Experience Sharpens The Point

When researching for a post I sometimes come across an item where a point is made in a clear and precise way that is much better than anything I can pen. This is what happened recently when I was gathering material on a topic about education.

Searching on the web for some background material on the effect of education on peoples lives, I came across a YouTube clip from The Daily Show in 2012 with one of my favourite American comedians Jon Stewart. In the show he usually lambasts rival TV network commentators, celebrities and politicians. But in this clip he was interviewing Malala Yousafzail the girl who stood up for education in her local community in Pakistan and was shot by the Taliban.

During the interview Jon asked two important question that highlighted points about the importance of education, the first was:

Jon: “Where did your love of education come from?”

Malala: “We are human beings, and this is the part of human nature. We don’t learn the importance of anything until it is snatched from our hands. When in Pakistan we were stopped from going to school at that time I realised that education is very important. Education is the power for women and that is why the terrorists are afraid of education, they do not want women to get education because women will become more power.”

Towards the end of the interview Jon asked how the American people could help with her campaigning and in Malala’s reply another important point is made:

Malala: “I think that the people of America, the United States, they truly support peace, and they say that they must not fight against war with war, dialogue is the best way and we must find a solution for it. In my opinion the solution that would work to fight all these wars and all these problems that people are facing is only education” and she continued “… going to school is not only learning about different subjects it teaches you about communication, it teaches how to live a life, it teaches about history, it teaches about how science is working, other than that you learn about equality because students are provided the same benches, they sit equally, it shows us equality, it teaches students how to accept each other together how to accept each others language, each others religion, it teaches justice and respect, it teaches us how to live together”

At the end of the interview the comedian was clearly moved by the interview.

In 2014 Malala and Kailash Satyarthi won the Nobel Peace Prize “for their struggle against the suppression of children and young people and for the right of all children to education.” Today the Malala Fund continues its campaign to to get more than 130 million girls into schools, and in her childhood home in the Swat Valley her fund is rebuilding the schools that were destroyed by the Taliban.

Over the years of writing this blog I have learned that when struggling to clarifying a point about a subject sometimes it is better to stand back and let those who know their subject have their voice. In this case Malala using her experience and courage to make two clear points about education overcoming terrorism.

Neil Armstrong - The Engineer

Watching Neil Armstrong landing himself and Buzz Aldrin safely on the surface of the moon in 1969 I made a note to add him to my schoolboy list of heroes, where he has firmly remained.

What caught my imagination was his courage in making the decision to take over from the computer guidance system and use his own experience and training to fly the the landing module away from a rocky surface to a safer landing place. Over the years I have read about the science and engineering behind the successful moon mission, as well as the complex organisation that managed over 400,000 people to successfully land people on the moon. But for me, Neil Armstrong engineering’s career stands out, and he epitomises the type of engineer that we need today.

Neil Armstrong was passionate about flight and aerodynamic engineering from an early age. There is a story told by an old school friend about the time that they were trying to make their rubber powered model aeroplanes fly longer. His friend gave his plane a few extra turns on the propellor to make it fly longer. But Neil built a small wind tunnel in the basement of his home, that shook the house when it was switched on, to explore the effects of aerodynamics on the design of the plane. This fascination in flight can be traced throughout his career. His first flight was at age 16 years, and continued through university where he studied aerodynamics. He showed great courage and skill as a combat pilot during the Korean War which involved the dangerous task of landing on an aircraft carrier. After the war he was a test pilot flying experimental planes such as the X-15 where he caught the attention of NASA. After the successful moon landing he headed the Department of Aeronautics at Cincinati University. Looking over his career there are a number of observations that are crucial for future engineers. They must be passionate about the area of engineering that they are interested in. This passion will keep them going when overcoming many barriers such as lack of funding for a project, or getting an organisation’s support for an R&D project, or inspiring a team when the problems seem overpowering.

I also admired Neil Armstrong’s ability to weather criticism. It is hard to imagine but when he spoke the famous “One small step for man one giant leap for mankind” he was later challenged that it should have been “one small step for a man!” He maintained that he did say “a man” but due to the transmission the “a” had got lost. The criticism continued throughout his lifetime. Another criticism that he faced was about his flying competence. Although he was admired by many colleagues for his technical proficiency with aircraft, owed in part to his engineering training, others, mainly of the ‘top-gun’ type said that he lacked a natural feel for aircraft. Indeed his involvement in several high-profile near-miss incidents as a test pilot did very little to convince his critics that an engineer belonged in a cockpit. As an engineer, criticism is part of the job. Whether it is about budget overspend, failing to meet an overambitious specification or criticism from people who don’t appreciate the complexities of engineering.

We need more engineers with an Neil Armstrong attitude. They need to take the many facets of engineering and apply them to areas such as health, transportation, infrastructure, energy or information. But there is one overriding challenge that will require a critical engineering effort and that is the reduction in global warming and its impact on climate change. Maybe the next gigantic step for mankind will be here on Earth.

