The Case of Burning BagHouse Filters

Recently I was invited to investigate a case of frequent burning of baghouse filter bags.

There were five such baghouses connected to five furnaces of a steel plant.

The client reasoned that the material of the bags was not suitable for the temperature of the gas it handled. However, with change of material the frequency of bag burning did not change. So it needed a different approach to home onto the reasons for the failures.

Hence, this is how I went about solving the case:

First I did a Weibull analysis of the failures. Engineers use Weibull distribution to quickly find out the failure pattern of a system. Once such a pattern is obtained an engineer can then go deeper in studying the probability distribution function (pdf). Such a pdf provides an engineer with many important clues. The most important clue it provides is the reason for such repeated failures, which are broadly classified as follows:

  1. Design related causes
  2. Operation and Maintenance related causes
  3. Age related causes.

In this case it turned out to be a combination of Design and Age related causes.

It was a vital clue that then guided me to look deeper to isolate the design and age related factors affecting the system.

I then did a modified FMEA (Failure Mode and Effect Analysis) for the two causes.

The FMEA revealed many inherent imperfections that were related to either design or aging.

Broadly, the causes were:

  1. Inability of the FD cooler (Forced Draft cooler) to take out excess heat up to the design limit before allowing the hot gas to enter the bag house.
  2. Inappropriate sequence of cleaning of the bag filters. It was out of sync with the operational sequence thus allowing relatively hot dust to build up on the surface of the bags.

Next, the maintenance plan was reviewed. The method used was Review of Equipment Maintenance (REM). The goal of such a review is to find maintenance tasks that are either missing or redundant for which new tasks are either added/deleted or modified. With such modification of the maintenance plan the aim is to achieve a balance between tasks that help find out incipient signals of deterioration and tasks that would help maintain longevity and stability of the system for a desired period of time.

Finally the investigation was wrapped up by formulating the Task Implementation Plan (TIP). It comprised of 13 broad tasks that were then broken up into more than 100 sub-tasks with scheduled dates for completion and accountability.

 

Observing Complexity

To me, observing real life systems is something like this:

A real life System comprises of a meaningful set of objects, diverse in form, state and function but inter-related through multiple network of interdependencies through mutual feedbacks enclosed by variable space, operating far from its equilibrium conditions not only exchanging energy and matter with its environment but also generating internal entropy to undergo discrete transformation triggered by the Arrow of Time forcing it to behave in a dissipative but self organizing manner to either self destruct itself in a wide variety of ways or create new possibilities in performance and/or behaviour owing to presence of ‘attractors’ and ‘bifurcations’; thereby making it impossible to predict the future behaviour of the system in the long term or trace the previous states of the system with any high degree of accuracy other than express it in terms of probabilities since only the present state of the system might be observable to a certain extent and only a probabilistic understanding may be formulated as to how it has arrived at its present state and what would keep it going, thus triggering creative human responses to manage, maintain and enhance the system conditions, function and purpose and create superior systems of the future for the benefit of the society at large.

Such a representation of an observation looks quite involved. Perhaps it might be stated in a much simpler way. Most real life systems behave in a complex manner creating multitude of problems of performance and failures. But how do we get rid of complexity and uncertainty as exhibited by systems? We may do so by deeply observing the complex behaviour of the system to improve our perception to gain insights about the essence of the system; find out the underlying ‘imperfection’ that causes the apparent complexity and uncertainty and then find ways to improve the existing system or create new system and maintain them in the simplest possible manner. We do this by applying the principles of chaos, reliability and design. Surprisingly, the same process might be used to troubleshoot and solve problems we face on a daily basis. If done, we are no longer dominated or dictated by the ‘special whims’ of the system.

The crux of the matter is how we observe reality and understand it so as to make meaningful choices as responses to life and living.

Who is the best Advisor?

In an increasingly complex world, we need to consult advisors for many things. It helps in our decision making and taking appropriate actions. Even, President Obama, presumably the most powerful man in the world, depends on a long list of advisors to be effective. But how does one judge the quality of an advisor?

The best advisors are those who can see through a system quickly, find potential problems that are yet to manifest and correct those through right design. Such advisors would not be known outside their select group of intelligent clients.

Similarly, good advisors are those who can examine a system, find inconsistencies, contradictions and incipient faults and come up with ideas that would prevent such faults from re-appearing in the future. They would be hardly known outside their select group of clients.

But ordinary advisors are those who would energetically open up things, examine parts of the system, enter into prolonged discussions without specific outcomes, involve lot of people, forcefully present their ideas to others and encourage them to tackle their problems in a firefighting mode without the assurance of a total cure. They are widely known to people who matter most.

