Friday, April 17, 2015

Tamper Tamper Tamper

Congratulations you've got the job. Nothing exciting but it'll help pay your bills while you put yourself through Marine Biology.

$16 an hour. Your job, tossing coins. It gets better, you're unionised so at the very least there's a collective agreement in place protecting you from a repetitive stress injury or carpal tunnel syndrome by restricting employers to one toss per employee per minute.

Good job right, no brainer, impossible to take home, and you get to stand around with a bunch of other employees at a similar stage in life or pursuing similar lifestyles and shoot the shit.

Let's head upstairs though, where the numbers get crunched and the bottom line watched. Here's their deal.

For every coin toss resulting in a head - the mysterious benefactor whose tender they won pays them $100. For every coin toss resulting in a tail they receive no revenue.

Some managers sit around looking at the data that comes through after the first quarter of the tender. They crunch the numbers and it turns out using their industry regulated fair coins the average revenue per toss turns out to be hovering around $50.

Now some truth about coin tossing. Turns out, the odds of coin tossing are quite predictable. Which is to say, 50:50 outcomes. I forget where I read it, but a POW once lacking other opportunities did actually empirically test it, in fact I found him right here. Law of large numbers.

Enter 'management' and inevitably tampering. Tampering is an important concept, a really important concept little discussed and little understood. Anywhere. But it nevertheless is a term, an actual term with a very short Wikipedia entry dedicated to it.

Except that page simple though it is, I feel makes it hard to appreciate. Hence our coin tossing job. Now imagine some manager comes in and tells you that anyone who achieves an average toss revenue of less than $60 will lose shifts. You'd be pretty stressed. Because there's actually no real way to game a coin toss. There's no way to bias a 2 sided object (dice yes, coins no) and most importantly there's nothing you can really do to produce the desired results.

Even without the threat of lost shifts and income, just consider the prospect of having a night where you achieved 53 heads in every hundred tosses and being pulled aside by a manager and asked to explain why your (literal) headcount is so low.

The answer is 'variability' it is in fact slightly improbable that it would be so high. Yet this is what tampering is. Furnishing a reason where there is none, because if you can explain your performance you can address it. Which by the way you can 'random chance', doesn't ensure but leaves it entirely possible that tomorrow you will produce the desired outcome. Over the long run of course you won't, nobody will, as the number gets larger you'll approach 50:50. And if management initiatives don't directly fuck up a process in the organisation they can indirectly fuck up the people carrying out those processes by stressing them out.

I feel though that it is an ironclad law of physics that tampering must result in long term detriment. That is, it's efforts are doomed to fail. Tampering will never be as clear cut as demanding children to be taller, or coin tossers to get more heads. But it can take many forms, like a certain number of sales orders per 1000 will result in a cockup and a return. It may seem admirably '6 sigma' to task oneself with eliminating those returns and improving bottom line and reducing waste while achieving higher levels of customer satisfaction.

Unless it doesn't.

It can result in employees juking the stats ie, refusing to take responsibility for their mistake and penalising the customers in order to appease their direct manager. It more likely will simply be more costly  to fix the problem than leave it be.

'Parameters' are established for this purpose. In my own VCE I was semi-confident that I could get a score in the 90's based on comparisons between myself and my own brother who had gone before me. But I felt to get 99.95 would involve exponentially more work, plus I didn't need to get that high for my ambitions. And even if I did work harder there was no gauruntee that I would do any better, I would be getting into new territory since neither my brother nor I had ever really worked hard at school.

Same goes in general, it will cost less to make a 30% improvement in a terrible process than a 3% improvement in a decent one. This is called the law of diminishing returns. Tampering isn't strictly about that, but it can often result in '$10 solutions to $5 problems' basically any problem you can afford is kind of worthy of leaving within your standard parameters.

Here then is the tragedy of tampering. Tampering occurs in business models that while imperfect are quite efficient. No brainer business models. This bumps heads with career minded managers. When the villains of Catch-22 reveal their motives they are simple - because Full Colonel is better than Lieutenant Colonel and General is better than Full Colonel. Tampering doesn't strictly come into Catch-22 but the Colonel's demands for tighter bomb formations (in order to make more pleasing aerial photographs) and having the Preacher conduct a prayer before missions are similar though not stat based initiatives to the kind taken by tampering managers.

Tampering I think merits more play, more discussion, more salience. As does risk itself. So keep it in mind, look for it in your own workplace or even everyday life.

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