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Wohlman’s Union Problem

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By 1896 Abraham Wohlman, who was getting on in years, was a relatively wealthy man. Originally from Bialystok he was living in Belz, Bessarabia an ancient town going back 1000 years, which at the turn of the 20th century had about 6000 people living within its boundaries. He owned a bookbinding shop and did enough volume that he was able to employ ten workers year-round. In addition to his bookbinding shop he also owned a book store from which he sold text-books and school supplies. He was very lucky to hold a contract with the local school system providing them with school supplies covering the elementary schools to the upper grades of the gymnasia, equivalent to a U.S. high school today. In the late 1800’s Belz, not one of the main population centers in Bessarabia, had no university. (The population of Belz in 2004 was estimated at about 2000 people.)

Though he was living with the hardships and restrictions associated with Czarist Russia, Abraham Wohlman lived a fine life. Married with 3 children (two boys and a girl), he was a very warm and compassionate fellow, who was well respected by and a supporter of his community. He had a nice house located on a side street in town, with a yard large enough that he was able to keep 3-4 cows, some chickens, geese, ducks and to grow vegetables. He provided jobs to others in the community and treated his workers as extensions of his own family, providing them with wholesome meals at his family’s table which they all shared together. When he wanted his two grandchildren to take language lessons, Abraham Wohlman hired a tutor named Benjamin Saltzman, my great-grandfather, to provide private lessons at his house.

A new worker at Wohlman’s, one who had served an apprenticeship as a bookbinder (which was started as young as 11 years of age), but still early career as a craftsman, would make about 8 rubles a month or 96 rubles a year. For some context a small 3 room cottage with dirt floors cost about 400 rubles.  Each worker at Wohlman’s had the right to join any political party that they so chose and a great diversity of political thought among the ten workers occurred, each assuming that their choice was the best and trying to convince the others to see things their way. It was a dynamic, thoughtful environment. But for a worker life was hard and economically in general people were not well off as they struggled to put food on their tables and to survive. Benjamin Saltzman had moved his family to Belz from Brateslav after working as a tutor for a number of years, bought a house on the Klezmershe Gesl or street of the musicians (each trade had it own street name) and opened a small grocery store. The store had dirt floors and it was not unusual for thieves to dig under the walls of the store to steal food, for they were hungry – times were tough for many.

A writer describes a first person account of the street itself in the spring– “The frost subsided and the ice began to melt. And the lovely warm spring sun likewise appeared in all its splendor and radiance. And even the Klezmershe Gesl became alive too, with all its mud and slush. It was impossible to cross the street even in the tallest boots. The mud swelled up so that it literally overflowed its boundaries onto the sidewalk, and it would not take long for it to pour into the houses themselves. I think that no other town in Russia had such deep mud as was found in the Klezmershe Gesl in Belz. The mud had respect only for that person who had boots that reached up to his knees.”

Fear increasing entered the lives of the people of Belz. During April 6 – 7, 1903 the Kishinev Pogrom occurred (Kishinev is the capital of the Bessarabia Province where Belz is located). Forty-seven people were killed, 92 critically wounded, 500 injured and 700 homes looted or destroyed during rioting.  Czarist authorities did nothing to prevent the attacks until the 3rd day. In October of 1905 a second attack occurred with 19 killed and 56 injured. (As a result of the first attack self-defense organizations arose which limited the number of deaths during the second). Those who were fearful for their safety reported that they “couldn’t go to the police, for we didn’t trust them”.

In 1905 as conditions in Russia continued to worsen, union organizers came to Belz and convinced Wohlman’s workers to join a union that they were setting up throughout the province. The union was pitched as a method by which the conditions of their lives, safety, security and standards could be improved. “Our shop also became involved in “the movement”. And six months later a strike was declared. To tell the truth, not every worker was pleased with the strike, because all those who worked for Wohlman respected him and even loved him. He treated the workers like his own children, and not like strangers”.

