Sunday, November 24, 2013

Getting Family Members to Work - Work Instructions

Work Instructions - Not Just At The Plant

Follow the Work Instruction

In my manufacturing career, at a variety of different companies, there is one common element - Work Instructions. Whenever there is a series of steps that an operator must follow to make something, in a properly managed company the steps are clearly documented, in a controlled document. Documenting this ensures that everyone, on every shift, at every machine, makes their product in the same way. Without this consistency, you won't have consistent product. Having these documents also ensures that new hires have step-by-step instructions to follow and are all trained on the exact same procedure.

So Work Instructions ensure that multiple people can do the same task, at the same quality, often just by reading and following the steps.

Large companies I've worked with do this either with a centralized network drive with MS Office documents on it (usually read/write access being restricted to the Quality group) or through an ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) system like SAP. These giant computer systems, store documents on what materials are needed (Bill of Material - BOM), how do we combine/use them (Master Recipe) and what recipes are used with what ingredients, on what equipment (Production Version).

What If You Want Someone to Do a Task, They Rarely Do?

Most of us, myself included, dislike doing things that we aren't very good at. If someone asks you do something you don't know much about you may become anxious, and refuse. At my home, this often applies to cooking. I very much enjoy cooking and preparing food to be cooked, but easily become uncomfortable when asked to make something I've never done before. Often, my wife does the cooking, so the recipes that I do remember, fade from memory. After a long day at work, arriving home tired and hungry, it's hard to think but easy to follow instructions.

I alluded to this slightly in a previous article, Paper, is it worth another look? - In the kitchen, but we've found the solution to engaging a family member to cook, when they want to help but feel anxious about it, is by providing instructions. Providing clearly written instructions, custom tailored to the exact audience, eliminates anxiety and let's the other family member be productive.

We have had great success with this, by storing a list of recipes in a shared Google Documents folder. For the novice cook (me), this folder is the single place to go to for known good recipes. By having one single place to go, there is no need to determine which cook book, or where a recipe might be. By having the recipes shared in a Google Document, they can easily be edited or annotated should instructions need to be broken down further or changed in any way. Printing these "Work Instructions" out, and bringing them into the kitchen, I'm empowered to create a magnificent meal.

A list of a few of our recipes follows:

The following are some of the best practices I've observed when writing recipes for a FindingOptimal type:

  1. List all ingredients first, ideally listing items that are used/added together next to each other on the list.
  2. With the list of ingredients, include any initial preparation steps that are required (ie. peel, chop, dice, etc.)
  3. Add in any chance to pre-weigh any dry or wet ingredients together that are mixed at the same time. It's handy to have all spices in one bowl/cup that can be tossed in at once when needed, rather than fuss about with many smaller measuring implements.
  4. When listing the actual recipe steps, insert a new line after each step that requires waiting or time to complete. Without doing this, you may (or at least I have) jump to the next line after completing the "long" part of this step, neglecting the trailing end part of it. For example, having:"Simmer for 10 minutes" on the same line as "Stir in the salsa" may cause you to skip to the next line when you come back after 10 minutes.
  5. If there are special, custom things to making this at your house, why not write them into the recipe? For example, I edited a lasagna recipe to say:  "In the 2nd largest pot we have, heat pot and add oil" and later "add 9 noodles into largest pan, do not break". When I first prepared the recipe, I misjudged which pot to use, but now with these detailed instructions that won't happen again.

Other Applications?

Are there other applications to this? Are there chores, that only one family member does because that individual knows how to do it and others don't? Is this really because that family member has highly developed skills that others don't? Or could simply documenting the steps allow anyone to do it, and allow delegating it to any family member? Would this work with children? Isn't this a better test of their functional literacy than anything else?

Other ideas that come up include:
  1. Simple automobile maintenance
  2. Periodic larger household cleaning tasks (gutters, windows, etc.)
  3. Pool maintenance
  4. Yardwork, etc.
  5. Laundry, including the finer points you're picky about: separating, when to add softner, etc. 
  6. How to load the dishwasher, since most people seem to have some exact way they want it done

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Lessons From Industry - Rolling Blackouts

This article was originally written in the summer but has sat in my drafts...

Last week was the 10th anniversary of the great black of 2003. So this week, we're taking a strategy from the electricity industry, and applying it my personal life.

Rolling Blackouts - When There's Not Enough To Go Around

Wikipeida Defines a Rolling Blackout as follows:
A rolling blackout, also referred to as load shedding, is an intentionally engineered electrical power shutdown where electricity delivery is stopped for non-overlapping periods of time over different parts of the distribution region.
When there's not enough power to supply the system, power companies will do this. Another option is to lower the voltage, or what's called a brown out. Think of lowering the voltage as the power company still supplies everyone but spreads out the power, so it's weaker. The problem with brown-outs is many electrical devices only work when the power is at normal voltage (or "regular strength"), a brown out can cause machines to stop working or even damage them.

So, a rolling blackout is a useful strategy if you don't have enough of a resource to do everything, but when you do assign the resource somewhere, it's better to use all of it, some of the time, than spread it around.

At Home: All of a resource, some of the time?

There are numerous examples at home where this might work.

Instead of spreading your Christmas present budget around amongst all family member, you could only buy one present for one family member. Every year, one person receives one really good present instead of everyone receiving a mediocre present.

