Cause and effect
I ALWAYS RESENTED IT DURING THE 1970S when motorcycling was classified as a “leisure activity ”-as if it excited the same lukewarm passions as shuffleboard or solitaire. Today it is acknowledged that motorcyclists remain more technically interested in their vehicles than are most of the sporty auto crowd and you can see that difference in their magazines (or I wouldn’t be here). Last week I was reminded of why this is so.
I was invited to a Sunday breakfast of local motorcyclists who regularly ride together. As I got to know these people just a bit, I found that many either work for or are retired from a nearby nuclear powerplant. Most were what we now call “knowledge workers”-process operators, welding technologists, engineers-people with specialized knowledge. Everyone had something interesting to contribute to the conversation.
I thought of many other motorcyclists I have met at the races; so often, they are people in advanced technologies. Among them a surgeon, a maker and designer of high-energy physics particle detectors, an automatic-weapons designer, a CFD engineer, an aerodynamicist, a solid-state devices pioneer, F-l and NASCAR engineers, an Army multi-linguist, an iconic auto racer, a multi-layer circuit-board engineer, high-end fabricators and machinists, various university professors, a chemist, a builder of test facilities for rocket engines, an engineer of very large magnet assemblies, and numerous automotive engineers. All are motorcyclists.
Many things unite these people, but one stands out in my mind. For many of them, the motorcycle was the first engineered system they found that they could bring under their control and make their own. As a first taste of technology, the motorcycle is inviting in its apparent simplicity, but also displays all the complexity required for long-term fascination. At the same time, it is just plain good fun to ride.
After all that self-congratulatory kerfuffle, I’m obliged to provide some believable counterpoint. I got it from veteran racing team operator Erv Kanemoto and Ben Spies’ crew chief Tom Houseworth. The way they explained it, in racing, “It's almost as if people no longer think in terms of cause and effect.”
Yet cause and effect is precisely the fascination of the motorcycle in the first place! How can this be?
I think much of the problem is that racing has become big business, full of experts, computers and measuring devices. Forty years ago. there were no right answers because there were no answers, period. That meant that you had to both work and feel your way to the truth, and on your way, you got a powerful and lasting course in cause and effect.
In the sport as it is today, each area is handled by some kind of specialist-the suspension guy, the data guy, the tire guy. Like it or not, our human nature causes each of these to stake out a modest kingdom in which he rules and is “the expert.” It is as though the white light of motorcycle reality were being refracted into separate colors by this prism of specialization.. .the suspension reality, the data reality and so on. But they cannot be separated because they are all so tightly interrelated! In old-time race teams, the crew chief had the final say, and that’s still true in some teams. But in others, the specialists decide matters in their separate areas, and there is no one experienced person trying to make overall sense of their work.
One day in the spring of 1993, I watched an example. Freddie Spencer was riding for a team that, on paper at least, had everything. Factory bikes, plenty of money and a crew of professionals. Yet somehow, someone decided that the
engine would not be allowed to develop full power until Sunday, presumably to “save it” (even back then, lease bikes were a million bucks a season). Naturally, the gearbox ratios, tires and chassis setup had all been determined-and the extra power made them all nonsense for the race.
Years ago, Cook Neilson, then editor of Cycle magazine, wanted to nail down a problem he had found in a particular motorcycle model from a major manufacturer. Because he felt the problem was chassis-related (a frame made of skinny, bendy pipe), he presented it to the chassis engineer. That respected person disclaimed all responsibility by saying, “Oh, you are talking about handling problem. You must talk to handling engineer.”
Because of this specialization and creation of walled kingdoms, it is made less likely that anyone will tackle a general problem or dare to speak outside his area of expertise. Just as defects in a metal accumulate at the grain boundaries, so problems in organizations accumulate, unsolved, in the hallways between departments. Who wants problems? To Dilbert and others who have worked in large organizations, all this is very familiar. Break down the activity into many separate elements. Set goals for each element. Determine appropriate metrics and schedules by which to measure the degree and timing of approach to the goals set. Hold plenty of regular meetings, the major agenda of which is to set the date and agenda of the next meeting.
When a team discovers that the rider laps quicker with a certain change to the setting, is it not reasonable to repeat the test, trying even more of whatever has helped? But no. Often today’s rider says, “That’s it! That’s good! Don’t change anything!” as if he had won the lottery with a lucky number, and all other numbers are therefore losers. In other words, some people treat experiments as if they were throws of dice, not intelligent probes designed to identify the direction in which improvement may be found. In this view, engineering success is luck, not systematic research. People who get good results are lucky, not intelligent or hard-working.
Ah well, the tide comes in, the tide goes out. Rational thought rules for a while, and then people tire of it and want something else. And one more point: If there’s no cause and effect, there can be no responsibility!