Book Depository: Black Box Thinking by Matthew Syed

I didn’t find this book at ROLI, but Matthew Syed’s everywhere these days and this one looked like it might be worth a glance.

Matthew Syed is a tall man with no hair. His book is full of this kind of observation that never goes anywhere: the muscular build of a bereaved man; the hairstyle of a pilot who committed suicide. Black Box Thinking luxuriates in glib journalistic dazzle. In one instant, we are forensically deconstructing the political aftermath of a medical accident; in the next, the writer’s attention alights on a widower’s eyes, welling as his tapering fingers tremble. This is modern self-help in Dale Carnegie’s image: recounted with a ferocious zeal that that feels claustrophobic and contrived, and presented with a chattiness that sits poorly with the importance and tragic flavour of its material. It occasionally verges on voyeurism but, where a sting of criticism might hit home, it is immediately emolliated by condescension. After reading of a surgeon whose tyranny nearly killed somebody, we are reminded not to forget that even a doctor who, in an instant of hubristic idiocy, almost kills a patient, and then obstructs attempts to investigate procedural errors, is nevertheless a hero. They are all heroes. Atul Gawande trod this ground years before Syed, and did it better: directly; sincerely; sensitively.

Syed’s book is a poor recruiter for a great employer. At its core is a simple, powerful and useful message, but some flaws are unforgivable. Central to a writer’s integrity is a clear and honest use of words. You cannot, in one paragraph, tell your readers that they must learn a new subject and, in the next, treat the subject’s core vocabulary with a lazy disdain. Syed earnestly understands that there would be a better world if the scientific method were more widely understood and better applied; if objective truth were served as slavishly as the will to power. He wants his friends to know this too. But remember, journalist, that we engineers will continue to practise and hone our trade in our tiny rooms long after your friends follow the siren call of something more lucrative. Our tools and our knowledge are ours: do not abuse them.

Syed refers to ‘open-loop’ and ‘closed-loop’ thinking in a way that, for no good reason, inverts the established meaning of these terms. Hence, a ‘closed-loop’ system which, to millions of us with a modicum of technical training, is something that is ‘closed’ by a path that provides corrective feedback, is now ‘closed’ in the sense of ‘guarded against feedback and the influence of evidence’. Did anybody edit this book?

Lesson one: collect data about everything you’re doing. The title ‘Black Box Thinking’ refers to the two data recorders that capture the cockpit voice and telemetry in aircraft, so that crashes and near-misses can be better understood. Dispassionate forensic analysis of this data provides vital information about what went wrong.

Lesson two: depersonalise this information, and don’t use it to shame people. The fear of shame leads to the deliberate concealment of errors, so everybody loses opportunities to learn. Humans are fallible under stress, and the first duty of a crash investigator is to improve flight safety. Before critical failures, there are near-misses, and people must be allowed to report and challenge these without fear. The exemplary attitude in aviation allows mechanical problems to be caught at an early stage. Best practice is also improved in the cockpit. In-flight checklists control the narrowing of a pilot’s concentration under stress; improved human factors fix problems with the flying controls; Crew Resource Management addresses the psychological difficulties of cockpit hierarchy. This is why, as we know, civil aviation becomes safer even as aircraft become more complicated.

Lesson three: learn by building, make marginal gains, iterate often, create theories and try to falsify them. Syed summarises with unusual concision, ‘If I want to be a great musician, I must first play a lot of bad music. If I want to become a great tennis player, I must first lose lots of tennis games. If I want to become a top commercial architect known for energy-efficient, minimalist designs, I must first design inefficient, clunky buildings.’ Prepare to produce a lot of dross on the road to success. All performers are poor at first; nobody gets great without a lot of practice. Solicit feedback from customers at a really early stage, when you’re still a bit embarrassed by your product: you’ll learn if you’re doing a really great job designing the wrong thing.

