Tag Archive | learning curve

Implementing New Systems – the Way God Did It, and the Way We Do It

colorful sky

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form, and void; and darkness was on the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters. [Genesis 1:1-2 NKJV]

OMG! What did God do! He just went ahead and created a whole new system – the  heavens and the earth – and it doesn’t work! He didn’t allow enough time for analyzing all the implications of this new system. And there was NO TIME AT ALL set aside for testing the system before implementing it. Whatever made him think he could do it all in one day! Now what’s gonna happen? Space will never be the same again! I can’t believe he’ll be able to fix it. I can’t even imagine the cost of this foolhardiness.

Then God said, “Let there be light: and there was light.” And God saw the light, that it was good; and God divided the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness He called Night. So the evening and the morning were the first day. [Genesis 1:3-5 NKJV]

Fortunately, God is all knowing and all powerful. God quickly started debugging his new system and implementing new features, and by the end of six days, the system worked flawlessly according to the design he had in mind.

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Then God saw everything that He had made, and indeed it was very good. [Genesis 1:31 NKJV]

If you’re not God, the implementation of a new system simply does not go smoothly. I’ve been thinking a lot about that over the past few weeks, partly because of all the news about the Affordable Care Act and the implementation of healthcare.gov, and partly because of some bugs in a new system I’m trying to learn.

I have a relatively strong systems background. During most of the years I lived in Chicago between 1972 and 1992, I worked in systems planning, development, and implementation. From this experience I understand the processes and the problems fairly well. When I had my own systems consulting practice, one of my clients was the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office. My first assignment with them was to conduct a review of a newly implemented case tracking system. Cook County had spent millions of dollars and over a year implementing a new system designed to help the 600 attorneys in the Chicago office keep track of the status of all their cases. Most of the attorneys hated the new system and claimed that the system data was unreliable. The new system was “without form and void.” Apparently the system lacked internal controls, and the natural result of weak controls was that the data was inaccurate.

My job was to interview attorneys in all divisions of the State’s Attorney’s Office to learn what the specific problems were, and then to determine whether or not the problems could be fixed or if the system should be abandoned. It was a fascinating study to conduct. I learned all about what the Criminal Division needed from the system, what the Juvenile Division needed, the Tax Division, Probate, Victim Advocates, and so on. All these attorneys needed different things from the system, and each division had different reasons for hating the system.

Upon completion of the study, my recommendations were to make a few technical changes to the system to improve data integrity and to provide more extensive training in the use of the system so that the attorneys would have a better understanding of the controls within the system and the specific benefits the system would deliver to each division.

The most important thing I learned about implementing new systems is that patience is needed more than anything else. Eventually most of the bugs will be fixed, and system users will get through the learning curve.

Abbey helped me keep at the project despite all the frustrations I encountered.

Abbey helped me keep at the project despite all the frustrations I encountered.

However, I am still learning more and more about the use of new systems and how steep the learning curve can be, especially for systems that have a few glitches. My patience was severely tested over the last few days.

I decided to put together a photo book with all the pictures from our wedding, and to include pictures from our Blessing Ceremony 25 years ago. I have never used any of those Internet services that enable you to create a hardcover book of your pictures, but I have seen some of the books my nephew Kevin has created through these services, and I’ve been quite impressed. I called Kevin to find out which services he has used and to see if he had any advice for me. He said he’s used different services, and they’re all pretty good and relatively inexpensive.

I explored several services and decided to try Shutterfly.com for two reasons – it looked like it would be the easiest software to learn, and it’s the service Kevin had used on the photo book he had lent me to look at for ideas. After about twelve hours of stumbling along, learning by trial and error, I had created a 52-page photo book online. When I tried to save and submit the book for publishing, I received an error message that said the service was still uploading my photos and it would save the photo book file upon completion of the upload. That never happened. I finally called Shutterfly for customer support. After a 40-minute phone conversation, I concluded that they didn’t know how to fix the problem. Apparently I must have encountered a bug in their system. They told me I would have to recreate the whole 52-page photo book from scratch.

So that’s what I did, but I decided not to invest any more time with Shutterfly’s system. Even though it meant starting the learning curve over again, I decided to go with mpix.com. I spent about eight hours recreating the first 32 pages of the photo book on mpix, and then I ran into a bug in their system. Even though I had faithfully saved the book after every few pages, the whole photo book was deleted when I tried to go on to page 33. I tried to call mpix customer support, but discovered that they didn’t show their phone number on their website. They wanted to force users to request help via email. They responded to my emails within about an hour and forwarded my problem to their technical team to try to restore my deleted file. Although we exchanged several emails and mpix seemed to be trying to help me, they never were able to restore my file.

