Stockholm syndrome for our own problems

I have a garden that wraps around the perimeter of my backyard. It’s been a bit of a chore to keep going. For most of this spring and summer it was a a patch of waist-high weeds drowning out all the perennials I had planted in years past. There were some fairly hearty ferns in there, and a few hostas as well. But even they were being drowned out by these weeds.

This is a fairly well-solved problem. There are interventions, certain things you do, to take care of gardens.

But I never seemed to do any of those things. Why not?

By the time I decided to do something about the weeds, they had not only taken over the garden but had started migrating into the grass as well. And to be honest I felt pretty bad about this. I would go out into the backyard and feel pretty lousy about all these weeds.

So I pulled them all out. It took a fair amount of time but I felt pretty good about it. Thing is, the weeds were back in a week. So I pulled them out again, and the next week they were back, and the plants weren’t recovering, and the gardens looked pretty terrible. Every time I pulled out a weed I would feel good, and every time it would grow back I would feel bad… and so the cycle goes on.

I like to think of this cycle as a sort of Stockholm Syndrome for problems. I got so hooked into working hard at pulling out weeds that I never had time to really sit back and think about why the weeds were growing in the first place.

Until one day. I got so sick of pulling out weeds, of spinning my wheels with this whole garden thing… I was ready to trash the whole idea and just throw down some grass seed.

Until I sat back and looked at what I was doing. And I felt pretty dumb, because what I was doing was dumb. I was fighting weeds, but I wasn’t fighting why weeds. I wasn’t asking the question that would have cut my workload by 90%.

I’ve seen people get so deep into this cycle they never take that moment to step outside the problem and take a look. They beat themselves and other people up for not working hard enough or being smart enough or whatever. I mean, I could have thought to myself, Dan, you’re so lazy. Look at these weeds! You should work harder to get rid of them. You’re not doing your job, man!

But my job was stupid. And of course eventually I would have stopped doing it altogether. And so the weeds would grow waist-high until next year when I got frustrated about my shitty backyard and started all over again.

Now, this all seems fairly basic stuff. I mean, I laid down some mulch, made a boundary that separates the garden from the grass, 90% of the weeds stopped growing, and when I go into my backyard and weed the garden it’s just a few things here and there.

Gardens are fairly easy that way.

But what about at work where things are more complicated? Sure, you could genuinely work with a bunch of idiots who just can’t do their jobs… but it’s it more likely that you have a problem you just haven’t sat down and taken a look at.

My garden problem was that I had a lot of exposed dirt, and weeds like to grow in exposed dirt. I had a lot of grass in my garden because there was nothing to stop the grass from crossing the grass/garden boundary. Until I fixed those problems I was stuck in that cycle of weeding.

The mulch I laid down and the stones that separate the grass and garden do their jobs wonderfully and have the added benefit of looking good. Now when I sit out in my backyard I don’t think, “Boy that backyard looks terrible, I’m doing such a bad job of keeping that garden clean, I’m lazy and need to work harder!” Instead I think, “Hey, that looks pretty good. Not perfect, but pretty good.” And I don’t feel bad about myself or my backyard. There are improvements to be made, but they’re incremental instead of revolutionary. The hard part is over because I found the root cause… and then fixed it.

I think I’ve belaboured the metaphor a but much. But you see what I’m saying.

At work on Friday we had these tools come back from a customer. When we started fixing the issue with this particular tool, we found another problem. We got everyone together and started to figure out why this tool was this way. And nobody could say because the paperwork wasn’t clear, there was no specification, the drawing and the work instruction were different, the order of operations was wrong, and the operators weren’t communicating with each other and passing each other garbage. They weren’t validating their work (because there was nothing to validate against), and so the customer got garbage that was made wrong in more than one way.

Now we could have spent a lot of time fixing just that problem (and we will, obviously). But we also have to acknowledge that this isn’t the first time this has happened. It’s the fifth… this week. And it’s easy to run around yelling at people and calling them stupid because no-one caught this mistake.

