing into any new quality program without first understanding how the VOC impacts the top and bottom lines.


Being the solutions oriented person I am, at this point, I would be asking ‘this is all great – – But how exactly do you tie VOC with the strategic vision of your company’?


Answer: it’s not easy…and while I may sound redundant, it took us 3 years before we A) got tied into the strategic planning process, B) got the entire company engaged and enthused by the methodology all leading up to my 3rd point, C) even thought about automating the process.


After 3 years, we finally automated as part of the early adopters program for Microsoft’s BSM product (code named Maestro during the beta program) — For a fraction of the cost of Cognos or Business Objects, other software vendors who offer scorecard modules, Microsoft developed a flexible and user-friendly tool for connecting to multiple different data sources and data types (i.e. relational (SQL/Oracle), multidimensional or cube data (i.e. Analysis Services) or even flat file and manual entry. No matter how technical your company or you are, you can use the software to help you.

But I stress…Do you automate at the same time as you build your program, even if your executive sponsor or boss approves buying the software ahead of time. If you do not have both executive buy-in and company wide adoption of your scorecard program, you will end up with a ‘cool tool that people find interesting’ that over time,  becomes less and less important to the stakeholders, especially if you see a lot of turnover or mergers/acquisitions within your org.  In the end, in order to be a truly balanced view, it must roll all the way up to the top of the food-chain; you will know you have achieved nirvana when CEO level planning and executing strat-planning is based on KPIs measured on your Scorecard. There is no one view that everyone must look at: CEO’s will want a company/brand/lines of business overall view; but would a call center agent find that useful? Not so much. They care about their AHT and adherence to schedule, so their view would be very different. But it is all very do-able with MS’s Business Scorecard Manager (or BSM) product.


For reference, check out BSCOL or Balanced Scorecard Collaborative ( — They have a great website full of information, as well as having cunning conferences during the year that bring together the minds of some of the leading experts in the scorecard space, including the father’s of the methodology, Norton and Kaplan (my personal heroes)!


Who was the 1st the introduce the concept of the workplace metaphor?

Who was the 1st the introduce the concept

of the workplace metaphor?


I have been collecting a list of metaphors and cliches

often used in the work place to mean something to the

person saying it, in an almost self-righteous way.

For example, I once heard my boss say "Rome wasn’t built

in a day…And You Can Boil the Ocean at the Same Time…While

I know you know How to Eat an Elephant – One Bite At a Time…

you might lack the Line of Site and JUMP INTO THE WEEDS

where your Grass Roots spirit takes over your 60,000 foot view."

How many workplace metaphors were used in the last paragraph?

(BTW, that was rhetorical).

The interestingly ironic thing is that these statements, while vague

and often spoken in an effort to "spin" the situation into a positive

light, they are nothing more than "smoke and mirror" statements (what I affectionately

like to call SAM).

If you hear a colleague saying one of these phrases, you might be

wondering what you should do?

Here are a few suggestions…

A) Hold your hand up in a gun position (thumb up//pointer finger out) and shoot an air gun while winking your eye.

B) Respond back with your own string of workplace metaphors: "There are no silver bullets", "let’s parachute down to

street level", etc.

C) Hit your staples ‘Easy Button’ to eject said person through the roof

All in all, it is a fast and easy way to tell who you want to

associate with — Go for those who speak with passion and integrity;

not spin doctors, for you might just wind up with your sweet spot (meaning:

where you find the best in breed for your business at the lowest opportunity

cost) mixed with some secret sauce (meaning: the key success measure) resulting in what my

friends tease me for doing all of the time: mixing my metaphors!


