Everyday technology and the “not-to-do” perspective

I was having lunch with a good friend of mine the other day, and, as often happens, the subject of technology came up in the conversation. One thing he observed about me was that I have a slight knack of being able to look at a system or situation and see what in it isn’t working quite right – I think he might have been making fun of me, he does know me pretty well.

In modest humility, I suppose he’s right to some extent, and although I am certainly no genius, often wrong with my analyses, I have nevertheless exposed myself to a wide range of systems and technologies over the years, and love to find where a slight tweak or poke in the right place would make a potential positive difference in productivity or outcome. My time in the entertainment technical field have given me wondrous experiences, working with complex video, lighting and audio systems, laser and fireworks shows, and special events using combinations of technical and aesthetic elements which bring together the thoughts, emotions, and messages of artists and companies alike. I’ve collaborated with many incredibly creative minds, and have learned a great deal from them. I’ve also worked in retail and wholesale, design and marketing, manufacturing and sales, data handling and customer service – even custodial and farm work (walking soybean fields at 14 was still probably the most honest work I’ve ever done).

It’s curious that in an industry of great specialization I never really specialized in anything in particular, and I’ll say that was mostly on purpose. I’ve been able to work with such a wide array of systems, procedures, and processes, seeing technologies of all sorts working together where you might not normally think of them in tandem. It’s opened my eyes to the everyday technologies around me, and the everyday fascinates me as much as the technologically advanced.

How many times have you been to a store that wasn’t laid out quite right? Things were jumbled around, no visible rhyme or reason. You search for what you want to buy, finally find it (maybe) and leave frustrated or annoyed, and maybe feeling a little less smart than you did when you walked in. Then look at a place like your local Ikea, where you are literally taken on a journey through the store, and if you happen to find the “secret” doors which shave dozens of minutes off your twenty-mile walk, you feel a bit like Harry Potter finding the train station for the first time. Curious confusion turns to wonder, and now you’re searching excitedly for the next portal to the lighting section, which is where you really wanted to end up in the first place.

That design, and the design of a great restaurant, airport, house, car interior, or stadium – the exquisite coding of a great piece of software or the perfect editing of an Oscar winning movie – the flawless operation of a state-of-the-art audio console or security system – all of these things have some sort of technology, as defined in my previous article, at work in them. It may be disguised as science in some instances, art in others, and honestly sometimes it just looks like dumb luck.

Sometimes, however, the technology doesn’t work (although more often it’s the execution of that technology which is flawed) and we get frustrated with it without understanding what goes wrong. Why is your two-year-old smart phone getting slower every day? While it’s fun to point to the manufactures and say they are conspiring to make us buy new hardware all the time (a perfectly logical argument in many ways), the real truth is a little more complicated. Newer versions of hardware still roughly follow Moore’s law, doubling in speed every few years. Thusly, improved software packages are developed to better utilize this newfound speed and efficiency, and updates to current versions come out as well. The problem is those updates now reside on your old brick of a phone, and so badly want to go faster, but at this point it’s like Usain Bolt running on a treadmill that will only do 7mph. It gets a little confused, has to stop every once in a while and wait for the slower hardware to catch up.

This is of course a massive over-simplification, but it shows that the technologies are part of a greater system, and like in any system if one part isn’t pulling its fair share, the others either have to make up the difference or the better, faster, more efficient piece has to sacrifice itself to maintain the status-quo. In Eliyahu Goldratt’s 80’s business novel “The Goal”, the lead character takes a weekend away from his manufactureing plant management job to join his son on a scout hike. Through a bit of trial and error he discovers that the slowest scout also carries the heaviest load. By re-distributing that load, the scout’s pace was improved enough for the troop to reach its goal of hitting camp before nightfall. This example has a fairly easy-to-see conclusion using constraint theory, but today there are so many variables that finding the constraint often takes some pretty savvy investigating.

In, say, a restaurant, this may be the throughput of the dishwasher (either mechanical or wage-earning type) not keeping up with the productivity of the wait staff and line cooks. Run out of clean plates and suddenly the four-star chef can’t get dinner to the local critic at table 23 before the perfectly cooked meal gets cold, and a bad review goes viral. The critic blames the chef or manager, the visible scapegoat to other patrons is the waiter or food runner, and the back of house blame goes to the hapless dishwasher, while the actual cause could be that not enough bussers were on and the one guy working his tail off cleared eleven tables at once a half hour ago instead of a couple at a time, thus bottlenecking the system. What technology didn’t work there? Surprisingly it might be the scheduling software that didn’t catch and flag a couple shift changes. Or the processes used in training which left out the importance of keeping an even flow going. Or a weird combination perfect-storm style that only the most sophisticated predictive analytic equations could have foreseen.

Sometimes technology is the answer, sometimes it’s the culprit. Often a simpler, more elegant solution is the one that eludes you, making the more complex option look more viable, but bringing in a greater number of points of failure, higher expenses in training, or mountains of unnecessary hardware. Sometimes the thing that worked perfectly 20, 10, 5 or even just 2 years ago, just doesn’t cut the mustard anymore, and it needs to go with yesterday’s dish water.

So what doesn’t work quite right every time in your world? What technologies should you look at bringing in or updating? Or, thinking of how many personal development gurus suggest creating a “not-to-do” list to improve productivity, what technologies that you rely on should you just admit don’t work right anymore (or ever) and need to be scrapped to make way for what the right thing is now?

These are the kinds of questions I’ll be asking in the future, and I’ve been working up a great line-up of folks way smarter than me to give us all some insight and answers. Stay tuned over the coming weeks for more information on the launch of TCHNLGY, and in the meantime thanks for continuing to read my musings.

This article was originally published on LinkedIn August 29, 2018