Sunday, July 31, 2005

So what are you looking at

In the world of enterprise there are not a lot of answers.

The only one I can put on my list with any certainty is this: When something REALLY works, keep doing it. Then keep doing it better every day. When something doesn't work, well, you get the idea.

Unfortunately, all the rest seems to fall in between. Things work and you push them. You find limits. You work the limits to the best of your ability and finances. When you beat those limits down to a manageable size, you're getting within reach of REALLY works territory.

That's when you get to switch from working hard and smart to working harder and smarter. However, you get to do it on your terms, not those dictated by the problem.

There are certainly guidelines, if not answers, to how good sustainable enterprises get welded together and stay afloat. That's what I've been trying to talk about in these posts. My general point is, if you want answers, you'd better like the looking.

That's the temperament I'd recommend in approaching any start up or start up type project, even when it's within a big outfit.

Look for answers, but look very carefully at how you look. Think about what you should look at and how you look at what you find. How are you going to measure what you find? If you're smart, you'll be doing this a bit differently, and hopefully, a bit smarter all the time.

Data is key, but picking what you look at, and how you look at it is much more important. Then, my friend, learn to enjoy that process. Because, if you don't control the data, you're not going to enjoy your enterprise very much.

Answers are never readily available. Your role as a start up or a sustainable enterprise is to ask better and better questions all the time.

You can do that by controlling as much of the data as you can regarding your enterprise. Then, as you think of better questions, you can use your ability to get at all your information immediately. The success of your enterprise depends on your ability to reshuffle your data to get increasingly meaningful answers to your increasingly better questions.

If you want to move the blue sky stuff forward, you've got to capture the details. As I've said before, paper and pencil work, but digital databases are easy and much more helpful. You get to set them up any way you want to look at your data. When you think of better questions, you can quickly make newer and better windows into the data.

Before I drift off into database design, I'll stop and get back on point.

I don't know many answers. I just really like the looking for 'em. If you’re looking for sustainable work, you should too.

Saturday, July 30, 2005

Trib follow up

Right next to the story about our recycling award there was a story that oil had closed above $60 a barrel again on Friday.

Nice words from the Chicago Tribune

The Chicago Tribune ran a nice piece about our work today.

I've told most every reporter that's ever asked about our work that throwing away oil seems idiotic when people are dying for the stuff. Jon Van was the first one to ever use it.

I also try to credit my Dad as often as I can but Jon got it just a bit mixed up. My Dad's patents are in ion exchange which is way smarter stuff than I know about. He's a real engineer. I just play one on TV.

Also, if you've read any previous posts, you'd know that my biz partner and co-founder Dave, is not a media friendly kind of guy. However, I was worried that the story focused on me too much and didn't use Dave's name. I was a little nervous calling him. When I started to tell Dave that I'd used his name about a million times in the interviews, he interrupted me right away. Dammit Rick, he said, didn't I tell you not to do that?

Pure Dave. However, he got what he wanted. I want to re-acknowledge out loud that this enterprise began life as a two person start up. Just don’t tell Dave I told you.

Chicago Tribune
Published July 30, 2005

Rick Terrien exudes both humility and enthusiasm when discussing his company's accomplishments.

Terrien, president of Universal Separators Inc. in Streator, Ill., addresses problems of contaminated oil and coolant fluids that are common to the manufacturing process.

"It's a big problem in the dark, back corners of manufacturing plants," said Terrien.

Normal procedure is for plants to shut down equipment, drain contaminated oils and coolant fluids, and pay someone to take them away for disposal. This costs money for new oil and coolant and lost production time, and it is an environmental burden.

Universal Separators makes equipment that skims off the top layer of liquid, transports it to a tank where contaminants settle out of the fluids, and then enables operators to recycle the clean fluids.

"It works by gravity," Terrien said. "It's not really high tech, but it does work like a mechanical kidney outside the fluid tubs."

Using some technology patented by his father, Terrien started the privately held Universal Separators in 1998. He's been spreading the word about recycling fluids ever since.

"A lot of people think that environmental stuff is just a frill, but it's not," said Terrien. "It's a core competency. I use job loss as an argument. A manufacturer needs to be as smart about the details as he can to remain competitive.

"Pollution is really just resources in the wrong place. It doesn't make sense to be throwing oil away--people are dying for that stuff. Recycling is ultimately a bean-counter thing."

