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The Cove Hill Consulting blog contains case studies, eureka moments, recommended reading, and suggestions for tackling a range of business problems.

Project Management 101: Raising the Second Baby


This week, I decided to keep up the parenting theme from my last post because fatherhood has been an all-consuming role in my life recently – often beating-out sleep. It is now almost four weeks since we added a newborn to our portfolio… er, family. Memories of our life shortly after our first son was born have come flooding back and though we can handle many challenges today as we did then, there is a distinct feel to parenting this time around. I have to say, it has its similarities to managing the second in a series of projects after the first has gone live:

  • We have two sons, so we can reuse clothes, but the seasons are slightly different, and our second child is bigger than was our first, so we will have to augment his wardrobe occasionally.
  • You can reuse project templates and tools from past work, but account for differences in subject matter resources, timing, and working environment.

  • Though my wife and I love to dote on our newborn, our older son reminds us of his needs too – “Daddy, why don’t you put down the baby, so you can play with me?”
  • If you have limited resources, plan to dedicate some percentage of time to support the ongoing success of projects you have already delivered. Users will not be bashful or patient when asking for help.

  • Our parenting style is clearly different this time around. We know how rubbery infants can be, our confidence makes us relaxed and more tolerant of cranky cries, diaper changing mishaps, and serial outfit changes due to surprise attacks of baby bodily fluids. But, our “night watch” routines and soothing strategies continue to serve us well.
  • Your project governance framework should be sound after its initial use, so heed those guidelines, but leverage what you learned to adapt to new challenges and predict and plan for risks. And don’t sweat the small stuff – you’ve got this!

  • With our first son, we saw the pediatrician weekly in the first month. After our initial checkup this time, the doctor suggested we wait a month to come back. Though things seem to be going well, we find ourselves trying to remember those early milestones and measurements from a few years ago to gauge how to handle certain situations; “Wow, 4 ounces seems like far more milk than our first son drank as this age.”
  • You have an arsenal of benchmark measurements from your other projects so use them as one method to gauge your current progress. Not all metrics will have a one-to-one relationship, but close results will give you confidence that you are on the right track.

It may be a stretch to compare managing family life and business projects, but I hope you enjoy the analogy. Emotionally, project work cannot hold a candle to the joys and challenges of parenthood, in my opinion, so I am soaking up all the time I have with both of our sons, and could not be happier to share all the highs and lows with my wife.

Here’s to your growing portfolio, whatever its contents!

Lessons from the Labor and Delivery Room

A few days ago, my wife and I welcomed our second child (and second boy) to our family. Mom and baby are doing very well, and we are getting into the routine of a family of four. We were blessed with a fantastic labor and delivery nurse who took excellent care of my wife while teaching a medical student about hospital procedures for patient care. During a quiet time before delivery, I observed the nurse explain a new protocol that required scanning of bar codes on all medications given to patients, so they are accounted for in inventory and logged against the patient’s electronic medical record. She then hung an IV bag and reached for the scanner.

I noticed that there were two bar codes on the bag, each of different lengths and positioned very close together. My first thought was, “this looks challenging”. Sure enough, our nurse validated my suspicion when she expressed her confusion with the bar code design, telling the student, “These always give me trouble. I don’t know why they put them so close together”. She took the opportunity to explain how to double check that the scan was correct and to assume it was human error first, then she attempted two more scans before she was satisfied it was correct.

This was a new process, required by hospital policy, that introduced risk and added more work than necessary to the job of a very experienced, very diligent nurse. I can imagine that in a situation with greater urgency for medication and a greener or less detail-oriented employee, the medication scan would more likely be incorrect or perhaps not scanned at all, if it were a known annoyance.

Although this happened in a hospital setting, I noticed the parallels to a software development project I consulted on recently. There, we coached end users and development teams using an agile approach to create a software product for internal operations groups. We held working sessions with the project team and user representatives to review recently completed components, so users could literally see how the product was progressing and how it would be used. This gave them a multitude of opportunities to provide feedback that would make sure the product would work correctly and be a valuable addition to their jobs. For any project, after the product is finished and released, we recommend observing it in everyday operation to ensure users are satisfied and to correct any issues that arise unexpectedly. Further, periodic observations in the future can shed light on potential enhancements to make the product even more useful, ensuring its adoption and success.

What are the lessons for the hospital or anyone implementing a new system, process, product, or service?

