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Simple and Positive

Have you ever tried to explain your job to a child?

Randall Munroe wrote a book called "Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words" that intends to describe (with helpful illustrations) various inventions and scientific subjects using only the 1,000 most common words in the English language. It's a tougher challenge than you might think.

It resonates with me since I find it difficult to explain my job when "non-technical" people ask. I suspect this is a case of not seeing the proverbial forest because of all the trees around me. As an exercise, I tried to describe a key concept, the standard process, to my 10-year-old daughter, in simple terms that she would appreciate.

We have a typically busy morning routine at our house, with everyone getting ready for work and school at roughly the same time. My daughter is familiar with my preference for a well-defined process, even if she didn’t know what to call it. I relate that to my professional life by saying we decide how to do things the same way each time, once we’ve learned what works. We do this so we know what we need, how long it will take, and other people know what to expect when we’re finished.

Putting it back in her terms, I wake her at 6:40 so she can be ready at 7:10, assuming she only has to do her normal stuff. When we get a last-minute issue, like having to find a shoe box for a class project, we’re not following the process. It takes longer to get ready and it can affect the rest of the carpool.

I’ve also tried to describe processes as being like recipes. They are rules that help us make the things we want. Of course, like processes, sometimes it’s interesting to experiment with recipes, and we can change them when we find a way to make something we like better. However, there’s a time for that, and it’s helpful to plan ahead. (This is a recurring theme in my parenting. She’ll thank me one day.)

Laura Albert McLay is a professor of Industrial and Systems Engineering at the University of Wisconsin. Her blog, Punk Rock Operations Research, covers a number of interesting, process-related topics. I was particularly inspired by something she posted, “Optimization means a quest for the best answers with the least trouble. Optimism means believing both objectives are achievable.”

One nice thing, I think, about explaining your work to kids is that you emphasize the positive. Maybe it’s pride, and wanting what we do to sound interesting, but it helps to remind ourselves that what we contribute matters.

Too often, we see processes and planning as chores related to compliance. I think pursuing efficiency in normal activities allows us to better apply valuable resources to solving problems that arise or to new opportunities. We are preparing ourselves and our organizations to succeed in the future.