This insight came from my reflecting upon a ancient Chinese story, which follows:

According the old story, a lord of ancient China once asked his doctor, a member of a family of healers, “Which of them was the most skilled in the art of healing?”

The physician, whose reputation was such that his name became synonymous with medical science in China, replied, “My eldest brother sees the spirit of sickness and removes it before it takes shape, so his name doesn’t get out of the house. My elder brother cures sickness when it is still extremely minute, so his name doesn’t get out of the neighbourhood. As for me, I puncture veins, prescribe portions and massage skins, so from time to time my name gets out and is heard among the lords.”

A Ming dynasty critic writes of this little tale of the physician: “What is essential for leader, generals and ministers in running countries and governing armies is no more than this.”

Creativity in Solving Complex Problems

The other day, at the end of my seminar on “Solving Complex Engineering Problems” a delegate asked me as to whether the entire process of solving complex problems can be automated in some way by means of a software instead of relying on human creativity.

Such a response wasn’t unexpected. In the corporate world the word “creativity” is often looked at with suspicion. They would rather prefer structured and standard approaches like “brainstorming” at 10.00 am sharp or team work or collaborative effort, which in my opinion do little to help anyone solve complex problems or even address complex problems correctly.

That might be the single most important reason why “complex problems” remain unresolved for years affecting profitability and long term sustenance of an organization. Failing to resolve complex problems for years often earns such problems the sobriquet of “wicked problems”, which means that such problems are too tough for “any expert” to come to grips with.

What they sadly miss out is the role of creativity in solving complex problems, which no automation or technology can ever replicate. They miss this because most organizations systemically smother or mercilessly boot out any remnant of creativity in their people since they think that it is always easier to control and manage a regimented workforce devoid of even elementary traces of creativity.

So, is managing creativity and creative people a messy affair? On the surface it seems so. This is simply because we generally have a vague idea of what drives, inspires and really sustains creativity?

Creativity is not about wearing hair long or wearing weird clothes, singing strange tunes, coming to office late and being rude to bosses for no apparent reasons. These things hardly make anyone creative or help anyone become a more creative person.

Actually, things like “being attentive and aware”, “sensitive”, “passionate”, “concerned”, “committed” and above all “inventive” just might be the necessary ingredients to drive, inspire and sustain creativity.

Why?

Though there are many ways of describing and defining creativity what I like best is – “creativity is the expression of one’s understanding and expression of oneself” – deeper the understanding better the expression of creativity.

When we look at creativity in this manner it is obvious that we are all creative though the expression and its fidelity might vary to a great extent. Clearly, some are simply better than others.

Further, if creativity may be thought about as a process, then the inputs and the clarity of understanding of ourselves are more valuable elements of the system than the outputs that the process anyway consistently churns out (remember the uncountable hours we spent in organization meeting, discussing and brainstorming to solve complex problems).

In these days of economic depressions, organizations can really do themselves a huge favor if only they pay more attention to facilitating such inputs to people rather than get overtly worried about control and management by conformity.

Developing Non-linear Thinking Skills

We know while comprehending complexity, linear logic fails. That appears to the most important reason as to why most people find it difficult to understand complex situations or grapple with complex problems.

With simple linear logic, principles come first and deductions follow. Hence the process may be described as:

Observe -> Model the observations based on relevant domain theory -> apply Principles/mathematics -> Deduction

Fair to say that this standard approach, based on linear logic, is used in science and engineering to solve linear problems. Since this is an efficient way of thinking it dominates our educational, professional and social lives.

But when it comes to solving non-linear complex problems (unfortunately most life problems are non-linear) application of linear logic fails. Instead what is needed is the development of non-linear thinking skills.

In fact, non-linear thinking style is a necessary skill with the larger theoretical framework of digital literacy through multiple format known as transliteracy through transmedia learning environment.

Nonlinear thinking styles are defined as using intuition, insight, creativity and emotions when comprehending and communicating information (Vance, Groves, Paik and Kindler, 2007)

But how to develop non-linear thinking skills?

I would give below a 3 step approach, one of the many approaches I developed for the specific purpose of developing non-linear thinking skills of my adult professional students. This specific technique is christened as the Fugue technique.

1. Think in terms of fugue. In a fugue, all the notes cannot be constrained into a single melodic scale. Compressing everything into one single melodic scale is analogous to modelling a phenomenon or behaviour based on a high level of abstraction, which is the dominant characteristic of linear thinking style. Make this clear to the participating group. It would relieve them of the unnecessary stress of finding the “one right answer” or “one right approach” to a complex problem.

