Blame the system

American statistician W. Edwards Deming defined two origins of variation in a process or system. Common cause of variation is the noise in the system, constantly occurring and predictable by a measure of probability. Special cause of variation is one that is novel and unpredictable, one that is always a surprise – this is the signal in the system.

Deming wasn’t the first person to distinguish between the two – credit should also be given to his contemporary Walter Shewhart – but he’s as good an introduction to the concept as any.

In questions of management and organisation, it’s vital to distinguish between the two. Treating common causes, i.e. those arising in the system, as if they were due to individuals in your work force not only gives you no insight into the function of the system, but also runs the risk of demoralising your team. The tendency to do this is particulaly prevalent because experiments by Deming have shown that this type of variation is not evenly distributed among workers, because the system affects people in different ways. The fact that a member of your sales team sells on the lower end of a given range compared to a colleague is in as much as 94% of cases (Deming’s approximation) the product of the system.

Want to change the system? You can’t do it by forcing your workforce to work harder. This only breeds resentment. It is the responsibility of management to see how behaviour is affected by the system, and consider how the system can be changed to improve outcomes.

For more information on Deming’s ideas, try starting with this video on burnt toast. Never stop learning!

Maths nightmares

I only have one nightmare theme these days.

I’m almost always back in Llandrillo College, before I went to university. It goes one of two ways: I suddenly remember a maths class I’m supposed to have taken, or I find myself sitting in a maths exam I’ve not prepared for. I’m overcome with absolute dread as I struggle to think how I ended up at this pathetic state of ignorance.

Then I wake up. The exam isn’t real, but the dread of my relative innumeracy is very real.

It’s not like I absolutely can’t do maths. Couldn’t pass a proper maths A level though, let alone the IB Higher Maths exam. I got lost somewhere between algebra and calculus.

I’ve tried Khan Academy before, but at the time it had no way of estimating your ability of big chunks of the math curriculum, and going through all the really elementary stuff was way too time consuming. Now I’m pleased to see they have a pretest which immediately skips the stuff you know well enough to progress.

It’s been a few months since my last nightmare. My old maths teacher Tony Thomas made a cameo appearance, handing me a dismal failing grade on a practice paper just like he did in 2007. Except he wasn’t in a pub kitchen at the time like the dream.

Now I’m studying something a little more in the realm of the computer scientists and economists, perhaps there’s more incentive to get the maths up to speed. Will 2014 be the year I reclaim the love of maths I lost somewhere around the age of ten? We’ll see.

The Toxteth ice cream van

Bing bing, bing bing ba-bing bing bing bing… Greensleeves. There he goes again.

It’s 5pm on a cold, wet night in January. People are indoors vegetating in front of the telly, or writing poncey blog posts. There are more than likely no kids out on their way to soak up some rain on the waterfront, or anyone who’s not within walking or driving distance of an off-licence or supermarket selling sweets.

The jingle keeps going, getting louder, louder still. It stops abruptly.

Surely no one at this hour is hankering for a 99 Flake. But no, off again goes the mysterious ice cream van of Toxteth. And who but my laaady Greensleeves.

I’m of the opinion that this is a highly conspicuous cover for a mobile “wholesaler” of sorts, but I await my vindication in the Liverpool Echo. ICE CREAM DRUG BUST: Cocaine sold to toddlers as hundreds and thousands.

Until then, I’ll stay up wondering how that man affords to keep running his van.

The Ikea Effect: Manipulating your enjoyment of the everyday.

Stuart: Here’s a guest post from my good friend Sam Roberts, who I hope might be compelled to start his own blog very soon! Enjoy.

If I could make a single New Year’s Resolution suggestion, it would be to make the effort to prepare one’s own evening meal every day (or at least share the responsibility with a partner or housemate). The beneficial effects of this simple change are numerous, and mostly obvious, so I won’t touch on them; but what I will try to bring together is how this relates to the seemingly unrelated title.

The IKEA effect is a cognitive bias proposed in a 2011 Harvard Business School paper, which leads a person to putting a disproportionally high value on something they have at least partially created. The suggestion that labor enhances affection for its results is something that we can use to our advantage, both in a business setting and a personal one. I consistently encourage my clients to take an active role in the construction of a brief, and try to incorporate them in the process of creating work wherever it is sensible. This has seemingly led to better results, however this could well be a confirmation bias on my part.

Stuart: Buy one of these. They will change your life.

