Phil's blog page 

This contains random thoughts for wider appreciation! 


Phil's Principle.

I guess most of you have heard of the Peter Principle. This is the principle that people in an organisation rise to their level of incompetence. So in a fully mature organisation everyone is incompetent at their job (except perhaps the Chief Executive). This is supposed to happen because while people are doing a good job they get promoted, until they get promoted into a job they are not able to do, where they stay. However, this can take some time to happen as promotions are generally only annual. Therefore there are probably a fair proportion of people who haven't had time to reach their level of incompetence, and so can do their job well.

To speed up this process some companies have found a different way of ensuring that as many people as possible are at their level of incompetence. This is by delegating down responsibility, until it reaches an incompetent person, where it stops. This can be much faster than the Peter Principle above as it doesn't need to wait for annual reviews. However, it can be just as effective at ensuring tasks are given to people unable to action them competently. To ensure this is the case, the manager who has delegated the responsibility must ensure they do not overrule the subordinate, make the decision for them, or micro-manage them in any other way. This is Phil's Principle!

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Rumsfeld Uncertainty Scale

I recently received an email from our MD, which told me not to continue with a cost saving for our machines. Although I had been working on various cost saving initiatives, I didn't know about this particular one, couldn't exactly understand what it was from the email, but could recognise it was a new task that I hadn't previously known about. I gathered from this that other people had been working on this, but I wasn't aware of that up until the email. So it appeared I had been in a state of total ignorance about this task, but this had been converted into a state of only partial ignorance by reading the email. This reminded me of the often mocked statement by the former US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. I think in fact that the statement is much wiser than most people give it credit for, and can add clarity to many situations. The quote is:

"Reports that say that something hasn't happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns -- the ones we don't know we don't know."

The email from my MD had moved a previously unknown-unknown (ie the cost saving work being done by other people) into the status of known-unknown, ie I now knew something was being done, but not what it was. Eventually I found out what it was, raising it up to the top level, or a known-known.

So to make known/unknown issues clear, I propose a new scale of uncertainty, and I'll call it the Rumsfeld scale, signified by °Ru. (Unfortunately both R and °R are already taken as units of measure, and Ru is an element, atomic number 44). The scale is arranged in order of the quote, so a first category Rumsfeld issue (ie 1°Ru) is something we know we know. A second category issue (2°Ru) is something we know we don't know, and the third category are the unknown-unknowns (or things we don't know we don't know), 3°Ru. An example of 1°Ru is the name of the day after Tuesday. An example of 2°Ru is (for me) whether Donald Rumsfeld has any middle names, and if so what they are: I'm pretty sure it wouldn't be hard to convert this into a 1°Ru with the help of Google, but it is currently 2°Ru. As to an example of 3°Ru, I can't give you one: I can only know about 3°Ru facts after they have stopped being 3°Ru and changed into either 2°Ru or 1°Ru. (This is a bit odd, having a category for something that can only have been discovered after it stopped existing, but I think it can still be useful.) I don't think the other logical category, unknown-knowns makes much sense, but just in case we can use 4°Ru for these, if there are any.

Schrodinger's cat is probably the most famous 2°Ru, turning into a 1°Ru when the box is opened. If you didn't know Schrodinger had a cat, that would have been a 3°Ru for you.

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Safety Trump Card

Safety Trump Card is a phrase I coined whilst working for a company who make high value engineering equipment for pharmaceutical companies. During the time I worked there, this company became more aware of safety issues, and implemented ever more imposing procedures and processes in a bid to make the company safer. However, there rarely seemed (to me at least) any significant hazard that actually required reducing. What I became aware of was that whatever the issue, and however inconvenient the fix, being able to claim that safety was being improved would win the argument. So more or less regardless of how minor the hazard reduction, or how expensive the "solution", safety would always win. Just like a trump in cards: the 2 of trumps would beat any other suit's Ace. Hence the "Safety Trump Card" which would always win (except against a higher valued safety card of course). By the way, use of this phrase is not generally recommended as a way to endear you with senior members of your company, especially anyone who has any safety responsibility.

