Toy Dogs and the trouble with short-term thinking

Last night was one of those unfortunate, frustrating nights in our house.  At 3:10AM, the dog decided he needed to go out into the yard, which caused him to prance loudly around our bedroom until we woke up to let him out.  Although he woke up both my wife & I, I was awake enough to get out of bed first (which rarely happens), so I let the dogs into the yard, brought them in, and went back to bed.

About 15 minutes later, before either of us could fully doze back to sleep, the 3-year-old started to cry in his bed.  It was just a bad dream, and he went back to sleep quickly, but when I came into his room I moved his toy dog over on his bed to make room for myself.  The button on the dog’s paw that causes it to sing and talk was now easily triggered every time my son rolled over onto it, which we discovered about 5 minutes after I went back to bed.

My wife, aggravated with the singing, got out of bed and went down the hall into my son’s room, and simply moved the dog over, expecting it to finish its song and then go silent.  Too tired to take a look inside the dog and switch off the battery back, she stumbled back to bed hoping the problem would go away.  Of course, by now, the 3-year-old was awake, and playing with the dog – hitting the buttons over and over to listen to the dog sing and talk.  Then, it became my turn to go and try to calm him down, which was impossible, and by 5:15 he was ready to run and jump, so we got up and went downstairs to watch some cartoons while I tried not to bang my head against a wall until I fell into unconsciousness.

Most of us have been in situations like this, or at least similar to it.  Tired, frustrated, stressed out – we seek a quick solution to an immediate problem, ignoring the potential long-term consequences.  For me, I simply moved the dog over rather than putting it someplace where it couldn’t be triggered accidentally.  My wife compounded the problem by just moving the dog and not taking a moment to find the off button.  As a result of taking care of an immediate problem, we ended up with a much longer-term one:  the toy dog kept on singing and the 3-year-old kept on playing, leaving us both tired, frustrated and grumpy as hell for the rest of the day – which will culminate with trying to get the kids to bed (and this time with the dog switched off, which he won’t understand, which means he won’t sleep well….).

Taking a few extra minutes to solve a problem for good seems like an onerous burden when you’re in the middle of the firefight.  That exact same behavior, however, is what leads to the next firefight in the first place.  Although we instantaneously reward ourselves (even with just a few more minutes sleep) for taking care of an immediate problem, we need to remember that solving the bigger problem usually means thinking about the longer term, and that alone will usually guide us to much more long-lasting solutions that allow us to avoid the next problem altogether.

When habits go bad – walking the extra mile

Let_Your_Mind_Do_The_Walking_by_jzcj5

Let your mind do the walking by jzcj5

So, it has been nearly 2 weeks since I’ve post to the blog.  Some times, inspiration is simply hard to find.

Other times, your mother-in-law takes your wife and 2 sons off on a trip and you get a whole week to yourself.  Such has been the case around here.  As it typically goes when the family takes off on an adventure without me, the fist half of the week is grand and glorious.  Napping, eating at crazy hours, sleeping at even crazier hours and, of course, the chance to knock some long overdue projects off the list.  The second half of the week, however, gets to be downright boring and lonely.

In the midst of the boring and lonely part, I needed to pick up my car from the mechanic’s this weekend (having it serviced was one of those projects that is much more convenient when only one car is needed for the week).  The shop is a bit of a walk – about 40 minutes, but not too bad once you get going.  While I could have easily called a neighbor or a friend for help, I simply felt like getting the exercise, so I hoofed it through the neighborhood and cut through a field to get to the shop, picked up the car, and drove home.

That, of course, is not much of a story.  But it did lead to an interesting observation.

What did strike me about 2/3 of the way there, however, is the thought –  “Why in the hell didn’t I just ride my bike??”

Duh.

Seriously, I should have.  The car I was going to pick up is an SUV.  There’s plenty of room for the bike once I get there.  It would have saved about half the time, at least, and still afforded plenty of good exercise.  Especially since I made the trek early in the morning when there was little traffic to worry about, too.  Of course, I could rationalize and say the exercise was great, or the slow pace was cathartic, or whatever else we all tell ourselves when we haven’t though through all our options only to realize later that there was a better way to go about our business.

