Tuesday, September 27, 2011




Simply put, business takes inputs, transforms them, produces outputs. A branch of engineering, control systems theory, has studied this input-transformation-output system in great detail. Here, we hit the highlights.

When you turn on your radio, you allow electrical energy to be transformed into sound. If the sound is too loud, you turn down the volume control, reducing the gain (degree of transformation) and thus the output (sound). You are acting as part of a feedback loop, where the output is compared to a desired level and the transformation is adjusted to reach that level. When there is little delay in the response, this works well for us. We can make changes and rapidly hear the results, correcting our corrections, if need be. A car with responsive steering allows us to make quick adjustments, but one with loose steering, a sluggish or incorrect response, can put us dangerously close to the median strip or the road shoulder. Much the same is true in business. If we can get a rapid and correct reading of how close our output is to the target, in quality or quantity, we can fine-tune our operations. Incorrect or slow measurement and response can be costly. As we produce more and measure our results, we can ascend the “learning curve,” improving quality and efficiency, as desired.

Feedforward is less well known than feedback. In a feedforward loop, one measures the input and adjusts the transformation to accommodate input variations so as to produce appropriate output. If we recognize that the road is slippery, we drive more slowly. If our feedstock is too damp, we will dry it longer. If our customer is short-tempered, we will try to be even more patient. Once again, accurate and rapid information assists appropriate correction.

When we push a child on a swing, we anticipate and we learn, feedforward and feedback. We have to respond rapidly and appropriately if we are to do it right.

Accurate and prompt information, speedy response, and real adaptability are three important elements in business success. Anticipate and learn.

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