If you give to charity, why not make one big donation to one charity rather than spread it around to many little charities? Giving one large donation in one year versus spreading smaller donations out across multiple years in Canada has tax advantages.  Since in 2013,  the tax credit is 15% on the first $200 and 29% on the amount over $200.

Rather than having children share a common resource (video game system, TV, family car), why not give them assigned blocks of time that they are allowed exclusive use of it. This way instead of either of them getting a partial share of the action, they each get their own time at full power, with no squabbling and clear access rights. By scheduling this time (like a scheduled blackout), each family member can schedule themselves to make most efficient use of their allotted time. We don't have children now, can any parents tend to comment?

What about vacations? Is it better to take one big vacation every 2 years? Or every 5 years? Rather than smaller vacations more frequently. How memorable have your smaller vacations truly been?

These are just a few examples, can you think of any?

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

5S + Lego: A Poor Man's 3D Printer

Lego - The Original 3D "Printer"

What is 3D Printing?

 There seems to be more and more in the news about 3D printing. Recently, while on vacation in Chicago, at the Museum of Science and Industry they had a Makerbot Replicator 2 onhand that was printout out small replicas of Chicago landmarks.

A 3D printer is a device that adds different layers of material on top of each other to create an object. In the past, these printers were large, and very expensive. Now, with recent advances there are many desktop sized printers, similar in size and cost to a laser printer from the 90's. Some produce items by extruding a resin to make different layers, others user a laser which fires on pool of resin, which hardens only where the laser fired.

The promise these things have for artists, designers and engineers is incredible. The greatest advantage of 3D printers for designers, is they can do rapid prototyping. Once a designer has a design they can quickly create a real model of it, and see how it performs. This prototype allows for testing, which lets you refine the design and then future iterations of prototyping and testing before creating a finished product.

What is 5S?

5S, comes from the world manufacturing, and is a useful acronym for ways of organizing a work space.

The 5S's are:
  1. Sorting
  2. Straightening
  3. Shine
  4. Standardize
  5. Sustain
In practice, when you see that 5S has been implemented somewhere, it typically means that things which aren't needed somewhere, are removed from that area, and "everything has a home". In office desks, or warehouse floors, it usually means drawing boxes around where things are supposed to go, and labelling the boxes. An easy example of this, is a common grocery store parking lot. Rather than let cars park wherever, and however they want, lines are drawn for each individual parking spot. Some spots are specially marked for handicap cars or expectant mothers. There may also be a "cart corral" where customers are supposed to return shopping carts to rather than just leaving them wherever in the parking spot.

Wikipedia shows an example of a 5S toolbox here:
In the toolbox, foam is cut out in exactly the shape required for each tool. This means all tools must be put back exactly in the right place because they won't fit in the wrong place.

By always putting things back in the same spot, without unnecessary items around, it makes it quicker to find what you're looking for, and less likely for things to be lost.

So Why Is There Lego In The First Picture?

While 3D printing technology is improving every single day, I like to think of Lego as a poor man's 3D printer. By combining standard 2x8 Lego blocks, 4x4 and 2x1 pieces, as well as flat pieces where necessary, you can quickly create a variety of objects. Few households have 3D printers, which can range in price from several hundred to thousands of dollars, while many households already have Lego. Lego holds together resonably well, and if you decide your design isn't worth keeping, Lego is 100% reusable!

So, Lego is a great, readily available, rapid protoyping tool, depending on what you're trying to make.

So Why Mention 5S

For some time now I've wanted to organize my dresser. Originally, I had a stainless steel tray, which limited the number of things, and put an outer limit on the footprint of things on the dresser. Unfortunately, the tray was becoming a dumping ground. This is what my dresser top originally looked like:
Dresser - Version 1.0
Below are the contents of the steel tray:

This includes:
  1. Unneeded business card
  2. Watch
  3. Sunglasses case
  4. Headphones
  5. Full pack of gum (green)
  6. Pack of gum with one stick in it (blue)
  7. Handkerchef (from a recent trip to Japan)
  8. 5 sets of keys
  9. Blue plastic public transit token holder
  10. Curtain pin
  11. USB key
  12. Leatherman Multi-tool
  13. Three small plastic bags with buttons in them
  14. Paperclip
  15. Keychain a wind-up flashlight (broken)
  16. Rubber band
  17. Small carabiner, which was for holding rings when I have to remove them at work, but doesn't work
  18. Wedding ring
  19. Iron ring 
These objects were left out of the equation:
  1. Ducks
  2. Bowl of change
As part of Sorting, I put some items in the garbage, and put others away in my toolbox, or in storage. I want the items on the dresser to be day-to-day items, or at least things that are used on a weekly basis. After pairing the items down, I was left with the following:

If you wonder why I've blurred the keys, it's because with a digital photo of my keys, you can make a copy!

My initial effort was something like the toolbox approach, but still using a vertical approach for keys:


This was going to use up a lot more space on the dresser, and I didn't actually have enough green, "ground" base lego pieces to use this approach. Instead, I wound up using the finalized, vertical, key hanging design you see below:

While this setup doesn't make each spot as "obvious" as the toolbox foam approach, there are specific slots for my wallet, sunglasses case, and blue plastic public transit holder. There are two ring holders which work well, and the watch fits snugly in place. The handkerchief is also the only item that will fit in its spot.


