Soft requests, or, what do clients really want?

I had an appropriately distanced lunch with someone in my field whose main internal client is reorganizing. That client wants training that will, among other things, help employees understand the latest version of the strategic plan.

Coincidentally, I recently came across materials from a long-ago workshop led by Joe Harless. The materials were for the topic of “front-end analysis,” a term Joe coined.

Front-End Analysis is about money, first and foremost. It’s about how to spend money in ways that will be most beneficial to the organization and the performers in that organization.

It is also about avoiding spending money on silly things like instruction when there is no instructional problem, or training everybody in everything when you can get by with training fewer people in a few things, or flying lots of trainees in for a course when a send-out checklist would do.

J. H. Harless, “An Analysis of Front-End Analysis,”
Improving Human Performance, 1973 (4)

Joe’s workshop in part looked at how to translate a “soft request” into something that would pass the Heydad Test. (“Hey, Dad, watch me while I understand the strategic plan” does not.)

One page from the workshop:

What was behind these requests?

  • “A sense of organizational history” — the client wanted to address the problem of loggers cutting down too many of the wrong trees.
  • Soldiers who “appreciate their cultural heritage” would be better at cleaning their rifles.
  • The problem of workers not appreciating “the internal beauty” of the widget operation turned out to be the problem that workers did not know how to operate the widget-making equipment.
  • As for the request to make students more globally aware? The actual request was showing foreign service personnel how to avoid violating local customs.

Which leads to Harless’s prize, the world’s softest soft request:

Educate everyone in the company in communicating, believing, and using common sense to creatively engender the new MBO principles.

In this sentence he found nine different reasons why the request is soft (and thus clues for what you’d need to clarify):

  1. EDUCATE: the request includes a specific solution.
  2. EVERYONE: a non-specific “who.”
  3. COMMUNICATING: a collection of behaviors.
  4. BELIEVING: an affective state.
  5. USING COMMON SENSE: covert behavior (how can you recognize this when you see it?).
  6. CREATIVELY: non-specific criterion.
  7. ENGENDER: non-specific level of proficiency.
  8. NEW: new performance.
  9. MBO (management-by-objectives) PRINCIPLES: subject-matter focus.

The actual situation that the request was describing? Supervisors needed to negotiate individual-level objectives with their subordinates. To deal with actual problems, Harless and his associates developed a two-hour workshop in which participants practiced using a job aid to help cover the key elements of the negotiation.

Destinations and expectations

(This is my second post related to destination-dispatch elevators.
Here’s the first.)

“What IS this stuff?”

Having encountered the touchscreen call panels and the buttonless cars of the Hyatt Regency Vancouver, I tried to find out what this approach was, and why it was.

Image of a multistory building served by four elevators, with many people ready to board each elevator.
Example A: the way things were

The condensed version:

Destination dispatch systems (sometimes called, tellingly, destination management systems) assign passengers to particular elevator cars based on their destination rather than by when passengers entered the elevator lobby.

Example A, taken from an online course on DD, shows a standard elevator system: passengers are waiting in a building lobby served by four elevators. When one arrives, everyone who can will enter, guaranteeing a maximum number of stops.

What’s more, until people are inside the car and select a floor, nobody–except the individual passenger–knows who’s going where. Out of a dozen passengers, eight could all be going to the 11th floor, but they’ll have to stop at 3, 4, 7, and 8 along the way.

A multistory building showing elevators assigned to specific floors. If you're going to the 8th floor, you'll be assigned to elevator B or D.
Example B: a conventional destination system

In a “conventional destination system,” as shown in Example B, people first choose a floor, then get assigned to an elevator based on that choice.

If this example were the Hyatt, when I selected the sixth floor, I’d get assigned to elevator C. There’d be no point in boarding elevator A or B or D–at least on this trip, they wouldn’t be stopping on the sixth floor.

If you compare the images, the four elevators in example B make fewer stops total, for the same passengers, than the elevators in example A.

The first-time passenger wouldn’t know that, of course; she’s mainly concerned with getting to the sixth floor so likely isn’t pondering the rationale. Though if three other elevators arrive before elevator C does, she might start wondering why.

The reasons why

The goal is to move people through the building faster and use the elevators more efficiently. Here’s an example from a Thyssenkrupp fact sheet for one of their offerings:

A chart comparing traditional elevator operation with destination dispatch. Traditional could involve 15 stops. Destination dispatch might require only 4.
Traditional elevator operation on the left; destination dispatch on the right.