But that won’t fix the problem. It will fix A problem. But it won’t fix THE problem. It’ll just make everyone feel terrible, and some people who get yelled at will start hiding their problems and trying to sneak them out the door hoping that no-one will notice so they don’t get yelled at again. And then someone will yell at them because they’re stupid and sneaky and lazy… and the cycle continues.

In fact fixing A problem is pretty easy compared to fixing THE problem. That’s why THE problem has never been fixed. Because it’s hard and time consuming and everyone’s too busy working on all these problems that result from THE problem.

Someone needs to step back. Someone needs to ask the big questions. Take a good hard look at why we’re doing something, why that something is resulting in a bunch of repeatable quality issues, and then do something about it. Questions like:

Why are we making tools with no specification?
Why does the paperwork have the wrong order of operations?
Why is an operator adding a feature to the tool that isn’t called for?
Why did it leave the plant without anyone validating it?
Why is there no history we can look at to figure out what went wrong?

Which leads to another set of deeper questions:

Why is management sending stuff out to plant floor without proper documentation?
Why are operators accepting garbage paperwork?
Why are operators accepting garbage tools from the last process?
Why are operators not performing in-process checks?

And the answers are not really fun.

Management is more concerned with getting tools out the door quickly than anything else. If a tool is “rush”, a whole bunch of critical steps are often skipped. We end up having a bunch of napkins lying around with arcane notes on them. Maybe the napkin gets lost. Maybe someone drops some coffee on it.

Then when the tool comes around next time the guy making the paperwork doesn’t know enough about the tool to know that he’s producing garbage paperwork and sends out a workorder with incomplete information.

Operators know that it’s more important to ship than to do it right, so they do a bunch of guesswork (“Other tools that look like this tool have this particular feature that isn’t on the drawing!”) and kind of make something. They know this isn’t great so they don’t sign off the processes properly or at all and send it along to the next station.

The next operator also knows it’s more important to ship than to validate so he overlooks the issue (if he sees it all; the paperwork is garbage, remember), does his guesswork, and sends it along.

Eventually it ships and someone shreds the paperwork.

Then the customer sends back the tools, and the cycle starts again. The beatings continue until everyone does everything right 100% of the time.

Doesn’t that sound crazy? Who would voluntarily work like that?

But we do. And this isn’t just my workplace. This is a lot of places. The fixes are usually fairly easy. They just require some attitude adjustment, all the way down the chain, from management to shipping. Two sentences:

Don’t accept garbage. Don’t send out garbage.

Management has to do some work upfront. Operators need to know what they’re doing. They need to have specifications and and paperwork with the proper order of operations and instructions, all crystal clear. The operator needs the proper material, etc. If the inputs aren’t right, if the operator doesn’t have that, they don’t know what they’re doing.

And if the operator doesn’t have what they need, they should fire the whole thing back to wherever it came from. These inputs can be posted on a wall or on a queue or something so everyone knows, If I don’t get what I need, I’m sending this back. And when they’re done with their process, they sign off on that process and send it along.

If they send it along to the next process without something — in process check report, something isn’t done, something doesn’t look right… fire it back. Don’t take on other people’s problems. Send it back and it becomes their problem again.

This happens all the way down the chain. But it’s important that it starts with management. There needs to be a commitment to quality. Not getting stuff out the door for this particular set of customers regardless of paperwork quality and tool or process validation. A commitment to quality, repeatable quality. We have a different set of tools at our disposal to make sure those “special” customers get their tools when they want them. We have escalations for that.

Management’s job is to make sure we have the means and procedures and culture in place to do this. Not running out onto the plant floor all red in the face yelling at people for being stupid and lazy. If someone IS supid and lazy (and trust me, these people exist in spades) we also have the means and procedures to take care of that. This is what progressive discipline is all about, for instance. The end result is either you have a non-stupid, non-lazy person or you don’t have that person at all.

