Saturday, 5 July 2008

Queue etiquette and us

Every time somebody jumps the queue in front of me here, I am forced to think, why only here? why doesn't this happen in the US or the UK, as much as it does here? Are people more ill mannered here? Do they lack basic courtesy?

Many of you would have tried reacting to the queue jumpers by telling them that they are supposed to wait. And you'd also have noticed that some people are quick to apologize and fall back, but some react indignantly as if you have encroached on one of their fundamental rights.

But, what exactly is the root-cause of this behavior? Believe me, it's not that people who jump queues have fundamental flaws in their character. I know people who are perfectly considerate of others in most situations, but then, react differently when put in a queue situation. I've had such people reproach me for waiting my turn, when others behind me were eagerly jumping the queue.

So, what exactly is the psychology behind this? I think it has a lot to do with conditioning. People are conditioned to think that if you don't fight for what you want, even if it means using unfair means, you won't get what you want. And every time someone succeeds in getting his way in such manner, the belief simply gets reinforced.

So, the next time you see someone jumping the queue, tell them politely that you are waiting ahead of him/her in the queue - this I'm sure most of us try to do.

But more importantly, next time you see someone jump the queue, talk to the person serving the queue; because if they serve someone who just jumped the queue ahead of someone else, they have just reinforced the belief that made him/her jump the queue in the first place.

Sunday, 1 June 2008

Does excess breed inefficiency?

Does excess breed inefficiency? If so, does scarcity breed efficiency?

The optimal state for a system is the state where the system produces the expected output without any wastage of resources. In engineering terms, the state of 100% efficiency.

Now, the estimation of the right amount of resource to allocate is a challenge with most systems. Particularly when you are dealing with systems that involve people. Practically, there are two ways of arriving at the optimal state when you are dealing with such systems where accurate estimation is not possible.
Route 1: You over-allocate a resource and gradually reduce the supply till you reach the optimum.
Route 2: You under-allocate and gradually increase the supply of the resource till you reach the optimum.

Which is the better way?
I feel, the latter holds more promise.

Here's why I think so:
Do we tend to use a resource irresponsibly/inefficiently when there is too much of it to use? Looking at a few daily-life observations, I must think, the the answer is yes - if I have a hundred rupees in my pocket when I am waiting for the bus on a normal day, I wouldn't think twice about calling for an autorikshaw. If I have just ten, I'd rather wait for the next bus. If there is no shortage of electricity, I'll probably not bother to switch of the fan when I walk out of a room for five minutes. If there is abundance of water supply, I may tend to be careless about it.
And, here's a really interesting observation I made while staying abroad, an average household in USA or UK seems to generate more waste in a day than an average household in India... why? one main reason I felt is that these countries have a much better waste management system (in other words, a surplus of waste management capacity) which people tend to over-use. The real reason behind all this may be subject of a deeper study - may be it's economics, maybe it's just human nature.

Okay, now if all that is true, then the converse must be true also. If the supply of a resource is restricted (naturally or artificially), then the efficiency of its use has to increase (bringing it closer to 100%). If so, this would be the easiest way to increase efficiency of any system where people are involved.

Applying the theory to time management - you should be able to get more done in your day if you restrict the time you allocate yourself for each of your tasks.

Applying to project management - you should be able to get more productivity out of your team, if you restrict the number of people in it.

Applying to waste management - restrict waste disposal systems, and you get a much cleaner (pun intended) waste management system. In fact this is something I've seen being tried out in parts of London - to my surprise I found no trash bins in sight after getting down at Liverpool Street, and had to dump my coffee cup in my laptop bag:). By the looks of it the ploy seemed to be working.

To summarize, I feel the better way to get a people-system closer to 100% efficiency is by under-allocating and then scaling up. (But of course there are situations where this may be too risky to do)

Comments welcome; author not responsible for any unwelcome consequences of applied theory:)

Saturday, 3 May 2008

George Bush, food crisis and the Indian middle class

Let me start with the news item that really pushed me into starting this blog - "George Bush blames it on the Indian middle class".

I was watching the news yesterday on a Malayalam Channel (Manorama), and interestingly, the exact words that came out George Bush's mouth were not played out. What the listeners were subjected to was the interpretation of what he said. And then reactions based on that interpretation. I had to wait to see today's newspaper (Hindu) to know actually what he said. While at the same time, many local dailies cried out indignant headlines on their front pages.

Let's look at exactly what George Bush said:

If you think about it, what Bush said does sound logical. Now, I am not saying it is completely correct. Macro-economics is a wild beast, there are more theories on its behavior than there are laws, so anything anybody says needs to be taken with that in mind. Most of the time, the best we get would be a theory that sounds logical.

I am no economist, but from what little economics I know, what Bush said is one such theory that makes logical sense. When demand increases, and supply does not increase proportionally, prices will increase. Whether demand for food has actually increased in India, and whether supply has failed to keep up, I do not know for sure, hopefully somebody will sooner or later come up with the numbers. But it is logical to assume it has, after all we have one of the fastest growing economies in Asia, and the fastest growing population in the world.

Of course, there are factors which George Bush has intentionally downplayed - like the bio-fuel angle; which may make his statement partially wrong. If you look up the wikipedia entry for world food crisis, there are ten factors listed, and "Impact of food for fuel" and "Change in global diet" are the first two. The fact is that no one knows for sure. There is no single reason, but there are many, behind the crisis we are facing now.

The point behind all I've written: there is no reason for Indian politicians and media to have reacted the way they have. They probably have their reasons.
If people are saying that we in India are eating better than we used to a year back, then we should be proud of the progress that we have made.

Comments welcome.