And that’s the point when it comes to trying to understand how and why we all do, what we do.  Habit tells me that to get places without my car means I have to walk.  If I rode my bike more often, the thought to get on the bike and ride down to the mechanic’s shop would have been as natural as the thought that tells me I have to put on shoes before I go out the door most mornings.  Also, I could say, if I’d developed a better habit of stopping and thinking…to weigh alternatives….before doing….then I would have realized I didn’t need to hike all the way down to the shop.  I might still have wanted to, but I would not have needed to.

So, in a way, my habits let me down.  It makes you wonder how many other things we prevent ourselves form consciously choosing because we are unconsciously eliminating possibilities.  When habits rule, the likelihood of seeing other options simply diminishes.

It might even get you left all along on the roadside.

Understanding why: Developing Critical Thinking in kids

Little Hockey

Little Hockey by Strawberry West on deviantart.com

This weekend, I attended a minor-league hockey game with my son.  Before the pro game, a group of youngsters from a local league had the honor of playing hockey on the ice.  When we entered the arena, the little guys were ending up their game with a very lopsided score of 8-1.

As the kids played, however, another boy in the stands next to us noticed that the goalie of the team with the 7-goal lead was sitting or kneeling, all alone at his end of the ice, and about 10 feet outside of the blue-colored goal crease, where the goalies usually play.  The boy next to us exclaimed, in absolute certainty, that the goalie HAD to stay in his crease.

I turned to him and asked, “Why?”  He looked at me in disbelief, as if I must be dense for even thinking that the goalie wouldn’t ever NOT be in his crease.  The boy told me, once again, that the goalie HAD to.  There wasn’t a reason why – there wasn’t even the thought that there might be a reason why.  It just simply WAS.  The crease is where the goalie is supposed to be, so if he’s not there, he’s breaking the rules.  “What happens if he’s not in the blue?” I asked.  “Does his team get a penalty?”

Of course not, and the boy who had been so adamant about where the goalie is supposed to go, rather than contemplate this new information, simply stated once more, in a loud voice for everyone to hear, that the goalie HAS to go in the blue-colored area designated for goalies.

Clearly, what had happened at some point in this unfortunate child’s past is that someone told him that the goalie has to stay in the blue area.  Perhaps this boy plays hockey himself, and some coach hollered “Stay in the crease!” without ever trying to explain to the boy why.  We can all come up with some version of the back story that explains the boy’s certainty over where the goalie plays.

What I saw in his behavior, however, is something that adults do, too:  When faced with information that contradicts our understanding of the way things are supposed to be, we revert back to what we already know, claiming disbelief in the rightness of what we’re seeing and failing to examine the situation in order to develop a new understanding.  We are told to follow the rules, even if we don’t understand them, and we insist on following the rules even when it is pointed out that those rules were based on false assumptions.

Truth is, the goalie can go anywhere on the ice that he wants – just like every other player.  The goalie is, of course, usually much better off when he stays in his crease – which is a matter of choice and not one of obedience.  It also represents an understanding of Why vs. What:  The rule tells you What to do (stay in the crease).  Developing a person’s ability to think through a problem addresses the Why: (If the goalie is in the crease, he usually has a better chance of playing the puck…..but not always!)  When you know why something is done, you also develop an understanding of when the rule doesn’t apply and also how it can be done differently.

That combination – knowing when the usual rules don’t apply and also how to accomplish a task outside of the rules – is the foundation for thinking critically – which also lays the foundation for innovation & creativity.  It also enables people to focus more on the results:  Was there any damage done from playing outside of the crease?  Did the goalie hurt his team or help it, or make no difference whatsoever?

The presumption that not following the rules leads to a bad outcome is, itself, a really bad rule that should come under examination.  What if you did the “wrong” thing?  What would the wrong thing look like?  Who determined what “wrong” is?  In this example, the only thing that matters is whether or not the goalie let the puck into the net.  If he did not – what difference would it make where he was standing?

Now, ask yourself these questions when trying to demonstrate the need for change in your organization:  What if we didn’t bid on this project? What if I didn’t write that report? What if I let the fire burn instead of rushing to put it out, even though I’ve no idea what would happen if I left it alone?