  • Engage end users early and often. Announcing a top down change or gathering requirements is just the start.
  • Spend time learning how users do their job and how it is likely to change.
  • Listen, observe, and ask questions, especially “why”. Understand the reasons behind the methods.
  • Include users at each step. Let them see it, touch it, and try it out on real problems.
  • Don’t stop after the project is over. Check in on users to see how they are adapting. Look for external changes that impact how they interact with the ‘product’ you delivered to identify improvement opportunities.

Good user engagement makes the difference between project success and failure. It can improve user satisfaction, reduce the burden of compliance, and create a better working relationship between those delivering a project and those who live with the result – which bodes well for the next investment in the pipeline.

As for that tricky IV bag…  our nurse decided to report the issue to her management team to start the improvement process.

Service Excellence

We have spent a lot of effort over the last 9 months on improving service excellence both for ourselves and for several of our clients.  I believe I first mentioned this topic here.  Most businesses thrive or fail base on three outward-facing attributes: the customer experience they provide, service excellence, and the right balance between quality and price. Perhaps in future posts I will speak of the other attributes, but for now here are a few thoughts on service excellence.

In our own firm, we emphasize quality and responsiveness to our clients above just about everything else.  As our business has grown, we have recognized the challenge of maintaining quality and service and therefore we laid out a process during the middle of last year to assist us in winning the challenge.  There is no “rocket science” here, but the only way the process works is by strict adherence to the rules.  Often times, getting your organization to follow a process is where you do need some rocket science.  Here is our process in a nutshell:

  • Every known client deliverable or request is scheduled and tracked.
  • Every deliverable that will take a day or longer to complete requires a template (in other words, we decide what our output should look like before we begin).
  • Every client deliverable that will take longer than two weeks will be broken into smaller deliverables. Client feedback will be sought on at least a weekly basis.
  • Every client deliverable that will take a day or longer to complete (even weekly status reports) is subjected to internal peer review. We are very self-critical.
  • We proofread our written documents before release.
  • We maintain an overall schedule and task list to jog our memories and check the task list daily.
  • We notify clients in advance if our work is running behind schedule for any reason. We are honest and transparent.
  • We try our best to be pleasant at all times, despite the pressure of accomplishing our goals.
  • We treat our clients and our team like they are valued friends. We strive for their 100% satisfaction.
  • We review our progress regularly and consistently.
  • We take prompt, corrective action if we see that we are failing to live up to the standards we expect of ourselves.

Like I mentioned earlier, there is no rocket science in this list, which prompts a question: why do so many organizations struggle to follow this list or a similar one?

Here are a few answers to that question.

  1. Many businesses either don’t have a list like this or they have one but will tell us that it is an informal list, and it is only used every so often or when they believe it is necessary. Usually, this means that the process will be invoked once it is too late and some damage has been done.
  2. Businesses often lack a formal and recurring method to ensure accountability. They are lacking the “review” step and the “corrective action” step I refer to in my last two bullets above. I used to work for one organization that would have a Town Hall meeting every six months. At the Town Hall, we would here from the CEO and COO about the importance of our corporate values.  Then everyone would leave the room and we would not hear about our core values again until the next meeting in six months.  At another organization, there would be a January kick-off meeting for this year’s strategy and goals. Next January we would talk about our new strategy and goals for the next year.  We never talked at all during this year about departmental or individual objectives, our progress in achieving our goals or strategy, any key interim actions or deliverables, etc.  We never mentioned this year’s goals ever again. How successful do you think that organization was? (hint: despite being a multi-billion dollar organization, they did find a way to erase about five years of net income, and managed to shrink in size very substantially).
  3. Businesses struggle with transparency.  They don’t like sharing problems with their clients and they don’t like sharing problems with themselves either.  But you can see many successful cases of businesses explaining to their clients, shareholders or employees where they are falling short and using that event as a defining moment to achieve the necessary improvement.  Courageous organizations are not afraid to be transparent because they know they can lead themselves to new heights.

On this coming Monday morning when you get back to work: make sure you have a process for achieving service excellence, establish some method for ensuring accountability via regular review and corrective action, and communicate honestly and openly.  Remember to be pleasant, too. :)    Have a nice weekend.

6 Tips to Turn a List of Corporate Values into a Value-Based Culture

For many companies, corporate values are just a list of words and catchy definitions in the “About Us” section of their website. They simply serve as marketing material for the eyes of shareholders and potential customers. But what about those of us who really believe that creating a value-based culture provides a foundation and a set of guidelines that will make everyone more effective at their job?  Finding the methods to articulate and implement your corporate values can take time and some experimentation, but below we have put together six tips to jumpstart your transition toward a culture infused with your core values.

