African Connection links are now in the sidebar to the right, just below the My Travel section.

Click here to see a La Crosse Tribune article about the mission in Uganda.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Producing Results

"Productivity" gets a lot of attention these days. Simply stated, productivity is how much we make with what we have. A business might look at total sales per employee, for example. The higher the result, the more productive the business.

As with most things deemed important to business, there has been a lot of research into this in recent years. However, the seminal work on this subject was carried out some time ago by two young graduate students, Phineas Taylor Barnum and James Anthony Bailey, at the Ralph Flugelschnauzer Institue of Industrial Engineering and Entomology. While Barnum and Bailey went on to ├ęclat in a related field, they are certainly best known for their insights into maximizing worker productivity.

Working in the Institute's Department of Flea Physiology and Psychology, they hit upon the idea of measuring how much each of a flea's legs contributes to the altitude achieved when it jumps. Previous work with a group of ten fleas showed that 2 inches was the normal jump height; additionally, it was observed that each of the ten fleas would, when they decided to jump, reach almost exactly this same level. So, Barnum and Bailey selected one of the fleas at random for their experiment, noting that the standard productivity of the fleas' legs, or their "leaping assets" as they called them, was 0.33 inches per leg, this being simply the result of dividing the assets' output - a 2 inch leap - by 6, the number of legs on the standard issue flea.

The experiment started with training the flea to jump on command. This took several days, as they took their candidate aside and repeatedly said, "JUMP!" while giving it a gentle nudge. When the flea was able to respond to the command every time, they began their work. They had the flea jump and measured the result. Not surprisingly, the flea jumped 2 inches, verifying the previously observed productivity rate of 0.33.

Since productivity is a ratio, it can be improved if the numerator is increased or the denominator is decreased. The researchers felt that it would be too much trouble to improve on the fleas's basic leaping abilities, so they decided to work on the latter by removing one of the flea's legs. They then issued the command, "JUMP!" Not surprisingly, with 5 legs the jump was a bit less, 1.9 inches to be exact. But this works out to a productivity ratio of 0.38, a significant improvement!

Their excitement could hardly be contained as they went on to the next step in the experiment: removing another of the flea's legs. "JUMP!" they commanded and the flea responded by achieving an altitude of 1.7 inches. Hardly paying attention to this decline in output, they hurriedly ran the numbers through their spreadsheet and found that the flea, now 4 legged, had become even more productive with the ratio soaring to a level of 0.43!

So it went. With 3 legs, the flea's output dropped to 1.4 inches with productivity rising to 0.47; at two legs, the jump was 1 inch, leading to a productivity ratio of 0.50.

This was just about too much for the excited researchers to bear. They were on the verge of discovering a plan that would revolutionize business in the years to come. With baited breath they commanded the now 1 legged flea to "JUMP!" The resulting leap of 0.55 inches brought the productivity to the unprecedented level of 0.55 inches per leg. So surprised were they at this result that they commanded the flea to jump again, this time measuring a leap of 0.54 inches. Once more and the flea leapt 0.53 inches and again for 0.51 inches. Clearly they had some noise in their measurements, but they were so close to achieving the ultimate in productivity that they decided they needed to press on and so removed the last of the flea's legs.

"JUMP!" they commanded. But the flea just lay there. "JUMP!" Nothing. They tried again, "JUMP!!!!" But there was no movement at all. Still, they entered their measurements, such as they were: 0 inches with 0 legs. The answer that came back was #DIV/0!

Not being able to process data from the last phase of their experimental program, they eliminated the results from the study and went on to write their final treatise on productivity, How Cutting the Legs out from Under Your Organization Can Improve Tomorrow's Numbers.

It should be noted that, in accordance with the interdisciplinary nature of the Flugelschnauzer Institute, the researchers also included a contribution to the field of flea physiology. Their conclusion? "When a flea loses all of it's legs, it becomes deaf."

But there is more to the story, although it has not heretofore been revealed. As Barnum and Bailey were running their experiments, the janitor building maintenance engineer would come through the lab and observe the goings on. He noticed that every time the scientists said "JUMP!" the nine other fleas not part of the experiment would also leap into the air. As the experiment wore on, they got plenty of excercise and began to jump higher and higher. When the final report was written and released, things got quiet in the lab and the maintenance engineer decided to try his own experiment. He got out the standard scale that was used to measure the flea's jumps in the primary experiment and shouted out, "JUMP!" Nine fleas accommodated him, each leaping into the air a distance of 3.4 inches. Not only was the output more than had ever before been observed, the average productivity of the fleas with their full compliment of legs was a staggering 0.57 inches per leg. Go figure.

Productivity is also important where I work and, of course, I am eager to contribute. Recently I've been busy upgrading one of my computer programs for use in new projects. This requires adding different features at the same time as the program is being used for the work at hand. Several times in the last few weeks, I've started the day dealing with programming conundrums, struggling through arcane code and various other obstacles. But, as it happens, I've had breakthroughs of sorts in the afternoons and have been able to leave work feeling pretty good about the progress.

As I look at the data associated with these events, I notice that the problems all seem to crop up in the morning and persist through to the early afternoon. Then, in fairly short order, things turn around and the issues get resolved.

How does this play into my own personal productivity? Well, as I've noted, the hours from 7:00 a.m. to about 3:00 p.m. are generally problem-laden. On the other hand, things go swimmingly from 3:00 to 5:00. My conclusion? Stay away from the office until 3:00, then put in two good hours and go home. The way I see it, my productivity would increase by at least a factor of 4. The logic MAY be flawed, but I am willing to run the experiment. Just in case.

Any similarity between the reports in this post and actual institutions, current or defunct, is not exactly unintended. But it is all in good fun.

And, I can personally verify that no actual fleas were harmed in the creation of this post.


Anonymous said...

Your conclusions leave me flea-tingly amazed!

Spiffer said...

Also, there was a recent experiment demonstarting that fruit flies prefer beer to sugar water.
we can learn a lot from our insect friends.