This seems like a lot of work. And it is, at the beginning. But it’s so much less work and stress and yelling and getting stuff back and fixing it and making new tools to replace garbage and running around trying to figure out what to run! In the long run the absolute chaos of everything being murky and unclear is far more counterproductive than the 1-time few hours (max!) of work per workorder it takes to do things right the first time.

It’s way easier to do the heavy lifting (mulch and stones are not light!) once, than pull waist-high weeds every week.

YouTube & its Indie Labels, or, A Long Slide Into Evil

I’ve been covering the deteriorating situation at the once-golden Google and its various products for quite some time.

Now this: Google is set to block Indie label content on YouTube. Over licensing terms for a new service.

Now, as an article by The Guardian points out, this might be a misunderstanding. There are a few options:

One: YouTube is indeed threatening to block the videos of indie labels: if they don’t sign up to the terms of its new paid music service, their videos will be removed from its free service too. Although Vevo-run channels seem likely to stay up.

Two: YouTube will block indie labels from monetisation of their videos on its free service. It’s possible that YouTube will leave labels’ videos up, but block them from making money from ads in and around those videos – as well as from using its Content ID system to make money from ads shown on videos uploaded by YouTube users featuring their music.

Three: This is all just a big misunderstanding. If indie labels choose not to sign up for YouTube’s new paid music service, their videos will be blocked on it, but left alone on the existing free service.

I think it’s probably a misunderstanding, too. As Chris Hubbs said on Twitter, it’s hard to imagine Google giving up its “YouTube is all the videos” platform just to squeeze some indie labels.

But it might, right?

So I expected to hear Google & YouTube put out a strongly worded statement to the contrary. But, to the contrary, this is what they said:

“Our goal is to continue making YouTube an amazing music experience, both as a global platform for fans and artists to connect, and as a revenue source for the music industry. We’re adding subscription-based features for music on YouTube with this in mind — to bring our music partners new revenue streams in addition to the hundreds of millions of dollars YouTube already generates for them each year. We are excited that hundreds of major and independent labels are already partnering with us.”

Now that, my friends, is a absolutely shitty non-response. It’s the sort of thing that makes you think… Oh. Maybe it’s true after all.

Two points. One, Google of today is not the Google of yesterday. And I’m not even talking about whether they used to have ideals but now don’t, blah blah blah. I mean they used to get good press and now they don’t.

Say what you will about Apple, they get a metric shit-tonne of good press, so much so that the bad press is pretty much drowned out. Google doesn’t get that. These days they pretty much just get bad press. This is a pretty fantastic change from a few years ago when Google was the open-source idealistic saviour of the internet.

Two, they should have been out in front of this, offering a plain, frank denial. Even if that denial was a half-truth. Instead some intern was given the task of crafting their message, which was basically “talk about something else”.

We’re not stupid, we can tell when you’re trying to “change the message” or “redirect the conversations” or as we call it, “change the subject”. Especially when done abruptly and awkwardly.

A visit to the walk-in clinic

Today Laura and I took Audrey to the walk-in clinic. She’s running a fever and tends to get ear infections so we took her in just to be safe.

It was a bit of a hassle. We went to our usual walk-in and there was a wait, so we went to the other on across the street where we waited 15 minutes or so. The doctor told us to give her some ibuprofen (done!) and lots of fluids (done!) and sent us on our way. No ear infection, no bad news. We were in and out in a half hour, just presented her health card and away we went.

I had a moment of disorientation leaving the clinic. It seemed wrong somehow that we were leaving without paying. Every other time I leave a place like that I end up paying for something, whether it’s a grocery store or a hardware store, I have to pay.

But here we go leaving the health care store (I like to call it that) and we pay nothing.

I think that’s fantastic.

So when I talk to people about Ontarion’s healthcare system I get all the usual responses. There’s a sort of love-it/hate-it spectrum. I’ll enthusiastically agree with people who love it. I’ll have a conversation with people about what needs fixing–as with every system everywhere, there’s something to fix of course!