It took me a while to read the left-hand example: there are four people traveling to each floor; they are color-coded by floor. Take the elevator on the left, three people get on in the lobby. The yellow person gets off on the third floor; the dark-blue person on the fourth, and the light-blue person on the fifth. In the right-hand example, four light-blue people get on the second elevator and travel straight through to the fifth floor.

The more I read, the more complexity I found.

  • Types of buildings: how you apply destination dispatch is one thing for a hotel, another thing altogether for an office building. And in the latter case, do you have a lot of within-the-building traffic, like from the finance department to the sales department?
  • Types of access: you can combine destination dispatch with a security system. For an office building in lower Manhattan, employees of Lochaber Amalgamated might have floor access determined by function — if you’re not in IT, maybe you have to be escorted onto the 9th floor by someone who is.
  • Destination dispatch might allow you to have fewer elevators with the same level of service as a greater number of traditional-technology elevators.

What I’m thinking (now)

As Don Norman said of design, everything is a tradeoff. Because this is (relatively) new technology, I think most people aren’t accustomed to it, and as noted early, each morning during my three-day stay, I was surprised to step into the car and find no destination buttons whatsoever.

For my wife and her fellow conference attendees, the switch between two hotels where events took place meant they were regularly shifting between the Old Way and the New Way, elevatorially speaking.

Still, the initial learning curve is relatively low. Yes, you’ll be a bit pokey on your first few rides (“Oh, right, gotta choose my floor”), and especially in the lobby you’ll learn quickly not to jump into just any open elevator–because not only is this one not going to the tenth floor, once you’re inside there’s no way to make it go there.

The most striking drawback, I think, was the lack of status information for people waiting, especially during busy periods like lunchtime. I waited on the sixth floor with eight or ten people wanting to descend to the lobby. We heard elevator noise and even voices in the elevators, but we had no idea when our elevator would show up, nor where it was in the meantime.

It doesn’t take long to get impatient at that point and to lose faith in a newfangled system. Yes, this might be more expedient for the average passenger, but I’m not the average passenger — I’m just me, and I’m wondering when I’m going to get off this damned floor.

I don’t have any big conclusion. Ultimately I enjoyed this real-life user-interface experiment. It left me with more appreciation of what a challenge it can be, trying to make new technology work in the real world.

Elevating change, or, who’s got the button?

About ten days ago, I got to stay at the Hyatt Regency Vancouver while my wife was attending a conference. As we left registration, we encountered a new experience–at the elevator.

What I saw

We walked to the bank of 5 elevators to find… no call button. We weren’t the only ones not finding it; the elevator lobby was full of people who’d just checked in and so hadn’t yet gone up to a room. A bellman diplomatically showed us a wall-mounted panel. It was one of three or four — one at each side of the elevator lobby, two positioned between elevators.

Screen-based electronic panel used to select elevator destinations at the Hyatt Vancouver Hotel.
Elevator call station: the lobby version

The screen has five choices (plus a “you are here” area at the bottom that sure looks like another choice). Four of them will talk you to floors with meeting rooms, restaurants, and similar facilities. The bellman demonstrated, again and again, the need to  press “Guest Floors.” That produces this grid:Screen-based electronic panel showing guest floors at the Hyatt Vancouver Hotel.When you press the box for your floor, you get yet another screen:

Electronic screen directing you to stand at elevator A.The diagram in the photo is telling you to please use elevator A. There’s a little arrow to guide you from where the panel is to the elevator in question. As people select different floors, this electronic sorting hat directs them to different elevators.

Once inside the elevator car: no floor buttons, no floor lights. On either side of the door, a screen (the “car annunciator,” I’ve learned) displays the floors where the car is programmed to stop.

I was too confused to take a photo on my first trip up; here’s one from a trip down to the lobby from the sixth floor. From a busy lobby, elevator A’s annunciator might show 6, 8, 12, 14, while elevator C might have 4, 7, 9, 16.

Electronic indicator in an elevator car displaying L for Lobby.What I thought

My first impression: “This is nuts.”

The Hyatt has over 600 rooms and was hosting a conference. We and many others checked in shortly after noon. Few in the lobby seemed familiar with this style of elevator, which explained the bellman’s patient, repeated demonstrations of how to get to your floor. Nor had it quite sunk in that I’d find a similar panel on each room floor.