This is the wedding photo that will be on the cover of the book

This is the wedding photo that will be on the cover of the book

My patience was beginning to wear a little thin. Between the two services I had worked 20 hours on this photo book, and I had nothing to show for it. I really wanted to make a photo book, or I would have simply given up. I needed to start over from the beginning again. I decided to stay with mpix rather than go through another learning curve with a different service. At least the customer support people at mpix were nice and tried to be helpful, even if they wouldn’t let me call them.

Through another eight hours of careful work I created a 44-page photo book. I did my final edits on the book yesterday morning and successfully submitted the photo book for publication by 7:30 a.m. I expect to receive the hardcover book in the mail later this week. Hopefully, when I receive the book, I’ll be able to say, “Let there be a photo book, and there was a photo book. And I saw the photo book, that it was good.”

And likewise, may Americans say, “Let there be affordable universal health care, and there was affordable universal health care. And Americans saw affordable universal health care, that it was good.”

I’m sure God is thankful that He had the foresight to create the heavens and the earth before computer-based systems were invented to “help” him build his creation. Otherwise he might still be “fixing” the system.

Oh, wait. I guess he is . . .

[NOTE: I quoted from The New King James version of Genesis to keep some of the familiar language of the creation story. To be consistent with that style, I used masculine pronouns to refer to God – even though I know better. That’s a glitch in English we still have to deal with.]

Making Progress

Holding Glasses over BibleFor thousands of years, from Abraham to Paul, God has been trying to teach us about hospitality – both by example and by instruction. From my mom to Mim, God has been teaching me to pay attention to all of these lessons. My second book, Come, Lord Jesus, Be Our Guest:  Adventures in Hospitality, is my attempt to put everything I’ve learned about hospitality all together into one long, meandering story. There are many twists and turns in the story. Each episode tells about an event that happened in my life, that in retrospect, I can see – “Aha! That’s how God wants me to treat people.” Or – “Oh, that’s NOT what God wants me to do again.” Each episode begins with a Bible verse in which God may be saying, “See, that’s what I’ve been trying to tell you in My Word.” Here’s an example of one of the shorter episodes early in the book.


WELCOMING THE FRIEND OF A FRIEND

Be kind to one another …
[Ephesians 4:32a NRSV]

I moved into Mim’s apartment in Chicago on February 1, 1973. I decided to get adjusted to my new job before I started to look for an apartment of my own. That was fine with Mim. We quickly learned to share the space, the food, and the expenses.

And we learned each other’s habits. One of Mim’s habits was inviting people into our home. One day she received a call from a college friend. A friend of this friend was taking the bus to Chicago. Mim’s friend asked her if she would take this young woman “under her wing” to be sure she was safely oriented to the city. Of course Mim agreed to do that.

greyhound busThe evening of this friend-of-a-friend’s arrival, Mim and I took the “el” down to the loop to the Greyhound Station to look for a young woman who would be looking for us, but none of us had a description of the other person. Eventually we figured out who was who, connected, and took the “el” home together. We gave her maps of the public transit system, described the safer and less safe areas of Chicago, let her sleep on our couch for a few nights, and then she was on her own.

Did we keep her safe? Did we help her out? I don’t really know. But I was beginning to think a little more about how we should treat strangers. With the same kindness you would treat your best friend, or Jesus himself, I guess. We need to “be kind to one another.”

—–

This week, I’m at Christmas Mountain for my last of three writing retreats I’ve taken over the past three months to complete the writing and revising of this book. Then I’ll begin the publishing process. If everything goes as planned, the book will be available in both paperback and e-book format by summer.

Last week, I tried to make the final changes to the third (and hopefully final) round of proofs on my first book, Listening for God:  52 Reflections on Everyday Life. Remember, this is my “learning curve” book. I’m learning quite a bit about the publishing process, which was my goal. Previously, I’ve never thought about whether or not I cared if the long tail on the drop-cap on the first word of each chapter actually touches the second letter of that word. Am I being too picky? Or, does that really make a difference in the readability of the text? Or does it make a significant difference in the overall appearance of the page and whether it looks inviting or sloppy? I’ll be glad to be done with this process. This isn’t the fun part of writing a book! Fortunately, the end is almost in sight, I think. I’ll let you know when the book becomes available.

One big thing I’ve learned already about writing and publishing books – I’d prefer to be doing just one book at a time! My mind gets too easily confused about what applies to each book. Pretty soon the first book will be done and available on Amazon.com. Then my mind can relax. Maybe…

The earliest picture I have of me thinking really hard about something - probably keeping 2 storybooks straight...

