We Suck Less

I have been mulling over this post for a while – this statement is not “politically correct.”  But I find the topic both interesting and amusing – something that could be a Dilbert comic (of which I am a big fan).

Background.  Towards the end of my first rotation in Tengiz (back in July 2011) I developed a list of Improvement Opportunities for my group.  I shared this information with my back-to-back (b2b, the person I share the DE Supervisor position with) and the Lead Engineers that report to us.  Together with my b2b we obtained feedback from the Leads, prioritized the list and then used the list as a basis for areas or opportunities we wanted to improve on in 2012, mostly around getting work done (aka driving work to completion).  As of this writing (2Q2013) some of these improvements have been completed, others are in progress, and still others we have not begun work on or we have decided to work on something else instead (that is we continue to work on improvement opportunities in 2013).  Anyway, the point is we had a prioritized list of areas we wanted to improve.  Our primary focus has been either to reduce the effort it takes to get some part of the work done (efficiency) or reduce the duration of the work (schedule reduction).  We did not identify any high priority improvement opportunities around cost reduction as Tengiz is such a profitable operation that reducing engineering cost is not a driver – instead we were looking for ways to get more work done (of course to the same high quality standards).

To put this in context the type of areas we worked on were how to reduce the time to complete an engineering deliverable, or reduce the time to order and then receive engineered material, or become more efficient or standardize across the organization to complete a required engineering or regulatory review.  When I would probe for why we did things a certain way, in my not so subtle way, the Lead Engineers would become mildly defensive.  This would manifest itself by comments from the Leads such as – “well you should have seen it when I first got here, it was much worse.” or “if you think it takes us a long time to get this done, you should see how long it takes another group to get similar work completed.”

One day during an improvement discussion, after hearing a similar tangential explanation for the umpteenth time, I responded  “so what you are telling me is we suck less?”  After a short pause both the Lead and I had a good laugh – yeah, that is what we were saying – either it used to be worse or someone else does it worse today.   These 3 words in a short and to-the-point statement recognizes that effort was being made but further improvement was possible for the specific opportunity.  Saying it out loud made me realize that I was not giving enough recognition / credit to what had been done before, and also helped the Lead realize that further improvement was possible / needed.  From that day on when I would observe our discussions veering off to these type of explanations I would say “I’m hearing we suck less again” and then guide the conversation back to what was needed to improve going forward.

For a period of time it became a bit of a running joke, and the Leads would sometimes preface a discussion by saying, “this is a we suck less topic.”  It has fallen out of use over the last couple months partly because we have been making improvements and (hopefully) because I am giving more credit to the improvements that were previously implemented.

What I find interesting is the human nature of this type of explanation.  It appears to me that when a person is being put on the defensive when exploring an improvement they invariably bring up that it was worse before or that someone else does it worse, potentially hoping that by comparison they do not look so bad?  I say this is human nature as I have seen this behavior in my own family.  I have three sons and not too long ago I was reprimanding my youngest who responded by pointing out that his two older brothers had screwed up more often and more severely.  I responded by saying that I recognize that he “sucked less” than his brothers (at least at his current age) but he was still in trouble and needed to stop whatever we were talking about.

A related human nature is gaining some level of satisfaction watching others, either individuals or groups, struggle. The observer may be unable to ascertain if the struggle is due to the challenging nature of the work, or the competency of the worker, but it is usually fairly obvious that struggles are occurring (failure is visible)   It appears irrelevant if the observer could do this work better or not (though familiarity may increase the satisfaction).  The human nature I observe is by watching others struggle an individual or group realizes some level of job satisfaction.  I call this “job satisfaction by comparison with no effort,” the best kind!

A complimentary benefit is when others struggle through situations the attention of management (or parents) is typically diverted to this situation.  This allows those that are not involved to stay “below the radar” and by comparison look good.  Sometimes I refer to this as the warm body comparison – just showing up and not struggling you may appear to be doing better than others.  My middle son explained this succinctly by saying “I’m happy that I have an older brother because I just need to show up and I look good.”  Of course I pointed out that he could do better (in school, in sports, in keeping his room clean) but for the most part it falls on deaf ears – he is very satisfied with the comparison of messing up less / doing better in school than his older brother with minimal effort.

