Twisting Facts Is Easier Than Straitening Lies…Or, Believing Lies Is Easier Than Understanding Facts

Thomas More said to King Henry VIII, “Some men think the Earth is round, others think it flat; it is a matter capable of question. But if it is flat, will the King’s command make it round? And if it is round, will the King’s command flatten it?”[from Robert Bolt’s play, “A Man for All Seasons”] In today’s world, sadly, people in power and their minions dole out “alternative facts” like casino chips and millions of supporters cannot make the distinction – or, worse, choose to ignore the distinction.  Those of us who value the distinction need to strengthen our voices.

(Note: “Alternative facts” is not to be confused with “alternative reality” a la the social constructed reality in which we each have different interpretations of the same factual experience or event. Simplest example would be: We don’t all see our immediate supervisor in the same way, or our teachers, or our elected representatives, or our country, etc. Yet, each person’s reality is just as valid as the others’…with the facts as the foundation. See my previous posts, here, here, and here, on making such distinctions.)

hoar frost

Ever since I started my blog, I have been trying, sometimes very hard, to stay away from politics, unless I found justifications for tying it to organizations. Yet, the obvious has been staring at me all these years: From a “system” perspective, politics inevitably impacts organizations and vice versa, and individuals involved, which include every one of us, are all players. How can organizations and politics be neatly separated, especially when hundreds of millions of dollars get involved? Why has it taken me so long to admit the obvious? The answer is that it has everything to do with my upbringing: Be modest; be moderate; don’t stir things up; don’t call attention to yourself, etc. And getting into politics is a sure way to draw fire, from all quarters, and these days, people get downright violent in their social media language.

However, I feel compelled to address some political issues, as my internal frustration and despair are mounting. So I will start 2018 full-throttle on politics/systems, still with the attention to organizational/management issues, and I will maintain my civil language.

mt. washington

Two recent developments in our society have convinced me of the need to address political issues: (1) The willy-nilly disregard for facts, conjoined with the failure to separate wheat from chaff, seems to be growing in large sectors of the society. This alarms me and convinces me that we need to emphasize facts and evidence whenever we address policies that would impact a large swath of people, hence the opening quote. I acknowledge the body of research teaching us that emphasizing facts does not sway opinions, at least not in the near term, but I believe that in the long term the facts win out, hopefully before being cruelly reinforced on a battlefield, provided they’re not allowed to be ignored. [The allusion to battlefield is inspired by George Orwell: “…[W]e are all capable of believing things which we know to be untrue… the only check on it is that sooner or later a false belief bumps up against solid reality, usually on a battlefield.”

(2) The recent onslaught of #MeToo stories made me realize that in public, I tend to put myself down…again, the need to be modest and moderate and not make waves always nags me. The saving grace is that whenever the stakes are high, I rise to the occasion and assert myself without the usual provisos. (In private conversations and amongst friends, I am totally comfortable because I know I am safe.) The #MeToo movement (which, unfortunately, touches my own history) finally wiped away those cobwebs in my psyche.


3 finger jack

So, in today’s post, I want to establish my intent, and lay down a couple of philosophical thoughts for why facts and evidence should always be our foundation.

Kathryn Schultz states in her “Fantastic Beasts and How to Rank Them(The New Yorker, Nov 6, 2017 issue):

One of the strangest things about the human mind is that it can reason about unreasonable things. [emphasis mine] It is possible, for example, to calculate the speed at which the sleigh would have to travel for Santa Claus to deliver all those gifts on Christmas Eve…And it is possible to decide that a yeti is more likely to exist than a leprechaun, even if you think that the likelihood of either of them existing is precisely zero.”  

What is “real” vs. what could be “real” is the key. However, making such distinction often requires critical thinking. Any theory, conspiracy or not, when it’s proposed on the internet, and especially if it’s picked up by MSM, becomes a legitimate consideration. I don’t know how this has come about, but the practice of bending the facts has been going on for a while (re, Orwell). Most noticeably, of course, is equivocating between Darwin’s scientifically proven “Evolution” theory and the totally bogus “Intelligent Design,” for which to date there has not been any evidence presented that does not even more compellingly support evolution.

