Constant's pations

If it's more than 30 minutes old, it's not news. It's a blog.

Sunday, May 08, 2005

LANL Internal Blog

What if there was an internal blog at Los Alamos? Imagine all the neat ideas, conference news, and ideas could be shared.

I heard about something and thought I’d pass on the idea.

It’s called an internal blog.

One of the disadvantages of having a public blog is that confidential [but important-to-share] information can’t get discussed.

Post-Nanos [PN], I’ve seen a lot of discussion about “what do we do now.” Rather than simply focusing on cost cutting, I thought I’d share the idea of an internal blog.

I wanted to then show the types of topics that could get shared across functional areas.

In other words, although budgeting might have a certain view on things, sometimes if the statisticians and physicists were kept in the loop, some of the challenges could get solved in their infancy.

I suspect what’s been going on is that there’s been too much stove piping and lecturing, and not enough sharing of information.

First, there’s the thing with conferences and classes. Have you ever heard about a conference, but wondered what happened. Sure, they’ve got minutes and people come back. But out of curiously, have you ever wondered what happened to the information?

People go to these schools, and they get trained on stuff. But how does that information get applied?

What an internal blog can do is share the good stuff.

For example, there’s something which the financial wizards are familiar with: EVMS. That stands for Earned Value Management System.

Ever wondered why you have to fill out the forms on what you were doing?

EVMS is basically a way of tracking what you did, and comparing it with what you planned to do.

But it also does something else. It looks at a third thing: What you got for what you did.

For example, let’s say your manager’s goal is to make 3 super-neat-light bulbs in a month. And they’re creating a new production produces.

And let’s pretend that each light bulb costs one dollar [$1].

That means your monthly budget would be how much?

Right: $3.

If at the end of the month I told you that you were 100% on track for budget that you had spent all the $3, what would you say?

Would you say, “Great”?

Would you ask, “Uh, what did we plan?”

Or would you ask, “Did we get any light bulbs for that $3?”

What if I told you we didn’t get any light bulbs?

Then what happens next month? Well, I’ve still got a requirement to make 3 light bulbs per month; so next month, I only have $3 to make 6 bulbs.

That means my efficiency-performance has to go from 0 to 200% of my plan. Is that likely?

And how long would it take to get back on track?

In the mean time, where do I get the resources to cover the requirement to get back on track?

See how this is: One small deviation is like pulling a chord on a sweater. One little ripple in one place can cause all sorts of changes.

Guess what? The way the software is designed, all the changes have to be manually adjusted.

That makes no sense.

On top of that, guess what? [You already know this] You have to fill out forms explaining the changes.

Wouldn’t it be nice if there was a quick way to do this?

The point being: If non-financial people understand financial stuff, the lab managers can provide inputs to the coders to create systems, tools, and products that will meet teh same financial goals, but do so in a way that makes sense for the user and decision maker, not just the budgeting people and auditors.

Imagine you’re sitting at your desk creating the next new gee-whiz device, and out of the blue, the President calls you on the phone and says, “Hey, we’ve got this box of something that just showed up. Laura doesn’t want to open it. Can you help?”

What you going to do? Tell George that you’ve got other things to do? Of course not.

But what about all your other stuff? All the programs that you’re also working on need to know that there’s going to be a delay. Then the calls go out.

Wouldn’t it be nice to have an auto-notify system so that your customers could know that you’re going to be late, and that the budget is dry because George called up?

That’s the thing with an integrated schedule. But who has time for that? You’re honest, you do the right thing.

Well, in the auditing world, auditors only do samples. Like your PhD’s can tell you with statistics, you don’t look at all the food in the grocery story. You just take a random sample.

That’s how it goes with accounts. And if there are indicators that the risks are higher, then the audit scope in creases. This is outlined in something called SAS99 or Statement on Accounting Standard 99, and Generally Accepted Auditing Standards talks about this.

Yet, all this time you thought people were just messing with you: More paperwork, questions, and all those silly forms to explain why you had to take a trip to Bangalore to recruit that cricket player: They were the only one who knew how to make the patch for the system. . .

Meanwhile, you’ve got on your hands a budget proposal that is due, the fiscal year is ending, and they want more paperwork. But what about that conference?

There is an easier way.

It’s called planning. As you well know, there’s something called the annual budget cycle. This isn’t news.

But what is news is that blogs can help you as the one with the idea, get the word out about the upcoming requirement.