Screen-based electronic panel used to select elevator destinations at the Hyatt Vancouver Hotel.The only difference is that the bottom choice no longer reads “you are currently in the lobby.” There’s nothing here to tell you you’re on the sixth floor — but you got here somehow, right, so you should know.

It was disconcerting to enter the sixth-floor elevator for the first time each day and find no floor buttons at all. And especially that first day, I couldn’t see the point. I suspected it had a lot more to do with hotel efficiency than guest expectations, but I didn’t have any evidence for that… yet.

…That’s what I saw the first day, and what I thought about it.

I kept coming back to the experience, to the technology, and to my reactions. In my next post, I’ll share things I’ve learned about destination-dispatch elevator technology, along with some more nuanced reactions and a notion or two in terms of who’s managing and who’s changing.

(This is a first post about destination-dispatch elevators;
here’s the second.)

Case study, or, 99 problems: it’s the law

Via Ken White (@popehat) I learned about an article written by his law partner, Caleb Mason, for the St. Louis University Law Journal:


What is it? A line-by-line analysis of the second verse of Jay-Z’s song “from the perspective of a criminal procedure professor. It’s intended as a resource for law students and teachers, and for anyone who’s interested in what pop culture gets right about criminal justice, and what it gets wrong.”

It’s a terrific example of a focused, detailed explanation by a technical expert who’s also a teacher. Mason uses the specifics of the song (and of Jay-Z’s experience related to it) to highlight principles, legal issues, and practical problems related to the fourth amendment.

Amendment IV

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

As Mason says, “When I teach the Fourth Amendment, I ask my students what the doctrines tell us about, on the one hand, how to catch bad guys and not risk suppression [of evidence obtained improperly], and on the other, how to avoid capture or at least beat the rap if not the ride.”


Mark Twain, Stewart Brand, and what to call “remote work”

In The Diaries of Adam and Eve (“translated by Mark Twain”), Adam writes at one point:

The new creature names everything that comes along, before I can get in a protest. And always the same excuse is offered—it looks like the thing. There is the dodo, for instance. Says the moment that one looks at it one sees at a glance that it “looks like a dodo.” It will have to keep that name, no doubt. It wearies me to fret about it, and it does no good, anyway. Dodo! It looks no more like a dodo than I do.

Names do stick, though as Stewart Brand observed, names associated with technology gradually fade.

We have only another decade or so of carrying on about computers as the big new bad/good thing. They’re about to disappear from view the way motors did. Engines were cause for wonder and speculation when they ran ships and railroads.

Motor? Mouth!
CC-licensed photo by Josh Minor

Nobody called the automobile or truck a personal railroad, but that’s what it was, and people still were impressed. Then motors got smaller and disappeared into lawn mowers, refrigerators, toothbrushes, wristwatches, and nobody…speculates now about what motors will become or worries much about what they are doing to human dignity or economic inequality.

I think perhaps the coming of personal computers was slow enough — starting with the Altair in 1975 and slowly accelerating with the Apple II in 1977 and the IBM PC in 1981– that we’re still talking about “computers,” though that’s shifting. Everyone knows what you mean by a laptop or a tablet.

The speed of technology in phones is such that “smartphone” is starting to sound a bit quaint, like “automobile” for “car.”

I was at the Institute for Performance and Learning’s symposium in Vancouver last week. In his session, Steve Blane argued for “elearning” as a term (no capital L, no hyphen), much the way he’s seen “e-mail” turn toward “email.”

I’m not entirely sure of the latter, but I agree with the spirit. In fact I’d like to stop talking about e- things generally, except perhaps to distinguish one subset from another. Elearning, however spelled, is a format for encouraging learning.

Which is why I so much enjoyed Michael Erard’s Remote? That’s No Way to Describe This Work in the New York Times. He and his wife moved from Texas to Portland, Maine; she manages a geographically dispersed team, and he is a researcher for an organization in Washington DC.

They found a number of people in Portland in similar positions, and in looking to form a community, wondered what to call such people.

  • Remote workers? “Such a headquarters-centric label.”
  • Telecommuters? “Such a dial-up-era feel.”
  • Virtual workers? “As if the work is somehow less tangible…than in traditional offices.”

It was at the first face-to-face meeting my wife and I had with Creative Portland representatives (we had been communicating by Facebook) that a new label came to me: We “work in place.”

It’s worth reading the linked article for Erard’s full discussion. As he points out, it’s worker-centric. And it carries a connotation of the work that suits you in your circumstances (assuming, of course, that you’re not frantically scrambling to make ends meet).