Trust the Designer

When I was a teenager I wanted to learn to rock climb. There were a few problems with this. One of the biggest ones is that I had no idea how to rock climb.

Sure I was pretty good at climbing things. Everyone grows up climbing trees. But I had taken climbing things to a bit of an obsession. I could scale some of the walls of my high school with reasonable ease. Going up seemed to be easy. Doing it safely was another matter.

Learning how to do something I’d never done before wasn’t necessarily new to me. Living in an area with few mentors on the subject I turned to the place where I could find good mentors on the topic, books. I read a lot of books about rock climbing, learned and practiced the necessary knots, and felt I had a pretty good grasp on the subject. Enough of a grasp that I invested a couple hundred dollars in gear and headed off to a cliff near our house with a buddy.

We had a great time rappelling.

When I came back from the adventure dad heard about what I was doing–probably from mom. He knew I was of the age where you don’t always see the risks you take in the choices you make. He engaged in a conversation to help me see those risks. It went pretty well, except that we disagreed.

He became more insistent.

Photo by Pixabay on

So did I.

When he asked me how I was sure I was going to be safe I told him I was using the equipment the way it was designed. Because I had taken the time to learn from books one of the things they covered was the math and engineering behind the equipment.

I didn’t pursue rock climbing as a serious hobby. Dad was right. There were some things that weren’t in the books that I was going to need a mentor to help me figure out. What I did do with the gear and with my interest was done safely though, because I trusted the designer.

What’s the Larger Lesson?

My current profession involves people using technology. In that space I’m often needed to play the mentor–a role I love–as people learn to stretch their skills and enjoy a more effective work flow.

Sometimes the people I work with don’t want things to change. They’ve grown comfortable with their work flow the way it is. This is a human condition. We’ve talked about this before on this blog. NOCZ isn’t just a cool looking acronym. It’s real.

How can we help people who don’t want to change, change their perspective?

Photo by Elizaveta Kozorezova on

I go back to my discussion with my dad and ask them not to trust me, but trust the designer.

“Your workflow was based on the way the software was designed a few years ago. Things have improved since then, and I’d like you take the risk to trust the designer.”

It works. Mistakes are still made. Lots of mistakes. That’s where the mentor part comes in. It’s not helping to coach people from making mistakes (software these days is pretty durable) it’s coaching them in a way that encourages them to keep trying to find a way that’s effective and works for them. Once they’ve adapted to the new work flow the response is usually one of gratitude and appreciation.

Why do I do this? Because the older work flows are going to need to be retired out of necessity. The software will change and the current work flow will not be supported. I’d rather encourage change while there’s a long runway to practice and the user can feel like it’s their choice instead of it being something that happens when the user isn’t prepared for it.

I’m glad dad was right and taught me that people needed mentors. I’m glad I didn’t want to be wrong and in my defensive attitude expressed the value of trusting the designer. Combining both of our perspectives has lead to some wonderful experiences and helped me to add more value in the world.

Photo by Aksonsat Uanthoeng on


I’d like to coin an acronym today.  NOCZ.  It looks cool.  It’s currently only used by the National Oil Company of Zimbabwe Ltd (Harare, Zimbabwe).  So it’s pretty primed to become a popular acronym.

NOCZ stands for Near-Optimum Comfort Zone.

  • It’s that spot that you sit in where you think you know how to do your job until you find out that you don’t and there’s been a better way the entire time.
  • It’s that epiphany you get when you realize that you could have done something 15% or more faster/better than the way you’ve been doing it the whole time
  • It’s where you are right now, compared to where you’ll be in a few months.

I’ve written about this before, but I didn’t have a cool acronym at the time.

Tuning Past Your Optimum.

Justin is a good friend of mine at work and a Six Sigma Black Belt.  Over lunch the other day we were talking and he explained how sometimes people will tune past their optimum.  While the conversation was casual the lesson in life seems to be worth sharing.

Firstly, let’s introduce Six Sigma’s distribution curve courtesy of Michael Galarnyk’s post at drawing

What this curve does is enable the ability to predict the outcome of a particular operation.  In manufacturing that operation might be coating a particular widget.  Not all widgets get coated equally and some will fall outside of the quality specifications.  This curve would allow you to predict how much of those widgets have to get tossed due to poor quality.  Used properly you can use it to help manage the process to reduce the number of wasted widgets.  That’s a very basic description, but for this post it will need to suffice.

On the graph you can see the percentage of good output and the Greek letter Sigma symbolizing the deviation from the optimum output.  Ideally if you can manage a process down to only 6 Sigma (three plus and three minus) then the process is considered to be stable.  Stable processes can be improved.  Unstable processes cannot consistently be improved.

An optimum output would look like the graph above, but the curve would be taller and skinnier in the middle.

The time period used to create this graph also matters.  When Justin was using it for a particular part of the manufacturing process (bagging) he was taking a daily average.  This meant both shifts were combined.  He had a wide curve and wanted to make it skinnier.  When he reworked the data for each shift he noticed that neither shift was working their optimum.

Untitled drawing (2)

Each shift would tune this particular machine to where they knew the performance was good enough.  In the process they would inadvertently tune past where the machine could work at its optimum performance.

Justin explained how the machine was complex and each shift had recorded different settings in their notebooks to know how to set it for good-enough performance.  You could image that after fiddling with the machine for hours on a difficult shift that once you finally figured out settings that worked for you, you stuck with those settings.  Think of the pressure.  All the other parts of the manufacturing are stopped because the thing you’re working on isn’t performing right.  Everyone on your team would know you (rather your machine–but sometimes it’s hard to separate people from the problem) were the one holding things up.  Once you finally got it *working* you’d probably feel relieved and just want to move on.

While we don’t all work in manufacturing we’ve probably all had those experiences where others were waiting on us and the pressure that comes from that attention.  Inevitably we do have those parts of our personality and how we perform that are based on experiences that were hard–experiences that we don’t want to live again.  What if those experiences taught/encouraged us to tune our habits close to our optimum while still missing it entirely?

Six Sigma falls in the discipline of continuous improvement and while we may get some things right or right enough to succeed I’d like to believe that all of us in some ways have tuned our habits and processes past our optimum.  As challenging as it was to get to your comfort zone, maybe it’s time to step out of it to see if good enough really is how you want to operate going forward.