Ever since human beings began to organize for common purposes, politicians have always been known to bend the truth, either for their personal gain or for “the greater good.” (This applies to politics in organizations as well.) But few have blatantly espoused lies out of thin air, boasted about such acts, and blame “fake news” every time they are being called out.

As Hanna Arendt observed decades ago: “If everybody always lies to you, the consequence is not that you believe the lies, but rather that nobody believes anything any longer.”

“Fake news” used to be employed as a propaganda tool for disseminating falsehoods. But now, as the President of the United States of America, Mr. Trump has turned the table around, by creating a fountain of lies while labeling what he doesn’t like – especially when his lies are revealed – “fake news.” This has emboldened other politicians, both domestically and internationally, to employ and abuse the term whenever reporters challenge them.

However, the people who abuse “fake news” indiscriminately seemed to accept the predictions of hurricanes Harvey (hitting Texas in 2017) and Irma (hitting Florida right after Harvey) and the descriptions of the horrendous aftermath. But while they accepted that category V hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico hard, they balked at that aftermath narrative and blamed the Puerto Ricans for their plight.

glacier pond

So nowadays, instead of accepting facts, as Hanna Arendt predicted, we have become suspicious of fact- and evidence-based reporting. In other words, we suspect everything. From the perspective of the Russian interference in the US 2016 election, if the Russians’ intent was to get the American people to think there is no such thing as knowable truth, our opponents have already won.

I no longer care to try to understand how fact-deniers “think” and their rationales. I no longer worry about how to converse with those who simply refuse facts. “Telling like it is” doesn’t need to be rude, and certainly shouldn’t be devoid of truths. “My [nuclear bomb] button’s bigger than your button” may be satisfying to some, indeed it would be downright laughable if it weren’t so frightfully pointing toward Armageddon. And when people rely on only lies, coupled with rudeness and taunts, their “conversations” become shouting matches, as evidenced in the current Trump-Bannon spat over Michael Wolff’s latest tell-all book on Trump’s White House.  (Google these names and you will have your choices of reading.)

All I can do is to stay on evidence and emphasize the facts, relentlessly.

Isaac Asimov said it well– (1980):

There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.”

Linking back to the quote earlier from the Fantastic Beasts, “life” may be magical, that doesn’t mean that we rely on magical thinking to live our daily lives.

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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When Even Generic Smile Is Seen As Dishonest And Suspicious

To strangers to American culture, Americans’ smiles can be unnerving. “Is there something on my face?” “Did she know something I missed?” “It’s so inappropriate for him to smile at me.” According to some Russians, for the longest time, American’s smile was a symbol of the evil American capitalism. Non-verbal communication is just as much of a socially constructed phenomenon as verbal communication. Cultural shock is akin to bacteria invading our bodies, annoying, inconvenient, and we just want to find some drugs to zap them away. We rarely see cultural adjustment as a challenge to our emotional well-being.


The second story of the Invisibilia focused on changing one aspect of a national culture, Russian specifically. When McDonald’s opened its first franchise in Moscow January of 1990, it was a huge deal. Not only the symbol of capitalism invading a former communist country, the Russian employees of McDonald’s continued the Big Mac’s culture of smiles in their greetings and services. However, it was the totality of the “customer service,” a la American/Western/Capitalistic ways, that tested the uninitiated and curious Russians. From “Hi, how are you?” “What can I get for you?” to “Is there anything else?” and “Hope to see you soon,” it was the complete opposite of what Russians usually experienced in their own restaurants where servers were surly, rude, slow, very slow, and sometimes downright nasty.

How did the average Russian customers react to their own fellow countrymens’ Americanized behavior, at least inside McDonald’s? Would they be suspicious of such unwanted friendliness? Not just smiling, but eye contacting and “faked” chumminess? Guess what people of all cultures would prefer? To be treated kindly…with or without smiles. The featured Russian in the radio story, Yuri, considered the question whether Russians going to McDonald’s are for food or emotional culture, and his response was, “I think emotional culture. People – some people liked food – some people were kinda, like, eh, food is OK. But, you know, it’s really a great place to just hang out.” Contrary to American’s perception of the uniformed soulless fast-food corporate culture, Russians saw McDonald’s an “island of light and humanity.” Socially constructed reality!