Six Sigma and Scorecards in the Contact Center

I just published this to my Blog on ( — and wanted to share it here too:
Interestingly, I have seen in my travels through the random world of Operations and Contact Centers (a forcibly implemented change from the vanilla-version, call center), a true need for process excellence. Yet, of recent, ‘process excellence’ has become a trend, rather than a disciplined methodology or philosophy.
This ‘flavor of the month’ mentality has been around forever, but with business book publishing so popular, the methodologys of TQM, CMMI, CRM, CEM and others, have breezed through many contact centers like a hurricane. Often accompanied by SWAG (‘stuff we all get’, or the PC definition of ‘S’), agent rewards, and other external motivators. Often, centers are dedicated and a large kickoff celebration usually ocurs.
The Executives think that the call center agents (get the subtle joke?) are into the Pomp and Circumstance, and while some agents definitely buy in (mostly for the free give-aways, and why not? I was once an agent too!), I would say that my experience has shown me that most, including myself, are skeptical or simply do not care. If they have any tenure under their belt, agents will tell you an ear-full about the 1 to 2 year trends that have swept through their call centers. And when a new program pops up spouting ‘Customer is #1’ or ‘We love our Agents’…’Customer Retention is Most Important’, the agents know that under the covers, are still the demands of ‘Reduce your Handle Time’ or ‘WE HAVE 50 CALLS ON HOLD’ (which incidentally, often is also spouted by a ticker tape monitor that relays the current calls holding as if we were monitoring stock values like a broker’s office at the NYSE).
And, while most centers have seen short-term financial gains or have been able to quantify the ‘soft savings’ from increased customer retention or propensity to repurchase, over the long-haul, these programs have bordered on beinga ‘flavor’ rather than a true cultural shifter.
And, then, without notice, Six Sigma swoops down on the centers. And, believe me, I support the initiative…I am one of the black belts; but fancy myself different, having started from the ground floor as an agent in a different company and have rode the corporate wave to a new, Interent based travel company in a new role. This is where the term ‘ Ignorance is Bliss’ originated, I’m sure; people not wanting to know both the blessings and the curse of launching a new quality program in an existing center.
Best to start with Design for Six Sigma when you first launch the centers. But when that isn’t an option (probably 98% of the time), we have other things to do to win over the agents.
1) Schedule a meeting with one or two agents (1 with high quality) and a new hire (fresh-eyes perspective), a trainer and a supervisor. The objective is to discuss ways to reduce waste in the center (don’t focus only on handle time…it is the inverse of First Call Resolution).
2) Ask for ideas of things that delay them on the call and afterwards. Note them on the 3M flip boards that come with the sticky side for easy attachment of the sheets to the wall.
3) Create 3 columns: 1 that says ‘Noise’ and 1 that says ‘ Controllable’ and 1 that says ‘ Standard Operating Procedures (SOP)’ — Add each of the ideas from Step 2 into one of these columns. Circle those that are in the agent’s control (Controllable) in a color — Circle those in a different color that are in the Exectives control (SOP) and cross off those that cannot be controlled by the agent. Focus on the ones that are under the agent’s control and the business’ control (unless you have items in the Noise column that you find out later can be addressed by agents or management; if so, move it to the corresponding column and out of ‘Noise’). Take the items in ‘Noise’ and rewrite them onto a new sheet — Title this sheet "Issues out of Agent’s Control" and move it tot the side – You will be revisiting this sheet in Step 9.
4) Ask for ideas and ways you can help. Note them on the flip boards.
5) Encourage the team to visualize every call as having three steps in a storyboard — Think of yourself as a screenwriter and the caller is Hollywood — This is key:
A. What does Hollywood want? An Action, Romance, Comedy…(In terms of the center, it means ‘What does the customer want’ A Refund, Change, Recap…)
B. What did we agree to do? (List what you did in Step A along with the associated procedures that are written — NOT the actual steps you [the agent] took. That comes in Step 3).
C. What did we do? (List what you actual did for what you wrote in Step A).
The gap between B and C presents an opportunity for improvement, that is both measurable and scope-able.
Agents who focus on these basic steps will listen more closely, ask enough questions and keep promises. The result is likely to include reduced handle time; fewer repeat calls, transfers and increased FCR.
6) Ask for ideas to test this concept for reducing handle time. Conducting a pilot with one team may be a great place to start.
7) Develop a Communications Plan and Strategy — Communicate this approach to one team, share the results of your meeting and ask them to pilot this concept for 30 days, is one idea I have read about. We actually work with our Communications Manager at our company for internal, Operations/Contact Center broadcasts and with our Internal PR team for anything that goes Company wide.
Let your center director know about this project and promise to inform her about the results. You may want to incorporate this new philosophy into your training and coach supervisors on using this new approach with their respective teams. A good communications strategy is key to building confidence in all of your center management groups.
8) Then look at the result. ACD reports may reflect an increase in handled calls by each agent and reduced TT or talk time.
9) Last but not least, we are not ignoring the Noise items. As the final step, take that flip chart titled "Issues Out of Agent Control" and address them one at a time! Stack rank them in the order of Risk — How? Group the agents together and create a FMEA (Failure Modes Effect Analysis) — The Result? RPN scores or Risk Indicators.
These are based on taking the Occurence (rated 1 to 10, 10 meaning a lot of occurences) X Severity (same scale as occurance) X Detectibility (rated 1 to 10, where 10 means NOT DETECTIBLE)..This is a bit different in understand than ‘O’ and ‘S’…The product of these 3 numbers is the RPN or Risk Indicator. Sort these in descending order for a stack ranked list to help you work on the Issues that impact the agents the most first.
All in all, including the agents upfront in the planning and strategy of a Six Sigma deployment, is far more effective than swoping in with a new quality program. SWAG, however, is still good!




If you can’t describe what you are doing as a process, you don’t know what you’re doing" — W. Edwards Deming






Six Sigma and Scorecards

Six Sigma Black Belt training taught me many things…The most obviously interesting was the utilization of Balanced Scorecards for measuring the success of Six Sigma in terms of the gaps that exist in your current product or process. This is also useful for Project Selection, one of the most critical aspects of any successful Six Sigma deployment. Most companies do not currently have Scorecards…We, Expedia, do…This has enabled us to really understand the VOC or Voice of the Customer in terms of our output requirements. The outputs naturally become the VOP, or Voice of the Process and the gap that exists between the Outputs and the Output Requirements, becomes the opportunity by which you should focus your black belts. For example, lets say you had a call center, and your call center was measured by the Balanced Scorecard. If AHT or Average Handle Time, was of particular interest (though I personally disagree with focusing on AHT as it is subjective to your Contact issue types and to your forecaster’s accuracy, but for the purposes of illustration, let’s say you were measuing AHT and you saw it go Red. The Output would be AHT as MEASURED BY THE current process. The Output Requirement would be AHT in the eyes of the Customer (VOC). So, if your current state AHT = 10 minutes and your customer requirement was a 6 minute AHT, then I would focus a black belt onto filling the 4 minute gap. It’s as simple as that.
You would formulate a SIPOC or better stated as SIPORC, to map out the Suppliers, Inputs, Process, Outputs (Requirements) and the Customers, where Outputs = AHT = 10 minutes and Output Requirements <= 6 minutes where you objective statement or problem statement should be ‘Reduce AHT by 4 or less minutes’ and your defect would be any AHT > 6 minutes.
Since this was first generated by an indicator change on your Balanced Scorecard, you would know that your project is both of importance to your company and strategic goals (definition of what is a balanced Scorecard) and something that would generate large returns (reductions in AHT always translate into dollars, especially if your contracts are based on an average AHT of 10 minutes). You will have to renegotiate to realize those benefits, but it will be worth it overall, IF AHT is important to you.