The new union that the workers had joined came to the conclusion that it was not right for workers to eat their meals in the home of the Wohlman, to be “treated as his own children”. Further they felt that wages should be raised enough so that each worker could decide on their own where they would eat their meals. By treating the workers as “family”, by having them partake of meals at Wohlman’s own table, and not paying them sufficiently for them to be independent of that somewhat feudal system and able to make decisions for themselves, the union felt that the treatment the workers received held an element of disrespect. Wohlman who had welcomed each employee as family saw it differently and refused to accept such conditions under any circumstances. He was able to provide for his workers at a reduced cost than what he would have to pay them for the same ability, for he fed them partly out of the bounty of his homestead. Providing sufficient wages to each worker to take their meals independently would cost him a greater amount.

One worker in Wohlman’s employ stated, “I can safely vouch that the workers did not enjoy as good a home in their own houses as they did at Wohlman’s. It was for this reason that he did not want to pay his workers for their food, since his house was filled with everything of the best, which cost him very little. And so the strike continued ever more stubbornly, so that it became impossible to reach an agreement.”

He continued, “I realized that the strike will not end very soon while the workers were marching around Wohlman’s house. Each striker had to find his own place where to stay and a place where to eat. I knew full well the difficult position of my family who, in their extremity, looked forward to my earnings from which even earlier I could not lay aside enough for their needs. And the union could give us no help at all. It simply had no money to pay out, for it had been organized only a short while before. I saw that if I stayed here longer I would soon be left without any money at all. This was my greatest problem at the time. I was sure of one thing; when and if the strike were settled I would again get work at the Wohlman’s, since he considered me his best worker and he liked me very much”.

While the details of what caused Wohlman’s union problem differ from the more common ones today the underlying issues are absolutely the same. It would be unusual though not unheard of for workers today to take their meals with the owner’s family as a way for the owner to save money on wages, however the underlying issues that it highlights, respectful treatment, sense of equity – fairness surrounding pay, benefits, control over one’s own destiny are very common causes of labor unrest. The uncertainty of the times with extreme violence breaking out, uncertainty about safety and security as well as poor treatment of the citizenry by those in authority, laid the foundations necessary for fertile union organizing. The strike at Wohlman’s, with workers walking the picket lines, lasted approximately one year. It was then settled with the workers receiving enough of a wage increase that they could choose to eat their meals wherever they wanted. While the strikers did come back to work at Wohlman’s bookbinding shop, what I don’t know from the material available to me is whether they were ever welcomed back at Wohlman’s dinner table.

© 2010 by Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved.

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October 18, 2009 at 11:45 am


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“In Germany, they came first for the Communists, And I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist;
And then they came for the trade unionists, And I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist;
And then they came for the Jews, And I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew;
And then . . . they came for me . . . And by that time there was no one left to speak up.”

Pastor Martin Niemöller (1892–1984)

Evil, for a short word it carries a lot of weight doesn’t it? Evil, it origins, effects, how to avoid etc. has been debated for about as long as humans have existed. One school of thought holds that evil is an absolute, with acts such as murder and rape falling within the definition of things evil. Another school of thought holds that evil has a relativistic definition, meaning what is considered evil changes over time depending on circumstances in the environment. For instance, historically, slavery in the USA was not considered evil by a large group of people who were dependent on its existence for their own well-being (a perfect case of cognitive dissonance if there ever was one).  Slavery today would be considered evil by most, though it is still practiced with an estimated 27 million slaves currently in the world. It is not limited to distant parts of the world but also exists in the USA, with the occasional court case providing a peak into a distasteful underbelly of American life that most of us would like to believe is not there, except that it is. Think about it, as you awoke this morning, had a cup of coffee or tea, your breakfast cereal, 27 million other people woke up as slaves, a number roughly equivalent to the entire population of several countries like Peru, Venezuela, Malaysia, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan or Saudi Arabia. What logic could possibly allow one human to think they have a right to enslave another?