So be honest, have you ever smiled internally when faced with a “We Suck Less” moment?

Night in Detroit

My travel plans for Wednesday 13 February looked good – heading HOME after rotation #11.  Weather was clear in Atyrau Kazakhstan, scheduled to leave at 7:30 am.  Scheduled five hour flight to Amsterdam with an 80 minute layover.   Then on a non-stop KLM flight to SFO, scheduled to arrive at 12:30 pm.  If all things went well I would then catch BART to Orinda, take a taxi home, put my things away, maybe even run an errand and then pickup Andrew from the bus stop at 4 pm.  I think it is so cool to leave Kazakhstan at 7:30 am and arrive in the Bay Area at 12:30 pm.

It did not go as planned.

When I got up in the morning at Atyrau Transit Hotel (ATH) I learned the flight to Amsterdam was delayed – no explanation but advised that it would  now depart at 10 am.  Damn, there goes the non-stop flight to San Francisco.  Good thing I had held onto the guest office key at ATH; went had breakfast then over to the office to get on-line.  So I finished a couple work notes / documents things I did not get done the  night before, that I had planned to handle once I got  home.  Probably better I did as it was still fresh in my mind.  Wrapped it all up in about two hours and then developed a list of priorities for my next rotation (feeling pretty on top of things at work).  Then I looked over my list of things I would like to do / get done when I get home (am sure Karen will add to it but good to have a plan).  Someone popped their head and told me the flight to Amsterdam would not depart until 10:40 am.  So about 9:30 I shut off the computer and walked over to the airport.

I startled myself when I saw that everyone had already checked in.  Thought maybe the flight was actually going to leave at 10 am as I originally had heard, that I misunderstood the message from the guy who poked his head in my office.  So I walk up to the counter and they tell me the flight will depart at 10:40 but they have NO business class seats left.  Great.  Now I have to ride economy and no free beer.  They said they would give me a beer :).  I did get my own row in economy so was able to nap a bit – otherwise an unevental trip to Amsterdam.

Go to the KLM transfer desk, explain the situation (delayed flight) and they rebook me on a flight to Detroit, then on to San  Francisco.  Flight leaves in about 3 hours so I  head over to KLM  lounge.  Eat  some  snacks, read the paper, drink a few Heinekens (are you seeing a theme here?), even take a shower (which was a nice refresher, good  way to kill some time).  I leave  the lounge about an hour before the fllight to Detroit is supposed to depart, then find out it is delayed about an  hour.   So I go back to the KLM lounge, another Heineken, charging of electronics, and then head to the departure  gate.

The flight I am on is operated by Delta who  is a partner with KLM. I usually think Delta is not as nice as KLM, especially since KLM gives out their cute  KLM porcelian  houses (which I now will only have 21 vs. the 22 times I have  gone back and forth to Kazakhstan – yeah I’m a bit crazy about collecting KLM houses).  But this is a nice Delta flight – the seats in business class lie flat and are positioned such that you have maximum privacy.  So I read a bit, eat the meal, take a sleeping  pill, and sleep for about 4 hours.  I woke up once, then fell back asleep.  The crew was nice, kept  bringing me waters (all those beers deyhdrated me). I would be happy to take that flight again if I had to.

So we land in Detroit, I find  a Delta Lounge so I can have a snack  and charge my iPhone.  Lounge is not as nice as KLM lounge in Amsterdam (chairs not as comfortable) but it’s fine.  I drink coffee (enough with the beer as I still have another 4+ hour flight ahead of me), make some calls home so family knows I am in the USA, and then  read, browse the internet, even write some random thoughts about family and  work.   I adjusted my watch to Chicago time and would  periodically look  at it – planned to head for the gate about an hour early.  At what I thought was 7 pm I gathered everything  up and  noticed my iPhone said 8 pm.  Oh no,  I set my watch wrong.  I rushed to the gate  but as expected  the flight had already left – I missed my damn connection.  Detriot is New York (eastern) time zone, not Chicago (central) time zone.