Terrien's devotion to recycling was rewarded recently when the National Society of Professional Engineers recognized Universal Separators' technology with an award for small-business product of the year. The honor included acknowledgement from Dieter Zetsche, chief executive of Chrysler Group, of Universal Separators' technology.

"That really felt good, to have a big corporate executive take time out to recognize a contribution our tiny company makes toward improving the industry," said Terrien. "It's nice to be noticed."

Chicago Tribune. July 30, 2005. This story is now in the Chicago Tribune archives.

Saturday, July 23, 2005

Tom Peters. An honor from the top shelf

Great stuff unexpectedly drops in over the transom sometimes.

I've wanted to write about enterprise and innovation for a long while. Our current start up has been soaking up its share of waking hours, but this past April I got around to opening up this site for posting some ideas that had been stacking up.

I'm an avid reader of biz related books and mags. Like life, the content quality of what's published is all over the board. Some great, some awful. However, even in the bad ones, I find there is usually one or two small things that are valuable and that can be put to good use.

Tom Peters is another story. When Tom wrote In Search Of Excellence, the business of enterprise changed forever. There are now over 10 million copies in print, in a zillion languages. Tom has written, or had a hand in, a dozen or so other books, nearly all best sellers, and untold articles about business, life, innovation and enterprise.

Every single time I come in contact with Tom Peter's work I come away better. When Tom writes, there aren't one or two good things in each piece. There are one or two good things per page. Typically there's one or two good things per paragraph. Book after book, article after article. Decade after decade. Tom is the best of the best.

Fortune magazine calls Tom Peters the Ur-guru of management and compares him to Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman and H.L. Mencken. CBS MarketWatch said "Tom Peters is the most provocative and engaging (as well as annoying and threatening) management guru running loose in America today."

Tom Peters web site is the only permanent outside link I've ever included on this site. It was there from the first day I put the site up.

I just received an unexpected, "over the transom" gift from Tom and friends. We were asked if they could include SustainableWork on their blog roll, their list of recommended reading sites.

My goodness. Thank you!

The subject of start ups, innovation and self enterprise is an area of life that's typically full of the worst kind of hype and hucksterism found anywhere. I've been trying to talk about these subjects with a minimum of noise and as much straight talk as I can muster. That approach usually doesn't stand out amid the tidal forces of popular culture.

The fact that Tom and friends think enough of this approach and this content to include it in their recommended reading is among the coolest gifts I've ever received.

Fortune magazine summed up Tom's impact this way: "We live in a Tom Peters world."

I know I do and I'm very grateful.

Many thanks Tom and friends!

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Betting the farm. One job at a time.

December 2003. Were you reading those job creation numbers?

It was a rough time. Biz was tanking in every sector. Only 1000 jobs created during that month in the entire United States.

One of them was Bill, the guy I hired to replace myself as chief peddler. We crossed our fingers, ignored the headlines, bet the farm and made one new job. December 2003. It was the one and only month I will probably ever be statistically noticeable in the macro economic numbers. We made 0.001 of the new jobs that month for the whole country.

The economy didn't seem to care, but Bill and I sure did. It was a turning point moment that was clearly saying, "Start your engines".

And that's my point. For start ups and small enterprisers the macro economy will always churn in ways we have no control over. That churning will rain millions of trickle down droplets on to you in perceptible and imperceptible ways. Like the weather, you and I have little or no influence over any of it.

Our opportunities are different and shouldn't be driven by the headlines. Problems are all over the place, even more so during bad times. However, problems equal opportunity, remember? Don't judge your opportunity or your contribution by what everyone says about your chances. They don't have your insight or your heart. They also miss the potential for creating smart, sustainable enterprises because they're driven by yesterday's numbers and their own fears.

Of course enterprise start ups can look scary. Everything can if you couch it in the wrong terms. But when things are dark there is also a great need for light. That's your opportunity, not your barrier.

From the outside looking in it probably appeared dumb to hire Bill. Every biz headline was awful. Storm clouds swirled.

What happened? The next year we had our best year ever. We damn near tripled our sales, with Bill leading the charge. It was a wonderful sight to see.

So, yes. That was me. 0.001 of the job creations for Dec. 2003. Remember? It's funny, but nobody ever called to say thanks.

Except Bill. And that's what really mattered.

It mattered to Bill. It really mattered to me.

Sunday, July 10, 2005

More from Faith and Fortune

I linked to Marc Gunther's great new book Faith and Fortune in the previous post.

