Automate, Accelerate, Optimize, but first, Delete

“I think it’s very important to have a feedback loop, where you’re constantly thinking about what you’ve done and how you could be doing it better. I think that’s the single best piece of advice: constantly think about how you could be doing things better and questioning yourself.” – Elon Musk

The Tesla Model 3 production line was too slow. Demand was high but delivery was low.  The entire line was being delayed by one particular step in the battery production line.  Specifically, it was a step where a fiberglass mat was added between the battery pack and the floor pan.  Elon Musk talks about the focus that was suddenly placed on this choke point.  In an interview he gave, he says he was basically living on that production line until they could get it fixed.

Automate, Accelerate, Optimize. To address the constraint in the system that was choking the throughput, Elon goes on to explain how they focused on the automation.  To make the robot better, they adjusted the programming.  They increased the speed from 20% to 100%, optimized the paths it would take, increased the torque, removed unnecessary motion and reduced the amount of product needed.  Instead of spackling glue on the entire mat, they programmed it to deliver dabs of glue that were just enough to hold it in place, sandwiching it between the battery pack and floor.  These all added up to some minor time savings.

After investing a lot of time into the efficiency improvements, it occurred to Elon that he didn’t even know the reason for these mats.  He asked the battery safety team, “Are these mats for fire protection?”  They answered, “No, they are for noise and vibration.”  He then went to the noise vibration analysis team and asked them, “Are these mats for noise reduction?”  They answered, “No, they are for fire safety.”  

“I’m trapped in something like a Kafkaesque or Dilbert cartoon!”  Elon discovered the mats had no reason to be included.  After verifying with testing, they eliminated the unneeded parts that were choking the Model 3 production line.  Production throughput increased.

How many times have you optimized a bit of code, a process or a system only to finally realize that the best optimization was to simply delete it?  Before we take on some new work, a new project or even an improvement effort, ask yourself and others, “Do we even need this?”  We all have limited time and resources.  Some upfront investment in validating the real need can pay material dividends.  Seek to eliminate waste.  Instead of focusing on improving unneeded processes, let’s focus our efforts on things that deliver real value and outcomes.  

Before automating, ask yourself if the time investment will deliver more value than we put in.  Before accelerating, ask yourself if the haste will actually eliminate waste.  And before improving something, ask yourself if we should just delete it instead.  Challenge assumptions so we can ultimately deliver bold results that matter.


“True heroism is remarkably sober, very undramatic. It is not the urge to surpass all others at whatever cost, but the urge to serve others at whatever cost.” – Arthur Ashe

It was an early and cool September morning.  I arrived at our small civil engineering office in Tulsa a little after 7:30am.  The survey crew had just left the building to stake out one of our new projects.  Thankfully they left a half pot of brewed coffee for the rest of us.  I logged in to my AutoCAD station with my cup of coffee and started planning my day.  The phone rang.  It was my wife, Jane, on the other end of the line, who added, “You need to turn on the news, a plane just crashed into the World Trade Center!”  Our first thought was our family in New Jersey, especially my brother-in-law who worked in downtown Manhattan at the New York City Rescue Mission.  He took the Path trains and Subways in and often exited at World Trade before walking to the Mission.  I wondered if he was there and if he was safe.

I quickly told the other engineers in the office what I had just heard.  One of the offices had and old CRT style TV and we managed to get it to work.  It looked a bit like a relic from the old Jetsons cartoons, complete with a bizarre looking antenna adorned with aluminum foil balls to somehow coax a better signal.  It rarely worked.  Thankfully however, this morning it picked up our local ABC station, and that was perfect.  The World Trade Towers were full screen, with smoke billowing out of the North Tower.  The entire office had gathered in the room.  We were glued to the screen listening to GMA anchors Diane Sawyer and Charlie Gibson verbalizing the same questions we all had. What was happening?  How could this happen?  

