Thursday, November 27, 2008

Innovate Or Fry: Arc-Welding The Perfect Thanksgiving Turkey

On a cold, New England morning, the scenes of holiday traditions could not be more appropriate. Outside, the trees have long since given up their leaves which only recently had blazed the landscape with fiery colors. The frosted ground crunches underfoot and the familiar feeling of icy air tingling the lungs reminds us of the pleasures waiting inside. Soon we'll inhale the warm, noxious scents coalescing in the kitchen, from a glorious feast to be enjoyed later that day.

The vapors indeed tell a story of culinary tradition. The turkey, dressed and stuffed, is departing on its slow journey to..*CRACK!*…huh?…*BANG!**BANG! BANG!*

….did anyone else feel the house shake?

Loud, random, house-shaking cracks and bangs are not traditional songs of the season. My shadow appearing and disappearing synchronously on the wall opposite my kitchen, surrounded in a bluish-white light, also seems absent from Plymouth Rock folklore. Imagine my surprise (if not idiot-like awe) when I turn to face the oven, only to be blinded by an intense, flashing bluish-white light emanating from the stove’s every orifice. Peering into the oven window, I can just make out the faintest evidence of what I think is frequent movement.

In a different time and place, had a robed, Strother Martin-like figure appeared on the scene from the Ministry of Magic and said in a treble-ish drawl, “What we have here, is failure to apparate.”, my mind might have been put a little bit at ease.

No such comfort would visit on this particular early 1990’s morning. Indeed, my 1960-something Raytheon oven (prior to their using their acquired Amana brand) was in its death throes. We would later discover that the cloth-insulated, 35-amp master service wire had finished a lifetime of caramelizing, and was now arc-welding itself to the oven’s firewall.

Aside from the practical problems of safety and unplanned expense (“oh, your 1960’s stove was 35-amps…the industry shifted to 45-amps a few years ago…you’ll need to rewire your house”), there isn’t a microwave recipe in the world that can finish a 14-pound undercooked turkey to a golden brown, delicious and juicy feast. So, years ago when I faced this predicament, I was fortunate to have a few resources at hand, and some prior coaching that I never knew would prove so valuable in future years, and become a staple in my culinary repertoire.

Early in my first career, I worked in an Air Force weather lab. There I was fortunate enough to be taken under the wing of one of the staff meteorologists who was renowned for his skills with hardwood charcoal, smoking woods, and a variety of professional and individually fashioned tools of really good barbecue. He got me hooked on a Weber kettle, and taught me the basics of simple, convection cooking with indirect heat, curved geometries, and hydrodynamic flavor delivery. Little did I know at the time that I would soon need those skills to rescue a turkey dinner.

Necessity is the mother of invention, and the day my stove turned into an arc-welder, pulling out the Weber and figuring out how to regulate heat and moisture, and not overcook the turkey was no easy feat. In the end, however, it was the best turkey I’d ever cooked. Since then, smoked turkey has become an annual family tradition in my home, and in recent years, I’ve moved from using a kettle to a more precise tool. Here’s my recipe and some resources for those of you looking to do something a little different and incredibly flavorful the next time you cook a turkey.

It starts a day before you actually cook the turkey, with brine, or what Alton Brown refers to as, “The Life of Brine”. Combine:
  • 1 gallon (4 quarts) of vegetable broth (not the low-sodium variety)
  • 1 cup of kosher or pickling salt
  • ½ cup of light or dark brown sugar
  • 1 tablespoon of whole peppercorns
  • (optional) ½ tablespoon of allspice berries
  • (optional) ½ tablespoon of crystallized ginger

Bring the brine ingredients to a rolling boil (make sure the salt and sugar are well dissolved) then cover and let cool to room temperature. Take the room temperature brine and chill it in your refrigerator. Make sure the brine is completely cold before proceeding to the next step.

In a food-safe 5-gallon bucket, combine the brine with one gallon of heavily iced water.

Place a 12-14 pound turkey chest-down into the brine for 6-8 hours (either overnight or early on the morning of the big feast). After the first 3-4 hours, turn the turkey over (chest up) for the remainder of the brining.