Lego does make an excellent rapid prototyping resource for a desk or dresser organizer and it was definitely a good idea to SORT away things that didn't need to be on my dresser, while probably store those that do.

Playing with Lego, is also still fun.

If this design proves successful over time (does my wallet expand and contract during monthly cycles? Do I have some things in the way of others? Should some other object have a space here? etc.) then I can seek to duplicate some or all of this design with something that looks a little nicer, is more robust (sometimes the keys pillars get knocked over) and my wife is more likely to agree with.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Home-Based Kanban Card Logistics System - Oatmeal and Eggs

Come home to an Oatmeal Sign?

 Can Can Can You Do the Kanban?

Perhaps you work in manufacturing, but most likely you don't. Even if you don't, you've probably heard a lot about "lean" manufacturing, or "just in time" production. Kanban, literally signboard or bill board, is a system where materials are "pulled" to a line instead of "pushed". We'll review this as applied to breakfast.

Both my wife and I nearly always eat hardboiled eggs in the morning. I'll eat two eggs at home, she'll take one to work for a mid morning snack. I almost always eat oatmeal, and she occasionally does. The vast majority of the time I cook these the night before since there just isn't time in the morning. Preparing oatmeal takes me about 20 minutes whereas eggs are 10 minutes of heating plus 15 minutes with the heat off (and lid) of cooking. We'll use eggs for the rest of our example since they are easier to measure.

If we had a push based system, the egg and oatmeal maker would forecast demand and then produce to that demand. Based on demand, I eat 2 eggs per day and my wife has one, meaning 3 eggs per day. So every 2 days the egg maker cooks 6 eggs, or every 3 days you cook 9 and so on. The disadvantage of this is if I wakeup late for work, aren't hungry or if for whatever reason my wife doesn't take an egg to work (say there's a special company brunch or some such thing) then I may cook eggs anyways. This can lead to too many cooked eggs sitting in the fridge, leading to too much inventory and a potential for spoilage. If for whatever reason she decides to eat two eggs, then I won't have anticipated this and we risk running out.

Alternatively, in a pull based system, production occurs as needed. As cooked egg inventory drops low, there is a call for more cooked eggs. One way of communicating the demand signal from the consumer to the producer is by passing a Kanban card which indicates more production is needed.

Home-Based Kanban Cards

On the fridge, you can see two white cards, one has "Oatmeal" and the other "Eggs" written on it. If there is a sufficient inventory of cooked eggs and cooked oatmeal then the cards stay on the fridge. When taking eggs or oatmeal out of the fridge, if you consume enough that the inventory level is too low to support tomorrow's typical requirements (in our case, 3 eggs and 1 serving of oatmeal), then you put the card on the kitchen counter (see previous photo). By having the card in a conspicous place in front of main entrance, when I come home it's immediately obvious that I need to produce more cooked eggs or oatmeal. Once I've cooked more eggs or oatmeal, the card is put back on the fridge.

This simple system is ideal when you have something that is consumed by multiple people and produced by one, especially if the producer is not around to witness the consumption and so doesn't know that more production is needed.

You could apply to anything that is prepared in advance, particularly something you produce multiple of in advance and that has variable consumption. While we don't do it, I've often thought lunches could work well this way.

So why not try a home based Kanban card system, and help improve communication at home between producers and consumers!

Monday, September 23, 2013

Get paid, to track your driving! - Review

Track Your Driving and Get Paid For It!

So, my wife discovered and signed us up for it. If you want to read officially how it works, click here, the short form is:
  1. You sign up on their website with your name, address, etc.
  2. They mail you a wireless datalogger that you plug into your car
  3. You drive around as you normally would for 2 weeks, during this time they log how much you drove and how efficiently you drove. This establishes a baseline.
  4. You take an online "training course" that describes techniques for more efficient driving. The course is web video mixed with some multiple choice questions.
  5. You drive around for another 2 weeks. If you drive 10% less distance, and burn 10% less gas than you previously did, you qualify to receive an additional $25 payment
  6. You mail back your datalogger in a prepaid envelope, and wait for the $25 or $50 to come in.

Ok, but what about...privacy? Where does the data go?

There are several news articles on the ShuttleChallenge website, including one from the Toronto Star, and Metro News. I was very disappointed with all of these articles, since they didn't answer any obvious background, and privacy questions that immediately popped into my head. Thankfully Mike Driedger, the Program Manager for Shuttle was nice enough to answer the following questions:

Q: Currently, how large is the program? How many participants are there during each session?
MD: This round of the program had over 500 participants from across the GTHA. Your particular cohort (July 29 start) had over 40 drivers
Q: Your privacy policy only discusses the use of personal information that identifies the user, it provides no mention of what is done with the mileage data. Is that data kept purely at ShuttleChallenge / Summerhill? Or is it released to other researchers? The Star article about you details that another purpose behind this is to gather data on driving patterns, etc.
MD: We have a partnership with the transportation branch of the Civil Engineering Department at U of T. They are responsible for analyzing the data (both from the loggers and surveys) and providing aggregate analysis. Our funding partners (TAF and the OCE) will have access to the aggregate data from our final reports to them. All of the data can help to influence a better understand of influences on driving behaviour and what drivers are willing to do to change their behaviour
Q: On your website, when I login to my account, I can only see fuel usage and distance driven. Is there any other data that you are storing from the device? In particular, are you logging:

