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.

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.

Expert Knowledge is Passé; Long Live Masters!

Engaging with flow, created by any phenomenon, is an essential step that we take to create something new, which invariably amounts to an interpretation of our environment or surrounding triggered by noticing something from the higher levels of the mind that is less dependent on sensory inputs.

Why is this necessary?

Since our mind is a system consisting of complex networks it has memory like all other networks. Memory would then compel the network (our mind) to behave in very predictable patterns i.e. it would continue to behave the way it does unless the energy of the system is changed by design. It would mean that our response to any situation would stay the same unless we add new energy to our existing network urging it be respond or behave differently.

That is the basic idea of engaging with the flow — to add new energy to our neural network to come up with a different response to a situation we are facing in the moment.

But that is tricky business. Much more tricky than we might care to imagine. It is because we must notice in quick succession (almost as quick as clearly noticing a ten digit telephone number) for our neurons to get energized enough to rise above their critical threshold limit to create harmonious oscillations, helping us to create new knowledge and response. Fortunately, our neurons, under this situation of noticing different aspects of a phenomenon in quick succession, produce different frequencies from moment to moment, which helps to create new responses. However, to produce useful and new harmonious frequencies our mind also needs to be supported by a healthy relaxation oscillations. Relaxation oscillations help us absorb new learning. Relaxation oscillation in the brain is something like this — neurons slowly absorb energy and then quickly release the energy. This new release of energy helps neurons to jump over their critical threshold limit to create harmonious oscillations.

Let us understand this process by some live examples.

For example, Sachin Tendulkar is considered the ‘god’ of cricket. For him, captains and bowlers of rival teams have a hard time setting a field to hold him down. He always tends to find the gaps too easily against any type of bowling. It is easy to imagine that he is quickly noticing so many aspects of the phenomenon — the bowler, his run up and stance, his delivery, speed of the ball, trajectory of the ball, movement of fielders, etc in quick succession (really quick since the ball is traveling at a speed of nearly 100 km/hour). Within that time he decides where and how to place the ball to get runs, which is invariably between the gaps in the fielding.

Or take Ravi Shankar, the great musician, who plays so intuitively. To me intuition is nothing but the same process as described above, where new harmonic oscillations are produced with the help of relaxation oscillations.

Or say Michel Angelo who saw entrapped figures trapped in uncut stones waiting to be freed by his hands.

There is one thing that is common to all of them which sets them apart from the rest. They all intuitively find the gaps or the existing imperfections in the present moment with their uninhabited awareness to reach their goal. This is because all human minds by default are goal oriented since human consciousness is more temporal than spatial. They improvise their games based on those gaps or existing imperfections in the most intuitive way — no copy book styles for them. They have learned the rules of their games so well that they now break them with impunity by mastering the way to trigger relaxation oscillations at will. This process of engagement is played over and over in whatever game masters choose to play. Games differ but the process of engagement does not.

This is what innovation, improvisation, improvement, creating new knowledge is all about.

The Japanese have a name for it. They call it Wabi -Sabi, which means understand the imperfection in a given situation and improve upon it to make it stronger and more reliable.

The Chinese have a name for it. They call it Shan Zhai, which originally means balancing numerous resistances, see what is possible to be done cheap and effectively, start small and then grow in strength.

The Indians have a name for it. They call it Juggad, which means understand what is to be done, start with whatever is available at hand, go with the flow and build up over time.

How would this be useful in present times?

Today, expert knowledge (essentially a knowledge bank) is sold in the market as a commodity that is continually being sold at lesser and lesser price wiping out premiums that they once commanded. It is so since expert knowledge is increasingly being converted to cheap ordinary stuff through algorithms. In some fields of human activity the value of expert knowledge is almost zero — given freely over the internet. Then how are we to survive in the present situation. It definitely calls for a new skill – the skill of mastery, where new knowledge can be created moment to moment. This amounts to present moment responses to a changing situation. People who can really do that are priceless and can still command a premium in today’s market place.

