Reality Models and The New Science of Fixing Things

by John Allen z-STRATEGIES

It felt like a knife to the hip, being twisted when I moved. What a start to the year! My hip was so painful that I couldn’t walk. When I got to the hospital, I found myself in a wheelchair. Nothing I could think of set it off. I didn’t fall on the ice or hurt it running. I hoped this was not a precursor of things to come as I aged.

I was lucky to get an appointment the day after it flared up, not suffering for days in bed, drugged, waiting, and starving, as I lived alone. The doctor asked a few questions, and watched me try to move around. He thought I might have a ruptured femur, or possibly nerve damage. That sounded dreadful. It was so painful he gave me a prescription for a strong painkiller, and sent me to the head of the line at the hospital for an x-ray. After the x-ray, I went home, and waited. I took a painkiller. Then I took another. It hurt just as much, but after the second painkiller, I didn’t seem to care. It looked as if pain killers would be my only thrill on New Years Eve, however I liked the feeling, probably too much, and stopped taking them. So far, I was on the hook for a doctor visit, x-ray plus the drugs I won’t enjoy. It was the end of December and I had not yet exceeded the $5000 insurance deductible but looked as if I soon would.

A technician at the medical office called the next day reporting negative results on the x-ray.

I asked what that meant. “Negative for what? Is there nothing wrong or just that they failed to find something?”

There is a big difference. I asked her if the doctor had seen the x-rays. No, they got the results from someone at the hospital and she was conveying the message. But what was the message?

That’s not the approach that gets The New Science of Fixing Things to a causal explanation for tough technical problems. It’s what people do who are in a hurry to move on to the next patient or project. As I asked questions, it was clear she wanted to get off the phone. She didn’t like talking to me. I put the phone down, adjusted the pillows and surfed through channels.

I was more confused after she called than before, and returned to the doctor the next day, seeing a different doctor, not by choice but by the luck of the draw. She watched me moan as I got onto the examination table, then, like the previous doctor, checked my pulse, heart rate and blood pressure then listened to my heart and lungs. Why? What about my hip? She sent me back to the hospital, this time for an MRI. These are expensive. Now I was certain I would go over the deductible if I can get the MRI that day, instead of the following week, a new year, working off a new deductible. This doctor gave me a prescription for some kind of a steroid for the inflammation and warned me to be careful. You can get depressed or violent from these and they can cause ulcers. Great. I can trade a painful hip for a risk of suicide. At this point, it was so painful, I was afraid I wasn’t going to die, so I took them anyway.

Getting into the MRI machine was ugly. I had to strip my jeans off, and needed help that I hated asking for. You can’t wear any metal into an MRI machine. I guess its like putting foil into the microwave. I didn’t relish the thought of my zipper sparking away. I put on a pair of one-size-fits-nobody hospital pants. The MRI operator asked me if I had any tattoos. No, I don’t. My son, Sam, who was pushing me around in wheel chair, told me that tattoo ink is metal based, and they think, a heat sink for the magnetic flux.

Wow! I thought of all the people with tattoos who can’t get an MRI. Sam then said, that the guys on Myth Busters showed this to be, well, busted. The MRI operator argued with Sam over the Myth Buster results. I trusted Myth Busters; easy for me, as I had no tattoos. It did not fit the MRI operators’ reality model, of course, for she had learned about the consequences of tattoos in a training class, not on Myth Busters on the Discovery Channel, as Sam had. It would be nice to talk to someone all inked up who had been in an MRI machine. That would settle it. I began to think of my own experience in breaking models learned in classrooms, then fixed by testing and experimentation.

I couldn’t put any weight on my hip nor straighten my leg even when prone, but once you get into an MRI machine, you just have to suck it up for thirty minutes. I wished I had the painkillers, not only for the pain in my hip, but so I could ignore the extra yard or so of hospital pants bunched under my backside. Finally, it was over, and I was conveyed out as if it were a heat treat oven. What a helpless feeling. It was Friday, New Years Eve, and I knew I wouldn’t hear anything until Monday. I also knew I wouldn’t get to go to the party I had been looking forward to.

I laid around most of the weekend, reading and moaning, but no one to hear my complaining and offer sympathy. I finished When China Rules the World, 500 pages of fear mongering, then read a thriller.

My business partner and friend, David, had given me a copy of The Logic of Failure for Christmas, so I cracked it open, even though I was in so much pain, despite the drugs, that I had trouble concentrating on a thriller, never mind a technical book.