Stanley Milgram conducted what was probably the most famous experiment on evil. He designed a study that showed how easy it was to create conditions that made “ordinary” people, people like you and me, people who in their wildest imagination could not conceive themselves as doing evil, do evil. In his experiment people were urged by an authority figure to keep sending an electrical impulse into a victim in the next room as punishment for failing to learn a task. The “victim”, a confederate of the experimenter, could be heard screaming and as the dial was turned up higher and higher, a consequent of the victim continuing to fail at the task, the screams grew louder, finally falling silent as the dial past a mark labeled “lethal”. Many of the people sending shocks into the victim continued to do so, with little to no protests, past the point of lethality. (No one was actually physically hurt in the experiment). Dr. Milgram’s work was done just after the conclusion of WWII as people were trying to figure out how ordinary Germans could behave as the Nazis did. It was a very disturbing study pointing out that many “ordinary” people when placed in a certain environment were capable of doing extreme evil. (I personally did not need an experiment to know that based on some experiences I have had.) But the question was asked, that was then, this is now, certainly people today would not behave the same way. This new younger generation is different and would not blindly follow orders, or so went the thinking. (Who are you trying to kid?) And in a nutshell, a replication of the Milgram study by Jerry Burger published in American Psychologist (January 2009), showed that people have not changed and the pressures that caused them to obey an authority figure in the post WWII environment still work today. No one should have been surprised by that finding.

C.S. Lewis in the “Inner Ring” (1944), writes, “in all men’s lives…one of the most dominant elements is the desire to be inside the local Ring and the terror of being left outside….Of all the passions, the passions for the Inner Ring is most skilful in making a man who is not yet a very bad man do very bad things.” What he was describing are the pressures that the social animal called Homo Sapiens feel to belong, not to feel excluded. For social animals feeling excluded is one of the more powerful punishments that can be given, driving people to behave in a manner that when later objectively examined looks evil. Being evil of course is not a binary condition, with your behavior being either saintly or evil, rather evil exists like many other things along a continuum.  So while there may be certain behaviors that are “inherently” evil, there are many others that are subject to interpretation and viewpoint, a view that may change the definition of evil over time and is dependent upon the society in which you reside.

Phillip Zimbardo in the “Lucifer Effect” describes in extreme detail the findings from his famous Sanford Prison Experiment. In that experiment he randomly assigned people into one of two categories, prisoners and guards. In short order during the course of the experiment the “prisoners” began to act like prisoners and the “guards” developed all of the worst behaviors you would expect from prison guards, including those that an objective observer would likely describe as evil. The experiment had to be cut off ahead of schedule as the “simulated” environment was proving to be detrimental to the mental health of the subjects. These behaviors were being generated from people who had no criminal record and had been tested to insure that were psychologically sound, or at least as sound as you or I.

On January 22, 2009 a Chinese court handed down death sentences for two businessmen who were convicted of intentionally selling dairy products laced with melamine that resulted in the deaths of at least 6 children. Others were given lengthy prison sentences. Clearly this was evil behavior, right? What if the businessmen did not know that the melamine was harmful and all they were doing is selling adulterated products, simply thinking that none of their customers would ever know. Would that be just as evil? In other words does doing evil necessitate the realization that you are doing evil or is doing unintentional evil just as bad as doing intentional evil? The Chinese government itself is accused of covering up the incident until after the completion of the Olympic Games, an interval that could have potentially led to the deaths of more children. Evil? Or did it serve the greater good to have a “harmonious” Olympic experience, showcasing the goodness that is in China? Is a lack of transparency evil? Lack of transparency has been cited as lack of trustworthiness by 24/7 Wall St. in this article on the least trustworthy companies in America.

John Thain, the former head of Merrill Lynch, who sold his company to Bank of America at the urging of and with financial assistance from the federal government, was forced out of his job when it became clear that the losses of Merrill Lynch were going to keep growing and now threaten Bank of America’s very existence. With the assistance of the USA taxpayers, Mr. Thain redecorated his NYC office to the tune of 1.2 million dollars. He delivered, ahead of schedule, bonuses to the employees of Merrill Lynch before Bank of American could do anything about it thereby increasing the risk to Bank of America and putting more of the USA taxpayer’s money at risk. There are rumors that he asked for a sizable bonus for himself. For an incredibly smart guy, is this simply incredibly poor judgment or could it be characterized as evil? In his head could he not make the connection between his actions and the future success or failure of Bank of America, the risk in which he was placing hundreds of thousands of jobs or did he simply think he would not get caught?