The other essential element to this recipe is what’s often referred to as a bullet smoker (“bullet” refers to the cooker’s obvious shape). I’ve been using a Weber bullet smoker for years, but there are other brands available through specialty shops or online. I’m not going to go into minute details here, but I do recommend that if you decide to add a bullet smoker to your arsenal of cookware, go check out The Virtual Weber Bullet website, which contains free instructions, discussions, videos and links to amazing bullet smoker resources. Spend about half a day familiarizing yourself with the basics and with the do’s and don’ts of bullet smoker operations. Used safely, bullet smokers can produce amazingly tasty and healthy meals. They can also ignite surprise parties with all of your previously unknown friends at your local fire department if you have the foresight, patience and planning skills of a hungry ground squirrel.

The rest of this recipe is literally a simple exercise in building a controlled source of heat, and waiting for the heat to do its job. I start with any of a number of brands of natural lump, hardwood charcoal. There's a bit of a trade-off here. While the flavors aren't impacted by any glues or binders of briquettes, the lack of uniform shapes makes temperature control a little more finicky, but by no means difficult. I also make sure to properly foil the bullet smoker's drip pan to catch the juices I'll use for gravy. The Virtual Weber Bullet website has some great videos on how to foil properly (yes, you can screw this up if you don't think this through).

The assembly is straight forward. Weber's bullet smoker is assembled in three sections. Get a bed of coals started in the base unit. I recommend that you use a chimney starter (with a good, heat-resistant handle). Set the bottom vents of the bullet smoker to 50% (half-open). The goal is to regulate the temperature of the burn. Loading up on extra fuel at the beginning and just walking away will guarantee a dry bird. You'll be adding fuel occasionally as needed (mostly dependent on your local climate) to regulate a temperature range. You'll also be adding smoking wood. There's plenty to choose from - hickory, mesquite, apple, maple, though my favorite is chopped oak-barrels from the Jack Daniels' distillery. The smoke creates a whiskey-flavored glaze that is out of this world.

The middle section is basically a tube with a door to access the coals in the base section, and inner supports to hold the top shelf, and either a middle shelf, or the water / drip pan. For a brined turkey, we don't need to add water to the smoker, in fact we want to catch the drippings. Place the drip pan inside the middle tube's supports and insert the tube into the base unit. It is very important that the drip pan be properly secured. If it isn't, or if it's offset, the considerable drippings (remember, a brine uses osmosis to force moisture and flavor into the meat, so there's more to come out once the heat's applied) will cause the pan to tip off its supports, and dump lots of fatty drippings into the coals. The best way to describe a burnt fat glaze is "funky".

At this point, you're ready to put the turkey in the smoker. A final touch I like to add sometimes for additional flavor is to add aromatics to the carcass. Rosemary sprigs, half an onion microwaved for 30 seconds are good starters. There are so many possibilities for this last step. The only thing you should never put inside the carcass, is stuffing. Stuffing adds thermal mass, which lengthens cooking time and interferes with efficient heat transfer. It also harbors bacteria which may not exceed 140 degrees at the center of the turkey, creating a festively disguised biohazard.

Covering the smoker is essential - this isn't a barbecue. The dome cover allows for convective cooking and circulation of smoke and moisture. I leave the top vent of the cover fully open. Two thermometers are critical for a successful smoke. One to measure the temperature of the top section (effectively the "oven"), the other to measure the interior temperature of the turkey at the thickest point of the breast. Here is where folks tend to get a little crazy when it comes to technology. I've found that a simple woodstove stack thermometer is ok to place on the top of the dome. It's magnetic which means you don't have to worry about custom mounting, and gives an accurate enough reading to get the job done. I use a standard digital probe thermometer to measure the temperature of the turkey. I keep the dome regulated at 350 degrees (again, consult the Virtual Weber Bullet website for tips on how to regulate temperature of a bullet smoker). I cook the turkey to 161 degrees, then pull it from the smoker and let it rest for at least 20 minutes.

The efforts are definitely worth the wait. The turkey is not only incredibly moist and packed with flavor, but the leftovers make phenomenal sandwiches, stews, and especially, chili. (You haven't lived until you've had hickory smoked turkey chili.)

