When I was a young metallurgist, I experienced an interesting process while reading a technical article. Naturally, I was interested in the topic or I wouldnít have been reading the article in the first place. The first few paragraphs confirmed what I knew, and I thought the author was very intelligent. The next few paragraphs provided some information I hadnít heard before, and my interest was certainly perked. Then things went down hill. Some things were written that werenít supported by my experience. That was followed by some conclusions I knew were wrong. It wasnít until then that I decided to check who wrote the article. At that stage of my career, I didnít know too many people who wrote articles, but I knew this one. He was one of those people who spouted theories as fact. Any experimentation done to prove his theories was done under laboratory conditions and never verified in operation.
That experience started me checking out authors of articles before reading them. If I know the author, I know who might have something interesting to say and who not to waste my time reading. Of course, most of the time, I still donít know the authors, but Iíve developed some questions to help me evaluate articles.
Is an axe being ground?
Sometime itís easy to spot when an author is promoting something. If an author is from XYZ Additive Co and the article relates the wonderful things that a type of additive does, it doesnít take a genius to know to read the data carefully before deciding whether to try the new process. The article shouldnít necessarily be ignored, but it should be read with the awareness that the author is trying to sell something.
In most cases, itís not that easy to spot if an author has an axe to grind. Authors come from consulting firms, universities, or magazine staffs. It didnít take me too long to learn that some of those people have axes to grind as well. Itís not as apparent, but they do. I look for clues to see what and/or if the author is selling, to see where the conclusions are coming from, and whether the data supports them.
Is the size right?
Thinking about whether the data supports the conclusions, there is another consideration that Iíve learned to watch. Is the source of the data of a comparable size to where I am? I was burnt a few times taking data from laboratory experiments and putting the ideas into production too quickly. With melting, I found that different linings, charge materials, and stirring led to different results. Some things transfer very well from the laboratory to production, but Iím now careful about making leaps of faith.
Iíve found size to be an important consideration with management articles as well. I remember when Cost of Quality was the hot topic in foundry quality circles. Some people I respected thought it was the best thing since sliced bread. I started trying to apply it to some operations and ran into difficulties. It was easy to assign the cost of someone who did something all day. The difficulty came when I tried to apply it to smaller operations, and the person only did it for a small portion of the day. The cost of quality became arbitrary in my opinion.
Just as big businesses have to be careful with the value of using procedures that work well in a two-man operation, the small operation should be concerned when they read that the second junior accountant is responsible for the program. The small operation may not have the staff to make it work.
Has the author been there?
Another question I ask when reading or listening to someone is whether Iím hearing an idea or something that has worked. Ideas can be made to sound very good, but may not be very practical. When Michael McCaskey took over the Chicago Bears during the 83-84 season, I was pleased. We had a good team (Oh, do we Chicagoans remember the 84-85 Bears!), and we were going to have an expert coming in to run the show. He was a business professor and had written a book on running organizations. I knew we were going to have a long run on the top of the NFL. Maybe itís different writing about how to do something than actually doing it, but since then, particularly with management articles, Iíve wanted to know whether the person giving me advice has done it or only written about it.
Thatís not to say that every article or speech has to be given by someone without an axe to grind, referring to the same size organization as yours, and has actually been successful in doing whatever is being talked about. If you wait for all those things to come together, youíre not going to be doing much reading or listening to many talks; however, thinking about those things before leaping into something does prove helpful.
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