Challenge Coins

Avery Dennison Reflective Solutions Ron Palinkas Global Technical Services ManagerChallenge coins have been around the military for quite some time.  A tradition that started with the Roman and made it’s way to contemporary times during World War I.  Challenge coins became popular only recently in US military history.(Wiki Challenge Coins)  This past week I sent out challenge coins to the Global Technical Services Team to recognize the commitment and tremendous value they bring to the organization.  Hours in airports all over the world, evenings spent preparing reports, and weekends spent remoting into customer design stations to help resolve an issue.  Although each is a member of the Global Team, field service in most industries is an independent job that comes with a great deal of responsibility and accountability.  I hope the coins become an annual tradition in Technical Services, recognizing the commitment that this group shows each day.  I am honored to be a member of the team.

Revenge of the Independent Hardware Stores

SOURCE CAROL M. HIGHSMITH/GETTYWe all know the requiem for retail in the 21st century. The big-box megastores killed off the mom-and-pops. Amazon and e-commerce crushed brick-and-mortar. By the time the Great Recession hit, traditional retail was already toast — and the drop in consumer spending that came with the crisis burned it to a crisp.

Amid the general doom and gloom, though, there’s a particular industry segment that stands apart. Independent home-improvement retailers — a broad class that includes more than 35,000 hardware stores, lumberyards, garden supply centers and paint shops that make up 50 percent of the market — didn’t just survive the category-killing, market-disrupting, store-shuttering trio of challenges. By customizing product offerings to local needs and personalizing customer service, these plucky retailers are solidifying their status as a crucial component of a healthy Main Street economy.

Every year, Deloitte releases what it calls the Retail Volatility Index, which measures how much market share businesses gain and lose in key retail segments, including hardware. In its 2016 report, Deloitte noted the emergence of a conventional-wisdom-busting trend. After a century of consolidation and concentration in retail, “smaller, more nimble players are stealing share from larger, more traditional, at-scale retailers.”

As a strategy principal at Deloitte, Jacob Bruun-Jensen was one of the authors of the company’s 2016 index. He says the hardware retail market is emblematic of the new retail volatility. “These smaller players have found a niche and have been very successful in competing against the big national chains. It’s tied to this phenomenon of consumers seeking out local products or services and being willing to pay for that advice and that experience.”

SOURCE CAROL M. HIGHSMITH/GETTYWhen it comes to convenience and customer service, it’s not hard to see why consumers continue to patronize smaller independent retailers. While megastores certainly have pushed many weaker stores out of business, they also have forced the remaining operators to improve. “They had to rethink their presentation and do a better job drawing the distinction between them and the big boxes,” Tratensek tells OZY. “Because [the market is] so fragmented, they’re all finding their own way to survive.”

The same goes for the plants Hosking stocks. “The big stores will beat us pretty good on the price of a plant,” he says, “but we give you more expert knowledge versus somebody who just moved from the paint section to the grill section and is now in charge of the plants.”

That’s another key distinguisher for the independent home-improvement retailers: knowledgeable staff who provide a customer-service experience the megastores can’t match. “It’s like you’re a therapist for those customers for those 10 minutes,” says Gentry Hipp, the owner of Hipp Modern Builders Supply in Mountain View, Arkansas. “You’re back there helping them fix a water leak. So you’ve got their plumbing parts on the floor, strewn across the aisle so no one else can even get through, and you’re hearing about how bad their day was … and that’s the joy of it for me — being able to help my customer’s day be better.”

Hipp also vigilantly tracks trends and looks for opportunities. When a nearby grocer shuttered, he bought his entire lawn and garden inventory and hired his L&G manager to help him add a new section to his business. Before that, he turned an unused section of his store into Mountain View’s premier tool and equipment rental center. Simply put, Hipp says he’s always asking, “What’s the next thing that we can include or add to make our business survive and flourish?”

If there’s one thing that might slow the mom-and-pop momentum, it’s succession. According to Tratensek, the average store owner in the industry is approaching 60. The business isn’t easy, though, and it’s hardly glamorous. That makes it difficult for older store owners to find someone to replace them. “It’s a tragedy when you see a well-run operation that’s forced to close its doors because there’s no one to take over the business,” says Tratensek.

To address the issue, the North American Retail Hardware Association has launched several initiatives. These include connecting mentor-owners with would-be shopkeepers and partnering with Ball State University, in Indiana, to create a six-month, college-level certification course that features in-store training and lessons on strategic business planning and retail financing. Tratensek adds: “All of this targets the question: How do we make sure the next generation can take over and run these businesses?”

