May 11, 2015
Cheaper by the Dozen
Each of you possesses the most valuable item in the world. I don’t care where you work, where you live, or where you bank. Each of you is incredibly wealthy. Each one of you possesses something invaluable. You’re probably thinking I’m crazy because I haven’t seen your bank balance. :) But I’m not crazy. Because it does not matter if you have any of the tangible goods or resources of the world. There is only one resource you have that can never be replaced. You can’t make more, buy more, or borrow more. You can’t re-use it. This resource is your time.
Time is paramount. Throughout all of history there has been no discovery sought after as much as the quest for immortality. Humans have always looked for ways to prolong the inevitable death and thus the ending of their time. Dynasties rise and fall, wars are raged, empires are established, and then decay. Solomon mentions this inevitability when he says ashes to ashes and dust to dust. In spite of everything we do and accomplish, time presses ever onward. Time is of paramount importance.
Time drives us, time moves us, time consumes all of us. Therefore those things which affect time are also important. When we look at what consumes our time we start to look at how time is lost, or more directly how our time is wasted. Our time is our most valuable possession. We want to spend our time wisely. This interest in how our time is used – this is efficiency. And this is what we’re talking about today. How do we improve efficiency in our world, in our business, in our design?
I would like to share 3 stories with you today. 3 stories and 3 points. Very short, simple stories that I hope you’ll be able to see a connection and a common theme weaved throughout leaving you with a thought you can carry with you as you go.
I travel a lot for conferences. Most of my travel occurs via airplanes. Man, I love airplanes. The ability to move around the world so quickly compared to the old days. I would never have been able to survive a 3 week trip by boat across the Atlantic. It would have killed me I’m quite sure. I like to move fast. I like to get get where I’m going and get things done.
Airplanes are great. Airports however, are not always that great. How many have had the wonderful opportunity to travel via airplane? And how many have had the wonderful experience (err, great misfortune) of having to endure an airport? Yeah, they seem to go hand in hand, which is unfortunate because I would definitely skip the airport part if I could. Just the flying part for me please.
Because I travel so much my odds of misfortune are higher. I have a greater chance of missing a connection, losing my luggage, or experiencing the extra bit of lovin’ from a personal security screening. (That’s right, you know what I’m talking about. Usually I prefer them buy me dinner before we go there!)
Well, one of the worst feelings I think I’ve ever experienced is running through an airport terminal so I can catch my next flight. That’s a miserable feeling. On one trip I was passing through Washington DC to return to Europe. Man, I remember this like it just happened. I think I still to this day have nightmares about this one. The flight across the Atlantic only happens once a day. If I missed this flight I would be stuck in DC overnight and have to wait an entire 24 hours for the next one. My flight landed in Washington and I had 30 minutes to make my connection. Sounds like plenty of time. I grabbed my bags and began the brisk “walk” to the other terminal. Well suddenly I found myself in a queue (Like that? I’m using the Queen’s English).
A line. A security line! I had just gotten off a plane where not 1 hour before I had gone through security. Here now I was stuck in another security checkpoint. What a terrible inefficient process. I’m all for security. But let’s talk about this for a second. My flights are scheduled to give me 45 minutes between flights, I was delayed a bit so only had 30 minutes, regardless, not much time. I went through security initially, boarded the plane through the secure area, travelled on a secure plane, landed at a secure gate, and walked through a secure terminal to arrive at this security checkpoint.
Do you see my point? What an inefficient process! And I’m not even going to start on the actual security screening process. So horribly horribly inefficient. Heathrow is especially full of opportunities for improvement! If we have time I’ll share some of those with you too.
Well I won’t keep you in suspense any longer. I passed through security and rushed to my gate. At this point I’m no longer briskly walking, this is full-on jogging at this point. All pretense of self-respect and dignity were lost as I dodged the other travelers in my way. I made it to the gate mere seconds before they closed and slid, hot, sweaty, and out of breath into my seat on the plane. I made it. Barely…, but I made it. But I wasn’t alone, almost at the same time the person to my left dropped into his seat as well. He was holding a small cooler on his lap.
I realized he had actually been running with me through the terminal. We were both taking the same flight to Washington DC. We were both stuck in the double security situation. We shared a quick smile as if to congratulate each other for our fortune. Only then, sitting in our seats did I take the time to see what he held in his lap. The inconspicuous cooler had medical tape sealing it shut and several labels plastered on the side. I read one: Human Organ Inside.
A realization dawned on me, maybe you too as you listen to this story. While it might have been an inconvenience for me to miss my next flight it was much, much more to my seat mate. It was in a very real way a matter of life and death. In the medical field where the amount of time an organ can survive outside the body is measured in minutes, every single second counts. An inefficient process, a poorly executed strategy, excessive steps in a security screening could be the difference between life and death. Efficiency is important.
So here’s your first point I want you to remember.
This leads well into our second story. This story relates to the medical field (as you probably guessed) and involves some numbers. But don’t panic. I’ll make it fun.
That number is how many seconds you have in 70 years. A second seems so fast, so inconsequential. But lets look at a few facts. Wait! Interesting facts, not boring statistics! In a second you can blink 7 times. In one second a very fast human can run 39 feet (12 meters). A second is all it takes for a commercial jet to travel 800 feet. (Yep, had to bring my airplane back into the mix).
All of those are related to speed, but seconds can relate to other things as well. In one second 4 babies are born. In one second 2 people die. Although we often think that a second is such a small insignificant unit of time much can be happen in a second. Lives are changed. The world is moved. (Quite literally, the earth moves 18 1/2 miles every second). If we believe every second is important than we should make the most of each. We should find the most efficient way to do things so we can save those seconds.