As an example of the safety thinking of some senior members of the company here is a tale. I was once working in the workshop, and stood on a chair (normal chair, no wheels) to remove some cardboard boxes from on top of a machine. I was spotted by a senior member of the company who commented that lots of accidents were caused by standing on a chair. I was not particularly impressed with this, and decided to check how dangerous standing on a chair really is. The company had just introduced a new way of assessing hazards in our equipment in order to see what protection was needed. (The machines were in some cases quite capable of causing serious injury, so putting safety interlocked guards around them is definitely necessary, and an appropriate target for hazard analysis.) So I decided to check out the hazard from standing on a chair. The method is to assess the likely injury (I judged a broken arm the most serious credible injury), the frequency of exposure (once a month) the likelihood of an accident at each exposure (one in a hundred say, or perhaps one in a thousand), and it was only going to affect one person (me). Multiplying all the ratings for these factors gave a Hazard Rating Number of only 3, well below the threshold of 10 (10 being the level the company used to decide some additional measures are necessary, eg a guard rail, safety harness). So I emailed my department (engineering) to reassure them that I wasn't being reckless, and that it was safe to occasionally use a chair as a step. This didn't go down too well. It was made even more irritating to management when another engineer pointed out that even if there were three of us on the chair, it would still only get a score of 9!

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Cambridge Congestion Scheme

It isn't exactly clear why to most people, but Cambridgeshire County Council is trying to impose a Congestion Charge onto people driving in Cambridge (city). This is currently only in the "consultation" stage, but the last big project that went through "consultation" is now going ahead, despite there being around 4000 letters of objection, but only 3 supporting. That was the "Guided Bus", or more amusingly called the Misguided Bus. The Guided Bus will cost over £110million, and is basically a disused railway line being concreted over so that only special buses (ie guided ones) can use it. You may not know about guided buses, but they are so popular and widely used, that council officers had to travel to Adelaide (yes, the one in Australia) to see one. In order to allow emergency services access to any buses in crisis, there also needs to be a standard road constructed alongside as the emergency vehicles won't be able to get onto the busway because of the kerbs alongside which do the guiding. You couldn't really make it up, could you? For some reason (not clear to me) this is preferable to simply reopening the railway and sending trains along it.

Back to the congestion charge. Things may be different this time as some conservative councillors (supposedly the party supporting the charge) are opposed to it, and the main protagonist of the guided bus, Shona Johnstone, has just resigned from leadership of the council because of some (minor, I personally think) irregularities during the botched appointment of a Chief Executive for the council. The general thrust of the scheme is that anyone driving within the city boundary between 7:30 and 9:30am will be charged up to £5 per day. This is probably the most congested time of day, although 4:30 to 6:30pm is pretty close. Oh, yes, and Saturday all day when you can't move on most roads. Many people blame the school-run mums for the congestion, but having done rather too much commuting out of Cambridge, I don't actually think much traffic contains school pupils. The reason traffic drops during school holidays is that lots of parents take holidays with their children, and this reduces the volume of traffic enough to more or less remove congestion. So far, the council isn't making any distinction between people coming into the city, people leaving the city, or those travelling within the city. In their view, everyone is adding to the congestion, so everyone must pay. Although to all rational people this is obviously nonsense (people leaving the city aren't congesting the city, although the other two categories probably are), the council is sticking to this line. Perhaps it is so they can give something away in the negotiating process of consultation, and appear to be listening, or perhaps they are just a bit dim.

However, what is the congestion charge supposed to be for? The promoted view is that the money raised by the charge will be put towards better public transport, which people will be glad to use. The city roads will be empty, save for the large number of buses. [The roads may even get empty enough for the guided buses to venture into the city centre without getting jammed in traffic.] Everyone will be happy, and saving the planet. However, I have an alternative theory. I think that the idea is to price relatively poor people off the roads in the morning leaving them empty for all the parents wanting to bring their children into Cambridge to attend the many public schools. Parents sending children to public schools aren't going to notice a mere £5 per day, when school fees are about £100 per day, and the depreciation on their 4wheel drive will be about the same. To these parents, £5 per day to have the roads cleared of all the riff-raff so that they can zoom up to the school gates must seem like a bargain. No wonder the conservatives on the council are in favour.

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