Inspiring Commencement Addresses

13 01 2013

We don’t really have the same culture of commencement addresses in Australia that the US seems to have. And while I am sure many commencement addresses are forgettable, every so often one pops up on Youtube (or elsewhere) that is amazing. Here are a few of my favourites….

Steve Jobs, Stanford University 2005
Jobs talks about getting fired from Apple and how he came back from that devastating setback.


Professor Randy Pausch, Carnegie Mellon, 2008
Prof Pausch was dying of cancer when he made a surprise return to Carnegie Mellon University.

“We don’t beat the reaper by living longer. We beat the reaper by living well… The question is, what do we do between the time we’re born and the time he shows up?”


Oprah Winfrey, Stanford University, 2008
After first embarrassing her god-daughter and giving us a view of the human side of Oprah, she talks about finding her way and the challenges she faced overcoming set ideas of what a television personality looked like early in her career.


JK Rowling, Harvard 2008
The Harry Potter author talks about her imagination and creativity at a young age and how her parents, wanting the best for her, encouraged “straight” education over the classics and artistic pursuits that interested her.

How google revolutionised study

10 01 2013


As the beginning of the school year rolls around (for the southern hemisphere) and I am once again tempted (but resisting) going back to university, I have been reflecting on the changes since I undertook my first degree, in the early 1990s.

I studied recreation management and planning, which was a fabulous degree. It was a very small intake, 40 students per year, so we all knew each other very well. To get into the course you not only had to have the right high school marks, you also had to write a couple of essays about why you wanted to do it, what your career ambitions were, and then sit and interview. I remember how excited I was when I was accepted!

Because we were such a small tight group, we cooperated for resources. At the beginning of each semester, we would form a production line at the photocopiers in the library and photocopy off the required readings for each student. These were the days before easy access to resources on computers, and before every student having a computer in their home. Microsoft dominance had not yet become entrenched and hence part of the course included being taught how to use the university’s computers. When deadlines rolled around the entire year would set up camp in the computer room at the university and stay there, sharing resources, ordering pizzas, and proof-reading each other’s assignments. Assignments had to be handed up in hard copy and bound, and hence the battle with the printer was a shared one.

Fast forward to a couple of years ago when I completed my most recent degree (I am a serial student with the university debts to show for it). I studied online with students from all around the world. In fact one of the really interesting things was hearing about people’s career paths in other countries and other fields.

All materials were sent electronically. Assignments were submitted electronically. Research could be done electronically. During this entire degree I did not set foot in a library for research purposes – when Google Scholar and PubMed can provide us with a wider range of peer-review journals and free access to books, photocopying sources in the library is no longer the time-consuming (and costly) exercise it was. As a result, hopefully there is a wider range of material being used for references….although too much information can be difficult to manage. (When I lectured at University, the undergrads all used to use the same quotes from the same sources. Very monotonous to mark. Post-grads were better.)

Studying as an activity has become entirely different. Possibly for those who study on-campus, ie: attend lectures rather than distance education, the experience might still be similar – the camaraderie, the networking. I still occasionally come across people I studied with in my work life and it is always great to look back on those days.

But as an adult with work and home responsibilities, the convenience of being able to log on at night without having to travel to campus has significant benefits. If distance education weren’t available I wouldn’t have done so much study.

And I wouldn’t be so tempted to go back again…..

Vale Stephen Covey

21 07 2012

Management guru Stephen Covey, best known for his worldwide best-selling book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, died on June 16 2012 from injuries sustained in a bike crash. He was 79 years old.

I read this book quite a few years ago. At the time I was in a bit of a self-help jag and while the idea of seven principles was very appealing, the content was not so very much different from a number of other self-help / management books at the time. Perhaps better organised.

But when I heard of his death it took me to a place when, as a teenager, I discovered Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking and Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich, possibly the first of the great self-help books. I suspect that those a few years younger than me probably felt that Covey’s tome was the light for them, the way Positive Thinking was for me.