Bernie Madoff, the “supposed” investor who was actually running a ponzi scheme was clearly evil, as his action have destroyed the financial well being of thousands of individuals and charitable organizations forcing some to close and a number of individuals to commit suicide from despondency. My guess is that he will be found to be manifesting psychopathic symptoms as I don’t know how else someone would be able to maintain that fraud for such a long period of time. Is your behavior evil if you are mentally ill? Or by definition are all evil behaviors carried out by mentally ill people? Other executives who were likely sure that they were doing the “right” thing or would not get caught would include those from Tyco, Enron, WorldCom, etc. Were their actions evil, extremely poor judgments, and manifestations of mental illness, extreme arrogance, or simply conforming to peer pressure, going along with the group in order to feel part of the Inner Ring?

Future generations might look back at us and ask how we as a society could have been so evil as to allow the earth to degrade as we did, causing an uncertain future to unfold for them. Didn’t we care about our children, our descendents? How could we allow segments of our society today to go through life as second class citizens, denying them the rights that others are allowed to enjoy? Isn’t that evil? Will we look back at some of our actions after 9/11 and question whether or not we as a society allowed evil to occur? Torture? The degradation of our civil liberties? Isn’t that what the founding fathers fought for in the first place?  I could list out atrocities that are happening in various corners of the world and many people would agree that the actions that are occurring in those varying places are evil. But it rapidly becomes an overwhelming list.

The sad part is that most, if not all of us have within us the capacity for evil, causing harm to another individual, if placed in an environment that brings it forth. But most of us if not all of us also have the capacity to do good if placed in an environment that brings that forth. (We will exclude those with psychopathology). Paying attention, being consciously aware of the consequences of your actions and constantly questioning the rationale for why certain things are done or why certain rules exist is one way to help prevent evil. If we start small, one step at a time, perhaps we can begin to move the dial on how we treat each other and the degree of harm we intentionally or unintentionally cause each other. But that will happen only if we want it to.

© 2010 by OrgVitality, Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved.

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October 18, 2009 at 11:36 am

May you find what you are looking for – an Update

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Described in this posting from just about a year ago is the case of Filipino nurses who were charged with endangering the welfare of their patients by walking off the job. To provide some closure, a court has now ruled that the nurses 13th Amendment rights had been violated by the nursing home that they worked for. Yes, that is the 13th Amendment to the USA Constitution that prohibits involuntary servitude. You see the nursing home in which they worked had clearly violated their word, in terms of working conditions and salary and then tried to keep the nurses working there against their will when they chose to depart, a violation in the court’s opinion of the prohibition against slavery. All charges have been dropped.


“May you find what you are looking for” is described as the 3rd in a series of 3 increasingly severe Chinese proverbs that are considered to be curses. (The actual origins are somewhat murky). Finding what you are looking for is a curse? How is that possible? Does finding what you are looking for create a situation where you no longer need to strive, no longer need to have any initiative – is that the curse? If you find what you are looking for is the meaning of your life gone, the notion being that humans need to have constant goals, need to feel that they can always do more, can always improve and if not they become “empty”? Is that why you read about so many unhappy rich and famous people – because they have found it and have no where to go? While this may be the case in the ultimate sense, in our more ordinary day-to-day lives I don’t buy it. You may find parts of what you are looking for but you are of course never done.

