Go with a smile!

Friday, May 02, 2014

If Only / the Post Fuck Up Analyser

Sometimes it’s true what they say that the saddest words are “if only”. But I think there are even worse situations to be in, such as if you don’t even regret anything because if you had to live your life again, you couldn’t even figure out what you’d do differently. That would be an extremely regrettable situation.

I don’t know what it would have been like if I had tried to come to Mexico a few years earlier than I did. I suppose that would have been the main aim of my life. But in many ways I think my life in Singapore was pretty content. I would have made my first three years of working life better. In many ways, they were wasted years, but in other ways, I spent them catching up on my reading. I also spent those years catching up for the fact that I didn’t pursue an engineering degree. When I graduated, I was a mathematics major, and I didn’t get myself sufficiently exposed to the engineering methods of thinking. It was only after a spell working for the factory that I absorbed the lessons of what it really took to get things done. So maybe those weren’t totally wasted years. But those first few years were pretty damn depressing. In fact, one of the bosses I had worked with never developed a positive impression of my level of intelligence. He’s the only guy who thinks like that. Everybody else, even those who don’t like me usually say “he’s a smart guy but not a good person”.

1. I would have returned to the US a few years earlier.
2. I would have tried to be good at my job a few years earlier.
3. I would have tried to have a girlfriend, and I would have stopped chasing water girl.
4. I would have picked up driving a few years earlier.

But I had some work to do, and I did it. I had some growing to do and I did it.

There are a few things that I didn’t know back then.

1. I would have made it through that master’s course in University of Mexico anyway – both in terms of getting admitted, in terms of graduating and in terms of landing on my feet and finding a job.
2. Water Girl was not worth stalking.
3. Coding. If I had come here and learnt coding, it would have done me a world of good. I call myself a wizard now, because the difference between knowing how to code and not knowing how to code is the difference between knowing magic and not knowing magic.

During the time that I was working at the factory, I wouldn’t have blogged about my work. I made it a hard rule that I would not blog about my work. But now that it’s over, I can say whatever I want, even though I might one day go back and work for them. I would call 2006 a pivotal year for me at the factory. That was the year a few things happened:

1. Sniper left. I’m sorry, and I’ve always said that he did bring something to the department. But not having him around was liberating.
2. Some of my colleagues were making connections with the front line staff and raising the profile of our work.
3. I was entrusted with some more interesting and technically challenging work. I was acquainted with my first big software engineering project. Looking back, that was the first step for me to get out of the factory.
4. Most of the colleagues that I had had joined at entry level. And you only truly have a real fraternity with the colleagues that join with you at entry level, and that only happens when you’re young. It will not happen again. You will have fulfilling working relationships anytime in your career, but not a fraternity. There was this time when I was asked to organize an outing with the department. And it was a crappy place, a pavilion at East Coast Park. But apparently everybody had a good time and I did make sure that everybody had a good time. This group of people are still in touch with each other and I call them the class of 2006.

There is also another gang, the class of 2009 / 10. But it’s been broken up too.

What I do regret during the period of time that I had spent at the factory, is what I did professionally. I feel that I was led by managers who were academically brilliant. In fact, so many of my co-workers were academically brilliant that in comparison, I’m actually one of the least accomplished of them. But the problem is that when you get all those people in one room, they’re not going to think out of the box. And believe me, I’ve had my share of being punished for going out of the box.

At least, I had this skepticism about the way that people were approaching things. I’m pretty amazed that when I tell people things, they repeat it back to me in verbatim, and they don’t try to suss out whatever bullshit is inherent in whatever I tell them. They don’t come up with something that’s different. Well maybe it shouldn’t be that surprising – when you try to be different, and especially if you’re junior and you haven’t yet become a made man, you know what they say in Asian society – the nail that sticks out gets hammered down. And when you resist getting hammered down, it’s not going to be pretty.

These were the predominant ideas:

1. Plan early.
2. When things go wrong, it is because people fail to follow procedures, and you should hold them up to follow procedures.
3. When you are devising work improvement projects, you should just dictate better procedures and get them to carry it out.
4. If your projects are not working out, it’s because you’re not selling them well enough.
5. you shouldn’t be feeding information to front line people.
a. You shouldn’t be inventing excuses for them.
b. You shouldn’t point fingers at people
c. People are always asking why things went wrong, and that is an idle intellectual exercise. Instead, you should just design better processes.
Towards the end of my stay at the factory, I was finally allowed to work with front line people. It took me seven years to overcome their natural mistrust of me. I think I did OK, but I could have been better. If I had stayed long enough, I would have tried to challenge these assumptions one by one. After my first year in the master’s program, I paused to think for a while, and I came up with a plan that would have been a little different from how people did things back in Singapore. It wouldn’t have replaced what they did, merely complemented it.

1. Plan early.

Well you don’t really want to leave things to the last minute. You should have some good plans in shape by the time that the factory starts the shift. But the situation is very fluid, and you should put in place systems that enhance your flexibility when things go wrong.

People come up with the first drafts of plans, and they do that well. It’s the subsequent drafts where they falter. Nobody really knows how to have a good plan B, and nobody has a system whereby a plan A segues into a plan B. They’ve not thought about this hard enough.

