Archive for December, 2009

Favorite posts from three rings in a carnival of management blogs: Round 1 – “Work Matters” by Bob Sutton

John Hunter, being a son of quality guru Bill Hunter, appreciates the value of design of experiments (DOE) for process improvement. He often mentions DOE in his blog The Curious Cat Management Improvement Site — with this StatsMadeEasy blog being cited on a few occasions. I keep tabs on Curious Cat to see what John turns up that might hit a hot button for me. So when John asked me to participate in this year’s Annual Management Improvement Blog Carnival, I readily agreed to join a number of other bloggers favored by him to select top 2009 posts from within our community.

See us hosts and the blogs we’ve chosen to review at this site coordinated by John. As you can see, StatsMadeEasy is culling the best of these bloggers:

This last blog – one of many proffered by John that focus on agile programming – is reviewed by my son Hank, who codes for Stat-Ease.

Bob Sutton offers many impressive credentials but the one that caught my eye was Weird Ideas That Work – a book he authored. I’m always on the lookout for non-intuitive approaches that improve process effectiveness. One of Sutton’s suggestions is to “increase variance in available knowledge.” That’s a good twist for an aficionado of stats!

Here my favorite 2009 posts by Bob:

  • 1/20, Brainstorming: Pros and Cons provides a balanced view of whether it works to gather a group for generation of ideas. I’ve been intrigued by this since my days as a Product Manager at General Mills (chemical division) when I would lead brainstorms with our R&D scientists and engineers. Note the comment by blogger Keith Harmeyer (SmartStorming) that “the ideal situation is a combination of solo ideation and brainstorming.” I agree with that because it draws out ideas from the introverts — perhaps propensity to speak one’s mind is inversely correlated to quality of comment. ; )
  • 3/9 Dilbert and The Smart Talk Trap re-tells a story from Weird Ideas That Work in which a brainstorming leader at Microsoft asked “What would be the worst product we could possibly build?” His idea was to think opposite but, of course, the crazy idea is what management liked. Coincidentally I was watching the movie Revolutionary Road, which features a cynical worker in a downtrodden ‘50s office (played wonderfully by Leonard DiCaprio) who, after deciding to quit this rat race, fires off a flippant flyer to the Toledo branch. This then gets him a promotion for thinking out of the box!

    “Ideas that seem dumb may have more merit than you think.” — Bob Sutton

  • 7/6 Wisdom, Randomness, and the Naskapi Indians provides a good example of how one can often benefit by choosing a direction at random. This works well for me when deciding at poker game whether to bluff or not. I won’t say anything more because one of my buddies might read this, so it would cost me.
  • 10/7/09 Squeaky Wheels, The Health Care Debate, and Student Complaints About Grades reveals how Sutton, a professor at Stanford University, deals with students who complain about grades. Being a stoic Minnesotan who was taught to grin and bear it, I like his thinking on this!
  • 11/1/09 Intuition vs. Data-Driven Decision-Making: Some Rough Ideas supports Sutton’s view “that intuition and analysis are not opposing perspectives, but tag team partners that, under the best conditions, where hunches are followed and then evaluated with evidence…” My world of statistical design of experiments is data driven, of course. However, the big breakthroughs in process and product improvement often come from subject-matter experts who come up with a brilliant hunch that pans out. The classic book on DOE Statistics for Experimenters, co-authored by Bill Hunter (the father of John Hunter who is the ring-master for this carnival of blogs), begins with a wonderful treatise on induction versus deduction that I recommend to all experimenters.

I would be remiss not to provide a heads up to the elephant in the room at the Work Matters blog: Sutton devotes many of his posts to the bad behavior of bosses – a bugaboo for me too. The difference is that I keep my expletive (***hole!!!) private, whereas Sutton is brave enough to shout it out. Most of you may find this scintillating, but those who consider prim to be professional: Be forewarned about some rough language. One of the tamer and thought-provoking posts (29 comments) is the October 18th one asking Do You Learn More from Working for a Bad Boss than a Good Boss? Another post that takes the high road came on December 22 (just the other day) relating The Boss’s Journey: The Path to Simplicity and Competence. Being of a certain age (not far from Bob’s) I had to chuckle at his story of a student who disrespected managers until becoming the boss of a small product development team made him realize how hard this role can be.

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Pushing the limits on alcohol levels for holiday cheer – higher the better (?)

Just in time for holiday gift-givers to the guy who already owns everything, Boston Beer Company (BBC) — brewer of Sam Adams lager — announced this year that they’d achieved new heights for alcohol content – over 25 percent by volume.  Alcohol levels traditionally have been capped at the 14% level due to natural limits of the yeast that drive fermentation.  However, the beer boffins at BBC applied their wits to the zymurgy and came up with “Utopia,” which can be purchased at $599.99 a mini-kettle via this internet purveyor (warning: it’s banned in 13 states!).   Otherwise you can await the next batch of ten thousand bottles or so of this potent beer to emerge in two years from the 15-year aging cycle.*

