Saturday, February 20, 2010

Van Halen: Operations Experts

I'm reading Atul Gawande's latest book, The Checklist Manifesto. It's about how checklists have enabled incredibly complex tasks, like flying airplanes, and how they've improved results in other tasks, like surgery.

Checlists are essentially SOP's (Standard Operating Procedures). And they suffer the same flaw. It is easy to skip a step or mis-perform an action. If a mistake happens when you're following a checklist it can be very hard to catch.

Turns out  David Lee Roth had thought of that already — and figured out a solution.

When Van Halen was touring in the 1980's they had a massive checklist. It was over 100 pages long. They toured with a huge stage set, way bigger than most rock acts. The primary purpose of the checklist was to tell each stadium's contractor what to put where. Stage microphones here. Amplifiers there. The case of Aqua Net over there. Etc. Problem is, on such a tight rock and roll schedule, what with being drunk most of the time and carrying on, how could they tell if their instructions were followed?

Roth, the lead singer, would slip an item in the check list. Deep inside, buried among the tasks, somewhere on page 55 or so, would be Article 126: "There will be no brown M&Ms in the backstage area, upon pain of forfeiture of the show, with full compensation."

When he arrived at the show he'd check for the bowl of M&M's. If it had brown ones he'd demand the contractors review the entire checklist.

It's not a foolproof fix, of course. But as far as quick visual cues I think it's kind of brilliant. A trick worth borrowing.

It reminds me of the wise words of Homer Simpson. "Rock stars. Is there anything they don't know?"

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Does buying local reduce fuel consumption? Redux

In November I wrote this post about how long distance shopping may use less fossil fuel than buying locally.  I created scenarios on the back of the proverbial envelope but I felt they were probably in the ballpark.

If you don't want to trust my half-assed calculation it turns out someone else with far more cred has done the math. They reached a similar result. A chap from Carnegie Mellon wrote a paper on the topic in the Journal of Environmental Science & Technology. No, I'm not a subscriber. He was interviewed in Celia Barbour's recent article about online shopping (which mentions having "the perfect Reuben"). Here's an excerpt:
I couldn't reconcile my growing habit with my purported support for sustainable eating. 

Then I talked to Christopher Weber, research assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at Carnegie Mellon University, who recently co-wrote a study on the carbon footprint of e-tailing and found that it's surprisingly modest -- if you buy direct from the producer.

"The biggest reason you see greenhouse-gas savings is that you don't drive to and from the store," he says. Indeed, "customer transport" accounts for 65 percent of the energy spent on traditional shopping. "Then the store itself needs to be lit and heated," he said. Add to that distribution and warehousing, and the UPS guy starts to look more and more like Al Gore.
Here's a link to Chris's entire paper. If you want to lower your food carbon footprint he gives this advice:
...dietary shift can be a more effective means of lowering an average household’s food-related climate footprint than “buying local.” Shifting less than one day per week’s worth of calories from red meat and dairy products to chicken, fish, eggs, or a vegetable-based diet achieves more GHG [Green House Gas] reduction than buying all locally sourced food.

Last but not least, the caveat I gave in my last post still stands. There are many good reasons to buy local foods—especially vegetables in season. For one, they usually taste better.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Behold the Power of Cheese

Last time I got punched in the eye protecting someone's virtue I put a raw steak on it. Now there's a vegetarian solution. Turns out I could have used cheese.

From the annals of awesome, here's an article on how Olympian Lindsey Vonn is treating her skiing injury with what amounts to cream cheese.