Such attitudinal change in Yuri and his co-workers took hold of their psyche over time, and some of them began feeling impatient with general Russians’ old ways of taking everything so seriously. In fact, two years after Yuri’s foray into the world of Big Mac, he and his family immigrated into the US, and settled down in Boston. Yuri had a honeymoon period in the States. Then, one day while waiting for bus, a fellow rider struck a conversation with Yuri, and they had a great back-and-forth on some personal stuff. Yuri saw a budding friendship and was delighted. The bus came; his “new friend” boarded after Yuri and sat away from Yuri, like all those talking points had just evaporated into thin air. Yuri concluded, “And I still remember that feeling. I was, like, I thought you were my friend. That’s really strange.”

Of course, you know by now that very few things in social science/social world are absolute. So it is with smiling, it can get carried away in customer service. Many American workers who are on the frontline dealing with customers feel burnt out after a prolonged period of smiling too much, a disguise for suppressed frustration. The forced smile has also created the expectation on the customers’ side to think they are always right and can become wholly unreasonable. So, there is a dark side of “keeping up with the smile!”

I remember vividly my first trip to the People’s Republic of China in 1985. The country had barely opened its doors to outsiders. Almost everything was still state operated with zero concept of “customers;” the few mom-and-pop shops were accustomed to not seeing too many happy customers. Everyone seemed dour and impatient. The only friendly people were your relatives, connections with your relatives, or small merchants who’d like to take a little bit of advantage of you if they could. My western style combined with impeccable Chinese often unnerved the strangers, and if I could be quick, I could enjoy a little break of getting what I needed while they were recovering from being caught off guard. My second visit two years later saw dramatic changes across a large swath of the country, and by my last visit in 1991, Shanghai was on the cusp of becoming a cosmopolitan center. By then, my reaction to seeing the smiling Chinese wait staff was, “They are just being obsequious.” I haven’t been back since and have no idea of how people have changed.

Globalization has upended many carts, such as customer services, labor forces, attitudes toward “strangers,” or cultural habits. My take on of the two stories presented in the Invisibilia episode is this: Top-down changes are achievable in a small group and when the leaders practice what they preach. This was the case of the oil rig, presented in the previous post. The McDonald’s case was initiated from the top HQ down to one Moscow store, but it eventually caught fire as more McDonald’s opened up throughout Russia. More than two decades later, Russians’ smile score was higher than Americans’ in the 2015 “Smiling Report.” Yet, when it comes down to individuals living cross-culturally, such as in Yuri’s case, there is still much internal struggle and negotiation with the external world.


After being in the States for 40+ years, and happy like a fish back in the water, I still occasionally experience a cultural shift and puzzlement. Actually, such a feeling of disquiet occurs to many people when they move from one region to another, e.g. east coast to west coast, or north to south, and vice versa. Sometimes, English-speaking people moving from one country to another English-speaking country, say, US to UK, or UK to Australia, etc. experience even stronger cultural shock precisely because the changes may be subtle and easily taken for granted.

There are no magic medicines or programs to help us overcome the cross-cultural malaise. However, like all emotional issues, we need to take time to understand, really and deeply understand, not just our cultural environment but how we fit in that environment. It’s stop-and-go; it’s constant; it can be tiring and exhilarating; it’s personal, individualistic and collective. And it can be rewarding whenever we “get” it.  Till next time,


Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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NUMMI – When The Giant Stumbles…

It hurts everyone in its path.

Is it possible that all those working at NUMMI (New United Motor Manufacturing Incorporated) were happy team players? Of course not, that’d be against reality, and so not American. However, since the dissenters were few, there was little chance of upsetting production. Ultimately, the question was: If NUMMI was such a success, wouldn’t GM want the rest of the company’s plants, or at least the majority of them, to learn (not copy) from it?

As I have explained before, changes are personal. When people perceive changes as threats to their skills or power, they resist.


During the initial implementation of NUMMI, GM set up a team of 16 “rising stars” to help with NUMMI. After NUMMI was launched, these 16 “commandos” were basically sitting idle. No one at HQ contacted them for valuable information. After two years, one of them quit, and another one went to GM Brazil to help set up the plant there and created some success, a la NUMMI.