Given the title, I thought it was going to be about reliability engineering; there is even a picture of a train wreck on the cover, and was written by a German, Dietrich Dorner with an umlaut over the O.

David received a copy for a presentation he was asked to deliver at The International Reliability Symposium hosted by Philips Electronics in Europe. Not surprisingly, his was voted the best presentation.

Rather than a book about reliability engineering, it is a story about the way we think when under pressure to fix things, how we delude ourselves, inhibiting our ability to get effective and timely proper answers, and steer selves toward a so-called solution we want because it is convenient, or think others want, often suffering catastrophic unintended consequences, many of which should have been obvious. Since lawyers only see things in hindsight, they have a field day portraying those of us under pressure to fix things as greedy, incompetent, deadly and even Republican.

We read about it in the paper all the time. Those who we elect to public office and those who appoint themselves to lead countries and companies offer endless examples of delusional thinking and ignorance when it comes to unintended consequences.

At The New Science of Fixing Things, we are good at getting the right answers to tough technical problems and avoiding the trap of self-delusion, a trap we see others fall into, and, for the most part, know how to avoid. But what is that trap and how can you see it quickly, as we see other unwittingly fall in? How have we been able to solve so many tough problems when others could not, and do it so fast by avoiding the trap? Clients hire us to teach them to do what we do, and want to do it as fast. What we really teach is a model for developing a strategy, asking a careful series of the right questions, executing on a tactical level to get answers, and converging on a causal explanation, with answers to fit.

I argue the principle barrier to most problem solvers is a flawed reality model. Getting the reality model right is key to avoiding the trap. All this stuff about “change” is easier than you think, because the only thing you need to change is your mind; change the model in your head and you have a chance to change what is in front of you, to change what you do, and to keep it simple. At the end of the day, all you can really change is what you choose to do and how you go about it. To do so, you need to have the right model. If you think you need cultural change then you are missing the point. Cultural change is difficult. It takes an entire company. Changing your thinking model isn’t so hard. You can do it yourself, but it does take a bit of practice.

7 Functions Connect 3 Properties

I had The Discovery Channel on the TV in the background. I forget the context and the program, but made a note when the narrator said, “You only get two things in science: models and data.” I thought it a unique and quite useful way of stating what has become obvious to us. It was worth having a think about it.

Most people favor data and skip the model, collecting data without a proper model, or developing a model to fit the data after the fact. For speed and efficient problem solving, the reality model has to be collecting data has to be constrained by a proper model. For the performance and reliability work we do, we can now tell you the proper model if you tell us the problem. You see, the good news is, there are only a few.

Perhaps those under pressure for answers have a model in their head, but never question it, never test to see if it is the right one for the task at hand. Data is easy to work with. So are models, once you know how. A proper model will keep you on track. The absence of a model means you have no track and are wandering aimlessly, brainstorming and guessing your next move.

How often have you heard, “We are a data-driven company?” What good is the data if the model is wrong?

I made a note that the Discovery Channel narrator said nothing about tools. A big bag of tools is useless if you start with a flawed model. Lots of consulting companies brag about the size of their tools and tool bags. Tools don’t matter. Tools are for executing tactics. Model-based strategy, tactics that are in phase, and simple tools properly applied is the key to effective technical problem solving leading to better and better product performance and reliability.

Are models a function of the way we think? Or, is the way we think a function of the model? I submit the model is a guide to thinking, and that our thinking is a function of the model. Your reality model drives your thinking, flawed or not. You need to be clever enough to test your reality model, and alter it based on what is happening.

I know we are not so much smarter than others but I know we have the ability to figure things out at The New Science of Fixing Things those even smarter cannot. I admit that we are clever, which is a learned skill and a function of practice, but we have been solving tough problems longer than anyone else I know of. We are still getting better, and having more fun. And, we know what it takes, and can teach it. It starts with getting the model right. Our Analytic Logic Map is a guide to getting the starting model right, and our 7 x 3 Model a guide to keeping us on track.

Logic map

I have learned over the years that the models many use are like those pants I wore in the MRI machine; one-size-fits-nobody. Each model has a place, of course, but, like the MRI pants, it cannot be so big as to fit every case. Yes, there is a person whom the pants might fit. The irony is that that person won’t fit into the MRI machine.