The earliest picture I have of me thinking really hard about something – probably keeping two storybooks straight…

Salty Cookies, Burnt Cereal, and Learning Curves

 

My mom worked in Madison during most of my growing up years.  She compensated for not being around home to supervise me as much as she would like by suggesting projects for me to do by myself, especially during the summer.

One project was learning to bake cookies. One of the first times I baked cookies all by myself, I must have misread “teaspoon” and “tablespoon.” I made some very salty oatmeal raisin cookies. Another time I forgot to take all the cereal boxes and crackers that were stored in the oven out of the oven before I preheated it. When I smelled smoke and saw a black cloud drifting out of the stove, I ran to the barn to get my dad. Together we ran back to the house. He put on thick work gloves, and pulled all the hot black smoldering boxes out of the oven. Fortunately, there were no flames.  Then my dad went back to the barn and I went back to mixing up the cookie dough. I was able to bake the cookies just fine in the well-preheated oven. When my mom got home from work, she was a little surprised at all the damage I had done by simply baking a batch of cookies, but she was pleased that I had run to get my dad before doing even more damage. She was also pleased that I had finished making the cookies. At least we had some good fresh homemade chocolate chip cookies to eat, even if we no longer had any cereal and crackers. There was a learning curve for baking cookies, but I mastered the skill well before I was in high school.

Over the years, I’ve learned that there is a learning curve for just about everything I’ve learned to do – from riding a bike to driving a car, from playing the piano for Sunday School to playing the organ for church, from designing a brochure to building a website. As a general rule, regardless of how good I may think my first effort is, the second time I do something is always better. That’s the learning curve.

The learning curve I’m currently mastering is writing and publishing a book. I’ve been writing a book about hospitality for a couple years. I’m very excited about this book. It’s based on the experiences Mim and I have had in being hospitable. We have welcomed literally thousands of people into our home – some as friends and family, others as bed and breakfast guests, assisted living residents, and seekers on spiritual retreat. The Bible says a lot about hospitality, and we’ve learned a lot about hospitality in our life experiences. The purpose of the book is to put all that knowledge together into a coherent message about the importance of hospitality in our lives.

Last year, as my book on hospitality was beginning to take shape, it suddenly dawned on me that I’m at the beginning of a new learning curve – the one for publishing a book. I decided I should try to gain some experience along this new learning curve before I actually publish my book on hospitality. The message of this book is very important to me. I want it to be the best book I can possibly make it. That means it shouldn’t be the first book I publish. The absolute law of learning curves has convinced me of that.

So, what should I publish as my first book?  I want it to be something good even if it is the first project along this learning curve. I quickly realized that there was an obvious answer to what should be my first book. I’d already written most of it. I’ve been writing a blog post every Monday for the past couple years. I have nearly a hundred reflections written. The theme that’s common to most of these reflections is finding messages from God in everyday life.

With the help of a friend, I selected 52 of our favorite reflections – one a week for a year for anyone who wants to read them at the same pace as the readers who have followed the blog.  I grouped the reflections around common topics like VALUES, PRAYER, MUSIC, JAIL, and a few other topics, to accommodate readers who would prefer to read a whole section of the book in one sitting. I tried to edit the reflections so that they flow smoothly from one to the next. Finally, I added a title and subtitle – Listening for God:  52 Reflections on Everyday Life. Currently, the same friend who helped me select the reflections is doing a final edit of the book for me. She hopes to complete her editing this week.

While she’s doing that, I’m deciding which independent publisher to choose to publish the book. Should I go with the independent division of a major publisher in the Christian book market, like Thomas Nelson or Guideposts? Or, should I take a more do-it-yourself route and do almost everything, except the actual printing of the books, by myself?, I went to a couple publishing seminars at the University of Wisconsin this past summer to help me make this decision. I’m learning all kinds of things about publishing – book cover design, interior page layout, e-book formatting, distribution channels, ISBN numbers, US copyright registration, and lots more. This is a fun learning curve to be on!

This week I hope to decide on the publisher and email my book to them. In two or three months, my first book will be published – a paperback of about 200 pages and an e-book for people who prefer to read books on their Kindles and Nooks.

I’m moving along the learning curve. Soon I’ll be able to get serious again about completing the first draft of my hospitality book. I’ve already set aside the second week in November for a week-long writing retreat at Christmas Mountain. I want to complete my first draft of this, my second book, while the publisher is finalizing and publishing my first book. Then I can study all the mistakes I made at the beginning of this learning curve, so that I don’t repeat them in publishing my second book. Anyway, that’s my plan. I’ll keep you posted on my progress.

I’m sure there’s still a lot for me to learn along this latest learning curve, but I think I can safely say I won’t burn the cereal and crackers again. Each learning curve is filled with new adventures.