On a personal level however, we can use it to enhance the satisfaction we derive from anything, from house decorations to the food we eat. If you are not the cooking type, then you can always cheat your way to creativity (we could call this a Culinary Ikea Flatpack): get some ready-made tortellini and knock up a simple tomato sauce, or just throw ingredients into a slow cooker, given enough time anything will taste good. Those few moments of thought and execution can do wonders for the level of enjoyment you get from eating, and even partially home cooked delights can prove a much needed treat after a long day.

Be careful though when cooking for others, as the study concluded that we also mistakenly think other people will share in our excitement over our inferior creations, so best to find an objective third person before serving up your slow-cooked stew to a first date.

Stuart: Great post! Some more good brain food from the co-authors of the HBS paper.

Michael Norton: See his new book Happy Money: The Science of Smarter Spending, and his TED talk on how to buy happiness.

Daniel Mochon: follow him on Twitter.

Dan Ariely: See his TED talk on decision making, and his Coursera introduction to irrationality.

When I grow up, I want to be…

Photo by Murdo Macleod for The Guardian

Melvyn Bragg.

What a joy it must be to spend your days reading up on interesting stuff and then getting to throw some questions at a selection of boffins in the relevant subject area.

I’m amazed that I didn’t discover In Our Time until a year or two ago, nerdy child that I was/am. The show, broadcast every week on Radio 4, is pushing 650 episodes on subjects of science, art, history, culture and religion, all free to listen from its archives. If you want a digestible introduction to all sorts of subjects, with the charming dulcet tones of Bragg, then tune in.

Did you remember to floss?

Does this seem familar? I’m ashamed to say it does for me… It’s not that my oral hygiene isn’t generally good – no fillings! – but flossing is one of those oh-so-forgettable little things that it’s just too easy to skip when you’re tired and don’t want to muster the coordination to get in under your gums. It takes a haemorrhage in your dentist’s surgery to remind you that yes, your gums need love too.

It’s such a tiny, seemingly inconsequential task, which is why it’s perfect for a new year’s resolution. And let’s face it, if you can’t instill a daily flossing habit, what hope do you have of developing habits that will lead you to losing weight, writing that novel, or winning an Oscar?

My hygienist appointment is way overdue. If I recall, I had ten bleeds on that part where they stab your gums with a bit of blunt metal. It ought to be something like four. My flossing has certainly been better since then, but by no means perfect. We’ll see what happens when I book an appointment!

Call it day one today, forty days to form a habit… February 12th? Photos or I’m lying!

Vote Green, even though they won’t get in

Tactical voting in a first-past-the-post system. From

Lunacy right? I hear you I hear you, you have to vote tactically to keep the nasty party Red Ed the immigrants the other ones out. I suppose this may be true in a marginal constituency that’s being targeted in a particular election. Might be.

On the other hand, we seem to be managing a predictable swing over a few parliamentary terms between the two main parties. It’s been 92 years of Labour and Conservative. Before that, 64 years of Liberal and Conservative. And this was after 137 years of Whig and Tory, one Peelite hiccup notwithstanding.

Have some perspective people. The two-horse race is a very long one indeed, and despite this system being in place for so long we the masses undoubtedly live better lives than before. Some would argue this has been in decline since 1979, and so perhaps it’s high time to enter a new challenger.

I’ve personally shifted my weak political ties from blue to Green, and I wish other people would do the same, although anything except the BNP would do it for me. Yes, vote UKIP if you want, if it draws votes away from the two main parties.

Neither the Greens nor UKIP will win a majority next year, even though the Greens would be the first party if we voted by policies. But it doesn’t matter. Think longer term. UKIP was close to breaking a million votes in the last general election, and people started paying attention. Imagine if they got two million.

The Greens trail pitifully behind, gaining only 265,000 or so votes in 2010. I’d tentatively argue that it’s easier for right-wing populists to win votes by bashing foreigners than it is for the environmentalists to do so by promising more clean energy. (This is a quandary that I, alas, cannot solve for the Green Party. Any thoughts, blogosphere?)

Regardless, there is surely a lot of untapped voting power that could be swayed by the argument. Give them a massive boost in vote numbers next year, even if they don’t win any seats. The two old horses will start getting nervous. In the case of the Greens it might see a bit less fragmentary behaviour on the left akin to the Popular People’s Front of Judaea, but what do I know.

Think they could manage 500,000 votes? More than the BNP, at least? That would be a great start.

Britain will probably not implode by 2020, and by then the new kids might just have gained enough attention and thus traction to really ruffle some feathers.