Monday, November 30, 2009

Charlie and the design of the system

Last summer, a group of friends waited for the subway in Munich late in the night.  While waiting, they sang "The M.T.A." from the Kingston Trio songbook.  It's a sad story.  The municipal transit authority began to charge both when you got on the subway or local train and then you had to pay again when you were ready to get off.  Charlie famously got on and paid the initial fare but had not brought the extra nickel to get off.  "He will ride forever 'neath the streets of Boston."  Charlie couldn't get off of that train.  Luckily, his wife came down to the station each day and handed Charlie a sandwich as the train came rumbling through.

Of course, we would like to know why the heck she doesn't hand him some money so he can legally exit the train.  There are lots of times in life when we just can't think of a solution to something new and different.  Maybe his wife has never handled the money in the family.  Maybe she doesn't have any money.  Maybe she feels that Charlie has been a little too friendly with that neighbor woman and it will do him some good to ride for a couple of days.

My hero W.E. Deming did a great deal for the U.S. and for post-war Japan to show both countries ways to improve the quality of manufactured goods.   He had good insights into both statistics and theory and saw that humans have a tendency to try to find someone to blame.  Charlie could blame himself for his problem, his wife, the M.T.A., the politicians, his parents for bringing him into this world, etc.  Deming had both evidence and experience to back up his principle that when difficulties appear, such as getting stuck on the subway, 95% of the time, it is the design of the system that is causing the difficulties, not human error or frailty or sinfulness.  Deming knew and we know that sinfulness, stupidity and maliciousness exist.  But it is too easy and usually wrong to start looking for a solution by asking "Whose fault is it?  Who is to blame?"  Track down the errors and look to see if the way things are done, often required to be done, could be modified in a way that will lower the error rate.

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