Had I not experienced the...exhilaration, of finding a solution to a case of sudden domestic-appliance arc-welding cuisine, I would likely not have explored the joys of preparing beef, chicken, turkey, fish, vegetables and a whole list of foods over the years in a smoker or other kettle-style cooker.

Ironically, all it took was a bright flash of bluish-white insight.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

$25 Billion - A Simple Business Plan

This is one of those moments where life and art have a strange intersection.

The recent plea for $25 billion of taxpayer-backed loans by the CEOs of the big three auto firms has Congress asking a very practical question:

"What plan do you have for spending $25 billion?"

Back in March of 1939, General Motors' Department of Public Relations commissioned the Jam Handy Organization to produce a short film on the subject of macroeconomics.

Maybe GM's future is in widgets?

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Park To The Future

Note: This is the third and final article in a special daily series being published this week on the topic of automotive innovation.

In my previous two articles (How Your Car Might Re-Invent More Than Just The Auto Industry, A Car of Tomorrow, Driven Through TRIZ), I outlined conditions under which systemic change occurs. Evolutionary constraints define opportunities for radical innovation that leads to shifts in industry - in some cases creating new industries. The automotive industry finds itself awash in evolutionary constraints, not just with its products, but with its customers and the environments in which their products exist. I presented some thoughts using influences of an innovation methodology known as TRIZ, and left you with a parting thought, which on the surface, probably sounded insane:

"An auto industry of tomorrow will need to build new cars that people will want to buy, not because they will have to drive their cars, but because they will want to park them."

In my final article in this special series, I want to expand on some innovations for this most unusual car of tomorrow I’ve proposed, and give away some ideas to any entrepreneur who has the vision, tolerance for risk, and business savvy to take these ideas and run with (or from) them.

Unlike the Norman Bel Geddes vision of the world of tomorrow, any utilitarianism suggested here is goaled to benefit the individual (who hopefully has just a hint of an entrepreneurial spirit). Done right, the potential for societal benefits are significant.

One assumption that I will make, looking out into the future of the next 1-5 years is this: People (at least in the United States) will still work at jobs that are primarily located away from their homes, and a majority of them will require vehicular transportation to get to their jobs or to public commuting options.

This means that for large pockets of the population, there will be predictable occurrences of large numbers of cars (existing and new) that park at work, park at shopping centers, and part at their homes. So why not develop innovations for the cars of today and tomorrow that leverage this predictable occurrence? Setting aside for the moment the entrepreneurial risk required to productize such innovations, I challenge automakers and anyone else who needs to innovate for a living to imagine just a few possible benefits of intentionally parked cars:
  • Many parking lots will be in range of commercial and metropolitan high-speed wireless networks. Create and enable car-friendly mobile computing platforms (similar to a BlackBerry or iPhone) that can be accessed by an owner with nothing more a web browser on their desktop for any one of a number of purposes (selling computing cycles to computing clusters, downloading movies, music, news or other digital content for later use, to name just a few examples). By creating a mobile platform that can exist outside of the workplace, not only can more digital products and services be delivered, and on a timelier basis, but countless hours of covertly wasted productivity in commercial IT networks and desktop platforms can be saved.

  • In several, large parts of the United States, cars are parked in parking lots that are subjected to extreme periods of heat, cold, and sunlight. In the case of long-exposure to sunlight, innovate high-efficiency solar charging systems that are integrated into sky-facing panels of a car with standardized, easy access ports in the car’s interior for recharging low-duty power systems such as simple batteries or common electronics.

  • In the case of long-exposure to sub-freezing cold, create compact materials that can act as efficient and useful thermal masses (heat sinks). Imagine bringing a small supply of cold-packs that will be frozen by the end of the work day (or overnight if you don’t park your car in a garage). Even in the coldest of cities, people use electricity to operate refrigerators and freezers. I challenge automakers to collaborate with the kitchen appliance industry to create new cold pack technology (new materials and efficient form factors) that are designed explicitly to lessen electrical loading by optimizing refrigeration duty cycles. (A person comes home from work, sticks their cold-cells in the refrigerator, and a few days later, takes the cold-cells back to work be “recharged” in the parking lot.) What would the savings to a person’s electrical bill be? Perhaps $5 or $10 a month? What would that mean across 1,000,000 refrigerators in daily operation? What impact would that have on the environment?

