What is an Oreo?

Alan Matsumura and I had an excellent conversation earlier this month about the work he is starting up at SilverTrain. Part of the discussion centered on the unexpected problems that you run into when doing BI/information analytics work.

Suppose you work for Kraft. You’d like to know how many Oreos you sold last quarter. An innocent enough question and, seemingly, a simple one. That simply shows how little you’ve thought about the problems of data management.

Start with recipes. At the very least Kraft is likely to have a standard recipe and a kosher recipe (they do business in Israel). Are there other recipe variations; perhaps substituting high fructose corn syrup for sugar? Do we add up all the variations of recipe or do we keep track by recipe?

How about packaging variations? I’ve seen Oreos packaged in the classic three column package, in packages of six, and of two. I’ve seen them bundled as part of a Lunchables package. I’m sure other variations exist. Do we count the number of packages and multiply by the appropriate number of Oreos per package? Is there some system where we can count the number of Oreos we produced before they went into packages? If we can manage to count how many Oreos we made, how does that map to how many we will manage to sell?

That may get us through standard Oreos. How do we count the Oreos with orange-colored centers sold at Halloween in the US? Green-colored ones sold for St. Patrick’s Day? Double stuf Oreos? Double stuf Oreos with orange-colored centers? Mini-bite size snak paks? Or my personal favorite: chocolate fudge covered Oreos. I just checked the official Oreo website at Nabisco. They identify 46 different versions of the Oreo and don’t appear to count Oreos packaged within another product (the Lunchables question).

That covers most of the relevant business reasons that make counting Oreos tricky. There are likely additional, technical reasons that will make the problem harder, not easier. The various systems that track production, distribution, and sales have likely been implemented at different times and may have slight variations in how and when they count things. Those differences need to be identified and then reconciled. Someone will have to discover and reconcile the different codes and identifiers used to identify Oreos in each discrete system. And so on.

By the way, according to Wikipedia, over 490 billion Oreos have been sold since their debut in 1912. As for how many were sold last quarter, it depends.

David Maister on getting from strategy to execution

Strategy and the Fat Smoker; Doing What’s Obvious But Not Easy, Maister, David


David Maister has spent years advising professional service firms on the particular challenges of running their businesses. I first met David during my MBA days when I was a student in his course on the Management of Service Operations. I’ve come to trust his insights and perspectives about the professional world I occupy. More recently, I’ve come to see that his perspective is more generally relevant as more and more of us do work that is effectively professional, even if we are not inside actual professional services organizations. There is a substantial overlap between professional work and knowledge work, which makes Maister more relevant than ever.

Strategy and the Fat Smoker is David’s most recent effort to share his insights. In it, he turns his attention to the particular challenge of bridging from knowing what to do to actually managing to do it. In fact, David starts with the observation that “real strategy lies not in figuring out what to do, but in devising ways to ensure that, compared to others, we actually do more of what everybody knows they should do.”

Structurally, Maister works through his argument by working through what constitutes strategy in this particular perspective, the central importance of client relationships, and how those shape the kinds of management practices most likely to be effective.

For Maister, strategy is primarily a problem of organizational design and management, which is the soft stuff that always turns out to be hard. It is particularly hard, however, when the organization in question is populated with professionals/knowledge workers who must produce and deliver services to clients. You cannot succeed by designing systems and processes to compel behavior, because you have a workforce that can’t simultaneously be forced to comply with a system and exercise their independent and autonomous judgment. Maister explores this issue by focusing on two dimensions that characterize a professional; to what degree do they prefer to work solo vs. collaborate within a team and to what extent to they prefer immediate rewards vs. being willing to invest now in future payoffs. The point, of course, is not that one set of answers is better than another, but that trying to mix people with different answers in the same organizational environment is probably not a terribly good idea.

David also presents a provocative discussion of the importance of organizational purpose. While he acknowledges that shared purpose can be a very powerful tool within an organization, he argues that the power only comes when there are clear “consequences for non-compliance.” Until and unless you can translate generalities about purpose into clearly stated and observed rules of performance, then there’s no point to worrying about purpose.  Put more positively, the test of strategy comes in working out and then operating within the day-to-day rules of performance that make sense for your strategy.

In one sense, Maister doesn’t break any extraordinary new ground. What he does do is to challenge you about how willing you are to drive grand ideas deep into how you choose to do your work on a day-to-day basis. And he offers lots of good, concrete advice on how to make that transition.

George Carlin as strategy consultant?

Espen, my concern with Dr. Carlin as a potential consultant is that he has a reputation for calling it as he sees it, despite what the following might suggest. Would any large consulting firm be willing to take that risk with its clients?

Dr. GC floors’em

One of my academic colleagues suggested we hire Dr. G. Carlin as a faculty member in strategy based on the following test lecture – but in my view he would fit equally well in a consulting company. Perhaps a shared appointment?