The programmer, like the poet, works only slightly removed from pure thought-stuff. He builds his castles in the air, from air, creating by exertion of the imagination. Few media of creation are so flexible, so easy to polish and rework, so readily capable of realizing grand conceptual structures… Yet the program construct, unlike the poet’s words, is real in the sense that it moves and works, producing visible outputs separate from the construct itself. […] The magic of myth and legend has come true in our time. One types the correct incantation on a keyboard, and a display screen comes to life, showing things that never were nor could be.

Fred Brookes


So, in all of our dealings with customers, our active communication should fall into three camps:

1) Relationship-building

2) Strategic thinking

3) Exceptions & Problems

There’s another kind of communication that happens all the time, that we want to avoid:

4) Information transfer


Let’s think about these in detail:

1) Relationship-building: This ranges from the “how’s-it-going-nice-day-isn’t-it-yes-I’m-fine-too” stuff to the hugs and shared tears when a grandma dies. This, done right, makes everything easier. Spend time here, make it genuine, and if you can’t be genuine, pretend until after lunch.

2) Strategic thinking: This is all sorts of conversations, and it’s the kind that corporate boards and project managers and foreman chewing their lunch have all the time. It is the brainstorming, the improving, the criticizing, the making-things-better, the this-is-where-we-should-be-going conversations. This can’t be automated, and we need to take specific times to do this. This includes persuasion and sales when done correctly.

3) Exceptions & Problems: This will likely take up the bulk of our time communicating, and I believe that’s appropriate. As things come up that we’ve never dealt with before, we need to deal with them. We need to think about them, identify the real issue, and solve it as best as we can. If we have problems come up over and over and over again, it’s likely that we’re not solving the issue, but merely communicating information about the issue.

4) Information transfer: Wake up and smell the Starbucks app! It’s 2015–there’s no reason to verbally express information when it could be at your fingertips with a little organization and dedication. We have tools, freely available, that could make all the information that you generate and consume available right now. If you’re spending time talking to people to transfer information, you’re doing it wrong.

So, like most things, it’s simple–create systems to automate information transfer, and communicate about the rest!

Perfection is the Enemy of the Good: Hiring

We have four core values at Silvertrek:

  • The desire and ability to learn
  • The ability to do something without waiting for it to be perfect
  • The desire to take ownership in what you do
  • The ability to be upbeat and positive, even in the face of adversity

We hold ourselves accountable to these core values, and we rank each other on our progression or regression in these things. But we also look for them in the people we hire. We recently hired Owen Granger, and the conversation prior to his getting hired was much more about our perception of these items than it was about his knowledge, schooling, or experience.

In a perfect hiring situation, you first weed out the people that don’t fit your core values, and then you begin to look at their abilities. Say you’re a small manufacturing company, hiring to replace the procurement manager that’s retiring after lo these many years. Somebody in this position needs to understand the domain (electronics, engines, brake pads, whatever you’re making), they need to understand the importance of purchase agreements and their relationship of cash flow, they need to understand the rules surrounding the accounting and taxing of inventory, and they need to understand whatever obscure and/or obsolete MRP system you’re using (95% of the time this is Excel). However, most people seeking employment have relatively plastic brains, and most people can learn those things. Whats harder to “learn” is the drive you’re looking for, the work ethic you’re looking for, the intelligence you’re looking for, the attitude you’re looking for. It’s harder to teach a new hire to be less sarcastic then it is to teach them to lower inventory right before fiscal year end. It’s harder to teach a new hire how to go about exploring all the options for a new robotic inventory system then it is to teach them to fill down on tab x84 of the spreadsheet named “Parts-version 4(joe).xlsx” It’s harder to teach somebody the nuanced difference between argument and debate than it is to teach them how to fill in a timecard.

Obviously, you need to know what your core values are. Also obviously, you have core values. It would actually be downright astonishing if you could articulate them–Silvertrek’s core values were years in the making, and only emerged after serious effort.

You don’t need the perfect employee, in terms of job ability. You need an employee that fits your core values, and is good enough at the job put in front of them. Don’t ruin your team by hiring a perfect ass.


Thoughtfulness and the System

I’m living right now in Kiruna, Sweden, and the endless contrasts between the cultures, attitudes, and systems of Sweden and America afford me a wonderful chance to contemplate my opinions of things. This is a topic that rarely wears itself out, but there is one particular difference that highlights a choice that businesses must make—driving laws.

In Sweden they follow very similar laws to the U.S. and in fact, a first-time American driver, fresh from the airplane and fighting jetlag’s initial battle really won’t notice much difference at all. Here, they drive on the right side of the road. They stop at stop signs that read STOP in very good English, and they have crosswalks and driver’s licenses and alcohol limits and speedlimits and police cars to enforce it all.

But they also have roundabouts. And they have uncontrolled intersections. And they have certain “head” roads where rules change. And they have this weird propensity to allow others to pass them.

In a roundabout, the person who is in a roundabout has the right-of-way. In an uncontrolled intersections (which, I might add, two of every three are uncontrolled) the person approaching from the right has the right-of-way. Except when one of the roads in the uncontrolled intersection is a “head” road, in which case they have the right-of-way. And when somebody is approaching from the rear, you pull over and let them pass.