Such skill of mastery basically calls us to be in touch with one’s essential nature. Gregory Bateson reminds us of this fact when he said, “When man lost touch with nature, he lost touch with himself.” Simply stated, “losing touch with himself” is disengagement – a phenomenon that is so common in our professional world.

This is the only way to create a good sustainable future for all since, “The future is never empty, never a blank space to be filled with the output of human activity. It is already colonized by what the past and present have sent to it.” (Fry 1999)

How do we develop that is the question? Understanding that involves deep learning. And deep learning is done by power of engaging with the flow of the moment.

State a Problem in Simplest Terms

The other day, a long-term client of mine called me up to see a problem of theirs. Since it is a public sector organization they soon sent me a RFP (request for proposal) over email with a fairly detailed SOW (Scope of Work).

In the SOW, they mentioned all that needs to be done, almost breaking down each step. In short, they were proposing a detailed method to solve their problem.

When they followed me up over phone, I said, “With such a detailed methodology in place, why would you ever need me?”

Sensing that they did not get it, I elaborated, “Does it mean if you just have the results of those steps that you have listed out you get to the answer you are looking for? Do you think that such detailed investigations, which you have already carried out earlier, would inflate costs without getting anywhere close to the solution?”

Fortunately, they quickly realized the gap. They asked me, “What should we do then?”

I replied, “State your problem in its most basic and simplest terms. Complex, nagging problems can’t be neatly defined. Instead, you could just state your concern about the problem. That would trigger our collective minds to flow easily to reach a solution. For example, you could state that you are suffering from a headache every evening.”

“O.K.” they said, “Our issue is that we are responding as per prescribed textbook rules to solve this problem and the problem seems to be temporarily fixed but it resurfaces after some time.”

“Just state that. And then we follow the cues to get to a working hypothesis, a working methodology to test out the hypothesis, collect data, arrange and interpret the data, collectively understand the issue with the simplest theories that fit the facts of the problem, formulate practical actions, carry out those to test our hypothesis and learn more to eliminate the problem for good.”

In the next fifteen minutes they sent the revised RFP, stating their concern.

By stating a problem in its basic and simplest terms we allow our minds to pay attention to flow effortlessly towards a solution.

That is what is needed when we tackle complex problems – problems for which answers are not available in the books or can’t be googled.

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

From Emotion to Wisdom to Maturity

The other day, my long term collaborator, in the development of the Nemetics discipline, Michael Josefowicz remarked on Twitter –

“It is interesting that so many serious people have a blind spot for emotions.”

But how important is emotion in shaping our consciousness?

Let us examine the process of evolution or expansion of our embodied consciousness.

The starting premise of my argument is — every human being is a product of an infinite series of interactions, which are extremely diverse in nature.

In Nemetics we term each interaction as a “neme

With every neme, a feeling is generated, which quickly takes the shape of an emotion. Emotion is very qualitative in nature since an emotion can have different shades, like for instance – love. But soon emotions give rise to objective thoughts which gradually develop. In turn, objective thoughts switch on our thinking mind.

A thinking mind will invariably generate desire. More the mind thinks, more it desires.

As soon as a desire is born it would seek actualization. Therefore all desires lead to actions.

Provided we are open and willing, we learn from every action the beneficial and detrimental results of good and bad actions to become wiser. Hence action through learning leads to wisdom.

When wisdom finally matures we become satisfied and perhaps happy with things as they are and as they happen. We deeply realize that any phenomenon would change owing to its dynamic nature that is time, space and constraint dependent. We further realize that there seems to be little point in forcing change things “our” way, finding solutions without a problem to address or invent new problems just for the sake of it or not to address the reality as it emerges.

Maturity then leads us to accept phenomenon as it happens and interact with systems and people just as needed to ensure or enhance flow, harmony and balance of life. In Nemetic terms the phrase for maturity is — “make it ezpz – The Nemetic Way.”

If we now summarize the process of enhancing our embodied consciousness; the train of our reasoning would appear something like this:

Neme -> Feelings/Emotions -> Thoughts -> Desires -> Actions -> Learning/Wisdom -> Ezpz Maturity.

