Category Archives: Lessons from Science

Toxic: Lessons from Science

Toxic chemicals, lessons from scienceI’ve seen a number of articles about toxic bosses, or toxic workplaces recently, and I’ve heard some harrowing stories; the boss who creates arbitrary rules and then breaks them, the manager who blames everyone else – every time, the idea thief, the company that expects staff to be flexible but makes no allowances for genuine personal crises. I’m sure you have more examples to add to this list.

So why do we apply the term “toxic” to a workplace?

Merriam-Webster online defines toxic as “containing or being poisonous material especially when capable of causing death or serious debilitation”.

In science toxic chemicals are those that cause damage to an organism, organ or cell. In examining the impact of toxins scientists will consider the amount of toxin taken, the length of exposure, and the health of the organism prior to exposure,

If an organism has a long exposure and a high dose the impact will be greater, in fact there are many chemicals that are safe at a low dose by dangerous or even lethal at a high does. Vitamin A is an example, as humans we need small amounts, but cannot process large amounts, if we eat more vitamin A than we need we store the excess in our livers where it accumulates and in extreme cases leads to Hypervitaminosis A.

We also know that toxicity depends on the organism, most toxins are species-specific, and on the health of the organism. Healthy people break down protein they’ve eaten, and their kidney’s work to remove any toxins generated in that process. But for people who have damaged kidneys a high protein diet becomes toxic.

Could a workplace be that bad?

Short answer; yes.

Long answer; yes, poor work conditions, overwork, lack of control at work all contribute to stress at work and stress has a direct impact on your health in a number of ways. Toxic workplaces are a health risk.

What can you do?

If you find yourself in a toxic workplace as employee what can you do? And by toxic I mean more than the mild disfunction of most companies, to a level where your health could be impacted. There are three principles you need to stick to as you move out.

  • Understand that it’s not you, it’s them
  • Stay professional, both in your work ethic and your behaviour
  • Plan to exit with dignity.

You’ll note that I haven’t suggested trying to change the company, these are all coping strategies. The larger the company and the more toxic it is the harder it is to change, it will generally only happen following a crisis when there is a leadership change. My recommendation is to look after yourself first, and find a new role in a happy company.

As a manager or executive your options are greater, you may be able to change the work environment for your part of the organisation.

There’s a TV series called “Undercover Boss“, which has a simple premise of a boss going into the field disguised as a new recruit or someone returning to work after a career break. In the episodes I’ve seen the disguise was rumbled just once – when the company employee noticed the soft hands of a supposed experienced labourer.

In pretty much every episode the CEO learns the same lessons including;

  • when people get to make decisions about their work they flourish
  • head office makes some lousy decisions
  • you need to listen to your employees – and so does your management team.

If you recognise that your workplace is toxic and you’re in a position to change it, get out there and listen to your staff. As you listen, and act on what you hear, you’ll start to rebuild trust.

Trust is an antidote to toxic workplaces, in the same way that we have antidotes against the toxins of poisonous animals. It won’t fix everything immediately, there will still be scars, but the organism will begin to recover.

Image: Psychic Chemistry  |  Stefano Petraz  |  CC BY-NC-ND2.0


Koalas and Quantum Computing

koalaHow do you make computers faster? And why would you do that?

For the general and mundane tasks we do the computers we currently use are fast enough. I think when people complain that their computer is slow it’s more likely to be a network or internet connection that is causing the problem.

For scientists and researchers computers are fast enough for many problems, but far too slow for problems that are mathematically hard. Problems such as predicting properties of molecules in order to find a superconductor that works at room temperature, predicting the efficacy of medicines (rather than the trial method we now use) or creating a secure internet using quantum cryptography.

A quantum computer will work faster and enable us to solve these problems, how does it work? Leo Kouwenhoven, Professor of Physics at the Delft University of Technology, spoke at The Next Web Conference in Amsterdam last month. I was there, and I swear that for about two seconds I understood how quantum computing works.