If you hate it, well, I don’t like to denigrate opinions, but your opinion sucks. It’s a stupid opinion. I’m not saying you’re stupid. I’m saying you’re wrong. The data on this issue is immensely and frighteningly on the side of socialised health care.

I’ll never say that in person, of course. I’ll say something different. But when I do say something, no matter how nice, I get one of two responses. Either I get the whole politicised diatribe about how (what they think is) socialism is bad, laying bare the ideological clockwork that allows them to believe against their own interest…

Or I get an anecdote. Now if you’ve read this blog for a while, you already know what I think about ideology, or you can probably guess.

But anecdotes. Man… they’re everything that’s wrong with the human condition.

I don’t really care to get into the healthcare debate. As far as I’m concerned it’s not a debate. It’s just a matter of time. I would like to talk about anecdotes, though. This is a bit of an odd direction to take this, but bear with me.

Humans are pattern observers. We look for patters in everything, no matter how insignificant the thing or non-existent the pattern. This means we’re really good at staying alive on the savanna but not terribly good at public policy.

An errant patch of grass moving against the wind is could be a predator. (At least that’s how I imagine staying alive on the savanna might be. I’m not an expert here!) This is only a single data point, but it’s a very important one. It potentially means life or death for you.

Your aunt who had a bad experience in the hospital is a single data point as well but (sadly for her) not an important one. And if we take the anecdote of her experience as a signpost for how we deal with an entire healthcare system full full of people, it means life or death for someone else.

It means life or death for a couple who have a child. The child gets sick, but not very sick, at least not at first. They delay going to the doctor because they can’t really afford to pay the deductible. Or maybe they can afford it but it’s just enough disincentive. The child gets sicker and sicker until when they finally do make the move, it’s too late.

That story is a load of hogwash. I mean, it could have happened, but it didn’t, at least not to me, and not to anyone I know, and probably not to anyone you know either. But to me, it has the same value as an anecdote. You seek out anecdotes to confirm your beliefs, I write a story to confirm mine.

Data doesn’t lie.

You can make it lie. You can make it do all kinds of things, especially when it’s that sort of slim, unsubstantial data that might say any number of things. But you can’t make a preponderance of data lie.

Once you’re confronted with the evidence, you only have ideology to fall back on. Once the anecdote is stripped away, the clockwork of ideology is revealed.

But that’s a post for another day.

April 30 is over

It only took me 3 weeks longer than I wanted. But it’s done. At the beginning of April I committed to write at least something ever day. It went well for a while. But then I got sick. I haven’t been hit that hard for a long time.

I feel a bit like I’m eulogizing myself right now. But don’t worry. I survived. I finished the task. And here, friends, are the links:

  1. “I”
  2. The Story Has Been Told
  3. The Scapegoat, Lifted High
  4. We Forgot The Kettle
  5. Some Advice About Length
  6. Benefit Cheque
  7. Weather
  8. Nothing When It’s Done
  9. A Burn Victim
  10. Clutched Prize
  11. Gold Fillings
  12. Last Year
  13. The Face
  14. Story I
  15. Story II
  16. Story III
  17. Story IV
  18. Jump, Fly
  19. Last Horse
  20. Kenosis
  21. Minimum Wage
  22. The Lamb
  23. North
  24. Inflationary
  25. Senseless Beast
  26. My Liking Precedes Me
  27. Butterflied
  28. The Wine of Now
  29. Viscous Liquid
  30. Sonnet XI

I hope you enjoy reading them as much as I enjoyed writing them.

April 30 @ Elsewhere In Dreams

Just in case you have noticed, I have a new 30 day project going on at Elsewhere In Dreams. I’m going to write a little something there every single day this month. Yes, even on the weekends. I’m not promising it will be good, but I am promising it will happen:

  1. “I”
  2. The Story Has Been Told
  3. The Scapegoat, Lifted High
  4. We Forgot The Kettle

You’re welcome to tag along. Comments are always appreciated. You can also +1 me on Google+ if you’re a masochist.

