Tribe of Mentors (Tim Ferriss) Book Review

If reading this book along with Tools of Titans has taught me anything, it’s that you can derive lots of content from a single piece of core content. In Tools of Titans, Tim Ferriss’ last book, he distilled and grouped the best pieces of advice that over 100 guests of his popular podcast, The Tim Ferriss Show, have shared with him and his listeners over the years. In his new book, Tribe of Mentors, the approach has been reversed. Tim sent a list of 11 questions to a plethora of moguls, mavens and visionaries, listed the best answers in book form and is now trying to book as many of the contributors as possible to his podcast. A very nifty content generation strategy indeed. Here is the list of 11 questions explored in the book:

1. What is the book (or books) you’ve given most as a gift, and why? Or what are one to three books that have greatly influenced your life?

2. What purchase of $100 or less has most positively impacted your life in the last six months (or in recent memory)? My readers love specifics like brand and model, where you found it, etc.

3. How has a failure, or apparent failure, set you up for later success? Do you have a “favorite failure” of yours?

4. If you could have a gigantic billboard anywhere with anything on it — metaphorically speaking, getting a message out to millions or billions — what would it say and why? It could be a few words or a paragraph. (If helpful, it can be someone else’s quote: Are there any quotes you think of often or live your life by?)

5. What is one of the best or most worthwhile investments you’ve ever made? (Could be an investment of money, time, energy, etc.)

6. What is an unusual habit or an absurd thing that you love?

7. In the last five years, what new belief, behavior, or habit has most improved your life?

8. What advice would you give to a smart, driven college student about to enter the “real world”? What advice should they ignore?

9. What are bad recommendations you hear in your profession or area of expertise?

10. In the last five years, what have you become better at saying no to (distractions, invitations, etc.)? What new realizations and/or approaches helped? Any other tips?

11. When you feel overwhelmed or unfocused, or have lost your focus temporarily, what do you do? (If helpful: What questions do you ask yourself?)

In the book, Tim goes into why he’s asking these specific questions in this specific order, playing to the adage that the quality of your life is determined by the quality of your questions. The “mentors” come from wide ranging background and live in specialties such as sports, journalism, religion, acting, chess, business, investing, etc. To give you a sense of what you can expect from this book, here are two of my favorite responses. The range of topics covered is diverse, so one is more philosophical and one more practical to illustrate this range. First, here is the answer to question #7 from CEO and founder of Angelist, Naval Ravikant:

“Happiness is a choice you make and a skill you develop. The mind is just as malleable as the body. We spend so much time and effort trying to change the external world, other people, and our own bodies, all the while accepting ourselves the way we were programmed in our youths. We accept the voice that talks to us in our head all the time as the source of truth. But all of it is malleable, every day is new, and memory and identity are burdens from the past that prevent us from living freely in the present.”

If you are someone who already devotes time to personal growth, this is not a new concept but quite probably the most poetic way you’ve ever heard it expressed. I don’t know about you but quotes like these continue fueling my fire. If you don’t devote any time to it, I hope quote like these spark that fire.

However, fear not, if that last one was too “mushy gushy” for you, this second, more practical, response to question #7 from Julia Galef, co-founder of the Center for Applied Rationality:

“When something goes badly, I don’t automatically assume I did something wrong. Instead I ask myself, “What policy was I following that produced this bad outcome, and do I still expect that policy to give the best results overall, occasional bad outcome notwithstanding?” If yes, the carry on.

The reason this habit is so important is that even the best policies will fail some percent of the time, and you don’t want to abandon them (or beat yourself up) as soon as one of those inevitable failures pops up.

Let’s say you always aim to arrive at the airport 1 hour and 20 minutes before your flight. One day there’s an accident on the highway that ends up delaying you, and you just barely miss your flight. Does that mean you should have left more time? Not necessarily. A policy of aiming to be two hours early to the airport would have saved you this time, but it comes with a different cost – lots more time spent waiting in airports. Aiming for 1 hour 20 minutes may still be the best policy going forward even though it occasionally, like today, causes a missed flight.”

If that thought doesn’t rock your socks off then you probably weren’t wearing any socks to begin with, you hippie. But seriously, that’s the sort of thought that changes your perspective and tactical approach to life and frankly justifies the price tag of the book on its own. Of course, depending on your preferences, some profiles may not provide any value, but this is to be expected with such a large base of “mentors”.

I almost feel bad for participating in the “Ferriss universe” since I tend to have a healthy skepticism of mainstream trends and feel Ferriss has very much become mainstream. However, the quality of opinions and insights coming from the folks Tim collaborates with brings me real value and, when critically analyzed, studied and integrated into one’s life allow for better habits, mindsets and outcomes.

What I liked.

  • Ferris delivers on content. He was able to get an impressive list of personalities to collaborate on a single, time-boxed project which in and of itself is quite impressive. This wasn’t the case for Tools of Titans where the content was gathered over years on his podcast.
  • The structure and editing are once again superb. Very easy to read and follow.

What could have been better.