2. Bring people together to tackle a complex problem. Make sure that the participants are familiar with the problem. This means that complex problems are to be selected from the familiar working environment of the participants or problems the participants have grappled with but failed to find a solution.

Putting a number of people together gives us a big advantage. Different people see the same problem in different ways. It would depend on their specific strengths and mental makeup, tendency and practice. Some find some parts of the problem easy to see and understand, which others might find too difficult to even notice. Each member of the group is then encouraged to focus on some parts of the problem that comes easily to them so as to come up with their own unique perspectives and understanding.

Before allowing people to jump in, preferably use different media to present a problem — narrative, story telling, printed material, videos, pictures, data, internet references etc.

3. Invite the group to plunge directly into the midst of things and follow the temporal order created by the thoughts of the different group members. Build upon each others thoughts. Never mind if we get different strings of thoughts to build different lines of thinking, which is the most desired output. Encourage all forms of communication — dialogs, debates, discussions, collaboration, negotiation, etc. Be patient with the flow of time. Activities might show sudden bursts of energy at various points of time. Allow people to express their thoughts through different media – verbal, slide shows, discussions, drawings, doodles, story telling, narratives/presentations, logical interpretation through principles, etc. It is expected that each member communicates in his/her preferred style of communication.

Link the different strings of thoughts or different perspectives to make a collective but coherent understanding of a complex problem without attempting to put them into “one melodic scale.” It means that it is not necessary to align the different perspectives into one linear path. Multiple paths are encouraged. Expecting multiple solutions would be the norm. The output measured against time is exponential when compared to linear approach. It helps in increasing both depth and width of learning. In Nemetic terms the resultant ecology is known as nemePlx or nPx

When a group performs this exercise on many live problems over a span of few days (a four-day long session appears to be just enough), it propels the students to develop their non-linear thinking skills. It also develops their transliteracy skills (a non-linear thinking skill) immersed in transmedia learning environment.

Note:

1. This Fugue technique has been extensively used for Power Plant professionals solving their complex problems.

2. The author is of the opinion that non-linear thinking skills cannot be taught in any explicit manner.

References:

!. Digital Literacy: A Demand for Nonlinear Thinking Styles Mark Osterman, Thomas G. Reio, Jr., and M. O. Thirunarayanan Florida International University, USA http://digitalcommons.fiu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1321&context=sferc

2. Now you see it: How the brain science of attention will transform the way we live, work, and learn Davidson, C., (2011). New York, NY: Penguin

Learning Quickly & Adapting Rapidly – A Simple View

If I were to make a very simplified understanding of our brain it would be this:

Our brain has three parts, which are: –

1. The Rear Brain

2. The Mid Brain

3. The Frontal Brain

The Rear Brain

The rear part of the brain is an alarm, which sets off as soon as it senses danger that can threaten survival and life. It works on the principle of ‘fear’ (the modern term is stress) that propels us to either fight or run away. When faced with anything new this part of the brain triggers first. Though for city dwellers, tigers and snakes are mostly not around to scare us to death, this ancient part of our brain sets off alarms by sensing anything which is unusual, uncommon, seemingly big for us to handle, new or doesn’t fit our regular routine or schedule. But isn’t learning all about embracing something new? So we have a big problem to learn quickly and adapt rapidly to changing situations.

The Mid Brain

This part of the brain stores all our sensations and experiences as images including the lessons we learn. It is the memory section. It throws up information as and when we need those. So when faced with something new this part of the brain searches for something similar and prompts us to take note of what is already stored there for us to act. At times, it conjures up new images by combining existing images some of which can be illusory or false, which may create stress or delusion. Under stress, it communicates to the rear brain triggering fight or flight response. When deluded it induces us take actions without thinking of undesirable consequences. Now, these become big problems to learn anything new or different when faced with familiar objects or situations making it difficult for us to pick out something new or different from seemingly familiar patterns. The mid brain would say, “You know that. There is nothing new in the world.” This is because mid brain would force us recognize existing patterns only, which usually prompts routine or scripted behavior as a response. This then poses as a big impediment to learn quickly and adapt rapidly to changing situations.

The Frontal Brain

This is the new part of the brain that is responsible for learning from any situation and under any condition enabling us to create new solutions and new actions. However, this part of the brain isn’t powered up fully so long the mid brain and the rear brain dominate the show. That appears to be a big problem too for learning quickly and adapting rapidly to changes.

So what is the way out?

The way out of the mess may be summed up in a neat mantra — 3S which stands for Slow, Small and Steady.

