Saturday, June 20, 2009

The Broken Chain of Responsibility

Disclaimer: this post contains a rather long description of an experience I had, paving the way for its moral in the detailed, perhaps over-detailed storytelling my friends are used to. So, if you wish to be a friend of mine, enduring this is a good start!

Our story begins at an advanced driving course I received as a birthday present from my dear friends...

I'm a fool for fast cars, and after having almost 8 years of farfegnugen with my VW Golf GTI MkIV, I think I have accumulated enough foolishness to go through such a course. I thought it was great to break some myths and learn what is the optimal way to act in some driving scenarios (which is why I think every new driver should go through this course after getting a permit. Heck, I think it should be part of the standard driving lessons!).

During this course, one of the experienced guides checked my tires and noticed that there was something wrong with my front tires: these tires have a specific rotation direction, but for some reason they were mounted incorrectly. In the same breath he joked about my car being optimally tuned for "extreme reverse-driving", the guide explained that besides causing accelerated wear & tear this setup is a bit dangerous in wet conditions, since the tire grooves do not channel the water efficiently. Luckily, the winter was already behind me, but I contacted my garage the next day to get it fixed.

I arrived at the garage, the central VW-licensed garage which I usually maintain my car at, to meet with my "service consultant" (note: this big garage, hosted within a big VW showroom, has a fa├žade consisting of several front-desk girls and so-called "service consultants" to hide all the greasy and dirty environment of the actual garage). Like always, my service consultant was very professional and from looking at the log of my latest visits he pointed out that the front wheels could have exchanged sides in my last visit (which was related to a mechanical gear failure).

From that moment, the plot thickens (into the creamy core of this story).

In this garage, my perspective of things comes down to 3 little points:
  1. I tell my consultant where my car is parked and give him the key.
  2. He takes care of stuff that needs to be done.
  3. When my car is ready, one of the girls in the front desk tells me it's ready, gives me my key and tells me where my car is parked.
Since the front-desk girls and my service consultant is all I see, this should be a pretty wide perspective! I thought to myself that exchanging two wheels should not take too much time (and my consultant confirmed it), so I sat down in the waiting room to have a cookie and watch some TV. A cookie crumbled and another crumbled, and raising my head a bit I could see the parking where I left my car at, still occupied... with my car! I waited a bit more and streching my neck again I finally saw someone taking my car inside the garage.

I smiled to myself and thought, "yep! the wheels are moving!". I waited and waited, and after a while (which seemed like 10 whiles rather than a while) I approached the front desk and inquired the status on my car. The girl said she will check, and tried to contact my consultant on the walkie-talkie. He was probably busy, so she could not reach him.

I took the liberty of entering the "real" garage, to see where's my car and how it is doing. I entered through the back and searched for my car. It took me a couple of seconds to realize my car is not an aircraft and is simply sitting comfortably on the lift when I spotted it, but to my disappointment I noticed that the wheels were still not fixed. I began looking for the consultant myself, and after finally finding him I asked him to see what's going on - to check why no one is doing anything to my car. He said he will check it so I went back to the waiting room and had another cookie.

After another couple of whiles I wanted to see why no one has notified me that my car is ready. I skipped the front desk and went straight to my aircraft lifted car. It was in the exact state it was the last time I saw it (perhaps a bit rustier, it was a humid climate that time of year!). I went about looking for my consultant again, and just before giving up and crawling back to the waiting room for another cookie, I heard him call me across the hall separating the showroom and the garage.

As you may or may not know, a wheel is assembled to a car using several big hex screws. Well, in order to protect the wheels from a stray thief (or even a well-planned one), one of the screws is a coded shape which has tens of possibilities, and each set of screws comes with an adapter to enable the owner of the car or anyone working on his car for him to be able to unscrew it. When my consultant called me, he said the mechanics could not find the adapter for my screws, so they began trying all the possible adapters until they find the right one...

I was pretty flabbergasted that the mechanics opted for the brute-force solution, when they could have simply called me, and I would have told them where my adapter is! I gave my adapter to the consultant, and he told me he will give it to the mechanics so that they could finish the job quickly. I went back to the endless cookie supply and watched some more TV.

Waiting for what was hoped to be the final phase in the auto-complexified auto-mobile problem, I began thinking about what lead to these seemingly unexplained latencies. I realized I would have a better inspiration if I'd do that in the garage itself, so I can see how it is being managed.

My productive thoughts were cut off as I entered the garage, seeing that my car was off the lift with its tires now correctly in place. That sight could have easily released a sigh out of me, if it wasn't for two reasons: My car was still there (and not in the outer parking, waiting for me) and it was blocked by another car. I felt my internal-combustion engine starting, so I looked for my consultant for some explanation.

