Category Archives: Business

Unused employee creativity

I’ve been reading about the Toyota Production System (TPS) recently. As everyone knows, one of its key principles is eliminating waste in the production system. Waste is defined much more broadly than you might first assume, but it makes sense: anything that doesn’t add value to the customer is waste.

As I looked down the list of eight sources of waste, one of them caught my attention:

  1. Overproduction
  2. Waiting (time on hand)
  3. Unnecessary transport of goods
  4. Over-processing or incorrect processing
  5. Excess inventory
  6. Unnecessary movement of staff
  7. Defects
  8. Unused employee creativity

I wasn’t expecting “unused employee creativity” to be considered, let alone to be given equal footing to the other types. There’s a tendency to think of Toyota and TPS as extremely conservative and valuing of strict procedures, and not at all open to creativity.

I think what brings these two concepts together is another Toyota principle:

“Make decisions slowly, considering all the possibilities. Act quickly.”

The decision process is conservative by virtue of taking its time and requiring evidence before something is changed, not by virtue of considering a small number of possibilities.

For a long time I’ve felt that there is a false dichotomy between the popular visions of small dynamic start-ups and conservative larger companies. Perhaps this example provides a useful model how companies can be exceptions to this rule.

The delusion of omnicompetence

In the context of the failure of the failure of the Affordable Care Act exchanges, Megan McArdle relates a fun anecdote about a user who expected too much from his speech recognition software:

“Hold on, please,” I said. “Can you show me exactly what’s not working?”

“It’s not doing what I want,” he said.

“What do you want?” I asked.

“I want it to be,” he replied, “like the computer on `Star Trek: The Next Generation.’”

“Sir, that’s an actor,” I replied evenly, despite being on the sleepless verge of hysteria. With even more heroic self-restraint, I did not add “We can get you an actor to sit under your desk. But we’d have to pay SAG rates.”

I’m sure we’ve all been there. But there’s a wider point made by the article, and you should read the whole thing. McArdle argues that there’s a more systematic problem with people who are smart in one domain assuming that they are equally able to handle any topic, “the delusion of omnicompetence”, as she puts it:

The technocratic idea is that you put a bunch of smart, competent people in government — folks who really want the thing to work — and they’ll make it happen. But “smart, competent people” are not a generic quantity; they’re incredibly domain-specific. Most academics couldn’t run a lemonade stand. Most successful entrepreneurs wouldn’t be able to muster the monomaniacal devotion needed to get a Ph.D. […]

Yet in my experience, the majority of people in these domains think that they could do everyone else’s job better, if they weren’t so busy with whatever it is they’re doing so well.

This is definitely consistent with my experience of software engineers, who often seem to feel that they are the most important people in the company. And I’ve certainly met academics who look down on anyone without a PhD.

An interesting thing to me is that in my experience (and I may be biased), the type of intelligence that good engineers have actually does transfer to other topics. I’ve had many a conversation about business strategy or marketing or history or politics with my fellow engineers, and I believe they are generally highly perceptive and rational.

What engineers often are, though, is ignorant. I believe one issue is that understanding of computers comes so easily to people like us that we tend to view with suspicion disciplines that require more study. It may seem like people who study history, say, are taking refuge in a subject where hours of grind can make up for lack of incisive brilliance. And that gives rise to a naive faith in perfectly logical solutions that somehow omit to deal with the real world. In other words, thinking we’re good gets in the way of being the best we can be.

This is a wild generalisation of course. But probably nearly all of us can stand to make some improvement in the degree of respect we accord to other professions, and absolutely everyone can improve themselves in some way or other. We shouldn’t let a (correct) sense of satisfaction in our achievements hold us back.

Is remote work dystopian?

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Microsoft has a new advert out, and David Heinemeier Hansson thinks it’s deplorable. He argues that Microsoft are pushing a dystopian idea of work that never stops, and busywork expands to fill the time wherever we are.

I’m not sure I agree, though I’ll definitely admit that Microsoft’s advertising people have done a poor job with the wording. One of the reasons I’m inclined to take their side is that I’ve suffered from the other extreme, when I’ve had to miss out on activities because I have to wait around in the office doing busywork just in case I’m needed while an important demo takes place or deal is signed.

The question is whether you work in a job that requires a high volume of routine work or one that intermittently requires skilled judgement for brief periods. Automation and outsourcing are killing off the former (aside from customer service, which can’t be done from a bar during happy hour anyway). Maybe I’m giving Microsoft too much credit, but it seems to me that they were aiming their pitch at the latter sort of work, in which case working (i.e. providing brief high-value responses) from your children’s sports match is liberating.

Ultimately it’s not Microsoft’s job to set boundaries in our work, we have to do it for ourselves. Technology isn’t the solution to managers who demand too much of us, but it isn’t the cause either.