  1. Choose values that resonate with your employees and your business.

Agility. Compassion. Learning. Teamwork. Integrity. Safety.  Flip through a thesaurus or find what’s trending online – but ask yourself, and ask your employees, are these the words that describe us or who we want to be? Survey your organization to understand if your current behaviors are consistent with an existing set of values as well as to identify what other values the organization should strive to exhibit. Do they establish guidelines of acceptable or desired behavior that will help your business achieve its goals? Are they achievable? If you can answer “yes” to these questions, you should feel confident that you have a list of values that can become the foundation of your culture. But that is just the first step.

A quick note: For the best survey results, collect anonymous responses using a third party or an online survey tool. Anonymity promotes honest feedback, but do collect some information, like the department of each respondent, so teams can tailor their improvement efforts (see tip #4).

  1. Clearly define your values.

Unless your definitions are clear, it is unlikely that all employees will explain or interpret each value the same way. Your goal is to have everyone agree to and achieve common values, so you need to make sure everyone is speaking the same language. “Excellence”, for example, might signify quality to you, but performance to me. So, you must define your values so they have specific meaning to your business and your team. Write concise descriptions for each value that make it clear how your organization explains and identifies with them. Show them to your colleagues. If they need further explanation, then they are not clear enough. This will take several iterations.

  1. Describe behaviors that exemplify each value.

Once your definitions make sense in the context of your overall business, your employees will want to know how those values apply to their day-to-day work. For example, if I answer customer service calls, what behaviors should I exhibit to show “Commitment”? Perhaps it is following up on a call I transferred to another department to make sure the customer’s problem was resolved. To demonstrate “Accountability” in a Finance or Technology function, maybe I make a habit of sending an email to confirm my understanding of a task requested of me and agree the due date, then communicate my status until I deliver. It is beneficial to get the team involved – hold a brainstorming session to define a list of actions, activities, and scenarios that will help illustrate values in on-the-job situations. This will engage the team and ensures they have a say in establishing how these values will be applied (and measured) in the organization.

  1. Create a values-improvement plan.

If you want to improve your culture and embed your new values, you must have a plan. Based on your initial survey results (see tip #1) determine what percentage of time teams should spend focused on improving value-based behavior each week. If you prioritize values improvement as one of your strategic objectives, it will be much easier to devote a defined amount of collective effort and it will be time well spent. First, set measurable goals for each value. These could be: metrics you would like to achieve, new programs or working sessions you want to create, or specific behaviors that you will purposefully implement and track. Each department should set their own targets based on their original survey results. Next, department leads should take ownership of creating a plan to achieve their targets in a realistic timeframe. While some activities are quick and easy to implement, others may require significant time or resources and should be evaluated and prioritized through your organization’s normal work approval process. This will ensure approved initiatives will be properly staffed and funded. Lastly, teams should report progress on a regular basis. Senior leaders should analyze results and suggest changes in plan, and communicate status back to the boarder organization.

  1. Recognize desired behavior and incorporate your values into daily work.

In our experience, change happens much faster when you recognize positive behavior and keep change at the forefront of everyone’s mind. Direct, on-the-spot feedback from managers and peers is a great start. Make an effort to write at least one personal email at the end of each day, pull someone aside to let them know you noticed their effort, or recognize someone for exemplifying a value. You can also provide more structure by creating reward systems where individuals are nominated for company-wide recognition or for a small monetary award ($5 Starbuck’s gift card?). Publish a feature of an individual or department in your quarterly newsletter highlighting an achievement resulting from value-based behavior. Make your values visible. Hang them on the walls, add them to standard issue computer images as default desktop backgrounds and screen savers. More visibility and positive association with desired behaviors will encourage continued adoption of your values as part of everyday culture in your organization, and will prevent them from becoming a “flavor of the week” memory… “Is that thing we did with values in Q1 still going on?” Most importantly, management needs to emphasize the values continuously, and must practice them as well.

  1. Tie values to performance evaluation and compensation.

Now it’s time to bring it all together. Use your rewards systems, values improvement plan targets, and where applicable, 360-degree feedback, to firmly tie value-based behavior into your organization’s performance evaluation process and compensation systems. Track and measure individual and team contributions to value improvement initiatives, account for awards and nominations that individuals collected in the last measurement cycle, and gather feedback from peers, subordinates, managers, and customers to understand how values are being applied and to what extent. Set value-based goals just like you would for revenue growth or expense reduction and weight them according to your strategic priorities.  Compare performance to future value assessment survey results to see if actual performance aligns with organizational perception.


Hopefully, these six steps will motivate you to finally take on that cultural shift you have been thinking about – to move to a value-based environment where daily activities and behaviors align to core principles, providing focus and direction to help you achieve your strategic goals. I wish you luck!


