Sunday, October 5, 2014

Unhappy Customers

Reading time: 12 minutes 18 seconds.

Here is another essay in line with VMM’s pursuit of happiness in the workplace. The proposition here is that happiness in that workplace is dependent in part on good customer service.

As my saddle time increases, I’ve started exploring ways to make long rides safer and more comfortable. This is a natural progression for most riders. Trying to anticipate and prepare for issues that may come up during a ride may be hard work, but the payoffs during the ride are increased safety and higher comfort. I’ve found two ways to prepare—I educate myself on potential issues, and I buy farkles and motorcycle gear.

I depend on vendors for education, products and services. There are countless products and services available for those who are determined to spare no expense in pursuing their love of riding motorcycles. For a product to solve a motorcycle related problem, it must work and the buyer must know how to use it. Some of the products need services, to install, maintain, troubleshoot, and repair.

Most of the time, the products work just fine. If a product does not work or I do not know how use it, I seek help from the manufacturer and/or the seller. If I cannot use a product or use it improperly, my dissatisfaction rises rapidly, and in turn, I create costs for the manufacturer and service provider by asking questions and requesting remedies for problems that either should not exist in the first place, or I should be able to solve in self service mode.

For example, I have a motorcycle GPS. It is waterproof, it does an excellent job of providing directions, it tells me where the nearest gas station is, and it has all kinds of interesting data I need, such as direction of travel and moving average speed. However, I am using a fraction of the capabilities of the GPS. My attempts to create a “trip” or “route” using the software provided with the GPS have been tedious, time consuming, and largely unsuccessful. When I manage to create a trip, I am unable to delete it from the GPS. The GPS manufacturer may scoff at my learning disability, but I am a customer and they do not have a way for people like me to quickly learn how to use the full potential of their GPS. I know the answer is “on the Internet” but my point is, I've spent more time than I feel I should to figure out how to use the GPS. Time that I could be spending doing something more productive, like, ummm… riding!

Over the past few months, my frustration with poor customer service has been mounting—it is now time for me to channel my negative energy into something constructive, like writing this essay to educate others on how to deal with similar frustrations.

I reflected on Robert Pirsig's lament on lack of quality (in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance). His frustrations would have been higher if he dwelled on the same issues I did. The picture below captures how I analyze the root cause for poor customer service, and my optimal response to each situation.

The scenarios in green are ideal. If you get competent vendors, hang to them for dear life. They will save you time, cost, and aggravation in the long run. If you have to be flexible in how you work with them (it really should be the vendor who needs to be flexible), it may be a small price to pay. For example, I found a BMW motorcycle mechanic who chose to remain small so he could provide quality service. But a service appointment has to be made six weeks in advance. At the end of the day, unless your livelihood depends on it, getting a motorcycle fixed  is not an emergency that requires immediate attention.

The scenario is yellow is most common. I find incompetent sales people trying to cover up their incompetence by providing incorrect facts or trying to bluster their way out of a tricky question. I recently bought motorcycle boots that use Gore-Tex, and the salesperson assured me they are “guaranteed for life.” I asked to see the guarantee in writing, he was unable to produce it. Even the Gore-Tex web site does not use the phrase “lifetime guarantee.” It does not have a time limit to the warranty either, but I always get nervous when information can be interpreted in more than one way.

The scenario in pink is the most frustrating. You should not have to put up with rudeness and bad behavior. This scenario is rare, it is usually the customer who is irate and abusive. I recently had to deal with sales reps who were clearly new and inexperienced, and were hiding their nervousness under a veneer of gruffness. My approach is to be nice to them, hoping to turn them around. Unfortunately, and predictably, such people move from the pink scenario to the yellow scenario, but never the green scenario.

Notice that I did not mention cost as a factor in poor customer service. You get what you pay for. If you define quality as “fitness for use”, you do not always need to buy the most expensive product or service. In general, price is an indication of quality, but you have to be careful of the exceptions.

So how do I identify poor customer service? Some of the symptoms of poor customer service are listed below:

  • The sales person cannot answer questions about product.
  • The sales person lies or makes exaggerated claims about the product.
  • Sales person has no real life experience in using the product. 
  • Return or exchange policies are unclear.
  • The staff has an arrogant and cocky demeanor.
I’ve found BMW’s marketing efforts at creating a premium image being repeatedly undermined by poor customer service. When I was researching motorcycles to buy, I wandered into a BMW motorcycle showroom, and asked the sales person for a recommendation. He nonchalantly pointed out a model to me, but was not ready to engage. His demeanor was, “You should do your research and come ready to buy, and not waste my time with questions.” I can vouch for BMW's brilliant marketing campaign for the F650GS, it is a logical choice for a first bike, but the sales person did not bother to persuade me. For me the tipping point was when I asked about the different between a chain drive and shaft drive on BMW bikes. From the sales person’s answer, I knew he had no idea what he was talking about. I politely thanked him and left.

Here is a good one. I recently asked a BMW service mechanic for the location of the sticker that certifies the bike to meet emissions control in 50-states. I needed this information to register the bike in my name. None of the staff at the BMW shop could help, they said “I don’t know” and were happy to ignore me, hoping I would just leave. They declined my request to get me a duplicate emissions certificate, even though BMW customer service directions were that a dealer has to put in the request on my behalf. When I refused to leave till my questions were answered, one of the staff started peering all over the bike and finally found the emissions certificate.

How about one more example? I took my good friend’s advice about  buying quality gear, and tried on a pair of BMW motorcycle boots. The quality was outstanding and the price was amazingly affordable. But they did not have my size, and to my utter surprise, the sales person did not offer to special order it for me. She was also unsure whether any of their boots came in a “wide” version and did not offer to research that fact. Her only strategy was to assure me that she had 30,000 miles on her boots and “everyone was happy with the boots.”

I am not suggesting you do not buy BMW motorcycles, that choice is yours to make. I am merely pointing out that their customer service does not always match their premium image. I've actually had better luck with dealers who sell Japanese motorcycles, though I've found enough fodder to complain about there as well. Perhaps it is because they do not boast of a premium image, my expectations are lower.