When I finally found him, I told him I knew he is not the garage manager, but he should know that something is seriously wrong with the way things are handled around here. I could have used a manual jack to lift the car myself and exchange the wheels with my wrench, burning enough calories to compensate for cookies I wouldn't need to eat in the first place! I explained I don't know who I am waiting for, and that the only thing separating me from my car is another car. He left what he was doing, and looked for someone to do something.

After one last while (which had to take place for my complementary carwash to complete) the front-desk girl called me and said my car is ready. That's about 2½ hours and 4-5 cookies after I handed over my keys. One of the most important things reviewed in the advanced driving course I've had is the concentration on the road and the factors reducing it - lead by thoughts. Not just casual thoughts, but deep, profound thoughts. So I kept my mind on the road and went back home.

I resumed thinking about how my time was left for good in that garage, and expanded my analysis to a higher resolution one:
  1. I tell my consultant where my car is parked and give him the key.
  2. Someone takes the keys from him and drives my car inside the garage, on a lift.
  3. Someone lifts the car.
  4. Someone disassembles the wheels.
  5. Someone re-assembles the wheels (correctly, this time).
  6. Someone parks another car in front of my car.
  7. Someone lowers the car.
  8. Someone moves the blocking car.
  9. Someone takes my car back to the outer parking.
  10. One of the girls in the front desk tells me it's ready, gives me my key and tells me where my car is parked.
What went wrong? Did simple task of exchanging a car's front wheels became a relatively complex operation? In fact, it always was complex. I think that many things we find simple, like a microwave oven or a bicycle are in fact very complex. There wouldn't be doctorates in chemistry and physics if they weren't! We only see these things as simple because they work.

All these complex things are simplified with the help of causality - the deterministic cause and effect of all the steps in any kind of process guarantees its straightforwardness. Electricity creates microwaves, microwaves moves molecules, moving molecules release heat, food is hot. Brain sends electricity down some nerves, nerves control muscles and feedback data about balance, muscles create kinetic force on pedals, bicycle chain transfer force to the back wheel, back wheel transfers force to the road, the road reacts with friction, bicycle moves.

In these "simple" processes, each cause and effect was linked together in a chain - the effect caused by a single action was the cause of the next, and so forth. In the garage, it seemed that each step was done by someone else - which makes the chain in this case a chain of responsibility. If someone finishes his part, he should notify the next person in the chain. That obviously didn't happen in the garage, at least not in a timely manner.

I guess that in such a big garage many workers have specific skills and responsibilities. So each worker does his special part, all across the garage. But is that efficient? If all the workers do something at any given moment (except for breaks), it would seem that it is efficient! But if getting more cars fixed in the end of the day means getting more customers waiting more time, I'm not sure it's worth it. I'm sure a disgruntled customer like I was would go to a smaller garage the next time something happens to his car.

So we have a garage which is presumably efficient internally (assuming that all workers are not idle) but keeps customers waiting (and eating cookies!). How can such a garage be efficient while minimizing the time the customer needs to wait? For starters, each worker should notify the next worker he can continue. If his scope is limited, he should notify some sort of central coordinator - such as the service consultant, or a garage manager.

It turns out that in order to create an efficient chain of responsibility, the garage needs a strong and efficient overlooker. But is this really necessary in a garage? Does it really take so many workers to exchange two wheels? If a single person would have done all the steps needed to exchange my car's front wheels, one-by-one, I would be out of there in no-time! It might take more training, but I'm sure it will eventually pay up and leave no one lost in the broken chain of responsibility.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Introduction: My First Post

Welcome to my blog!

I've started this blog in order to share my thoughts and observations on life & technology. I usually share these ideas with those close to me, but each one of them has their own interests, reflections and passions (especially my dog, Kimba). Therefore, this is my attempt in reaching out to a larger audience, hoping that anyone reading my writing will enjoy it and possibly learn something new.

I appreciate technology in various fields, and I am curious about both its origins and effect in our life. Sometimes it could be related to a prominent part of my life, like vacuum cleaner technology (I love my Dyson vacuum cleaner to the point I simply enjoy using it). However, sometimes it will be related to something I'd rather distance myself from - like advancements in nuclear weapons production methods, or a breakthrough new super-absorbing mop material. I mean, why wet the floor if you're going to dry it right away?

A little bit about myself: I value efficiency, co-operation and kindness and strive to spread those values everywhere I go. "Efficiency" does not necessarily mean I unplug all electrical appliances when I go for a walk in the park for the sake of keeping the standby circuitry and LEDs off the power grid, but more of a sense of balance between my needs, my desires and the various costs associated with it: monetary, personal or environmental.

I didn't write much about me in my profile on purpose - I think my writings will tell more about me then I can say directly with words - and I believe that for anyone who wishes to get to know me, it will be a good incentive to stick around and read! I encourage everybody to comment with their own opinions, suggestions and questions - I will try to answer everything to the best of my knowledge, research skills and free time.

Hopefully, you will all enjoy this as much as I will!
:-)