Category Archives: Public Policy & News

Why FEMA is Monitoring Waffle House this Weekend

This article originally appeared on the Intelex Community on 9/14/2018 at https://community.intelex.com/explore/posts/why-fema-monitoring-waffle-house-weekend Sometimes the most informative metrics show up in the strangest of places. Case in point: with a hurricane making landfall today in North Carolina, and the prospect for catastrophic flooding over the weekend and into next week, emergency managers are mobilizing for action – and if you’re in the path of the storm, you may be doing the same. Have you started monitoring the Waffle House Index? The US Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has. Originally devised by W. Craig Fugate, former FEMA Director, the Waffle House Index is based on the observation that the popular 24-hour breakfast chain has historically been unusually well prepared for disasters. Part of their business model is to be the spot for emergency personnel to rely on for their coffee and nourishment – a valuable role when power crews, rescue teams, and debris removal workers are working long, hard hours. To do this, they make sure all employees have disaster training and stock all their restaurants with generators, and have a reduced menu specifically to be offered in the aftermath of a disaster. Over time, this even led to a more formal partnership between the organizations. FEMA first responders are known to set up initial operations in Waffle House locations. Waffle House now reports the status of each location to FEMA after a disaster to facilitate data collection. The Waffle House Index is a red, yellow, or green marker placed on a map wherever a Waffle House location is found. Under normal conditions, the marker is green. If the restaurant has shifted into emergency operations and is offering their limited menu, the marker is yellow. If the marker is red, that means that the Waffle House is closed – either the site itself is damaged or destroyed, emergency staff can not reach the site, the emergency generators are down or out of fuel, or there is a food shortage. When FEMA sees one or more reds, they know an area is in particularly bad shape – and they’ll need to help. What can you learn about risk-based thinking from the Waffle House index? Three things: first, that you can (and should) look outside your organization for risk indicators that might help you make better (and faster) decisions, particularly when those risks are activated. Second, that you should explore crowdsourced risk data as a source of up-to-date information. And finally – if Waffle House is closed, there’s a serious problem.   Additional Reading: McKnight, B., & Linnenluecke, M. K. (2016). How firm responses to natural disasters strengthen community resilience: A stakeholder-based perspective. Organization & Environment, 29(3), 290-307. Walter, L. (2011, July 6) What do waffles have to do with risk management? EHS Today. Available from https://www.ehstoday.com/fire_emergencyresponse/disaster-planning/waffles-risk-management-0706

Perception of Value & Today’s Cryptocurrency “Crash”

Artist’s rendering of Bitcoin. THERE ARE NO ACTUAL COINS THAT LOOK LIKE THIS. Don’t ever let anyone sell you one.

Today, many cryptocurrencies lost ~35-50% of their value. Reddit even posted contact information for the National Suicide Prevention Hotline in /r/cryptocurrency, knowing how emotional investors were bound to be today. Bitcoin, which was nearly $20K in mid-December and has been hovering near $14K this past week, dropped nearly $4K and almost sunk below the $10K milestone. I usually track the price of Bitcoin at http://bitcointicker.co, which can show the posted prices from several exchanges (web locations where people go to buy and sell, like Ebay). There are hundreds of cryptocurrencies and many of them dropped in value today.

Why did the prices drop so much on Tuesday? Here are some likely influences:

Market prices are usually driven by supply and demand — for example, if there aren’t that many lobsters available in a particular area at a particular time, and you go to a restaurant hoping to order one — you’ll pay a premium. But that price is also influenced by the quality of the product, the image of the product, which influences your perception of its value. Quality reflects how well something satisfies stated and implied needs or expectations.

Value, however, is quality relative to price, and influenced by image. And people are not always rational: they’ll pay a premium for image, even if the value of a product isn’t particularly high. Just think of all the Macs on display at schools, coffee shops, and airports. Price is related to value… usually, price goes up as value goes up.

Where’s the value of cryptocurrency? A Bitcoin does not, on its own, have any inherent value — just like a dollar or a Euro (a “fiat currency”). But the prospect of an asset that will increase in perceived value — where you can buy low, hold (sometimes just for a few days), and sell high because there are lots of people willing to buy it from you — will have perceived value. Hundreds of early adopters — or “Bitcoin millionaires” — are getting people excited about the prospect of making small investments and reaping huge rewards. That this has happened so recently lends a mystique to ownership of cryptocurrencies and Altcoins (or “alternatives to Bitcoin,” like Ether) in addition to the novelty.

