Older Workers Often Innovative

I thought Seiche Sanders’ “Upfront” editorial for July, “Forward Thinking,” was right on track, with one glaring and discriminatory exception. She referenced and supported the notion that if “there are lots of baby boomers about, and few people younger than 25,” this is a sign of “innovation dysfunction within your organization.”

It is astonishing beyond belief that in today’s society such a provincial, provocative and discriminatory notion could find its way into a reputable magazine. It strongly suggests more experienced (older) people are incapable of innovation and are responsible for dysfunction.

I have met many young people who like to follow established protocols and many older folks who constantly strive to improve things and find new ways to succeed. To suggest that age itself is a factor in lack of innovation is ludicrous.

Throughout history, older people have made stunning contributions to new products, ideas and inventions. Ben Franklin’s contributions continued well into his senior years, and he was an active innovator into his 80s. Ludwig van Beethoven didn’t write his famous Ninth Symphony until he was 54, three years from his death.

In more recent decades, Harland David “Colonel” Sanders came up with the idea for his highly successful Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant chain when he was in his 40s and didn’t successfully franchise the restaurant until he was in his 60s. Ronald Reagan, considered by many to be a highly successful and innovative president, began his term while in his 70s. Many of the quality industry’s gurus didn’t attain their status until they were well advanced in years.

Innovation is not the sole domain of “people younger than 25” and is certainly not a function of age. For Jim Carroll to imply so at the ASQ World Conference for Quality and Improvement, and for Ms. Sanders to support that view, does a serious disservice to all those baby boomers who have made this country a better place and who will continue to do so for decades to come.

Ms. Sanders generally has many good things to say, but on this issue, she has sadly disappointed someone who believes her “Forward Thinking” is backward.

Computer Share
Edison, NJ

Editor’s Response

Perhaps Jim Carroll’s comment required greater context. Carroll advocates surrounding oneself with a cross section of people with varying, unique skills sets: young, old and everything in between. Innovation occurs when different generations, with different attitudes toward change, can cooperate and see eye to eye and take advantage of different strengths, he says. Carroll advocates chipping away at what he calls a “generational disconnect,” and capitalizing on individual differences to drive innovation.

J.D. Powers Not So Reliable

After reading “Auto Quality and Auto Sales: Quality Pros Speak Out” (Keeping Current, July 2007, p. 12), I can’t believe anyone continues to cite the J.D. Powers Initial Quality Survey. I think the only ones who care are the automakers—who mention it in their advertising when they’ve scored well—and J. D. Powers themselves. The customers just don’t care, as long as their initial complaints are resolved quickly and easily.

If anyone wants to know what drives customer purchases, the best place to look is the Consumer Reports Auto Buying Guide, published each April. Go to the sections labeled “Reliability Ratings.” These are based on hundreds of thousands of direct feedback reports from vehicle owners about their personal experiences.

Just compare Honda or Toyota (both mostly red, indicating better than average) with Chevrolet or Chrysler (lots of black, or worse than average).

Whether a prospective buyer reads Consumer Reports, talks to a neighbor or relies on his or her own experience, long-term satisfaction is going to be a major part of a purchase decision. Right now, I have a Dodge Grand Caravan, a Ford F150 and a Toyota Corolla. Both the Dodge and Ford are functional but unreliable; the Toyota is virtually maintenance free.

Management and quality consultant
Raleigh, NC

Synthetic Instruments Go Way Back

The July “Measure for Measure” column (“Challenges of Instrument Innovations,” Graeme C. Payne, p. 69) is a well-written abstract of the development of synthetic instruments as the latest innovation in measurement science. I highly recommend it to those who wish to keep abreast of hardware and software developments in metrology.

I have one small critique, however. Payne cites a Department of Defense initiative started in the mid-1990s to improve performance and reduce costs of automated test equipment systems as the driver for the innovative idea of synthetic instruments. In fact, the concept was born 40 years ago, when the Atomic Energy Commission developed the Nuclear Instrument Module.

This was followed by IEEE standard 583, Computer Automated Measurement and Control, a modular data acquisition and control system used at almost every nuclear physics research laboratory and many industrial sites all over the world.

During this time, the U.S. Navy Metrology Engineering Center undertook an innovative approach to calibrating electronic instruments, resulting in development of the MECCA system. MECCA was a collection of modules interfaced through an IEEE-448 BUS to a computer. The system provided on-site calibration in nuclear submarines, saving $20 million annually.

I presented a paper, “An Automated Time Domain Instrument Test Console,” describing this concept at the National Conference of Standards Laboratories Conference in 1970.

Santa Maria, CA

Author’s Response

Thank you for adding to my knowledge of the history of automated and modular automated test and measurement systems. While I am aware that automated systems have been used for a long time, I had no personal exposure to them until the late 1970s.

I am familiar with the MECCA system, having spent nearly 15 years working in the Navy’s metrology program. My experience with the system was at shore based calibration and standards laboratories. The system was used to control measurement standards, individually or in groups, for running calibration procedures. In that environment, the MECCA system was operating complete stand-alone instruments.

I believe the essential difference between previous generations of automated systems and synthetic instruments is the distinction between the use of standalone instruments to create a system versus the use of simpler functional modules to create a single instrument or a part of a system.

The modules used by the synthetic instrument concept would previously have been functional blocks within a single standalone instrument. The only way to change the capability of a standalone instrument was to replace it entirely. With a synthetic instrument system, only the essential modules need to be changed, and if the replacement is already on the network and is not currently in use, then the change can be made by software.

For example, the size in bits of the analog-to-digital (A/D) converter is the ultimate limiter of the resolution of any digital instrument. If a system is using an 8-bit A/D converter, in a system using standalone instruments the only way for an engineer to increase the resolution is to purchase and install an instrument with a higher-resolution converter. In a synthetic system, the engineer would only need to change the A/D converter, either physically or by software command.


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