It takes time

There’s this idea that we’ll get rid of poverty by giving away food and aid. And sure, that’s part of the problem. But poverty isn’t at its root about simply not having enough food. Poverty is about institutions.

Countries with solid institutions have a much better class of poor. Being poor in Canada is very different from being poor in Mali. If we want to try fixing Mali, we need to focus on the stability of that country’s institutions. Rule of law, income equality through redistribution, sensible civil engineering, a non-corrupt police and military force, etc.

The problem is that we can give aid now, but making strong institutions takes time. Take India as an example. They should have a reasonably strong set of institutions thanks to the legacy of the British Empire (we can also say this about the Roman Empire — this isn’t to say that empire is a good thing, just that it can produce good things). But they don’t. Corruption, income inequality, and massive poverty.

It takes time and political will to get there. And in a sense this change has to come from within. Strong institutions simply can’t be imposed without a massive ongoing investment. Look at Iraq. It needs another 50 years of occupation.

This isn’t even a matter of democracy. I’m not even sure democracy makes it better. It might make institution-building worse.

Either way — it takes time.

Here’s a way to talk about privilege


If I write somebody a letter, it gets taken seriously. The guy opening it shows it to his manager. His manager shows it to her manager. Maybe I still don’t get what I want—but I get treated well and taken seriously. My letters—even the angry ones—are unfailingly polite. I don’t need to be angry to get somebody’s attention. I just need to sign the letter “Attorney at Law.”

Being a white guy has the same relative effect. It takes negligble effort to be treated well and taken seriously.

Ubercompetence & Gaze

I’ve been thinking about TV lately. It’s the defining storytelling medium of our time. At least, I think so. I think we’re going to look back at the early decades of this century as the golden years of TV. For better or for worse.

That’s all been said and done before, though. I want to talk about something different. I want to talk about the kind of heroes and anti-heroes we’re making for ourselves.

I want to talk about Breaking Bad.

Sort of.

Walter White isn’t a hero. So why do we want to watch him? He’s not a good man. He’s at best a decent man who stumbles a bit and then runs swiftly downward.

We watch him because he’s fascinating. And he’s fascinating because he’s in control. His manipulation of his family, his enemies, his friends, his circumstances…

It’s like he’s a little puppet-master. Maybe even a little god. He bends the world to his will.

I call this ubercompetence. And TV is full of ubercompetence. People who are so good at something that anything can be forgiven.

I can forgive Breaking Bad. It has some redeeming qualities, despite its protagonists focused ubercompetence.

But then there’s Suits.

The problem with labeling something like ubercompetence is you can’t stop seeing it. And when you can’t stop seeing it, it starts to get annoying really quick, unless done really well.

Suits does not do it really well.

It doesn’t really do anything really well, actually. It’s every other USA show with a slightly different location. Have you seen White Collar? You’ve seen Suits. The same can-do-no-wrong with a the same smirk.

Week after week these characters win the day through sheer manipulation. Then, at the end of the episode, or if you’re lucky, at the end of the story arc, they smirk off to victory. They’ve turned the tables.

Now there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with watching this show. Or even with enjoying a series centered around the ubercompetent man or (rarely) woman.

The problem is when you start identifying with them.

I have this theory that we become what we behold. Or let me put it a different way, one that’s a little more personal. I become like what I look at. And I mean “look” as in “gaze”. What I fix my eyes on, as it were. I gaze at something because I admire it. So in a sense, I become like what I admire.

Which athlete isn’t inspired by great athletes? Which leader isn’t inspired by great leaders?

But of course reality is at once much stranger and much more prosaic than TV could ever imagine. There are few people who can warp the world to their will. It seems like life enjoys breaking those who try.

All great people eventually fall. They fail or they die or their imperfections are exposed. Which is why we don’t build our empires or our organizations or our families around a person.

So where do we direct our gaze? Who can we admire?

I think you might know the answer.