19 August 2010

To Hone, Not To Sharpen

The 'honing' stick is a classic piece of every knife set. The long cylindrical piece of ribbed steel is often mistaken as a 'knife sharpener'. It’s not. It’s a honing stick. You may think, as I did for many years, that sharpening and honing are the same. This would be a mistake. Honing and sharpening are very, very different things.

The process of sharpening is simple: drag the knife blade across the sharpening stone at a predetermined angle. The knife is dragged across the stone, yes a stone not a steel rod, until a new edge is formed. In the process of sharpening actual pieces of the knife blade are broken off as the steel grinds against the rock. Sharpening should only need to take place when the blades edge is destroyed.

How is the blade destroyed? As the knife is used to cut, the precise steel edge is forced from side to side until it eventually curls over. Maybe you haven’t seen a curled edge, but you’ve probably used one before. We call them dull knives. With a dull blade you can sharpen it, thereby removing the dull edge and creating a new edge and in the process removing part of the knife. The better solution would be to hone the knife.

The process of honing is equally simple as sharpening: drag the knife across the honing stick at a predetermined angle, about five times for each side. As the blade is dragged across the honing stick there should be a pleasant and harmonious 'zing' sound with each stroke. As the blade is dragged across the ridged honing stick, the curled edge is grabbed and pulled up, in essence uncurling the blade like a cowlick. The straightening of the blade makes it cut sharply and smoothly again – and here’s the reason for doing it – all without removing any steel from the blade. Thus, with the process of honing, the sharpness of the blade can be maintained along with extending the life of the blade almost indefinitely.

Let me take a moment and apply this to organizations: When a new process is rolled out in an organization, it is usually designed to cut a difficult problem into more manageable pieces. As time goes on the new process loses its edge as it tries to cut into the problem. As the new process loses its effectiveness managers might be tempted to sharpen the process again, again. The problem with sharpening is that the process is ground against the hard stone of bureaucracy, with each pass removing pieces of the blade. Over time the blade is destroyed and the knife is useless.

Instead of grinding the process into nothingness, managers should hone the process. This can be done by thoroughly reviewing the process and looking to see where the process might have curled over, thus causing the process to be less effective. Once the curling has been identified, then the process can be straightened so it can maintain its effectiveness.

One time honing is not enough though. With knives, honing should take place after each time the knife is used; each and every time. While it may not seem practical to review processes each time they are used, consider that a full fledge investigation is not needed. Instead, each individual completing the process can ask themselves a few simple questions: Did the process flow naturally? Was the next step always clear? Was there any place where the process hung waiting for a manager to make a decision that the individual could have made? Was unnecessary information collected, distributed or recorded? Are there any obvious changes that should be made?

With these few simple questions being asked after each process is completed the organization can use the cumulative knowledge of all the process workers to keep the process sharp and effective, or if needed consider the process destroyed and rebuild the process by sharpening it and trying again.

14 August 2010

No, We Can't Pretend That Airplanes Are Shooting Stars

The saying "Can we pretend that airplanes in the night sky are like shooting stars?" has been floating around as of late. To this question I give a big, adamant response "No!"

"Why not?" you may ask. I have two reasons why not.

First, there is a vast difference between the celestial event of a piece of space rock plummeting into Earth’s atmosphere and the mechanical dull drum of an airplane flying overhead. To catch an airplane flying in the night is simply a matter of time and location. All airplanes fly at a scheduled time along a designated route and as such any person who is: near or along a place that people want to fly to and standing outside at a time when people want to get there, will inevitably see an airplane in the sky. To see an airplane in the night sky, one would simply and an additional criterion to be looking only at night.

Contrarily, watching a shooting star requires being in the right place, at the right time and a large degree of luck. Shooting stars appear when a piece of rock that had been floating calmly in outer space, is suddenly whisked into Earth’s gravitational pull then burnt as it enters our atmosphere. Because the rarity of space rocks along Earth’s path around the sun, this doesn’t happen nearly as often as an airplane flying. Further, the quick flashy natural of shooting star, they usually last less than a second, means that your ability to see one is largely dependent on luck, chance or divine intervention.

If you are willing to replace a miraculous celestial event with a scheduled man-made event, why limit to the night sky? Why not pretend that airplanes in the day sky are like shooting stars? Would that be too cheap of an experience? What about birds flying? Are we concerned that it will be too common place? Consider that airplanes in the night sky are already too common place and that making the events more common place should be considered an acceptable payoff for the ability to place wishes all the time.

Second, there is a vast difference in the circumstances in which one can see an airplane in the night sky and the circumstances in which one can see a shooting star. In order to catch a glimpse of an airplane in the night sky, usually, you only need to look up at the sky. Except, you get a whole lot more than a glimpse, you can watch airplanes as they traverses much of the sky. If your eyes were good enough, you can often watch them from horizon to horizon, minus any trees that hang overhead. This coupled with their frequency robs the viewer of any awe. You can catch them all the time and watch them forever.

Shooting stars on the other hand can only be viewed in one of two circumstances: after long preparation or purely based on chance. Further, shooting stars are fleeting. You can only ever catch glimpses of them with your eyes. The glimpses can be so short you wonder if you even really saw one or they can be long enough to actually register what you’re seeing but even then they are gone quickly so you can’t really enjoy them.

There are four major meteor showers a year: the Quadrantids in January, the Perseids in August, the Leonids in November and the Geminids in December. Each of these is the result of Earth passing through the debris trails of various comets. Earth passes through these spots once each year on our annual trip around the sun. The meteor shower’s predictability allows for people to prepare excursions to observe and even photograph the showers.

There are of course other, smaller meteor showers throughout the year, but they are more random. You can only see these when the circumstances are right. These circumstances are set up as thus: Something bad happens, something really bad happens; the event itself isn’t necessarily such a bad thing, rather it is a bad thing in a long list of bad things that were added one on top of another until their combined pressing weight causes your calm to finally be shattered.

Once shattered you look around, scared out of your mind because you had everything planned out so well but none of it has worked out and now you are all out of plans. So, you run. You run out of your house to your car. In your car you drive. Anywhere with people is too close, so you drive far into the country, as far away as you can. Suddenly you’ve arrived to nowhere in particular and you pull over to the side of the road and get out of the car. You find yourself in a field and you start talking to the stars. It is only by chance that the moment after you spilled your soul out to God that you catch a glimpse of a shooting star. At that moment, it is as if God is quietly telling you "it will all be okay."

In both situations, catching a glimpse of a shooting star is far superior to the casualness with which one can catch sight of airplanes. For that matter, little can compare to the awe and marvel of watching the beauty of the night sky.

Anything less than a celestial event should not be considered an acceptable replacement for an actual celestial event.