As we watched, a second plane entered the screen and crashed into the South Tower!  “We are under attack!”  That was the general sentiment in the room.  People started making phone calls to friends and family.  Nearly an hour later and we were all still glued to the news.  The Pentagon attack, then The South Tower collapsed, followed by the North Tower.  We watched the unbelievable footage of first responders, firefighters bravely rescuing people from the towers, many sacrificing their own lives.  Citizens were helping other citizens.  All of us TV bystanders felt a tug to reach through the screen and join the effort.   We couldn’t, so we just watched and watched and watched.  For the next several days and even weeks, everyone around us seemed to be plugged in to the news feed.  Offices, homes and even restaurants were all running the 24×7 coverage of the attack. The event had captured the entire conscious of the nation had awakened our hyper focus.

What was your experience on 9/11?  I will never forget that day or the weeks following.  It changed us.  Yes, we were suddenly remined at how vulnerable we can be.  But more importantly, it taught us how good we can be.  In a crisis, heroes emerge.  They enter the scene not for the drama or the recognition, but to answer the call to save and serve others.  Many did so at the cost of their own lives.  Would we do the same?   Not that we will all be asked to run into burning high-rise buildings, but we can all answer the call to serve others, help each other, and carry each other through tough times.  It’s a job that always has openings.  

In case you are wondering, my brother-in-law never made it in to work that day.  He had missed his train to accommodate some visiting relatives.  It was a frustrating inconvenience that turned into a grace.  He spent the next several months helping others, providing food, clothing and shelter from the rescue mission.  He was a hero too.


It was a hot and humid summer day.  My hands were sweating and it wasn’t just because of the heat.  It was my first job and I was terrified.  I had been hired by Calvin, a local farmer, to help mow and bale hay on his fields.  He had hundreds of acres, some cattle, horses and a barn.  We were standing in a field with tall grass that was nearly up to my armpits.  I was listening intently to his instructions.  Parked before us was a huge yellow beast.  The enormous tractor had towering wheels that were as tall as my scrawny 12-year-old self.  I kept thinking, “This is a really bad idea!”

“You can do it!  Climb up,” Calvin said enthusiastically with a broad smile.  I climbed up the yellow mountain and sat in the well-worn black leather seat.  I could hear and feel my heart pounding in my ears.  He climbed up next to me.  “Now step on the clutch and turn the key.”   He pointed at the big metal petal on the left.

My leg was shaking uncontrollably as I stepped on the clutch.  The pedal went down with a loud satisfying clunk.  My relief was short lived as the pedal pushed back at me with enormous force.  It reminded me of one of those spring riders you could sit on as a kid at the McDonalds playground.  Just about the time you thought you had wrestled it to the ground, it would whiplash you back up with incredible speed.  The same happened with the pedal.  It literally shot me out of the seat.  Calvin burst out laughing.  I grabbed the steering wheel with my sweaty hands. Using that leverage, I was able to mash the pedal down again.  It stayed!  “Good job!” he exclaimed, “Now turn the key.”  I did.  The entire beast roared to life.  I was somewhat relieved to think that my nervous shaking was suddenly masked by the bone jarring violent rattling of this yellow dragon.  Calvin began working a lever on the console that revved up the engine.  “You want to set it at this RPM,” he said, pointing at the tachometer.  It smoothed out.

“Now, put it in first gear,” Calvin motioned to the gear shift, “and let out the clutch slowly.”  My brain refused to accept those instructions.  I managed the gear shift, but there was absolutely no way there would be any “slowly” about my ability to let out the clutch.  The death grip I had on the steering wheel had turned my knuckles white.  “You can do this!” he coaxed.  The next part is a bit blurry in my memory.  I tried.  My foot edged back slowly, shuddering and shaking, until my muscles finally surrendered.  Pow!  Kaboom! The leviathan leaped forward nearly hurtling Calvin and I off the beast.  But thankfully, it stopped as suddenly as it began.  I had popped the clutch and killed the engine.  I was convinced I had also just emptied my entire bladder in the well-worn leather chair.  My face was flush and I didn’t know if I should laugh or cry.  I was sure I broke it and Calvin was going to be angry.  I looked over at Calvin.  He was laughing so hard he couldn’t breathe.  I laughed too.

