Friday, December 18, 2009

Perpetual Improvement

Three of the leading management philosophies today are "continuous improvement" (kaizen), "six-sigma" and "lean manufacturing". The former refers to continuously looking for small efficiency gains and never being complacent (putting printers all around the office instead of one central printer can save our workers 70 minutes of work time per year!). The second tries to identify and fix causes of defects so that you can improve quality and minimize variability in manufacturing (and it has been extended to other business processes also - it has been criticized for harming innovation, actually, because new processes usually have defects). The last tries to reduce wasteful activities that are unproductive, focusing on (from wikipedia): Overproduction, unnecessary transportation, inventory, motion of workers or equipment, defects, overprocessing, waiting, and also a secondary focus on latent skills, danger poor information, material efficiency and maintenance/breakdown.
Lean and Kaizen are pretty similar, intuitively, and they're something I've always had an interest in because of their applications to so many other areas. "Capitalization" is a concept popularized by James Flynn (a psychologist) to describe how close a population or person is to working to their potential. An example given by Gladwell is that physicists have a poor capitalization in sub-Saharan Africa - there are many more people with the ability to be physicists there than there are physicists from there. The converse is hockey players in Canada, where if you can play hockey, you will be found.
This paragraph, from a Bill Simmons-Malcolm Gladwell chat, was an incredible example of how somebody driven to perpetually improve can become superior, even when many others with the same natural ability exist:

"Flipping it around, Kobe is the best overcapitalization example other than [Karl] Malone (who came along in the right era and had the perfect teammate and coach for his game). Kobe works harder off the court than anyone in the league; we have so many ways for him to improve in 2009 that he's like a kid in a candy store. We've all heard the story about how he worked out with Hakeem all summer to refine his post game [he's a guard and Hakeem is a center, so this is unique], so here's one you might not have heard: When I visited Nike last month, we toured the development building (in which they customize sneakers for specific athletes), and the guy who ran it told us that Kobe was their favorite client. Why? Because he kept pushing them and pushing them to make the right shoes for him, even flying there for days at a time just to put himself through grueling workouts with sensors all over his body. This past summer, he pushed them to create a special low-top sneaker that also would prevent him from rolling his ankles -- which seems incongruous on paper -- yet they feel as if they pulled it off. And only because he kept pushing them. Forty years ago? He's wearing crummy Chuck Taylors like everyone else.

... [somewhat unrelated but from the sane article and also interesting:]

"In that generation, the people with extraordinarily long careers were true outliers: They were physical freaks. Roger Craig has run a half-dozen or so marathons since retiring from the San Francisco 49ers. Can you believe that? I've been a long-distance runner my whole life. I weigh 100 pounds less than Craig, and I did not spend my formative years getting beaten up on a football field -- and I would never race at that distance. It's too punishing. But I'm not Roger Craig -- who somehow emerged from 10 years of getting pounded on every play in the NFL feeling so spry that he decided to take up marathoning. What's happening now is that medicine is allowing the rest of us to catch up with the outliers. The impact of scientific progress on human performance is greatest not at the top but in the middle: It helps the guy who would have played five years play 10 years. It doesn't help the Nolan Ryans or Roger Craigs all that much. They don't need any help."

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