Some wonderful young ladies

Girls donate hairMy family and I volunteered to help at a local school recently.  The faculty, students and parents hosted a charity barbecue to raise money for children with cancer.  The girls in the photo all agreed to cut off their long hair and donate it to make wigs for children who have lost their hair as a result of their cancer treatments. Many of the adults and children also agreed to have their bone marrow tested to see if they are a good match for anyone needing a bone marrow transplant.  One of the students turned out to be a match and is going into the hospital for the procedure, to save someone else’s life.  Aren’t these children just so incredible?  We should all be as noble as they are.

The Consultative Process

I was speaking with a business colleague/friend recently, who told me how much he liked my profession. He said, “It’s great. Consultants get to tell everybody what to do.”  I told him that nothing could be further from the truth and being a good consultant was not about issuing orders. As a matter of fact, arrogance and attitude like that often spells the death-knell of a consultant.  I told him that consulting was often about helping a client with three things: acknowledging the need for change, determining the best change opportunity for the organization, and figuring out how to bring that opportunity into reality. Consultants are rarely asked (fortunately) to order people about. They are often asked to listen and to observe and to provide advice.

Acknowledging the Need for Change

Sometimes acknowledging there is a need for change is the easy and obvious and sometimes it is the greatest obstacle.  In order to accept the need for change, people need to believe that: the current way leaves much to be desired, there might be a better way, and the better way is achievable. Often there is the obstacle of fear. Change can be scary. It can put quality at risk and jobs at risk. It can be expensive. It can fail. On occasion, these fears can overwhelm the Need for Change. The role of a consultant is to assist the client in evaluating the risks versus the rewards and the likelihood of both of them. The consultant is acting in the role of advisor, assisting the team in measuring the likely outcomes and determining if the Path of Change is one worth traveling.  Ideally, the consultant is assisting the organization in managing the fear-factor as well, by communicating the business goals and the reasons driving the need.

Determining the Desired Change

There are usually many ways to deliver positive results.  The role of the consultant is to focus on the desired outcome and then generate a creative but reasonable list of approaches that can be taken to deliver that outcome.  For example, if the desired outcome is reducing unit or transaction costs, this can be achieved by increasing volumes while holding costs steady; by reducing the variable costs; by reducing different fixed costs; by improving quality; by reducing shifts worked; or by using the same process to deliver current volumes while also providing an additional service using the same cost base. And, in our made up example here, we haven’t yet considered other ideas.  Maybe the client is really interested in boosting profits and sees cost reduction as the easiest solution.  Perhaps the consultant should suggest improved product pricing, increasing the market or market share, the design and sale of a premium product, or some other revenue-enhancing approach. Consulting Impostors who repeatedly tell companies to shut down the division or lay off some percentage of workers without considering the other possible approaches are doing their client a huge disservice.

Once the possible solutions are generated, the consultant again performs the role of a trusted advisor and works with the client to select one or a small number of approaches to implement.

Bringing Change into Reality

The consultant’s role in this step can vary among advisor, project manager, cheerleader, and metric-keeper, depending on the client and the situation.  In any of these roles, the consultant must evaluate the progress dispassionately.

Even in cases where the consultant believes the original recommendation was the correct one, if the progress isn’t what was expected, the consultant must help the client determine what is holding back the desired change. If a consultant becomes “part of the problem” and is afraid to identify when an implementation is not running according to schedule, budget or expected results, the client is being done a disservice. It is in cases like this, that events often catch up with the consultant, and the consultant or consulting firm ultimately is fired, or worse.  Honesty, and a true desire to uncover the reason for the setback or failure are what the client expects.  I know of one friend who has developed a very long term relationship with one of his clients precisely because of how he handled and addressed the failure of a large engagement.

The consultant’s role in bringing about change is a highly collaborative one.  Clients realize they need help sometimes. That is why they turn to consultants. It is the consultant’s responsibility to act in the capacity of trusted advisor, partner, and enabler.  Together, with shared responsibility and a sincere desire to improve continually, the client and the consultant achieve success.

18 months running our own consulting firm

Another 10 months have gone by since our last post on this theme. A lot of progress has been made: our business has grown, we leased some office space, and we have been adding staff. We have also implemented new technology to ensure that our client and company information is well protected, encrypted, and reliably archived and available wherever and whenever we need it. Most importantly, we have spent many hours honing our consulting methodology, developing more consistent client facing processes, and have invested in our own education both in the consulting realm as well as in the industries in which we serve our clients.

