Home Page–Summary/Guide

July 9, 2010

A quick summary of how to find what you are interested in:

Index Tab: (above):  Links for Specific Articles by title

Categories: (side bar):   Articles by Topic in Chronological Order

Links to Most Searched Articles (opens in a new window):


Dealing with A Bad Performance Review Appraisal

Employee Performance Appraisal Rankings–Lessons about Flaws from “Arrows Paradox”

Office Backstabbing 101

Zen Stories

Two Monks and a Woman

The Tigers and the Strawberry


Zen Teaching Schedule

Advertising Zen

Offering Zen to Students

Problem Solving

Teaching Students Problem Solving-Confusion/Resourcefulness/Confidence

Eliminating Mental Bias Decision Errors

Effective Quantitative Problem Solving Methods

Solving Complex Problems—Put Aside the First Idea


Academic Survival–The First College Semester

Getting Off Academic Probation–Looking Further for Success


Making up a Good New Children’s Story Every Night

Stacking Blocks for the Imagination–A Great Toy not Found in Many Stores


Cold Remedies, Miso Soup and the Influence of Advertising

Healing Ocean Oriental Medicine

Preventing Common Household Accidents–Swiss Cheese Model

Teaching High School Engineering Resource Site



Employee Performance Appraisal Ranking Methods Lessons about the Flaws from “Arrow’s Paradox”

October 3, 2006

Many organizations have adopted forced ranking performance appraisal systems. Each employee is evaluated against peers and performance arranged from highest to lowest.

These end of the year performance appraisals resemble report cards for adults. There seems to be more angst though, since compensation, career direction, ego, prestige, and morale are all involved.

The crucial activity in the appraisal process is the procedure to determine the specific position of each employee relative to co-workers. The ranking methods are generally used empirically by the participants. A failure to understand and compensate for the inherent limitations of the method can limit the overall fairness of the process.

Ranked performance appraisals can be compared to ranked voting methods. Examples of a ranked votes are the college football and basketball polls published during the season. These rankings, using a method known as the Borda count, assign a different number of points for each position (i.e. 10 for the best team, 9 for the next etc.) Each voter ranks the teams according to his preference. Then, the total number of points each team received are summed for all of the voters and the overall team positions determined.

The major breakthrough in the theoretical understanding of ranked voting methods stems from the work of Nobel Price winner Kenneth Arrow, a mathematician and economist. In 1951, he published a proof of Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem (also known as Arrow’s Paradox). This finding was big news at the time and initiated a large body of work in understanding the validity and limitations of different voting methods.

A simple statement of the theorem: Each ranked voting method has inherent flaws. A slightly more detailed statement is that no voting system (more than 2 voters) based on rank preferences can possibly meet a certain set of reasonable criteria when there are 3 or more options to choose from. These reasonable criteria are detailed in the reference below.

The performance appraisal ranking process is not quite the same as a single winner election, but the method is subject to the flaws identified by the theorem: (1) Strategies can be employed by a subset of the electors to lead to an outcome that is not the choice of the majority; (2) Biases can be introduced if the voting methods are simplified. These factors are briefly examined below.

Distortion Strategies:

An example of a personal strategy to distort the overall results can be encountered in the sports’ polls. In a closed voting system, a voter can grossly change the evaluation of one team (i.e. deliberately ranking it well below its performance level) to benefit another. However, for performance appraisal applications, such selective strategies are mitigated by a collaborative discussion prior to the position assignment. There is some transparency if an elector is attempting to make a significant deviation to advance a personal objective. This discussion can address the potential flaw in the method. Obviously, if there is not a free discussion or some electors are unaware of these strategies, a distorted outcome can occur.

Simplification: Voting by Pairs

A more subtle bias, however, can be encountered during the actual ranking of larger groups by subsets. Generally, the voters have a group with many members to evaluate. In practice, these evaluations are often done using subsets, usually pairs. Comparisons are made in turn until there is agreement in the employee positions.

As an example, there is a group of 15 people whose performance must be ranked. The first six names are:

Adam Don Joe John Mike Sam (and 9 more)

Rather than evaluate the entire group and vote on all 15 at once (for example, using the Borda count), the first two, Adam and Don, may be considered. If Don is evaluated as the better, Don is moved ahead of Adam, the next comparison is with Adam and Joe. The process continues until the order is agreed.