  • Parking lots full of car trunks represent hundreds or thousands of mobile lockers per lot. Create services that can leverage this resource to the benefit of individuals, commerce, and the environment. Innovate a securable, shared locking mechanism and trust model that enables a car’s owner to grant one-time access to a service provider at a pre-determined point in time. Imagine driving to work with a bag of newspapers or a bin of cans to recycle one morning. A recycle service, with a map of all cars that have brought materials for recycling that day to the parking lot can show up, remove just the recyclable materials from all cars that have registered their pickup request, and as appropriate, charge or credit the owner, depending on the business model. Think of a similar service scenario, but in reverse, for delivery of safe goods along a driver’s home commute. A driver registers with a major shipping service that their trunk is available for hire to take and drop off a secured, safe-package to a house along their home-bound commute. The shipper has a map that matches all deliveries on a given day, with all the secure trunks that match driver and route availability. Then the shipper makes one trip with many packages to the one parking lot. Packages are distributed to the appropriate cars, and the packages are delivered the same day by individuals who are already making the same trip home that they would have been making regardless of the extra stop. Imagine how much gasoline, ethanol, hydrogen, and entropy can be saved by leveraging simple efficiencies in large, predictable populations. I believe there are many business models that could recover startup costs and profitably leverage a predictable parking lot.

These are but a handful of ideas, I can think of dozens more. My point in doing so, and giving them away, is to set a small example. Sure, I’d love to know that any of these ideas was the spark that was used by a young (or older) risk-taker who went forth and transformed how we view and use the modern automobile. (Author’s note: In case of future windfalls or transformational profits derived from anything you’ve read in my articles, it’s ok to send me a small, landscape-profiled thank-you note which starts with the words “Payable To”.) However, it is far more important that you realize that innovation, at anytime, is a worthy investment, and in a recessionary or even a depressed economy, is essential.

Whether or not you’re an auto executive from Detroit, take the ideas I’ve given you, and do something, with or because of them. Think beyond your current business model, and your industry. Move beyond how things used to be, because the only guarantee I can give you about tomorrow, is that the world will change. Learn how to recognize the need for systemic change, and learn the tools, methods, and skills to be the agents of change. Don’t become the victims of resisting it.

If you succeed, and if my articles of the last few days play any part in your success, then my reward will be beyond measure. For you see, whatever systemic benefits you bring to the world as a result, my goddaughter and her generation will inherit them.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

A Car Of Tomorrow, Driven Through TRIZ

Note: This is the second in a special series of daily articles being published this week on the topic of automotive innovation.

Regular readers of my articles will know that among the many innovation methodologies one can choose to spark creative problem solving, Genrich Altschuller's Theory of Inventive Problem Solving (aka TRIZ, which is the more recognized name and Russian acronym) is one of my favorites.

In yesterday's article, I outlined the basic elements of systemic change. Evolution, whether organic or artificial in origin, creates constraints that can shape and drive radical innovation. TRIZ is a particularly effective innovation methodology when facing serious systemic constraints. In applying TRIZ methodology and principles to the current problems facing the automobile industry, I am quickly drawn to several design considerations:
  • It is ill-advised to redesign a car as a system, without considering the larger super-system in which the car operates.
  • It is ill-advised to redesign a car as a system, without considering that the car itself is comprised of sub-systems that may perform multiple functions, independent of the primary goals of the car itself (which is, of course, transportation).
  • When designing around constraints, often the most powerful design breakthroughs come from finding advantage in disadvantage.

Ok, admittedly what I’ve said so far is really the stuff of fortune-cookies. Wonderful and sugary visions wrapped in vanilla abstracts, but where is the application? What do super-systems and design constraints have to do with the 2009 model year?

Let’s look at today’s car in a little more detail.

A car’s primary job is to transport one or more people. An important secondary job is to transport a bit of cargo at the same time. Cars do their work in cycles. They move, and they stop. They get parked for periods of time, sometimes predictably, especially where work commutes are involved. Cities, roads, garages, and parking lots are but some of the supersystems in which cars operate.