In the meantime, a GM plant in Van Nuys, manufacturing the Camero and Firebird, was as infamous for both defective products and antagonistic attitudes between labor and management as the Fremont plant. The Van Nuys plant was 400 miles south of NUMMI and was facing the possibility of closing, just like Fremont plant did. All the parallels between the two plants should have served as a warning. The Van Nuys plant manager came to NUMMI for lessons; he even got the regional UAW boss, Bruce Lee, to go to Van Nuys to help train the staff. Both management and labor resisted every step of the way. They didn’t want to give up their comfort; they saw the Toyota ways as threatening in three aspects: 1. Workforce reduction, 2. Blurring the boundary between management and labor, 3. Loss of seniority. The trajectory of these aspects was the erosion of trust. (As if there was abundant trust at that point!)

The Van Nuys plant manager shut down the plant for two weeks for some serious training on product improvement and teamwork. However, there were no trips to Japan, no tearful farewells over sushi, and no immediate threat of job losses. During the training, people just went through the motions, probably not unlike most training programs most of us go through, following a 12-step manual, grumbling privately. The 2-week disruption brought only greater skepticism and deeper distrust. In addition, all the suppliers in the system were part of the dysfunctional dynamics. So, in 1992, GM shut down the plant, resulting in a much larger workforce reduction.

Similarly, when managers from the rest of GM visited NUMMI, they often ended up not just criticizing but also attacking the system. They felt threatened…why didn’t they think of this first? Instead of seeing a good example, they were “shown” their inadequacy and were put on the defensive. Remember, change is very personal.

The Van Nuys plant manager had an Aha moment. He said, “You know, they [the Japanese] never prohibited us from walking through the plant, understanding, even asking questions of some of their key people. I’ve often puzzled over that– why they did that. And I think they recognized, we were asking all the wrong questions. We didn’t understand this bigger picture thing.

“All of our questions were focused on the floor, the assembly plant, what’s happening on the line. That’s not the real issue. The issue is, how do you support that system with all the other functions that have to take place in the organization?”

The above quote illustrates the quintessential failure to distinguish between learning from vs. copying success.

Here is a sad example of an extreme case of copying success. “ So I remember, one of the GM managers was ordered, from a very senior level– came from vice president– to make a GM plant look like NUMMI. And he said, ‘I want you to go there with cameras and take a picture of every square inch. And whatever you take a picture of, I want it to look like that in our plant. There should be no excuse for why we’re different than NUMMI, why our quality is lower, why our productivity isn’t as high, because you’re going to copy everything you see.’” Wow! Just “Wow!”

How do you copy attitude? How do you copy relationships and trust? How do you copy wisdom? How do you copy the ability to listen and think critically? And is the ability to listen and think critically of any value without encouraging its use? And on and on. I am not suggesting that the Japanese have all these qualities and Americans don’t; I do contend that the Japanese possessed those not-easily-quantifiable assets in the 90s, more learned than copied, relative to their American counterparts in the auto industry.

Of course, as GM ate more humble pie, they eventually learned. And as Toyota grew bigger, they have had, in recent years, their shares of mishaps and colossal mistakes. It never fails that as soon as one thinks of oneself as exceptional and the best, one begins to decline. This is true for individuals, groups, organizations, and nations. In the case of Toyota, the mantra of “continuous improvement” might sound as if they are open-minded about learning; in reality, that assumption ignores the lessons from the third law of thermodynamics. To reach that elusive and impossible goal of 100% perfection, an entity needs to commit all its resources and energy to the futility of “improving” that very last bit of imperfection. Along the way, the organization chokes off all innovation and creativity.

As for GM, eventually, it began to learn, especially as more and more managers rotated through on-the-job-training at NUMMI; the slow – because giants don’t walk fast — but steady accumulation of learning among these managers did tip the scale. And GM began to improve its quality. Ironically, at the time of GM’s bankruptcy, it might have achieved its highest quality production in recent decades, albeit a little late.


Are we ever likely to learn from NUMMI? A few may, but most won’t…not necessarily for lack of smarts, willingness, or resources. Most organizations will not learn “properly” because such learning fundamentally requires top management to face facts, or, to truly grasp what the lower levels of managers and other employees know all too well. It also demands that employees, of all levels, have a deep sense of humility, knowing that they don’t always know everything. It’s complicated to change even a small group, let alone a giant organization. “Too big to fail?” Until it fails…then everyone suffers.