  • Joe P. Hasler, OZY Author

Tennessee Teacher Cracks Adobe’s Semaphore Code

The secret code transmitted by the San Jose Semaphore has had mathematicians and puzzle fans stumped for over four-and-a-half years, but Jimmy Waters, a high school math teacher from Knoxville, Tennessee, just solved the mystery. The SJ Semaphore’s hidden message was one of the most famous broadcasts of all time — Neil Armstrong’s first words as he walked on the moon.The SJ Semaphore is a public art project, and an open challenge to science, math and art lovers everywhere—it’s a visual code comprised of four illuminated discs atop Adobe’s Headquarters. Each disc has four possible positions, and every 7.2 seconds they align in a new configuration, communicating an encrypted message. The code is also broadcast online, along with audio clues.Cracking the CodeJimmy first heard about the SJ Semaphore while reading Thomas Pynchon’s “The Crying of Lot 49.” The full text of that book happened to be the very first encrypted message transmitted by the SJ Semaphore. In a lucky twist of fate, Jimmy stumbled upon the Semaphore and its new, unsolved code during an online search about Pynchon,. As a confessed logic-puzzle addict with the summer off from teaching, his mission was clear: “I wanted to understand how it was encrypted, and I wanted to take on a puzzle that’s been projected across a city and over the Internet for years without being solved.” It took him about a month to crack it.
First Jimmy pulled up the SJ Semaphore’s online transmission and began copying the positions of the discs by hand, just to get the feel for it. Then he figured out how to gather and parse the data from the website, and hacked together some scripts to pull data every couple of minutes. He assigned number values to the discs and graphed his findings. At first he was looking for written words, but the graphs started to look a little like audio.That was the biggest leap: “It didn’t feel like a breakthrough at the time. It was more of a ‘Well, nothing else is working, so why not?’” Then, using a program to examine .wav files, he began to hear the transmission.

“I knew what the recording was as soon as I heard the first clip of the decrypted audio. I’m sure I’ve heard the recording before, but I couldn’t have told you anything Neil Armstrong said other than the ‘One small step…’ part. That wasn’t the part I’d decrypted, but something about the voice or the quality of the recording was instantly recognizable to me,” Jimmy muses.

As a math teacher, Jimmy didn’t just embrace the Semaphore’s challenge, he related to the joy of the puzzle maker: “The most fun I have as a teacher is when I throw really tough problems at students and just watch what happens. I love to watch that creative struggle and the euphoria when they discover the solution. I’m suspicious that Ben Rubin [the project’s designer] experiences something similar seeing people trying to crack his Semaphore codes.”

The Not-So-Secret Story Behind the SJ Semaphore

The SJ Semaphore debuted in 2006. We had just opened our new Almaden Tower building, and the art-project-meets-puzzle was one way to integrate public art into the design. We chose renowned media artist Ben Rubin to create the piece, knowing he would draw on Adobe’s roots in tech and art to produce a unique experience for viewers around the world.

“The Semaphore came from a desire to make the mechanisms of digital communication visible to the naked eye,” says Ben. “As a piece of public art, I wanted the Semaphore to look graceful and well composed, but also mysteriously purposeful, evoking curiosity or fascination. Even if you have no idea what it is or what it’s doing, I hope the Semaphore suggests, just from the way it looks, that it is trying to communicate.”

While the mysterious Semaphore projects a futuristic, high-tech image, Ben was also drawing on some of the oldest of artistic traditions to create it. As he explains, “Historically, art and technology have never really been separated; from Pythagoras through da Vinci, from Robert Rauschenberg to Olafur Eliasson, there is an unbroken chain of artists deeply engaged with the latest science and technology of their respective times. In fact, it’s really only in the last couple of centuries that we’ve started to think of art and technology as separate.” In the Semaphore, these pieces come back together.

A Prize, and Another Mystery on the Horizon

The prize for solving the SJ Semaphore includes some pretty amazing bragging rights and a one-year subscription to Creative Cloud. Jimmy wanted his students to share his prize, so he requested to donate his subscription to Powell High School where he teaches. We decided to sweeten the deal with 40 one-year Creative Cloud subscriptions and a 3D printer to help the students push the boundaries of creativity even further.

Never heard of the SJ Semaphore until now? No worries – a new code will be up later this summer: “The Semaphore is intriguing to people — they’re captivated by those mysterious spinning dials,” says Siri Lackovic, Adobe senior brand strategist. “And we can’t wait for Ben to begin broadcasting a new challenge. The only thing I can reveal is that, with the next code, there will be new twists and surprises. Will it be another four-and-a-half years before someone solves it? That’s something no one knows.”

If we’ve piqued your code-cracking curiosity, read more about the history and vision behind the SJ Semaphore, find out how a dynamic duo decrypted the first code in 2006, and check out this list of longstanding unsolved codes.


Getting Better Does Not Take Genius or Shiny Things ron palinkas global service manager“Arriving at meaningful solutions is an inevitably slow and difficult process. Nonetheless, what I saw was: better is possible. It does not take genius. It takes diligence. It takes moral clarity. It takes ingenuity. And above all, it takes a willingness to try.”

– Atul Gawande, Better, p. 246

Health care in rural India would shock most of us in the United States. As Dr. Atul Gawande describes in Better—his fascinating book about improving performance in health care—many hospitals in rural India are overcrowded and under-resourced. The demands upon their services continuously outstrip their resources.