For example, rather than look at the fiscal year end as the requirement to spend all your money, take another view: It’s the chance to get money.

That’s right. See, the hidden secret about the fiscal year end is that there’s a fallout process. This means that programs that don’t execute or get cancelled creates an early holiday present: Money to spend.

Small problem: that money has to be obligated within a matter of minutes on 30 Sept.

Here’s the trick, and something that the financial community could blog about on this internal blog: What could be done is as the year goes by, the financial community puts on their blog a plan to get the lab to start documenting on the forms the equipment and items they need.

Rather than just make a list, the requirements need to be loaded in to the system, and read to go. Even if there’s no money, these lists need to be updated, inputted into supply, and prioritized.

That way, when magic hour arrives on 30 Sept and HQ calls down and says, “We’ve got X-thousand free, can you obligate?” your financial wizards can then say, “Yes, we’re ready.” Boom its on contract.

How does this work? Well, using your blog you could have a cross talk between your program managers in the SPOs and let them know what your program-related requirements are . . . that way if there is money that is freed up, you’ll already have talked to the decision makers.

But it doesn’t stop there. You also have to talk to the people in the DoE HQ and DoD to let them know what you want to do: Here are your requirements, and let them know you’re working with the HASC and SASC to allocate funding.

This happens every year. Surprise: Guess who was involved with this at NAVSEA? That’s right. George.

See not all that long ago while at NAVSEA there was a small problem with a certain battle carrier group. That’s right, magic hour arrived, the funds were de-obligated. Guess who shows up with billions of dollars because a carrier fell of contract?

That’s right: NAVSEA. So, magic hour arrives, but where does the money go? Not to the lab. Why? Because the lab didn’t know about the game through the blog; and the forms weren’t pre-loaded.

What to do? The answer is to start sharing these tips with each other.

Let me give you another example. Notice how you’re continually updating schedules, filling out forms, telling these people why you really need this cricket player from Bangalore?

It’s the same drill. President calls up and complains about something showing up in the kitchen. And next thing you know, you’ve got the financial people down your neck complaining that you’re not spending your lab money fast enough.

Well “duh…”

They don’t want to hear it. Why? Because they don’t realize what you’re doing.

How to get around this? Well, with an integrated schedule, you can do some quick adjustments, and the financial wizards could get an update.

How to actually make this happen? Well, wouldn’t it be nice if you could simply click on your program milestone, and slip the task to the right; then everyone would get an update.

At that moment, your program managers in the SPO would know that things have changed; and also your DoE HQ weenies would know that things have changed.

How to get this to happen? Well, last time I checked there were a few contract efforts and grants being issued by the education department. Surely, there’s a program in place that would be able to use the known-lab-problem and focus this frustration to create a tool that could be applicable in the classroom. See: Kill two birds with one stone. Use Education funding to create a new product; and at the same time create a tailored tool that will help out the lab.

Let’s talk about another analogy of the blog. There’s something that George Nanos could have talked about on his blog. George could have shares his wisdom about his acquisition training at DSMC at Ft. Belvoir.

Wouldn’t it have been nice to see one of George’s pictures of the little granite sign at DSCM that says, “It depends.”

Aren’t you shocked. That’s right. The place where George got trained [so that he could get the Trident delivered] was the place where “It depends” is often the right answer.

One thing that program managers learn is that when someone shows up with money, “it depends” whether it is a good thing or not.

Let me give you an example: Let’s say your program element-person back at HQ calls up in January and says, “I’ve got a program that’s cancelled and I need you to tell me whether you can use the money.”

The smart program manager is going to know: If I take the money now, what will that do to my obligation rates; if I take the money, it may help fund a needed program now, but it will make a problem for me down the road: Because I’ll not have enough requirements to allocate that money, and HQ could then come back and say, “You haven’t been spending fast enough, we’re taking your money.”

In some cases, the right answer is to say, “No thanks.”

Well, wouldn’t it be nice to have learned this through the internal blog? Mind you, there’s no reason to send everyone to DSMC. So why not use the blog to talk about the specific training scenarios that DSMC put people through, and that way the program managers and physicists would understand how to play the game.

What does this mean?

Well, going forward when you’re talking about money, don’t think just in terms of what can we save [as in not spend], but what could we plan for earlier, so that when things happen [budget cuts, funds showing up] what will make us be in a better position to respond, provide the information, obligate the money.

