Now is When Infinity Becomes One

Time is an intangible – we can’t touch it, taste it, smell it, hear it or see it – yet we do sense it – and we know it is valuable. A precious commodity we call lifetime. We often treat lifetime as it if were tangible – something that we can see, hear, smell, taste and touch – something like money. We often hear the phrase “time is money” and we say things like “spending time” and “wasting time” – as if it were money. But time is not money; we cannot save time, we cannot buy time, and we all get the same amount of time per day to use.

Another odd thing about time is that we sense that it moves in one direction – from past to future with now as the transition. This creates an interesting discontinuity: if we look forward from now into the future we perceive an infinite number of possibilities; yet if we look backwards from now into the past we see only one actuality. That is really odd – Now is when Infinity becomes One.

So, how does that insight help us make a choice?  Well, suppose we have decided what we want in the future and are now trying to make a choice of what to do next; to plan our route to our future desired goal.  Looking from now forwards presents us with a very large number of paths to choose from, none of which we can be sure will lead us safely to where we want to get to.  So what happens? We may become paralysed by indecision; we may debate and argue about which path to take; we may boldly step out on a plausible path with hope and courage; or we may just guess and stumble on with blind faith.  Which we choose seems more a reflection of our personality than a rational strategy. So let us try something else – let us project ourselves into the future to the place where we want to be; and then let us look backwards in time from the future to the present. Now we see a single path that led to where we are; and by unpicking that path we can see that each step of it had a set of necessary and sufficient pre-conditions which, with the addition of time, moved us forward along the path.  Hindsight is much clearer than foresight and each of us has a lifetime’s worth of hindsight to reflect on; and the cumulative hindsight of history to draw on.  This is not an exercise in fantasy; we already have what we need.

To make our choice we start with the outcome we want and ask the question “What are the immediately preceeding necessary and sufficient conditions?”   Then for each condition we ask the question “Does that condition already exist?” If so then we stop – we need go no further on this side branch; and if not then we repeat the Two Questions and we keep going until we have linked our goal back to pre-conditions that exist.  All the pre-conditions in the map we have drawn are necessary but we do not yet have all of them. Some are only dependent on pre-conditions that exist – these are the important ones because they tell us exactly what to focus on doing next. Our choice is now obvious and simple – though the action may not be easy. No one said the journey would be easy!

It’s Not the People it’s the Process!

Doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting a better result might be called practice, perseverance, persistence, even patience; it might also be called futility or even madness.

We know that sometimes persistence pays off, and sometimes it doesn’t, so how do we know which is which?

Very often this problem is disguised – for example when we want a better outcome of a process.  It is easy to assign blame for poor outcomes to people because of the cause-and-effect chain that you can trace back from an obvious mistake – but it is always valid to do this?

Suppose I repeat the same actions and occasionally get a poor outcome – checking for the mistake and when it happens tracing the audit trail back to the action of a specific person is of little value in this case because it doesn’t expose the true root cause.

Outcomes are usually the result of cumulative actions and it is difficult or impossible to separate out the contributions.

So, the only rational way to improve outcome is to improve every part of the process proactively.  And if there is a bad apple in the barrel it is much easier to spot when the rest of the apples are good than when all the apples are a bit bruised.

Is Good Design Easy to See?

Doh! What a non-question! Good design is obvious. But is it?  Bad design is certainly obvious because it trips you up, it does something you do not expect or doesn’t do something that you do expect – you become consciously aware of bad design and it is a niggle because bad design is effort wasting, time wasting and money wasting.  Bad design generates niggles and toxic emotional waste swamps.  So what was your feeling when you first saw an iPhone, or an iPod, or used iTunes or touched an iPad? Was it was “Wow!” That is the first impact of good design – you notice the difference immediately. However, after that it becomes gradually invisible because the old niggle goes away, and before long you are taking the good design for granted because there is nothing to consciously remind you of it. Your expectation has changed – what previosuly delighted now only satifies. Good design is an invisible nugget. So here is something to try – look around you now and identify all the examples of good and bad design that you can see. What differentiates the two?  For a niggle free existence you will have to actively seek out good design by looking for what is there but not making itself obvious.  Refocus from what doesn’t work to what does work and learn to understand how and why it works. You may find it a humbling experience!!

Which Checkout do We Choose?

When we are approaching the checkout in the supermarket how do we decide which queue to join?  Is it the shortest? Is it the one with the fewest number of full trollies? Is it the one that is staffed by the most competent looking operative? Or is it the new-fangled computerised one that technophobes like me avoid like the plague? If our goal is to get out of the shop as quickly as possible then this is an important yet tricky decision. Once we have committed to a specific queue then we are bound by the social norms to stick it out.

Technically speaking the queue to join is not the shortest one, or the one with the where there are the smallest number of individual items that need to be scanned, or the one with the fastest operative – it is the queue with the smallest load – the cumulative product of the number of items and cycle time of the operative. Hence our quick mental calculation of length of queue * average size of trollies * speed of operative.  Even then it can go wrong if someone throws a spanner in – such as picking up the only item on the shelf with a missing barcode – triggering the need to call a “supervisor”!

Are we completely powerless in this process? Not at all – we each can ensure all our purchases have barcodes and we can also influence the cycle time of the operative. Observe what they are doing – picking up each item in turn, finding the bar code, and turning the item so that the bar code can be easily scanned by the computer.  To shorten the cycle time all we have to do is make the work for the operative as easy as possible by placing each item on the moving belt in the correct orientation and spaced so that the speed of the belt delivers the items at the same rate that the operative can scan.  This sounds counter-intuitive but it works!  It is just like the variable speed limits on some motorways – by slowing down you get there faster because the flow is smoother – there is less “turbulence” created.

There are two potential flaws in this counter-intuitive strategy though – the people in the queue behind you may start “tutting” because they believe you are playing childish games and slowing the process down (which is incorrect but we are social animals and we copy other people’s behaviour and react to “social deviants”).  The other flaw is that, if I am shopping alone I cannot both stream my purchases for optimal scanning and also pack my scanned purchases into my reusable shopping bag!  So, I may only be able to use this strategy when accompanied by a trained assistant and have access to my fast getaway car!  Of course I might get even more radical – and offer to stream the shopping for the person in front of me while they pack their scanned items. But that would mean that we work together to achieve a common goal – to reduce the (life)time we all spend waiting in the shopping queue. This way we do not need an assistant or a getaway car and shopping might even become more sociable.  Everyone wins. What everyone? How is that possible?