It’s a long time since I studied science and even longer since I studied anything like physics so I was somewhat out of my depth but I followed it professor Kouwenhoven’s explanation and it made sense at the time.

My brain has a handy habit of translating concepts to analogies, and how I understand this to work is that classical computers – the ones we have now – solve problems using binary calculations, which is a bit like playing twenty questions.

In the game of 20 questions one player things of something, a animal, a country, a food. The other player tries to guess what it is by asking closed questions; so the answers can only be yes or no.

Question Response
Are you an animal? yes
Are you found in water? no
Are you found on land? yes
Are you found in Africa? no
Are you found in Europe? no
Are you in Australia? yes
Are you a reptile? no
Are you Koala? yes

It’s a very binary process, with each question you get one more piece of information.

But if you could ask an open question “What are  you?” You’d get the answer “koala” straight away. Of course it wouldn’t be much of a game. But going back to the quantum computing analogy, the open question and response is like the super-positioned particle – you get more information on each enquiry.

It’s exciting, the predictions are that quantum computing could be solving some of these “mathematically hard” problems within 10 or 20 years.

Image / Koala / Nicki Mannix / CC BY 2.0

Lessons from Science – Rate Limiting Step

Screen Shot 2013-06-03 at 9.12.17 PMI think most of us can grasp the idea of a bottle neck pretty easily. It’s the narrowest part of a bottle, and will limit how quickly you can pour your wine.

The term also gets used in business, where the step in a process or project that has a rate slow enough to be determining the completion time of the entire process or project.

A similar concept exists in chemistry, where one reaction in a series of reactions occurs at a slow enough pace that it determines the overall speed of the chain of reaction, it is called the rate-limiting step. I learnt about it in biochemistry 101, where metabolic pathways such as the break down of ethanol have an intermediate rate limiting step, the formation of Acetaldehyde which occurs quickly, followed by a slower breakdown of Acetaldehyde to acetate. It’s the build-up of Acetaldehyde that causes the physiological effects we associate with alcohol. Which also explains why if you drink slowly enough you won’t ever get drunk, whereas if you drink quickly the effects are soon felt. It was worth going to university just to learn that.

In a chemical process you get a buildup of whatever precedes the rate-limiting step, and you can occasionally increase the reaction speed by increasing temperature or adding a catalyst.

Similarly in a business process the slowest step determines the overall speed of the process, and if there’s a change in one step of the process the overall speed of delivery can be affected. And if a bottleneck is not analysed in a business process there will be consequences; much like the person who drinks too much too quickly. Usually the service or product to be delivered will be delayed or the quality reduced.

If you want to speed up a  business process analyse each step and look for the rate limiting step, assess the real cause of the slowness. In one office I worked we had a 7 day turn around time for one process. When a colleague and I looked into it there was no real reason for this delay, it was probably a legacy from a very old backlog. So the process looked like this;

Before ProcessLooking at it we realised that the actual process time was one day. All we had to do was clear the backlog and we could be turning around applications on the same day. Since the backlog is six days of work we asked our manager if we could both be put on working on the backlog full time for three days. It worked. We cleared the backlog, kept up with incoming applications and could move to same day service for all applications lodged before 3pm, and next morning collection for those lodged after 3pm.

This is a very simple example, but the steps are the same.

  1. Analyse the process, looking for the rate limiting step, this will usually be the step right after a build-up of product.
  2. look for the cause of the rate limiting step, this might require a deeper analysis in depending on the situation, the “five why’s” is one tool to help you get to the real right answer.
  3. Address that step, either by adding resources/equipment or by removing impediments or reducing the input.
  4. Check that the new process still runs smoothly, in the case above we had to get our manager and colleagues involved to make sure everyone stuck with the same day processing – bizarrely for some people it was difficult to understand that it was not more work.
  5. Go back to step 1 and look for the next rate-limiting step.

For more about how to think about rate-limiting steps I recommend the book “The Goal” by Dr Eliyahu M. Goldratt, it’s written in novel form and takes the reader through an analysis of a troubled manufacturing plant. Although it was first published in 1984 the principles still apply to any process.