In the end, NUMMI closed in 2010. After GM’s bankruptcy in 2009, it pulled out of the JV, leaving Toyota running the plant alone. NUMMI was Toyota’s only unionized plant in the States. Eventually, Toyota decided to close NUMMI. The NUMMI site was bought by Tesla for a fraction of its book value.

I don’t mean to end on a downer note, but let’s be realistic. Till next time,


Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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Amazonians, Amabots, Amholes – Working for

It would have been better timing for me to post this workforce-oriented article on the Labor Day weekend, but I wanted to honor my commitment to my family. My attitude might be “old-fashioned” in the fast-paced tech world, and I am pretty sure that I would not survive for even one day working at places like So I read the New York Times’ exposé on the workings inside Amazon – focused largely on white collar professionals – with mixed feelings.

Big animal with big horns.

Big animal with big horns.

The Times’ article is long, about 6,000 words, but the gist is an age-old issue manifested in the modern tech-savvy world: How to maximize employers’ utilization of employees’ labor or brain power. Decades ago, Frederick Taylor’s scientific management, studying time and motion in labor-intensive work tasks, made assembly line work possible, and profitable. In modern service oriented industries, the race is on how to incentivize (I really hate this word, but, ah well…) professional brainiacs.’s owner, Jeff Bezos, started his enterprise determined to not let the company slip into the typical corporate culture of bureaucracy, regimented rules and processes, or conventional practices of any kind. He intended, I am sure still intends, to instill in Amazon a “perpetual entrepreneurial” spirit. One can hardly argue with his “leadership principles,” such as customer obsession, hire and develop the best, or insist on the highest standards. Would anyone object to these ideas? Further, most people would react with, “Finally!, someone with vision.” However, like all statements de jour of vision and mission, and pledges of ethical behavior, the ultimate test lies in the execution. The New York Times’ article is about how Amazon has executed these “leadership principles.”

The article portrays the Amazon’s white collar environment as a high-octane, fiercely consumer-oriented, constantly striving for excellence, in which colleagues could be supportive, demanding, competitive, or back-stabbing. Nothing new, just magnified by 10 at Amazon. For instance, many who have worked at Amazon mentioned colleagues leaving meetings in tears, from the combative, confrontational tone of “critiquing” each other’s ideas. While this may not be universal across Amazon, how widespread should it be? would 10% of the work force – 180,000 employees – be acceptable? 20%? Working 60-80 hours a week is a norm; conference calls on Thanksgiving or other holidays are necessary at times; keeping up with emails while on vacations isn’t a rule but is expected… All true also in many other organizations; however, at Amazon, a person receiving an email at, say 10 PM might get a follow up text if that person doesn’t respond the email within an hour. People who take time off tending sick loved ones, taking care of one’s own chemotherapy and recovery process, or dealing with grief often find themselves being put on “performance improvement plan.” In other words, your time off is on you and will reflect against your career progress. Again, this isn’t unique to Amazon, just bigger per the company’s Amazonian size. As one former employee said, “When you are not able to give your absolute all, 80 hours a week, they see it as a major weakness.” (NYTimes report)

There is never a shortage of thorny issues in organizations.

There is never a shortage of thorny issues in organizations.

Not surprisingly, many young people, especially singles with fewer commitments outside of work, thrive in Amazon’s work environment. Many also see their “short” stint – however one defines it — at Amazon as a stepping stone for better career opportunities elsewhere. And some leave the company feeling drained and needing a lengthy period to recover. Regardless of how the employees, former or current, handle the work environment, one thing seems clear; their work habit sticks with them, for better or for worse. For those who thrive on the intensity, they continue their “pursuit of higher performance” wherever they go, and thereby make themselves attractive to the next employer. Others who leave the company with a bad taste, may nevertheless appreciate the Amazon discipline. It’s not that the latter group doesn’t care for excellence, they just prefer excellence as manifest in a kinder spirit of their own definition and choosing.