For anyone thinking about sustainable work, the drumbeat of news about bad business ethics can be a daunting barrier to entry. It's easy to get the impression that a life of business and enterprise must be spent in a fishbowl of sharks.

It's not an appealing prospect. It's also not true.

C'mon in. The water's fine.

I can imagine it would be very difficult to change behemoth corporations to think ethically, but it's being done all over the place. And it works, as you can read in Marc's Faith and Fortune.

We as start ups and small enterprise types have it easier. The sheet is blank. You get to fill it in. You define your values and set your priorities. Then you execute your plan, wrapped in a life you can be proud of.

On Marc's web site, he ends a Q and A page with this...

"What do you want the readers to take away from Faith and Fortune?"

"A sense of optimism. The belief that corporations, run right, can do enormous good. And the desire and determination to make the world a better place. That's all!"

If that isn't sustainable work, I don't know what is. You can make the world a better place, friends.

Fire it up!

Saturday, July 09, 2005

Breaking news... how to succeed in life

Flat out. My favorite big biz exec is Colleen Barrett, the President and CEO of Southwest Airlines. What a wonderful a role model. I taped her picture to the door of my daughters' room. Ms. Barrett started her career at Southwest as a secretary. There are many, many reasons, of course, to stand in awe of what she and her team have done, succeeding and advancing on many fronts amid the greatest set of rolling knockout blows in the history of their industry. Amazing stuff. A Fast 50 recipient, 2003.

Ms. Barrett and almost every analyst writing about Southwest, and most anyone who flies their system defines the enterprise by its values.

Values within lead to value in the world. Friends, that's sustainable work.

It infuses the story of Southwest Airlines. It lights their enterprise.

What's the secret? "It's as simple as practicing the Golden Rule" she says, quoted in a wonderful new book called Faith and Fortune, by Marc Gunther.

So, as a tip of my cap to Colleen Barrett's spirit, her simple honesty and immense talent, I offer the following breaking news for business and life ...

"Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them, for this is the law of the prophets". - Matthew 7:12

"No one of you is a believer until he desires for his brother that which he desires for himself". - Sunnah

"Not one of you is a believer until you wish for others what you wish for yourself." - Fourth Hadith of an-Nawawi 13

"What is harmful to you, do not to your fellow men. That is the entire Law; all the rest is commentary". - Talmud, Shabbat, 312

"This is the turn of duty; do naught unto others which could cause pain if done to you". - Mahabharata, 5, 1517

"Humankind has not woven the web of life. We are but one thread within it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves." - Chief Seattle

"Surely it is the maxim of loving-kindness: Do not unto other that you would not have them do unto you". - Analects, 15,23

"Regard your neighbor's gain as your own gain and your neighbor's loss as your own loss". - T'ai Shang Kan Ying P'ien

"Hurt not others in ways you yourself would find hurtful". - Udana - Varga 5,18

"That nature alone is good which refrains from doing unto another whatsoever is not good for itself". - Dadistan-i-dinik, 94,5

Do not unto others as you would that they should do unto you. Their tastes may not be the same". - George Bernard Shaw

Well then, my kind of advice. Business or pleasure... Simple. Easy to remember. No logos. Sort of catchy. You can google it. No copyrights. Multicultural.

There is a clear path walked before us. The advertising would read "field tested". Walking this path through the fields of your enterprise life is a route that has clearly passed some important tests through the millennia and across the planet. I'm just adding my voice to the choir.

If it's good enough for all these world religions and it's good enough for my biz hero Colleen Barrett, it's good enough for me.

I do my best to follow this path in my enterprise life and the damndest thing is, it works.

How's that for breaking news?

Friday, July 08, 2005

New products. Same story. You pick.

Last night in Chicago we received an important national new products award. The National Society of Professional Engineers, an association of engineers with the highest professional certifications available in the US, presented us with the US Small Business New Product of the Year Award for 2005.

As I was driving back from Chicago, something about our approach struck me as odd but informative.

You should understand something about us. We're not just a new products shop, we're an EXTREME new products shop. The new product development skills of the people around me are breathtaking. In new product development, I promise you I don't impress easily. With this bunch, bless them, innovation is like a high-speed quantum contact sport for brains. Imagination and new products get fired up long before the morning coffee and don't get turned off.

And yet, when anyone asks what we do, we don't talk about the blue sky cool new stuff. We tell a story. The same story. Over and over.