On the subject of iteration, there is another use of the term ‘Black Box’ that is more commonly employed by engineers. A Black Box model is one in which a system is characterised merely from measurement of its inputs and outputs without attempting to understand the reasons for this relationship. This might have been woven into the central chapters on evolution and marginal gains. Here, in many places, it would have bolstered the book, but it didn’t. The dual meaning is dismissed in a footnote on Page 33 and never mentioned again.

In a central chapter, Syed notes that Unilever employed physicists and biologists to approach a difficult nozzle optimisation problem from two directions. This nozzle must create detergent granules by firing a hot, pressurised liquid into air where it solidifies and lands as a correctly-sized powder. First, as Syed narrates it, physicists tried to characterise how the nozzle worked by modelling the flow of fluid through it. Their failure to build a successful working model highlighted the intractability of the problem. A team of biologists then successfully optimised the nozzle with a typical ‘black box’ approach: starting with an existing, poorly-functioning prototype; measuring the powder, tweaking the nozzle design, and iterating the best-performing candidates over dozens of generations; finishing when it was as good as it was going to get. Hundreds of prototypes later, the ‘black box’ approach worked, and Syed narrates this as a victory for the empirical, evolutionary approach. Dyson, who created thousands of iterations of vacuum cleaner to arrive at the first commercial prototype of his dual cyclone, also finds himself press-ganged into Syed’s war. Take that, physicists!

Unilever nozzle

Had Syed been a scientist — had he taken his own advice — he would have seen this story as more than a battle between practices. Both teams’ methods are in alignment with scientific best practice: each collected data and analysed it and approached a truth. Some physicists were attempting to develop a theory that solves the general case and failed. Some biologists set out to attack the specific case and succeeded. My conclusions are:

  1. Failure informed the approach that led to success, as it often does. Failure’s a great teacher, but a slow and expensive one.
  2. Changing tactics saved the project, at the cost of limiting scope. The price of a solution was paid by abandoning a general understanding of the problem.

So Unilever have a brilliant nozzle, and the method that produced it, but they’ll never know why it works or whether there’s an even better one. The only way to double its capacity or change the formula of their fluid is to make a hundred more prototypes.

Lesson four: understand and eliminate cognitive dissonance. Resist the temptation to spin failure as a success, or deny that something went wrong. Accept such failures as an opportunity to learn and improve.

If you’re involved in a technical discipline, you’re already a servant of hard physical truths, and no amount of post-event rationalisation excuses a non-working prototype. (Although, if you’re building Mars landers for the European Space Agency, it seems you can crash-land as many as you like, act as though you succeeded, and continue to get funding, but I’m talking about real jobs.)

An external perspective of scientific method will help a wider audience to understand it. There are certainly pickings in this book for technical readers too, but it’s principally for an audience who don’t get, or even seek, the same class of feedback from their work that a technologist will. Recommend it to your boss. Next time you have a corridor conversation, though, remember that ‘closed-loop’ is open-loop, ‘open-loop’ is closed-loop, and ‘black-box’ means collecting and responding to data. Or ‘science’.

Book Depository: The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg

Charles Duhigg’s book creaks under the examples he throws at the wall to support any observation. They are wearisome after a while. This book could have been stated just as effectively as a pamphlet, so here it is.


The habit loop is what happens when a sensory trigger precipitates a routine, which then leads to a reward of some kind. Over time, neural connections that link the trigger to the routine are strengthened in anticipation of the next reward, until the routine happens without conscious thought. Animals can be trained to follow surprisingly complex routines by exploiting the habit loop.

A keystone habit is a single change introduced into a daily routine. It exploits the habit loop to precipitate a small change. The reward from this can be used to power ever-larger changes.

Putting a piece of fruit on your desk to trigger a health regime, so you don’t go searching for snacks, is a simple example. Keeping a register of things you eat is another. At the company level, as Paul O’Neill did with Alcoa, you might be able to focus the organisation on one goal because that goal necessitates other changes you want to see. In the case of Alcoa, the goal was zero accidents. This required transformations in the chain of command and in industrial processes that enabled Alcoa to become much more successful and less wasteful, without these being explicit goals.