The self-help books were the start of a journey. They told me that anything was possible, that if I tried, I could make my life what I wanted. They gave real-life-stories of people who changed their lives (and I am still a sucker for a good “I-turned-my-life-around” story. And as I move into mid-life crisis territory, the idea of infinite possibilities appeals even more.)

I had the advantage of good health, reasonable intelligence, good education, a supportive family and being born into a western society in a period of peace and prosperity. If anything, my “problem” was too much comfort. There was no burning platform to make me strive to save myself from a life of misery and starvation. Unlike Stephen Covey, who grew up on an egg farm and as a teenager suffered a severe illness that turned him from athletics to academia, my life was comparatively easy and straight forward. If I studied, I got good marks. If I didn’t then the results were variable. I didn’t have to do physical labour and I didn’t have to worry where the next meal came from.

Since my teenage years I read a lot of self-help books until I got to the stage when they all seemed to say the same thing. When I started buying books for their titles and not reading them, I knew I’d done enough. I have listened to tapes, done courses, abseiled and walked on fire (yes really and no it doesn’t hurt). I like to think I have integrated most of what the books had to teach me and discarded the rest (it has to be said some of them are/were a little too new-agey airy-fairy for me. Take what works, discard the rest. It’s not a religion, you can pick and choose.)

There is a body of work now that says that the positive thinking, “I can overcome in any circumstances” attitude has not been a wholly positive thing for society. The would-be lover who will not take no for an answer becomes a stalker. The terminal cancer patient who refuses to accept that they are dying spends their last days struggling and suffering, losing the opportunity to say goodbye and to enjoy the last part of their life.

The underlying assumption is the Great American Dream – that if you work hard enough, or clever enough, you can be wealthy beyond you wildest dreams, a captain of industry, 100% delirously happy all the time, or whatever your dream is. This assumes that we all start with an even playing field – equality of opportunity. And this is plainly not the case. Those born without health, without access to food, safety, education, are not starting on the same playing field. This does not mean that they cannot also succeed or change their lives but their journey will be much harder. And it ignores the intervention of random events – the car-crashes of life, the luck, the lack of luck. Yes your attitude determines your life – but to use the technical language, sometimes shit happens.

The assumption that the life you lead is a direct result of your own efforts leads to a blame-the-victim mentality. If you can’t support yourself and your family, if you haven’t got the health and wealth you need to survive, then it must be your fault. Therefore you do not deserve compassion, or financial support. No unemployment benefits, no single parent benefits (blame the mother, bad luck to the children), no public health care, no decent public education.

And then we become an uncaring society. Society suffers – all of us. Desperate people do desperate things. Don’t make them desperate.


This blog took an unexpected turn in the middle. I don’t intend it to be a commentary on Dr Covey’s works per se, more an exposition and exploration of the assumptions and results of the self-help industry which was so very prevalent in the 1980s and 1990s when I was in my teenage years and early twenties.

I personally feel I got a lot out of various authors but I recognise that there is a debate to be had on the effects of self-help philosophies at a societal level.

For those wanting a quick refresher on the Covey 7 Habits, here they are:

Habit No. 1: Be proactive. Know yourself, be responsible for yourself and your own actions and effects. If you want to achieve something, do something about it.

Habit No. 2 Begin with the end in mind. Often used as the basis of visualisation, but more literally, just know your goal when you start out.

Habit No. 3: Put first things first. This habit is about time management.

Habit No. 4: Think win/win. “seek mutual benefit in all human interactions”.

Habit No. 5: Seek first to understand, then to be understood. This one is about being focussed outwards.

Habit No. 6: Synergise. where the whole is more than the sum of the parts (for example, some teams achieve more because they “bounce” off each other than the sum of all their individual efforts).

Habit No. 7: Sharpen the saw. Keep yourself fit, educated, seek new information.

Not rocket science, but it was pretty good at the time.

If you would like to see Dr Covey in action, have a look on YouTube.

