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Set up to fail
Mass shootings, and an ancient poem about making pottery
Have you ever felt like you were set up to fail? The Red Bead Experiment is a famous teaching tool that aims to help managers understand why their apparently-motivated employees just can’t get things done right. In the role-playing “experiment,” a manager explains to willing workers that their job is to sift white beads out of a tray. Red beads in the tray are a defect. Employees’ key performance metric is the number of red beads in their output.
The manager drones on about irrelevant parts of the methodology, like how quickly to pour the beads and at what angle to hold the tray. But a full 20% of the beads are red, so there is just no way to get a tray with only white beads. When employees show up with their defective batches, the manager berates them, saying that they should pay more attention and more carefully follow the prescribed procedure if they want to keep their jobs.
Eventually, the manager fires everyone except for the “best” employees. The pressure on those people, who had picked up fewer red beads by dumb luck, is even greater. Their failures to perform are prosecuted even more acutely.
For me, the Red Bead Experiment feels like something of a different industry or era, with its emphasis on physical movements and factory-line products. But the lesson comes through. Edwards Deming, who created the test, said it best: a bad process will beat a good person every time.
To be clear, people have been faced with processes outside their control for a long time. This wasn’t something new with 20th century factory workers. Ancient Greek pottery makers wrote prayers to the gods, asking for their kilns to work properly. After shaping a piece of pottery, the soft clay had to be hardened in a kiln, which is a big, very hot oven. Operating a kiln was a difficult and error-prone process, and the production waste, the pots that exploded or got discolored, could be the margin between profit and disaster.
Aside from the gods, potters also attributed some of their good or bad kiln activity to curses laid on them by rival pottery shops. The ancient Greek poem “The Kiln” is a mashup of a kiln prayer and a kiln curse:
May the cups and all the bowls turn a good black,
May they be well fired and fetch the price asked,
Many being sold in the marketplace and many on the roads,
And bring in much money, and may my song be pleasing.
But if you potters turn shameless and deceitful,
Then do I summon the Ravagers of Kilns,
Both Syntrips the Smasher and Smaragos the Crasher, and
Asbestos the Unquenchable too, and Sabaktes the Shaker-to-Pieces, and
Omodamos the Conqueror of the Unbaked,
Who makes much trouble for this craft.
Stamp on stoking tunnel and chambers, and may the whole kiln
Be thrown into confusion, while the potters loudly wail!
As a horse's jaw grinds, so may the kiln grind
To powder all the pots within it. [...]
It’s not in the poem, but I wonder how many junior kiln operators were blamed for kiln failures that were essentially beyond their understanding or control.
Seeking failures due to process, rather than due to individual people, seems deeply difficult. It is difficult to move from blame to accountability. The easy question is “Who did this?” The harder but more profitable question is “What can be done so this doesn’t happen again?”
For the ancient Greeks, blaming gods or gremlins for poor kiln results was almost a necessity. It’s not like potters weren’t able to improve their processes and fix mistakes, but kiln mistakes still happen today, when kilns are meticulously-engineered, electrically-powered devices, rather than wood-fired, hand-built brick ovens. They didn’t have the engineering capability or quality management systems to optimize their kilns.
For 20th century production managers, it was easier to blame the worker who can’t meet their quota. It was harder to do quality assurance, to engineer the production process so that workers can be successful. Deming, the Red Bead guy, helped post-WWII Japanese companies embrace quality as a core principle. The success of Japanese manufacturing relative to American companies led to those principles being embraced in the US. It took Toyota beating Ford for Ford to change its ways, but when they did change, there was a whole burgeoning field of quality management for them to learn from.
Every time I read about a mass shooting, I wonder: what would it take to make sure this doesn’t happen again? Saying that people kill people is blaming and not improving a system. (It’s tempting to say that humans are hard-wired to blame people, rather than systems and structures, for our societal failures. But this is just another example of a blaming mindset!)
Gun control is certainly a part of improving the system. Rolling back “stand your ground” policies, which increase gun deaths by order of 10%, and enhancing red flag policies are some of the best things we can do right now. Not improving gun control feels criminal.
(Personally, I suspect that gun control alone won’t be enough. Something has changed in our society for the worse. If I could bet on this sort of thing, I would bet on the hidden cause being social media. I doubt anyone could really prove causality, but then again, some leading statisticians and epidemiologists had denied that we could ever identify a causal link between smoking and lung cancer. Nevertheless, Jonathan Haidt makes a good argument for 2 of the 9 Hill criteria. The timing is right: social media became a dominating force around 2010, just when mass shootings got worse. And the effect size is right. What else has changed about our society, so much and so suddenly, to make mass shootings more than double over such a short time?)
In any case, our society is no better than an ancient kiln, if all we can do is thoughts and prayers.