At The New Science of Fixing Things, our Analytic Logic Map demonstrates that we recognize the importance of proper models. We dedicate time to teach the Logic Map in our classes, and write extensively about it. We study the history of great thinkers to see if we are consistent with what they teach. We really do work at it, ask ourselves a lot of questions, then check what we have written to include the lessons we keep learning, and teach them in our Workshops.

We know it is important to effectively select from and between deterministic, structural and probabilistic models to decompose the behavior of machines to improve performance and reliability. The key is to know how to use these models, and not exclude one because you favor another.

We know how to select, build and extend those models so we end up collecting far less data than others. We know the difference between information and data. We know how important it is to pose good questions, why each question we ask really sets the strategy to learn one thing about the nature of failure, to converge on a causal explanation instead of trying to name the root cause. You see, the question IS the strategy. We know how important it is to gain new knowledge about How Stuff Really Works, because new knowledge is the key to competitive advantage. We know how to be wrong and learn new things in spite of it, and we know that it is OK to be off track, if you are off only by one step. If you are off track by one step with the proper reality model you will quickly find out and get back on track. Without the model, one false step and you can end up in a death spiral.

We understand that most problems are solved without teams and committees, by people we hire to operate our factories, develop our new products and make sure the ones we make work properly. For the most part, they work alone, and the decisions they make to fix things are based on experience, thus “case-based” reasoning, being able to read the symptoms. Case-based, or experienced based problem solving is the Symptomatic branch on the Analytic Logic Map, based on, “been there, done that, seen it before and this will fix it.” It gets fixed, and we move on.

What should we do if a problem is outside the scope of our experience, if we have not seen it before, or even if two people have different ideas about what to do? We can defend our answer, refuse to adjust our reality model, and keep trying, which really amounts to nothing more than guessing. There is a test for when to shift from Symptomatic to Topographic. If, when asked, “What’s wrong?” you are honest enough to answer, “I don’t know,” then you need to develop new knowledge following the Topographic branch of the Analytic Logic map. Those with rudimentary skills and flawed models will usually guess, brainstorm and get nowhere.

We make a conscious decision to shift from a Symptomatic to a Topographic approach. If symptomatic is case-based reasoning, then Topographic is model based. Once we know we need to change to Topographic, or model based, then we need to know if the nature of the problem will best be revealed using Probabilistic, Structural, or Functional Determinism, based on first principles.

We have often been asked, “How can you solve tough problems so fast?” Twenty years ago, I thought the answer was tools, tools and more tools, many of them claimed as proprietary by companies whose objective was to extend the list of tools to give you more choices and ways to collect data. I was wrong, and so were the tool peddlers. Data collection is not the answer, nor are quality tools. It really is the models that matter, and the ability to pose questions to learn one new thing fast, at least one new thing each day to converge on a causal explanation, far different and more powerful than a root cause.

Part of the answer as to why we can find answers when other cannot might be in The Logic of Failure, which is likely why David gave me the book.

In a section sub-titled, Ignorance and Mistaken Hypotheses, Dorner writes, “An individuals reality model can be right or wrong, complete or incomplete, and one would do well to keep that probability in mind…People are inclined to insist they are right when they are wrong and when they are beset by uncertainly. It even happens when people prefer their incorrect hypothesis to correct ones and will fight tooth and nail rather than abandon an idea that is demonstrably false.”

Guilty as charged! I admit I have done it. Have you? I also admit that I don’t any more. (At least when it comes to fixing things.) There is a better way.

What Dorner calls a reality model seems like a non-reality model. How do you know when your reality model is not? Do we all do it, some more often than others? Maybe those of us who are smart, kind, and have plenty of good sense don’t fall into the trap. People like David and me and the clients of the New Science of Fixing Things. Maybe it is only the people in one political party with a flawed reality model, and not the other. It is certain that each claims to have more good sense than the others.

I made it to a chair in the living room with a hot tea, and picked up A Discourse on the Method by Rene Descartes. I had a page marked which I re-read. Descartes wrote, “Good sense is the most evenly distributed thing in the world, for everyone believes himself to be so well provided with it that even those who are the hardest to please in every other way do not usually want more of it than they already have. Nor is it likely that everyone is wrong about this; rather what this shows is that power of judging correctly and distinguishing the true from the false is naturally equal in all men, and consequently the diversity of our opinions arises not from the fact that some of us are more reasonable than others, but solely that we have different ways of directing our thoughts and do not take into account the same things. For it is not enough to posses a good mind, the important thing is to apply it correctly. The greatest minds are capable of the greatest vices as well as the greatest virtues. Those who go forward but very slowly can get further if they always follow the right road than those who are always in a hurry but stray off.”