It's how we explain ourselves to ourselves and ourselves to the world. It's our story, and I'm stickin' to it.

In my opinion telling your story well is the core competency of any successful enterprise, from start up through dotage.

This is what our story says: "We design and build the best tools in the world for removing floating oil and contaminants from industrial fluids. Our patented and proprietary systems are built to last a lifetime, use no consumables and require minimal maintenance. Our goal is to help our customers operate more efficiently at reduced cost, while greatly improving environmental performance."

That idea started life written on a napkin. It moved to a big post it note over my desk. It soon became the mission statement. Years later, it's become a story we put on almost every public document we share with stakeholders.

Telling your story is your way of welcoming your idea to the world and vice versa. Your story needs to potentially involve everyone important to your market. In the nicest possible way, forget about everybody else. Your story needs to be short, pleasant, highly accurate, understandable and hopefully informative enough to represent your position as the best in the world at something.

We've got many more new products in development (as if we could stop). Some may be duds. Some may win more awards. But I guarantee that all those new products will always fit very nicely into our same old story.

New products. Same story. Can you pick which one is really most important?

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Sustainable competitiveness

I liked a great phrase used by Fast Company Editor John Byrne in his Letter from the Editor, May 2005. "The Case For Change"

John refers to "sustainable competitiveness". That's a potentially scary thought. You're actually acknowledging that you're entering a fray for which there is probably no clear victory. And there is plenty of defeat available. John Byrne defines the kind of victory available to most start ups and similar enterprises as simply, and sustainably, being able to continue on with the fray.

Gosh, there's an easy sell.

Actually that's JUST what you should want.

You're probably not going to start an enterprise that will dominate its niche so thoroughly that you will forever be lighting cigars with folding money. Rather, you're going to start an enterprise that will need to slip into the weirdly chaotic commercial flood and stay there. And prosper. If you're wise you'll even learn to love it.

I like Fast Company for a bunch of obvious reasons, but especially what John Byrne says about its mission, that the magazine is "... dedicated to the belief that change is at the core of human fulfillment and sustainable competitiveness." Fast Company says its mission is "teaching our readers how to make their work lives more meaningful and productive." Yep. These are directions we all, increasingly, need to explore.

My contribution, though I don't think it would make the magazine, would be that sustainable enterprisers need to learn to live with symptoms like messy, scary, exhilarating and frustrating. Also, slap you in the face rewarding and impossible to predict.

In this environment, you will need the ability to continuously go forward amid continuous challenge. As John B. calls it "sustainable competitiveness". This is rarely a journey to an end game. My recommendation is to learn to create and then love your own great journey.

Many people won't want this life. That's fine. It's not exactly an easy sell once you tell the truth about sustainable work. However, those folks are not who I'm talking to. I'm talking to the people emotionally nimble enough to dance on water and realistic enough to know that they have the skills and the will to change the world.

The rest is almost easy if you execute well.

Any aisle. Any store. Any place. Any market.

I seem to be unusually confident that you can start your own enterprise. How come?

Most people have no idea where to start. Money and profit are scorecards, but you only really succeed by solving problems.

So whaddya wanna do? How do you pick the products or services you'll turn into your problem solving enterprises?

Here's an idea I roughly guarantee. Walk down any aisle in any store in any place serving any kind of market. It's best if you pick a subject area you have a real affinity for. Walk around and soak it up. Then carefully - full of care - pick up one thing up that most captures your fancy. The odder and more out of the mainstream the better.

Check it out. Actively wonder. Get a wish list going. How can you make it better? How can you add value? How can you become the world expert at that single thing? If it's your calling, it's usually not too hard to get those answers. Maybe not right there while you're directly interacting with this process, but it'll come. Being quiet helps.

If you've wondered well, you can make a nice, sustainable national enterprise out of that thing in your hand. Maybe not by next week, but it's doable in the next few months if you're smart and careful.

My cautions... I don't know retail and I don't know food. Our enterprises have never had a retail front end. I think you need to hide from customers - in the 3D sense of this - not invite them in. Food... too scary. You're on you're own with food. You may find that some of my ideas work with retail selling, or food, but I don't have the experience to make any promises. Other than those two cautions, I think this exercise works.

The future is on its way. You can do it. Any aisle. Any store. Any place. Any market. Keep your eyes open, wonder wisely, and get your enterprise set up.