  • For some questions, the book gets a bit repetitive. There are only so many ways to answer the question: “what do you do when you feel overwhelmed?” People take a break.
  • Again, as in Tools of Titans, the subjects are not easily referenceable as there is no index by subject. Tim did make more of an effort to add indexes to this book though, providing a “mentor index” (which is basically a copy of the table of contents) and a “question index” which maps the eleven questions to mentor answers that were included in the book. However, these are indexes fall short as they don’t require much critical thought to put together. Therefore, they don’t deliver much value… He also included a “Create-Your-Own-Index” section with blank pages saying readers should create their own indexes based on what resonates for them which is sort of a cop out to making a real index… Unless you put lots of time in creating your own index, the insights in this book can’t be referenced easily. I suspect this is because getting the book on shelves before Christmas was more important than taking the time to make a valuable index…

Rating: 4/5

As stated above, I think the value to be gained from this book is stupendous. I’m taking a point away because of the lack of work put into referencing, and the redundancy in answers for certain questions. I didn’t create an index this time around, but I did put together a list of the best passages to help cut through the redundancy and improve referencing for the nuggets that were most impactful for me (yes, I used the “Create-Your-Own-Index” pages I just vilified above…) You can download it HERE if you are interested. Again, it is a word document so feel free to make it your own as you read the book. Consider it an Open Source document.

Personal Library Worthy?  Yes, I will keep coming back to this one for inspiration on various topics as I do with Tools of Titans.

 If this post has peeked your interest, you can read the introduction of the book here for free.

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Did you read Tribe of Mentors?  Did you have a favorite response?  How do you feel it compared to Tools of Titans?

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Procurement Function Overview

To understand the context of my procurement posts, which can often get very detailed, you need to have a basic understanding of procurement to build upon. Let’s take the tour.

The first place I like to start is the world famous Porter Value Chain as it is a good framework to use as a lens; I’ve drawn parallels from this model when examining the procurement function. Around since 1985, this thing has stood the test of time. A beautiful example that a good idea need not be complicated, this model aims to explain how companies generate a profit. The following figure illustrates this in the context of a manufacturing firm:

Quite simply, a company has primary activities which are directly connected to the creation of value for the eventual customer through warehousing, production, shipment, sale and maintenance of a good or service.  These primary activities are supported by secondary activities which, while not directly related to the product/service sold, also help create value for the end customer by optimizing the company’s activities.  This total creation of value is captured in the profit margin at the sale of the product/service to the end customer. Much could, and has, been written on Porter’s value chain but the important point is that without generating value for the customer, there is no way to generate profits. If I personally met Michael Porter, I’d want to debate the fact that he sees procurement as a support activity and not a primary one but that’s a topic for another post…

If we apply this same thinking independently to the procurement function, we should get something like this:

Before I get into the explanation of this model, let’s first define the parts:

  1. Sourcing

I define sourcing as the act of attempting to find a supplier that best fits a procurement need.  The need could be the lowest price possible, but it could also be to have the good/service for a certain date or which respects a specification (quality, size, etc). I divide sourcing into three parts strategic sourcing, tactical buying and ad-hoc sourcing.

Strategic sourcing involves deliberate procurement planning for a defined set of spend. It is usually driven as a project which includes multiple dependent steps and culminate in one or many RFx events (ie. RFI – Request for Information, RFP – Request for Proposal, etc). In very complex procurements where one supplier cannot supply all parts (ie. government ships, aeroplanes, etc.), this may be a huge undertaking. The goal of strategic sourcing is to lock in the largest, recurring, forecastable portions of the company’s spend according to the company’s priorities (quality, price, etc).  This creates the conditions needed for accurate financial planning of purchases.

Tactical buying involves running a quick supplier query process (usually something like a “3 bids and a buy” RFQ (request for quotations) for any spend over a certain threshold which isn’t covered by agreements negotiated under the strategic sourcing process. This activity is usually executed by a dedicated, expert team and captures value simply because of the rigor it provides (ie. call three suppliers and get the best price vs. buying from the first supplier you find).

Ad-hoc sourcing is usually done in organizations where the business units (ie. plants) can find their own suppliers.  This activity is simply the ungoverned connection of a supplier with a purchasing need, however this is done.

  1. Contract Management

This set of activities aims to formalize the value captured during the sourcing process in a legal contract and a back-end system compatible price list. Once the business is awarded to supplier(s) during the sourcing process, we then start the contract management process which cover the initial authoring of the contract, the creation of a machine actionable price list (ie. outline agreement in SAP which can be read by MRP – Materials Requirements Planning), the management of the contract lifecycle and repository & the contract amendment or renewal processes.

  1. Operational Purchasing

This stream contains the nuts and bolts of the purchasing process; meaning the creation of purchase requisitions by employees in different business units, the approval of these requisitions by approvers in the business units, the creation of purchase orders by a central procurement department (which ensures the purchases adhere to corporate policies and are compliant with the contracts negotiated above), the approval of purchase orders from a treasury (cash flow) perspective, the back-and-forth communications with suppliers and the receipt of goods.  Alternatively, if you don’t want to use a central procurement department organizational model, you can do away with the requisitioning process (ie. units can procure for themselves).  This is usually where processes get messy, complicated and complex. I include the subcontracting, vendor consignment processes as well as integration with inventory management processes in this stream.  Vendor business networks are also covered in this stream and the accounts payable stream as they serve as automation systems for these processes.

  1. Accounts Payable

This stream is home to the vendor invoice receipt and the payment processes. These could easily be inserted into the operational procurement stream of activities however, as it usually lies in the finance function’s operational scope, I separate it out for clarity.