Over the next 6 months we will be placing a renewed emphasis on service excellence. Besides the relationships we develop and maintain and the friendships we build, nothing is more important to us than being consistently excellent in how we deliver service to our clients. Our goal is 100% client satisfaction and over the next half year we will be designing some new internal processes as well as some client facing ones to aid us in this objective.

In terms of branding, every few weeks we have added new functionality at our website (www.CoveHill.com). Our blog posts have become more frequent (www.CoveHill.com/blog) and over the next 3 months we will add more content explaining our business approach and methodology. On Monday, we will also be adding our own link for available roles within our organization. You can visit www.CoveHill.com/careers for a preview.

I would also like to take this opportunity to thank our clients for their trust and for the opportunities they have provided us over the last year and a half. Additionally I would like to thank Trevor Stone for being a great business partner and friend.

All the best to everyone, and enjoy the holiday weekend.

Apple Pay Stung by Low-Tech Fraudsters

The headline makes it sound much worse than it is for Apple.

Apple Pay itself was not really hacked. Instead what we learn in the articles that have appeared in the pressed over the last week, is that stolen credit cards as far back as the Target Stores breach, have not been revoked by credit card issuers. Their rationale was that it was cheaper to absorb the fraud than to replace all of those millions of credit cards. Apple pay is a secure platform, but if someone uses a stolen credit card on it and impersonates the owner, Apple will have no way of knowing that the credit card is no longer legitimate, since the credit card issuer never canceled the card.  Security is only as strong as its weakest link.

I am reminded of when I first started working in the financial services industry. I was familiarized all sorts of rules and regulations, secure software, and encryption techniques.
And then I was told that the most common and successful form of fraud was for a criminal to call up and impersonate an account holder on the phone, explain some difficult circumstances, and ask for funds to be released.

Read more →

Cove Hill to Continue Use of Elephant

Despite Ringling Brothers announcing that they plan on stopping use of their elephants over the next few years, Cove Hill announces that we will continue to use our elephant on our homepage. Our company spokesperson has stated, “Anyone can plainly see that the elephant on our homepage is very happy, well fed, and well adjusted to an office environment. We expect that future legislation will guarantee elephants their right to work in an environment of their choice.”

Farewell to Frank’s Sheet Music

There was an article in today’s Wall Street Journal, New York’s last classical sheet music store to close. While that is sad news as another era seems to be coming to a close, I wonder why it had to be this way.

I am always surprised when businesses like this do not seem to evolve and find themselves shutting their doors. This is somewhat similar to what happened to Barnes and Noble. B & N grew to enormous size by displacing all of the mom and pop bookstores all over the United States. B & N saw that the future would favor the big box store. They brought this model to bookselling. Yet, they failed to see how Amazon.com would destroy them. They were a late entrant into online sales, and could never quite figure out a model that leveraged their physical presence with their online presence. Online purchasing was complicated, delays in shipping were common, and Amazon just seemed so much simpler and often less expensive.

But, if anything, Barnes & Noble had a greater challenge than Frank’s Sheet Music, since they had so many physical stores. Unless they made an early and conscious decision to grow their Internet business enormously while simultaneously shutting down stores, I could understand how they got into their predicament a little more so than I could understand that with this sheet music store.

They were one of a very small number of stores in New York City that supplied probably an enormous percentage of all the sheet music that musicians still require. Yet, they kept the sheet music in physical form only and were probably losing sales every which way to Internet startups that were supplying exactly the same product immediately on demand.

There is a famous Harvard Business School case called “Marketing Myopia”. That case, originally written in 1960, discusses how businesses rarely realize what business they are actually in. Because of that, they tend to go out of business when market conditions change. One of the classic examples in that case study was companies that supplied kerosene for all the streetlamps of New York City. They never realized that they were actually in the streetlighting business; instead they thought they were in the kerosene business. Once the demand for kerosene streetlights went away these companies folded and new companies supplied electricity, light bulbs, wiring, and service.

In my own consulting work I often advise my clients to rethink what their business product and market actually are, and to focus on the customer relationships they have built, in order to find further growth opportunities for themselves. I was recently speaking to an air miles broker, who was concerned about how that market was changing and how his business might not exist in a few years. I suggested to him that he wasn’t really only in the air miles business — perhaps his real business product is providing affordable travel to his customers and exchanging air miles is just one way to do that. Or perhaps his business should be providing other sorts of broker/agent services to his same clients or new clients. Envisioning your business a different way allows you to keep your existing clients, add new clients, and evolve the services you provide. If you are having trouble thinking this through for your own business, find a good business advisor or management consultant and ask them.