Before you ask, let me emphasize that I am merely curious to learn why there is poor customer service in a small market, where soon everyone knows everyone. I really, really care about happiness in the workplace, and the sales persons I met were providing me with priceless research material. Besides, I am a customer, and I am always right! Right? I am a profitable customer, because I willingly spend money on products that will meet and exceed my expectations. Therefore, it is not unreasonable for me to expect a certain level of customer service. I am also curious about what it would take to build a world class customer experience.

I consciously resolved to be a good customer and do my part to prepare for a meaningful conversation with the vendors of motorcycle products. I attempted to become an informed and responsible customer as follows:
  • I read up about the product to understand what it can and cannot do. Thus, my questions were focused, relevant, and designed not to waste anyone’s time. Especially my time.
  • I was careful to follow the product instructions and used the product properly, and as intended.
There are larger issues to be aware of, none of which I need to care about, but now we have moved on from complaining about poor customer service to analyzing it.

The problem (or opportunity) is—motorcycle parts and accessories need technical pre-sales support—the rider has to make sure the part will fit his or her bike and will not compromise safe operations. Riders may not buy because they do not understand the benefits and usage of a product, or they may buy the wrong product and get frustrated. If the product is used improperly, it endangers the rider and raises the possibility of bad word of mouth and perhaps, lawsuits.

  • I wonder if the industry has low volumes and/or low margins, requiring an extra emphasis on keeping costs low. This may mean under investing in customer service, hoping the product works as intended. Educating customers who do not ultimately buy is perhaps seen as an avoidable cost by vendors.
  • It is hard to find talent to staff retail stores. This is true for all retail operations, not just motorcycles. 
  • It takes time and money to train and retain sales staff. The Novice-to-Expert model (Dreyfus and Dreyfus) suggests that customer support people will move from being novices to advanced beginners, to proficient to competent to expert. As you may know, it takes 10,000 hours over ten years to become an expert. Is the cost of training and retention beyond the means of most of the small businesses that sell motorcycle products? I wonder how much effort the motorcycle product manufacturers put into sales enablement material when launching and supporting products.
In addition to being an informed customer (described above), here are some tactical approaches I’ve tried:
  • I try to be not in a hurry to buy, I know research and education are vital prior to purchase. I try not wait for a problem or need to show up, I try to anticipate them.
  • I try to be compassionate with the poor salesperson, help him or her by asking the right questions and get them to find answers. I focus on getting my needs met and not on humiliating those who fail to live up to my standards and expectations.
  • I am firm, polite, and respectful with sales persons who hustle and bully. I frame my questions so it is easy for the sales person to answer, and for me to verify if the product will meet my needs. I try not to worry about the sales person’s incompetence, I worry about my understanding of the problem or my needs and my ability to verify whether the product will solve the problem. I treat meeting an incompetent salesperson as par for the course and meeting a competent salesperson as a gift from the Gods.
  • I reward competence by buying from the sales person who does a good job of providing explanations. Well, before that, I don’t go to a retail store till I am ready to invest. I am very sensitive to the difficulties of small businesses, and try not to raise their costs of doing business.
  • I try not to compromise on quality, I know I’ll get what I pay for. Product manufacturers try to make products to fit every budget and they research costs and value. It is hard for them to understand buying behavior, heck, it is hard for me to understand my buying behavior. So I have to make the extra effort to understand the real costs and value of products.
  • I hold manufacturers accountable for the promises they made and the warranties they offer. I am reasonable in my demands, patient and persistent.
These actions may not improve customer service, but I prefer to show initiative in looking after my interests. It is more empowering and productive versus complaining and ranting in online forums. The industry is not big enough for a consumer movement, besides, I don't have the time or energy.

Happiness is a matter of following best practices in customer service. It is more that smiling and being polite. It starts with understanding the customer needs, designing a good product, communicating its value proposition, setting the right expectations, training those who will sell and support the product, honoring the warranty, and being easy to do business with. Very few manufacturers seem to understand and execute a 360 degree strategy to achieve excellence in customer service. Vendors who make it easy for customers to be good customers are rewarded handsomely with loyalty, and high margins.

Employees who can provide good customer service are happier, because they have the training, skills, and resources, and are empowered to do so. They are supported by a well designed product and business processes that anticipates and removes friction when customers interact with the product or the company. As an employee, you should not put up with the poor customer service from your employer, but know that going on a crusade is not necessary. You’ll need leadership skills, and perhaps need to upgrade your approach to find a win-win solution. don’t forget, your employer needs to make money and stay in business, they are not there for charity.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

The Anatomy of a Feedback

Reading time: 9 mins 6 seconds.

The motorcycle instructor scowled at me. He stood there with his palms pointing to the sky. I could see the speech bubble on his head, with the text "WTF"? He was clearly exasperated.

A retired police officer with a no-nonsense air about him, he expected his instructions to be followed to the letter. By not making a U-turn in a box 18-feet wide, I was clearly not following his script. I could see why he was getting frustrated. I was making mistake after mistake, and in every attempt, I was making a different mistake! I suppose if I made the same mistake every time, it would be easier to correct. On the other hand, making a different mistake meant I had corrected the mistake he had pointed out, but that nuance was lost on him.

Surprisingly, I felt no anxiety, all I felt was his compassion. I could see he was trying to transfer his energy to me, urging me on, lest I do the unthinkable--give up. As is my habit, I had to analyze why his style of giving feedback was effective.