This reminded me of what Barbara, my ex-wife and now close friend once said to me, “How can a man as smart as you sometimes be so stupid?” I just shrugged.

I scribbled more notes. Dorner says our reality models are not real. Descartes says we don’t have the sense to know it. He also says that you cannot be in a hurry. That idea won’t sell today. We are in such a hurry that we have to learn to multi-task. What to do?

Their is little doubt that our ability to do science has improved immeasurable since we discovered the Earth is not the center of the universe. On the other hand, I don’t think we have improved our ability to reason at all in the 400 years since Descartes. I might argue that it has degraded, but I am not sure I could find anyone to take the opposing side of the arguement. We elect people who think they are brilliant thinkers who clearly don’t read history books. We continue to look for ways to avoid the unavoidable. We want to fix things fast, but we won’t look at our own behavior, the biggest impediment, because we think we possess all the good sense we need. We can’t concentrate because we live in a world of distractions. Yes, in science you only get models and data. Collecting data with one size fits all models (like the hospital pants) will only work in unique situations. Complex situations require simple but rigorous and appropriate models, but we see the opposite happening; complex situations with more complex models.

Dorner writes, “Contradictory goals are the rule, not the exception, in complex situations.” It seems he agrees with Descartes in that if you get better results if you have a sound strategy. We know how to work within the constraints of sound strategy at The New Science of Fixing Things. We depend on engineering discipline, rigorous models, and dedication to learning how to make the broad reach of Functional Determinism open the world of machine performance, and learning to work in what you will come to know as the Effort-Flow Workspace to force certain products to reveal their nature. This is how we solve tough problems fast and improve performance and reliability.

On Monday, the doctor called. She said the MRI showed a ruptured disc and suggested physical therapy, a steroid shot to the hip, and a visit to a neurosurgeon for possible surgery. This is getting expensive, with my high deductible and 20% liability. Nor do I have disability insurance. I can’t take the time off unless there is no choice. I don’t like where this is going, and resign myself to a long recovery. She also said that if the pain gets bad, I should go to the emergency room for treatment. I told her that it is too expensive. She then said I could wait until the pain was so bad that I didn’t care how much it costs.

A few friends visited and listened to my tale of woe. They shared their experience, and several told me exactly what they thought I should do. They seemed to have their own unquestioned reality models, which were not the same as the doctor. And each was convinced they had plenty of good sense and I should listen. One suggested a chiropractor. One said I should be resigned to surgery. Another acupuncture. Another said yoga. This seemed a bit frightening, at first. Is my reality model one of shots, pills and surgery so powerful it precludes investigation of alternatives? I decided to try the chiropractor, maybe because it was cheap and I could get an appointment right away. I was unsure, but in pain. As I needed to do something I was willing to do anything, so I went.

I still couldn’t walk, but somehow found myself on his table. He asked about the hospital diagnosis, then asked me to raise my right leg. It hurt (8 on the 1 – 10 scale) but I did manage to raise my leg.

“If you had a ruptured disc,” he said, “you couldn’t lift your leg.” “If it isn’t a disc, then what is it?” I asked.

“I don’t know, but I can figure it out.”

That was encouraging. After some painful testing, twisting and turning, and another x-ray, he told me that the problem was not my lower back, but my neck. I was in doubt. My neck seemed fine. He asked if I had ever had trauma to my neck or head. I recalled a motorcycle accident I survived only because of a helmet, and an explosion that left me in a heap and nearly deaf in my left ear. “No matter” he said, “that these were over 40 years ago.” He then said, as closely as I can quote, “When you were injured, your balance was thrown off at your neck. Your brain compensated at the lower part of your spine, and eventually your spine got used to not being properly shaped.

He figured out by detailed measurements that my head was leaning to the right about an inch and was too far forward about ¾ inch. My right shoulder was too low, my right hip about an inch forward the left, and when I stood at attention, my right foot forward of the left by two inches. I had not felt this awkward since I was 15 years old, shot up to 6’2” tall in the course of a few months, weighed 135 pounds and my pants were all too short.