Cars are also compilations of multiple sub-systems. Some sub-systems are obvious (fuel, electrical, transmission) while others are more subtle (roof, doors, locks, etc). There is as much if not more detail paid to the design and functionality of automobile sub-systems as there is to the automobile as a single system.

Why is all this important? In considering the many constraints impacting the automotive industry and its customers, economic constraints certainly are near or at the top of the list. When using TRIZ to predict possible evolutions of the car, the driver, and the super-systems in which they will exist, I can look to one of the seventy-six 'standard solutions' that Altschuller claimed were reflected in natural and technical system evolution. One standard in particular suggests the periodic distribution of actions to eliminate conflicts.

Thinking about what a car needs to do for a driver, and what a driver's needs might be outside of a car, I am led to one conclusion. The car of tomorrow needs to be a platform that has value when it is used for driving, but has more value when it is parked.

The corresponding business model is then very simple to describe, but it is also one that if uttered by Rick Wagoner tomorrow, would most certainly cost him his job unless he has a very innovation-savvy board of directors.

"An auto industry of tomorrow will need to build new cars that people will want to buy, not because they will have to drive their cars, but because they will want to park them."

Tomorrow's article: Park To The Future

Monday, November 17, 2008

How Your Car Might Re-Invent More Than Just The Auto Industry

Note: This is the first in a special series of daily articles being published this week on the topic of automotive innovation.

A few months ago, I reflected upon how the American taxpayer might see themselves in the mirror in the not too distant future as a result of the current global economic crisis. Today, I wish things looked even that good.

As the crisis has expanded (well beyond the financial sector), the word “unprecedented” has become a potentially lethal weapon at many business schools:
“Ok guys, every time Dylan or Maria says ‘unprecedented’, everyone take a drink – two if it’s Kudlow or Haines.”
Author’s note: Never do this.

Global industries have endured severe credit interruptions at the same time that product demand by their customers has fallen off of a proverbial cliff. One industry in exceptional distress that has seen generations of growth and value erased is the automobile industry. Today, in late 2008, we are literally facing a collapse of one or all of the “big three” American automakers - Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler.

Since its 100-year peak in April of 2000, the stock price of GM has fallen over 96% and is threatening to dip significantly below $3. Before April of 2000, you have to go back in GM’s history to about 1939 to have seen it trade at this (split-adjusted) level.

Ironically, 1939 was the year that GM was looking 20 years into the future, sponsoring the famous “Futurama” exhibition at the New York World’s Fair. GM of today can take a lesson from their exhibit of long ago, and recognize that the world of tomorrow cannot be reached by living in the past.

The future is born out of evolution and innovation. Evolutions of systems (natural, technical or social) are driven by organic and artificial influences. Regardless of who or what controls such influences, evolutions often create the very challenges and constraints that shape sudden leaps to next-generation systems. Innovations are often born out of constraints. In the cases of evolutionary constraints, the innovations that arise are revolutionary, and are often key to driving rapid, systemic transformation.

In his recent New York Times Op-Ed piece, “How to Fix a Flat”, Pulitzer Prize winning author Thomas Friedman, discussed his dismay with the automobile industry. The near demise of the industry, in his view, is a direct result of a multi-year lack of effective innovation. He opposes a public sector bailout of the industry ($25 billion is being considered just for GM) if the funds are used solely to preserve current business models. In an appearance on CNBC in which he discussed his article, Friedman said that the best kind of person to bring forward (and even fund) to fix the auto industry is one who “lives, breathes and thinks innovation every minute of the day”.

I facilitate innovation for a living. Every day I work with clients from different industries and help them create ideas in pursuit of revolutionary product design using software and methodologies. I see the constraints my clients face in their designs every day. I’ve seen first-hand how the deteriorating economic environment will impact my clients in the next 12 months, and I’ve told them why accelerating their innovation in 2009 should be a top priority, and how to go about doing it.

I’ve been thinking about the current problems facing the automobile industry and anyone who owns or drives a car. Over the next few days, I’d like to openly share some thoughts and ideas I’ve had for the benefit of anyone who has the entrepreneurial ability to leverage them.

Before you ask me why I’m giving away these ideas, I’ll have to ask you to bear with me and wait until the end of the final article in this series. I promise I’ll make my motives clear.