The instructor followed all the mechanics of providing proper feedback:

  • He was very specific. “You are holding on to the clutch too long”, “You are not building the momentum you need to take the turn,” and “If you increase your speed while turning, you will improve your balance.” As a result, I knew what I needed to change.
  • He was very clear. His choice of words were simple, unambiguous, and easy to understand.
  • He was very direct. He did not mix positive and negative feedback, and he provided genuine encouragement.
  • He was action oriented, meaning, his instructions were to do something tangible, such as “increase the throttle”, “don’t apply so much rear brake”, and “stay off the front brake in the curve.”
  • His tone of voice was neutral or encouraging. He did not have the slightest tinge of negativity, sarcasm, criticism, and he did not talk down to me. Thus, he created no barriers to communication.
  • He built rapport with humor. When teaching us how to brake, he explained how not to do it thus, “Don’t raise your right leg past your ear and slam down on the rear brake!” Nothing like a good laugh while learning a concept!
During the training, the instructor kept us entertained with stories from the police training programs. One story sticks in my mind, “While riding down the street you glance at the store windows, and admire your shiny motorcycle, polished boots, and clean uniform. Your eyes linger on that sight longer than it should. Your attention is drawn back to the road ahead just in time for you to spot a parked truck in your path of travel. Your instincts need to kick in as you apply the front and rear brakes. If you are lucky, you will stop before you hit the truck. If you can’t, it is better you hit the truck at two miles an hour, not 35 miles an hour.”

He made his point with sobriety and humor. We were not laughing as the lesson was not lost on us.

Another reason the feedback was effective—I kept my part of the bargain. My actions were to:

  • Listen carefully to the coaching and feedback and attempt to correct my riding technique.
  • Not blame the motorcycle. We were riding Kawasaki 1000 motorcycles which were well past their prime. The clutch and throttle needed extra love before they functioned, riding these on the street would be definitely a danger to the rider and to others. I would be justified in complaining about the motorcycle, but I did not waste even a moment thinking about it.
  • Not look for excuses or alibis. Thoughts such as “I am just a beginner” or “There is too much waiting, so I lose momentum when it is my turn to perform an exercise” were banished from my mind even before they came up.
  • Not treat the instructor as the “bad guy.” As far as I was concerned, he was super competent at his job and was accurately describing my riding behavior. I was going to hang on to this assumption until it was proven incorrect.

And yet, I did not complete the drill per the instructions. There was clearly a gap between the course requirements and my ability. I describe my problem as follows:

  • A motorcycle needs momentum to turn, but my body was reacting with anxiety when I increased speed while turning the motorcycle. My anxiety would win every time and I would slow down in the curve.
Unless I am able to overcome this gap, my riding skills in a curve will not improve. The solution is for me to keep practicing till I overcame my anxiety. No amount of cajoling or coaxing will hasten this process.

The instructors ability to diagnose riding skills was impeccable. What was gratifying to me was his ability to differentiate between “inability to change” versus “unwilling to change.” I was clearly willing, I was just unable to change as quickly as we wanted. Recognizing that, he backed away, and did not push me hard. He saw that I would improve, perhaps not as much as he or I would like, but improve nonetheless. How did we communicate this to each other?

I said to him after the exercise, “Looks like my head will be on your trophy wall, but for the wrong reason.” (As a student who could not complete the drill). He looked at me, and doubled up in laughter. We had instinctively found a way to engage in a productive manner.

The net of it was, we were both happy! If only we could have this in the workplace.

Feedback is the lifeblood of progress and a key capability for happiness and productivity in the workplace. Think of feedback as “course correction” to achieve two outcomes.

  • Communication via shared meaning. If two parties are partnering to achieve a goal, each one has to communicate their point of view and request certain behaviors of the other. Until they are “on the same page” they have to constantly exchange information. This communication is another name for “feedback.”
  • Learning and a change in behavior. Most people do not show up in the workplace with the knowledge, skills, and attitude they need to perform their roles. Even if they are very experienced, they have to adapt to the context of the organization, changes in customer expectations, and change in assumptions (such as the political climate, competition etc.). Until people know what to change and why, their behavior will not change. Feedback is a way to “learn” and change behavior for alignment and success.
I’ve observed three barriers to giving feedback in the workplace:
  • Lack of skill—lack of an ability to diagnose the problem, unable to choose the right words, not timing the feedback properly. Destructive emotions will be introduced in the workplace if feedback is given without skill.
  • Withholding of feedback. The previous point describe why feedback is given poorly, this point is about not giving feedback at all. This happens when you or your co-worker do not provide feedback to each other, arrive at a conclusion, and proceed based on that conclusion. Withholding feedback raises ambiguity and anxiety, and leads to confusion as people behave randomly, hoping to elicit a reaction from their co-workers. This is not necessarily a lack of skill, this is passive aggressive behavior.
  • Lack of conflict management skills—feedback is sometimes withheld due to a desire to avoid conflict. When disagreement arises, stands harden and the conflict is escalated, the problem drags on unresolved. When tempers cool, both parties realize they have not understood what they are disagreeing about!
An appropriate level of planning must go into giving and receiving feedback. To make an impact both parties have to assess the common outcomes, current skill levels, ability to improve, willingness to improve, and establish a rapport. The more complex the feedback, the more the preparation required for it to be effective.

It is critical to separate ego from results, because ego will stop you from giving and receiving feedback in a productive way. This is not easy, because results are important and ego is tied to whether the results are achieved or not. This attempt to separate ego from results causes an inner conflict, it is perhaps one of the hardest barriers overcome. I’ll have more to say on this in future blogs.

Action on the feedback is crucial to measure. A “Yes, I got it" is not as useful as an impartial standard for measuring improvements in knowledge and skill. I told the instructor, “You probably won’t believe me if I told you I’ve done this before.” He looked at me and said, “You are right, I don’t believe you. You’ll just have to show me!”

Emotion can be distracting ("I feel good, so I probably know what I need to know and am proficient in this area"). While it is important to feel good, it is not always a reliable indicator of improvements knowledge and skill.

We all like to learn, but no one likes to be “taught.” When giving feedback avoid “teaching” and when receiving feedback, if you are being “taught”, overcome your resistance and pay attention to the lesson.

Occasionally, I get “feedback fatigue” when I am coached too much. In group rides, I consistently get the same feedback about my ability (or lack of it) in taking corners, and I’m reaching a point where I need to either improve my ability to take corners or avoiding riding in groups lest it becomes a sore point. Be careful about giving or getting too much feedback, it can become overwhelming.