top speed
any speed information
GPS information (to determine where the car was driven)
GPS information (that could be used to determine speed)
vehicle acceleration, as in how quickly or slowly does the driver accelerate
MD:  Overall, we're only looking at fuel and distance for the purpose of the program. The detailed data does give us GPS coordinates and the time of trips. See below for answers to each metric you asked about

top speed - no
any speed information - no
GPS information (to determine where the car was driven) - yes
GPS information (that could be used to determine speed) - no
vehicle acceleration, as in how quickly or slowly does the driver accelerate - no
Q: Have there been any accidents with drivers in the program, where the insurance company or authorities have requested access to data that you've stored? Do you have a policy for this eventuality?
MD: This hasn't come up at all and I'm not sure how useful the data would be. For us to hand over a data logger and its data we'd need to receive a formal request and/or warrant from the authorities. Overall this would need to be evaluated on a case by case basis if it ever came up. 
Q: You mention there is GPS data but then say it cannot be used to calculate speed, how is this possible? If you have timestamped GPS data, then you can calculate speed.
MD: The data from each trip is consolidated into a one line trip report. For your data logger, we receive a trip report at the end of your trip that summarizes the complete KM travelled, fuel consumed, length of the trip and gives a GPS stamp for where the trip ended. We could technically work with the logger providers to get more detailed data, but for the purpose of the program a trip summary is fine. Since we only have a final GPS stamp, we can't calculate speed.

So, Should I Do This?

So, based on the website, and response from the Program Manager:
  1. You will get $25
  2. They are only recording the distance you drove, and how much gas you used, so remove your tinfoil hat
  3. It's only over a 4-5 week period anyways, so even if you don't believe them (and why would they lie), there's no real serious privacy risk anyways.
  4. You may actually get $50
  5. University transportation planning folks are getting some data out of this, who knows, they might be able to make things run better with it.
So now, enough background and let's get into how it worked out for me!

Installing the Datalogger

The datalogger I received, was a "Mobile Devices Telematic embedded system, model: OBD", as shown below:

Plugging in the device was easy. It simply pushed into the OBDII (electronic diagnostic port) on my car. If your car is newer than 1996, then it should have an OBDII port. The picture below shows the datalogger on the right side of the picture.

Since I live in an apartment, with my car parked in underground parking the datalogger I received uses a cellular datanetwork to transmit data back to ShuttleChallenge. Their website mentions if where you park your car at home is within range of your home wifi network, then you may use a different logger. With the particular logger I had, all I did was plug it into the OBDII port, and then leave it for the required 5 week period, there was no troubleshooting, configuration or anything else required. The FAQ section on ShuttleChallenge describes some other dataloggers that either have to link to a smartphone via bluetooth, or connect to your home wifi. Since mine didn't have any of this, I can't comment on how hassle free the other devices are.

Emails, Charts and Graphs!

During the course of program I received a total of about 7 emails from ShuttleChallenge, so don't worry about them spamming you or overflowing your already overflowing email. To see your progress in the program you login to their secure website, below is a screenshot of my page towards the end of the program:

Each day, the datalogger is tracking your total distance traveled (km being kilometers for our American readers) and how much gas you have consumed. To motivate the frugal minded, the site spells out how much money you've spent (using an estimated gas price) and to motivate the environmental how many carbons you've emitted.

Overall, the site is quite well setup, with the numbers across indicating what stage of the program you are in, and the graph indicating how much you drove during your "baseline" week and during your "challenge week". On the right hand side of the page, there is a forum type setup where you can communicate with all other participants and with ShuttleChallenge staff. The forum mostly consisted of a few people having technical difficulties, and people complaining about construction causing them to have to take detours!

As you can see, I drive quite a bit, and while I have been tracking my mileage offline, it was surprising to see how much driving I actually do. Below are my final results:

While I didn't grab a screen capture of it, there are charts that compare your driving and fuel usage with everyone else doing the challenge at the same time. This is very useful to see how efficient you are compared to your peers, and how much distance you do compared to your peers. The charts below were sent to me via email:

As you can see, going from 1005 km over a 2 week period (which is a lot) to 1269 km over the challenge 2 week period, I did not qualify for the additional $25. It looks from the tables that on average our cohort also failed to meet the 10% KM reduction, although it's possible a few people like me skewed the average. The chart also shows some good news for my granny driving technique:

Average person -  9.6 and 9.55 L per 100 km
FindingOptimal - 7.8 and 7.68 L per 100 km

On this driving style, I would recommend this Mr. Money Mustache article, which has great advice like:
Overall, you should still use your brakes, but pretend they are hooked up to a speaker on your dashboard which blares out my voice saying “MEEEEEEEHHHHHHHHHH!!!” at you for the duration of your brake application – each and every time you touch that pedal. Pleasant, isn’t it?
Being able to see the obscene amount of driving I'm doing, was invaluable and this experience has helped encourage my wife and I to make some changes. You may also be surprised how trips can add up.

Once the program was finished, I called Purolator (a courier) to arrange pickup of the pre-paid envelope that Shuttle sent me in the mail when they first sent the datalogger. As of now, I'm waiting for my $25, but am sure it will arrive soon.


