On Process Discovery, Domain Knowledge Acquisition, and Subject Matter Expert Interviews

This is a weird but true story … A complaint was received by the Pontiac Division of General Motors:

This is the second time I have written you, and I don’t blame you for not answering me, because I kind of sounded crazy, but it is a fact that we have a tradition in our family of ice cream for dessert after dinner each night. But the kind of ice cream varies so, every night, after we’ve eaten, the whole family votes on which kind of ice cream we should have and I drive down to the store to get it.

It’s also a fact that I recently purchased a new Pontiac and since then my trips to the store have created a problem. You see, every time I buy vanilla ice cream, when I start back from the store my car won’t start. If I get any other kind of ice cream, the car starts just fine.

I want you to know I’m serious about this question, no matter how silly it sounds: ‘What is there about a Pontiac that makes it not start when I get vanilla ice cream, and easy to start whenever I get any other kind?'”

The Pontiac President was understandably skeptical about the letter, but sent an engineer to check it out anyway. The latter was surprised to be greeted by a successful, obviously well educated man in a fine neighborhood. He had arranged to meet the man just after dinner time, so the two hopped into the car and drove to the ice cream store. It was vanilla ice cream that night and, sure enough, after they came back to the car, it wouldn’t start.

The engineer returned for three more nights. The first night, the man got chocolate. The car started. The second night, he got strawberry. The car started. The third night he ordered vanilla. The car failed to start.

Now the engineer, being a logical man, refused to believe that this man’s car was allergic to vanilla ice cream. He arranged, therefore, to continue his visits for as long as it took to solve the problem. And toward this end he began to take notes: he jotted down all sorts of data, time of day, type of gas used, time to drive back and forth, etc. In a short time, he had a clue: The man took less time to buy vanilla than any other flavor. Why? The answer was in the layout of the store.

Vanilla, being the most popular flavor, was in a separate case at the front of the store for quick pickup. All the other flavors were kept in the back of the store at a different counter where it took considerably longer to find the flavor and get checked out. Now the question for the engineer was why the car wouldn’t start when it took less time.

Once time became the problem — not the vanilla ice cream — the engineer quickly came up with the answer: vapor lock. It was happening every night, but the extra time taken to get the other flavors allowed the engine to cool down sufficiently to start. When the man got vanilla, the engine was still too hot for the vapor lock to dissipate.

Moral of the story: even insane-looking problems are sometimes real.

This classic story has been floating around for years. There are many reasons why a process analyst may be called to work with a customer. First, the customer may already know what the problem is, but they don’t know how to solve it. Next, the customer may know there’s a problem but they don’t know what the problem is. In this case they’ll want help identifying it. Sometimes the customer doesn’t have a problem at all, per se, but simply wants to improve the way they do things, either in terms of quality or volume of output. In other cases the customer doesn’t have a specific problem but their process needs to be documented, quantified, simulated, or something else, possibly as part of a larger program.

While process analysts do want to bring their skills, intelligence, experience, and tools with them to learn about customers’ problems so they can work on solving them, and while they can apply numerous formal and ad hoc techniques to analyze those problems, the process always begins and ends with listening to the customer.

In all of these cases you have to listen carefully. Even if you have your own expertise in a field the customer will know more about their specific processes, issues, conditions, and contexts than you will. It’s up to you to learn as much about that background as you can. The more you respect the customer, the more you ask them questions, the more you show interest and appreciation for what they do, the more information and cooperation you will get. That applies to managers, subject matter experts (SMEs) you may interview, line personnel, and every other person you encounter. The principles described in Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People may seem cliché at this point but they aren’t. (Nor are they cliché when dealing with family, friends, salespeople, colleagues, or anyone else, but that’s a different conversation.) The purpose is never to beat people over the head trying to demonstrate how smart you are, but to learn as much as you can so they’ll get their problems solved, you’ll get paid, and everyone will be happier. Besides, they’re much more likely to recognize your brilliance when you actually solve their problem. That’s a lot easier if you get cooperation by concentrating on other people and their needs. A lot of people, including Harry Browne have included similar observations and advice in their own works.

I’ve worked in all of these contexts and probably some others. I’ve definitely done the wrong thing at times, especially when I was starting out, but when I’ve been able to listen carefully I’ve been able to achieve my ends much more effectively. These days I’m consciously trying to improve my awareness of these principles so I can not only solve communication issues, but try to prevent them in the first place. That is, I’m applying my best analytic skills to an area that is a critical — and pervasive — problem all its own. I’ll leave you with another story, this one guaranteed to be true, that shows some of the possible confusion, even if everyone is on their best behavior. The problem is hard enough. Imagine how hard it becomes when people aren’t on their best behavior.

Many years ago my uncle, a retired Coast Guard officer, was explaining how to open a petcock valve to drain water from the fuel line of a small outboard motor. He told me to turn the valve clockwise to open it which for some reason inspired me to ask whether the direction was based on looking down at it or up at it. He thought for a moment and observed, “ships have been lost for that reason.”

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