A big lesson I learned when I failed to make the U-turn in every single attempt is “forgiveness”—the instructor forgave me for not making the U-turn, he forgave himself for not being able to teach me, I forgave myself for not making the U-turn, and I forgave my instructor for not being able to get me to make the U-turn. Forgiveness is powerful when you recognize that the goal is still unmet, and that is not okay, and that you will keep trying to improve. If you dismiss your low performance, and stop trying to improve, forgiveness is a cop out, an excuse for non-performance. 

In his closing remarks, the trainer said, "After today, you are better than 80% of the riders out there." No comparison with the "best" or "perfect" was provided or necessary. This is the application of “perspective” in giving and receiving feedback. In the grand scheme of things, not every motorcycle rider will be proficient per the standards set by the policemen. But every motorcycle rider needs to be safe, this is non-negotiable. 

By making us safer riders, the training met its goal. However, those who could not make the U-turn in an 18-foot wide box (like me), need to still keep trying to improve.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

The genesis of unhappiness in the workplace

Reading time: 8 minutes 50 seconds.

Each motorcycle class was an experience to remember. My enjoyment and rise in skills and confidence had a lot to do with the instructors. They were competent, very sure of themselves, and warm. I was struck by how happy they were. Being a riding coach is not a lucrative profession, but it sure seemed to be satisfying. When teaching, the rider coach did not seem to be “working” and this realization led me to explore the reasons for the rider coach’s happiness. Was the happiness in the task, in their personality, or the fulfillment they feel when they improve riding skills of their students? To say “a little bit of all” is not incorrect, but it would be too simple an answer. 

I must confess, in the past, when I saw a happy worker, I would think about taking up that profession. Perhaps that would get me happiness as well. This is clearly a fallacy. Also, the advice does not scale. If anyone asks me, “What work should I do to be happy?” I can't very well advise him or her to become a rider coach. It is not practical to have everyone become rider coaches, so happiness has to be found at your place of work, in your profession, while doing what you chose to do.

There are a constellation of reasons to review before you can understand why you are happy or unhappy at work. These reasons are easy to understand when reviewed one at a time, but in real life, several reasons interact to cause happiness and unhappiness. When you are young, the reasons are few, but as you grow older, these quickly become complex, hard to explain and thus, difficult to understand.

Take for instance the task of troubleshooting a motorcycle defect. If you are a beginner staring at a manual, your process for troubleshooting will be linear and therefore, slow and frustrating. The experienced mechanic can diagnose the problem within seconds, but will be unable to explain how they did it. Thus, expertise in troubleshooting takes time to develop and is acquired by a combination of instruction, osmosis, and experience. As you reflect on your happiness levels at work, it is likely that you have experience, and perhaps instruction, and certainly a lot of learning via osmosis has taken place for you. That raises another issue, how many bad habits have you formed? How much “unlearning” do you have to do before you can “learn” and take on behaviors that will make you more happy or less unhappy?

So why is the workplace a petri dish for unhappiness? Let us begin by reviewing the facts.

Let us define “work” as any physical or mental activity with the intention of earning an income or meeting a goal. Since we cannot do this by ourselves, we have to collaborate with others, leading to the rise of “commerce”, where small and large organizations (including nations) interact to exchange value for money. “Commerce” is about making a "profit", defined as getting back more than what you spend. Non-profit organizations seek to increase "value" but still have to both work and to spend less than they raise from donations and contributions.

Commerce led to the need for “management” because to get back more than you spend, you have to control costs and raise productivity. Management need people to do the work and to supervise those who do the work, leading to “employment”. If you own a business, you are “self-employed”.

Now, the root of the problems begin to reveal themselves: paradoxical goal conflicts between employers and employees.

Employers want to achieve the vision, mission, and goals of the enterprise, while meeting their personal goals. Employees want to meet their personal goals (financial, safety, security, psychological, emotional, spiritual) while meeting their professional goals. When employees scramble up Maslow’s hierarchy, they become more valuable, but they also become more expensive. 

  • For employers, the ideal employee is one who is firing on all cylinders, and is low cost (both financially and emotionally).
  • For employees, the ideal employment is one which will help them meet their goals progressively, steadily, and in a predictable manner, with assignments and challenges that will inspire, not crush, energy and motivation.

As you know, finding this scenario is possible, but it seems to be the exception, not the rule. And it does not seem to last. Why is that?

For one thing, matching goals is not easy. It is hard for both parties to articulate what they need and what they are about. This creates needless goal conflict. Add to that sloppy hiring practices, leading to bad skill-position fit, and mismatched expectations, friction between the two parties is inevitable. If the matter is not resolved, employee turnover is the result, and both employers and the new employee have to start over.

Another reason is that skills take time to develop. But employers are impatient, and will demand higher productivity of those not ready to deliver. Employees are impatient as well, and will push themselves beyond their limit in unsafe ways. This leads to poor work habits, stress, and dysfunctional default actions to problems and pressure. The workplace abounds in poor role models, perpetuating the bad habits and ineffective problem solving. On boarding processes are conspicuous by their absence, it is sink or swim, with the survival of the fittest. Or, as the cynical will observe, survival of the ones with the most dysfunctional behaviors (big ego, aggressive Type A personality).

No one arrives at work wanting to do a poor job. However, even as everyone does their best, mistakes happen. Feedback is often critical and harsh.  Those fortunate to get coaching and encouragement overcome their shortfalls and move on to success. On top of this self-critical behavior lowers self-esteem. Poor parenting is often blamed for lays the foundation for such behavior, but I digress.

Social obligations and pressures begin to take their toll at an early age. Parents may expect too much or not enough of their children. Friends and peer groups may set the standard for “cool” behavior. Before you know it, keeping up with the Joneses becomes a full time occupation and the rat race consumes us 7 by 24 by 365.

Finding happiness in the workplace has a definite process. The first step is "self discovery" and initially you may need to fund that journey by taking on jobs that you are not thrilled about. If you are fortunate, you will get a job where you follow your passion and it is no longer “work” but more like “play”. If you are less fortunate, you will “work” during the week to pay your bills, and spend the weekends in “play”, so that you can recharge yourself to get back to work on Monday. If you are truly unfortunate, then your life is filled with drudgery all the time, with no relief in sight. There is one level below “truly unfortunate” and that is the “drifter” who spends time in self discovery, may or may not turn to recreational pharmaceuticals, cannot hold a job down, spreads frustration and negativity, and is a burden to themselves and to society.