The Hokey Pokey, if William Shakespeare Had Written it

7 03 2012

Via Scoop.itMudmap

The Hokey Pokey, if William Shakespeare Had Written it

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The Harvard Business School study….or urban internet myths

28 12 2011

I mentioned in a previous posting the Harvard Business School Study where a graduating class was asked whether they had written goals, then followed up ten years later. The source of this story seems to have been the book by Mark McCormack, What They Don’t Teach You At Harvard Business School: Notes From A Street-Smart Executive. The details of the study are reported to be as follows:

The 1979 Harvard Business School Graduating Class were asked the following question: “Have you set clear, written goals for your future and made plans to accomplish them?” 3% reported they had written goals and plans; 13% had goals, but not written down and 84 percent had no specific goals. The follow-up, ten years later showed that the 13% who had goals were earning an average twice as much as the 84% who did not have goals. And the 3% who had written goals and plans were earning ten times as much as the other 97% put together.

A pretty compelling case, wouldn’t you say? If only the story were true.

Like many urban myths, while there is truth in the sentiment – the moral of the story, if you will – the actual story is not true. This study was not conducted on the Harvard Business School Graduates. Nor was it conducted at Yale in 1953. Yale apparently gets a lot of questions about this and even have a response posted on their website.

Thankfully, Gail Matthews PhD from Dominican University has now done the study – and more . Her study looked at the benefits of having goals v writing the goals down v having an action plan v having an accountability mechanism (in this case, submitting a weekly report to a friend on progress). And the results all support what you would expect.

Study on goal setting by Gail Matthews, PhD, Dominican University

So the keys are:
1. be clear on your goals and write them down.
2. develop a plan on how you are going to achieve them.
3. Develop an accountability mechanism. This needs to be external to you – sadly we are not very good at keeping ourselves accountable, which is why the various weight-watching companies which require you to turn up weekly are all so successful.

This is part of a series on goal-setting. To read the other postings, click below.
Goal Setting – Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes!
Goodbye to old (bad) habits
It’s about the journey as well as the goal
Being Accountable

Process redesign – Lean Thinking

22 12 2011

photo creidt Alexander Svenssen

Lean Thinking is a way of thinking about the business or production processes to redesign them to be more efficient and effective. Based on processes developed in the Toyota production line the principles are now widely recognised in a variety of fields. It’s focus is on the elimination of any and all wastes. At the time it delivered for Toyota a faster production line with fewer parts required, higher quality (meaning fewer returns and recalls) – and hence growth as an organisation.

Lean Thinking first gained prominence in the non-manufacturing world through the book The Machine That Changed the World: The Story of Lean Production– Toyota’s Secret Weapon in the Global Car Wars That Is Now Revolutionizing World Industry by authors Womack and Jones.

I came across Lean Thinking in healthcare. The health industry, and most particularly the hospitals, are keen to eliminate waste, address quality, and speed up the system to address the waiting times at the “front door” (Emergency Departments, surgery waiting lists, outpatient waiting lists, etc). Here is a smattering of what I learned at a seminar called “Redesigning Care: Improving the Patient Journey”, presented by Dr David Ben Tovim, a psychiatrist from Flinders Medical Centre in Adelaide, South Australia. While the application to healthcare and to Toyota should be apparent, have a think about how it applies to your business.

Constantly stressed in Lean Thinking is the principle: Don’t start with the answers. Build up from staff knowledge. Often the staff know full-well where the problems are, but they have never been empowered to do anything about them.

