Friday, August 31, 2012

Special Holiday Edition: Adapt or Die

It's Friday of a holiday weekend, so you are going to get something completely different to consider for the next three days.....

In 1966, Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press published a series of essays entitled Men, Machines, and Modern Times.  The author was Elting E. Morison, a distinguished MIT professor who was, among many other endeavors, fascinated by the process of invention and the forces that influenced it.  On reflection about how to best tackle his subject matter, Morison settled on what would appear to be a very odd laboratory for many of his studies: the military. After years of working with historical documents of the U.S. Navy, he came to believe that of all places in society, the military was the one least influenced by outside factors, and therefore, offered the best opportunity for "scientific" consideration of the subject matter.  So you get a sense of where this all goes, here's an excerpt:
In the early days of the last war when armaments of all kinds were in short supply, the British, I am told, made use of a venerable field piece that had come down to them from previous generations.  The honorable past of this light artillery stretched back, in fact, to the Boer War.  In the days of uncertainty after the fall of France, these guns, hitched to trucks, served as useful mobile units in coast defense.  But it was felt that the rapidity of fire could be increased.  A time-motion expert was, therefore, called in to suggest ways to simplify the firing procedures.  He watched one of the gun crews of five men at practice in the field for some time.  Puzzled by certain aspects of the procedures, he took some slow-motion pictures of the soldiers performing the loading, aiming, and firing routines.
When he ran these pictures over once or twice, he noticed something that appeared odd to him.  A moment before the firing, two members of the gun crew ceased all activity and came to attention for a three-second interval extending throughout the discharge of the gun.  He summoned an old colonel of artillery, showed him the pictures and pointed out this strange behavior. What, he asked the colonel, did it mean.  The colonel, too, was puzzled.  He asked to see the pictures again.  "Ah," he said when the performance was over, "I have it. They are holding the horses."
Obviously, by this point in history, the horses that had once been used to pull the guns were long gone, but the procedure had remained. It's a simple insight about institutional inertia and the inability to keep up with advancements in technology.  So, for your holiday weekend consideration, I now offer a story by this author along those same lines. It's called: Adapt or Die

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