If self awareness is the first step, the building blocks are a calm mind and good habits. As mentioned earlier, it will take time to develop your ability to troubleshoot your unhappiness or understand why you are happy. Only then will you be able to change your behavior and take action to improve your happiness.

Regardless of your opinion on the matter, I am sure we can all agree that your happiness in the workplace depends on productive and meaningful interactions with co-workers and other humans (stakeholders, customers, vendors). Their sponsorship and support is like wind in your sails. Their resistance is like chains on your ankles. Their indifference will make your life like a desert without rain. Making a professional, personal, and emotional connection is crucial. Navigating this complexity is one of the prerequisites to finding happiness in the workplace.

If you buy into the above, the questions you might ask are:

  • Is work a source of income only or can it be a source of happiness?
  • Can I find happiness at my current place of work, or do I need a new job?
  • My situation is so unique, no one seems to understand me, can I get help or do I need to figure this out myself?
  • Is there best (and only) way to do find happiness?

To find happiness at work, you need a playbook. This playbook has three parts. The following is based on Dr. David Redish’s (a professor in the department of neuroscience at Minnesota) explanation, published in Sports Illustrated August 11, 2014.

One section will help you diagnose situations, identify the patterns in the situation, and select the right course of action. As Sid would say, “remove ignorance.” You will need knowledge of self (traits, values, preferences, habits) and knowledge of the context in your workplace. The most important parts of this section will help you explore the question, “What will make you happy?”

A second section will help you take decisions. “What do I do now?” or “What do I do in such-and-such situation?” The answer has to come quickly and instinctively and the solution has to work. You have to be strategic, make the right choices and take the right action.

A third section will give you the steps to execute your plan to find happiness in the workplace. Your plan is likely to require multiple projects, each with numerous tasks. Strong project management will help you set the goals and timelines for improvement, and track your progress towards your goal (happiness in the workplace). If you achieve your timelines and milestones, meeting your goal is assured. One key milestone to include is a check to see whether the project is still relevant. If you are pursuing an irrelevant project, then happiness will be elusive, even if your project is a success.

If you ask Sid, he will tell you that one of your biggest problem is adjusting to impermanence and change. Each life stage in the workplace presents a new set of scenarios and challenges. The faster you recognize, understand, and act, the quicker you will gain happiness in the workplace. In short, you have to become adaptable and flexible.

Pieces of this playbook abound. Just look at the number of publications (books, video, and audio tapes) on Unfortunately, there is no curriculum that will take you in a progressive manner from where you are to where you wish to be. Reminder: We are still talking about happiness in the workplace. The vision of VMM is to provide that curriculum and roadmap to find happiness in the workplace.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

The 1K Ride

The ride start time was 5am—I was up at 3.30am. I packed the previous night, so all I had to do was stretch and suit up. No time for breakfast. No time to make lunch (my favorite pre-ride ritual). The starting point was in San Mateo, 45 minutes away, and I did not want to be late. When I arrived at the starting point, my rider coach was already there, bright and bushy tailed, and ready to ride. I gave him the release form, he signed the paperwork to witness the start of the ride, I filled gas—to get a the receipt with the start time for the ride, and we were off!

Northern California is the perfect place to ride 1,000 miles in one day. July is the perfect month to do it in. At 5.39am we crossed the Golden Gate bridge, at 6.08am, the GPS backlight flipped from dark to light. The sun rose gently, and I was thunderstruck by the beauty of the countryside. If such splendor existed on earth, I wondered what heaven would be like.

We rode the “twisties” in the hills, we rode the straight highway road, and we rode the gentle curves. We rode in cold weather, we rode in hot weather, all in one day. Growing up in India turned out to be an asset, I did not even notice the temperature swings till my rider coach mentioned it. We rode in traffic, and we rode with nary a living being in sight. Riding in the hills at night turned out to be much easier than riding the hills in the day. There was no traffic, we could see the road clearly—the roads had plenty of reflectors and both our bikes had strong headlights. It was an eerie feeling, I could feel the trees in the woods, I could feel the sea breeze, and I could feel the ocean, all in the darkness.

I discovered that Maggie at 95 miles an hour was steady as a rock in a storm. I could not believe how vibration free the ride was at high speeds. Lower vibrations means lower fatigue. From my heart, I thanked the engineers who designed and built her. She is a great choice for long rides. I am surprised I don't see more of her sisters on the road.

When I first heard about the 1,000-miles-in-one-day ride, I was immediately drawn to the idea. I don’t know why, but it did not matter. My goal was to prepare by slowly increasing the distance travelled till I built the stamina to ride 1,000 miles. Before you know it, I saw this invite on for a 1,000 mile ride for newbies, and without hesitation I signed up. So much for the grand plan to build up to it. This was the equivalent of jumping into the pool where the options are, sink or swim.

Does 1,000 miles sound like a lot to ride in one day? Yes, it is. So how do you ride 1,000 miles? Around 120 miles at a time. My rider coach had mapped out the route ( Thus, I knew that the route would hold few surprises. We had to stop every 120 miles or so so to fill gas, get a gas receipt to document the location and time stamp. The location with the time stops would be proof that we rode 1,000 miles in one day. So I knew this is not a non-stop trip and I would get breaks along the way.

All visions of a relaxed cruise evaporated after the first couple of stops. The cold reality was that we had to be on the go, and stop only when absolutely necessary. A brief stop for lunch and an afternoon snack was all the food stops we got. At each gas stop, drinking and ejecting fluid was a priority. Next time I will pack light snacks to keep my energy level up.

The vertical bars on the graph below shows the distance between stops for gas. The line shows the number of stops between each stops for gas. I completed the first 110 miles without a break (enthusiasm!). After that I needed one extra stop between gas stops, after the half way point, I needed two extra stops between gas stops.

The extra stops prolonged the ride time by a couple of hours, but I had no intention of being a hero, I was not looking to set a record or prove my stamina. I was going to take as many breaks as I needed to complete the ride. Heck, I did not care if I did not finish, I was going to give it my best shot anyway. Fortunately, my rider coach has the patience of Job, and was very accommodating every time I needed to stop.