Exploit the habit loop when you can. Reduce the change you want into one keystone habit, or to improve one metric, or to make one difference.

In the long term, self-discipline has more influence on long-term success than intellectual ability. Willpower is like a muscle:

  1. It develops and improves with practice;
  2. It can tire through overuse, leading to a speculative explanation for high-flying businessmen and senior politicians regularly making spectacularly poor decisions in their personal lives.
  3. You can burn it out altogether for a while, after which it’s weakened and slowly recovers.

Willpower, like habit, is fed through positive reinforcement. It requires a personal reason for applying it to complete the habit loop. Any kind of reward will suffice, but you need a carrot even if you already have a stick.

Willpower is vulnerable to pressure. To form new habits under hard conditions, train with those conditions in mind. Rehearse particularly stressful encounters or difficult situations that upset you. Plan for when you struggle with willpower and replay successful scenarios like videos in your mind’s eye. They will become a better habit.

Starbucks sees its service as more important than the quality of its coffee. It trains employees, some of whom have anger problems, using the LATTE method (listen; acknowledge; take action; thank the customer; explain). This serves a social purpose too. Using this method, staff write a plan about how they’ll deal with an abusive customer, and it helps them to maintain their professionalism under fire.

In An Evolutionary Theory of Economic Change (Nelson and Winter), the case is made that companies aren’t families, but battlefields in a civil war. A functional equilibrium is established with a network of truces between ambitious people. These may work when it’s business as usual to the extent that they’re impossible to change. However, they are too rigid for organisational improvement, and may break down entirely in a crisis. Disaster is then inevitable. The 1987 King’s Cross fire, and the Fennell Report after it, illustrates a dysfunctional organisation in a crisis, and a way to transform it. Desmond Fennell fanned a media circus and allowed people to be shamed in public. It can be worth stirring up a catastrophe rather than letting it die down because, when people are vulnerable, it is rare opportunity to face failure, make changes, and establish new rules and habits.

Some social movements succeed while others fail. Three things are needed: friendships between individuals, a community with specific, identifiable interests, and leadership that is able to divest power to the ranks as it inspires. Rosa Parks, The Montgomery bus boycott and Martin Luther King are the archetypical example. Rosa Parks was not the first black woman to be arrested on a bus, but her high social standing, combined with a creeping awareness of the Civil Rights movements, was enough to trigger change. Leadership of such a movement has to be able to establish a strong culture, and then stand back so that it can be owned and led by its people.

If you can include a core of religious faith, as the Civil Rights movement did, and as Alcoholics Anonymous does, you provide a stronger way of displacing destructive cycles of habit with helpful, community-focused ones.

Weak ties, soft power, and peer pressure are how individuals advance themselves. Weak ties are acquaintances and friends of friends: these networks get people their next job or their customers. Soft power is power that influences rather than coerces: the kind that makes you attend an event because you think that certain people will expect you to.

Book Depository: The Goal by Eliyahu Goldratt

In an appendix, Goldratt explains how the Toyota Production System [TPS] was created especially for Toyota, transforming the business into an international phenomenon. The system’s not for everyone, though. If you manufacture something other than cars, in a different country, with a different pattern of market demand, TPS will probably cause as much trouble as it solves. To run a factory successfully it may be unhelpful to import Toyota’s system wholesale. Copy Toyota’s methodology, not their methods. Think like them. Apply the same reasoning through which Taiichi Ohno conceived and created TPS over two decades.

The Goal is a didactic novel. It was 1984 when it was first published, and the book portrays a man’s world. People smoke in meetings, and nonchalantly down two or three beers to take the edge off a hard day before hitting the road. It jars these days, as it would if the protagonist casually took a detour from the journey home to burn down a convent.

In the land of 1984, it also takes hours to track somebody down when they’re away on business and you may never have a true picture of what they do for a living. Such details are merely curious today, but other truths about human nature and the physical world are more fundamental and pervasive.