“Well, son, we are going to need to build up the muscles in those skinny legs of yours before we can get much further,” Calvin said with a grin.  With a glimmer in his eye, he added, “You will be driving that thing before you know it!”  I was given instructions to sit on the yellow beast and just work on pushing down the clutch until I could do it smoothly.  “I’ll come back for you at lunch.”  Calvin jumped off and headed to the barn.

Needless to say, I was relieved.  I followed his instructions until I could execute it without failure.  He was right.  It wouldn’t be long before I was mowing and baling hay.  I worked all summer and even returned to help the following summer.  Calvin made a big impression on me.  He taught me how to drive a tractor, but more importantly, he taught me about encouragement and trust.  I think back to those moments where I was afraid, uncertain and unskilled, yet I had a friendly guide who believed in me.  He firmly and patiently encouraged me to go beyond my ability and do something greater, something I didn’t even believe I could do myself.  He taught me to face my fear and turn setbacks along the way into humor and teachable moments.  

I’ll always remember that big yellow beast, my somewhat soiled pants and those dusty hot summers on the farm.  But most of all, I will remember Calvin.  He taught me the power of encouragement and trust.  Be a Calvin.  Encourage someone today!

Sunday Scaries

“Sometimes life hits you in the head with a brick. Don’t lose faith. I’m convinced that the only thing that kept me going was that I loved what I did. You’ve got to find what you love… Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work.” – Steve Jobs

Sunday scaries, anyone?  This weekend I happened to come across an article that talked about how the majority of workers and students are often seized by anxiety, dread and sadness that the weekend is ending and Monday is on the way. The uncertainty and the dread of the new week can effectively consume and ruin the whole Sunday.  Have you ever experienced that?  I have.  It can be something as simple as, “Oh no, I need to get ready for that thing on Monday!”  Or it can be, “I wonder what new monster or demon is waiting for me in my inbox or possessed some time slot on my calendar?” 

Living for the weekend?  I have fond memories of a security guard in one of our offices who loved to remind everyone on their way to the elevator, how many days we had until Friday.  His sympathy for the first of the week and growing enthusiasm past “hump day” was simply delightful.  I always looked forward to seeing his smiling face, regardless of the day.  He was channeling the feeling that so many of us felt, counting down the days until the freedom of the weekend.  But, if we measure our quality of life by the 2 of 7 days, we are only living 29% of our potential.  

I love working for a company that creates happiness.  What we do is great work.  The magic we ship delights, informs, entertains and inspires people all over the world.  More importantly, I love working with our amazing teams.  So, why do we face the Sunday scaries?  I noticed that there were things I could do to minimize if not remove those scaries.  I’m still learning and adjusting, but I wanted to share with you some of the tricks I found to help make the workweek more like the weekend.

Plan.  The biggest spike of anxiety for me was a sense of being unprepared for the week.  At first, I started logging in on the weekend to prep for the week. This was a bad idea.  Not only were the scaries robbing my joy on Sunday, I was suddenly working 7 days a week and setting a terrible example for my team.  I changed.  I started investing time on Friday, including booking time for myself to go through the following week.  I look through and adjust meetings.  I create new meetings and add planning time to give myself time to review each day before it gets started. If I need to work on a project the following week, I will create a “placeholder” template document or start a list of “to do” items.  I also ensure I create space on my schedule for the following week to start the day with reflection, review and preparation. 

Transform dread into anticipation. I try to schedule some “fun” activities each week, and especially on Monday.  I also realized I was overbooking myself, not just on the weekdays but on the weekends as well.  I had to learn to be compassionate with myself, pacing my activities and treating myself with some leisure time.  Those things along with the planning, made an incredible difference for me.  I rarely dread Monday now and even have some sense of positive anticipation, wanting to dive into things I am ready to take on.  To be fair, there are still moments the scaries return, but they are fewer and easier to defeat.

How do you deal with Sunday scaries?  I would love to hear your own experiences and any discoveries you have made.  We are part of something special.  Let’s keep doing great things, and help vanquish the Sunday scaries along the way!