The use of pairwise comparison would appear to get around the “3 option” condition of Arrow’s Paradox. However, this is not the case:

Another common way “around” the paradox is limiting the alternative set to two alternatives. Thus, whenever more than two alternatives should be put to the test, it seems very tempting to use a mechanism that pairs them and votes by pairs. As tempting as this mechanism seems at first glance, it is generally far from meeting (… the reasonable criteria …). The specific order by which the pairs are decided strongly influences the outcome.” (Reference below)

The counterintuitive assertion above is that there is a bias depending on the order of presentation.

In the earlier example with names, the people were listed alphabetically—Adam, Don, Joe etc. The names could be randomized. The bias still remains, it is just transferred to different individuals. Perhaps, the most common and biased case, is when an individual, drawing upon her own experience and opinion, submits the presentation list to the voter group. This approach introduces a subjective bias into the process. One person’s opinion may continue as artifact through to the final ranking.

There may be methods to minimize this flaw, but such methods are generally not known to either the participants or the human resource administrators. That expertise is held by others and is rarely sought.

Arrow’s paradox cannot be avoided. In order to obtain the fairest ranking evaluation process reasonably possible, the participants should some familiarity with the inherent strengths and weaknesses of the method in order to use it properly. The performance appraisal process is only as fair and unbiased as its weakest point.

Posts on Evaluations: Struggling to Give a Good Employee Performance Review–Maintaining Credibility

Dealing with a Bad Employee Performance Appraisal


Reference: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arrow’s_impossibility_theorem



Preventing Common Household Accidents—Swiss Cheese Model

September 12, 2006

There was a recent account in the news about the story of three fishermen who survived 9 months adrift at sea in a 29 foot boat. (NYTimes 8/26/06 A3). Although the emphasis of the report was on their survival activities, a review of the events leading to this accident can be helpful in preventing accidents at home.

Background–The boat and crew were on a shark-fishing trip, which typically lasts from 3 days to a week. There was concern at the outset that enough provisions (food, water, fuel) had been laid in for the trip. At sea, the crew lost their shark-fishing tackle. During the search for the equipment, they ran out of fuel. Winds pushed them out to sea where a current caught them and carried the boat 5000 miles west from Mexico to the Marshall Islands. There, the survivors were rescued by a fishing boat.

It was a series of breakdowns or coincidences that finally enabled the accident to occur. In this case, there were insufficient resources, a boat without a radio, poor judgment during the search, and an unfavorable wind and current direction.

Many accidents follow this pattern of several breakdowns. These breakdowns represent holes in the defense against an accident. The pattern is often recognized after the fact. However, a straightforward method of analysis exists that helps to identify the potential areas of risk for an accident before the event occurs.

The model developed by Reason (1990) is based on the assumption that there are several different elements that must all be considered in order have a safe event. Although there is always emphasis on the failure event itself, there are preconditions that have allowed this event to occur. The trick is to analyze these preconditions in advance. The categories are the unsafe act or accident itself, the conditions that enabled the accident event, the supervision, and the influence or attitude of those in charge.

The diagram above illustrates the “Swiss Cheese” name. Each of the levels of defense can have holes in them. Since there are several layers of protection, a failure in any one level does not lead to an accident. However, if all of the breakdowns in defense happen to line up, as with the holes in the diagram above, an accident can occur.

In the above example of the boat adrift, the facts can be classified in 4 defense categories:

Defense Category……………………………… Examples of Hole in Defense

1. Unsafe Act…………………………………..Running out of fuel

2. Precondition for Unsafe Act………..Inadequate Resources/Equipment

3. Unsafe Supervision…………………….Failure to call off search for tackle

4. Organization Influence………………Low regard for safety (lack of funds)

Application for Common Household Accident Prevention–Well, most people do not appear to be in such hazardous situations as the fishermen. Actually though, there are close to 30,000 deaths a year due to household accidents. The National Safety Council also estimates there is a disabling injury every 4 seconds. The magnitude of these numbers is astounding! Since the accidents are spread out both in time and over the country, the size does not attract attention. If they occurred in one place, it would be a disaster. This is a lot of suffering caused by everyday activities. It’s clear that some of it is preventable. The responsibility is with the individuals in their own home.The list of the leading categories is what might be expected:

Burns………. Choking……….. Cuts………. Falls…….. Poisoning

There are many web sites to get specific TIPS of preventive actions to take to reduce the risks of accidents in each category. Obviously, they should be used.