NOVA, a series that appears on PBS recently ran a segment titled “Family that walks on all fours”. It was about the handwalkers, a couple in Turkey whose 5 children could only walk in a quadrupedal fashion, moving along with the assistance of both their hands and feet. Any attempt at walking on just their feet had them falling over in short order. Through MRI brain scans and genetic research it was determined that the children suffered from a recessive mutation of a gene which caused the cerebellum, the portion of the brain that controls balance and locomotion, to be vastly undersized. The father of the impoverished family living in rural Turkey passionately states that he would give everything he has, including literally the clothes he was wearing, if his children could walk in a normal fashion. May you find what you are looking for. Given the remoteness of the family the children never had any kind of medical treatment or physical therapy for their condition. One of the researchers contacted a physical therapist who brought a simple walker for the children to use and installed parallel bars that they could exercise upon and practice their balance. After a year of therapy the children mostly in an independent fashion were bipedal, walking, albeit a bit shakily, on two feet. In an interview, one of the daughters of the couple who looked to be in her late 20s or so, indicated that she desired to go out and meet people and find a husband so that she could have a family and children of her own. I don’t think her life would become empty if that came to pass. May you find what you are looking for.

Here in NY there has been almost a constant shortage of skilled nurses for as long as I can remember. Hospitals and other care facilities have long search high and low for nurses to work here in the metro area. Several institutions have recruited from abroad and have had particular luck recruiting in the Philippines by offered signing bonuses and even in some cases providing housing. A striking article the New York Times describes Philippine nurses who now await trail on charges of endangering the welfare of 5 chronically ill children and 1 terminally ill man. It is claimed that they endangered the patients in their care by walking off their jobs without sufficient notice. This was done they stated because of broken promises and shabby working conditions. (If the conditions were shabby for the nurses, I can’t help but wonder what they are like for the patients). The patients suffered no harm however. Each of the 10 Filipino nurses could face a year in jail and the loss of their nursing licenses – their means of sustaining themselves. Lets make the assumption (a fairly safe bet) that people who enter the nursing professions do so because of good intentions, a desire to help others and to care for those of us who are in need, and not because it is a path to quick riches. For these nurses to walk off the job without notice and potentially endanger patients, the conditions are likely to have been severe. And while it is hard to know based on the information in the paper, the prosecutor may be barking up the wrong tree and should be looking at the conditions in the location where the nurses were from. It seems like the nurses are simply looking for a place where they can ply their trade in a professional manner and care for their patients. May they find what they are looking for.

There is an old fable that has a mid-wife attending the birth of two children within a few hours of each other. One child born was the king’s son, the other the son of the local village baker. The mid-wife (due to reasons that I don’t think you really want to know about) switched the 2 children at birth just to see what would happen. The king’s replacement son, with the heritage of a baker, grew up with all the benefits that you would expect a king’s son to have and grew into a noble ruler. The baker’s replacement son, with the heritage of nobility, grew up to be one of the best bakers that the village had known under the tutelage of his loving father. May they both find what they are looking for.

Finding what you are looking for, finding contentment, in my estimation is not a curse and never finding what you are looking for, not even a part is no blessing.

© 2010 by OrgVitality, Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved.

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October 18, 2009 at 11:31 am

Confidence Too

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How do you think you would be received if you embarrassed people in power either political or religious power, not by claiming more or perhaps better knowledge, but simply by asking logical questions that pointed out inconsistencies and inadequacies in their decision-making, showing that the rationale for the various beliefs that they held dear was full of holes? What if you were so confident that your questioning approach was a method that could be utilized to uncover the truth and create a path toward greater understanding, and perhaps better decision-making, that you incessantly applied it every day until you had a both a following and a significant group of detractors?  If you were Socrates, causing that embarrassment would lead to the death penalty on charges of corrupting the youth of Athens and disbelieving in the ancestral gods. He was so confident in his approach, now called the Socratic Method that he was willing to die for his beliefs.

Where did that level of confidence come from? How could he be so sure he was right? In essence he did not believe he was right about the content of anything, about his knowledge, what he stated he had was “an open awareness of his own ignorance”, a belief that he felt that those in power did not possess. What he believed in was his method, his approach that if followed would lead to greater insights, and that ordinary people could be taught to question traditional notions and by doing so would be leading a more fulfilling life. Heresy! His belief in his questioning approach was so strong that during his trial he is reported by Plato to have said, “The unexamined life is not worth living”, as he rejected offering up exile or silencing as alternatives to the death penalty to be imposed by drinking Hemlock.  How many scientists do you know today who would be willing to die for the right to conduct experiments, or follow a line of inquiry in order to do hypothesis testing?  