One note about accuracy, perhaps part of the trouble was my car being in underground parking where the datalogger couldn't get a signal out, or perhaps it was something else, but there was at least one day where it recorded no driving and there was some. My own Google Form based mileage tracking data is as follows:

What's important is my fuel efficiency numbers, L / 100 km, are better than what the datalogger tracked. My numbers are calculated based on distance travelled, and how much gas it took to fill the tank. There may be some variation when the pump shuts off, this could cause my driving to look more efficient one period, and less the next if the pump stops when the tank isn't quite full the first week period and "overfills" during the second period. This would explain some period to period variance, but the numbers are consistent and better than the ShuttleChallenge numbers. What's more likely is the datalogger missed one roughly 100km day of travel during that period, resulting in approximately 10% poorly mileage.

Final Thoughts - I Recommend ShuttleChallenge

I would recommend doing the ShuttleChallenge for the following reasons:
  1. $25
  2. Anytime you can get fairly accurate data about your expenses, without having to do any real work and without buying anything, it's good.
  3. The driving efficiency training was good, especially if you're the sort that puts no thought into efficient driving styles
  4. This could be the kick in the pants you need to realize you're spending too much money/time driving and you're not doing an efficient job at it.
  5. Maybe you'll get $50

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Updated blog layout

New and Improved

New and Improved

Well, it's been almost two months of blogging so far. Initially I was quite happy with a template that I found, but after a while a few issues in it started to bother me more and more. These include:
  1. Heading text in articles was too subtle, not different enough than the body text
  2. No "nice" looking links to social media
  3. Articles didn't flow top to bottom, but side to side and top to bottom. Given this isn't a magazine website, top to bottom is clearer and more efficient.
These got to me over time, so I spent a few hours on the weekend finding a new template and making some modifications to it as needed. If you have any feedback on the new site, please post comments.

More, longer, better researched articles will be coming.



Monday, September 16, 2013

Subway Restaurant Upsell EXPOSED


Last Friday, I was at a Subway restaurant. Subway is one of my favourites, because it offers healthy food, at a resonable price. In this regard, I believe it trumps all other fast food (although McDonald's still has a soft place in my heart).

That Friday, when I walked up to the counter I saw the sign on the left, with large letters that said "ALWAYS UPSELL - TO EVERY CUSTOMER". This was a sign I've never seen before, and looked like something you're not supposed to see. I quickly took a photo of it with my phone. While we all know companies try to upsell, I did not know that the cardboard cookie ad they place on the subway counter, has upselling instructions on the back of it!

So now, you've peaked behind the Subway curtain, and see that they are trying to always get you to buy a drink, or if it's cold outside, a footlong steak and cheese. I must admit though, if a subway employee ever did use the "It's cold outside, I bet a FOOTLONG steak & cheese would help" line on me, I would feel obligated to buy one for hearing such a funny line.

Companies will try to upsell you, so make sure you know what you want prior to going in. Getting more than you wanted (or need) isn't optimal but don't blame them if you buy more than you originally thought you would. Afterall, all they did was ask.

So What Do I DO?

Make sure you know what you want, before you go in there, and by default, SAY NO to gravy, cheese, bacon, to make it a combo, or anything. If you really wanted any of those, you would've asked for them in the first place. What they really are doing is putting you on the spot, by asking if you want to be upsold, while you're in a busy line. Ordering more than you really want is not optimal, for your wallet or your weight class.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

You wouldn't schedule yourself to be in a traffic jam, so why are you?

How much traffic there usually is

How much traffic you want to have

Traffic is horrible, it wastes gas, puts extra wear on your vehicles brakes and transmission, and most importantly, it's a waste of time and a source of stress. Traffic, unfortunately, for many is a part of daily life.

While some of you may use public transit some of the time or not even own a vehicle, you too are vulnerable to disruptions when subway lines are closed or under maintenance.

While it may be difficult to avoid traffic, unless you're putting major road (subway, train, ferry) closures in your calendar you may be scheduling yourself into a jam.

In my hometown of Toronto, by checking this website once a month, you can have planned closures in your calendar before you may plans and potentially avoid driving or driving in that area on that day. Closure listings for your town are hopefully just a google search away.

Spending 2-3 minutes, once a month, reading a web page could save you hours of aggravation and wasted time.

In a perfect world, the road owner would have IT tools to send notifications directly to your calendar, smartphone or car GPS, but for now, it's worth manually checking.

For what it's worth, I asked my city Councillor if the city could setup a shared calendar of road closures, which I could then subscribe to. The response was:

I believe that the City's IT Division is currently looking at more ways to modernize the system and create feeds like the one you have mentioned. I will be sure to keep your feedback in mind as the technology develops and provide this feedback to our IT Division.

So for now, and likely indefinitely, it's manually checking a website once a month.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Smaller Flatbread - Eat More Precisely

Mmmmmm, burrito night

Smaller Flatbread Gives More Flexibility

Taco or Burrito night at home are my favourite. While it may not be the super healthiest meal, it's still reasonably healthy, quick and completely delicious. I've posted a copy of our recipes here:

They are posted as Google Documents. If you are interested, you can make a copy of them into your own Google Documents (if you're a Gmail / Google user), then print them out and give them a try! It is so much easier to work off a printed recipe.

We like Casa Mendoza Flatbread, the "medium" tortillas are 105 calories each. The larger one's are approximately 190 calories.