Um… Michael, I can hear you saying, these are really no different than what I’m used to. Well, that’s true in principle—there are laws enacted in the States that address all of these things. But really those are fringe cases; I can think of one uncontrolled intersection in my little home town in Washington. Here in Kiruna, with a comparable population, there is exactly one intersection that is controlled by stop signs, and only four that are controlled by lights.

So in practice, there’s a large difference—in the States, you drive and follow the obvious, pre-defined rules. In Sweden, you pay attention to what’s going on around you. Are you on a head road? Is that car approaching from the right? Are you approaching an uncontrolled intersection? Are you overtaking that car? You are forced to think the entire time. You’re forced to be considerate.

It’s almost like in our quest for efficiency and order, the States designed the road system to allow for a driver to drive without thinking, to just trust that the system will take care of you, while in Sweden they demand a certain presence of mind, a certain level of attentive selflessness.

This Swedish attentiveness allows for the drivers that are outside the norm, for drivers in the third standard deviation. It allows for large tracked equipment and for daddies with their strollers and for underage drivers in their underpowered cars and for road construction without flaggers or traffic control. The American system optimizes for the 1st standard deviation, and as long as you stay inside the confines of “normal” you’ll get to your destination faster and easier.

There is a joy in driving in Sweden that there isn’t in America, and there is a relaxing ease in driving in America that is missing in Sweden.

Are you going to create a system that is slower, safer, and more considerate? or are you going to create a system where the decisions have been made and the fringes have been ignored? Do you want the workers in your system to be forced to make decisions at every turn? or do you want the majority of small decisions made for them to allow them to better concentrate on the big decisions? Do you want thoughtfulness or efficiency?

Secret Sauce

Our least-kept secret is our processes, and it’s the only reason that we’re successful now and that we will be even more successful in the future. See, we do this thing called “checklists” that makes it really easy to get things done–you choose your task, and follow the checklist. There’s a checklist for payroll, there’s a checklist for uploading billings to persnickety customers, and there’s a checklist to get a lead to a customer. We run our weekly meetings using a checklist, we solve our issues using a checklist, and we use Basecamp to hold these checklists. We love our checklists. In fact, a good chunk of my inspiration for our little system came from The Checklist Manifesto, by Atul Gawande.

The checklist is our “What” and “When“–it specifies what to do and the order in which to do it.

For many of our processes, we complement the checklist with a handy-dandy Powerpoint document collectively called Silverdocs. They go into quite a bit of detail on exactly how to get a task done, including screenshots of computer programs. Note that we don’t have a Silverdoc for every checklist, but we do for the ones that are highly critical or likely to change hands often. Payroll, for example, is well-documented.

Silverdocs are our “How.”

We use Basecamp to run our checklists–each customer, each external job, and each internal project gets it’s own Basecamp Project, usually pre-loaded with checklists. See, our company is spread far and wide–I’m in Kiruna, Sweden, and there’s employees in Minnesota, Washington, and Alaska. It’s important that we have a tool to communicate between us on tasks, and Basecamp works perfectly. We can also create checklists fairly painlessly using email, and we hope to use their API to automate this even more.

Also, we have an Accountability Chart that clearly defines the roles of each person. This makes it pretty obvious who “owns” each checklist–for example whoever is in the Tax and Insurance role “owns” the quarterly tax checklist for each company. Basecamp makes it easy to assign To-dos based on this.

Together, the Accountability Chart and Basecamp show the “Who.”

But, as with most successful systems, there’s a meta-system that is worth talking about. No process, no checklist is perfect. And even if it were, it wouldn’t be for long–the world is a’changing, and we gotta be a’changing with it. We have a specific time every week for discussing these checklists–a one hour meeting–and during the week there is chatter about the best use of the lists. The checklist and accompanying Silverdoc will always change.

And lest you think we’re all robots–it ain’t true. We like our checklists not because they force us to do things the same way, but because they free up our time. We can do things quickly while knowing that we did it right. And when we’re done working on the stuff that has to get done, then we can work on stuff that’s fun, like dreaming up the next feature of Silvertime, or helping a customer plan a new branch in a new state. And that, dear reader, is the the “Why.”

PS – For the astute visitor of michaelonsystems who feels they are missing something, we submit that the “Where” is irrelevant in 95% of our work. Numbers are easily transmitted via fiber-optic cable, and little packets of information often are springing hither and yon.

A good video from Khan Academy

You Can Learn Anything

I fully support the notion that you can learn anything, if you only knew you could.

Just do it NOW.

(or What I Learned From Observing My Wife)

I thought I was being smart. See, I figured if I just waited for a while, their would be less effort spent on doing the dishes. You can pile them all up in one spot, and then you can batch-process the whole lot. And the clean dishes in the dishwasher? if you need ’em, just take them straight out of there–saving the time of putting them away at all. As long as you put the food away, the dishes are more easily done once per day (maybe even once every TWO days). Work like a madman for 45 minutes and whambam you’re done.

