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Allan Sayle's Comment

Column 7: 31 January 2006.

Charles Dickens got it wrong

Of Mr. Gradgrind, Charles Dickens observed he failed to understand human nature in that he did not appreciate people are comprised of, “all those subtle essences of humanity that will elude the utmost cunning of algebra.” Have times changed?

Reading, ‘Riting, and ‘Rithematic, the “Three R’s,” will always remain the collective foundation of a good education. Which, though, if any, is the more important? For present purposes, consider the last and regard ‘rithematic as “mathematics”, a much larger universe of knowledge.

A recent article, Math will rock your world, (Ref. 1) may seem rather late as it tried to show how mathematics are being applied in business. Putting aside the fact that neither the Pyramids nor King Solomon’s Temple could be designed or constructed without a (then) state-of-the-art knowledge of mathematics, or that we must be grateful to the ancient Arabian world for algebra and our numbering system, (the words “algorithm, algebra and so forth are derived from Arabic), the age of industrialization began “rocking” with James Watt and beam engines, through the works of Thomas Telford and Isambaard Brunel with their epoch-making, calculated designs. All that is happening is that mathematics is becoming more widespread and prevalent. It is no longer just the subtly demarcated province of an educated white-collar elite: its deployment is required of the process owner masses. All are white-collar workers now.

Economic growth and prosperity are unachievable without the use of mathematics. Those countries where the associated skills are in short supply will be globally disadvantaged in coming years.

The outcome of a failing education system and the sheer laziness of today’s students wanting to take the supposed easy road to get rich quick, was elegantly described by Thomas Friedman, in his 2005 book, The World is Flat, which is essential reading. Cutting edge firms including Intel and Microsoft hire Chinese, Indian and Russian mathematicians (and science and engineering) graduates simply because they are not available in the USA in the quantity required. Left unaddressed, the eventual effect of the shortage and necessitated outsourcing on the American economy should be apparent to anyone with a modicum of intelligence.

Mathematics and the quality profession

A quarter of a century ago, Harold Geneen, one of the 20th centuries greatest corporate leaders, devoted an entire chapter in his memoir book, “Managing”, explaining why “The Numbers set you free”. In everyday life we use, manipulate, crunch and munch numbers in any number of processes (pun intended). We use them for navigation, for determining strategy, and for successful investing. We use them for making all manner of decisions. Indeed, probably no process proceeds without the overt or covert use of numbers. Effective management is impossible without them. Quality people must note that fact.

The increasing use of numbers has been central to the ascent of “quality” as a profession as its role expanded from pure inspection into quality management, deploying SPC along the way. Modern quality management professionals use mathematics for assessing avoidable costs, for performing cost benefit analyses and a variety of performance monitoring techniques.

Delegates to my audit courses are advised, when selecting an audit team, remember: “You cannot assess the application of knowledge by assigning ignorance to the task.” Assuming for a moment quality departments remain an organizational feature (a debatable matter that will be the subject of a future Column), and considering the services required of them, is it not reasonable for their denizens to be competent in and familiar with the mathematical tools used in the organization?

Even thirty years ago, as an engineering auditor, I would often repeat design calculations for pressure vessels, pumping and piping. I could do it because I knew the design formulae, the stress analysis methods – the mathematics. My trusty slide rule’s home was my briefcase; my first major purchase was an HP 65 programmable calculator for which I prepared any number of programs. Nowadays, such stuff is done using a spreadsheet and laptop. Mathematics was essential then for effective auditing – and it will continue to be the case.

Because tomorrow’s products and industries will be based on mathematics, tomorrow’s quality pros must have a strong understanding of mathematics. If you want to count you must be able to count!

So, what level of mathematical skills must a quality controller or quality manager (there is a difference) possess in coming years?

Certainly four-function mathematics that any child in a reasonable school should have mastered by the age of six. Add to that, traditional branches of mathematics (calculus, algebra, trigonometry, geometry, statistics), which were mere prerequisites to my engineering degree, are now basics. And, yesterday’s arcana, fractals, stochastics, and “fuzzy” logic could become tomorrow’s commonplace. What is happening?

HP 65 Calculator

Mathematics in the organization

Here are a few examples. In about every field of research, statistics are used to assess results. Data mining is at the heart of successful marketing, its core being mathematics. Knowing customer requirements will be dependent on the quality of the mathematics that produced the algorithm that identified the individual customer’s need.

Mathematical formulae representing an individual’s performance, skills, aptitudes, strengths and weaknesses are being used by some organizations for selecting the best teams for particular projects. Boy! Does that not infer an auditor will need to go further than just looking for a job description, job specification and c.v. because the selection process, the quality of which will determine the success of a project and the amount of avoidable costs that will be incurred, depends on the quality of the algorithms and data used.

Our DNA can be reduced to a digital image. Modern applications of mathematics, polytopes, combined with the power of computing, are gradually reducing to a single-line mathematical formula each of us and our individual habits. Perhaps Dickens had it wrong. But he did write those words in his book Hard Times. Maybe that’s what’s in front of those who shun their ‘Rithematic. Know your R’s or you might fall on yours?


1. Business Week, Jan 23, 2005

© 2006 Allan Sayle Associates. All rights reserved.

Web: www.sayle.com
Email: Publish@SaferPak.com



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