Slow:

Slowing down offers many benefits. The most important one is relaxation of the body and mind. Once the body and mind are relatively relaxed, the rear brain, which is usually very alert lets down its guard allowing other parts of the brain to act fully. This facilitates learning something new.

Small:

When we notice small and subtle things; think in small pieces and connect those; and take small actions – the rear brain doesn’t interfere since it doesn’t consider small things to pose any danger to survival. Likewise, when we see, think and do small things the mid brain doesn’t quite interfere with the new experience either since it usually fails to conjure up an existing pattern to match the small experiences other than trying to judge by giving it a name and form . So, once we suspend our judgement while experiencing something new the possibility of new learning grows exponentially. However, once the small things are done the mid brain would faithfully store the lessons for better adaptation and survival in the future.

Steady:

So what happens when, over a time, we steadily exchange value through small actions? Obviously, the small actions accumulate, coalesce, combine and recombine in self organizing way to produce new learning, which usually grows wide and deep enough to allow us learn quickly and adapt rapidly to changing situations.

Go Slow. See Small. Engage Slowly, Think Small. Act Small. Go Steady.

That is perhaps the easiest way to learn new things quickly and adapt rapidly to changes promoting resilience and sustainability for organizations, groups, communities and individuals.

Note: This is a part of a forthcoming book — “Sleeping with a Stranger” — a new book belonging to the Nemetics series.

3 Best Gifts

Three best gifts a human being may give to another are:

1. Gift of material resources (physical – the R wave)

Without basic material resources to support life no human being can ever hope do something worthwhile to develop himself/herself. No music would be created. No poems would be written. No paintings would be made. No inventions would come about. No talent would blossom. It is about providing long term sustenance since honing of any talent needs years of persistent practice in good health.

2. Gift of Knowledge (mental – G wave)

Gifting knowledge to someone helps a person to navigate through complexity of life so as not to get swamped by it. It is an invaluable gift. Without basic knowledge and skill to navigate in complexity, even the best amongst us, would soon lose their way, get distracted, depressed and be left in a state of utter despair. It provides the wherewithal to stay the tough course of life by understanding oneself and others. In other words, it provides the wisdom to live life without much of mental sufferings and afflictions.

3. Gift of Assurance (emotional – B wave)

With this gift one gets the much needed confidence to do better in what one does well. This gift helps one to develop a sense of belonging, a state of peace, happiness and equanimity enabling one to reach one’s highest potential. In that way, the world automatically become a better place to live. Mere presence, an approving nod, a kind word, a smile, sharing love, showing respect, sharing the good word are some of the subtle but powerful forms of this gift. It unleashes the most powerful transforming force in an individual and society at large.

How Individual Consciousness Affects Leadership Decisions

Years back when I visited Singapore for the first time I was quite taken aback by the affluence of this South East Asian city state. It didn’t look like Indian cities — Mumbai or Kolkata.

It was spotlessly clean. It was economically well off, orderly and easy to go around though stradled with harsh punitive rules. But what stuck me most was the clear absence of slums or ghettos — so prevalent across the world — especially in rich cities. Instead there was public housing where the poor were housed. No one lived in slums.

The architect of modern Singapore – Mr. Lee instantly became one of my several role models.

But the question is — why did he not allow slums to organically develop, as they do and instead spent money on creating public housing to avoid people living in slums?

Was it because he wanted to create a cleaner and better image for Singapore to attract foreign investments, given that an estimated 40% of world maritime trade now passes through Singapore?

Or was it that he had an unwavering empathy for the poor and wanted to give them a better deal in life as he did for ministers and civil servants of the state by ensuring that they earn high salaries?

Delving deeper I saw that these weren’t the reasons for Mr. Lee to go for mass public housing.

With a big ethnic Chinese majority but sizeable Malay and Indian minorities, Singapore suffered race riots in the 1960s. This deeply influenced young Mr. Lee’s consciousness, which he never quite forgot till he passed away at the ripe old age of 91. So after a painful divorce from Malaysia in 1965 he went for public housing and enforced quotas in allotment of public housing to force integration of the three major ethnic communities. All this was done to avoid the painful repetition of ugly detrimental race riot.

And his mindful action did pay off the intended benefit. Political stability and social order that followed, attracted huge foreign investment in a climate that proved “ease of doing business” that ensured Singapore to grow into one of the richest countries of the world.

Notes:

In Nemetic terms this is the play of the RGB waves, where —

R wave (event) — ethnic riots

G wave (behavior) — segregation of the ethnic communities from the major Chinese ethnic community and tension between those

B wave (consciousness/intention) — change of consciousness and intention of Mr. Lee

This gave rise to a new set of RGB waves, through the action of Mr. Lee, which may be described as —

R wave (event) — investment in public housing and allotment through quotas.