When it comes to dishing out the meal, and how much you end up eating versus how many leftovers there are, having smaller flatbread makes sense. Assuming you're like me and keep eating until you're full, at worst you just need a bit more but you eat one whole more burrito, on average you only need half of the next unit you're going to eat. Your expected overconsumption is 1/2 of the size of the unit.

If the smaller flatbread is 1/2 the size of the large, you now have the option of eating in half increments. This reduces the chance you are overeating, and increases the number of delicious leftovers you have at the end. There's really no reason to ever have the larger flatbread, except it's faster to fill a large tortilla and chow down on it.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

It's not a purse, it's a satchel! - Efficiencies of a ManBag

Too bad the belly is photobombing

Never Say You'll Never Have a Manbag

So, I finally knucked under and bought myself a MEC Carry All MG Shoulder Bag, primarily because I love to read. Recently I've been reading The Personal MBA.

The Personal MBA is a great book, by Josh Kaufman. The premise of the book is by reading, and studying business you can gain a great deal of business education without doing an MBA. I'll have more on the book later, but I was really tired of being on public transit, waiting for my wife at a store (or outside of a store) or waiting anywhere and being unable to read.

I also got tired of having bulging pockets from carrying around a cellphone, wallet, sunglasses case, and sometimes a digital camera. As any guy will admit, it's not comfortable carrying all this stuff around.

I went with Mountain Equipment Co-op since they make excellent products, and have a 100% satisfaction policy. I can return the product at any time, for a full refund. If I decide that a satchel is not for me, I can return it and get all my money back. Buying something you're not sure of, and returning it if you don't want it is completely legal and ethical. Buying something you know that you only need for a short time period, and returning it once you're done, is wrong.

Even only using this on weekends, over the last few weeks I've gained over 2 hours of reading. That's a real time gain. While I could do like everyone else and just burn up idle time using my phone, reading off a real book (or an e-reader) is much nicer, and now with a satchel, completely possible.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Cover Your Assets - Covered Parking

Underground, and safe!

Go Deep

My wife and I went to the grocery store last weekend, and it being a high of 25 degrees Celsius (or 77 Fahrenheit), we decided to park underground. The decision was made that much easier, since I own a black vehicle, with a gray interior, without tinted windows, and without air conditioning. So, in short, I drive a black oven.

We parked underground, for the obvious reason that it would give the car a chance to cool before we, and our suitably protected groceries, got back in it.

It was interesting, that very few people parked in the underground, most parking out front. While I imagine people have safety concerns about darkly lit parking garages, this one is very well lit. It was also the middle of the day on a Sunday, so there was no risk of being the only non-criminal in the lot.

Why Park Outside?

Outside you are vulnerable to:
  1. Bird POOP (which can damage your paint almost immediately)
  2. Sun, which fades your interior, and is hard on the paint over time
  3. Sun, which heats your vehicle
  4. Unexpected rain
  5. Unexpected hail
  6. Unexpected Lightening
  7. Wind, and wind blown debris
  8. Unexpected meteorites
  9. Unexpected space junk
Image Courtesy of State Farm on Flickr 
While you may think the above is silly, as they say, bird poop does happen. Some of the others may seems less likely, but if US insurance company State Farm writes about space junk claims, then you know it's serious enough. Well, maybe not, but who knows.

So why not cover yourself, and always park in covered parking. Besides, for those of us with black cars, don't black cars look better in the shade?

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Lessons From Finance - Pay Yourself First... With Vegetables!

Food Displacement

Pay Yourself When/What?

One of my favourite concepts from personal finance, is the idea of "paying yourself first". There are numerous websites that explain this, from Investopedia to <OTHER>. I like the <OTHER> definition:
To pay yourself first means simply this: Before you pay your bills, before you buy groceries, before you do anything else, set aside a portion of your income to save. The first bill you pay each month should be to yourself. This habit, developed early, can help a person build tremendous wealth
Paying yourself first ensures that if you have a finite amount of money, that you meet your savings targets first, then you try to allocate what is leftover to everything else. This reduces the amount of discipline needed, and any need for a complicated budget plan. You have however much leftover after savings, and you'll find a way to make it work.

So Why is There A Picture of Some Vegetables?

What if paying yourself first, could be applied to food?

Think of it as your stomach has a finite amount of room before you feel full. By allocating some of that space for healthy, non-fattening, "no added sugar", low sodium food first, you are guaranteed to eat at least that much healthy food. After you've gotten your vegetables out of the way, you eat as you wish, but you'll have less room in your stomach for everything else. The vegetables will crowd out how much other food you can eat.


It's BBQ season. In Canada (and of course the USA), BBQ's are a great time for gettting together with friends and eating delicious BBQ'd food. Several weeks ago I went to a friend's bbq and ate:
  • 2x 1/4 pound cheeseburgers with buns
  • 1x large piece of salmon
  • uncountable numbers of chips, with a homemade dip with cheese, and salsa
  • 3x chicken quesadilla's
  • an ice cream sandwich
I'll admit, this is an obscene amount of food. All of it was completely delicious, but probably more than I should be eating. The ability to overeat at a BBQ is compounded by the amount of time you spend at one. That afternoon we were there for 4-5 hours. I enjoyed myself the whole time, and it was an excellent chance to catch up with friends, but it's hard to sit around for that long and not keep eating.