Mind the Gap

The London Underground, commonly known as “The Tube” is the oldest rapid transit system in the world.  A few years ago, during a summer before the pandemic, my family and I made our way to London for a vacation.  Our excursions almost always required at least one ride on the Tube.  We absolutely loved it.  It was incredibly convenient!  With just a little practice and a route guidance app, you can get just about anywhere in London with very little effort.

Anyone who has traveled the Underground quickly becomes familiar with the public service announcement, “Mind the gap!”  A loud audio warning is accompanied by visual signs to remind Underground passengers to take caution crossing the gap between the train doors and the station platforms.  For some of the older lines and stations this can be a significant gap which can include nefarious vertical steps.  Much to my chagrin, somewhere along my journey, my less than graceful physical skills caused me to bump my toe on one of those vertical gaps. I stumbled out onto the platform.  A friendly fellow passenger, concerned about my maneuver, smiled and repeated, “mind the gap.”  We both laughed and I shook my head walking off with my much-embarrassed family. 

Life is full of gaps.  Some of those gaps are risks that we must manage for ourselves and others.  Sometimes we see them and raise the alarm.  Other times, those warning signs are broadcast by experts.  Put on your seat belt.  Hot, don’t touch!  Wear safety goggles and other personal protection equipment (PPE).  Get vaccinated.  Walk carefully on wet slippery floors.  Don’t fly your drone around high voltage power lines.  

Another familiar public service announcement on the Underground is, “See it, say it, sorted.”  It’s a call to action to all passengers to report unusual activity to keep everyone safe.  As technologist, we are often in the front row seat to see systemic problems, reliability issues, security weaknesses, and the like.  Be on the lookout for those dangers and gaps.  Raise the alarm if you see a problem.  Often the issues are not just technical problems, but issues with process, support and usability.  Those are important too.  Improving inhumane experiences or user frustrating processes is like an ancient magic that unleashes incredible power and potential.  It also helps clumsy dads exit the Tube safely without bruising their egos.

As we journey from point to point on this adventure, we will spot gaps.  Our attention and expertise are needed to ensure we can continue to ship value… better, faster, safer and happier for everyone.  Mind the gap!

Eureka! Eureka!

“Eureka!  Eureka!” –  Archimedes

The famous Greek mathematician, physicist and astronomer, Archimedes had been given the task to verify that the king’s crown was made of pure gold.  The king suspected the goldsmith had somehow cheated him, perhaps by mixing in a cheaper metal like silver.  But he had no way of proving that so he asked Archimedes to figure it out. One day Archimedes was contemplating this problem while taking a bath. He happened to notice how the water was being displaced as he stepped into the full tub, spilling out all over the floor.  He remembered that silver weighs less than gold by volume.  It suddenly dawned on him that if he were to take the same amount of pure gold by weight as the crown, and put it into water, it should displace (spill) the same amount as the crown.  Archimedes was so thrilled with this discovery that he immediately hopped out of the bath and ran to tell the king, exclaiming “Eureka!” which means, “I found it!”.   In case you are curious, when Archimedes tested the crown, he discovered that it displaced more water than gold, indicating it was less dense (not pure gold).  So, indeed the king had been cheated by the goldsmith. You can probably guess what happened to the goldsmith!

Learning is hard.  There really isn’t a way around it.  If you want to learn something, it’s going to take effort.  I often use the excuse that the human brain is optimized to save energy.  We build models and synaptic connections to do things “without conscious thinking.”  We process huge amount of sensory data every day.  We are faced with a plethora of problems we need to solve. It would be overwhelming if it wasn’t for these optimized unconscious neural pathways that allow us to sort, react and perform our tasks without much thought.  

Learning builds more capability.  At some point in our past, we learned something new and, Eureka!  That learning was forged in our brains.  It allowed us to perform our duties while we engage our higher brain functions for more important tasks like daydreaming, pondering the next season of Loki, or wondering what’s for dinner.  Ok, so maybe those aren’t more important tasks, but you get the idea.  By leveraging our learning, we expand our capacity to respond well to incoming tasks, difficult challenges, complex changes and even enjoyable exercises. 

