Thursday, September 15, 2005

OLAP and Planning

My name is Tony and I'm a planner. There I said it. Six years ago I was describing the work I was doing to someone and he said, "Oh, you're a planner." I was shocked to be called such a name. Today I am out of the closet.

I am not a planner though in the mold that most organizations think of planners. In many places, planning is a combination of very mechanical rollups and dysfuctional negotiations; collect sandbagged data, add it all together, twist arms until people go back to what they were willing to live with, repeat yearly. This type of planning adds little if any value, but is very common.

In many places, even the adding up of the data is extremely painful. We used to use Excel for adding up all our data. I have no problem with Excel, when used as designed. Once you start to treat it as a database, all kinds of bad things can happen.

First, Excel has capacity limitations. The tool I had built in Excel had to contain 500 assets, 20 to 50 years looking forward of data, and about 50 accounts. That's a minimum of 500,000 pieces of data. Also, when trying to do some of the slicing and dicing that is normally required, e.g. business unit earnings profiles, you are really analyzing along multiple dimensions. At some point, Excel starts to choke on some combination of the dimensionality and the sheer volume of data.

As an example, last year when I was building the model, it had reached about 35 MB. I copied a formula across one of my 500 by 20 arrays and Excel just went off and did something for about an hour. When it came back to my control, a few things happened: Trace dependents and precedents no longer worked, the calculate sign would not go out even after recalculation, it receclulated the entire spreadsheet every time I changed something, and it exploded to over 100 MB. In addition, any changes would make the model unstable sometimes leading to calculation errors. On top of all of that, the data collection process was deadly.

We collected a total of about 1500 templates from our business units. These needed to be linked in to a master spreadsheet and update links periodically. If even one value changed, we would have to go through a process of opening files and updating links that took about an hour.

I have digressed a bit here, but the point of all this is that even things that should be very simple--adding a bunch of numbers--end up taking a lot of time because of all the data management that happens behind the scenes. This typically leaves little time for "real" analysis.
So, because rollups will always be necessary, it is important to make the whole rollup and data management side as painless as possible. For this we need something stronger than Excel. This is where OLAP comes in.

OLAP stands for OnLine Analytic Processing. In a nutshell, if it is FASMI, Fast Analysis of Shared Multidimensional Information, it is an OLAP tool. The OLAP Report goes into a lot of detail about what this means, but in my mind it is a natural evolution of database technology.

Our particular implementation uses Outlooksoft CPM as the main vendor of our OLAP tools. They in turn are built on Microsoft Analysis Services and SQL server. Our intital implementation was definitely an improvement over Excel, and with the learnigns from our first planning cycle, I am confident that the next pass will be even better. This is a real step-change in our planning process--a platform on which to build.

Now that we have a platform that permanently elevates our game, where do we go from here?

There are a few paths. One is to improve the quality of our forecasts. We are plagued by the dreaded hockey stick. Each plan cycle shifts projects in time and increases capex. Another is to develop standards around a probabilistic plan. Strategic Decisions Group has done some interesting work on planning processes that incorporate probabilistic planning as well as portfolio analysis in capital allocation. Finally, other types of portfolio analysis, such as that advocated by John Howell of Portfolio Decisions for strategy development, or a more tactical approach as advocated by Steve Rasey of WiserWays hold potential for better strategy development as well as more effective, focused capital allocation.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

How Could Bush Have Responded to Castro

Castro made a very eloquent, apparently sincere, almost certainly politically motivated offer to help by sending 1,100 doctors to help in New Orleans. Our official response was to ignore him. How many people have died and will die because of this tacit refusal of aid?

What if Bush had made a positive response? How might it have gone?

"My fellow Americans. America and Cuba has an intertwined history going back hundreds of years. That came to an abrupt end in the late 1950s when Fidel Castro led a communist revolution in that country. Since the early 60s, the US has observed a trade and travel embargo with Cuba.

"In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Cuba has made a historic offer of assistance to the United States.They have offered the services of 1100 physicians to assist in saving the lives of the desperate people of New Orleans. I know that there will be people who disagree with this decision, especially in Florida, where many former residents of Cuba still reside. This decision is not being made lightly, but represents a part of a plan to begin the cleanup of New Orleans by first saving as many lives as is humanly possible. This does not represent a reversal of our policies towards Cuba, but rather a practical decision to gather as many resources as possible to save lives.