Value is attributed to things by people, and cryptocurrencies are no exception. The quality of the currency itself, and the technical solidity of the platform upon which one is based, isn’t really tied to the cryptocurrency price right now — although this will probably change as knowledge and awareness increases.

Is this the end of Bitcoin? That’s doubtful — there are too many innovators who insist on exploring the technological landscape of cryptocurrencies and blockchain technology, and lots of investors willing to fund them. In the meantime, there are unlikely benefits: because cryptocurrencies are not yet mainstream, a “crypto crash” is not as likely to ripple through the whole economy (no pun intended) like the subprime mortgage crisis of 2008. But if you do decide to buy cryptocurrency, don’t invest any more than you can afford to lose.

Quality in Unexpected Places: The Weather!

doug-tree-bloom(Image Credit: Doug Buckley of http://hyperactive.to)

Many thanks to Sean Goggins, my favorite sociotechnical information scientist, for sharing this example of quality in an unexpected place on Facebook. As a meteorologist, I love how quality and productivity can be linked to one of my favorite sciences:

Central air hasn’t made us comfortable, so much as made us uncomfortable in a different way.

The experience isn’t simply unpleasant. It comes with a real financial cost.

To find out just how much, Cornell University researchers conducted a study that involved tinkering with the thermostat of an insurance office. When temperatures were low (68 degrees, to be precise), employees committed 44% more errors and were less than half as productive as when temperatures were warm (a cozy 77 degrees).

Cold employees weren’t just uncomfortable, they were distracted. The drop in performance was costing employers 10% more per hour, per employee. Which makes sense. When our body’s temperature drops, we expend energy keeping ourselves warm, making less energy available for concentration, inspiration, and insight.

— by Ron Friedman in “Want More Productive Workers? Adjust Your Thermostat,” 9/17/2012

Stimulating Innovation Culture through Higher Ed Reform (Part II)

(Image credit: Doug Buckley of http://hyperactive.to)

<– this is continued from Part I

I have ONE very subjective and utopian proposal for how we could adapt the system of higher education in the US to more effectively achieve these outcomes. The nice thing is, this particular proposal could be implemented by one university at a time. It is totally based on my own dream – a system that I think would have been VERY COOL had it been in place 20 years ago when I started college – and a system that I could still see myself taking advantage of NOW for getting even more education.

It is the EMERGENT UNIVERSITY DEGREE concept.

(Note that I haven’t vetted this idea against business plans, cash flows, faculty load balancing, or other peoples’ opinions. Just a dream that hopefully will stimulate ideas for those who read this. This is 100% stream of consciousness rambling for fun!)

Imagine this kind of world: You decide you want to “go to college”. There is no “admissions” process because you don’t have to commit to a particular path or a particular major or a particular institution. You just get to start taking a class or two (on a first-come-first-serve or space-available basis) and see where it leads. Or maybe you take one or two of those online courses with a zillion students in them, just to see if you can do it and if you LIKE it. A gateway drug, if you will, to getting more education.

You don’t take any classes you don’t want to take, but some classes might require prerequisites, and so you will need to complete those before completing the classes with material you really want to learn. You take a class as many times as it takes you to achieve a particular minimum performance level… or not. You could also take a class a second or third time to qualify at a higher level of performance (same idea as getting a Six Sigma Green Belt, then moving on to get the Black Belt). If you are having a hard time achieving the required performance, then you have a choice: stop taking the class, and start exploring OTHER paths that would get you a degree, or keep taking the class as many times as you need to in order to learn the stuff. (Yes, that could get costly… but that’s reality. In an organization that’s trying to innovate, it might take a multitude of tries to get somewhere… and that organization will need to decide exactly how much time and effort it wants to spend on that innovation process.)

You log in to your “educational management dashboard” that shows you what courses you’ve taken, where you can rank which ones you really enjoyed and have been able to develop a level of proficiency or a level of mastery. Every time you complete a course, the system examines your performance and provides you with a roadmap for 1) what “degrees” you could hop out of the system and claim NOW, and 2) what paths of varying lengths are available to you to complete other degrees. Some degrees might require 30 credits. Some might require 150 credits. You get to pick how much time and effort you want to invest.