  1. Firm Infrastructure & Human Resources

This stream represents the organizational structures that are privileged by the company to carry out procurement activities. There are integration points with the HR function in this stream.

  1. Spend Reporting & Procurement Analytics

This stream is present and permeates all streams in the procurement value chain. It represents the activities associated with the access to and enhancement of the entirety of the company’s procurement data regardless of the stream where the data is generated.

  1. Procurement Technology

This stream represents the governance and architecture of systems that support all procurement activities. This most likely involves integration points with systems used by other functions such as Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) systems.

  1. Procurement Master Data Management

This stream encompasses all the data governance and creation/modification activities around procurement master data. Who requests, approves and executes the requests affecting procurement data within the company? In an SAP ERP system this would represent the governance and execution activities around vendor masters, purchasing info-record, outline agreements, source lists, quota arrangements, material masters, etc. I also include vendor risk and performance management processes in this stream. I separate this stream from technology because data needs a special, dedicated consideration. If your data is of poor quality, it will paralyze the function’s ability to generate value.

Now that you understand the different parts of the procurement function, primary activities are the ones that directly contribute to the ability of the procurement function to create value for the business (whether that means lower Cost of Goods Sold (COGS) & prices, certain quality levels, deal terms and conditions or precise delivery dates, etc.). Support activities are the ones that support the primary, or “core” procurement activities. The business (or rest of the company) is the procurement function’s primary client and value needs to be the primary output of the procurement function. Value also needs to be defined in the business’ terms – A procurement function is of little value if the business values quality of product, but delivers cost savings instead. Suppliers can also be viewed as clients of the procurement function depending on the type of relationship the function has with them.

There you have it. In a nutshell, that’s procurement. Of course, I’m over-simplifying here but that’s what the rest of this blog is for! There are also many other ways to model the procurement function, but this is the most complete (and satisfying) I’ve come up with during my time in the industry.

Happy reading,

– Joël
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What other ways have you seen the procurement function modeled? Do you believe pieces are missing or should be removed? Do you agree with my segregation of primary and support activities?

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How to Onboard Vendors to a B2B Business Network

What is the best way to onboard vendors to a Business Network? (ie. Ariba Network, Coupa Supplier Network, Basware Supplier Portal, etc)?

Before saying anything else, it is important to highlight that supplier enablement (network onboarding) is not a science but an art.  It involves relationships with vendors, is often dependent upon competing business imperatives and involves intentionally enabling the collision of many schools of thought on transactional sales and procurement processes.  These differing schools of thought between vendor and buyer are often hidden away in the depths of your Accounts Payable department who manually deal with exceptions when entering invoices.  Supplier enablement brings these exceptions to the forefront because it involves standardization, harmonization and automation.  Therefore, there is no one right way to go about it.  Here are a few guiding principles I believe should be considered when crafting a business network (ie. Ariba Network, Coupa Supplier Network, etc.) supplier enablement strategy, in order of importance.

0. Pilot Wave
As with any system implementation, you should start with a small subset of vendors to pilot your solution.  In this instance, you want to target 4-5 trusted vendors where good working relationships are in place, where there is a good mix of transaction types (services, materials, consignment, subcontracting, etc.) and there is a mutual benefit to setting up an integrated relationship.  With this subset of vendors, you will work through the initial bugs and problems to stabilize and strengthen your solution before ramping up the number of vendors enabled in each subsequent wave.  Having a good mix of transaction types is critical to ensure wide coverage of your current solution (business process hierarchy).

1. Transaction Volume
The value of supplier enablement lies in the elimination and automation of work; liberating resources to focus on strategic work or reducing your Full-Time Equivalent (FTE) instead of answering supplier queries on invoices or dealing with exception scenarios. Therefore, the main criterion that should be privileged when building an enablement wave plan is PO/Invoice transaction volume.  However, for vendors that have high transaction amounts (usually around 500 POs/year and above), suppliers will request direct integration with your business network (EDI/cXML Invoices sent directly from a supplier back-end system to the network) instead of having to log into the network and manually key in invoices. If your vendors pass this threshold and are willing to onboard regardless of this key point, you can forge ahead.  Just know that these suppliers will eventually come to the realization that they would like to integrate directly with the network to eliminate the manual work on their end.  If you haven’t managed this correctly, you can end up with a large backlog of angry vendors waiting to be fully integrated to your network.  This is covered more in-depth below.

2. Supplier Maturity
How mature is the targeted vendor from a process, system usage and back-end system perspective? Are you attempting to enable a vendor who is still sending manual or fax invoices or does your supplier have an EDI/cXML integration team ready to go already?  I usually try to put suppliers into four buckets: High Maturity, Average Maturity, Low Maturity, No Maturity

High Maturity – These suppliers are usually big players with fairly big volume.  They will want direct integration or nothing.  They are already billing you in an automated fashion so they will not settle for manual entry of invoices into the Network.  These suppliers should not be targeted first as your solution is not yet stable enough and you are therefore not ready for integration (and automation).

Average Maturity – These suppliers usually have medium to high transaction volumes but are still invoicing you “manually” meaning there is a manual intervention (keying in invoices, faxing you documents, etc) needed on their end and that joining a business network simply represents a process change as the amount of work remains about the same.  These suppliers will jump at the chance to win more of your business by integrating and are your prime candidates for the first enablement waves as they have important volume.