Truth is, we all end up doing a great many things simply because we believe we’re supposed to.  That belief in the way things are supposed to be starts in childhood, with a lot of reinforcement.  What we should all be doing, however, is teaching people of all ages to raise questions.  Doing so, however, places the burden on the rest of us to have good answers – the lack of which might be the root cause behind “just follow the rule” thinking anyway.

The management lessons of angry birds

Very Angry Birds

Very Angry Brids by trudsss on deviantart.com

Angry Birds, that time-draining app that has spawned a cult phenomenon and a slew of stuffed toys at Walmart, might seem like an odd place to look for wisdom on accomplishing tasks.  Nonetheless, the game offers several highly useful examples of how to manage yourself and others in order to get things accomplished:

  • You can only use what you have – Some levels, you wish you had a wood-smashing yellow bird, but all the game gives you are some fat, white birds.  How on earth will you ever kill all the pigs with THAT??!  So it is with employees and team mates – you have to find a way to get things done using what you have.
  • Not every resource can be applied in the same way, to the same problem, every time –  Sometimes, that fat, white bird is a high-level bomber.  Other times, it’s best to drop the egg and let the bird smash into the obstacles.  Or that boomerang bird might be best used as a non-boomerang.  You have to apply your resources to the situation at hand and remember that just because it worked over there doesn’t mean it’s going to work over here.
  • Challenge yourself and seek excellence – Personally, I never go on to the next level until I get 3 stars.  Sure, I could move along as soon as I get the minimum 1 star and keep on playing, but there’s a lot to be said for seeking mastery in stead of only doing the least.
  • When you think you know what to do, taking a step back and thinking through your plan of attack is usually very worthwhile – When you can see where to hit what part of the structure, with which bird, check your aim and think through how the structure will fall – just in case.  Nothing wrong with double checking your assumptions and making sure you get it right.  Measure twice, cut once, so they say.
  • When you have no idea what to do, there is nothing worthwhile about taking a step back and thinking through your plan of attack – As much sense as it makes to double check when you are confident in your answer, it makes no sense to double check not knowing the answer.  When you are completely at a loss, no amount of pondering will make you smarter.  In these cases, you need to embrace the learning process and avoid looking for the immediate answer.  Grip it and rip it.
  • Efficiency isn’t always rewarded –  Yes, you can knock over the whole structure with just 3 birds.  But that’s not ever going to get you 3 stars.  Yes, perhaps it should, but it won’t – and that is the point.  If the person judging you (a boss, or a customer) wants that which is less efficient but more spectacular – you now have to look inwards to see what you’re more willing to live with – a happy self or a happy customer.  One isn’t always the same as the other.
  • Control is usually a far greater attribute than brute strength – Even when you have black bomber birds, if you don’t put them in the right place, they are useless.  Same thing with having “Aces” and “Cracker Jacks.”  If they aren’t in the right roles, at the right time and place, you’re just going to waste those resources.  Maybe you can get by and earn your 1 star just to move on, but you’ll never get any farther than “just getting by.”
  • Brute Strength tends to work best at the beginning or at the end, but rarely in the middle of a process – Along the lines of Grip it and Rip it, taking a good first stab at something by blowing apart as much as you can is a great way to start, or a great way to finish if surgical precision doesn’t seem possible.  Between the first and last efforts, however, there has to be some amount of careful and judicious effort.  Otherwise, everything is just a completely random act.  If that’s true, then you’re just guessing at every turn.  Which a child could do.  Which means no one needs you.
  • There’s a good deal of luck involved –   When you are successful, keep in mind that not every outcome is a direct result of your efforts.  Things still have to fall into place just right.  Yes, you set them in motion, and the motion might have been what you intended, but there’s still some random chance involved.  If you can launch the birds in exactly the same way, with exactly the same result, and the exact same score, over and over again – then…maybe…there isn’t any luck involved.  Nonetheless, it’s probably best to stay humble.
  • Help is available – Ultimately, if you’re completely stuck, you can always go on-line and find the answers you seek.  Struggle first, though, and learn as much as you can before looking up the answers.

