On lean Operations, the Gig Economy and Online Education
I find several topics fascinating, and I enjoy discussing, from a theoretical point of view, as well as from a practical one. One of these topics is the notion of lean operations and continuous improvement. The idea that we should create a system in which you are forced to continuously tinker and find ways to improve, even if marginally, as a way to strive for a better product and process.
The first element in creating such a system is being brutally honest with yourself about where the flaws are. When we moved to teach online around march, I started with a kit that included a Logitech Camera and a Blue snowball microphone. While the quality was superior to what you get with your laptop camera and microphone, it didn’t offer the quality I wanted. I upgraded the camera to a Sony Alpha6600 and a Sigma 16-1.4 lens, which provided the nice Bokeh effect. I used a Sony ECM-B1M shotgun mic, which is extremely directional.
I was satisfied with the quality of the setup and indeed got complimented for it.
Michael Seibel, the CEO of YC, likes to say that being an entrepreneur is like signing up for being punched in the face every morning. Being a professor is not all that different. Primarily if you care about teaching. I usually ask my students to fill Exit Tickets at the end of every week, with a few questions about the course. This year I decided to add one more question: “what can I do to improve my teaching.” Needleless to say that it’s painful to read but also extremely helpful in shortening the feedback loop. We tend to get feedback about our teaching at the end of the semester when it’s too late. Too late for this group of students, and too early since usually the next iteration of teaching is not immediate. One of the students commented that the sound quality could be improved, given that there is a lot of reverb when I talk. The room I am teaching in is my study, full of windows, and definitely not soundproof.
During this pandemic, I realized how valuable YouTube is. There is a whole world of creators that produce incredibly high-quality reviews and in-depth step by step walkthrough of product installations and usage. I decided to get a cardioid condenser microphone Audio Technica AT4040and a pre-amp (dbx 286s and Focusrite Solo) to improve my sound (see photo for current configuration). At that stage, I was already watching videos of voice over experts (if you have ever listened to my voice, you know that you will not hear my voice in “Frozen 3”). The quality was ok, but I decided that I need to take it further (did I mention continuous improvement).
But at this stage, I realized that I was the bottleneck. This is where the Gig world is coming. I decided to go on UpWork and find a sound engineer that can help me optimize my setup. It took me 5 minutes to post the job, 15 minutes to exchange messages with two candidates, and then an hour of work with one of them (a professional guitar player and a studio sound engineer based in Portland) to optimize the sound both for meetings and for teaching (where I tend to be more excited and energetic).
As someone who is researching the Gig economy and studying it primarily as an outside observer, it is a great learning opportunity to actually be an active player (beyond the usual Uber, Doordash side).
Four main take-aways:
The gig economy is here to stay. Both from the demand side and the supply/labor side, this is a win-win situation. This transaction couldn’t have happened without this emerging fluid labor market and simple discovery platform. I actually think this is the future of work and employment, but this is for a different post.
Continuous improvement is real and more feasible than ever. Since knowledge and skills are no longer the constraints, pushing the envelope is frictionless, and the improvements are much less marginal.
But the key is to get feedback. Ask for feedback. Work on the feedback. In other words, it is us, with our cognitive limitations, that is the real constraint.
The final takeaway is operational transparency: throughout the process, I was very transparent with the students on the experiments I am doing to improve different components. The notion that their feedback is heard and immediately act upon was vital. Ryan Buell writes a lot about this topic, and I can only say that it cannot be underestimated.