Ultimately, my major question is: Would “perpetual start-up spirit” within one entity eventually morph into its own conventional form and choke off the very spirit it has tried to engender? I don’t know the answer…and, not knowing the answer would be another objectionable response at Amazon. Truly, I wouldn’t survive for even half of a day.

In the next post, I will summarize some reactions to this article…and of course add my own nickel’s worth. Till then,


Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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Note: “Amazonians” and “Amabots” are used internally by people working in Amazon, but “Amholes” are used by some outsiders.

When Science Meets Reality – Part II+

My comment about “unless a scientist is independently wealthy or can attract wealthy patron, she is pretty much destined to work for organizations” elicited a reader’s correction. His point is well taken: In certain areas where the computer plays the key component in scientific exploration, some scientists can still operate independently. I even received a little tour of his modest facility, a small den equipped with a computer and a contraption with light bulbs, tubes, duct tape, lots of wire, etc. His enthusiasm was contagious – I was quite excited about the potential economic, technical, scientific, and social-psychological benefits – but his explanations of the physics principles were still opaque to me by the end of our half-hour encounter. And I admitted to him, “You know that within two minutes after I walk out of this building, all your explanations will have evaporated into the wind.” I would need at least another half-dozen 1-hour sessions…just to comprehend some of the basics.

A snowy reality in April.

A snowy reality in April.

I suspect such a scenario is fairly common in many organizations, scientists explaining their work to colleagues who lack a background in that scientific field but need to attend to other aspects of scientific work. In modern organizations, scientific work processes encompass delineating procedures, getting approvals, monitoring the various stages of the work, performing the actual work itself, and addressing its legal ramifications regarding not just potential accidents but also potential transactions with other entities outside the organizations.

Throughout the process, communication between scientists and “others” is not symmetrical. For example, a biochemist can explain a technical article to a relatively intelligent non-scientist, or even to another scientist not expert in her field, and the receiver may understand the main points and grasp the fundamental principles. But can the non-expert then pick up another technical biochemistry article and grasp its main points? No; the non-expert will require a fresh explanation by the biochemist to explain this new technical article. This cannot be the best use of the biochemist’s time, yet, in today’s procedure-obsessed organizations, everyone needs to be briefed before work can move forward. The people who “need” to be briefed for project X would need the same amount of attention from the same scientist for project Y, or from a different scientist on project Z.

The learning curve for non-experts has to be climbed each time.   Indeed this is the definition of non-expert: A scientist has spent decades accumulating knowledge and developing expertise that can’t be replaced with a few sessions of condensed teaching. Thus the asymmetry in communication between the biochemist and the non-expert. The tendency is for expert scientists to understand what management and operations staff need, but not the other way around. More personally, most people can understand what I, a social scientist, talk about, as long as I avoid jargon and use clear English; but were I an astrophysicist or a virologist, even using clear English would be inadequate to communicate the manifold and intricate connections, background and context, mathematical framework, and other details that comprise my technical discipline.

So, when I commented in the previous post that scientist-managers might want to consider including non-scientist colleagues in the work process, I didn’t make myself clear. These managers couldn’t possibly spend the hours necessary to bring non-scientists up to speed on the specifics of the endeavors – even if the non-scientists were interested in knowing the details. Still, if work procedures need various signatures and approvals, then managers might make the work process smoother by providing some basic scientific rationale, philosophy, and significance of the work to the non-scientists.

Not everyone can explain sophisticated scientific subjects clearly and understandably, and still generate excitement in the audience. Not all scientist-managers are good at such communication; such managers need to seek good communicators to facilitate such translation. But if there is only one expert on a subject in the organization, then, that person carries a heavy burden, having to explain his work to all stakeholders. When is he going to find the time to actually work, to genuinely accomplish something? Having multiple experts in subjects important for organizational capabilities – having people’s expertise overlap, sometimes called having “critical mass” in those subjects – is important for organizational learning. I am afraid, though, that during economic stress, top management always wants to reduce such overlap, mistakenly thinking that “critical mass” is wasteful, thereby making everyone carry an extra burden.