Except it isn’t really all that pleasant. That means that there’s nearly always nasty crusty dishes lying in your sink, taking up the space you might have used to fill your water cup. That special long-handled spoon that you bought in Europe to get jam out of the jar  is underneath the frying pan, covered in chicken grease. There’s no clean coffee cups. And the kitchen, a place that normally is for visiting and for “being family” in is transformed to a barely functional food storage, a place to enter when rumbling tummies or whining children demand, and to exit again as soon as possible.

It’s amazing what changes when Rebecka, my wife of seven years, is around. She doesn’t wait to put things in the dishwasher. She doesn’t stop to do a full motion-study of just how the dishes need to go from left to right to save three motions. She doesn’t wait until the floor is really dirty before she sweeps. She’s constantly in motion, patting here with a cloth, sweeping there with a broom, and dishing steakpans and coffeecups while they’re still warm.

And the kitchen is cozier because of it.

When considering individual tasks, my way is better–it takes less effort. But looking at our family life as a whole, as a system, it’s clear that her method is superior.

And then it hit me–this is exactly what I want in my business, for me and my customers. I want the work done when it is right in front of us. Let us strike when the iron is hot, even if it seems like more work. While allowing for periods of concentration, deal with that email when it comes in, the first time you read it. Don’t let that customer lead get stale. Don’t allow that expense report to go un-reported. Update the bank reconciliation more than once a month. Bill your customers every day, not every 30 days. Assign somebody to the Firemans’ seat, where their job is to respond to customer requests within 5 minutes. Take phone calls instead of just returning them.

I’ve been batch processing too long, and the smell of the chicken grease is starting to get to me.

Focusing Stone

I’m all over the place. I’ve got people calling me from all of my various clients asking me to help them with this-or-that, I have two clients waiting on proposals, I’m starting work on an unrelated building project, I have financial statements I’m cleaning up, I’m trying to be home with my wife and four kids, I’m pursuing a job in Sweden, I’ve got three hobbies that I work on and 10 more that I would like to work on, I have a blog to write, plus I’m trying to get enough exercise and sleep.

And because of the way I roll, doing all of that is impossible.

It’s impossible because I try to do everything at once.

It’s impossible because with too many demands and too much stimulation I freeze up–and wind up doing nothing.

It’s impossible because each task demands more attention than I care to give.

It’s impossible because I’d rather go chase the next new thing rather than finish the old boring thing.

But what’s so cool is that I’m getting it done anyway through the help of what I call my Focusing Stone. See, even though I’m borderline ADD, I’ve got a couple of things going for me. First of all, I’ve got good help. My wife’s amazingly good at coping with me, and keeping me on track with everything on the home front. And David, my IT/Programmer/Bookkeeper/Personal Secretary pushes me when I’m slacking and helps me up when I fall at work. Second of all, I’ve got good systems.

My internal Focusing Stone is broken. (Some might even say it’s a mirror, causing to me to arrogantly focus on my own self-interest, but I digress.) So I had to build an external Focusing Stone–a crutch–to help get me through the day. Here’s what it consists of:

  1. Delegate. I mentioned I’ve got good help, and I use them as much as I can. My wife pays the bills at home, and David pays the bills at work, for example.
  2. Don’t waste time. My secret obsession is a news site called Hacker News. I don’t know why I’m so addicted, but whatever. But I’ve found that if I’m not careful, I can spend easily half-hour to an hour reading through all that is interesting but non-essential. To fight this, I installed Leechblock, an addon for Firefox that allows me to screw around for 10 minutes and no more per day. (There’s a similar one called StayFocused for Google Chome)
  3. Schedule. I use Google Calendar aggressively, and it syncs with my Windows phone. I try to commit myself ahead of time–for me, uncommitted days are timesinks in which no productive work gets done.
  4. Team up. If I have a living breathing human being working alongside me, I just don’t get distracted.
  5. Email filtering. I get emails from people that I never see, simply because I’ve been able to sense a pattern and build a filter in my inbox to deal with them. Bookkeeping client? BAM!automatically delegated. Automatic receipt? Into the accounting inbox. Amazon or Newegg ad? Deleted. Group email that I was somehow included on? Tagged and archived. I can’t afford the external distraction. I distract myself enough as it is. I use the Google Apps webmail client, but you can do the same thing with Outlook rules.
  6. Freshdesk. This one is new to me, but it’s a ticketing system that puts all our bookkeeping tasks in order, sorted by date of submission. It’s been helpful simply because it means there’s less need for communication. It’s already obvious what needs to be done, no need to talk about it.

None of this is perfect. Just today, I missed a meeting with a client that I had scheduled because I overslept. I spent at least 15 minutes just chit-chatting with people.

I can’t change my nature, but I’m more than willing to build a system or two to help cultivate it.


If any of you reading this have time, I’m curious to hear your tricks–email me (michael@silvertreksystems.com) or throw ’em down in the comments.


Over/Under Billings

Every growing construction business I’ve worked with has struggled at one point with understanding Over/Under Billings. In this post, I decided to depart from words and attack the issue head-on–with a video. Please enjoy.


If you can abstract everything to be anything then nothing has meaning. –Zed Shaw