A Paean for Practice

Sometimes I long for the days when it was possible to fix things yourself.  Perhaps you recall when it was actually possible to do routine maintenance on your car.  Seldom is that so today.  

Recently the filters on our water treatment system needed changing so I decided to do that myself.  After all, it’s just filters. And you don’t want to know what the service company wants to charge for a service call, it seems more like a charge for surgery than filter replacement.  So we ordered the replacement filters on line, naturally, and I proceeded to undertake the replacement, only to discover to my chagrin that these simple systems are designed to make it well-nigh impossible for the homeowner to maintain.  There is no system manual available and the parts are all specialty plastic fittings.  This is an intentional strategy to make homeowners purchase expensive service contracts.  My solution; buy a new system that is designed for self installation and self servicing.

Some solace came in the form of a book that conveniently showed up on the shelves at our local library, “Shop Class as Soulcraft: an Inquiry into the Value of Work” by Matthew B. Crawford.  After obtaining a doctorate in political philosophy, Crawford landed a job with a Washington, D.C. think tank only to conclude that the hyped glamour of inside the Beltway power jobs is not necessarily the prescription for a meaningful life.  So reverting to his earlier love of being a “gear head” he’s now happily engaged as the owner of a motorcycle repair shop in Virginia, supplemented by being a part-time writer and philosopher commenting on the changing nature of work and our connections with the physical universe.

Remember shop class in school? Crawford talks about shop class and how it has ceased to be a staple feature of education.  He reminds us that “…it was in the 1990’s that shop class started to become a thing of the past, as educators prepared students to become knowledge workers.”  Continuing his theme, Crawford remarks that “an engineering culture has developed in recent years in which the object is to ‘hide the works’ rendering many of the devices we depend on every day unintelligible to direct inspection.”

This week a friend sent me his organization’s 2011 plan for next steps in applying high reliability concepts.  He commented on the challenges of understanding “Work as Imagined – Work as Done” (referred to before in this blog as ΔW) in a technical environment.  His comments reminded me of Crawford’s writing and my personal frustrations of not being able to understand how stuff operates any more.  As the Christmas season approaches many of us will be living through this ΔW quandary that permeates much of contemporary life.

Here’s a personal case in point.  My wife and I decided that for our Christmas gift we would treat ourselves to our first high definition television.  The Science channel, Discovery, History – these are important parts of our entertainment and education.  Of course we had to get a new Blue Ray high def DVD player for movies and a replacement for our old sound system so we have compatible surround sound for the high def programs.  And we had to get a new high def cable box for high def signals.  Each of these engineered components comes with separate manuals and remote controls.  One new feature, there is a computerized setup feature on the TV; great. You would think it’s just a matter of reading the manuals, connecting the components, and let the show begin.  Wrong!

The manuals are definitely not written for users.  The manuals assume a lot of knowledge.  The manuals are the “there are several ways of connecting, depending on what you have” and then the “if this, connect that”. When you think you may understand an individual component, then the real fun begins. 

There is no documentation that addresses integration of all these components.  There is no such thing as an integrating model, no theory of how all this stuff works together.  So this is an example of work as imagined, work as done.  It may make sense to the engineers who designed the systems, but just try to get a sensible, safe working explanation out of the manuals or the tech support people. My wife remarked that the first company that interfaces all of these components, or the techno geek who publishes a social network site that continuously updates new technology interfaces, will make a fortune! 

People find ways to make all this stuff work.  But how many different ways can you make them work?  How do you tell if the way you pick is acceptable, or if it’s safe? What do we know about possible consequences of ways to connect that the engineers did not anticipate – or the managers? 

Options are great.  But at what point do the sheer number of options exceed our cognitive capacity to deal with such complexity? The more features our devices have, the greater the permutations available and the greater the potential for human error.  Combine the proliferation of available options built into each device with interfacing multiple devices and the complexity expands further.  As our technological complexity increases, at what point do we necessarily have to shift from a cause – effect model of work to a probabilistic model?  And what does work that requires a probabilistic approach necessitate in how we approach doing work safely?

Engineers and similar technical professionals are schooled in and often psychologically entrenched in a Newtonian physics view of reality.  Clearly our technical systems are deterministic in a Newtonian sense, there is such a thing as physical system cause and effect.  The same; however, is not true for human systems which are characterized in complexity theory as complex adaptive systems.  High reliability thinking requires that we view organizations as complex sociotechnical systems, human systems that develop, construct, use and maintain technical systems to perform work.