They continuously must do more with not just less, but in some cases with nothing at all. They must improvise. They must make use of what is available and do their best.

Despite their circumstances, these doctors and other healthcare providers innovate. They quickly move from case to case, sometimes sending patients themselves to purchase commonplace medical supplies. And they develop much broader areas of knowledge and skill than most doctors in the United States. For example, Gawande describes his astonishment at the ability of the surgeons in these crowded hospitals and clinics to perform chemotherapy, a task typically reserved solely for oncologists.

Certainly, the overall quality of health care is better in the United States than in the places that Gawande describes. He readily acknowledges as much in the book, and he provides numerous examples from within the United States of what it takes to get better in the practice of medicine. His chapter on improving outcomes for cystic fibrosis patients is particularly gripping.

As someone typically on the outside of the healthcare industry looking in, I see three specific lessons from Gawande’s observations that apply to organizations and teams of all types, in all sectors, in all industries.

First, getting better requires perspiration and an obsession about, not surprisingly, getting better. Getting better is sometimes less about big ideas than it is about doggedly executing the little ones.

Getting better requires a relentless desire—the discipline, diligence, persistence—to perform basic tasks perfectly. It also requires a relentless desire to push the bar higher, to refuse to accept the status quo as good enough. This style of leadership might be what some characterize as “micromanaging” and “intrusive.” Yet it’s often the hard-working, hands-on leader who pushes performance to new levels. It’s the leader who knows that perspiration is often just as (if not sometimes more) important than inspiration.

Second, getting better requires a focus on the basics. I often find that executives can become distracted by “shiny things”—be they technologies, fads or other attractive diversions. And yet, many times all they need to succeed are the basics. They don’t necessarily need the fancy new enterprise software they heard about at a trade show; they don’t necessarily need to pivot toward a new strategy. Instead, they may simply need to understand the basic resources their people need to do the job well or to execute their current strategy with gusto.

As Gawande describes when talking about his experiences in India:

“More than one doctor told me that it was easier to get a new MRI machine than to maintain basic supplies and hygiene … Having a machine is not the cure; understanding the ordinary, mundane details that must go right for each particular problem is.” (p. 242)

I had a similar experience while serving as an adviser to the Afghan National Police in 2013. A human resources information system was being built for them—at a huge expense. Yet most of them couldn’t read. And those who could read would have likely preferred some really great filing cabinets, folders and paper office supplies over a complicated computer system.

Third, getting better requires courage. People aren’t going to like it when you question their standards or performance. People aren’t going to be happy when you push them out of their comfort zone. People aren’t going to like it when you perform at a level that makes them look bad.

So you’ve got to decide: Is it worth it? And if it is, go for it, with a renewed appreciation for diligence and perspiration, a focus on the basics and listening to your people, and the courage to forge ahead even when you think people might get upset or when you’re just plain scared.

Find this thought provoking? Leave a comment, like and share!

About Ben Baran

Ben Baran, Ph.D., is probably one of the few people in the world who is equally comfortable in a university classroom, a corporate boardroom and in full body armor carrying a U.S. government-issued M4 assault rifle. Visit:

Basketball and Eagle Scouts

No, we’re not talking about how Josh and his team became national champions when they won the tournament during Josh’s junior year in 2016. We’re also not talking about how he and his team just became Big East Conference regular season champions for the fourth straight year.

Those are definitely commendable achievements, but what many people don’t know is that, in addition to being a bonafide college basketball star, Josh Hart is an Eagle Scout.

His journey to earn Eagle, all while spending a great deal of time participating in high school basketball, wasn’t an easy one.

The young man’s achievement even prompted ESPN to produce a video news segment dedicated to how Josh earned his Eagle Scout.

The 3-minute video features interviews with Josh, his father, and his former Scoutmaster talking about the promise Josh made to his father as a boy and what he had to do to balance Scouting and basketball.

ron palinkas eagle scout“You don’t quit. You finish what you start,” said Moses Hart, Josh’s father.

Because of Josh’s commitment to basketball and Scouting, that meant the young man had to rely on some key Scouting skills of leadership and planning to finish all of the requirements for Eagle prior to his 18th birthday.

In a blog post on the Bryan on Scouting blog last year, Josh commented on how he made it work.

“It’s all about leading, leading and hard work,” he said. “You don’t get Eagle Scout by just showing up. You gotta put a lot of work in. Gotta sacrifice a lot of time. Put in a lot of weekends. Doing that taught me how to get serious, put my head down, and go to work.”

Be sure to watch the great news story from ESPN below (and for those familiar with the Build an Adventure campaign, be on the lookout for a few familiar video clips).

If you know a college basketball fan, and especially if you know a Scout looking to balance Scouting with sports, be sure to share Josh’s inspiring story with them.


Nathan Johnson

As a member of the Communications team at Boy Scouts of America, Nathan Johnson enjoys finding and sharing the stories that inform, inspire, and delight the Scouting family.