Low Maturity – These suppliers have low transaction volumes but are also excited at the prospect of integrating with you.  Depending on your process/system maturity after having conquered the “Average Maturity” suppliers, this could be the next tranche to attack.  If your process/system is very mature, then you would favor “Highly Mature” suppliers as you can support supplier integration activities and the day-to-day volume this entails without a problem.  If you still have lots of open issues at this fork in the road, focus on the low maturity suppliers.  They usually tend to have simple processes.  If not, you should find a new supplier with whom to do business with for these categories…

No Maturity/Very Low Volume These are your technologically challenged, never going to get better, suppliers that you must absolutely deal with because they are the only people that do what they do.  Either that, or they are a supplier with whom you transact a few times a year (ie. once a month).  In this case, you shouldn’t even attempt to enable them.  Most business networks have a “Light Enablement” functionality where an interactive e-mail is sent and the supplier can simply convert the PO into an invoice.

As you can see, supplier maturity comes after transaction volume in terms of importance but has a big impact on if a supplier is chosen for enablement at any point in time.  It is also often the criteria on which we have the least information at the outset.  Therefore, use judgement and gather information from your buyers to craft your initial supplier enablement lists but don’t be averse to changing them with new information.

Other Considerations

1. Supplier Enablement Wave Size
Waves sizes should consistently grow over time.  The principal risk with enabling multiple suppliers at once is that if there are generalized (or even many different local) issues, you must deal with a large swath of suppliers who all want their problem dealt with, right away.  If your Business Process Hierarchy (BPH) is well known and you can quantify your solution coverage with suppliers currently enabled (ie. 95% of my business process variations are covered by existing enabled suppliers), then there is little risk to enabling a very large number of suppliers at once.  However, most organizations have a hard time quantifying coverage.  The decision therefore becomes a “general consensus” type decision.  Rule of thumb is start small after your pilot wave (20-25 suppliers), and ramp up from there based on experience.  No two companies are the same and your targets will largely depend on how many total suppliers you have.

2. Solution Defects
Obviously, if you have open issues that prevent suppliers from being enabled efficiently, they should be differed to a subsequent wave, when the problem is resolved.  You should only automate a process once it is working perfectly when executed manually.  If you are automating a process where there is currently chaos, all you will end up with is automated chaos.

3. Supplier  Integration (EDI / Cxml)
To add to the discussion in the volume and maturity sections, don’t be surprised if your top 20% of suppliers by transaction volume refuse to be enabled until they can be fully integrated.  The workload of switching from automatically invoicing you to having to log into a portal is simply unrealistic for them.  Once you feel your business network solution is stable, these suppliers should become your top priority.  To ensure this process goes well, you want to have a standard, documentation supported, process to test your integration scenarios with suppliers to make this process as seamless and quick as possible for suppliers.  You should also aim to have your business rules documented and validated by suppliers at the outset (ie. what types of charges do you accept at the header level? Line item level?).  This prevents starting integration only to realize that there are irreconcilable differences with supplier processes that will significantly delay integration because of required design changes.  Depending on your architecture (ie. if you or your supplier have middleware software in the equation), this may be less of a concern.

Conclusion
All in all, just remember that the overall goal is automation and that automating a chaotic process will ultimately result in automated chaos.  You are better to add process optimization and measurements to the scope of your supplier onboarding initiative rather than simply measuring your team by number of suppliers enabled.  This will ultimately lead to a concrete bottom line impact vs. trying to blindly enable all your suppliers as fast as possible.

Your initial supplier enablement lists will change. Continuously.  This is a normal part of the process as you learn more and more about your vendors, their capabilities and your own.  Supplier Enablement is a journey and needs to be viewed as such by your project and management team to be successful. By considering the above points in your approach, you will ensure better results.

– Joël
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What have your experiences with business network supplier onboarding?  Would you add any criteria that I’ve missed?  Have you been able to get to 100% of vendors enabled?

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A Perspective on ERP/Procurement System Commodity Codes

I was recently asked about my take on how to configure material/system commodity codes in ERP/Procurement systems.  Here are my main takeaways from multiple implementations of a set of commodity codes.

When implementing a new Source-to-Pay solution, you can usually either put in your own hierarchy or use a standard nomenclature such as the United Nations Standard Products and Services Codes (UNSPSC). For companies that have refined their own nomenclature in legacy systems over time to have a really good, industry/business specific list that is fine tuned for their context, I advise against trying to convert to UNSPSC because the benefit is marginal in comparison with the change management impacts this will inevitably bring on. The principal benefit to using a standard like UNSPSC is that you are using a common language with the outside world.  This may make your Business Network Vendor Onboarding process a bit easier as you won’t have to maintain UNSPSC to custom commodity code mappings but the majority of your vendors are not maintaining this data for their products.  The real value of commodity codes is use within the company’s walls therefore you always have to consider how the data will be used later in the process to determine the best way forward.

