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Better Turkey through Analytics: Cooking Up a Great Plan

With Thanksgiving right around the corner, anxiety levels are rising for those who took on the massive responsibility of cooking this year’s big meal.

If you are already feeling some pre-hosting nerves, just remember that a few Web analytics best practices – especially in the areas of implementation planning and project management – are the keys to having a successful Turkey Day. Basically, you need clearly understood goals, strong processes, effective tools and the right team; with those key ingredients, both your Web analytics program and Thanksgiving feast will be big hits.

The problem is, many businesses launch into online marketing programs without considering how they will measure the success of these efforts. These are often the same people who would never ever consider going into Thanksgiving without an elaborate plan.

Think I’m overstating the case? Just consider all the variables you have to manage, especially if you have a large family with many different tastes in turkey preparation (baked vs. grilled vs. deep-fried), the overall menu (Tofurkey or Turducken anyone?), types of stuffing, wine preferences, etc.

Then there are the weird side dishes, which every family seems to have. I’m thankful that creamed onions, certain jello salads and mincemeat pies are foods I’m expected to taste only once a year. And of course, since it’s family, there may be a bit of culinary competition – you know, “I will not dry out the bird like my knuckle-head brother-in-law did last year!” or “We will get the meal on the table, no more than two hours late and at least one or two dishes will be hot!”

Ah, the pleasures of holiday hosting. The best, most effective Turkey Day host I have ever seen is my neighbor, Bob, whose ace planning and project management skills would make him an exceptional analytics or IT professional. A few years ago, Bob and his wife Sylvia hosted a big group of friends and family. My wife and I offered to help out and came over a few hours early to pitch in and offer moral support (like calling out the score of the football game) as Bob and Sylvia slaved away.

What we saw astounded us. Bob had created an extensive, multi-tab, color-coded spreadsheet to stage, sequence and manage the full output of foods. It was amazing to behold. You could sort by cooking area or device – range, oven, microwave – or course (appetizers, sides, desserts). Drill-down detail was available for individual dishes (e.g., Aunt Jenny’s sweet potato soufflé).

The turkey tab was broken down in 15-minute sequences, with approximate basting volumes, rotation angles and temperature adjustments – e.g., “pour 1 cup over turkey, (2 cups if skin is already browning), turn 45% and reduce oven temp to 350.” Sylvia thought her husband was half-nuts for overdoing it, but I noticed she also had a detailed seating chart.

You could also sort the “project plan” by person to see who was responsible for each activity. I’m pleased to report that we achieved our objective by delivering a pumpkin pie on time and getting it into the right oven, with fresh whipping cream ready to go.

Halftime of the football game was shaded out to show it was a “red zone” of activity for ensuring everything was cooked properly and kept warm before serving. He even had a simpler tab for the beverages – beer, white wine and soft drinks were outside in a cooler; red wine was inside on the bar.

I joked with Bob that I was disappointed that he hadn’t exported the whole thing Microsoft Project to create swim lanes. “Good idea for next year,” he replied. “And if I have enough time, I could do some scenario modeling in case the turkey cooks more slowly than planned or people show up late.”

Besides being a warm holiday memory that I still tease my neighbor about, this approach is an excellent template for effective analytics programs and projects. Think about it: Bob’s objective was to feed a big crew of hungry folks; he designed and integrated a set of processes to make it happen; he built the right organization (with clearly defined roles and responsibilities) and gave them the tools, technology and data to succeed. Given the scope of work involved, Bob stayed amazingly calm throughout the day. I think he even enjoyed himself, which isn’t always the case for head chefs on Thanksgiving days.

Happy Thanksgiving!

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