Archives for posts with tag: systems

There are few people who would argue with the statement that math is at the heart for most of our modern world. What is less well understood is what happens when that math goes wrong. And it does. All the time!

Mr. Parker’s highly amusing and thought-provoking book is about math and computers, but what becomes clearer as the book goes on is that this is also a book about systems and how and why systems can fail. There are lots of examples of people adding up numbers incorrectly or trying to take shortcuts to make the math simpler, which in turn leads to devastating and sometimes lethal consequences. However, it the subtler applications of mathematics where “Humble Pi” really scores.

For example, looking at 30- or 40-year-old kitchen appliance, still in use, is often accompanied by a phrase such as “they don’t make things today like they used to.” While this might seem obvious at first glance given that we are talking about an appliance working well beyond its expected lifespan, this is actually an example of “Survivor Bias.” If we looked at how many of the appliances had been manufactured, and then looked at how many were still in daily use, the chances are that we would recognize that this surviving appliance is an outlier and that the vast majority of the appliances have actually long been replaced or broken down. It is only the existence of this surviving outlier that prompts the idea even though we would likely not comment on its existence were more of the appliances in existence. The appliance’s rarity generates a false narrative that can only be understood by understanding the underlying math of the number of appliances produced.

For managers there is much to take away from Humble Pi. Mr. Parker encourages us to look at systems like layers of sliced Swiss cheese. All systems should be made of multiple layers – the checks and balances of any good system. But it is important to understand that there are possibilities for mistakes in every layer of a system – the holes in the cheese. The challenge as designers of systems is to ensure that the holes in each layer do not align. The author uses the example of two different nurses in a hospital performing a complicated drug calculation the same way and both making the same math mistake leading to a medical error.

Related to this idea of errors being a natural part of a system is the impact of a lack of tolerance for errors on new employee training. If managers terminate employees for making mistakes, the people who are left to train new employees are those who are must less likely to make mistakes. These are probably the worst people to train new employees who are obviously more prone to making mistakes. If instead, we teach employees to work a system that can detect mistakes and provide feedback, a system where the holes do not line up, then we will overall have far less mistakes – even when people are new. As the books says, humans can be very resourceful in finding ways to make mistakes.

This is not just a book about rounding errors, and why you should turn your computer off regularly. It is a book about what it means to be human in a world that relies and is built on mathematics, which humans are inherently not very good at. It is a fun and interesting read that will stay with you long after you put it down.

new econmics
The New Economics was first published in 1993; the year of its author, W. Edwards Deming’s, passing. Now on its third edition; however, it is arguably more relevant now than it has ever been. Deming has never received the acclaim in the United States that he undoubtedly deserves. He seems to be one of those authors that people cite, but rarely read.

The New Economics does not feel like an almost 30-year-old business book. Its ideas seem fresh and its voice is refreshingly new. If it was written today, and there are several books that focus on several of his core ideas such as the excellent Measures of Success, it would be hailed as a master piece of business literature.

Deming is an advocate for the process. This is often interpreted reducing the people is those processes as mere cogs in the machine. This, however, is unfair to Deming who is a believer if people driving the process. He is also a believer in management managing by taking responsibly for its failures. “The operator is not responsible for quality.” Says Deming. “That is the responsibility of management in conjunction with the customer.” He then proceeds to prove it with his famous red bead experiment (see below.)

Deming was an advocate for a sensible use of numbers, but Deming also believed that “We manage by theory prediction, not by numbers.” The use of numbers can help inform the theory, but really it is the manager’s responsibility to make that intuitive leap. “He who innovates, and is lucky, will take the market” says Deming. As an example of this Deming uses training. We never use numbers to justify training, but everyone does it – why?

I find Deming, and The New Economics, particularly interesting when it comes to goal setting and the importance of having a system which is often overlooked, even with our obsession with S.M.A.R.T. goals. “Companies have aims. With goals you must have by what method. Numerical goals need processes. A numerical goal without a process is meaningless.”

This is a heavy and involved book that is probably not for everybody. But it focuses on the way that management is performed. Not in how we motivate out employees to do their tasks better, but in how we design those tasks so they are naturally performed better. A the red bead experiment points out we often grade and evaluate employees based on the results of a system that they have little to no control over. We so rarely focus on process in business, we leave bad processes in place and then pour money and energy into managing employees who by their very actions are telling us that the problem is the process.

It is not too late to learn the lessons that Deming was trying to teach us 30 years ago.

It is about time.

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