Tag Archive | third law of thermo dynamics

When Science Meets Reality – Part II

On the one hand, we laud those who “follow what they believe;” on the other, we fault those who aren’t willing to entertain ideas outside of their beliefs. I am not referring to religion or current members of Congress; instead, my focus is on “when scientists become managers,” and continuing the theme from last week, “when science meets reality.”

Whenever people say, “Oh, management is just exercising common sense,” I feel like responding with, “And how are your family dynamics (including in-laws if you are married)? Are you managing them well? Surely, that’s just common sense stuff.” While it’s difficult to admit that “common sense” is largely socially constructed reality, once admitting that we need to be extra weary when people evoke that phrase. Nothing tests scientists’ humanness as much as when scientists move into management ranks, and from there attempting to exercise their brand of common sense.

female? or, male?

female? or, male?

Most literature on management and R&D focuses on strategic dimensions, such as dealing with environmental turbulence, international competition or cooperation, resource allocation, oursourcing, etc. All important topics and I can certainly get into lofty discussions in a heartbeat, but in today’s space, I just want to focus on some mundane issue that impact thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of employees working in scientific R&D. The mundane issue is that generic “safety and security”…again.

Is there a practice that for every new rule installed, at least one old or obsolete rule be tossed out? Conducting scientific experiments these days, a scientist must complete umpteen amount of paperwork (or, computer filing) to assure all rules and regulations have been obeyed. The university structure is generally flatter than non-profit (are there non-profit R&D organizations?), industries, and national laboratories. At universities, professors are responsible for all the safety procedures in experimental work. In industries, there are more layers of procedure and approval. But at the national labs? You probably need 23 signatures just to burp; God forbid if you need to sneeze! (Hence my parody of using goats as weed control, posted a couple of summers ago.)

From a bystander’s perspective, I hold top management at these institutions and their parent departments accountable for creating the slippery slope of piled-up rules and regulations. National labs have to respond to various stakeholder groups, DOE, NSF, DOD, etc., that ultimately trace back to Congress which has taken micromanagement to an (abstract) art form. Many managers at the national labs are scientists, and many of their counterparts at the sponsoring agencies, i.e. DOE, DOD…are scientists too. They are more familiar with the third law of thermodynamics than I can ever hope to, so they ought to know that tightening screws on safety and security ultimately exacts a costly toll on our collective efforts in innovation and creativity. I appreciate that part of the problem is the nature of incremental pressure: One keeps thinking that one more rule, one more measure to address that last incident/accident, one more training requirement to confirm the staff has read that most recent new measure, isn’t going to hurt much. And I definitely sympathize with anyone trying to “educate” the Congress. Still, these scientist-managers ought to know better; they do bear more responsibilities to ensure a more scientifically-attuned environment for their people, by educating the public, including colleagues who aren’t scientists. Instead, I have too often witnessed scientists’ turning into whole-hearted enforcers for regulations as soon as they assume their managerial position. It’s as if they succumbed overnight to the need to focus on a clean managerial record with little or no incident/accidents on their watch. Science gets subordinated to a “better safety record.”

Pouting.

Pouting.

Don’t even get me started on lawyers, professionally risk-averse, in such an environment.

Of course, being a social scientist, I cannot help but seeing other perspectives as well. There is always “on the fifth hand…”

The issue of observing rules and regulations for lower and middle levels of managers in R&D organizations is a little more complicated. These managers don’t have much power to make or change rules, so what are their options? Some would reluctantly cooperate with agents from stakeholder organizations, and some may proactively work with the stakeholder agents (informing and educating for better understanding) to strengthen working relationships…all the while wishing there was a better way. In the proactive approach, the payoff is ultimately a better working environment for the scientists, engineers…all staff members. Yet, how often do those holding the opposite perspective regard such a manager as a sell-out…cooperating with “enemies?” This then leads to a different approach, what I term “guerilla tactics,” in which managers try to stall, sabotage, stonewall, undermine, demean stakeholder agents. While tactics like these may seem driven by principles, the satisfaction is short-lived and the actions can backfire. For instance, when someone gets caught breaking rules that may have dire consequences, the entire staff suffers new rules, and the reputation of the organization takes a (further) beating.

Yes, I show my bias. Truth be told, my temperament actually might lead me to employ “guerilla tactics;” however, I like to believe that I would ultimately use my rationality to see the greater good for a larger population than my own personal satisfaction.

When activities needed to meet the accumulated rules and regulations take up more than 50% of a day’s work for most people in an organization, there is something seriously wrong with that work environment. At the end of a day, when a person realizes that he has done 8+ hours of work without a trace of accomplishment, it makes going back to work the next day just a little tougher.

When cranes meet lilies.

When cranes meet lilies.

I feel like I have a little more reflection on scientist-manager. Next time. Till then,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

Direct Contact: taso100@gmail.com

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.

Direct Contact: taso100@gmail.com