There were only two of us, so I had my rider coach's full attention. He is an experienced long distance rider who knew how to tutor without being overpowering. I got the right advice at the right time, no more, no less. In the first half of the ride, he let me lead and that worked well. The traffic was light and Maggie devoured the road. In the afternoon, when the traffic built up, my inexperienced and erratic driving slowed us down. He offered to lead and set the pace. I gratefully agreed to have him lead. He knew my top speed was 75 miles per hour and he set his cruise control accordingly. I hung on to his tail light and we were back on track.

At each stop, my rider coach would calculate the time to finish. He would announce the estimated end time as a matter of fact, with no urging to finish earlier.  He set a target of 18 to 20 hours to complete the ride, but showed no sign of wanting to wind up early and get to bed. He was there to make sure I was safe and completed the ride. Period.

Riding long distances is hard work. My attention wandered and concentration wavered, and my body hurt. But the thought of quitting did not even enter my mind. All my energy went into keeping my wits about me. This made it easier because I could ride without worrying about success or failure. I knew I could and would stop if fatigue made it unsafe to ride. That meant my attention was taken up by monitoring my fatigue levels, not on success or failure.

Being in “the zone” and not worrying about success or failure is an unforgettable experience. I wish I could bottle that feeling and replicate it on demand. It is easy to be in “the zone” when the experience is new, the risks unknown, and the adrenalin provides the excitement and motivation. When the task at hand is not new, then boredom is the enemy. Pursuing new experiences as the only way to be in “the zone” is not scalable. More on this later.

Towards the end of the journey, I reflected upon the team work that goes into a long distance motorcycle ride. The casual observer may see motorcycle riding as an individual effort, the lone ranger on a quest for solitude. Starting with a wife who allows it, rider coaches who teach life saving skills, strangers who give energy in group rides, mechanics who tend to the bike, and the ecosystem of vendors who provide equipment, all ensure that motorcycle riding is not an individual endeavor. I resolved to show awareness, appreciation, and gratitude by riding safely and being a perpetual student of riding techniques.

It took a lot of preparation to ride 1,000 miles in one day. Regular visits to the gym, stretching, weight control, riding technique, research, planning, riding lessons, and practice runs were all part of it. Keeping Maggie in top shape, regular service, washing, and waxing, was not a chore, but a pleasure.

At the end of the ride, the silent nod and gentle smile from my rider coach was all the recognition I needed, as that was earned the hard way. Words are not needed. My friends cheered me on, whether they rode motorcycles or not. The knowledgeable people applauded the accomplishment, they knew how difficult this task is.

To my surprise not everyone was overcome with admiration. When I shared the event with my fellow riders on an email alias at work, a couple of them questioned my sanity. Fortunately, I was equanimous in my reply (I wrote back, "Long distance riding is not easy; it is not different from the challenge of activities that require endurance and stamina; it is not for everyone”). I took it for granted that my fellow riders will be open minded and embrace the idea, but in the end, I learned to accept that not everyone will find long distance riding appealing.

So why do it? The glib answer is, "because I can."

When the voice within says, "Do it", I follow my instinct. This is easy to understand for those who have followed their instincts, and very hard for those who have not. In the end, this is perhaps the best explanation for undertaking this audacious attempt.

Now what? Another itch has been scratched. Do I look for another itch? Or do I wait for an itch to develop? Was this an itch or something deeper? We’ll know soon enough.

You can track my motorcycle adventures on my Facebook page.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

The genesis of VMM

For those of you have been following the Facebook page on VMM, know that VMM is inspired by ZMM (Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (Pirsig, Robert 1974). If you have read ZMM, you know that VMM is very different. This blog post makes those differences explicit and explains the genesis of VMM.

The first difference is that ZMM is based on western philosophy, and VMM is based on eastern philosophy. This fundamentally guarantees that while they may sound similar, they will each have a unique thought process.

The second difference is that they both seek to answer different questions. ZMM explores the meaning and concept of quality. VMM seeks to explore the concept of "happiness" and "suffering" in the workplace. 

It is best to keep the differences to these two points for now. I have to explain VMM in more detail before any further comparison is meaningful, relevant, interesting, and useful.

Why motorcycles as a launching pad to communicate my ideas? It does not have to be motorcycles. Here are four classics for your consideration.


Each one explores a very specific task and provides practical and easy to follow explanation of how to enjoy the task (playing tennis, playing golf, working, playing music), improve your performance, and reach your potential. The goal of both Prisig and Galloway is to apply philosophy to problems that vex us. I have personally attained a "zen like state" when playing tennis and learned more about myself and life lessons just by hitting a fuzzy yellow ball. Alas, those moments were fleeting and not consistent enough for me to move beyond the "advanced beginner" status. You may not have played tennis, or golf, but the underlying principles of excelling at tennis and golf can be applied to any endeavor (as proven by The Inner Game of Work and The Inner Game of Music). What you need is an open mind and an ability to learn from metaphors, comparisons, and abstractions.

If you don't like sports similes, here are some other classics that are along the same lines. The following are my personal favorites. Warning: these take a lot of work to read and understand.


These books explore the relationship between physics, mathematics, art, and philosophy. They are not for the faint of heart. Even if you don't read them I recommend you have them on your bookshelf to intimidate your visitors.

VMM explores concepts that are complementary to all the above classics. It uses the lens of Vipassana, which for now, we will define as "insight into the true nature of reality" (Rinpoche and Gunaratana).

Siddhartha Gautama (hereinafter referred to as Sid) a.k.a. Gautama the Buddha, cracked the code on "suffering" and explained how to overcome suffering. The teaching is elegant and the techniques effective. However, the practice in its pure form requires enormous discipline, which few humans have been able to show consistently.

VMM will explore how the teachings of Sid can be applied in the modern workplace. Storytelling has been used in almost every culture and religion to communicate values, teach right from wrong, provide guidance to solve problems, and build character. If done properly, motorcycles can provide to be a fun way to explain, engage, and transition to a hypothesis followed by explanations and evidence. The use of motorcycles to tell stories and communicate ideas is simply one of convenience. Besides, motorcycles are an area of interest for me, and that settles the matter!