To illustrate, here is what I view as the most important points to consider when selecting your commodity code nomenclature – the underlying assumption being that the commodity code is a set of data which should serve and be owned by procurement:

1. How are your Sourcing teams and Category Managers organized?
At the very least, you want to be able to segregate purchasing and invoicing data by responsibility.  This enables reporting by category manager / procurement stream for performance tracking and RFP/go to market planning.  In addition, if you can get to a granularity level where you can filter within a category to sub-categories of products which you can convert to lists with which to go to RFP, than a further granularity level adds value.  But beware, complexity is the enemy of efficiency if not mastered by your team.

2. How detailed do you want to get in your spend analysis?
How fragmented is the current spend environment in the company?  Other than satisfying borderline OCD analysts like myself with more data, what are the tangible/intangible benefits attached to going down into further levels of granularity than, for example, “writing instruments” for everything you can write with that is purchased?  I am much more of the opinion that if your maturity is low, you should start out with a simple, effective nomenclature to address your big buckets of potential savings and that you can elaborate more detailed commodity code levels for areas of spend that require it when your sourcing organization gets to higher maturity levels.

3. What else will the commodity code be used for? (ie. Search, Process behavior, accounting)
If you are leveraging a commodity for for things like search (which is often done for MRO), then this can sway your nomenclature towards being much more complicated and precise so as to enable maintenance technicians and planners to find the right parts for example.  Personally, I think this is a perversion of the commodity code and that the data to enable search should be captured in the material number nomenclature or in a classification mechanism (such as in SAP ECC where you assign classes and characteristics to material masters).

If you are using commodity codes to drive different processes (in solution enhancements or configurations), then you may get your hands tied later on when you want to make changes to this commodity code structure as configuration or blocks of code will require modifications before you can change your commodity codes.  Therefore, be weary of mapping to these.  However, that being said, it is sometimes the only valid discriminator to route a process.

If you are using commodity codes to default accounting for non-stock purchases, then you may want to bring the chart of accounts into the fold when designing your nomenclature.  Usually, you will only be able to map a single General Ledger (GL) account to each commodity code so this has to be considered in the design.  Usually the business will opt for adding complexity to the commodity code structure instead of simplifying the GL structure but it’s always a valid fight to fight!

In short, it doesn’t really matter which nomenclature you use… As long as you have a single, common one in your organization and that it serves your purposes while being as simple as possible, you have a good commodity code nomenclature policy.  People will stop spending time arguing about which codes should be included/excluded, which codes new materials should be mapped to and which configurations/developments need to be changed and will spend more time doing what you need them to be doing which is cultivating potential savings with sourcing activities.

– Joël
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What has been your experience with commodity code nomenclatures?  How does your view differ from mine?  Have you seen any organizations benefit from tremendously granular commodity code structures?

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The Zone (Barry Sears) Book Review

I recently joined a CrossFit gym and the figureheads in this space often recommend the Paleo and/or Zone approaches to nutrition to maximize performance.  Not knowing a whole lot about nutrition, I wanted to see what all the hype was about.  There are several “Zone” books out there but this review is of the original, published in 1995 by Dr. Barry Sears.  Although a bit dated, I still found it very relevant.  Here is his gospel:

Dr. Sears defines the zone as being “the mysterious but very real state in which your body and mind work together at their ultimate best”; he compares it to the sport expression of feeling like you are in the zone, like you are on top of your game. The book has a lot of content, examples and technical information on nutrition which I won’t want to cover holistically but here are my main takeaways:

Dr. Sears starts by challenging the 90’s conventional nutritional wisdom used to combat the American obesity epidemic; in short, to encourage low fat, low protein diets that privilege carbohydrates as the main source of energy.  The underlying logic being if you don’t eat fat, you should start losing it.  Logical enough for the nutritionally illiterate, right?  However, Dr. Sears retorts: “You fatten cattle by feeding them lots and lots of low-fat grain.  How do you fatten humans? Same way: you feed them lots and lots of low-fat grain.” The tone was set for the book and my interest was piqued.

Whenever you read on nutrition, the three main macro-nutrients (Carbohydrates, or Carbs, Protein and Fat) always make an early appearance and this book was no different.  The Tres Caballeros come up time and time again and are central to the Zone framework.  Here are the points made:

Carbohydrates

Your brain mainly uses carbohydrates as an energy source, however, you have very limited storage capacity for carbs in your system (only muscles and the liver can store carbs and only the liver’s storage can be used to power the brain).  All told, you can probably only store around 400-500 grams at once.  Once all stores are full, excess carbs start making your blood sugar levels rise.  This triggers insulin hormone release to convert these excess carbohydrates and store them as fat (which has no storage limit) to control the blood sugar rise.  It also hinders the use of fat as energy when present in the bloodstream.  However, not all carbs enter the bloodstream at the same rate.

The glycemic index identifies the rate at which a carbohydrate will enter the bloodstream once consumed.  Eating low glycemic index carbs will promote sending energy directly to the brain as it will “bathe” in your stomach longer whereas high glycemic index carbs will be absorbed quickly, max out brain demands and be sent for storage as fat (quantity obviously also plays a role here).

Protein

As Dr. Sears puts it, “Protein is the main structural ingredient of our cells, and the enzymes that keep them running.” Each person has a protein requirement based on Lean Body Mass (LBM) and Activity Factor (formula in the book), you should aim to eat just that amount per day since higher amounts will also trigger insulin responses and get converted into fat and lower amounts will affect how the lights stay on in different parts of your body (ie. Protein will be diverted from muscle and converted into carbs to feed the brain and your muscle mass will decrease).