To see a rare interview where Neil Armstrong discusses his life then click on the following: Youtube video

The Skill Of Listening

Every time I take our car in for its annual MOT I am always intrigued about what the retailer will try and sell me. But recently I misheard their latest sales pitch which created lots of frustration.

The service assistant spotted that our vehicle was over four years old and they would look to see if there were any deals. I immediately launched into why I wasn’t interested in buying a new car at the moment and if I was it would probably be all electric. They replied that the technology continues improving however they would send me some offers via email.

Feeling annoyed that the service assistant hadn’t heard clearly that I was not in the market for a new car I prepared myself to delete a stream of emails offers and headed for a coffee. Later I received an email with an offer of a service plan that would reduce future costs. I had misheard what they were saying as well!

We are in an age where there is a cacophony of information from the media and social media and to manage the overload my attention span is reduced to seconds. Factor in a busy life then it is no wonder that listening skills are struggling. One mechanism that I use to manage this situation is to make background assumptions which allows me to quickly move onto the next activity. In the case of the retailer they are always sending information about new cars and therefore when I heard ‘offer’ I jumped to the conclusion that they meant ‘new car’.

History is littered with many instances of mishearing and one of the most famous, which had devastating consequences, is the Charge of the Light Brigade where miscommunication in the chain of command sent a light cavalry charging towards a well prepared artillery battery which resulted in high British casualties.

Mishearing can result in funny instances, for example in the world of music lyrics, can have a humorous twist: “Money for nothin’ and chips for free” ( correct lyric: “Money for nothin’ and your chicks for free” from Dire Straits’ ‘Money For Nothing’.) or “Dancing queen, feel the beat from the tangerine” ( correct lyric: “Dancing queen, feel the beat from the tambourine” from ABBA’s ‘Dancing Queen’). However there is a darker mishearing, for example where covert recordings which are lawfully captured by the police are usually poor quality and can be misleading and lead to the wrong convictions.

There can be deeper aspects of listening. In an article by Dr Atul Gawande he describes attending a very disruptive and abusive prisoner and was struggling with the moral dilemma of giving such an obnoxious person the same attention as a normal patient. The turning point in the session came when: “ … he’d controlled himself enough to hold still for my ministrations. And I suddenly remembered a lesson a professor had taught about brain function. When people speak, they aren’t just expressing their ideas; they are, even more, expressing their emotions. And it’s the emotions that they really want heard. So I stopped listening to the man’s words and tried to listen for the emotions.” He eventually treated the prisoner but it was only after he listened between the abuse and to the prisoners emotions.

Listening requires time, patience and concentration by the listener and making sure that what is being heard is understood. Maybe some of the problems we face as individuals and a society would be reduced if we all took a few minutes to listen to each other. We may never agree on a topic but at least we can start to understand each other. As Aristotle best summarised: “Wisdom is the reward you get for a lifetime of listening when you’d rather have been talking.”

The Price of Customer Loyalty

Approaching the counter I unlocked my smart phone and pressed on the icon for the loyalty app. Then it all went wrong!

I had meticulously planned my journeys so that I arrived on the forecourt of a well know company to earn some loyalty points. Filling up the fuel tank I started to wonder what the loyalty points would earn me: hopefully money off my next fill and not a packet of crisps and coke that were on the adverts by the pump.

But as I stood in the middle of the shop frantically pressing the icon a member of staff shouted across “Is it playing up?”. As I nodded they continued “Do you want to try again?” but even if it suddenly worked I judged by the lengthening queue that I wouldn’t have got out alive! Paying for the fuel I asked if I could get the points added to the loyalty app at some later time and the staff thought that it was possible but I would have to contact the company.

Driving home I felt silly. It had been a wake up call. I had gone out of my way to earn a few loyalty points when I probably could have bought fuel much cheaper else where. I remembered a discussion that I had with a work colleague many years ago about the price of loyalty and he commented that he had checked the spot price that morning and it was ten pence a metric tonne!

Loyalty schemes have been around from many years. Possibly starting in the early 1700s in American where customers were given copper tokens that could be redeemed for future purchases. In the 1800s there was the famous Green Shield stamps which could be used at selected retailers and exchanged for goods. Loyalty schemes continued through the 1900s with “loyalty aggregators” that rewarded points regardless of the retailer they were originally earned, for example AirMiles. Today loyalty schemes seem to be used by every retailer, including my local independent coffee shop who uses a loyalty scheme to get a ‘free’ cup after five purchased. Loyalty schemes look as though they will be with us for a long time.

In the background there is a lot of research into the psychology of loyalty schemes that has resulted in techniques such as Behavioural Potential, Goal Gradient Effect and Endowed Progress Effect. All sinister sounding names, but aimed at the most important concept of loyalty schemes which is to reinforce behaviour in such a way that we increase our frequency of spend, the amount that we spend and ‘love’ the brand, product or service. They can be very effective which found me searching out that particular company to buy my fuel. The irony is that as a customer I am probably paying for the loyalty scheme by its costs being added to the price of the product therefore I am paying for my behaviour to be manipulated!