Process Improvement and the free flow of laundry

Washing Machine

Washing Machine by nevasaudivi on deviantart.com

Around the house, we’ve always had a problem with laundry.  There’s always a heap waiting to be ironed, hampers are overflowing, and many morning a search for clean socks would necessitate a trip to the basement to dig out a fresh pair from a laundry basket that was washed a week ago but still waiting to be folded.

So, finally, we decided to take a step back and look at the problem, and see where the flaws were.  What we discovered was like a textbook on process improvement, right here in our own house.

The obvious problem, of course, was the backlog of clean laundry waiting to be ironed, folded and put away.  It piled up constantly, even when it seemed like we were trying like hell to get things washed on time.  Every now and again, a whole day would be devoted to laundry just to get us caught up.  “Laundry Day” would come about once a month, no matter how much effort was expended.

That was just a symptom, however.  The real problem we were experiencing, I decided, was a misalignment of priorities.  Simply put, we were putting the people in our house (Mom, Dad & the 2 kids) in a position where everyone would wake up in the morning wondering if they had clean and ironed clothes to wear.  That’s bad.  Just really, really bad.  Why?  Because it placed undue burden and stress on people – the people in our house shouldn’t have to worry about whether or not they will have clean clothes to wear.  That just plain inconsiderate and unfair.  Also, it required getting up 15 minutes early sometimes when we knew things weren’t in order, just to run downstairs and iron a shirt or pair of pants for the day.  Simply put, everyone ended up with a lot of last-minute panics just to get something simple done.  So, we committed ourselves to a different premise:  That laundry would be available when it was needed, and in the right location (closet or drawer) in order to prevent people from having to worry.

With our newly found dedication, we then looked at why the backups were occurring, no matter how hard we worked.  It was easy enough to find:  the hampers were the problem.  We have a hamper for each of the four people in the house.  When a hamper was full, it was laundered.  This works great, until you realize it’s just another batch-and-queue system that inevitably fails if 2 or more hampers fill up simultaneously.  When that happens, all the laundry that needs to get done simply can’t squeeze through our bottleneck:  the washer and dryer.  That necessitates choosing one batch over the other, which also means that someone’s laundry simply doesn’t get done.  So it backs up.  While it’s sitting, backed up and waiting for the machine, people keep wearing clothes, so the hamper gets more and more full.  Meanwhile, someone else’s hamper that was only half full at the start is now at capacity, so you now have one full hamper and one extra-full hamper, and the problem just keeps growing.

The first reaction could have been to get another hamper, but that just catches the overflow.  We weren’t about to go out and buy 2 washing machines, either.  What we needed was to reduce the batch size and increase the frequency of was cycles.  What that required was something quite simple: Don’t wait for the hampers to be full.

“What??!!” you might be saying.  That’s a waste of water!  Well, maybe, but not much – there’s nothing that says you have to run a full load and use an entire tub full of water.  What we decided to do was to set a schedule and stick to it.  No more 1 person = 1 hamper, either.  We noticed we have more “darks” than “lights” so we set up a schedule to accommodate this.  On Tuesday, we gather darks and wash them – no matter how much there is.  On Thursday, we do darks again the same way.  Saturday is another round of darks and, on Sunday, we do lights.  No load can be started until the one before it is completely folded and put away, too.  No “I have a load in while I iron this” happens here and no load sits, unfolded, while another is in the wash.

We’ve been doing this for a month now.  What we realized is that there’s never a completely full, overstuffed hamper…..ever.  Nothing is sitting in the dryer waiting to be ironed or folded for more than half a day.  Since it’s not sitting in the steamy air, getting compressed over time, it’s easier to iron, too.  Smaller loads take less time to fold and put away as well.

The end result?  Happier workers (Mom & Dad) who have a lot less stress over getting the laundry done.  Happier “customers” – the kids (plus Mom & Dad) who know where their clothes are and don’t ever think about whether or not there’s something clean to wear today, and a much simpler chore since the material is easier to work with and comes in smaller chunks.

While a lot of folks might point to large-scale factory-wide process improvement efforts that take months to design and implement, I’m pretty content knowing that I was able to take all those concepts and apply them right here…….at home…..where it counts.