Beyond that, everyone’s situation is a little different; some risks are more specific to your own situation. Reason’s “Swiss Cheese Model” can be used to analyze and address these specific hazards before they become accidents.As an example, take the category of falls. The statistics show that consequences from falls are a serious problem for all ages, especially very young children and older adults.
One way to get started is to begin with a category and consider what one or two areas in your own home make you the most uneasy. It may be a steep set of stairs going into the basement. Then, a hazard assessment can be done by first considering the different preconditions that can lead to falling down the basement stairs. This assessment is followed by the taking into consideration the effects of supervision and attitudes. A typical assessment is shown in the table below:

Defense Categories:

1. Accident/Unsafe Act: Fall down stairs

2. Preconditions . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .3.Supervision/4.Owner

a) Material stored on stairs.. . . . . . .Allowed to remain (3. Supervision)

b) Dimly lit. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .. . . Tolerated (4. Owner attitude)

c) Not full hand rail. . . . . . . . . . . . . . Tolerated (4. Owner attitude)

d) Slippery walking surface. . . . . . . Tolerated (4. Owner attitude)

e) Door left open. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Allowed to remain (3. Supervision)

Eliminating the preconditions of the accident is the first level of defense. Some of these preconditions, such as the material stored on the edge of the stairs, can be addressed by better supervision. This increased supervision adds another layer of defense. Others, such as the dim light or the handrail can be corrected by the owners. Some, such as the steepness of the stairs, must be accepted. However, changes in the attitude of the owners to make improvements also adds a layer of defense. Actions at each of these different defense levels, reduce the overall risk of an injury due to a fall.

In every home, look for specific areas that cause the people more concern for safety. People who live there know them. In addition to following good general preventive measures, available on the web, this method allows focus on those topics in a systematic way in order to reduce the risk as much as possible.

However, just doing the exercise, increases the awareness for the risks of accidents in other areas throughout the house. That is another significant benefit.

(diagram credit: http://www.coloradofirecamp.com/swiss-cheese/images/swiss-cheese-failures.jpg)

Companion Story to Illustrate:  Cause of  Common Accidents

Children’s Bedtime Stories–Making up a good one every night

August 27, 2006

At some point, every young child gets tired of the same canned bedtime stories and says to the parent “Make up one for me.” For some parents, the mind goes blank. There is no story to be had, or a weak variation of a familiar one comes out.

There is no time at this point in life to study the fine points of storytelling. But still, the child can have a good story and it can be great fun to make them up. It is a lot easier a few points are kept in mind. The first plots will take a few days to get into, but after that, the stories have a life of their own, to the delight of both child and parent.

Outline Example—Wikulus the rabbit


There was a young rabbit named Wikulus who lived with his mother. Whenever Wikulus found a four leaf clover, he could make a wish to visit anywhere in the world and he would be immediately transported there for the afternoon. A subplot is the initial search for the four-leaf clover so that the main adventure can begin.


This type of opening leads to many possibilities for different stories. As examples:


Wikulus may visit Santa Claus on a seasonal basis and find that Santa is well behind in toy production. How to help.


He may visit the desert, find out about the conditions there, and not have sufficient supplies.


The young rabbit may go to Africa and be introduced to other animals with different skills, some friendly, others unfriendly.


These are starting points for the complication of the plot and later resolution.


By the end of the day, Wikulus is home, and of course, his mother does not believe his adventures really happened.


The Key Points


For the first few nights, try different characters. For younger children (2-4), different animals (who, of course can speak) are a good start. Each character should be given a distinctive name, often chosen together with the child. The first character may not catch on, but pretty soon, the child will make a connection and a favorite star will be born.

Another theme variation that is popular is to give normally inanimate objects, the ability to play tricks on people. For example, cars that take control and choose the destination, wall pint that changes color, tables that shake things off. The stories center on the comical reactions of the adults. What could be more delightful than seeing an adult being fooled by an inanimate object.

For older children, people have a more prominent role, particularly from olden times.

After one main character has been established, add at least two or three additional regular or rotating characters. These extra guys provide flexibility and range of interactions needed for a wide variety of plots. Since the same characters can be used for a number of stories, the child is familiar with them and you can put your energy into making an engaging story.


