I have an Achilles heal for films about sociology, anthropology and pretty much anything ending with (ogy).
Last night I watched the documentary “Freakanomics,” a take off from book written by authors Stephen Levitt and Stephen Dubner. The film is made up of shorts done by filmmakers Seth Gordon (The King of Kong), Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me), Alex Gibney (Taxi to the Dark Side), Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing (Jesus Camp), and Eugene Jarecki (Why We Fight).
Each short features a case study zeroing in on a set of data to find the root of causality-to find the meaning behind the variation.
To my knowledge the film never mentioned the phrase “root cause analysis,” but that is essentially what they were looking for. Case studies range from cheating in sumo wrestling to financial incentives within Chicago high schools.
Root cause analysis (RCA) is a class of problem solving methods aimed at identifying the root causes of problems or incidents. RCA is related to the term Six Sigma, a methodology using statistical analysis to improve quality. The goal is improving quality and productivity by eliminating. Six Sigma was big in the late ’80s and early ’90s in manufacturing.
But in the social web, variation can be beautiful and tell us amazing things about our products, services and business processes.
Since this is The B(l)akery, let’s look at three kitchen and food related inventions that were happy accidents caused by variation.
Dr. John Stith Pemberton, American pharmacist, soldier, and inventor created a very popular drink called the French Wine of Coca, containing French Bordeaux wine, coca leaves, and caffeine (from the kola nut). When alcohol was banned in 1885 in his hometown Atlanta he had to change the recipe. He added sugar, citric acid and essential oils of many fruits to the drink, and the original Coca-Cola was created. It was named for its main ingredients, coca leaves and the kola nut.
2. Potato Chips
The potato chip was invented in 1853 by George Crum. Crum was a Native American/African American chef. French fries were popular at his restaurant. A customer complained his fries were too thick so a vindictive chef Crum served the customer fries that were too thin to eat with a fork (trying to make Gladys customer furious). But the customer actually loved his french fry variation and thus you have the invention of the potato chip.
3. Microwave Oven
The microwave oven was invented as an accidental by-product of World War 2 Raytheon engineer Dr. Percy LeBaron Spencer. Dr. Spencer used magnetrons–vacuum tubes that produce microwave radiation–and one day found his candy bar melted in his pocket. After experimenting, he realized that microwaves would cook foods quickly. The Raytheon Corporation produced the first commercial microwave oven in 1954; it was called the 1161 Radarange.
Variation in data leads to innovation.
More importantly it leads companies to the truth. It’s the truth about what the marketplace wants.
So Freakanomics reminds us there is truth hidden in the customer data, and the truth will set you free.