Tomorrow’s article: A Car Of Tomorrow, Driven Through TRIZ

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Diversification (def'n): Where Innovation and Survival Meet

The fear and angst of what is potentially (still) a global financial system death spiral continue to surround us.

Even in these turbulent times which are outside the experience of living memory, life does and must go on. The sun still is fixed in the sky, and the world is still tricked into seeing it rise with the dawn.

The fear and uncertainty of, and reaction to recent events, has created havoc in both corporate and consumer sectors. In the past two months, companies like McDonalds and Caterpillar have been denied credit (despite top bond ratings and solid balance sheets) to expand their operations. Capital plans at many companies have been shelved for indefinite periods, affecting jobs and growth across their supply chains. Individuals are being cut off from lines of credit depsite, in more recent cases, possessing prime credit ratings. Massive government interventions and injections of capital have been hastily organized to boost confidence and status quo in a financial system which, according to some experts, is not salvageable.

If that weren't enough, today is a day when the election of one head of state will have more profound policy impacts around the world than in any time since World War II. No matter who wins the White House this evening, the world is looking at an economic and business climate that is severely damaged, and will take years to heal.

So how does one prepare, let alone navigate through this storm?

The key to survival is the development and acquisition of diversified assets - not gold and silver (although they never hurt), but assets such as new skills and new pipelines of value (products, services). The development of such assets stretch individuals and corporations well beyond their current core competencies.

I recently gave the technical keynote address to my company's user conference in Boston at the Museum of Science. I spoke on the topic of "Everyday Innovation". While the talk was specifically focused on how our clients could use our software and methodologies on a daily basis, the larger issues of why went beyond the scope of the conference. 2009 is going to be a critical year for companies and individuals to get their houses in order for the next 3 years. (Ideally, you spotted the signs of dramatic change in 2007 or as late as October of 2008, and took appropriate action. If not, read on.) There is still a tremendous dislocation of individuals, communities, and companies waiting to be unleashed. Hunkering down and hoping the storms pass without suffering significant damage is not a strategy I'd recommend, yet I see it in people and businesses everyday.

If you haven't prepared for the inevitable dislocation, look in the mirror, and ask the following questions about yourself, or your company where appropriate.

Is my job secure?

What value do I bring to my organization?

Are my products or services desirable in a declining economy?

What would I do if I lost my job?

Do my skills apply to different companies or industries?

What skills will be most in demand in the next 3 years?

What products or services will be critical in a declining economy?

The answers to these and similar questions are based in part by knowing what trends in economies, people, and skills will emerge from the dislocation. History has shown that those people and companies who are flexible, and who can quickly develop and innovate skills, products and services while being self-sufficient in the process, will survive and prosper, even in a down economy.

When times get really tough for widget makers, it is not enough to simply make a better widget. Sometime you have to make a completely different widget, or you have to figure out a need that all your widget customers will have, and fill it. Sometimes, you even have to make your own widget obsolete.

How do you do this? Don't wait to do it on your own timetable, and don't limit your ideas.

If you wait until a crisis to innovate, I don't give you very good survival odds. Effective innovators practice their skills frequently, and on the simplest and smallest of challenges. They don't limit themselves to problems they know, but stretch themselves into areas of limited or no previous experience. I can't tell you how often I work with customers who are confounded by competitors who seem to come out of nowhere. After a review of a "threat's" patent or innovation portfolios, I usually discover that the competitor had been busy developing assets and technologies that not only competed with my client, but also had nothing to do with their core competencies. It wasn't the extra technology that made them more competitive, it was the ability to use innovation to repeatedly create value.

Creative problem solving, everyday, no matter how far removed it may seem from your day to day work, will help you adapt to the most difficult of circumstances. Learning one new thing, everyday as a matter of practice, will help build research skills that will be essential if you suddenly have to change jobs, venues, or major project / life goals.

Innovation skills can be practiced and applied to any situation. When the need arises to be a quick thinker and effective problem solver, the well-practiced innovator will be able to create diversified value that will help him/her meet the tactical needs of an immediate crisis, and clarify the strategic vision needed to acheive changing long-term goals.