"I hope you will support this administration in welcoming the physicians and supporting their humanitarian efforts."

What would the response have been to such a gesture? Dropping ideological differences to save lives. Might it have salvaged any of the bad press the administration is getting? He might have lost a few votes in Florida (maybe), but he would likely have gained votes in every other coastal state.

The cold shoulder given to Castro represents either fear or hubris. Either way, I wonder how many additional lives will be lost. Very sad.

Those No Good Commie...

I had heard that Cuba had offered help in the wake of hurricane katrina. I had no idea how eloquent Castro was.

From Andrew Tobias' Website:


Read the passage below.

1. Do you think the U.S. news media should have more widely reported this offer?
2. Do you think our government was wise to ignore it? If so, why? If not, why not?


Castro, addressing 1,586 doctors assembled to offer assistance to victims of Katrina. Havana Convention Center, September 4, 2005

Hardly 48 hours ago I . . . once again explicitly offered the United States to send a medical force with the necessary means to offer emergency assistance to the tens of thousands of Americans trapped in the flooded areas and the ruins Katrina left behind after lashing Louisiana and other southern states.

It was clear to us that those who faced the greatest danger were these huge numbers of poor, desperate people, many elderly citizens with health situations, pregnant women, mothers and children among them, all in urgent need of medical care.

In such a situation, regardless of how rich a country may be, the number of scientists it has or how great its technical breakthroughs have been, what it needs are young, well-trained and experienced professionals, who have done medical work in anomalous circumstances, and that, with a minimum of resources, can be immediately transported by air or any other available means to specific facilities or sites where the lives of human beings are in danger.

Cuba, a short distance away from Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, was in a position to offer assistance to the American people. At that moment, the billions of dollars the United States could receive from countries all over the world would not have saved a single life in New Orleans and other critical areas where people were in mortal danger. Cuba would be completely powerless to help the crew of a spaceship or a nuclear submarine in distress, but it could offer the victims of hurricane Katrina, facing imminent death, substantial and crucial assistance. And this is what it’s been doing since Tuesday, August 30, at 12:45 pm, when the winds and downpours had barely ceased. We don’t regret it in the least, even if Cuba was not mentioned in the long list of countries that offered their solidarity to the US people.

Knowing that I could rely on men and women like you, I took the liberty of reiterating our offer three days later, promising that in less than 12 hours the first 100 doctors, carrying the necessary medical resources in their backpacks, could be in Houston; that an additional 500 could be there 10 hours later and that, within the next 36 hours, 500 more, for a total of 1100, could join them to save at least one of the many lives at risk from such dramatic events.

Perhaps those unaware of our people’s sense of honor and spirit of solidarity thought this was some kind of bluff or a ridiculous exaggeration. But our country never toys with matters as serious as this, and it has never dishonored itself with demagogy or deceit. That is why we proudly gather in this hall, at Havana’s Convention Center where only three days ago we observed a minute of silence for the victims of the hurricane which battered the United States, and from where our heartfelt condolences were extended to that brotherly people.

Here we are, and not 1100 but 1586 doctors, including 300 additional doctors, in response to the increasingly alarming news that keep coming in. In fact, another 300 doctors, approximately, have joined this group at the last minute. They were called in and we’ve already announced that we are willing to send thousands more if it were necessary. But these 300 doctors are in other halls of the Convention Center, taking part in this function. In just 24 hours, all of the doctors summoned to carry out this mission, coming from all parts of the country, met in the capital. We have shown the utmost punctuality and precision.

. . .

Our doctors’ backpacks contain precisely those resources needed to address in the field problems relating to dehydration, high blood pressure, diabetes Mellitus and infections in all parts of the body —lungs, bones, skin, ears, urinary tract, reproductive system— as they arise. They also carry medicine to suppress vomiting; painkillers and drugs to lower fever; medication for the immediate treatment of heart conditions, for allergies of any kind; for treating bronchial asthma and other similar complications, about forty products of proven efficiency in emergencies such as this one.