Learning builds on learning.  I know that sounds a bit meta, but if you examine your own experience, you know that learning builds pathways to future learning. I remember the first time I learned to program a computer.  It was hard!  I was 12 years old and wanted to make my new computer display a Christmas tree for the holidays.  Somewhere in the midst of typing in some code from a Dr. Dobbs Journal article, a Eureka moment hit and I understood the procedural flow that was happening.  I had looked at more advanced programming techniques but they were out of reach for me, at least until I hit that Eureka moment.  Suddenly that complexity was unlocked.  That eventually led me down the path to discover microprocessor design, compiler construction and operating system development.

I recently purchased some dev kits, including a LIDAR kit.  This past weekend I decided to learn how to use it to image my room as a stepping stone to my larger robotics navigation project.  The funny thing about learning is that it often takes you on roads you didn’t expect to go.  LIDARs are basically spinning measuring devices that use a laser to measure distance and send back angle and distance data.  I wanted to visualize what the LIDAR was reading but the kit didn’t provide any imaging tools.  So, I decided to learn OpenGL to render the output on my Mac. That became an exercise in itself but by the end of the weekend, I had a working project (see  It was challenging and frustrating at times.  But as with any good learning effort, I had a Eureka moment that unlocked excitement and plans for future learning.  I’m looking forward to the next phase!

What are you learning?  When was the last time you had a Eureka moment?  If you haven’t already, make plans this week to tackle something new to learn.   Keep learning!


“Direction is much more important than speed.” – Anonymous

Two weeks ago, I sent out my update from Walker Lake in Minnesota where we were visiting with family.  We were in the middle of our two-week 6,000-mile driving adventure across the US.  We passed through California, Arizona, Colorado, Nebraska, South Dakota, North Dakota, Minnesota, Iowa, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, and New Mexico.  Whew!  That’s a lot of distance to travel by car, but thankfully we were able to travel at 70-80 mph most of the way.

With a family of five, as you can imagine, there were plenty of stops along the way.  For the most part, I have a good sense of direction, but the thing about a long drive is that the roads, exits, hotels, and fuel stations all start to look alike after a while.  If you’re not careful, you may end up getting turned around and going the wrong way.  I recall one particular bio-break stop where I ended up on the wrong onramp, heading East instead of West.  Thankfully there was a quick exit and turnaround.  If I had made that miscalculation in one of the Dakotas, I may have been stuck on that road going the wrong direction for 50 miles!

I love going fast!  Seeing the world move quickly beneath you as you arrive at your destination is exciting and rewarding.  But when you make a directional error and end up 100 miles off course all that excitement morphs into a sick feeling of failure.  It occurs to me how much that applies to our work, projects, business and life.  Sure, there are measured risks we must take when we need to explore new directions, but most of the time we can quickly assemble enough data to select the right bearing.  That’s engineering.  My dad used to say, “Son, with engineering you assume a point of beginning and proceed with great accuracy.”  Like the scientific method, you begin with a thoughtful plan, act, measure and make corrections.  My recent road trip reminded me how important it was that we plan, measure and correct when the vector is off.  Reaching the final destination demands that discipline.

What does your compass say?  Are you headed in the right direction?  Pull out the map and measure your position and trajectory.  Are you going where you want to go or do you hear the GPS suggesting a “next legal U-turn”?  It’s never too late to alter course, especially if your goal is to arrive at the right destination.  I challenge you all this week to think about your destination and the direction you need to go to get there. 

Bitter or Better?

“You can be bitter or you can be better.” – Alice Zahnow

I love getting a slice of lemon or lime with my iced water.  Once I asked for a water with lime and the waiter brought out a water with a strong shot of lime essence. It surprised me and was extremely bitter.  I couldn’t drink it.  Thankfully the table was equipped with some sugary sweeteners.  Suddenly, the bitter water turned into a delightful drink.  

So much of the time, what you bring to a situation makes all the difference.  Imperfect things with a positive ingredient can become something even better.  As we have been traveling and celebrating my mother-in-law’s life, it occurred to me that one of her favorite sayings applies to so much of life, “You can be bitter or you can be better”.  Disappointment, loss, change, hurts, worries and fears can all become opportunities to become better.  The crucial ingredient is you.  I recognize that we are experiencing a lot of change in our lives, family and work.  How you react, the attitude you bring, the faith you have, the actions you take, all determine your destiny, how we do as a people and the impact you can make on the world.

