Saturday, April 14, 2012

On the Division Of Labour

On recent travels, I've started to pick up a series of books, as in-flight entertainment, that entitled "50 ..... ideas you really need to know", where the "..." is basically any topic you can think of 50 odd concepts to talk about and explain them in a short "scratching the surface" kind of way.

Superficial, maybe, but entertaining, certainly. In this manner, I am now the proud owner of such a book on Philosophy[1], Mathematics[2], and, most recently, Economics[3].

One of the concepts the Economics book touches upon, is the "Division of Labour". In the book a couple of examples are used, like a pencil-factory (which apparently was one of the concepts that played at the time of the idea's conception), or the famous Model-T Ford production-line. However, nothing works quite as well to bring home a concept than really seeing it in action, first-hand...

Two of the cities I've visited in the last couple of months were Zurich, Switzerland, and Cairo, Egypt. The exact hotels where I stayed don't really matter, but a function of these hotels does; the housekeeping service.

In both cities I was staying over a weekend, so it happened that I was "in the room" when housekeeping came calling. Now, usually I don't like being around when they do. There's something very disturbing about other people cleaning up my mess around me. Generally, if this happens I go down to the lounge, or lobby, with a book or my laptop (like I am doing now) and have a cappuccino.

But, I digress. In both places, at at least one time each, I was there when housekeeping came by to do their job. It is the manner in which they did it, and the comparative differences, that were interesting, and something of an example of the division of labour.

In Zurich, when housekeeping arrived, I was, I would almost say, entertained, by one lady, asking me the usual hospitality questions (How are you doing? Did you sleep well? How is the stay so far? And can she be of any further service?), while a squadron of her colleagues swarmed in to perform the various functions required of their service. Their operation was executed with a near military discipline, and with the speed of a navy seals incursion. They were in and out in under maybe 5 minutes. I wouldn't be surprised if the entire hallway takes them under an hour if there are but a few pesky guests lurking inside when they come by. In Zurich, when you're staying at this hotel for business, it is rather unlikely you will ever meet the housekeeping staff.

In Cairo, I've frequently seen the housekeeping staff. They're a polite bunch, saying customary goodmornings and howareyous (though it's a bit evil to have fun at their expense if you respond in ways they don't anticipate, as their grasp of the english language limits their flexibility in that respect), but importantly, I see them lurking along the corridors for the better part of a day (if/when I happen to be around at various times of the day).

When they (well, he...) arrived, there was a polite apology for disturbing me, and he set about his labours. For the better part of 20 minutes a number of activities were performed, followed by a thankyouhaveaniceday.

While the quality of the work-that-was-done is not under scrutiny, the inconsistency of it perhaps is. In Zurich, they were legion, each with specific tasks, and each with very little chance of them forgetting their task, as they had but one, or a few. In Cairo, the housekeeping generalist had to track all of the tasks on his own. And neither did he seem to keep a checklist. Resulting in me some days ending up without shampoo, or without papers for laundry service, or other small things like that.

So what could bring an efficiency of the division to the concept of hotel housekeeping? Perhaps, in Zurich, somehow the staff is not paid by the hour, but paid for "the job". Complete the job faster, your relative hourly rate goes up and you have either more spare time, or you can service multiple hotels (oohh, contractor-based housekeeping!). In Cairo, it seems, time isn't money, or at least not as much. So the hotel can afford to have staff hanging around for the better part of the day. And, since the relative cost is still so low, there's frightfully little incentive[4] to improve on this...

Did I pull the concept of Division of Labour out of it's context? Probably.

Or did I?

Switzerland is one of the most developed countries in the "developed world". Egypt is struggling to escape a number of issues weighing down its economic and societal development. On the one end is a developed and 'over-educated' society dealing with a menial labour service that is by necessity local and cannot be outsourced. On the other end is a huge workforce[5], but one that desperately needs to improve on education, and ambition. The example might not be a true one of division of labour, but it surely is one of the effects of globalisation, and, somehow, the innovation the Western world needs to display to deal with their own level of cost...