It is speculated by some scholars that the charges were brought against Socrates because of a sense of pessimism that had engulfed democratic Athens after their devastating loss in the Peloponnesian War to the oligarchic Spartans, a loss of confidence in their political system, and the hunt for a potential scapegoat. You can almost hear the maneuvering, the rationales being offered as to why Athens lost to its rival. “It is that trouble maker Socrates, always questioning, tearing us down, trying to destroy our way of life, never following our lead. He has corrupted our youth by sowing doubt and has brought down the wrath of our gods by questioning their legitimacy. Death to Socrates!” It is easier of course to look back at the ancient past and to state that their behavior appears silly, for we would never act that way today, tearing down those that question our beliefs, would we? 

What is confidence? How is confidence acquired? Why are we confident?  What are the consequences of a loss of confidence? From a scientific standpoint, confidence can be described as being certain that a hypothesis is correct, and through research numbers can be ascribed to your findings which are interpreted or hedged using a confidence interval (99% or 95% confidence intervals being generally accepted standards), but it is also a psychological construct that is generated by and in what the individual believes to be true, personal hypotheses, if you will. An accountant might say, “I have absolute confidence in my facts and figures and I will stand behind them 100%.” I can also have confidence in my political leadership, my religious beliefs, my doctor, family members, my mailman, my lawyer (well, maybe not). But confidence regarding individuals or institutions and in what you believe to be true about them is often limited to certain very specific circumstances. I have confidence that my mailman will deliver my mail, he has a very good track record over the years, and I know he has the US Post Office standing behind him to support him in his efforts. And while I have that confidence in my mailman, I will not have confidence in him to interpret my EKG results. That piece of confidence I will reserve to my doctor, who I have confidence in because of her track record as my doctor (she once saved my life when I had pneumonia), experience, training, and because of the hospital she works at, which gives her legitimacy because I am going to assume would not let her practice there unless she was competent. In both of these cases I have confidence in these people, in specific circumstances because of their own personal characteristics and because of the organizations with which are somehow affiliated, either through training, experience, or employment.       

Confidence is very commonly used and fairly widespread. There are formal on-going efforts to measure Investor Confidence, Consumer Confidence, Purchasing Managers Confidence, and CEO Confidence. There are numerous self-help courses aimed at improving your self-confidence in a wide variety of situations, there is the statistical use of confidence intervals and confidence limits, politically some governments face no confidence votes, and on the dark side of the law there are criminals called Confidence Men. Our current economic situation has been called by some a Crisis of Confidence and some founding fathers somewhere thought it was a good idea for the future of their towns to name them Confidence including, Confidence, Iowa, Confidence, California, and Confidence, West Virginia.

Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

October 18, 2009 at 11:23 am

Peanut Butter, Anyone?

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You have been given the responsibility to catch potential terrorists at an airport. You have complete control over developing procedures to screen passengers and weed out the terrorists as they try to sneak through your security. The burden that has been placed on your shoulders is immense. If a terrorist gets through lives could be lost. If the terrorist incident is then linked to a particular country a war could ensue resulting in the deaths of thousands. Travelers are counting on you to protect their safety as are your fellow citizens and your country. As you consider what kind of screening process to develop, you can be sure of one thing; whatever process you come up with, it will be flawed and will result in errors – guaranteed.

You are a sixteen year old girl who is scared to death that you might be pregnant. You attended a party at a friend’s house and while you had no intention of disappearing with that boy, the hormones were surging and things got out of hand. A few weeks later you confide your fears in your best friend, she goes down to the local drug store, summons up the courage, and buys you a pregnancy test. You take the pregnancy test into the bathroom and follow the instructions. You feel that your whole future hangs in the balance, depending on how the test results come out. There is one thing that you may not know, the test on which you feel your future depends upon is not 100% accurate and if you are nervous as you take the test and do not follow the procedures exactly, a percentage of the time the test will tell you that you are not pregnant when in fact you might be, or it may tell you that you are pregnant when in reality you are not. One such home pregnancy test in 2004 was found to be in error 30% of the time.