Now I slowly walk back across the terminal to the Delta customer desk, tell them it was my fault missing the flight, and they said they will just book me for tomorrow (no change fee since I was travelling business class).  Not sure why but it took over an hour to arrange the flight for the next day.  While waiting I asked the desk agent where I should stay and she said, oh let me take care of that for you.  She gave me a voucher to the Best Western where Delta crew stays, complimentary (so my mess up did not cost me any money, just time).  So I found the shuttle and headed over to the hotel.  Had a grilled cheese in the hotel bar with a couple more Heinekens, and off to bed.  Woke up at 4 am, took a hot bath (can’t remember the last time I have done this), cleaned / organized my back pack, and then wrote  this entry.  Boring huh?  And you thought there would be something of interest about Detroit in this entry.

Now I am going to grab some  breakfast, then  head to the airport.  Will just sit at the gate for two hours – do not  want  to miss this flight.

So what did I learn?  Make sure you know what time zone you are in, even when you are tired.  I also learned that even though I screwed up I did  not take it too hard, mostly let it go.  Makes me realize I should be less hard on the kids when they screw up.

My Friend Jeremy

Updated

If you have checked Jeremy’s website, you have learned that he passed away on 19 August 2013.  His doctor thought he would live six months when he was first diagnosed, he made it about eight.  When you read his blog (link below, it still works as of January 2014) he had ups and downs, but figured out how to live the last few months of his life to the fullest, just like he led his life before his diagnosis.

Several people have sent me condolences – I really appreciate this.  I did get a chance to see him each rotation home – unfortunately I was not able to attend his memorial service as I had just traveled back to Kazakhstan.  The visit in late May 2013 he shared how he was arranging his donations, particularly the orphanages in Laos he supported.  We went out for a walk that visit – picture below is with our common friend Mike – Jeremy in the middle.  My last visit in early August was with his great friend Andrea – we hung out and ate a little, drank some wine and Jeremy talked about how he was giving away all of his possessions to his family and his friends.  He had put a lot of thought into making sure his possessions went to people in need or would be special memory for the participant.  What is most impressive is he gave his home away to two friends who live in SF but cannot afford to purchase a house.  Generous to the end.

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Original Post

He is sick.  He is going to die, maybe soon.  He has pancreatic cancer.  He is the same age as I am, 55.

Jeremy started a blog when he found out he had cancer.  The site is www.cookeatgo.com; the user name is “viewer” and the password is “horsef***er” (fill in the * with the correct letters, just can’t make myself type it out).  Makes my blog’s password of “santa” seem kinda lame, but not shocking.  Jeremy is a good writer, never knew that about him.  I log onto it periodically to see how he is doing.  Recently he learned that the light chemotherapy he was taking is helping – said he was a chemo f***ing superstar, made me laugh.

So how does having a friend who has cancer feel?  Makes me wonder how I would handle it?   What can I do to comfort him?  I need to remember to take pictures of him when I see him next. Maybe we should go on a walk and take pictures everywhere – get strangers to take pictures of us together at various spots.  Karen and I are going to visit him on Sunday, go to Glide Memorial Church with him.  Just went to Glide before Christmas, enjoy the singing but get bored by the congratulatory statements on all the good they do – feels like an infomercial. I enjoy watching the people enjoying themselves, connecting.  Jeremy writes on his blog how much he likes going to Glide – believe he liked it before but looking into death it now has more meaning to him?

Thinking about Jeremy reinforces that I want to spend time with my children, just be with them, and enjoy them.  Let go of my need to get things done and just be around them to connect and share.  Guess when a person contemplates their mortality you realize it’s the relationships that make life worth living, not the wealth or job or prestige.  Also makes me think I would like to retire sooner than later, spend time doing what I enjoy doing vs. the “stuff” that goes with working for a large company.  But that said I enjoy lots of my career with Chevron, including the people and the challenges.

So now this getting to be about me, and not Jeremy. I’m going to call him as soon as my flight lands in San Francisco and ask how he is doing.

