Thursday, November 03, 2005


Dean Kamen Deserves A Lot More Respect Than I Previously Thought

The Segway, I don’t get. It’s expensive, heavy, and uses something like 6 gyros, a couple of really fancy motors, and triple-redundant X-by-wire technology to accomplish a little bit less than what bicycles have done for 100 years. In my opinion, it’s not a solution to a problem, and we’ll get back to that point many words later. The point I’m trying to make is that the Segway has caused me to form an unfair opinion of Dean Kamen. What corrected my flawed assessment of the man was a speech that he gave a the SAE Commercial Vehicle Engineering show that I attended. The topic was innovation.

The first thing that Kamen established was the difference between “innovation” and just “invention”. For this, he brought up the Chinese south-pointing chariot. A series of gears connected to each wheel keeps a pointer aimed in the same direction, regardless of the device’s path or direct of travel. Essentially, it's a mechanical analog computer. It was an early attempt at a direction-finding device, and it doesn’t take long to see that there’s bound to be flaws. A loss of traction by one wheel, just for a moment, could itself cause huge errors. But, hey, this was 500 years ago, and the Chinese are to be applauded, right?

Not so fast. 300 years prior to this, the Chinese discovered lodestone, a naturally-occurring permanent magnet material. Had they not be so fascinated by the potential ceremonial and religious significant of this material, they might have invented the compass. That’s the difference between “invention” and “innovation”. Kamen states that Henry David Thoureu described invention as “An improved means to an unimproved end”. Therefore, what us engineers really strive for is innovation. But how to get there?

Kamen then quotes Winston Churchill – “If you’re going through hell, keep going.” That’s often when innovation is occurring. At this point, he whips out his Innovation Chart – a sort of noisy sine wave (actually, 1 ½ sine waves), with the first positive-going section the beginning of a project (one point near the peak is labeled “Brass bands and fireworks”). But then it trends downward – first with a point just below the X-axis labeled “Affecting existing business”, and then the very lowest point. Kamen calls this the “Dark Night of Innovation”. For anyone that’s ever been there – I think I have, but I’m not sure and probably won’t be without many more years of hindsight – it’s a damn accurate description. Once this breakthrough is made, then the chart starts climbing back up, finally ending at “it works”.

Another graphical method used was showing a typical Gantt chart with its staggered linear chunks of time, and then Kamen’s version – this looping and spirialing line, at one point broken by a big explosion (“something comes out of nowhere”), and finally ending, well, when it ends. This got a huge laugh out of everyone in attendance, not because it was funny (although it was), but because it was so damn true.

At this point, I should mention that Kamen gave this entire preso while wheeling around on stage in his 6-wheeled wheelchair. The awesome thing about this is that it can “sit up” on two wheels, balancing in place and giving the user the opportunity to see eye-to-eye with a standing person. It’s one of those things that has to seem like a godsend to anyone needing the use of such a device, and once viewed in operation, it’s gotta be thought of as an innovation. He shows a photo of himself, dressed in jeans and hiking boots (no need to question his engineering credentials), showing off the device to President Clinton. He then contrasts this with Deka’s other famous presidential experience, where Bush managed to fall off the supposedly uncrashable Segway. How’d that happen? Kamen states that it works better if one turns on the power first.

OK, back to the preso. Now, it’s time to talk about failure. Kamen quotes Einstein as saying “If we knew what it was we were doing, it wouldn’t be called research”. So true. He claims that risk, failure, and unpredictability are unavoidable when trying to innovate. At this point, he suggests failing early in the project, so that you’ve got more time to catch up. It sounds like a silly suggestion given to elicit some laughs, but he makes a great point. If you fail 6 months into a five-year project and need more time, no problem. Fail 4 ½ years into the same five-year project, and there’s big problems. Kamen then asks how many people in the audience beg for more time at the very first sign of trouble in the project, and how many wait until it’s nearly too late before raising a flag. His point – recognize when you’re in trouble as early as possible and do something about it before there’s unrealistic expectations and a lot of money sunk into rather inflexible items like tooling.

Since innovation and invention (Kamen doesn’t distinguish between the two at this point in the preso) are so fraught with risk, he recommends not inventing unless one has to, and if it’s necessary, remember that invention is “the art of concealing your sources”. Picasso is quoted as saying “Good artists borrow. Great artists steal.” Kamen suggests that most problems have already been solved – just not in one’s particular industry. He gives the example of the heart stint that was developed by Deka in combination with Johnson & Johnson. With the required expansion ratio and life (10 years in a patient’s artery), it was an extremely demanding problem that hadn’t been solved in the medical industry. But a division of Deka had already solved similar problems in doing analysis on rotor blades for the company’s helicopter products. With the FEA tools available to the company’s aerospace engineers, a solution was derived in 3 weeks and has gone on to be implanted in millions of patients. Kamen described both the stint and the helicopter as “drug delivery devices”, drawing the not-so-obvious common thread between the two products.

