The Big Picture

When I was a little, we used to get a kid-focused science magazine every month. I don’t remember what it was called or where it came from, but I do remember my favorite feature.

Every month, on the back cover, would be eight photographs. They were not normal photos however. These were extreme close-up images of common things and the challenge to the elementary school audience was to figure out what each one was.

The answers for each month were printed on the inside of the back cover of the next month’s issue, so with no Internet, we literally had to wait a month to see if we were right about each one.


Zoomed-in mystery pics.

It was a puzzle for sure, but I later came to appreciate the lesson it taught about context, detail, and focus.

In the late 1990s I worked for an IT consulting firm in Manhattan. Some of the consultants for whom I was responsible, were assigned to a process analysis team inside a big New York bank.

This particular bank had recently purchased several other banks, so they had a large number of different systems and processes to blend and integrate.

One day the team was sent to a check processing operation that was part of one of the recently acquired banks. They were to follow the process from beginning to end, document everything they saw, and then make recommendations for transitioning the operation to the processes already in use by the new owner. The team followed stacks of checks from where they entered the building, all the way through to where they left.

When they finished and compared their notes, they discovered something both fascinating and disturbing.

  • The entire process was made up of twenty distinct steps.
  • At the third step in the process, a worker filled out a custom printed, duplicate, string-tie tag, called a “Hickey Ticket,” and affixed it to a stack of checks.
  • When that stack of checks got to the seventh step, a worker tore off the top copy from the Hickey Ticket and placed it in a bin labeled “Hickey Tickets” in the middle of the work area.
  • At the twelfth step in the process, a worker removed the Hickey Ticket from the stack and threw it away.

After looking a bit deeper, they also discovered that the custodial staff emptied the bin in step seven after every shift, just as if it were garbage.


The “Hickey Ticket” looked kinda like this.

At some point in the past, the Hickey Ticket must have served a purpose, but by the time the team came in to document things, it had long since lost its relevance.

The sad thing is – nobody noticed.

In 2007 I landed the single biggest deal of my career to date. At the time I was the Director of Sales & Marketing for a CD and DVD manufacturer, and I managed to secure the contract to provide a large national retailer with approximately 4,000,000, private-label photo CDs every year.

Up to this point, the retailer had sourced their photo CDs from an international photo products company. The retailer also used photo-processing equipment from that same large company. The CD they previously used came complete with packaging and photo sorting software, but it also came with the photo company’s branding and a large price tag.


A 50-pack of commercial quality CDs

The retailer did some research and concluded that they could source their own software, and then pay my company to burn that software onto discs of equal quality, print their brand on the face, and supply packaging that also supported their brand. The best part was that this custom solution would cost approximately half the price they were paying for the disc that only promoted their current supplier.

It took about two months of sending discs back and forth, to get everything approved, but once we had the green light, the first order was for 650,000 pieces.

By itself that was the biggest order I had ever received, and that was just for starters.

To properly describe what was involved, I have to geek out a little so stick with me. The steps we had to go through to meet our deliverables were:

  • Source blank CDs
  • Source custom printed photo/CD wallets
  • Source custom boxes
  • Burn the software, provided by the retailer, onto the discs and leave the disc “open”
  • Print the retailer’s artwork onto the disc surface
  • Package the burned & printed discs in 50 count containers
  • Combine the containers of discs and boxes of wallets into the custom box
  • Stack complete boxes onto pallets
  • Ship to one of thirteen distribution centers all of which had unique pallet dimension and height requirements

When the CDs arrived at the retail locations, the equipment there would burn the customer’s photos onto the CD and “close” the disc, resulting in a disc that contained both software and photos.

This was without a doubt the largest and most complex job the company had ever undertaken, but we were up to the task and when things got underway it all went smoothly. The 650,000 pieces shipped on time and a few days after the last shipment left our loading dock, I visited the customer in Rhode Island.

The meeting was brief since everything had gone according to plan, and after fewer than sixty minutes at their offices, I was on my way to meet with other customers in New York City.

The next morning was sunny and warm. Around 11:00am, I was walking down 34th street, near Madison Square Garden when my phone rang. I answered cheerfully, since the caller ID said that it was my happy big customer.

She simply said, “Steve, the discs don’t work.”

You know how in some movies when a bad thing happens, the camera looks to the sky and the world begins to spin out of control? Well, that is exactly what the next few minutes felt like. 34th street was full of people and bustle, as it always is at that time of day, and if a pickpocket had crossed my path, I certainly would have lost my wallet.

After several phone calls I learned that when the discs were burned with customer photos, and then the software was run, the thumbnail images of the pictures were not visible… a pretty big problem for photo sorting software.

Over the next four days, we learned more about the situation and after three sleepless nights this was the deal.

The retailer had recently purchased a chain of stores in Florida and those stores had some different processing and CD burning equipment. That different equipment wrote what is called EXIF data in a different way, resulting in the software not being able to read the thumbnails properly. The fix was a software upgrade to thirteen pieces of equipment. Considering the retailer had over 6,000 locations… that was a pretty good outcome.

The more disturbing discovery was this: Because there were so many different providers involved in the development of this new disc, nobody did any comprehensive testing.

  • The software company had tested the software
  • My company tested that the software was properly burned and the disc was left open
  • The photo processing equipment company tested that photos could be burned to the disc, but never launched the software because it wasn’t theirs

In the end we got really lucky with the software update of only thirteen machines, but it could have been a whole lot worse.

With the advent of technologies like Google Earth, we all now have the ability to zoom in and out of any spot on our globe. As powerful as that is, we still need to make sure that our level of observation in other parts of our lives is appropriate.

The photos on the back of the magazine were tricky because they were zoomed in way beyond common expectation. The workers in the check processing center never looked further than one job before or after their own, and as a result wasted time and money on defunct Hickey Tickets. The national retailer didn’t realize that one of the things they were getting for the more expensive CD was a fully tested and integrated system, and by going it alone, all of the suppliers never looked beyond their own individual responsibility.

Never neglect the big picture.

So, grab that ring on the lens of your life that lets you zoom in and out, and make an effort to play with it from time to time. You may not have to spend too much time fully zoomed in or out, but what you learn while you’re there will be very valuable once you get back to your place of comfortable focus.

PS – I won’t make you wait a month.  The three images at the top of the page are:

  1. Orange peel
  2. Strawberry
  3. Eye of a common housefly

Copyright © 2016 – Stephen S. Nazarian – All rights reserved.

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