Thinking about the existence of complex sociotechnical systems and the challenges inherent with such systems is by no means new.  Pioneers of systems thinking and operations research C. West Churchman and Russell Ackoff began talking about these issues in the 1960’s.  Churchman introduced the concept of wicked problems in a guest editorial of Management Science in1967.  Ackoff wrote about complex problems as ‘messes’: “Every problem interacts with other problems and is therefore part of a set of interrelated problems, a system of problems…. I choose to call such a system a mess.” Together they wrote an influential introductory text on operations research, a field they defined as designing “the best decisions relative to as large a portion of total organizations as possible”.

Others have advanced similar ideas with different metaphors.  For example, the now famous distinction between puzzles and mysteries is credited originally to Gregory F. Treverton writing in Smithsonian magazine in June 2007 and was popularized by Malcom Gladwell.  Educator and author Jamie McKenzie discusses it like this: “Put simply, mysteries are thornier and less cooperative than puzzles. There may not be a satisfying answer to a mystery, while most puzzles can be solved, especially those like a jigsaw.”  Writing in “From Now On – The Educational Technology Journal”, McKenzie expresses the relevance of this distinction for education, a distinction that also applies to our understanding of work in complex sociotechnical systems:

Even though the most important questions in life may be to some extent unanswerable, these challenging and often frustrating issues should occupy a prominent position in the curriculum guides of schools that claim to prepare students for life in this new century. Unfortunately, perhaps because these issues are usually messy and frustrating, many schools sidestep them in favor of learning that is comfortably packaged and topics that are ripe for “plucking.”

Few lists of 21st Century skills include the ability to manage ambiguity, wrestle with paradox and entertain mystery, but this failure to prepare our students for mystery is a serious lapse. The times are riddled with enigmas and conundrums. If schools adopt a mystery curriculum, students may approach these issues with familiarity and confidence instead of confusion, contempt or panic.

Julian Orr’s 1996 book “Talking about Machines” gave us real life examples of how these concepts were playing out then in the doing of technical work.  He introduced us to this new nature of work, what he and Steven Barr later wrote about as “Between Craft and Science”.  Technical work had become a blended discipline spanning the world of craft and science demanding knowledge of both, mastery of neither, rather skills and knowledge that constituted a new way of thinking about the doing of work. Orr told us about how mental models, scenario building and social networks were enabling these new ways of working; and how the schism between how designers and managers envisioned work and how the workers actually experienced work was emerging as a major cultural divide.  Edgar Schein recognized this divide writing about the same cultural phenomenon from a different perspective.  

Jens Rasmussen’s cognitive information processing categorization scheme of Skill, Rule, Knowledge was designed to inform the study of control theory (in the sense of computer aided industrial controls).  In general his ideas help us appreciate that as work variables proliferate and the work environment becomes more opaque to the worker, the types potential error change and probabilities of error increase.   

This post is titled “A Paean for Practice”; a song in honor of those who do the hands on tasks of making things work.  So what does all of the above have to do with honoring them?  We have become, in many ways, a society of criticism and blame. When outcomes are not to our satisfaction, we criticize those involved in the work.  Far from honoring them, often those who do the day to day work of keeping things running are relegated to the role of “blue collar” or “technician” as if there is some secondary class status that distinguishes those who manipulate physical things as compared to those who do not.  And when things do not go as we wished with our devices, they are the ones placed in the dock of judgment. 

When the technician from the cable company came to install our the new high def cable box, his observable work included disconnecting the old cable box from the associated devices, attaching the new box to the multiple devices, programming the functions of the cable box using the cable remote control and functions of the television set to connect the two, functions of the remote control to program the cable features we had selected from  the menu of all features available from the cable company, filling in paper records with serial numbers and authorization codes, and using a cell phone to connect with a cable company to record what he had done and initiate electronic approvals and authorizations.   

The technician’s work complete, he left and we proceeded to explore our exciting new entertainment system; only to discover that a number of the channels and features did not work as we expected.  This resulted in yet another call to the cable customer service and a number of remote system programming actions by them to get things working.  Even then, we found that the various devices and device options were not synchronized to provide optimum performance and to get that performance we would have to switch among programmable options and different remote controls as we changed from the types of media we wished to select. This was achieved through about two days of experimentation by my wife, considerable frustration, and a few references to the relative intelligence, ancestry, and general character of people and organizations involved.  What worked for her was referring back to a diagram she kept from setting up our previous system and its components; but, there was the difficulty of additional new connections to factor in to making things work. 