Nothing like it! Just a few elements of magic add a good twist. Not too much though. The magic property can be used to get into predicaments. The character has to resolve them by his own ingenuity. Even a child is not satisfied when the character is suddenly beamed out of trouble.


Plot—This is the most fun!


Once the story is begun, there is no stopping to “figure out the next part”. Make it up as you tell it out loud. It is a reality show for both the child and the parent. The real time aspect adds energy and interest for everyone.

As the first half of the story is being told, add layer upon layer to the difficulty that the main character encounters. This adds excitement. The real key for the storyteller is that the difficulty is added as fast as it comes to mind—there is no known way for the character to resolve it. At the end of this section of plot development, the storyteller should have no idea how the character is going to settle this one.

Now for the best part–As the plot moves toward resolution, the storyteller has his work cut out. As the story is told out loud, you must also figure out a way to get the character out of the predicament. This approach really energizes the storyteller and this energy is picked up by the child. If the child seeks assurance that it will end OK, be sure to give it so he can enjoy the excitement more fully. Then figure out how to make it end OK—no need to stop to figure it out, this is stream of consciousness telling.

Plot Conclusion

Each story has to be complete,, beginning, middle and end, in one telling. No cliff hangers like on television. The purpose is to entertain and then go to sleep, so that all of the energy of the story has to be dissipated.

Give it a try. Parents using these tips have been amazed and pleased at their own creativity!




Academic Survival–The First College Semester

August 13, 2006

There is nothing like the first few weeks of college. It has an almost idyllic quality about it—freedom, new friends and experiences, and much less academic oversight. Then the new reality sets in. A few tests and assignments come with poor results. Then, a second round follows with the same dismal results. What to do? Each individual has his or her own response. All too often, the response is to pull back, to let the hole get deeper, until late in the semester when there are few options left. A set of failures result. For some, it’s the end of school. For others, it means a reduction in confidence and lowered expectations that take time to resolve. The first semester story does not have to play out this way.

Let’s not be simplistic about this situation. The reasons for the initial failures are individual. Some students just don’t want to do the work. However many of the others– students who are less prepared academically, students who never learned to work, those who don’t understand the requirements of college work, those who had a personal crisis at the time—can survive this initial period and go on to solid academic achievement if they recognize the problem and take appropriate action early enough.

The first semester is a like a timed reality show. It typically lasts 13-14 weeks and once it starts, there are no pauses or time-outs. During the first 3-4 weeks, there is information going in, but few milestone tests or major projects. Then at the 3 or 4 week mark, an examination or major paper provides a measure of performance. The second major performance measure comes after the midterm results, at least 7 weeks into the course by the time the grades come back.

Similar to a reality show, the stakes ramp up as the time into the term progresses. The semester work increases during the term much faster than any new student realizes. This increase in work load is even more oppressive if the student gets off to a poor start and has work to make up from earlier in the term.

For example, if a student has to make up the work from the first quarter of the semester, he has 9 weeks to do so. However, if he waits until the end of the first half of the semester, he has to make up twice as much work to make up in only 6 weeks. The intensity of the load increases by a factor of 3 required if you wait until the midterm to remediate! That’s why they call it the end of semester crunch!

Three points to help recover from a poor start:

1. Recognize that the first poor performance defines the trend. The tendency is to believe that the first result is not representative and to expect improvement in the mid-term. This belief, which is reasonable in other situations, leads to serious trouble for the first semester student.

In other situations, a trend requires at least two results in order to determine the direction that performance is moving. Only one result is needed for the new student. There is enough experience with first year college students to indicate that a poor initial performance, with only vague intentions to do better, does not lead to improvement. Continuing the same course of action and expecting an improvement just uses up some of the ticking clock of the semester. Remember the above illustration that shows how quickly the workload increases when needed remediation is put off to the end of the semester.

2. Make the effort to identify a cause of the poor performance and begin to act immediately.

The first step in addressing the problem is to have a clear statement of the cause. It is not enough to say the problem is the poor performance. The performance is the symptom. This cause of the poor performance may not be obvious initially. However, it is essential to make an effort to understand this in a more detailed way. Parents and friends can have a very helpful role in helping to specify the problem.

The most appropriate action is determined by the cause. The cause may be academic or personal. As examples, course work deficiency may mean clarifying the content and performance with the instructor; personal crisis may require contact with the counseling center; poor preparation and habits can be helped by work with an academic advisor or learning assistance programs. Further, by using available resources early, the student will also find that these resources are far more accessible before everyone else realizes the severity of their own situation.

