Optimization

Beware of the unseen costs of innovations, controls and labor-saving

Make sure your innovation or whatever else you're doing is truly useful beyond the narrow radius of optimizing production for next month's stock analyst call.

By Jim Montague

Remember when frozen orange and other juices came in coated-cardboard cylinders and had to be mixed with water? Well, before we agreed to pay double for juice and the convenience of hauling large bottles, I used to avoid scooping out those cans by puncturing them with a fork and blowing the concentrate into a pitcher before mixing. I enjoyed the fact that minimal pneumatic pressure was enough to push even hard-frozen juice from its can quickly and (I thought) cleanly.

I used this method dozens of times, until observant family members questioned my terrific innovation, and asked if the outside of the can and my breath were entirely sanitary. Foiled again.

In most parallel dimensions, I'd have kept this gross confession to myself. However, in your unlucky universe, I'm a trade magazine columnist who needs to make a point. In this case, it's that discovering or developing an innovation can blind the inventor to unexpected consequences. These revelations usually come from passers-by, relatives and other enemies, who couldn't possibly know as much as I do about the initial problem, great idea and tool I came up with, right?

Because, for many of us, admitting we're wrong is worse than dying and public speaking combined, our first instinct is to ignore the critics, and keep applying our innovation over and over. See how great it works? How could it not be perfect?

Even labor-saving tools with long records of success can have unanticipated results or costs that either aren't noticed from the beginning or aren't apparent until later. Remember when handheld calculators were a costly novelty, but then dropped in price so fast that everyone had one? I recall many school districts and teachers debated requiring students to practice mathematical skills such as logarithms and trigonometry before they could use calculators in classes or tests. I don't think that resolve lasted too long.

Of course, more recent innovations like the Internet and smart phones are following similar evolutions. Much of the world's knowledge is right at our fingertips, but there's increasing evidence that we're less intelligent than ever. Closer to home, I know the best way to wake up journalists is to keep a few facts from them, and the best way to put them to sleep is to give them a big bundle of information. I think this might be because floods of input coming in all the time don't give us the pause needed to use our atrophied critical thinking skills to arrive at better decisions.

Unfortunately, control and automation aren't immune from the ironies of this innovation-driven and convenience-fueled paradox. I also remember covering a blow-molding machine builder for our sister Control Design magazine, who was preparing to ship a machine to a bottler in Asia that planned to package bottled water from the Himalayas. I think the customer wanted to duplicate the success of Fiji water and its four-sided containers, even though shipping water from the middle of the Pacific Ocean likely has a terrible carbon footprint in addition to being completely unnecessary—apart from the priceless ability of one-upping our fellow humans, which is well worth filling a few Himalayan valleys and other places with plastic.

So what's the solution? Well, just make sure your innovation or whatever else you're doing is truly useful beyond the narrow radius of optimizing production for next month's stock analyst call.

No less than father-of-the-PLC Dick Morley once chided me with the well-known aphorism that "if a professional person mows their own lawn lawn, they're using the most expensive lawn service in town." This was true at first glance, until I factored in the benefits of exercise, active meditation, and character-building humility. I know I'm not getting my recommended daily allowance of any of them, so I keep on mowing.

Of course, don't second guess to the point it becomes debilitating. That would be another mistake. It's easy to remember ancient Greece's Oracle of Dephi and its famous "moderation in all things" motto. It's harder to follow its advice. Maybe just maintain enough initiative to keep an eye peeled for more useful innovations after the first one.