Fat

At this point, Dr. Sears introduces the notion of hormone axes, mentioning that hormones are involved in a balancing act of sorts, meaning there is always a Ying to each hormonal Yang.  This will be important in a second.  Eating fat does not make you fat.  In fact, you must eat fat to lose fat.  How?  If you eat the appropriate amount of protein and carbohydrates for your personal needs you will need to eat fat for the remaining calories.  Your insulin-glucagon axis (hormones that regulate blood sugar levels) will be in balance and the fat you eat (plus your body fat) will be your primary source of energy.  Fat also serves to slow the entry rate of carbohydrates into the bloodstream, is the principal macro-nutrient that gives flavor to food and triggers the release of the cholecystokinin hormone in the stomach which tells your brain you are no longer hungry.

Zone Framework

After discussing the macro-nutrients, some hormonal axes and the role of eicosanoids in the body, Dr. Sears outlines his Zone nutritional framework to attain optimal levels of body function.  In a nutshell:

  • Find out your personal daily protein requirements (in grams) and always aim to consume exactly that amount (formulas provided in the book).
  • Your protein requirements will represent a 0.75 ratio of the amount of carbohydrates you need (e.g. for each 1g of carbs you would eat 0.75g of protein)
  • Additional fat is required on top of fat usually contained in your protein sources (ie. Meat) to ensure you meet your daily requirements.
  • Spread your meal and macro-nutrient consumption as evenly as possible throughout the day (Sears suggests three meals of similar size and two snacks) to keep a balanced, steady furnace running.
  • To make the four previous points manageable, Dr. Sears suggests breaking down your meals into “blocks” to make recipes easier. 1 block of protein is 7g, 1 block of carbs is 9g and 1 block of fat is 1.5g.  You should always eat in multiples of 3 blocks of each macro-nutrient (e.g. a 3-block meal would contain 3 blocks of protein, 3 blocks of carbs and 3 blocks of fat).  This sounds complicated but if you look up Zone recipes, they are all built in this fashion.  It also makes it easier to make a meal plan because you can plan for the appropriate number of blocks every day (ie. Divide your day in 16 blocks: three 4-block meals and two 2-block snacks).
  • Never let more than 5 hours pass (except for sleep) in between meals (steady furnace…)

Other Interesting Points

  • Think of food as medication. When you are eating, you are influencing your chemistry as much when you take medication.  However, medication is usually aimed at moving a specific needle which can produce side effects because the intervention is so targeted on a specific metric. This rarely happens when you eat a balanced diet of complex foods because you are moving a whole bunch of needles in concert at a slow and steady pace.
  • Think of the body as a manufacturing plant. If you feed it a steady, balanced diet, your outputs (energy levels, etc) will also be steady and balanced.  If you are constantly changing recipes or adding excessive amounts of a single ingredient at one point in time, you will have very different and varied outputs based on those inputs.  Similarly, if you load a high volume of inputs and let the machine run all day before inputting raw material again, the outputs (energy levels) will be of lower quality as time moves forward as the machine starts running on fumes.  This is why Dr. Sears advocates eating lots of small meals and balancing each one of those meals.
  • You can’t really lose fat at more than a rate of 1-1.5 lbs per week. If you lose more weight in that amount of time you are also losing either water or muscle mass.
  • The human growth hormone (secreted during high intensity anaerobic activity) is tasked with repairing muscle tissue after exercise. It takes most of its energy to do the job from fat.

Obviously, this is a lot of information to take in and following the framework religiously would be a bit extreme.  However, what is the goal when looking at nutritional frameworks?  Ultimately, it’s about eating better and getting better outcomes, whether they be health or performance related. I think this book serves that purpose even if you don’t want to start counting blocks for a living as there are general, practical rules given that you can easily apply to your nutrition for better outcomes.

What I liked.

  • Contrary to most readers of the book, I was happy the author was not scared to go in the technical weeds and talk about different hormones, body functions, etc. to support his recommendations. The theoretical concepts presented expose a first-time nutrition reader to a whole slew of concepts that can be investigated further if needed but also allows the book to stand of its own right without oversimplifying the subject matter too much.  It is a mass market book after all…
  • Even if you choose not to follow the Zone methodology after reading the book, there are loads of practical things you can easily implement to have an overall better diet.
  • The bibliography was laid out by chapter which gave easy leads for further reading on concepts that were of interest.
  • The appendices added tremendous value by making worksheets available to put the framework in place in your own life. The author makes it as easy as possible to implement the method.
  • You all know I’m a fervent believer in indexes. This index was superbly executed; it will be easy to come back to this book for a single fact and being able to find it quickly.

What Could Have Been Better

  • There was LOTS of repetition throughout the book. It could most likely have been condensed into less chapters.
  • The book did not address sugar and given the recent attention it is getting in the media, I would say this is one of the only aspects that reveals the book’s age.
  • The sample sizes for the research presented was always very small (5-20 people). The author explains that this is because the research was self-funded but this gives skeptics all the ammo they need to dismiss the method without looking into it.