G wave (behavior) — Political stabiity and social order

B wave (consciousness/intention) — one of the world’s richest country.

Reference:

The Economist, March 28th – April 3rd 2015, The Wise Man of the East, page 16.

Synopsis of a Paper to address Complexity

I have been invited by the Institution of Engineers, India, as a keynote speaker, for a seminar to be held in April 2015.

The synopsis of the paper follows.

Title of the paper:

Vibration Analysis as a tool to Simultaneously Improve Industrial Performance, Productivity and Profitability

Synopsis:

In industries, throughout the world, for the last fifty years or so, vibration analysis and monitoring  have been extensively used for Condition Based Maintenance (CBM). Proper application of CBM can  result in 50% reduction in downtime and 25% reduction in maintenance costs from a plant’s previous level of performance. It has now reached the desired level of technical and professional maturity to be well poised to evolve to the next stage of its evolution, i.e. IOT (Internet of Things).

However, in the meanwhile, “complexity” has also evolved to pose as a major challenge to industrial performance, productivity and profitability. Both industrial equipment and systems have grown in complexity, which is often manifested as multiple interrelated problems of machine failures, quality, performance and wastage that are difficult to address by traditional tools and techniques that are presently being used in industries.

This paper aims to highlight, through two case studies, the use of vibration analysis as one of the powerful tools to address such multiple problems in a simultaneous fashion, which solves multiple problems in one go rather than address each problem individually over a long period of time as done in the present. Present approaches to address prevalent “complexity” often turn out to be unsuccessful and frustrating for both engineers and managers. Application of vibration analysis along with appropriate understanding of design principles would help industries achieve dramatic improvement of performance, productivity and profitability with minimum interventions, time and resources as demonstrated by the cases. What is more — once such minimal changes are implemented industries continue to gain ongoing benefits for years to come. 

A baffling problem

Last week I was invited to engage with a baffling problem. It left engineers and managers of the power plant baffled for the last four months.

Instead of writing the technical details of the problem, which might not be of much interest to non-technical people I would instead write about my approach to solving baffling problems along with the principles involved. This is because we often wrongly interpret problems as technical, non technical, financial, social, etc. Essentially all problems are problems of the human mind. Invariably they always originate and live in the human mind. However, problems, as a rule, are always solved or resolved through enlightened (understanding, wisdom) consciousness.

The process, which I intend to highlight below, may be used to successfully solve both personal and professional problems or quickly adapt when a baffling problem (or a black swan) strikes.

The seven steps of the integrated process are as follows:

1. Look at the event as perceived in the present and the events that went before it.

Principles:
a) See all, sit still, breathe deep, care for the ill.
b) When drinking water think of its source.

2. Examine the responses of human beings to a problem. Spot the responses that emanated from stored memories (usually collective).

Principles:
a) Buddha is a toilet stick.
b) The gateway is found only after a long search and the long search is a spiral going inward.

3. Check implementation of the responses for assumptions, acceptance of imperfections, ignorance of facts and avoidance of details.

Principles:
a) See the whole universe in a glass of wine.
b) Can you see the cloud in the book?

4. Scan the various perspectives people have about a problem, i.e. how individuals feel about the problem. Identify the blind spots.

Principles:
a) No question; no answer
b) Cut the grass; pull the roots. 
c) Pine cones look at different directions but do they?

5. Listen intently to what they say and what they don’t say about the issue.

Principles:
a) Noise of the unsayable, unspeakable and unsaid is music.
b) Go up the mountain to meet the sage, know that it is you, come down to mix with the lakes and rivers.
c) A ruler and a worthy person who don’t connect, a musician and a listener who don’t find each other, or two potential friends who never meet; all lose.

6. Gain deep insight about the problem.

Principles:
a) Don’t catch the snake by its tail.                          
b) Birds are not afraid of directions.
c) Question, test and use every sense you have and believe that dawn would come.
d) Imaginary lines between stars guide us to new harbors.

7. Form understanding of the problem. Formulate viable solutions for minimal intervention. Exchange the understanding in the simplest possible terms as logically as possible to change collective consciousness. Leave it there.                                         

Principles:
a) No question; no answer.
b) Spirit is wrapped in reason and reason is wrapped in spirit.
c) One raindrop creates thousand ripples.
d) Don’t wish for spring; spring gives life to wish.

Chances are that baffling problems would no longer appear baffling and would soon be solved/resolved by people.