Machine Design

The power of constructive ridicule

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Khol editorials

When I left engineering and took a job in the publishing business, business publications at the time were notorious for poor writing. Publishers typically took people out of industry and just dumped them into writing jobs. As a result, articles were often turgid and difficult to understand, especially in magazines covering engineering and manufacturing.

Nobody in the publishing business cared because most magazines were profitable. There was enough business for everyone, and editors cruised along with self-assurance unwarranted by their modest talents and inability to recognize their own deficiencies.

My new employer was apart from the pack. Its executives realized that business and technical writing had to improve. So they hired a writing coach for the editorial staff so that the firm's magazines became more lucid and interesting.

I found his classes a revelation. Until then, when I couldn't understand material in technical magazines or textbooks, I assumed I just wasn't smart enough to comprehend complex material. But after his cram course in writing, I realized that unintelligible writing is the fault of the author, not the reader.

The writing coach also put out a monthly newsletter critiquing the firm's magazines. He praised good material and mentioned the people responsible by name. (Bylines were rarely used, so most of what was published was anonymous journalism.) He also criticized dumb things appearing in print, and although the editors responsible were not named, we were a close-knit group, so everyone knew who the culprits were.

The newsletter was eagerly awaited and avidly read each month. We had a lot of fun with it because, aside from being entertaining, it provided ample opportunity for what I call locker-room humor. By that I mean we indulged in the sort of kidding you find in a locker room after a teammate gets picked off base in baseball or shoots at the wrong basket in basketball. Getting critical mention in the newsletter made you the butt of jokes for a day or two, then all was forgotten until the next newsletter came out.

All of this had a salutary effect I call the power of constructive ridicule. We all tried to sharpen our writing skills not just to impress our bosses, but also to avoid becoming the object of laughter and ridicule among our peers.

When I first became editor of this magazine, I hired several new editors, some of whom proved to be sloppy at checking galleys and page proofs. Despite my constant pleading with them to be more careful, they kept making the same dumb mistakes.

Then I tried constructive ridicule. When errors appeared in print, I began posting them on a bulletin board without naming the people responsible. Again, everyone knew who did what, so there was no cloak of anonymity. And when the errors were posted, mistakes dropped dramatically, primarily because editors didn't want their peers laughing at them.

Maybe this principle could be put to work in businesses other than publishing. For example, an analysis of the massive power failure in the Northeast last August revealed that it might have been avoided if people in several control rooms hadn't done stupid things.

In one instance, a computer technician worked on the software for a monitoring system and then left for lunch without turning on the feature that updated information. As a result, workers in a control room were left staring at monitors that weren't revealing problems as they arose on the grid. A goof so horrific not only warranted being put on a bulletin board, the name of the technician also should have been published in newspapers.

In your own operation, maybe you don't need Six Sigma or quality workshops run by expensive consultants. A bulletin board and package of pushpins might be all you need to reduce errors.

-- Ronald Khol, Editor
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