3. The first poor result has only a minor affect on the ultimate performance outcome.

There is no need to panic or be embarrassed by a poor performance. By acting early, there is plenty of time to make the effort and get on track if you begin early. The timing details are shown below.

In a typical college course approximately one-half of the course evaluation and grade occurs in the last 4 weeks (Weeks 9-13) of the semester. The trick is to be operating at the required skill well before the last 4 weeks. Consider the two scenarios:

1) Initial poor result at Week 4. If the student begins to identify the specific cause, and takes the necessary academic or personal actions, he has 5 weeks to prepare for the critical end of term period. You can make some real changes in 5 weeks!

2) Initial poor result at Week 4. No change in plan. A second poor result at midterm Week 7. In this case, the student has only 2 weeks to take the actions to prepare for the critical period. It is much more difficult to make these changes in only 2 weeks. It’s worse than this since there is an increased work to be made up. This end of the semester crunch was discussed earlier.

So, if first semester reality hits hard, stay in the game. Taking positive control of the situation is the first step. By beginning to identify and take action as soon as a problem surfaces, the odds of resolving it are significantly increased.

If the semester did not go well, a related post is: Getting Off Academic Probation–Looking Further for Success

The Boat Story

July 27, 2006


The Boat Story

There was a man in a small canoe out in the bay. The man was quite proud of his boat, which he had just refinished. The day began clear and bright, but rather unexpectedly, clouds quickly gathered and a dense fog rolled in. The man brought the canoe about and headed for shore. As he headed home, he could just make out the profile of another boat in the fog obscured distance. He kept that outline of a boat within his view and noticed that it was moving in his direction. This observation caused him some concern and when the boat was within earshot, he called out “Keep your distance so that we have plenty of room to pass.” However, the other boat continued to move closer and was now on a direct collision course. He called out again louder, “Keep your distance!” He was quite skilled with the oar, knew a number of strokes, and could maneuver the canoe quite adroitly. He changed course and paddled away from the other boat. However, as he changed direction, he was upset to see the other boat also change direction and again move directly toward him. The man could also see that it was a significantly larger than his canoe. He called out again “Watch out. Don’t hit my boat, it has been repainted.” None of this shouting had any effect. The larger boat continued to bear down on him. “Stay out of my way!” But it was of no use. Whenever he tried to change direction, the maneuver was matched by the on-coming boat. The boat dead reckoned at him until there was a loud crack from the crash. The man saw his new boat damaged by this senseless behavior of the other boat. His rage knew no bounds. “You idiot, look what you did to my boat!” He continued his rampage, screaming and getting quite worked up. Suddenly, the fog lifted. The man could see the larger boat clearly now. There was no one in it. The boat was a long abandoned shell.


Additional Stories

This is a link to a Collection of Zen Stories     (usefulzenwords.com)

Here are a couple of points to chew on:

Where did the man’s anger come from?

Where did it go?

Where is the responsibility for the accident?


Chasing the Ball into the Street

July 23, 2006

There is no feeling so helpless, as seeing from a distance, a child chasing a ball that is headed for the street. Will that child remember to stop? It’s an acute fear of anyone who has children, and the fear never goes away, even when one’s own children have long grown up. We prepare for the situation, hoping that it is never tested

In this preparation with the child, there is an important point that is often overlooked. People react faster to instructions that tell them what to do compared to those which direct them what not to do. The mental processes to execute the two types of instructions are not the same. People are more likely to be able to execute the positive instruction successfully.

So the instruction: “Stop at the curb” is more effective than the more often used “Do not run into the street.” Training should emphasize this direction.

Emphasizing the instructions about what should be done, rather than what should be avoided is a more effective strategy to get the desired result in many activities. It is worth the effort to give some thought to ensure that the instructions are phrased in the most appropriate manner.

One other point about the ball. The immediate safe response is the most important aspect, but the longer term considerations can also be addressed. A child may believe that if the ball is crushed in the street, he will be without it. Reduce the long term consequences of this perspective. Make it clear that if the ball does go in the street and is crushed by a car, the adults will put aside the important things they are doing and immediately go to the store to replace it. Then do it. If the time comes and the ball has to be replaced, it is a very satisfying trip. There are plenty of other opportunities, with much less at stake, to teach about the consequences of their actions.


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