3 Favorite Passages

  • “Nutritionists hate the French because they have low rates of heart disease, but they still manage to have a good time.  They eat a high-fat diet, they don’t exercise, and they drink wine.” (Hilarity)
  • “Calorie restriction – coupled with the correct macronutrient composition – is far more effective than any drug in the prevention or treatment of cancer” (Because now I have more reading to do… Pretty bold claim)
  • “During the course of my personal odyssey into understanding the nutritional code […], I kept coming back to fundamental common sense – everything in moderation.” (We all know this already.  We just need to define what that means personally.)

Rating: 3/5

Do I think Dr. Sears has revealed the secret formula for perfect nutrition in his book? No – It would be too simple.  However, the zone framework is constantly presented as such in the book and this clouds the fact that it presents a perfectly reasonable way of eating.  Though, this might very well be why the book is still selling two decades later: outstanding marketing for a reasonable product.

Personal Library Worthy?  Depends.  If you already have some literature on nutrition that covers the basics, allows you to make actionable, positive changes to your diet and is structured in such a way that you can pull it for 10 minutes and get immediate, practical value, then I wouldn’t add this book to your collection.  However, if you’re looking for the former, then this is a good place to start.  You can purchase it by clicking here.

*Note: Should you be interested in looking at what the Zone Meal Plans look like, check out Issue 21 of the CrossFit journal.  It is a great, free primer on the topic.

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What are your thoughts on nutritional frameworks? Do you feel they help optimize your diet? Or are they too rigid and therefore a waste of time?

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The Inconvenient Indian (Thomas King) Book Review

Thomas King does a wonderful job of introducing readers to Aboriginal history in North America in his page turning book, The Inconvenient Indian. Written for the historical laymen, the book covers many key periods in Aboriginal history in detail through a masterful demonstration of cynical, opinionated yet humor-filled storytelling skills.

Although King makes no effort of hiding his bias in favor of Aboriginals when storytelling, he supports it by giving numerous detailed examples of the “ill-advised and failed endeavors” of European settlers and/or Canadian and US governments to prove his points. Whether it be policies of termination, relocation, removal, allotment, rapprochement, etc. King posits that all they’ve served to accomplish is more of the same: loss of Indian land, sovereignty and commoditization of Indian culture.

The most poignant example for me is the Battle of the Little Bighorn and the story of General Custer (1876) which illustrates how far removed most North-Americans are from the realities of Aboriginal history.  This battle was one of the biggest American defeats against First Nations in history. Yet, General Custer was touted as a hero defending America from the threats of the Wild West when in fact, he was there to oust the Sioux who had missed a federal deadline to move to another reservation, gold having been found on the current reservation… In my eyes, this battle served to galvanized the commoditization of Indian culture and the haughty attitude of North Americans towards it. To illustrate, paintings of the battle were commissioned by a beer company (see below), “Wild West” shows started touring the Eastern seaboard and “Indian” became a brand associated with adventure in the West, connection with the wild and a certain foreignness and persists to this day (with brands such as the Washington Redskins or the Spirit Cigarettes mascot for example).

Custer’s Last Fight (1884) painted by Cassilly Adams and commissioned by Anheuser-Busch Brewing Association (one of the earliest pieces of breweriana)

This “Indian brand” correlates with what King refers to as “Dead Indians”; the kind of Indian that now only exists in our collective imagination.  In the rest of the book, he goes onto define “Live Indians” and “Legal Indians” and the grim realities that await the Indians in these two categories in coming years.  Acknowledging that “Indians aren’t special”, he suggests that the only way Aboriginal culture can survive over time is with sovereignty.  This is in line with demands of many other communities (e.g. separatists in the province of Quebec or secessionists in the state of Texas) in North-America.  He also posits that auto determination may not provide the answers quickly enough but that “more of the same” is most certainly not the answer for thriving Aboriginal nations.

What I liked.

  • Cynicism, humor, history and storytelling. A unique, powerful and captivating combination.

What could have been better.

  • The chapters, although always effective a proving their respective points, pull us in and out of different periods throughout history, never really guiding us through the motivations behind the jumps. The chronology could have been better. However, King does make a point of clearly spelling this out in his prologue, mentioning that he did not want to “be obliged to pay attention to the demands of scholarship and work within an organized and clearly delineated chronology” which is why the subtitle of the book contains the word “account” and not “history”. He does also give readers a long list of books they can reference if they are looking for other points of view or a more scholarly analysis (see Author’s Proposed Reading List at the bottom of this post).

Rating: 4/5

Personal Library Worthy? Yes.  You can purchase it by clicking here.

I can just imagine my idealist teen picking this up from the coffee table, reading it in the context of a high school history class, getting in a heated debate with classmates and/or the teacher the next day and getting a phone call because they swore in class.  Can’t wait.  But seriously, this should be required reading in our high school history classes.

As you can see, I did quite a number on this one… The book was selected for the Canada Reads series in 2015.

