20 October 2013

Are We Robots?

As a prequel to the topic of this blog I would like to make reference to the Pink Floyd song 'Welcome To The Machine' from their classic 'Wish You Were Here' album.  The main premise of the song is that we are all part of a well oiled machine, a factory processing unit where we are but a cog in that process.  Our life revolving around the repetition of life/work and so on, whilst the company we are working for makes huge profits.  So with this view in mind read on as I look at if we are robots or not... 

Over the past thirty years there has been something of an underground revolution going on.  It is a revolution that has not required guns, bombs or even covert operations by elite militia.  It has not required UN Peace Keeping forces and it is not religion based.  By and large this revolution has been under the radar of the media.  In fact, the only time that you would have heard about it would have been through industry related forums and workshops.   Even though this revolution was borne out of good intentions, it has become clear that there is a potential dark side to it as well.

So what is this mysterious revolution?  Well, this is the revolution of business efficiency.
Over the last three decades businesses worldwide have been looking at ways to make processes more efficient.  By efficient I am really talking about minimising errors, making the process simpler and, of course, making the product or service cheaper (or should I say more profitable).  After all, if you eliminate errors you will save money on your production costs.  For a large number of industries (think the car industry) it can make sense to streamline production.  That way, at every stage of the evolution of the construction of the car you can easily monitor its quality as well as being able to pinpoint where any defect or error has occurred.

Business efficiency has become a science as well.  There are a number of theories and worldwide standards that can help businesses and employees alike.  One is Six Sigma which some of you may be aware of.  Six Sigma, for the uninitiated, is a set of tools, techniques and strategies used for process improvement.  It was originally developed by Motorola in 1985.  Since then it has been implemented by a large number of companies worldwide. 

Another efficiency tool is Prince 2.  This is used for project management purposes and covers the management, control and organisation of a project.  Somewhat surprisingly this was developed by a UK government agency in 1989.  It is now seen as one of the global industry standards for projects across all industries.

There are many more theories and concepts aside from the two I have mentioned above.  A quick internet search will provide a plethora of different ideals for business improvement.
From a different angle it could be argued that all business processes that follow these concepts have, in fact, morphed into factory processing lines.  Without a doubt for some this is a good approach (again, think the car industry).  For other industries it does take away the ‘organic’ thinking that is important for the good or service being developed.  This lack of ‘organic’ thinking has, in my opinion, impacted workers.  Nowadays employees who are utilising Six Sigma, for example, may not always see what the overall end result will be. 

They may also not be able to think ‘outside the square’ clearly which is a very important element not only in business, but also for the growth of us as humans.  It could be argued that after three decades of the implementation of these concepts that we are turning into human robots.  Robots that are unable to compute anything outside of their immediate vicinity. 

Recently, I came across this on a project that I have been working on for 12 months.  An issue arose that required input from a number of people as to the best way for resolving it.  However, some of the project team had trouble coming up with a required solution.  Their view was that all the boxes had been checked from their partitioned view, and therefore, all was fine.  They could not grasp what the ‘Big Picture’ was.  It actually took a few phone calls, emails and time to resolve this issue.

Now Sir Richard Branson is certainly not one to get bogged down with theories and concepts.  Aside from any regulatory requirements he utilises an organic and consultative approach to business and issues.  I remember reading that he normally makes decisions based on his gut feeling rather than spending many hours researching.   I think it is safe to say that Sir Richard has had a fairly successful career adopting this approach!  I am also sure that he surrounds himself with like-minded people (I am still awaiting a call from Sir Richard – hint, hint).

My worry is that as we improve technology then more and more business concepts and theories will be introduced.  This could well lead to less ‘thinking outside the square’ situations.   Probably the best way ahead is to combine both business efficiency processes with organic thinking.  We must ensure that all workers and employees are fully aware of what the end picture is.  Until we do this we run the risk of us all turning into human robots.

Remember, that we must always look at the end result.  That is the good or service that we are supplying to our customers is the correct one.  This may require more of the ‘grey matter’ inside our heads rather than any process.

19 October 2013

What A Wonderful World - Or Was It?

Nearly half a century ago an African-American recorded a song that was to define not only his career, but also Music in general.  The song itself had already been rejected by Tony Bennett, one of the top singers of the time.  In hindsight, it probably turned out to have been a very bad decision by Bennett.  Anyway, the song was referred to an ageing 66 year old jazz musician who eagerly agreed to record the song.  The musician was Louis Armstrong and the song was entitled “What a Wonderful World”.

Over the decades since it was released it has become a beacon of hope for the future, as well as being a staple song at weddings during the father and bride dance.  With lyrics such as:
“I see trees of green, red roses too.  I see them bloom for me and you.  And I think to myself what a Wonderful World”.

It is easy to see the positiveness in the song.  A song of hope, of a bright future and of the things in life that we take for granted but ultimately we should be thankful for.  Indeed, from a certain angle it could be seen to be a very spiritual type of song.  However, I have recently been wondering if in fact it is quite the opposite.  If we look at the era in which it was released it could be deemed to be a very sarcastic take on society.  Let me explain further.

The song was released in the US in 1968.  At the time the US were well and truly entrenched in a war in Vietnam that would ultimately end in a stalemate.  From documentaries and films we know that a lot of young Americans were enlisted to fight the Viet Cong and ended up being there for a number of years as well as witnessing many atrocities.  Statistics show that somewhere in the region of 58,000 servicemen lost their lives fighting in Vietnam.   At the time of the song there were many anti-war protesters who were against the US involvement in Vietnam.  Protests up and down the country were growing in numbers virtually by the day.

In 1968 the African-American Civil Rights movement was going from strength to strength.  For more than a decade up to then African-Americans had been staging non-violent protests and civil disobedience in an attempt to end racial discrimination and segregation.  Martin Luther King and Malcolm X were two prominent leaders in this movement.

1968 also saw the assassination of two prominent progressive public figures.  The aforementioned Martin Luther King was assassinated on 29th March in Memphis.  Less than two months later the President-elect Robert F Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles.   These two assassinations had a profound effect on the nation.

Likewise, Louis Armstrong was seen as a colourful character.  He was one of the few African-Americans that enjoyed celebrity status and benefits that were generally only apportioned to White Americans.  He was often seen as an anomaly amongst his own people.   Armstrong was born in 1901 and was the grandson of slaves.   He spent much of his early life living in poverty in a rough neighbourhood of New Orleans.  At a young age he learnt to play the cornet which was to define his career.

Biographers have always had trouble trying to map out Armstrong’s true life story.  Louis Armstrong was known to tell many stories and innuendos about his upbringing and early years.  So much so that no-one is really sure as to what the truth is and what is false.   Although Armstrong was not as politically active as other African-Americans he did take a stand for desegregation during the Little Rock Crisis.  He even called President Eisenhower “two-faced” and “gutless” over his handling of the crisis.

So, given the above, it is clear that the song was released against a background of social upheaval and political activity.  Although Louis Armstrong did not write “What a Wonderful World” it can be seen that during the late 1960’s it was a time of change.  In addition, this was also the time of the Summer of Love and hippy power was taking off.  The times were certainly a changing as Bob Dylan would sing.  

When you look at this era it can be safe to assume that the supposedly uplifting song “What a Wonderful World” was actually a bleak outlook on American Society.  Certainly for a large number of African-Americans racism and segregation were still huge issues and they, for one could not see “trees of green and red roses too” unlike their White-American compatriots.