more snow cones

Most solutions to management conundrums are less scientifically grounded than philosophically grounded…though, data helps. So, the focus of next week will be on education and philosophy. Till then,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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I like to think that if I were a public figure, I would recognize myself as being target-rich, and for my own protection I would develop a higher sense of self-awareness so that I wouldn’t trip on my own hubris. However, target-rich people and organizations…well, just keep providing new targets. This is how I should have replied when friends asked about my thoughts of the recent brouhaha surrounding Starbucks’ “#RaceTogether” campaign. At the time, I just shrugged it off, but afterwards, I thought more about it, and my delayed reaction was the above “target-rich” musing. My more nuanced and serious reactions are these: 1. Not bad intention, but beyond-clumsy snafu-caliber execution; 2. But “Why?” in the first place? 3. Can’t corporations just stop championing social causes, be they conservative or liberal? Of course, nothing is ever just so simple.

You have figured out what “*$” stands for, right?images-3

While I would rather see corporations focusing on their main goal, bringing value to commerce and making profit thereby, it would be grand if they can take more responsibility for and ownership of their roles in our collective society, their reliance on the infrastructure for which we all chip in (two of numerous examples: education of their workforce and access to their “customer support” via the internet), and above all their mistakes. That means: I take the stand that “corporate social responsibility” is part of the id for corporations. Given that one of my foundation principles of organizations is its “social system” in which all elements are interrelated, then it follows that corporations have to join with the rest of the society on a wide range of social issues. Join, but do not presume that they are anointed leaders just because of their size or brand name. Does our purchasing power – which is the key to corporations’ market shares and profits – give corporations the right to represent our social views? This question invites debate that will not lead to any clear conclusion. However, knowing that the conclusion may be elusive doesn’t mean we should stop the discussion.

Similarly, just because race relations is a profoundly difficult and complex topic, leading to uncountable debates without clear conclusions or solutions, doesn’t mean that we should shove it aside. Not only is race relations a difficult topic, it is highly emotionally charged, and its prominence in this society surges and recedes depending on circumstances; but some may argue it has been especially emotionally charged in recent years. And few can engage in racial issues thoughtfully and intelligently; or, more pointedly, even when someone can speak and/or write beautifully and penetratingly, s/he can still excite hostile reactions.

images-2Against this backdrop, what made Starbucks’ executives think that they could just pick up the torch without any forethought as to “what’s next?” How many people feel totally comfortable entering into this topic with just anybody, even if you might have encountered the same barista a dozen times? And who’d want to talk about race at 6AM or 5PM in a café, especially if there are 5 more people behind you? How exactly did Starbucks foresee these conversations beginning? proceeding? and concluding? What was to happen if some customers got agitated with each other? Should Starbucks’ baristas intervene?!

Most corporations, actually probably all of them, exhibit inconsistencies on matters of social conscience; this is one of the reasons why, when they champion a social cause, they might end up with egg on their corporate faces. The current case of the hole Starbucks dug for itself is a perfect example because the corporation isn’t exactly a shining beacon for diversity, not in its hiring and certainly not in its appeal to its clientele. While many of their urban stores’ free providing for some of the homeless is a good gesture, the whole cappuccino culture (outside of Italy) isn’t inviting to the lower / lower-middle class where, since race and class issues are almost always inseparable, the racial mixture is most diverse. This doesn’t mean that Starbucks or other corporations cannot engage in such a topic. However, did they really think through what they wanted to talk about, or focus on? Evidence suggests that they were woefully inadequate in their preparation and execution.images-4

Recalling the common saying “The road to hell is paved with good intentions,” I recognize that intention is only the starting point, and most often the easiest step. A more nuanced version of the saying, “Hell is full of good meanings, but heaven is full of good works” reminds us that the real work – per Starbucks, the real work of thinking through what their intentions might elicit – too often doesn’t happen.

Till next time,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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We Must Continuously Improve ____________…or, must we?

How can we not want to improve ourselves all the time? How can organizations not expect continuous improvement on productivity? How can we not demand perfect safety and security? Indeed, how can anyone with a functioning brain reject “improvement?” Well…it all depends on the types of improvement. If it’s about improving a mind, it likely concerns the breadth of topics or proficiency in a certain field; if it’s about “improving” (i.e. decreasing) a waist size, there’d better be a floor number below which it’d be silly as a goal. But improving toward perfection? We can drive ourselves insane.