Author’s Proposed Reading List (In Order of Appearance in the Book)

The Wild Frontier (2001) – William M. Osborn
Reminiscences of Early Days: A Series of Historical Sketches and Happenings in the Early Days of Snake River (1926) – Charles S. Walgamott
Son of the Morning Star (1997) – Evan S. Connell
Custer’s Last Stand: The Anatomy of an American Myth (1994) – Brian W. Dippie
Many Tender Ties: Women in Fur-Trade Society, 1670-1870 (1996) – Sylvia Van Kirk
The Natural Varieties of Mankind (1775) – Johann Friedrich Blumenbach
The Descent of Man (1871) – Charles Darwin
The Deerslayer (1841) – James Fenimore Cooper
Metamora; or, The Last of the Wampanoags (1829) – John Augustus Stone
Hobomek, A Tale of Early Times (1824) – Lydia Maria Child
Should Only Native Actors Have the Right to Play Native Roles? (2001) – Tomson Highway, Prairie Fire Magazine
The Twilight Craze: The Rise of Native American Actors in Hollywood (2010) – New Tribe Magazine
Plastic Shamans and Astroturf Sun Dances: New Age Commercialization of Native American Spirituality (2000) – Lisa Aldred
Song of Hiawatha (1855)– Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (Poem)
Custer Died for Your Sins (1969) – Vine Deloria Jr.
The Book of Mormon (1830) – Joseph Smith
Sacred Clowns (1993) – Tony Hillerman
How to Write the Great American Indian Novel (1996) – Serman Alexie (Poem contained in The Summer of Black Widows)
Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (1996)
The Invasion of America (2010) – Francis Jennings
The Churches and the Indian Schools, 1888-1912 (1980)– Francis Paul Prucha
The Problem of Indian Administration or The Meriam Report (1928) – Lewis Meriam
House Made of Dawn (1968) – N. Scott Momaday
Wounded Knee: A Personal Account (1993) – Stanley David Lyman
Are We Giving America Back to the Indians? (1976) – Leonard Peltier
Helpless: Caledonia’s Nightmare of Fear and Anarchy, and How the Law Failed All of Us (2011) – Christie Blatchford
Bill C-31 (1985) – Government of Canada
First Nations? Second Thoughts and Beyond the Indian Act (2008) – Thomas Flanagan
The Unjust Society (1969) – Harold Cardinal (White Paper)
Now That the Buffalo’s Gone (1984) – Alvin M. Josephy Jr.
Aajiiqatigiingniq (2008) – Ian Martin (White Paper)

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What were your thoughts on the book?  Did you find M. King’s views too extreme or did you agree with him?  Do you think it should be required reading in high schools?

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Tools of Titans (Tim Ferriss) Book Review

Tim Ferriss’ new book, coming in at a whopping 673 pages, is a “best of” his popular The Tim Ferriss Show podcast and show notes kept on his blog.  Throughout the book, he distills the nuggets of 112 of his favorite podcast interviews with guests ranging from Wim “The Iceman” Hof to investor Peter Thiel to performer Jamie Foxx.  Ferriss also adds personal commentary and links between different ideas put forward by his guests in addition to 35 “non-profile” chapters that detail his routines, favorite gear and life frameworks.

This project was clearly a mammoth undertaking, requiring sorting through dozens of hours of audio while attempting to identify the best moments for transcription in the book.  When I’ve read books in similar formats in the past, I’ve often felt like the author was simply trying to increase the monetization of his interviews, not adding much more value than the interviews themselves provided.  This isn’t the case in this tome as evidenced by the fact that it has risen to #1 on the New York Times Best Seller list.  Ferriss’ conscientious effort to link ideas together and dive deeper into the subjects covered by his guests are apparent and make this book worth reading.

This is a book I will want to come back to, reference and most likely read again in its entirety.  From Christopher Sommer’s (World Class Gymnastic Coach) practical flexibility and mobility advice to Scott Adams (Author of Dilbert comic strip) take on life, there are plenty of timeless takeaways and practical advice to revisit and integrate into your life.

Funnily enough, the main piece of advice that kept creeping up throughout the interviews was a variant of “it’s all going to be okay, stop worrying and push ahead”.  Seems like a common denominator to success in all fields is stressing out during your youth…

What I liked.

  • The book is written in a very accessible way. It treats a wide variety of subject matter but never loses you even if it’s the first time you are exposed to a subject.
  • The editing is superb. I found a single typo on the bottom of page 258 (“That’s on page page 384.”) but otherwise, the book has a great flow and it is a delight to read.

What could have been better.

  • Some take-aways require additional context, like having listened to the podcast interview or further reading. Ferriss mentions he’s written this book for himself, as his “bible” of sorts and this is apparent when additional context seems to be missing.  However, this might also be a strength of the book as it gives you a never-ending to do list of numerous other books, podcasts, films, websites, etc. to consult.
  • Subjects are not easily referenceable if you don’t remember the person who said them. The whole book is focused on the individuals instead of the messages in how it is structured.  Again, it will be easily referenceable by Ferriss himself as he has the interviews, experiences and key takeaways associated to his guests in his memories which will guide him when referencing this book in the future. I’ve actually created an  Index because I couldn’t stand it…

Rating: 4/5

The only thing missing from this book is a bit more structure such as an index for easy referencing. I’ve actually created one because I couldn’t stand it… The content from the book is superb and should be easy to lookup.  You can download it HERE.  It is a word document so feel free to make it your own as you read the book. Consider it an Open Source document.

Personal Library Worthy?  Yes, I’ve already annotated and tagged this book and will keep coming back to it in the future.  You can purchase it by clicking here.

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What were your thoughts on the book?  Which profile was your favorite?  Do you feel the index serves its purpose?

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