He said my geometric shape was the problem. The rest were symptoms. Surgery might fix the pain, but it would return unless we fixed the problem. Calcium build-up and scar tissue in my neck and spine from lack of movement also inhibited the ability of my spine to dissipate energy from any sort of a shock at all. He told me to quit spending so much time in front of a computer. I wondered at the consequences of being trapped in airplanes more than 100 times a year for 15- 20 years. I’m glad that’s over.

“The loss of compliance in your spine is why you have no idea what set this off. It might have just been stepping off a curb. Your spine has high impedance.” Loss of compliance and high impedance in my spine? That was his terminology and I loved it, as I understood it! I then learned he was an electrical engineer before he became a chiropractor. He went on to say that the pain in my hip and leg was because the muscles had gone into spasm, which had happened before, in an attempt to line things up after some sort of shock to the system.

I felt we were getting somewhere. He was working within my reality model. It all made sense.

He asked if the medical doctor had examined me. Of course, I said. He asked again. “Were you examined, or did the doctor just look at the x-rays and MRI?” Now I understood. The doctor looked at the data, or had someone else do it, and did not really examine me. The doctors were looking for a root cause, not a causal explanation, using a model that I did not question. The doctor wanted to find the cause of the pain. I wanted to fix this chronic and recurring problem. I needed a causal explanation, just like we do at The New Science of Fixing Things.

I asked the chiropractor about the bulged disc. It is easy to see on the MRI and the x-ray. He said it is bulging, but that in a man my age, 60% of bulging discs cause no pain. Often, he said, surgery fixes a bulging disc that is not the source of pain. Even if it were the disc, it is only a symptom. The source is balance and alignment, and the inability of my spine to dissipate energy.

If the surgery had been done, and the disc was the root of the pain then I guess we could say it was the root cause. What the chiropractor provided, at least I think he did, was a causal explanation. His investigation was not limited to my hip and lower back. He went well beyond the conventional limits.

It was enough for me to invest two one-hour visits per day for rehab for a month. It’s working; no surgery, pain free for a couple of years. And now, I do yoga at Sterling Hot Yoga to keep it that way.

To talk to The New Science of Fixing Things about product performance and reliability,


  • Blaine Lorimer:

    11 May 2015 16:52:09

    Mr. Allen,

    Bev Daniels recommended I contact you when we discussed consulting work at the world ASQ conference last week. I am a Navy officer with plans to retire in the next year. I already have 20 years in, so I may be moving on relatively quickly.

    I would like to work as a quality consultant with a firm that focuses on helping clients improve process performance. I sensed that many of the firms that were ready to hire quality professionals at the ASQ conference were really more concerned with helping companies to check the blocks for ISO compliance. Though compliance is important, I believe that it will tend to naturally fall out while establishing the appropriate performance improvements, and for many additional reasons this is better than approaching quality issues in the reverse order with compliance at the forefront. Ms. Daniels and I discussed this philosophy and I think this is why she thought to recommend you. Judging by your website, I can see why.

    Briefly, I am an Aerospace Engineering Duty Officer and have been doing program management and engineering work for the last decade. I fell into quality work with a good bit of skepticism initially, but now it has become my biggest passion. It started when I was working at an aviation MRO depot years ago as the production support officer. Ever since, I have been supervising black belt work in various jobs and am now providing contributions to the Navy’s Big Data Analytics Working Group.

    I am also pursuing a PhD in Industrial Engineering part-time via distance learning at the University of Central Florida under Dr. Ahmad Elshennawy (an author of numerous ASQ books to include the CQE Handbook). My research focuses on the analytic application of Shewhart control charts to a novel problem. I am a big fan of Dr. Shewhart and met with Dr. Donald Wheeler last week as he was gracious enough to review my proposed research plans.

    So this is more than enough about me for a brief intro. I’m not sure if you could use any assistance at TNSFT but if you’d like to talk, my number is 407-389-9960, or I’ll be happy to call you at a convenient time.

    Best Regards,

    Blaine Lorimer

  • Bosch Automotive
  • Chemtura Corporation
  • Cooper-Standard Automotive
  • Dana Corporation
  • Delphi Corporation
  • Ford Motor Company
  • GDX Automotive
  • Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company
  • Hyundai Motor Company
  • Idexx Laboratories Inc.
  • Logitech International S.A.
  • Metrologic Instruments Inc.
  • Praxair Inc.
  • Switec Microcomponents S.A.
  • The Timken Company
  • TI Automotive
  • TRW Automotive
  • United Technologies Corporation
  • Visteon Corporation