The idea of “continuous improvement” sounds commonsensical, but we are often fooled by what appears to be common sense. (Read Everything Is Obvious: How common sense fails us, by Duncan J. Watts, or my previous posts on the book, here, and here) In matters with imposed measurements, attempt to drive continuous improvement can only end in disappointment at the least, and destruction at the worst.

Learning how to draw upside down continues to teach me.

Learning how to draw upside down continues to teach me.

I’ve written before about how the third law of thermodynamics dictates the impossibility of driving out defects except at the lowest temperature. And extracting the remaining imperfections on the way toward that goal has a concomitant high cost. Putting it differently, improving safety and security might be a worthy goal, but to improve from 90% success rate to 95% would cost more than from 85% to 90%, and exponentially upward from 95%. For an organization to aim at the impossible goal of a perfect safety record is essentially a death knell; it would demoralize the workforce, choke off all innovation and creativity, and consume all available resources and then some. It’s particularly ironic – though I think a harsher adjective is totally justified – for science-oriented organizations to follow such anti-science practices.

At a personal level, aiming for perfection is tantamount to starving our own creativity and sense of self. As many have written on “perfection,” the measurement is set up against others’ expectations; it’s typically about pleasing others. That inevitably makes a person insecure since he always looks for others’ approval, needs to feel superior, and consequently has to demean people around him. For people searching for perfection, measurement is important, be it a test score, rankings of the schools they attend, the value of their possessions, or the number of compliments they get per week…and so on, anything that can be quantified, they want more. And the cost goes up in acquiring all these symbols.

A common saying is: Numbers don’t lie. Again, it depends. I think numbers carry different weights in different fields or for different matters. In the world of physical sciences, numbers are the foundation for precision, but in the world of social science, numbers often are subject to “socially constructed reality.” Quantifiable “continuous improvement” makes me nervous; it can escalate into something ridiculous. I often wonder about what may happen to many of the Olympics events in 10 to 20 years. I mean, can one set a world record of 100-meter track in 6 seconds? Or, throwing the javelin150 meters? Or, swimming the 100 meter butterfly in under 40 seconds? Yes, I Googled the world records, and my proposed numbers are insane. So, what should the athletes aim for? What should their coaches tell them? I suspect this type of continuous “improvement,” more like perpetual escalation or paying the exponentially increasing cost to approach the inevitable asymptote, is one of the reasons we “wear our exhaustion as a status symbol,” an article to which I alluded in passing in the previous post. For some students, no sooner do they score perfectly on SAT, their parents would come up with other measurable goals. That last increment in the march toward perfection – if it exists – is going to exact a heavy toll.

Continuous fun!

Continuous fun!

For the majority of people who don’t race in the Olympics, there is the race for grant monies, for promotions, for market shares, for advertising accounts…the more the merrier. When someone finishes a proposal, her immediate reaction is, “What’s next on the list?” Not sharing a moment of relief with colleagues, or giving one’s direct report a nice pat on the back and the right to chill for 15 minutes, or making up some lost fun time with family members. If you catch yourself saying, “What’s next on the list?” just stop. Just STOP! Yet, many people are so accustomed to working ten plus hours a day, six-seven days a week, that if they are forced to stop, they literally wouldn’t know what to do next. They need that list. So, have a list of fun things to do before stopping.

Having said all this, I recognize that there are people whose passion for what they do runs so deep that they truly and genuinely enjoy themselves when they lose themselves in their “work,” which isn’t really “work” to them. In that state – what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi famously coined “the flow” – creativity blossoms. Immersion in flow might be considered a type of “continuous improvement” profoundly different from record keeping, documentation, or jumping through hoops after hoops. The improvement realized when a person is in the flow is about stretching her mind, both in depth and in breadth, not training for precision.

The sky is the limit.

The sky is the limit.

I don’t mean to demean Olympic activities nor improvement for physical prowess, but I use these as examples to demonstrate how we can mislead ourselves in “improving ourselves.” As I often express: the real world does not operate on either-or framework. In fact, many of us learn from our physical activities to stretch (pun intended) ourselves in mental domains; they are not mutually exclusive. However, we need to learn to distinguish between measuring our improvement for that miniscule uptick intended to impress others, versus simply improving without needing to measure.

 Till next time,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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