Additional Comments

I wrote this entry while travelling home from Kazakhstan in mid-February.  We did go to Glide Memorial Church (http://www.glide.org/) with Jeremy on 17 February – he had other friends there too.  We then went out to lunch with him – learned about his travel plans and how his chemo is going (has multiple trips planned and the chemo is going great).  Will plan an outing with him next time I am home in April.

22246-183Here is a picture of Jeremy at our wedding in 1991.  We have been friends since 1981.  I remember once going to a party at his house (he’s a great host) and he introduced me as follows: “This is my friend Marc.  We have been friends so long he knew me when I was poor, fat and straight.”

 

We Are So Proud – Eagle Scouts

The following is a speech deliverd by Jeff Kelley at an Eagle Scout ceremony in January 2013:

Ben Johnson, Aaron Lee, Diego Rocha, Zane Samuel, Spencer Wright, and AD Will-Arrego. Congratulations on your success in earning the highest rank in scouting. I speak for the adult leaders of Troop 202, present and past, in saying that we know what you went through to earn this award, and we are justly proud of your accomplishments. I take great pleasure in this public acknowledgement of your success here today. But as your Emeritus Scoutmaster, I’d like to add a few cautionary words about success.

Most of us know that success is just the flip side of failure. One might argue that success isn’t success unless it costs us something close to what it’s worth. If it comes too easy, success begins to seem normal and loses its meaning in our lives. The process of becoming an Eagle Scout is fraught with pitfalls; it’s not meant to be easy, it’s meant to mean something, and meaning – in spite of all the cultural messages to the contrary, especially those directed toward the young – meaning is never merely success. It is, perhaps, significance of purpose, purchased at the risk of possible failure.

During this holiday season it is fitting to observe that your generation is bombarded with messages about wealth, consumption, status, style, fashion, attitude, and success.

I wonder, though, how much you hear about meaning. For if meaning is bound up with significance of purpose and its attendant risk, then there’s something else you’ll need to take with you from this place: humility. Be humble enough in your moment of accomplishment to look around you, and you will see the most important people in your lives gathered here today in your honor. Be justly proud. At the same time, look inside yourselves and you will know that the rank you now carry you did not earn alone.

If I may speak for the adults in your lives – and as one of them – let me say that what I think what we want our kids right now is to be real. To understand that the world is bigger than their personal egos and desires. That there is real danger and real hope. That trivial things are just trivial things, and that achievements of significance are hard, take time, and can only be earned.

Ben, Aaron, Diego, Zane, Spencer, Adrian – you have earned this moment – hold it close – you’ve waited a long time for it – you’ve come from far away to get it – keep it with you for the rest of your lives – keep in mind those of us who brought you here – we remember when you came – we remember when you were small – it is hard to let you go now – but we are so proud!

My Additional Comments:

Both my son Zack – friends of these boys – and I were in attendance at this Eagle Scout Ceremony.  This speech by Jeff brought tears to my eyes – his eleqouance and heart-felt words were incredibly special.  The entire ceremony was special – there was a slide show for each boy / young man, and they each also delivered a speech.  As I type this I get a little emotional thinking about these boys, their families and my own children and family – and reflect on what is meaningful in life.

I have known 5 of these boys, Ben, Aaron, Diego, Zane and Spencer for about 10 years.  I was their Den Leader (or Cubmaster)  in Cub Scouts (Pack 295 in Oakland) for each of the 5 boys, and also a soccer coach for 4 of the boys over multiple seasons.  I have a lot of shared memories of these boys growing up: Pinewood Derbies; campouts; Blue & Gold Dinners; Crocker Carnivals; soccer practices, games and playoffs.  Zack completed Cub Scouts in Spring of 2005 – he joined Boy Scouts Troop 202 in the Fall of 2005 but did not stick with it partly because we have moved from Oakland to Orinda.

Den 2 Cub Scouts 4 (021103)

This is a photo from early 2003 – the boys are showing off their Pinewood Derby cars.  In the front row, starting from the left is Aaron, Zack and Diego – Ben is on the far right.  Spencer is fifth from left in the second row.  My guess is Zane did not join Pack 295 until the next year.