2. When things go wrong, it is because people fail to follow procedures, and you should hold them up to follow procedures.
Well why is it so important to be absolutely faithful to your plan A when the situation changes, and you’re forced to confront the fact that your plan’s not going to work. In fact, I think that the plan A gets disrupted so often, I sometimes wonder whether all the work they’re putting into building a bigger and better plan A is ever going to improve things. I suspect not.

3. When you are devising work improvement projects, you should just dictate better procedures and get them to carry it out.
Now the idea is that you can always change things for the better. And you can always come up with a lot of little ideas that change things for the better. At least on paper, anyway. But have you really come close to the real issue? Do you actually know the real reason you’re screwing up? You only know the input – the plan, and the output – the performance rates. Are you looking into the middle to see how and why the plan never turns out well?

4. If your projects are not working out, it’s because you’re not selling them well enough.
Actually a lot of the time, your projects don’t work out because they’re shit. And you should just do everybody a favour by throwing them away. The more pertinent question is – how do you figure out whether or not your ideas are shit? Sometimes frontline people just know within five minutes that youre ideas are impractical. But if your boss is excited about those ideas, you can’t tell him no, can you?

The thing is that there are many many little ways you can improve little little things. But are those little little projects going to gel together in order to create one larger, big coherent whole? Or is the net effect of all those little little projects going to be that you’re creating a constant distraction for the front line staff who are already too busy for your little hare brained schemes?

Because there was one time, I just did exactly what the front line people asked for, and I ignored my boss. And I found out that I didn’t have to be a very good salesman.

5. you shouldn’t be feeding information to front line people.
a. You shouldn’t be inventing excuses for them.
b. You shouldn’t point fingers at people
c. People are always asking why things went wrong, and that is an idle intellectual exercise. Instead, you should just design better processes.

I’ll address these objections in turn. First, you’re not really inventing excuses for them if you want to work out what’s wrong. You’re pointing them closer to the source of their problems, and that’s always a good thing. People always protest, “we already know what the problem is”. I’m like “uh what if you’re wrong? What if your mental models are not perfect? What then?” Well they don’t really want to know that their mental models are not perfect, do they?

The other issue – you shouldn’t point fingers at people. What if those people are doing things wrong, and they didn’t even know that they goofed up? The argument against digging up information that relates to peoples’ actions is that it would provoke a witch hunt. To a certain extent, the atmosphere can get a little poisonous when you do something like that. But if you don’t get to the bottom of things, what can happen is that you get a different witch hunt, where there are people with more social capital, who are more powerful, and they’re always putting the blame on their weaker co-workers.

So what I would have done would be to design something that looks a little more closely to the events that unfold in real time, and try to reconstruct back what the real problems are. This has usually been avoided because it’s not easy and because it might take up a lot of time. And during the time when I was working in the factory, I didn’t really have that great computer skills (although I knew that the potential for me to acquire them was there, otherwise I wouldn’t be here.) I didn’t know some computer algorithms that would have helped me achieve this. And most importantly I didn’t have the detachment from the workplace to really think about this from a different angle. Otherwise I would have considered doing something similar.

Working at the factory was tough. We often got doors slammed into our faces. People who were braver than me were trying to build bridges with our internal clients. It was interesting work – otherwise I would have been much more desperate to leave than I actually was. But it was unfulfilling because there wasn’t that much permanent value. We would recommend a change in procedure, then we would hold their hand to do things for the time being, and when our backs were turned, things would revert back to their old state. And that’s why there are a lot of people who “graduated” from that place, because people always got sick and tired.

I would have wanted to try building for them an information system, whereby you could do an automated autopsy of past events. It would tell you where your fuck-ups were, why those fuck-ups took place, and possibly suggest to you what you could have done to prevent those fuck-ups. It could fail. It could get off the ground, but fail to discover anything that we didn’t already know. Or it could tell us the right thing and provide information, but we would still be able to design good processes around it.

Recently I went back and chatted with people who were still at the factory. Turns out that the new boss wanted people to work on this information system thing. But that new boss wasn’t an IT engineer, and in the end, they looked through the data manually. I was pretty aghast.

But when I think about it, it does make me a little miffed. For many years I had been working for people who were content to let us run around like headless chickens. The bias towards action just made them feel that sitting down, thinking things through and analyzing the past were not productive because they “did nothing”. But running around like headless chickens does nothing too. I had friends and they put many years into their work, and sometimes I wonder if things would have been much better if that information system did get built. I guess it would be a little hard to figure out now, would it?

I was born in January, and it's was named after the two headed god, Janus, one looks at the past and the other looks at the future. Similarly my school had a two-headed eagle on its crest - you always look at the past and also the future. Nobody only looks at the future. People often say don't dwell on the past - well and good. But does it mean that you have to deliberately shut your eyes from the lessons of the past? It's good to say that you shouldn't have any regrets. That you should let go of the past. But going headlong into the future without understanding what actually happened in the past, without even a notion of thinking what you would have done differently - that's pretty stupid.


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