While I believe everything that needs to be said about attaining happiness and eliminating suffering has already been said, what is needed is a simpler and more practical way to practice the teaching and bring lasting change in each one of us, so we can benefit from the wisdom already available. Consider this proposition: 
  • We do not need more or new wisdom, what we need is more insight, a step by step progressive approach, and the discipline to adopt habits that will bring us happiness.
Why should you care? For one thing, every human seeks to increase happiness and lower suffering in the workplace. If you do not wish to increase your happiness or lower your suffering at work, you need professional help. Please stop reading and get that help right away.

A second reason is that you probably spend most of your time at work. I define "work" broadly as almost any endeavor where you seek to meet goals of some kind, for which you earn an income. This excludes students, but includes trainees and interns who get a stipend. Take a look at how you spend your time. Any time spent not sleeping, eating, relaxing, and pursuing a hobby is probably time spent on "work." This is at least one-third of the day for the average person. Some workaholics take a break only to sleep, and work the remaining hours.

A third reason you should care is because you probably entered the workforce with skills to perform tasks. You were most likely not given the skills to be happy. Even with the plethora of self help content available today, there is no systematic way to prepare our youth who enter the workforce. Just thinking about the multitudes who go thru the motions at work, miserable and frustrated, is enough to depress even the most optimistic person. Each miserable person is interacting with, and sharing their misery with co-workers and customers, multiplying the misery in the world. 

To remove suffering in the workplace, we have to provide those who are entering the workforce with skills and somehow help those who have been overcome by cynicism after many years in the workforce.

For simplicity, the following assumptions will be made.
  • Suffering and happiness in the workplace impacts every single person, even those who are not employed. 
  • Organizations and nations are incurring costs and failing to meet their vision and charter because workers are unhappy. 
The business case for reducing suffering and increasing happiness is clear. Yes, proof and citations etc. are needed, but I doubt if anyone will disagree with the above assumptions.

Many barriers and hurdles are waiting to be overcome. Suffering and happiness are controversial topics. Therefore, we must start with clear definitions to understand the scope and propositions. There is an utter lack of appreciation for diversity, meaning, ideas that don't align with the reader's thinking pattern is likely to be rejected without due process. Therefore words have to be chosen carefully, not to "sell" ideas or to challenge, but to ensure that the ideas are given a fair hearing. We are surrounded by poor role models and being asked to change our behavior with few people to show us the correct behavior to reduce suffering and increase happiness is actually asking a lot. 

But reducing suffering and increasing happiness in the workplace is a worthwhile effort. If we simply make the effort to improve our lot, even if we do not succeed in our lifetime, the next generation will have some momentum to carry the torch to greater heights.

Stay tuned.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

What I learned from my first 3-day ride

The 3-day ride to Northern California was a spectacular experience. I better write down what I learned before I forget. Here are my key takeaways.

  • Long distance riding takes preparation. Prepare, but be spontaneous.
It is a myth that motorcycle riding is a free flow, unstructured, and "ride at will" endeavor. Yes, you can do that if you wish, but you will enjoy the ride more, and be safe if you plan out the route, set the destination, have an idea of how many stops etc. During the ride, you can spontaneously make changes, but those changes will be made against the baseline plan, therefore it is not as if the original plan has to be followed in a strict manner. Hotels may not be available especially if you plan to ride during holiday weekends. Or you may end up in a low quality hotel and pay a high price for staying there.
  • Long distance riding takes fitness.
Physical and emotional energy is required to ensure you can remain in the moment and focus on the ride for long durations. The three components of fitness are strength, flexibility, and endurance. Regular exercise at the gym or elsewhere, a balanced, healthy diet, and good sleep habits is the way to build your fitness.
  • Group dynamics have to be managed carefully.
A group ride involves people who may not have ridden before. You may be aware of the forming-norming-storming-performing cycle that teams go through. A group ride will go through the same cycle as they learn and adjust to each others preferences. Do not be quick to judge during the "storming" phase. In this phase, complaints, whining, and conflict leads to improved understanding, and compromises are made. It is not easy to change and adjust, and there is not enough time to complete this phase in a leisurely manner. The other option is to ride only with people you know, but that may not be an option or may limit your range of experiences. Be flexible and suspend judgement at all times.
  • Watch your body temperature.
If you get hot or cold, it will wear you down faster. Dress in layers and don't hesitate to raise your hand if you need to stop and adjust your clothing. Drink fluids to stay hydrated (caffeinated drinks will reduce your water levels, take it easy on coffee and soda). Pack several bottles of water and have a drink every time you take a break.
  • Take frequent breaks.
Experienced riders are loath to take breaks and prefer to time their breaks with the need to refuel. Most cruisers can ride at least 150 miles before they need fuel. Since a gas station will not magically appear when you need it, you will need to fill every 110 to 120 miles. However, you may not last that long. It is better to stop than to cramp, because cramps will ensure you cannot maneuver your bike and that may lead to a crash. Even if you are able to stop, you may not be able to get off a heavy bike, and you may tip over. Therefore, ride with a group that is willing to stop when you need to, or don't go on group rides unless you can ride at least 100 miles without a break.
  • Get a good night sleep.
Rest is crucial. Unless you are competing, you will need a lot of rest. Take it easy on the drinking and partying at the end of a long day of riding. Early to bed and early to rise is the preferred mode.
  • The point is to collect experiences.
If new experiences make you uncomfortable, long distance riding is not for you. Every incident is to be treasured. Every sensation is to be savoured. There is no "right" or "wrong," or "good" or "bad." The only things to watch out for are "safe" and "unsafe." Your fellow riders may not have the same philosophy, so you have to accommodate for that as well.
  • Take lots of pictures.
The guidance is learn how to take pictures quickly. Modern cameras and digital and have enormous capacity for photos. Take lots of pictures and delete the ones you don't need later. You only have to worry about composition and focus. Unless that is the purpose of your trip, there is no time to leisurely set up your tripod.
  • Keep your motorcycle in top shape.
This is so obvious, but I thought I'd mention it for completeness. Carry some basic tools if you think it will be handy during the ride.
  • Make sure your riding skills are ready for a long ride.
This is also another obvious one. Experienced riders will want you to ride at their pace, though they may agree to slow down a little for you if you are still getting comfortable riding at high speeds. Ideally, all riders are at the same skill level, that will reduce one cause of friction.
  • Don't pack a lot of luggage.
Your motorcycle will typically have saddlebags and a sissy bar bag. These have limited capacities, so pack the bare minimum you need for the trip. Travel light, and be prepared to wear the same clothes for a few days. I'd insist on showering and changing my underwear daily, otherwise, wearing the same clothes for several days is not as bad as it sounds. If you are fussy, stop at a laundromat and wash your clothes every few days.
  • When nature calls.
If you remain hydrated, you will need to use the bathroom on the same schedule. When riding through civilized terrain, you will have access to toilets with soap and water. If not, ask mother nature for forgiveness, and let her know that it is better that you do not damage internal organs by holding on too much. Might as well pack a toilet roll, soap, and water. On a practical note, your hands need to be super clean before you wear your gloves. (but you knew that already!)
  • Staying in touch.
During group rides, friendships may be formed. Nurture them after the ride. However, the next group ride may not capture the same magic, but you may end up with a different level of magic. Do not compare rides, even with the same group.