And next time you’re out having a few drinks – pace yourself.

image; bottle necks / CC BY 2.0

Lessons from Science – Metabolic Pathways

Citric Acid CycleAs part of a course on system management and process design we had to read the book “The Goal” by Dr. Eliyahu M. Goldratt. I found it easy; not just because Goldratt does a terrific job of explaining the concepts, and not just because it’s presented as a novel.  The concepts are familiar, they map to similar concepts in metabolic pathways.

Metabolic pathways are a series of chemical reactions that occur within a cell, examples include photosynthesis, glycolysis (the breakdown of glucose to release energy) or the Citric Acid Cycle (the energy producing pathway used by all aerobic cells, shown above).

Essentially a set of processes in a certain order convert a set of chemicals or metabolites into something else, with either a release or absorbtion of energy. It’s a lot like a business or manufacturing process, except that it’s generally energy absorbed.

Bottle Necks

In talking about process design the concept of a bottle neck came up, this refers to any step in a process that takes a long time, and slows the whole overall process. If you’re looking at improving a process this is a good place to start. Sometimes adding more equipment or resources can remove the bottleneck, sometimes a better solution is to move the bottle neck in the process. Many years ago I was overseeing the assessing of residence applications and it turned out that doing the qualification checks first (the bottleneck) made the overall process faster since we could begin working on whichever case had cleared that step.

In biochemical terms this is usually called a “rate limiting step”, and exactly the same thing happens, the total time of the whole process is dictated by the rate limiting step. Adding more metabolites (resources) or increasing the concentration of the enzyme can increase the overall rate, but these are not easy steps for an organism to take.


The rate of chemical reactions can be altered by adding catalysts, or in biochemical reactions enzymes.

In project terms this could be the endorsement by upper management, which suddenly removes a number of obstacles and releases resources in support of the project.

I don’t want to stretch an analogy too far, but a concept developed to understand one area can easily be applied to another. It certainly made the process design concepts easier for me to learn – although I did get some flashbacks of memorising the complex pathways that keep organisms working. Far more complex than any business process I’ve encountered so far.

image; Work found at / CC BY-SA 3.0

Lessons from Science – Ecosystem

Screen Shot 2013-02-10 at 2.00.50 PMMy first qualification was in science, so long ago that if I wanted to work in that field again I’d have to re-do my degree. Not just for all I have forgotten, but also for the advances in chemistry, biochemistry and medical science. However there are a number of principles I learnt during my science degree which turn out to have business equivalents.

You’ve probably heard people talk about “Your IT ecosystem” or “social media ecosystem“. You may have wondered what a biological system, made up of cells and organism has in common with an IT system made up of bytes and cables?

The analogy turns out to be a good one, particularly in thinking about the interdependence of IT components in your organisation. In the arctic ecosystem for example it’s easy to see that a drop in the phytoplankton bloom will have an impact on the food supply for other animals for at least a season, and any loss of the multi-year ice will take longer to recover from.

Earlier this year I was asked to take our site off-line for six hours, so that another site could be edited and re-launched. The sites are hosted in the same place, use separate instances of the same content management system, but happen to share a database in a way that meant taking down my colleagues’ site would also mean taking down ours. It was an unexpected interdependence that we’ve now removed.

Sometimes the impact of a change is small, and if the population is resiliant – has alternative food sources for example – the effect may be minor. In an IT sense systems often have built in redundancy so that change will not have an impact.

Some impacts are epic scale and very difficult to recover from; eg destruction of ice at the north pole – loss of “multi-year” ice zone vs a successful hack on your site, which may be recovered easily from a technical perspective but the loss of data or reputation have a more sustained impact on the company.

You might use this model to understand IT or social media better, but remember – no ecosystem is closed. A small pond is affected by upstream events and so is your ecosystem. A change in process or conditions, a change in funding, an external impact all require fine adjustments within your ecosystem to withstand the impact.

Image Garry Oak Ecosystem in a Dewdrop /Evan Leeson/ CC BY-NC-SA 2.0