 

 

I am impressed by Ben, Aaron, Diego, Zane and Spencer, and their families, for completing the Boy Scouts program and earning the Eagle Scout rank.  It takes effort, perserverance, and support – all skills that will help them be successful in adulthood.  And I am pleased with my contributions – I was part of the “village” that helped raise them.

 

Message From Andrew (Again)

Hi!! It’s Andrew again! Life has been boring without my Dad! I really miss him! I need to spend more time with him and show him my love more. I’ve been too involved in my video games to spend enough time with him and show him the appreciation he deserves for being a great father! I really love you Dad, even if sometimes I don’t show it and I stay involved in my video games instead of with you. I feel bad and I tear up thinking about how one day you will be gone and I will regret not spending time with you. Dad, I really love you and I hope you never leave me! 😉

Shaking Hands – Culture Differences

Here in Kazakhstan there is a lot of hand shaking going on.  The culture is very friendly and you see many Kazakhs greet each other with a hand shake.  A group of guys will be standing together and another person shows up, and the new comer will go around and shake everone’s hand.  Many times one of the Kazakh engineers in my group will walk by me down the hall and they will reach out and shake my hand, as a friendly greeting.  This happens several times each day.

In the US, hand shaking is more formal.  In the Western culture hand shaking is typically reserved for an introduction, or maybe sealing a deal or agreement.  We were taught (by our Fathers) to have a firm handshake (the firmer the better) and look the other person in the eye.  I reflect that I drilled my own sons that when they meet someone they should deliver a very strong handshake, look them in the eye, and say “My name is Andrew (for example), it is nice to meet you.”  I had another parent tell me one of my son’s is a great kid, based upon his first introduction where Zack had a very firm handshake and looked this parent in the eye (which reinforces the adage “You never get a second chance to make a good first impression.”)  I took great pride in this feedback.

Recently I had a career discussion with one of the engineers in my group.  As he left my office I reached out and shook his hand.  Of course I demonstrated a firm handshake while his was noticibly less strong.  I reflected on this as I think very highly of this engineer – know he is a sharp and engaged individual.  This is when I tumbled to the realization that hand shaking is much more informal here in Kazakhstan – it is more a friendly greeting.  Kazakh’s do not use handshakes to impress others or indicate their “manliness.”  Instead of a wave or a nod like in the US, they instead greet each other with a shake.  But it is a light shake, not a firm “nice to meet you” shake.

So I have resolved to soften my handshaking in Kazakhstan – I’m in their culture not mine.  Maybe some day I can convince them to perform a knuckle bump (it’s more hygenic) but for now will just remind myself there is no need to impress, it’s only a friendly greeting.

It’s So Cold My Eyeballs Hurt

Returning to Kazakhstan in mid-December I expected it to be cold, but it’s really cold.  I continue to walk between the living accommodations (SV) and work location (TCOV) each day, but when it is cold AND windy my eyeballs hurt.  I wear a sweatshirt, heavy jacket with hood, beanie, and gloves.  On a couple days I even wore my insulated coveralls (that you use to go into the plant with) home.  But you still need to see where you are walking.  I have resorted to wearing my safety glasses when I walk, to keep the wind from driving into my eyes.  I guess I could bring some ski goggles, but that would seem pretty nerdy.  So instead, if it is really windy, I take the bus.

Christmas Dinner

I had Christmas Dinner with the Maintenance Manager and Process Engineering Supervisor tonight in dome 3 canteen.  Not many of the locals here celebrate Christmas but they do like holidays because it means people getting together and having a special meal.  So they decorate, and have a nice spread on the holidays here – there was shrimp and lobster, ham and turkey, and some good cheeses.  I usually eat my dinner in my room at night but it was a pleasure to socialize a bit, particularly on Christmas.  But now it’s back to my room, as tomorrow is another work day.  I worked most of the day on Christmas – facilitated a meeting, did some follow-up, wrote the meeting notes.  Just another day in Tengiz.