  • Use gizmos for improved productivity.
A GPS is indispensable.  If you can program your route in advance, do so. Smartphones that will post pictures to social media will allow you to communicate with your near and dear ones, who will know where you are, real time.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Fear: What to do about it

I've always been fascinated by motorcycles (insert your armchair psychologist explanation here). Several years ago, when a co-worker had a nasty accident on his motorcycle, my heart sank as I imagined myself getting into that situation. At that time, I determined that my riding days were over before they started.

This is an example of fear. And denying myself an opportunity to overcome fear.

Last year, I attended a keynote delivered by a former marketing manager from Harley Davidson. The flame was rekindled. But the fear, uncertainty, and doubt persisted. I asked myself, "Is this a good idea?" No matter what I tried, I could not shake this feeling off. I decided to wait it out to see which "feeling" would win.

This is not very different from the time I was about to ask my wife to marry me. This is an example of conflicting fears.

The desire to ride a motorcycle won. I took lessons, studied diligently, you can read about my preparation here.

Every time I rode my bike, I was on tenterhooks. While I was still functional, my awareness would rise to heights I did not believe were possible. It increased the joys of riding, but I wished I could ride without the nagging feeling of dread.

Then I crashed, with my son on the pillion. You can read about it here. During and after the crash, I felt a sense of calm. Perhaps the focus on problem solving was a distraction. I had to provide an explanation to my son's mother, get the bike home, make sure my friend was okay, and then get the bike fixed.

The fear persisted. I persisted with riding my bike.

This is an example of facing one's fears with a determination to find a resolution, and acceptance that it will take time, and this resolution has no timelines or deadlines.

I decided that my son will not ride pillion till I improved my riding skills.

Then I had a breakthrough. I took a class to improve my "slow riding" skills. I immediately saw why I crashed with my son on the pillion. I did not have the skills to take sharp turns at slow speeds on a heavy bike.

Instead of falling on grenades, meaning, facing your fear with pointless bravado, identify the skills you may be missing.

The following week, I signed up for a group ride on route 130, a challenging, twisty road that goes up to Lick Observatory in San Jose (see picture of destination above and map below). 

The organizer introduced the ride thus, "This is a great route to ride. Its about 40 miles in each direction, and there are about 120 turns/corners each way. This route is sure to challenge all riders and has some technical turns that are off camber, with an incline and about 120 degree turn radius. These very tight hairpins that include the incline/decline test a rider's ability to maintain focus, look through the corner, manage speed and throttle control and power through the corner without running wide or stalling mid corner."

I spoke to the organizer of the ride and asked, "Should I do this ride? Am I ready?" His answer was without hesitation, "Of course! You will enjoy it. You can do it." For some reason he had more confidence in me than I did.

It is okay to seek affirmation from others, but self-confidence will come only from within.

To cut a long story short, I completed one of the most challenging rides, and took the curves that led to my crash earlier with far greater skill.

The only way to build your self esteem is to accomplish something. Even if it means having to face your fears. The more you face your fears, the higher your confidence will rise.

The rest of the group were more experienced and soon I lost sight of them. I rode at my pace. The sweep (last rider in the group) and one other rider in front escorted me patiently as I made my way through the twists and turns.

If you are willing to work on your fears, the universe will automatically send help. Work at your pace and not at someone else's pace.

I did a few things to improve my ability to take the sharp turns that have a steep incline:

  • Rapidly dropped gears to improve my traction before a curve.
  • Used the rear brake to stabilize myself.
  • Did not use the front brake unless I had to.
  • Looked up and ahead through the curve, and did not look down.
  • Finally, the most important, I was prepared for and constantly on the look out for sharp turns that have a steep incline.
Trust is all well and good, but be vigilant and check things out for yourself. Just because the rider in front managed to navigate a curve with aplomb does not mean success is assured for me.

I still have to drop gears before entering a curve, not while I am in the curve, but the fact that I was able to complete the ride was a significant accomplishment for a person at my level of riding skills.

Now I was ready for the next stage of my development.

How to retain humility and constantly improve my riding skills.

As my rider coach summarized at the end of the ride, "Fear is not a bad thing. You cannot explain why it arises, and you cannot (or should not) make it go away. You have to learn how to manage it."

Words to live by.

Fear is a complex subject. Risk analysis, personal comfort, personal circumstances, and your context all play a role. No one can analyze all that but yourself. Perhaps even you cannot analyze all the variables. If you paused to do so, you would be paralyzed by inaction.

This is a plausible explanation for why faith, courage, and determination are encouraged and admired. Find your own way to overcome your fears. Build character along the way.

Most important tip, learn motorcycle riding from a trained and experienced rider coach, not from blogs like this one.