Womack and Jones have five principles for Lean Thinking:

1. Value: a precise understanding of what the customer wants (or values). These are the aspects that need to be focussed upon, and non-value added processes may be eliminated. A silly example – if the customer values having fluffy dice hanging from the rear vision mirror, than this is a worthwhile process. If they don’t value it, then eliminate it. (Step One: Identify Value)

2. Value-stream mapping: The series of processes that lead to the production of value. (more on this later) (Step Two: Map your Value Stream)

3. Flow: processes should flow seamlessly on, one from another, rather than batching and stockpiling. (Step Three: Eliminate Waste)

4. Pull: the system should respond to customer demand rather than pushing products out in the hope they will be used. (again avoiding stockpiling – and example from healthcare later on). Don;t define customer too tightly – there are internal customers (downstream processes) as well as the end-customer. (Step Four: Allow the customer to pull products / services)

5. Perfection: A defined standardised output which is replicated every time. (Step Five: Improve the Process – start over)

photo credit Viêt Hoà DINH

These processes aim to eliminate waste in the process…..

The 8 Wastes

Eliminating wastes in the system is a strong principle in Lean Thinking. Wastes may be in product, resources, staff time or unnecessary processes. Here are the 8 wastes of Lean Thinking.

1. Waiting: waiting for information, people or equipment. (pauses in the process)

2. Queueing: people waiting for the next step in the process. (bottle-necks in the system)

3. Errors: requiring re-work or lacking something necessary (standardising output is an important factor in eliminating waste)

4. Transportation: of patients or equipment (wastes time, costs money and is an uneccessary variable)

5. Motion: of staff, having to travel around to get to meetings, the next stage of the process, etc

6. Over-processing: doing more in a process than is necessary (for instance double handling – why does the nurse write the information by hand for the admin officer to data-enter?)

7. Over-production: doing more than is needed right now (stockpiling is wasteful – however see also point 1 – what you need, needs to be there when you need it)

8. People: wasting the collective talents of people within your organisation. (People are not machines, and most of them are there to do a good job. Harness this.)

To identify wastes, Lean Thinking uses Value-Stream Mapping. This maps out the process, the staff, equipment and resources required at each step and shows where the “products” of each step go to. Each step is timed. (As a little light humour, here is a very poor value-stream map from Southpark – the Underpants Gnomes profit plan. The more complex and multi-stepped the process, the more possibility there is for waste and inefficient processes to creep in – so make your value-stream very detailed. (For a better Value-Stream map, see slide 7 of this PowerPoint by Prof Jones .

Once you have a detailed Value-Stream, you can look at each step in detail. Where are the branch points and commonalities between processes? Why does it take five minutes to do step 3? Perhaps the staff member has to walk down a corridor to get the piece of equipment they need. Moving it closer might make this a 2 minute job. Perhaps your process is held up by bits of paper that need to accompany products (or patients!) around the hospital. Electronic transfer of information might speed it up. Is there a particular step that has a lot of errors in it – that’s the area that needs to be focussed on – is it poor hand-writing? Are the tools not quite right?

(Want more on Value-Stream Mapping? Take a look at this book: Learning to See: Value Stream Mapping to Add Value and Eliminate MUDA)

David Ben Tovim told us a couple of stories that sped things up in the Emergency Department.

– The first was to split patients into two groups – likely to stay and likely to go home. The processes for each of these groups was significantly different, so once they had walked (or been wheeled) in the door and had the commonalities completed: been registered and triaged, they were split into two groups. This clarified priorities for staff and led to a more efficient system.

– Secondly was empowering the wards to “pull” for patients, rather than the ED having to “push” them into the wards. When a ward had a bed empty, they were able to look onto the ED system and identify which patients were waiting for space in their wards and they could then call down for them. This meant the ED spent less time seeking out beds, the beds in the wards were being used to the best possible capacity, and the patient time in ED was greatly reduced – which is a good thing for patient care and is one of the things hospital performance is measured on.

Want to know more? Here are some references:
Lean Hospitals: Improving Quality, Patient Safety, and Employee Satisfaction

Lean Thinking: Banish Waste and Create Wealth in Your Corporation, Revised and Updated

The Toyota Way: 14 Management Principles from the World’s Greatest Manufacturer

Web resources
Professor Daniel T Jones’ website

Introduction to Lean Thinking(check out the references and resources section at the bottom of the paper)