Conclusions arrive in a series of lessons and revelations to Rogo, the production manager of a struggling factory in a Midwestern town. From the start, Rogo’s plant is in a state of permanent crisis, with stacks of late orders, unpredictable output, perpetual panic on the factory floor and union disputes, and his whole division is the same. His boss, Mr. Peach, is about to close the factory unless dramatic improvements occur within three months. Meanwhile, at home, Rogo’s marriage begins to break down as the pressures of his career bite into his personal life.

Corporate politics and the powerful grip of established practices hold Rogo back until a chance encounter at an airport with a former physics professor called Jonah Author-Surrogate begins to set him, his colleagues, and his factory on the path to redemption.

The lessons of this book are initially specific, dispelling fallacies common in manufacturing in the 1980s. First, an excess of unsold goods is bad because it impacts on cash-flow, representing money spent without income. It needs to be stored and eventually becomes obsolete, decreasing in value the longer it’s kept. The same is true of unfinished materials, because they cannot be sold but still incur a maintenance and storage cost, and are therefore a liability. The best way to manufacture is thus strictly to order, to satisfy immediate demand.

Limiting inventory and finished goods determines how a factory must work. The factory is now a system, and must be optimised as a whole rather than a series of stages. Optimising the efficiency of individual processes is not useful unless it improves the predictability and control of flow of finished goods. In fact, it is important to have some idle workers and machinery, as they can cope with statistical variations in other parts of the system. If people and machines must sometimes stand idle for the benefit of the whole, average labour per part is not an important measurement of the quality of factory management: only overall operational cost.

The process with the lowest capacity is a bottleneck, dictating the factory’s maximum throughput. Bottleneck processes can often be found by finding the places on the floor where work in progress accumulates. These can be pernicious, and it is sometimes economical to outsource particular stages of manufacture, or use more expensive techniques, to keep the rest of the factory productive and to prevent a pile-up of work in progress.

Upstream of the bottlenecks, considerable excess capacity may be required in order to allow a constant amount of work to be queued at the bottlenecks, and to allow this to be replenished quickly if it is ever depleted.

As Rogo applies these processes, his factory improves dramatically. Not every step is an improvement, though: some hit the diplomatic buffers or just aren’t appropriate. They are tested and rejected; they sometimes work initially and then become counterproductive later on. More dangerously, some changes work well but the company’s measurement techniques are wrong, and don’t show the actual improvement.

Rogo’s team starts to use computers to predict throughput so that lead times can be determined whatever the state of the current order book and work in progress. Then comes the revelation that marketing and sales are part of the factory system: demand is a component of the production process, and can be used to optimise the factory. In many cases, small batch sizes might often prove more economical than large ones in spite of the extra outlay in materials and machine setup times because they speed up the flow of goods between processes. This results in shorter lead times. Short lead times make the company more competitive and can be used to generate additional sales, whilst further reducing the necessary inventory of finished goods. This explains why Japanese factories take considerable pains to reduce their machine setup times.

The deductions that lead a factory to greater productivity unfold across more than two hundred pages, while the narrative keeps these pages turning quickly. Goldratt provides his protagonist with plenty of context outside the factory floor: he learns as he walks with the Scouts, plays invented games, and discusses abstracted versions of his factory problems with his colleagues and his young children. Certain points are laboured with a heavy hand, but the author hardly sets out to emulate Dickens.

The Goal concludes as Rogo is trying to establish a science of management: a set of general rules that will enable him and his team to tackle any future problem. Do new ideas proceed from inspiration alone, or from data? How much of these ideas are formulated by teams, and how much by individuals? What does philosophy say about how new theories and methods develop, and does this even help? As Rogo learns, he starts to apply these techniques successfully to his personal life, and rescues his marriage. The novel ends with Rogo’s promotion to divisional controller, widening his responsibilities and setting up Goldratt for a sequel.