You are a 50-year old male and you religiously monitor your health, having an annual medical checkup. During your most recent annual medical checkup the doctor notices some symptoms, weight loss, pain in the upper abdomen, jaundice, dark urine, some blood clots. These are all symptoms of a potentially lethal cancer which kills the vast majority of those afflicted, or they could be symptoms totally unrelated to cancer. The doctor orders more extensive tests, trying to reduce the potential for a misdiagnosis and you begin to think of your wife and children and what the future might hold for them. The additional tests come back positive, you are found to have cancer, a cancer that you have likely had for a few years. Why wasn’t it detected during an earlier physical? There is no reliable test, one with an acceptable error rate, for that type of cancer in its early stages and it is usually only detected when it is quite advanced.

You are a quality control inspector at a peanut processing plant. Once an hour you draw a sample of peanut paste off the line to test it for any contamination. You take your sampled paste to your inspection room and one test you conduct is for salmonella. The results of this test are not available until the next day as the salmonella bacteria has to be cultured in the lab in order to be seen and the test successfully conducted. Today’s production batch sits in storage awaiting your confirmation that it is safe and can be shipped out. You are feeling some pressure from shipping who are awaiting your results. You may or may not know of the error rates that your screening tests typically have, but have been instructed that if your test comes back positive to re-run it to see if the positive findings happen again.  While I don’t know the error rates of these tests myself, lets hypothetically say that if all procedures are correctly followed, with the culture allowed to grow at the right temperature for the right period of time, a test could hypothetically, say 10% of the time, report no contamination when there is contamination. If the test was run 10 times, by chance alone, one of those times a theoretically contaminated run of peanut paste will be given a clean bill of health. Said another way, if 10 samples from a contaminated production run were taken, with a 10% error rate, it would be normal for one of those tests to report no salmonella, even when it is actually present.  If unscrupulous people wanted to use only that false report of no contamination and ignore the positive results, contaminated peanut paste could routinely enter the market.  It is somewhat disturbing that a supplier of tests for salmonella uses words like “confidential” and “little training required” as selling points for their tests on their website. Customers of all types deserve and need to demand transparency and complete disclosure.

The two most common errors in any decision-making process are called false positives (Type I) and false negatives (Type II). A false positive is when a test or the decision making system says that something is there, or you should take a course of action when in fact you should not. Are those blips on the radar screen really incoming missiles? If I assume they are and take retaliatory action against what are actually birds flying in formation, I am guilty of false positive decision making, and perhaps of starting WWIII. If I assume, based on the information I have, that the economy is in a downward spiral and that my business is going to go downward with it, and I take action based on that assumption, I may create a self-fulfilling prophecy; cutting back on the resources I need to fulfill orders. And if I got it wrong and the economy does not go down, I have fallen victim to a false positive and have missed business opportunity.  False negatives are when your results or logic lead you to believe something is not there when it fact it is or you forego a course of action when you should have taken it. If you assume those blips on the radar screen are birds and do nothing when they really were missiles, that is a false negative error in your decision making.

Many times in accepting a higher incidence of false positives when the consequences of you taking action are not horrific, you are taking a more conservative approach.  If for instance, it is your responsibility to maintain a positive working environment and to prevent unionization in your company, you might take action when your employee survey scores are more favorable, accepting a more sensitive trigger point, the point at which you take action, but you will in all likelihood be taking some actions that you did not need to. That might be more acceptable then setting a tougher more rigorous trigger point leading to fewer false positives, but in that case you may miss some cases where you should have taken action and did nothing.

No matter what anyone says to you about the accuracy of their testing or decision-making procedure and regardless of whether we are talking about correctly identifying terrorists as they pass through an airport, medical tests, food inspection tests, personnel selection tests, unionization probability surveys, interpreting blips on a radar screen or most other decision making processes, they are all subject to error rates. Do not believe otherwise and anyone who says otherwise is selling snake oil or perhaps contaminated peanut oil. Increasing the sample size and replication are two keys to reducing error rates, however not always. (Other ways of improving your decision making include, increasing the sensitivity of your measurement, or measuring device, using completely different approaches to come to the same conclusions independently, for instance a second opinion or two or more different types of tests that measure the same issue, or establishing a baseline measures which you can then compare future measures against.)