Rather than filling pockets with loyalty cards, or loading smart phones with loyalty apps, retailers should go back to fundamentals and build up loyalty based on trust rather than manipulating behaviour. The first step is to make sure that customers are clear about the products and services that are being offered and communicate clearly why they are best value for money. Secondly, things go wrong in retail as well as any other activity, but when they do retailers should have a slick customer service that uses skilled people to understand the customers problems. Finally, in a retail environment that is growing more sensitive to ethical and environmental issues then retailers should operate with clear standards e.g. fair wages and treatment of employees, sensitivity to social and environmental issues, sustainability etc. For example the CO-OP is a business that is working towards the criteria outlined above. It successfully competes with the major supermarkets, and its membership scheme rewards both its customers and local communities and has clear polices for employees, the environment and ethical standards.

I have reduced the number of loyalty cards and apps, and in future I will be shopping with my head rather than my heart!

Reducing Queues with Ask-Learn-Share

Queues are an integral part of a hospital: getting into a car park, waiting to see the clinician, collecting medication at the hospital pharmacy, making appointments, and finally getting out of the hospital car park. But my recent experience of attending a hospital started me wondering if there was a better way.

When trying to book an appointment to see an Audiologist at our local hospital to carry out some routine maintenance on an elderly parent’s hearing aid we were firmly told that it would be better to attend a “drop in” at the the Audiology Department. So we “dropped in” at 9:30 am on a Monday morning and found that there were six people ahead of us. Settling down to read the papers, magazines, drinking a few glasses of water, then after reading the posters on the wall I decided to join the queue for the receptionist to ask where we were in the queue. After about ten minutes I got to ask my question and there were two people ahead of us, this was after two hours! After going for a walk around the hospital I came back to find that we were still waiting. So I joined the queue for the receptionist to find out that there were still two people ahead of us. By now our elderly parents were getting agitated to the point of feeling ill and therefore we cancelled our position in the queue and returned home to try and book an appointment for sometime in the future.

What was frustrating was not waiting in the queue, queues are a way of life, but that there were other parts of the NHS that we have used that were very good at managing queues and therefore why hadn’t our hospital adopted any of their approaches. I then remembered a technique that I have used when trying to solve engineering, organisational and business problems called ASK-LEARN-SHARE. The technique is applied in three stages:

  • When a problem arises, the first step is to ASK: is this a new problem or have others encountered it? What information is available? What needs to be learned to handle the problem? Who can help?
  • What can be learned from the experience of others? How does the new situation compare and contrast? what do we LEARN from our own approach to solving the problem?
  • How and when can we SHARE our experience and learning with others?

There can be two problems with a hearing aids: maintenance e.g. replacing batteries, tubes and other components and the device is broken or not working properly. In the first case of maintenance using the ASK stage resulted in a few searches on the web and found that a number of other hospitals made information available on how to replace hearing aid parts, for example Retubing the earmold from Leicester, Manchester and a video from Notingham University Hospitals. Included in the information are aspects of LEARN by showing, usually in a step-by-step format, how the parts can be replaced. Making the information available they have SHARED. Further searches on the web found suppliers for tubing and other parts for hearing aids and therefore it could be possible to carry out the maintenance of the equipment at home which would save both the NHS and patients time and effort. Of course people may not feel confident at carrying out their own maintenance but when the hearing aid is initially installed then a few minutes showing how to carry out the maintenance work to the patient, or their carer may help.

The second case of the hearing aid being broken or not working properly requires an expert and therefore attending the Audiology Department in a hospital. Yet again starting with ASK, or in my case searching on the web and based on my own experience of queuing of other services, there are many queue management systems available. Also within the NHS, there are many good examples: the Patient Access system which is used by our local GP is very good when booking an appointment when it is not an emergency. Or a better system, and my favourite app, is the NHS Give Blood which is very easy to use and appointments can be changed quickly and effectively. In the hospital that we attended there were signs that they had a queuing system that used tickets and a display giving information about the patients position in the queue but it was switched off which resulted in a queue to see the receptionist! Of course while in a queue an emergency case may need to jump ahead but feedback to the rest of the waiting people would be received with understanding and therefore reduce levels of frustration. There are many display systems in the NHS that can manage queues that include emergency cases. The NHS is full of different types of queues and the problems in managing them therefore there is a lot to LEARN, and they could be the leading experts in queue management which they could SHARE across the NHS and other organisations.

Hearing loss within the population is expected to increase by 20% by 2035 therefore there will be increasing demand for maintenance and repair of hearing aids. Using the technique of ASK-LEARN-SHARE to improve the support of these devices either by carrying the work out at home or more effective hospital attendance could reduce time and effort for both the NHS and patients.

As for our particular situation we will be exploring the possibility of carrying out our maintenance work at home or if we have to attend the hospital then we will be booking an appointment. In the meantime I will be day dreaming of a time when at the press of a few buttons on my smart phone we can join a queue and our problems can be resolved quickly.