These professionals carry two backpacks containing these products; each backpack weighs 12 kilograms. Actually, this was determined when all of the backpacks were procured, since although they are quite large, only half of the supplies would fit in; it was then necessary to give each doctor two backpacks, and the small briefcase which carries diagnostic kits. These doctors have much clinical experience, this is one of their most outstanding characteristic, as they are used to offering their services in places where there isn’t even one X-ray machine, ultrasound equipment or instruments for analyzing fecal samples, blood, etc. With the increase in the number of doctors, the medications weigh a total of 36 tons. The initial figure was smaller.

Cuba has the moral authority to express its opinion on this matter and to make this offer. Today, it is the country with the highest number of doctors per capita in the world, and no other country cooperates with other nations in the field of healthcare as extensively as it does.

Of over 130 thousand healthcare professionals with a university education, 25,845 today serve in international missions in 66 different countries. They offer medical services to 85,154,748 people; 34,700,000 in Latin America and the Caribbean and 50,400,000 in Africa and Asia. Of these, 17,651 are doctors, 3,069 are dentists and 3,117 are healthcare technicians who work in optic services and other areas.

Today, more than 12 thousand young people from around the world, chiefly from Latin America and the Caribbean, are studying medicine in Cuba completely free of charge, and their numbers will continue to grow rapidly. Scores of young people from the United States study in the Latin American School of Medicine, whose doors have been opened, since the institution’s inception, to students from that country.

. . .

When our first war of independence broke out in 1868, a group of Americans joined the ranks of Cuba’s independence forces. One of them, a very young man, stood out for his exceptional courage and wrote pages of admirable heroism in Cuba’s history. It was Henry Reeve. His unforgettable name is forever etched in the heart of our people, and next to that of Lincoln and other illustrious Americans it is carved on the pillars of the Plaza built in the days of the struggle for the return of little Elián González, when the noble people of the United States played a decisive role so that justice would finally be done.

Henry Reeve, almost crippled by the wounds sustained in the course of 7 years of war, fell in combat on August 4, 1876, near Yaguaramas, today the province of Cienfuegos.

I propose that this force of Cuban doctors who have volunteered to help save the lives of Americans bear the glorious name of “Henry Reeve”.

These doctors, I mean you, could already be there, offering their services. 48 hours have passed and we have not received any response to our reiterated offer. We shall patiently await a reply, for as many days as necessary. In the meantime, our doctors shall use the time to take intensive epidemiology courses and improving their English. If, ultimately, we do not receive any reply or our cooperation —your cooperation— is not needed, we shall not be demoralized, not you, not us, not any Cuban. On the contrary, we shall feel satisfied for having complied with our duty and extremely happy knowing that no other American, of the many that suffered the painful and perfidious scourge of hurricane Katrina, shall perish from lack of medical care, if that were the reason our doctors were not there.

The “Henry Reeve” Brigade has been created, and whatever tasks you undertake in any part of the world or our own homeland, you shall always bear the glorious distinction of having responded to the call to assistance our brothers and sisters in the United States, and that nation’s humblest children especially, with courage and dignity . . .

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Evolution Schmevolution

In all the debate around evolution and intelligent design, one thing has been lost--does it really matter what is taught?

Evolution is a fact; intelligent design is poorly supported opinion. That's my bias on this. Darwinians can't necessarily give evidence-supported explanations of all the complexity of life. This doesn't mean that it didn't happen. Put all that aside though. Who cares?

Geologists care. Evolutionary biologists care. From the standpoint of most science and engineering though, it doesn't matter at all.

Solid state physicists don't care about evolution or the age of the earth; they care only about how semi conducting materials respond to electrical current. Software engineers don't care. Even doctors don't really care.

What happened a million years ago on earth, and whether humans and apes have a common ancestor has zero impact on most people's daily lives.

We do know that evolution happens at some scale. It is the reason bacteria become immune to antibiotics and why the exterminator needs to change ant poison from time to time. But these are real time (relatively) observable effects there is no room for doubt. Even anti-evolutionists must concede that these effects are real. But all professions that deal with those effects deal with them.

Maybe this whole debate is not really about science, but rather about separation of church and state. Evolution may not be important per se, but the issue behind it is extremely important. That's where the focus of the discussion of this shiould be. A judge and jury should not be deciding on which science is more correct, but rather who should be setting the curriculum.

In my opinion, Intelligent Design, aka Creationism has no place in public schools. It is thinly masqueraded religion. The science curriculum should be designed by scientists, and should represent scientific method and philosophy, not by lay people who represent a religious point of view.