Maybe you have no clue what you want to do with your life. Excellent – this system is just for you! You can start taking classes that you think you’ll enjoy, find out whether you do or not, and then your educational management dashboard will help you analyze what you liked and what you’re good at – and get you through the system with an appropriate degree.

You can also forget about worrying about grades, because there’s no penalty for failure other than you get more information about what you’re not good at, or what you might not like. Once you “pass” a class, the instructor is basically saying “yeah, I think they figured out how to do this stuff and I’m confident that they could move forward into something else that requires this as a foundation”. Because the degree program itself is emergent, your “failure” just steers you into another direction that fits you better.

But no, NO!!! you say. I REALLY REALLY REALLY want to be a dentist. My family expects me to be a dentist, and if I don’t pass these classes and become a dentist, I am done with!! OK, if you want it that badly, then do what you need to do to develop a minimum proficiency and move forward. Or, use the additional information as ammo to show everyone else “look – my dashboard advised me that this is not where I need to go – and since I care about stimulating innovation and enhancing our country’s competitiveness, then I’ll pursue my recommended calling according to the dashboard…” or something like that.

This kind of system would also encourage education just for the sake of education. Say you “start college” but then find out it’s not for you. There’s no stigma in “dropping out” because you have your portfolio of past performances that you might still be able to use to convince an employer that you’re capable of certain skills that they need! Want to complete general education courses? Great, you can get a general education degree in addition to your specialization degree – but you get to make the choice whether you want to be “well rounded” or not.

Student loan debt also becomes less of a problem this way – because you get to choose just how much you invest and over what time horizon. You can stop at any time, and still get to carry your work with you. Want the social, cultural and networking benefits of a traditional university? Then go that route, and do what’s being done today.

I think the underlying concept of this emergent university degree is that YOU get to decide how much you want to learn, and you are not penalized for changing your mind at any time – for pursuing what your developing skills and interests direct you towards, rather than what is prescribed at the beginning of a very long multi-year process.

A kind of educational system like this would train us to be perpetually open to opportunities and possibilities – and celebrate failure or lack-of-interest in a subject as gaining a very important piece of new knowledge, that will bring us to the opportunities we are most aligned with more quickly.

Stimulating Innovation Culture through Higher Ed Reform (Part I)

(Image credit: Doug Buckley of http://hyperactive.to)

Wouldn’t it be nice if you could create an innovation culture in your organization by just bringing people in who have already been enculturated into that way of thinking and being? I think it’s possible. (I propose one potential design in the follow-up to this post, Part II.)

Pretty much every week I read articles about how the higher education system in the U.S. is broken. (That is, how it needs to be overhauled and reformed, how the educational system is not enhancing our competitiveness as a nation, or how it’s too expensive compared to the value it provides graduates, especially in a down economy.) This week, I read Wildavsky & Litan’s Huffington Post article that outlines how bureaucratic processes and accreditation are getting in the way of implementing innovative educational business models.

I also see a lot of articles bemoaning the struggle to create a culture of innovation in many organizations, and every one of these seems to tie back to processes and practices that could potentially derive from a student’s experience in the higher education environment. For example, Edward Hess (currently an Executive in Residence at UVA’s Darden School of Business) recently wrote an article in Forbes encouraging organizations to adopt a culture that supports innovation:

Innovation is the result of iterative learning processes as well as environments that encourage experimentation, critical inquiry, critical debate, and accept failures as a necessary part of the process…

…innovation requires a mindset that rejects the fear of failure and replaces that fear of failure with the joy of exploration and experimental learning.

So the solution is EASY: we need to 1) model iterative learning processes in education, and 2) enculturate our students to accept – and appreciate! – failures and false starts as a totally necessary part of the process. Only here’s the problem: the message we’re reinforcing as parents, as educators, and as citizens is that failure is bad. Work hard, study hard, press forward, get A’s! Don’t use your education to learn more about what turns you on and what you want to contribute to the world. Just make us proud of you, and bust your butt so you can get a high paying job. Whether you like it or not.