A common problem, according to Kamen, is trying to “solve the solution”. Another way to put this would be to say that most invention is really applying bandaids instead of fixing the underlying problem. This is where I think the Segway falls so short, using even Kamen’s framework for innovation. The problem here seems to be that people are lazy, not that there’s shortcomings with the bicycle. The Segway attempts to reinvent the bicycle, but doesn’t help change the behavior patterns in place that make people hop into their cars instead of walking or pedaling. That’s just my take, though.

Kamen then debunks the theory that kids learn faster than adults. That’s not the case, he says – it’s just that adults are slower to unlearn obsolete or incorrect knowledge. Quoting himself, he says “It’s not what you don’t know that inhibits innovation – it’s what you know that just ain’t so”. It’s a combination of ego and that nasty human tendency to resist change that keeps us working with information that just isn’t correct, and that’s far more dangerous to innovation than the simple lack of knowledge. In my opinion, that’s 100% correct, although I’d never thought of it in that way.

On the topic of “innovation management”, it’s stated very clearly that innovation is not a spectator sport. It’s either all-in, or get out of the way. Kamen states that projects require management, while innovation requires leadership. What’s the difference? He doesn’t quite know, although he states that managers know how to do things right, while leaders know how to do the right thing. Management is about reducing risk, and it’s already been established that risk is an inescapable part of innovation. Many big companies excel at reducing risk and uncertainty, and he states that this isn’t always a bad thing. After all, he states that one doesn’t want to hear “Let’s try something new!” from a doctor just before an appendectomy. But this isn’t always the correct approach, either; handing a machine gun to an axe murderer might be something a manager should like from the standpoint of efficiency, but it’s not the right thing to do (I wish I could come up with analogies like Kamen does).

Back to the whole risk thing, Kamen quotes “To err is human”, but puts an asterisk by it. The footnote then states “*Unfortunately, it’s not company policy”. In other words, everyone fucks up, but almost every company won’t tolerate such behavior. It’s a fundamental clash of goals vs. reality that ultimately stifles innovation if risk management practices are used.

So, why innovate? Simply, because entire industries can be created from single innovations. They affect people’s lives.

When should innovation occur? Well, Kamen states that it wasn’t raining when Noah started building the ark, and that the Stone Age didn’t end because we ran out of stone. Innovate with times are good, not when innovation is absolutely required for survival.

How to innovate? Kamen doesn’t necessarily know. He just states that one should not define success as a lack of failure, and that change should be embraced.

Who should innovate? Well, certainly, optimists. He gives the example of the Wright Brothers, and says that anyone depending on a lump of cast metal and some wood and fabric to carry them into the air must have been optimistic. But then there are pessimists, too, who invented the parachute in case airplanes didn’t work. Both have their place.

Getting back to the issue of risk, failure, and trying to solve solutions instead of problems, there’s the story of the Deka dialysis pump. The original task was to develop a new valve that would do a better job of pinching off hoses, as the current valves required over 100 lbs of force to stop the flow of liquids (traditional valves weren’t desired due to sterility issues). Deka saw that the problem wasn’t in the pinch valves – it was in the construction of the whole dialysis machine. Using a system that applied a light amount of force directly to the bags of solution, no valves were required. As Kamen put it, the hoses were designed to flow, not to restrict, and in the battle of hose engineers vs. valve engineers, the hose guys were winning. This approach caused the project to run twice as long as scheduled, and at twice the cost. The result was a device that allowed kidney patients to perform dialysis at home instead of being admitted to a hospital, saving an untold (but huge) amount of money and resulting in an immersurable improvement in quality of life. From failure came success.

At a party celebrating the introduction of this new dialysis machine, the CEO of the medical company offered up this quote about Kamen and his company – “If you’re going to ask a pig to go into the woods and shit golden eggs, you’d better stand back while he does it”. This goes back to the point about innovation not tolerating spectators.

So, who should be innovating? Those with a passion to make things better. He quotes sociologist Margaret Mead – “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world… indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

He concludes the main presentation with another Einstein quote – “The difference between genius and stupidity is that genius has its limits”.

At this point, Kamen plugs his volunteer organization FIRST, which stands for “For the Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology”. It’s basically a competition he organizes that offers the chance for high-school students to build a robot for use in a physical competition (it appears to be a friendlier take on the “Battle of the Robots” idea, and predates that by several years).

He does this because, in his words, “You get what you celebrate”. If society idolizes celebrities and athletes, then that’s what children will emulate. Kamen points out that the US only graduated 62,400 engineers last year, a number that has continued to decline in recent times. More students graduated with degrees in sports management than engineering. Meanwhile, China and India combine to graduate over 400,000 engineers per year (I seem to remember seeing figures even higher than that). If this country was indeed built on technological innovation, Kamen says, then this should be seen as eventually being fatal to our standard of living, and must be corrected. The way to do this is to get students interested in science through a mentoring process. In the process of explaining this, he clearly states that the solution isn’t going to come through politics (“the last thing politicians want are real solutions to real problems”) or any other means. It will take local involvement by members of the engineering community.

Indeed, I have not given Dean Kamen a fair shake. He could have avoided bringing this upon himself by bringing a decent $200 bicycle to the world, though.

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