We only have a tiny amount of years on this planet. Don’t waste it.  Things happen to or around us all the time.  We can be bitter, or we can be better.  You only need to change the “I”.

See You Real Soon

“A ship in harbor is safe — but that is not what ships are built for.” – John A. Shedd

All lands, all attractions! With last week’s Disneyland Paris re-opening, once again the sun no longer sets on the Magic Kingdom. It’s hard to believe it has been over a year (17 months) since we could say that. And, as vaccination coverage increases and the COVID numbers improve, we are starting to see more restrictions lifted and some levels of “return to normal.”

My youngest is the last one in our family to be fully vaccinated. Tomorrow marks two weeks after her 2nd shot and we feel the relief and freedom that can bring. We are looking forward to traveling again and seeing more friends and family in person. While required safety measures at times, quarantining and isolation is not what humans are built for. It is amazing how well we adapted to make things work. We successfully deployed fully remote work. We adopted safe, masked and social distanced ways to safely and caringly pick up necessities. Things like Zoom and FaceTime became brilliant and sometimes lamented tools to stay connected with family and friends as well as work. But in the end, we all felt that missing part that even those of us who are introverted suddenly discovered we needed… in-person social interaction.

Humans are made to be with other humans. As a family of all sorts, strengths and sizes, as intelligent beings with our unique perspectives, personalities and pet-peeves, it turns out, we all need each other. I’m looking forward to setting sail once again on many more in-person voyages.

Hope to see you all real soon!

The Power of Relational Leadership

“A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.” – Winston Churchill

Commonwealth Dignitaries were in the room from all over the world. Guests from the Royal Family, members of visiting delegations, politicians and notable figures from across the globe had arrived to the extravagant dinner. It was set in the usual state dinner ceremony with lavish place settings and silver dishes and cutlery.  The evening was winding down.  Winston Churchill spotted a distinguish guest across the room stealthily stealing a silver salt shaker from the table.  He had slipped it into his pocket.  Winston promptly took the matching pepper shaker and slipped it into his own pocket.  He approached the gentleman and pulled out the pepper shaker and put it on the table.  In a sheepish way he whispered to the guest, “I think they’ve seen us. Perhaps we had better put them back.”  The dignitary flashed an embarrassed smile and did the same.

What could have escalated into an international incident was gracefully handled by the extraordinary statesman.  Winston knew that leadership wasn’t just about giving orders and enforcing rules.  True leadership demands connection and shared experiences.  He knew the best way to teach and persuade was from the shared trench, not the ivory tower.  In our increasingly polarized world, it is easy to sit at our place settings, casting judgements and issuing decrees.  You may be right, but how will it land?  Humans have difficulty hearing even good moral principles and science when they can’t relate to the messenger.  There is an old adage, “speak the truth in love.”  We fail to listen to each other because we fail to love each other.  Winston’s act of love had a cascading effect.  It reversed a crime, provided a dignified recovery for the guest and taught us all an important lesson in leadership.

I don’t know about you, but some people frustrate me.  It seems I try my best to convince them but they don’t seem to listen.  How can they ignore the facts?  Data doesn’t seem to matter to them.  They don’t respond.  I have come to realize that my impatience and unloving approach is not productive or effective.  I need to change.

As Theodore Roosevelt said, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”  Are you trying to persuade or convince someone?  Have you cast aside friends, family or co-workers because they seem unreasonable or unreachable?  As humans, we tend to dismiss anything that doesn’t come from our tribe.  That further polarizes all of us, our mental models and the ability to relate and work with each other. How do we overcome that?  Like Winston’s example, we have to go to where the others are, listen to them, learn from them and relate to them. 

This week, think about the opportunities you have to make an impact on others.  In what ways can you better connect with others, learning from them and teaching?  We are better together than apart.  Let’s do what we can to speak truth in love.  Strive to know other viewpoints, seek to understand and grow together in a positive way.