Fill Yourself First (with Vegetables)

Rather than relying on any sort of willpower, when I was invited to another BBQ last weekend, I resolved to do things differently.

Prior to going to the BBQ, I made the salad you see above and ate it. Getting to the BBQ took about 30 minutes, so it didn't feel as if I had just ate prior to arriving. Over the next happy 3 hours at the BBQ, I ate a fair amount, but nowhere near as much as at the last one. I had filled myself first, so there just wasn't as much room.

Eating a healthy, breakfast every morning is another example of filling yourself first. Breakfast can help reduce any unhealthy, rushed, fast food type lunch you may wind up eating.

So next time you're going to a ribfest, BBQ, or other potential binge eating session, why not fill yourself first and displace just a bit of the unhealthy food you're about to eat.

Monday, August 19, 2013

YES! I do wear black socks and shorts to the gym!

Fashion, is it Optimal?

Fashion, it's everything to some people, but is being fashionable always optimal?

I wear black cotton socks to work. 

Periodically, I do go to the gym to workout, in shorts and a t-shirt.

Now, take any preconceived ideas you may have about anything and answer this: does it make sense to remove one cotton sock and replace it with another different coloured cotton sock, then after 30-60 minutes remove and launder the 2nd sock? Think of it, that one white sock is only getting 30-60 minutes of wear per wash, what a waste.

No way! Think of the extra laundry you're needlessly generating.

So, be brave, be a hero for the environment, be optimal and wear your work socks with pride to the gym!

(Note: if you're single, this might be a bad idea and lead to a loss of potential mate options. If you're married, you should definitely do this, and repel any romantic advances towards you before they happen).

Friday, August 16, 2013

A Taxing Issue - 591 mL Water bottles?

Get your calculator out! It's tax time!

Going for a drive after work on a hot day, I decided to buy some water at a gas station. Usually, I'm not a fan of bottled water, but coming straight from a job site, and not wanting a soda, there was no choice.

Somehow at the cash register, my 591 mL bottle which was $1.70 became almost the same price as a 1L bottle at $1.99. The reason? Sales tax applied to the water bottle. The gas station attendant told me that for quantities under 1L there is sales tax.

Yes, in Canada they put tax on water.

You see "Food products sold for human consumption are not taxable. However, for [tax] purposes, food products are different from prepared foods, snack foods and soft drinks."

Obviously, everyone knows that water under 1L is a "snack food" while water above 1L is a "food product".

You may also be interested to know that "non-carbonated fruit drinks containing 25 per cent or more natural
fruit juice" and "tea, including fruit flavored and/or sweetened crystals, and canned and bottled iced tea" are "exempt food items" and not subject to tax.

I hope you agree with me that this is completely ridiculous, arbitrary and makes things more complicated for the consumer and merchant.

Well wait just a minute, the sales taxes in Ontario were changed from a provincial tax to a harmonized sales tax. For HST, there is no tax on water over 600 ml., since 599ml is obviously more of a snack water, rather than food water. Unfortunately I didn't keep my receipt, so shame on me, but a gas station attendant can be forgiven for not keeping up with this complexity.

But wait, it gets even more complicated, consider this from the Federal guideline for HST:

Mr. B goes to the grocery store and buys two 591 mL 
bottles of unflavoured and non-carbonated brand W water, 
which he takes from the cooler one at a time. The next day 
Mr. B goes to the store and buys a two-pack of the 591 mL 
size of the same brand of water, sealed together in a 
plastic wrap by the manufacturer. 

In this example, Mr. B’s purchase of two bottles of brand 
W water on the first day is taxable because they were not 
packaged together by the manufacturer. Even though the 
bottles were purchased at the same time, two or more 
single-serving-sized bottles of water must be packaged 
together by the manufacturer to be zero-rated. 

Mr. B’s purchase of the two-pack of water on the second 
day is zero-rated because the two single-serving-sized 
bottles of water were packaged together by the 

So a 2-pack of 591 ml water is tax free, but two singles aren't? And water with 7% fruit juice of any size is taxed since the fruit part is under 25%.

Of course, each non-HST provinces treats this slightly different. I've tried to wade through the details of what is tax-free by province below:

Alberta - 600ml and larger, smaller pack sizes face 5% federal tax
British Columbia - 600ml and larger face no tax, 5% federal tax applied to smaller pack sizes
Manitoba - 600ml and larger, 5% federal tax applied to smaller pack sizes
New Brunswick, Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, PEI - 600ml and larger, smaller pack sizes face full sales tax (13-14%)

Ontario - 600ml and larger, smaller pack sizes face full sales tax
Quebec - 600ml and larger, smaller pack sizes face full sales tax
Saskatchewan -  600ml and larger, 5% federal tax applied to smaller pack sizes
Yukon, Nunavut and Northwest Territories - 600ml and larger, smaller pack sizes face 5% federal tax

So, make sure you practice proper tax planning with tax sheltered retirement investments, and 600+ ml bottles of water.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Make FindingOptimal, Optimal!

Improvement Ideas?

I've been publishing on FindingOptimal for about a month now, with 15 (not including this) published posts. This my first try at blogging, so thank you for bearing with me. The goal has to make a useful, fun, easy to read blog with real strategies for improvement.

I'm looking for your help with any suggested changes to the formatting, layout and content on the blog.