[1] 50 Philosophy Ideas You Really Need To Know - Ben Dupré; ISBN: 9781847240064
[2] 50 Mathematical Ideas You Really Need To Know - Tony Crilly; ISBN: 9781847240088
[3] 50 Economics Ideas You Really Need To Know - Edmund Conway; ISBN: 9781848660106
[4] Rather, a counter-incentive is the apparent work-culture of long-hours-sedate-pace. It's something of an African thing I suspect...
[5] Demographics of Egypt

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Of an engineer, and his shoelaces...

One morning, slightly in a hurry to go catch my train to catch my plane to catch my plane (yes, plane, twice; I had a transfer), I realize that the shoelace of one of my hiking boots was, basically, not where it was supposed to be.

It was, actually,  blatantly lying beside the actual shoe, removed from the rings and clips that are the counterpart implement by which the lace performs its function (e.g. preventing the shoe from removing itself from my foot without manual intervention).

Now, I can almost hear you, dear reader, thinking; "Lace-get and you're on our way"...

Yet, "Slightly sheepish", may have been an accurate description of the look on my face when I grabbed the lace and, upon its inspection, realized that one end had lost its plastic cap. A result of which having been the horribly fraying of said lace's end. The actual sheepishness ensued upon the realization that catching my train and painfully re-threading a frayed lace were mutually exclusive propositions.

Quickly then, a short diagnostic was performed, to inventorise the options at my disposal. One that came to mind, was using the other end (which still had a plastic cap) to do a 'full backtrace threading'. Conceived, considered, and contended, as being a highly untested, and probably very timeconsuming, idea.

Somehow fixing the fraying end seemed a better option, but how to go about this concept...

As a true engineer I am taught to think both in solutions, and outside the box. So implementing these two principles, the Solution arrived upon was a chemical one, and out of the box I grab the Cyano-Acrylate. Known as nasty crap by some, and Super Glue by others, it offered the appeal of a fast and efficient measure and should put a solid edge on the frayed end which I intend to do the threading with.

Having applied the glue, then provisionally donned the shoe, got in the car and while being driven to the station (no, I'm not doing these things while driving myself) I realise that the, now hardened, end is far too thick to thread through the first set of rings.

By now a certain gloom is coming over me, the kind one gets when feeling scrutinized by Murphy just a tad too closely. Yet, not admitting defeat, it is decided that the next step would be to re-shape the solid end and form it into a narrower cone, which, is the intention, would fit through the metal rings...

Since no Dremel is part of my current standard travel equipment, and with little else at my disposal, I decide to use the tools nature has given me, and "bite down" on the hardened end to break the glue and flatten the shape. Surprisingly, this works.

Kind of.

A slightly-flattened, yet still-solid-enough-to-thread-with, shape, now exists, on the end of my shoelace that, to be fair, still doesn't fit through the first set of rings on my shoes. Additionally, the glue, which may form a bond that is super hard, apparently did not do so quite as super fast, and has left some interestingly tasting residue on some of my teeth. Staring Murphy in the eye, I refuse to succumb to the despair and resignation that are his hallmark. The teeth can be cleaned, and I still have a problem to engineer.

By now well into the trainride, and fiddling with the solid end on the shoelace I observe that a part of the lace will extrude from the ring, but it's not enough to get a grip on by manual means (e.g. my fingers) for effective pull. And the physical nature of a shoelace does not quite lend itself for a push-approach.

Confounded? I think not! From the depths of my System Integrator's Essentials I pull my trusted anti-static wristband. On said wristband resides a coiled wire. The coiled wire ends with a crocodile clip. A clip to securely make contact with an earthed object. ...Or the perfect tool to get a better hold on a slightly-exctruding piece of shoelace, for some serious pull and traction.

While I respect and heed Murphy, for to do otherwise would be folly, I, respectfully and humbly, declare victory over his schemes. The crocodile sways the balance in my favour and Murphy succumbs. The shoelace is through! And after this first significant victory, the home-stretch is almost too easy.

The lace was threaded, the shoe was worn, the train arrived, and my plane...

was late...