When the phlebotomist draws a sample of blood from your arm to test for the presence of a certain bacteria, what they are drawing is a sample, which may or may not contain the pathogen. If all of the blood was drained from your body and carefully examined the doctor would know for sure whether you were infected, but moving from a sampling technique to examining the universe (all the blood in your body) would likely kill you. Sometimes enlarging the sample size just won’t work. In this case replication might be the answer. If over the course of a few hours or days the test was repeated a few times and each time the answer the test gave was the same, you could be much more certain that the correct conclusion had been reached. (Doctors typically use multiple different approaches to diagnose illness, examining you for a series of symptoms, x-ray, MRI’s, blood work, physiological appearance, pain etc. all pointing to the same conclusion and yielding an increased likelihood of a correct diagnosis.)

Sometimes increasing the sample size is the best course of action. If we wanted to know if male vs. female voters had differing opinions on whom to elect for president of the United States, we could pull a representative, random sample of people likely to vote containing about 700 females and 700 males, which would tell us with an accuracy of +/- 5 points how females vs. males would vote, with 95% confidence, assuming a 100 percent response rate, for it is not the number in the sample that is absolutely critical but the number of responses received. These 700 females and 700 males are acting as representatives of all the females and males who are eligible to vote in the presidential election. But in a tight election being within 5 points of what will actually happen may not be good enough, for we could end up with a false positive or false negative in our conclusions and so we need to increase our sample size. If we were able to get 1200 female and 1200 male responses to our political poll we would now be within 1 point of how men vs. women would cast their vote with 95% confidence, yielding a more accurate conclusion.

There are less commonly mentioned types of errors in decision making processes and can throw off your ability to make consistently appropriate decisions. One is called a Type III error and that is when you come to the right decision, but for the wrong reason. Say you get back the results of your web purchased salmonella lab test on the peanut butter and it shows that the peanut butter is uncontaminated, and in reality the peanut butter is uncontaminated, but the test you used was not really capable of distinguishing between contaminated and uncontaminated lots of peanut butter. In that case you came to the right conclusion simply due to blind luck. Your results in this case may not be consistently reproducible or replicated.  If we make the assumption for a moment that it is rare for a batch of peanut butter to be contaminated, if our worthless test came back each time saying the peanut butter was clean of bacteria, it would be right most of the time, but still not contributing any worthwhile information. Remember the old saying; even a broken clock is correct twice a day.

A tarot card or horoscope reader is guilty of making Type III errors. In this case the reader reviews the cards and makes an interpretation that may or may not come to pass. If it does come to pass the customer is amazed at how the reader could have known, predicting the future. The reader knew simply because when you make vague or general predictions the human brain, which wants to believe, can fill in the blanks, a Type III error big time.

A Type IV error is when you take incorrect action based on correct findings from your testing or decision-making assessment. In this case say you use a selection battery to determine if a candidate is a good fit as a potential employee for an organization. The test administrator gives the test and scores it. The test is a good solid test, the right conclusions are being drawn, but then the wrong course of action is set upon for whatever reason. Or if a doctor sees a patient, orders tests to determine if an illness is present, correctly determines that is it from the test results, but then orders an ineffective treatment for the illness that is a Type IV error.

If we return to our airport, where you are charged with stopping terrorists, if you develop an assessment screen for passengers as they pass through security, and your screen is in fact measuring attributes that correctly identifies terrorists, but for whatever reason they are still getting on the planes, that would be a Type IV error.

Clearly there is more to developing tests and decision-making paradigms than meets the casual observer’s eye. Doing it right takes time and effort. Snake charmers and so-called gurus exist all around us, ready to take whatever advantage they can and in many cases today it is a buyer beware type market. But I am cheered in that I do know a lot of people who want to do it right, in fact most people, and they are working at the highest levels of their various professions.

© 2010 by OrgVitality, Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved.

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Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

October 18, 2009 at 11:19 am

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