So who is at fault here?  The technician who came to our home commented on that he had to work on so many different types of components and different cable options it was difficult to keep current.  He was a contractor to the cable company, was critical of the skill level of the cable company customer service people, noted how as the cable company had gotten larger it became more difficult to work with them.  The cable company customer service people complained about the contract technicians. Is anyone really at fault?  Or is this just the world we have created?  Are our expectations of technology aligned with the reality of our technology?   

For things like new entertainment systems, the downsides of the scenario described above are irritation, frustration and time consumption – but none of these are life threatening.  For the work that many do however – in medicine, nuclear, petro-chemical, aviation, emergency response, scenarios laden with error potential and error inevitability are unacceptable because the down side is just too dreadful. 

For those of us involved with these hazardous complex sociotechnical systems, we have to do better.  But in the search for doing better, how much do we really understand about what it means, what it takes, to make things work?  Our attempts to improve are all too often exercises in power rather than exercises in improvement.  We blame, threaten, cajole and punish, all in the name of prevention and improvement, far too often with no change in the reality of how the work has to get done. How big is, and what is the nature of ΔW in your organization? How do you know?  The knowledge of how to know and what can be done about it is available.  Do you know it, and do you use it? Are you stuck back in the days when car repair was simple and shop class was something taught in every school? 

As we approach the Holiday season, many of us will experience the frustrations of figuring out why the strands of Christmas tree lights won’t work, the trials of connecting new entertainment devices, and the vicissitudes of getting from place to place during this hectic time of year.  Perhaps in the midst of those travails we might reflect on how we think about the doing of practical work, perhaps we may think about what it’s like to really make things work in the face of complexity, change, economic and social pressures, and uncertainty. For those are the things this high reliability discussion is intended to address.  How do we think about work, how might thinking about it differently enable us to produce better outcomes?  

So for the Holiday season and the New Year be safe, have fun, and good luck with those gadgets that come your way during whatever traditions you celebrate this time of year.



6 Responses to A Paean for Practice

  1. David says:

    Great Post!!!
    There are a lot of thought provoking words here. A few more perhaps…

    I was watching a TV show a few weeks ago, the topic, bridge construction. I can’t recall the bridge, or even the location but the show was a documentary about building a particular bridge. The task for the day was to lift a large bridge section into place using an equally large crane. Things first went awry when the bolt holes on the bridge section and the crane’s lifting apparatus wouldn’t line up by millimeters, 1 day of work lost to repair. After fixing the first problem they encountered a second problem the clearance from the lifting apparatus to the bridge section was too narrow by something on the order of 1-2 inches. Again, work stopped for a day to make the changes. Two days were lost to “simple” problems, nothing with the engineering of the crane, a massively complex piece of a machinery, nothing with the oddly shaped piece of concrete and steel they were lifting. The whole episode I was thinking about how much time and money went into setting up the crane, and designing the bridge, fabricating the bridge section, and because a simple thing, like a dry run on the ground wasn’t done, two days of productivity were lost. The lifting apparatus probably cost a couple thousand dollars to fabricate, the crane, the bridge section and the labor, probably on the order of several million dollars. A lot of attention is paid to the so called “big” errors, but sometimes the smallest of failures or errors can make the biggest of things inconsequential.

    In your spare time check out the “Logitech Harmony” remote. I’m not being paid for this endorsement, I’ve just heard that they work!

  2. Bill R says:

    As I was reading, I was reminded of our elementary school demonstration of whistering a message around a circle of people. In the end, it was nothing like what it started. Perhaps we can derive a law that “Delta” W grows in magnitude for each level of management instructions travel or are reinterpreted. I believe it is one reason flatter organizations (usually collaborative) are much more successful in the modern world than traditional heirarchical ones.

    I trust the TV did not blow up or catch fire…

  3. Dari says:

    “I trust the TV did not blow up or catch fire…”

    >>>Oh ye of little faith, William….

    Of course not!

    It works imperfectly!

  4. Todd Conklin says:

    I love this blog

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