What I see using this blog is an exchange of ideas: Program managers would then understand better the funding rules [without having to go to DSMC], and at the same time, they’ll be in a position to be better articulate for the coding-crowd the specific tools that they’d like their mainframe to be able to perform.

For example, if the recurring challenge the lab has is in providing timely responses back to the SPO on the “what if drills” then one solution might be to create some software tools that better support the what if drills. This means that each new question doesn’t become some exercise that diverts attention from real work, but can be something that becomes more automated.

Think a java-like sensitivity analysis. Think of your DoE HQ people being able to click on a budget profile and being able to shift money around; and then your PMs and lab mangers having real time access to these updates, and then being able to provide inputs.

But the answer isn’t simply to wait for it to get automated. Rather, also need to look at the annual calendar: Each spring the markups come; and then the what if drills arrive. What PMs and lab managers could already have in advance are the “what if” answers to these X% cuts.

Also, once there are changes, the next step is to be able to quickly disseminate these changes and then make sure the financial managers, budgeting, and technical people are aware of the new requirements.

Let me give you another example. You’ve no doubt seen Captain Kirk click on his badge to talk to the computer. What if there was a similar system that let you automatically assign your time-labor to a specific budget time sheet.

No longer would you have to make updates. Rather, in the idealized system, your lab programmers would have created a detection system in the building that interfaced with these badges. And as your personnel were walking around, to discussing new issues, they could simply choose an appropriate program to assign the funding to.

Sure! It’s science fiction, but so is a nanocamera. Guess what? Someone inside the lab had to think of this, and you know the history: Nanocameras are a reality.

Also, the blog could be used to better respond to what if drills. Again, the blog doesn’t’ have to be public. But it could quickly disseminate new ideas to all those who needed to know.

I also see the blog being a medium to quickly get inputs on new approaches, or provide feedback to those who are preparing to go to a confidence. Or better yet, ensure that the lessons learned from one discipline are shared with those who might actually be able to use it to do their job better.

The one thing that George does have is a vast amount of experience. But rather than use that experience and wisdom as something that was a tool to inflict pain, it could have been used as a way to inspire others: This is what the nature of the acquisition game is, and this is what we can do in advance to better support the customers, and grab a share of the pie during magic hour.

I don’t get a sense that that approach was used. I hope that in the future, management will see that an internal blog is something that can help people share ideas, offer solutions, and really disseminate valuable information in an unstructured way.

In the end, the goal should be to simply accept the system as it is, work with it, and then leverage the talents of the lab to first take advantage of that reality, but in the end move outside the envelemop and create a more effective system.

I’d like to hear the DoE HQ weigh on in this, and start sharing on this internal blog information that will be of interest and use to the lab managers:

  • What things can be done in May to get read for magic in hour in September?

  • What new budget cuts are expected that the label needs to plan for now, and how to transition this workload to program with greater expected rewards.

    Also, I’d like to encouarge there be a goal to move from the way of doing business as it is, to something that resembles the black programs; Where there is less oversight, but there is also more freedom. Tools like the auto-time card could help move from the current document-data-entry-heavy approach and move to something that resembles the freer and looser approaches available under the black world.

    Again, just because it’s black doesn’t mean that that can’t be the ultimate standard that the open systems aspire to achieve: Easier, simpler, and something that is far less oppressive.

    Even the General Counsel could get in on the blogging experience: Sharing the caselaw, ideas, and their views on what needs to be considered when planning things. It would help the rest of the lab understand what needs to be considered. That way future proposals would be that better prepared.


    I probably haven’t talked about anything new here. What I have done is simply give you a taste of the types of ideas that an internal blog could disseminate.

    Ideally, an internal blog could be something where the experienced, wise members of the lab could share their perspectives on likely upcoming budgeting and programmatic challenges, and then by openly discussing those challenges, there might be more time to do something today to get ready for them.

    There are plenty of changes in May to get ready for something that is likely to happen in September. It takes time. The rewards go to those who know what is coming and plan for it.

    The internal blog permits this planning. It may not be an official program, but it is possible to incrementally take action today in preparation for something that is far away.

    The trick is to get everyone on the same wavelength and encourage them to share their ideas, experience, and lessons learned in a looser format, something that doesn’t require endless meetings, and something that actually focuses on letting the new people get some valuable information so that they can run with it and make it happen.