This is not productive and not enjoyable for many, many students. It promotes fear and drains out a lot of natural love for learning new things.

Click here to see my imaginative and utopian proposal for a new system –>

Baldrige-Based Health Care Reform?

Today’s Washington Post has an article by Minnesota senator Tim Pawlenty on the effective design of national health care reform, entitled “To Fix Health Care, Follow the States”. He argues that the federal government should model its initiatives after successful state-based systems that link outcomes to value:

In Minnesota, our state employee health-care plan has demonstrated incredible results by linking outcomes to value. State employees in Minnesota can choose any clinic available to them in the health-care network they’ve selected. However, individuals who use more costly and less-efficient clinics are required to pay more out-of-pocket.

Not surprisingly, informed health-care consumers vote wisely with their feet and their wallets. Employees overwhelmingly selected providers who deliver higher quality and lower costs as a result of getting things right the first time. The payoff is straightforward: For two of the past five years, we’ve had zero percent premium increases in the state employee insurance plan.

Minnesota has also implemented an innovative program called QCARE, for Quality Care and Rewarding Excellence. QCARE identifies quality measures, sets aggressive outcome targets for providers, makes comparable measures transparent to the public and changes the payment system to reward quality rather than quantity. We must stop paying based on the number of procedures and start paying based on results.

Pawlenty also notes that healthcare reform should not focus solely on access to health care, but also the cost and quality of the service – that is, the value that is delivered. The Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award (MBNQA) Criteria for Performance Excellence provides a framework that has been tailored over 20 years by a huge collaboration of experts to help business, industry and the government better solve this kind of “wicked problem”. The Minnesota solution sounds like it has applied concepts very similar – if not identical – to those presented by the Baldrige Criteria.

When will the government employ the successful problem-solving frameworks it has developed itself (e.g. MBNQA) to solve its most pressing problems?

Lean Thinking and Health Care Reform

Today’s Op-Ed section in the Washington Post has a piece by Philip K. Howard called “Health Reform’s Taboo Topic”. The problem?

Health-care reform is bogged down because none of the bills before Congress deals with the staggering waste of the current system, estimated to be $700 billion to $1 trillion annually. The waste flows from a culture of health care in which every incentive is to do more — that’s how doctors make money and that’s how they protect themselves from lawsuits.

The article goes on to talk about “defensive medicine,” the practice of ordering tons of diagnostic tests to refine a diagnosis or a treatment plan for the purpose of avoiding malpractice suits. Howard suggests that physicians are cultured into this way of doing business as a defense against potential risks and potential malpractice cases – he even mentions one case where a doctor reacted to a lawsuit by changing his behavior in favor of defensive medicine. A solution, however, is possible:

Containing costs, as Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) noted on “Face the Nation” recently, requires overhauling the culture of health-care delivery. Incentives need to be realigned. That requires a legal framework that, instead of encouraging waste, encourages doctors to focus on what’s really needed. One pillar in a new legal framework is a system of justice that is trusted to reliably distinguish between good care and bad care. Reliable justice would protect doctors against unreasonable claims and would expeditiously compensate injured patients. The key is reliability.

The culture of a system – in this case the U.S. health care system – influences the behavior of individuals within the system. This behavior can be waste-producing. When it is, we need to look towards the cultural influences or the structure of the incentives that drive that behavior, and examine ways to address the root cause(s).

It reminds me of the requirements gathering phase of a software development project. Stakeholders spend hours trying to hash out what functions and behavior they expect from their software, and how reliable they want it to be. It is always a challenge to avoid designing the system (that is, how it will look or act) when the essence of what you need to know is what the system needs to do.

I see evidence in the growing national healthcare debate that many people have opinions on the design of the system (e.g. who gets coverage, how pre-existing conditions are handled, how much it costs, who pays), whereas most citizens and Congressmen aren’t even touching the requirements for a successful system (e.g. what scenarios it should support, what behaviors it should provide incentives for, or its reliability/requirements for how much waste the system can and should generate).

In my opinion, one requirement for a successful health care system is that it provides incentives for you to remain healthy and stay out of doctors’ offices and hospitals. A tax credit for a health Body Mass Index (BMI), or maybe lower interest rates? I’d go for that… it would even stimulate me to boost the economy a little more by buying rollerblades or something.

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