Perhaps this holiday season you may restrict yourself to tamer drinks than high-alcohol beer, such as the traditional eggnog — a “sweetened dairy-based beverage made with milk, cream, sugar, beaten eggs (which gives it a frothy texture), and flavored with ground cinnamon” (according to Wikipedia).  However, my plans to pick up our annual eggnog after Thanksgiving were dashed after listening to a recent radio broadcast of NPR’s Science Friday by Ira Flatow.  They warned about people (like me) risking salmonella-induced food poisoning by milking their ‘nog clear through Christmas.  The show posted this video reporting results from microbiologist Vince Fischetti on his challenge tests** in a lab at the Rockefeller University (RU).  I’ve seen these at food clients of Stat-Ease and they gross me out, so I know the end result of dosing up a dairy product with spoilage organisms and pathogens cannot be pretty.  Fischetti compared the results after one month of storing a spiked eggnog made by a traditional RU recipe (equal parts bourbon and rum to a 20 % alcohol level) versus one purchased commercially (no alcohol).  See the outcome by watching the video – it may encourage you to keep a bottle of spirits on hand.  (I’ve got a supply of tequila – just in case.)  Being a devotee of DOE, I must say that Fischetti’s findings appear to be based only on sample-size 1.  But to his credit, he expresses the desire for grant money leading to more definitive studies.

So whether you hoist a beer or a ‘cheered-up’ glass of eggnog to give your seasonal salute to your friends and family, here’s hoping you all a happy holiday!

*Source for news about high-alcohol beer: 11/30/09 article by Russell Contreras of the Associated Press, seen here as published by the Huffington Post.

** For all the gory details see this posting of Microbiological Challenge Testing by the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT).  The “Phoenix” phenomenon is particularly worrying (lethal bugs rising from the ashes of sterilization).

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The State of happiness

Those of you American citizens who (like me) enjoy our unalienable pursuit of happiness should see where your home State ranks in this list presented by economists Andrew Oswald and Stephen Wu.

Our local newspaper headlined this report with the suggestion that we Minnesotans “try living in a sunnier State.”  I have a hard time arguing with moving to Hawaii or Florida – both near the top the Oswald-Wu list.  Louisiana (#1) is a good choice too, I think, despite the setback of Hurricane Katrina.  I spent time there and in the neighboring State of Mississippi (#7) last March – a great time to get out of Minnesota (#26).  However, I really do enjoy our winters here in the northernmost part of the lower 48.  At this time of the year our sun sits nearly at its lowest point (Winter solstice being mid-day tomorrow), which makes any rays one can catch all the more dear.

This morning a little Canadian ‘clipper’ topped off our existing blanket of snow with another inch of sun-sparkled crystals.  It was good to be outdoors walking the dog through our little “Sunwood” park of evergreens again after taking a little break on our daily strolls last week due to the bitter cold.  Maybe it was just as well we stayed home because a cougar came through our neighborhood (called “Croixwood”) as evidenced by the huge paw print pictured here .  The cougar was last sighted in Wisconsin.  My guess is that this cat is headed for Florida. =^.^=

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A journal title that caught my eye today

While reading over the table of contents of the Journal of Agricultural, Biological, and Environmental Statistics that came in the mail today, I came across this intriguing title: “A Graphical Method for Dating Chicks Using Bivariate Body Measurements.”  How you interpret “dating” makes all the difference!

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Atlantic claws coming to town this Christmas

Atlantic crab I came across this unusually bold crab a few weeks ago while beach-walking in Florida.

Perhaps the size of this creature is explained by findings of marine geologist Justin Ries of the University of North Carolina, who reports that rising levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide may lead to larger crabs, shrimp and lobsters.

See a summary of Ries’s research and a picture of a monster lobster in this post by NPR.   Wow, these exoskeletoned creatures really like carbon!

PS. All this talk of large lobsters reminds me of an illustration of evolutionary operation (EVOP) by Box and Draper.*  Their process improvement method calls an ongoing series of two-level factorial designs that illuminate a path to more desirable manufacturing conditions.  I will talk more about this in a future blog.

*Box, G. E. P. and N. R. Draper, Evolutionary Operation, Wiley New York, 1969.  (Wiley Classics Library, paperback edition, 1998.)

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STEM grads leaking outside their field

The latest issue (12/5/09) of Science News introduced me to the acronym “STEM,” which stands for science, technology, engineering and math.  (I presume that statisticians fall under the last field.)  They published an alarming graph* showing that less than half of all STEM grads remain in their field beyond three years.

“Highly qualified students may be choosing a non-STEM job because these other occupations are higher paying, offer better career prospects such as advancement, employment stability, and/or prestige…”

— B. Lindsay Lowell, Hal Salzman, Hamutal Bernstein, with Everett Henderson

Stat-Ease specializes in design of experiments (DOE) for industrial research.  Therefore, the more who stay with STEM the better, so far as I’m concerned.   However, I plead guilty to going for the money by pursuing a master’s degree in business administration.  This led to me being promoted out of my chemical engineering job in R&D to a position as product manager.  My business partner Pat Whitcomb went for a master’s in chemical engineering, thus sticking with STEM.  He and I enjoy ribbing each other about our diverging paths, but it turned out to be very synergistic having these complementary mindsets (technical versus business).  I figure that in high-tech companies like ours, it can’t hurt to have managers with a STEM degree, at least undergraduate, thus it may not be worth trying to stem this tide.

*See Figure 4 from this October 2009 report on three generations of students by researchers (quoted above) from Georgetown, Rutgers and The Urban Institute.

PS. The STEM Education Coalition co-chaired by the American Chemical Society (ACS) and the National Science Teachers Association works to maintain the USA’s edge in technology – primarily via K-12 education..  The American Statistical Association (ASA) is a participating organization along with dozens of others in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math.

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