The question I would leave the reader with — How do we make this process really ezpz?

What is stronger — the Written or the Spoken Word?

While some take written word to be inherently superior to the spoken word others believe that what is communicated verbally is inherently stronger than the written word.

This conflict existed for thousands of years. And different civilizations took different stands on this. But the conflict assumes greater importance in the 21st century, especially when ‘transliteracy’ skill (ability to learn from different media and from diverse sources — not necessarily in the written form or within a limited space or limited time period) is now considered to be a vital skill to survive and thrive in the present age.

How to make sense of this conflict?

May be a good starting point might begin by considering what Thamus, the god-king of Egypt, spoke to god Thoth, when he was congratulating Thamus on having invented the alphabet to produce written documents:

“…. this invention will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practice their memory. Their trust in writing, produced by external characters which are no part of themselves, will discourage the use of their own memory within them.

The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory but to reminiscence and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth.”

(Source: as quoted in de Santillana, p 348)

Today, we learn not only from books but also from many other sources, which are essentially based on human interactions in varied forms of communication through spoken words – some of which are storytelling, dialogs, discussions, debates, global conferences, workshops, negotiations, narrations, collaboration, sharing ability and evidences, coaching, mentoring etc. The media through which such communication flourishes are varied like, emails, cell phones, various social media platforms, direct experience, teaching …. etc.

Surely the volume of spoken word outweighs the written word in our present bit (binary digit) world where often the spoken word is presented in a written format.

If we look back, even two decades earlier, the memory capacity of our computers were going up by the day facilitating storage of ever increasing volume of data (written words). But the trend is now being reversed. Now we are using smart phone, tablets, audio, video, podcasts and net books, which have just enough memory to work smoothly. Software development is giving way to sharing information over shared platforms through development of specific applications.

And perhaps, when faced with increasing complexity, we are all forced to learn on the go — meaning instantly — in the here and now, with the full awareness that what we learn now might be replaced by new learning in the very next moment. The reason for this is simple — all complex situations are so unique that learning from one complex situation may or may not be directly translated to another complex situation, however similar that might seem to be.

Though the learning environment has become more complex than ever before the simplicity in this situation lies in the fact that we are increasingly relying on learning directly from direct human interactions in the form of varied types of conversations in which we become an intrinsic part of our personal learning experience.

For instance, the open learning culture that is expanding very quickly, fundamentally relies on the spoken word (videos, audios and podcasts) on diverse subjects (e.g. MIT opencourseware, Khan Academy) for learning to take place. Such videos are usually supported by brief notes and not elaborate text books (written word).

As I see it, there would be an exponential increase in learning through conversations that would rely more on the spoken word whereas the size of elaborately written documents would continually decrease and be limited to issues where correct transmission might be endangered.

In today’s world, to learn we must become a part of the process that produces the knowledge applicable to our needs. For that to take place, conversations would occupy the center stage of learning. In that case, spoken word would gradually assume greater importance than sole reliance on written words in form of books and textbooks.

It means that the way we would develop and use our mind-body complex would assume utmost importance in the coming years.

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.

Strange habits of Gunter Grass

Gunter Grass, novelist, artist, Nobel laureate and all-round agitator, died on April 13th, aged 87.

While writing, he had some strange habits such as:

1. It was important for him to say the words aloud while he wrote.

2. The writing of his long dense books was slow, punctuated by coffee and by drawing and sculpting in which he was not only gifted but also trained.

3. Many of his drawings appeared in the books and on their jackets often replacing texts when words failed him.

4. He spoke his mind as he wrote, chewing over the sentences with the same reflective relish he might devote to potato pancakes, roast goose or liver sausage.

My questions are:

1. Why did he do so?

2. Did such habits help him to do better at what he did?

3. What insights we may gain from the habits of Gunter Grass?

Reference:

The Economist, April 18th – 24th 2015, Obituary Gunter Grass — The beat of the drum, page 78.