While the initial template I used was a good start, there are a few things I don't like about it and how some things are formatted. My ideas are below, but I'd love to hear from you.

1. Include a "popular in last month" as well as "popular all time" list of posts in side panel
2. Consider font colour changes for visited links
3. Add in an icon in the contacts section for following me on twitter, facebook, or email.
4. Consider changing the main section of the page, since the sidebars are so long, but the main section of the blog is very short.

Now that there is a start at some content, the top navigation bar that has "about" and "home" could use some more items on it. The tags and labels also need reviewing, to see about re-categorizing some posts.

Again, any constructive feedback would be greatly appreciated.

Thank you,

David G. McKenna

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Would you hire yourself, to be yourself? - Typing

2 Finger Typer

Would you hire someone like this to type for you?

What qualifications would you list to be you? I don’t just mean qualifications at work, what about qualifications needed for your personal life? What assortment of skills and traits would you look for to juggle all the different hats you wear as a husband, wife, brother, sister, uncle, aunt, friend, employee, owner and co-worker? Do you have all the traits and skills that you think you’d need if you were to hire someone to replace you in your life?

This post is the first to look at some of these traits and skills, specifically your typing skills for when you act as your own personal assistant.

Sadly, few of us have our own secretaries, even Director / Business Unit Manager / Plant Manager type people I’ve worked with don’t have their own secretaries.

Would you hire yourself to be your own typist?
How many emails a day to you send? At work? At home? Do a quick count, is it 100? Is it more?
How many documents do you type at work?

Are you unable to keep up when taking notes in a meeting or at school?

If you type like the guy above (with two fingers), would you hire that guy to do all your daily typing? No, of course not, then why do you “hire” yourself to type with two fingers? Even if you type better than someone with two fingers, can you touch type? Are you at 40, or 50 words per minute?

Learning to type even 10% faster could make a huge difference in how efficient you are professionally and personally. If you’re using two fingers, there’s probably a lot more room for improvement than 10%.

OK, I agree, I’m not qualified to type for myself, now what do I do?

There’s many different programs or techniques out there, but I've tried: . It’s free and decent, so why not give it a shot? This could make a real productivity difference, very quickly.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Pay Your Bills Precisely - Credit Card Tipping at Restaurants


Businesses Don't Overpay Their Suppliers, Why Do You?

If you were running a business, and had to pay one of your suppliers would you ever round up? No, nobody would. You would pay your supplier what they were owed, what was agreed to, and what was fair. You would not round up, or let them keep the change.

Tipping With a Credit Card Lets You Be More Precise

When you pay with a credit card you can enter a precise tip amount, with cash, you are limited by the combination of change you receive and are carrying.

Consider my modest lunch purchase last week, the subtotal was $7.89. Let's consider the following scenario's:

  1. Pay with $10 cash, and let the server keep the change. This results in a 27% tip (based on the subtotal)
  2. Pay with $10 cash and get $2.10 in change (the penny has been abolished in Canada).
    1. Assume the change is a $2 coin, and a 10 cent coin. To maintain a 15% tip minimum, the tip would've been $2 resulting in a 25% tip
    2. Assume the change is a $1 coin, 4 quarters, and one 10 cent coin. To maintain a 15% tip minimum the tip would've been $1.35 resulting in a 17% tip. This would've required some math, and it's probable quickly looking at the change I might have left $1.50 or $1.60 instead.

While the service was good, it wasn't worthy of more than a 15% tip. 

Whether you think service is worth 15%, 20%, or higher, you should tip based on what you think the service is worth, not based on what combination of change you receive. Paying with a credit card helps ensure you can pay precisely how much you want.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Do Ladies Dig It? - Search Don't Sort - Laundry Vol2

No underwear, so don't zoom in looking for any

Cutlery Search Don't Sort Update

This post furthers our series in Be Like Gmail - Search Don't Sort. The original posting described saving time by dumping your dishwasher cutlery basket directly into the cutlery drawer. The idea is, instead of spending time sorting something, you don't sort at all and just search for individual items from the collection as needed.

There were some great comments (mostly on facebook) that brought out some disadvantages of this approach, some of the highlights:
  1. "Sorting is faster, especially if you need to grab multiples"
  2. Some commenters had dishwasher baskets with individual slots for cutlery, this presents the opportunity to pre-sort the cutlery in the dishwasher (since you have to place each individual item into a slot anyways) with no marginal effort. Pre-sorting allows you be sorted in the cutlery drawer with no marginal effort.
  3. "you are optimising the wrong thing! You should have one type of utensil only -- a spork! then sorting and searching are both O(1)
These are excellent points. There is also the matter of change management, and bringing various stakeholders into any change. Suffice to say, in my home my wife and I are no longer following the cutlery Gmail approach.

An Outrageous Comment

The craziest comment from a FindingOptimal reader was this one:
 I do this with my clothes...jeans, dress pants, tshirts, etc...all in one pile...saves a great deal of time. chicks dig it too

Isn't laundry another great candidate for search-don't-sort? It takes considerable time to arrange clothes in a dresser or hang them up. Many of us don't have stringent dress-codes at work, so a minor increase in wrinkles shouldn't cause major problems and, isn't floor space in your bedroom just wasted anyways?

FindingOptimal will research this approach and advise.

Update - 2013-08-12

Don't try this at home.