Frank Gilbreth was obsessed with this idea of saving steps, saving motion, and saving time. By reducing the motions required to perform tasks he could complete work faster, and more efficiently. Frank is actually where the title of this talk comes from, Cheaper by the Dozen is an autobiographical book written by Frank’s son about the life and methods of his parents. The book title comes from the fact that there were 12 kids in their family and they would often receive attention when in public for being such a large family. Frank would joke that it was more efficient to have 12 kids because they were “cheaper” by the dozen. Obviously a bit of a joke but it represents the very real way that Frank and his wife Lillian would approach every situation. He studied motion, he studied efficiency and how to improve processes. Sometimes he did so in unique ways, sometimes in quite obvious ways, but always in order to improve lives. Let me share one specific story with you.
Frank would time everything. He would video a process (now this was old school type of video, hand-crank cameras and all) and then he would analyze the video and the time it took to complete a process. He’d break down the process into motions and determine how they could be improved to speed the entire process up and complete the task quicker.
During World War I Frank turned his attention to the medical field and the surgical procedures followed with injured soldiers. He saw ways he could improve the process and save lives. He studied hours and hours of surgical procedures and he is responsible for some of the same time-saving tricks that are used even today in hospitals around the world. Every time a surgeon turns to a nurse and asks for a specific instrument, Frank is responsible. He found this saved a tremendous amount of time during these life-and-death surgeries. But he didn’t just improve the operating room, he also studied the movements and activities of the post-op patients and established methods for rehabilitating soldiers to continue living their daily lives.
That’s powerful stuff. Frank Gilbreth and his wife Lillian most assuredly believed in the power of a second and the importance of efficiency. They saw firsthand how being efficient could improve or even save a life.
This is the second point I want to leave you with today.
Timeout: Now I know you’re thinking this is all great and quite interesting, but how does all of this relate or affect me and my work. Designer, developer, business owner, user interface developer, user experience expert, and everyone else I haven’t named. We live in a world where seconds matter; even the milliseconds matter. Studies have shown a 1 second delay in page response can result in a 7% reduction in conversions. Or more specifically if an e-commerce site is making $100,000 per day, a 1 second page delay could potentially cost $2.5 million in lost sales every year. And that’s just page load speed.
Seconds matter in other places too. If your design is confusing, or your process flow difficult to follow you exponentially decrease your user engagement. 1 second is bad, 2 seconds is far worse. It takes only 2.6 seconds for a user to look at your webpage and determine where they should focus. Be sure that you focus your users and provide a very clear path for them to follow. Your goal should be to keep engagement high and initial commitment low. Efficiency in your process will support this goal. Employing time-saving techniques, motion-saving clicks are all important parts of this process.
You may not feel that you’re saving lives by reducing excessive clicks on your website but you are absolutely improving them. Think of all those times you’ve been frustrated with inane checkboxes, excessive steps, and pointless clicks. Now think of the times you’ve been pleased with a process that works well. Do you remember how refreshing, how exciting that moment felt? Your life was improved. It may not be as direct an impact as Frank’s but I assure you, your work, when done right, improves lives.
Sometimes it’s obvious the way you can be more efficient; and at other times it takes a bit of creative thinking to find ways to save those valuable seconds. This is the fun part of our work. We get to use our imagination, we try things. Sometimes they fail miserably, but often we are able to make a difference. This leads me to my last story I want to share with you today.
Sir George Cayley, does anyone know that name? Probably not. Let me give you a different name and we’ll start there. Has anyone heard of the Wright brothers? Yep, that name is far more familiar. In fact, they originate from where I currently live, North Carolina USA. These two brothers, Orville and Wilbur, are frequently referred to as the first men to fly an airplane. Now there are some discrepancies and debate over exact timing and the result is a more detailed attribution would be they are the first men to experience powered, controlled, fixed-wing heaver-than-air human flight. That’s a mouthful. But there’s something in that description that’s important. You see, the Wright brothers although they are more well-known were not the first to think of this concept. Decades earlier, even centuries for some of the ideas, there were others thinking outside the box, thinking uniquely. Sir George Cayley was one of these individuals.
Sir George was from Yorkshire (See how this all ties together?) and in 1799 he discovered and proposed the ideas of aerodynamic forces, the fixed-wing concept, and the use of separate systems for propulsion and control. Sounds familiar. Now before this time humans were still trying to fly, and you probably remember the methods they attempted. There’s plenty of video footage archived if you’re ever in the mood for a good laugh. It’s quite humorous.
But here’s the important thing: George thought differently. He saw a different world. He looked at the same problem but from a different angle. In some ways that’s similar to our previous story with Frank Gilbreth. Frank thought differently too. He would button his shirts from bottom to top instead of top down because it saved 4 seconds! That is definitely thinking differently.
Sir George may not be as widely known or as well-recognized but he thought differently. And that’s the important thing to learn from this last story.
This is my final point I want you to remember:
Whatever your role is, whatever your occupation is you will be better if you allow yourself to see the world from a different point of view, think outside the box, entertain ideas, and encourage your own personal growth. When you see the world differently you solve problems in new ways. You find ways to be more efficient and save valuable time. Don’t get stuck in ruts. Don’t follow blindly along the paths of those who have gone before without testing and proving it to be the best route.
Be willing. Be bold. Be different.
I hope these three stories and points are helpful to you. I want you to remember them. When you return to your work and you sit down at your desk remember these three simple things: Every second counts. Saving time improves lives. See the world differently.
If you start your day with that simple thought you’ll accomplish great things. You’ll make the most of your time, you’ll improve the lives of others, and you’ll create incredible things. I’ll end by saying thank you. Thank you so very much for giving me your time. I trust you found it well spent!