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Who cares enough to make things better?

Aug 25, 2013 Success, Sunday Nation

I’ve just come back from another bout of travel (hence the brief holiday from this page). Regular readers will know that I’m a most peculiar traveller. The highlights of my holidays tend not to be great tourist sites or memorable meals. Instead, interesting processes, interesting individuals or interesting technologies are more likely to linger in my mind.

So two years ago I came back and wrote about Singapore’s clean airport toilets as a basis for national competitiveness. This time, I was most intrigued by…a baggage carousel.

You know how most carousels carrying passengers’ luggage work. The bags are flung unceremoniously onto a chute by disgruntled workers; they then slide down the chute onto a carousel where they go round and round until their owners retrieve them.

This is normally a messy process, as the bags tend to slide down the chute haphazardly, often landing on other bags and making quite a racket. Many suitcases get knocked off the conveyor belt or even damaged as a result.

In Hannover airport in Germany, however, this does not happen. It was with some interest that I noticed inanimate bags behaving in orderly fashion: waiting at the end of the chute until there was no other bag in their path, and then politely joining the queue on the carousel. Even my own delinquent Kenyan bags were made to behave, and entered the carousel meekly when there was a gap in traffic!

How was this achieved? Simply by installing sensors that check if there is another bag at the end of the chute, and stopping the chute until an empty space appears. That’s it.

Contrast this with another trip some years back, this time to Johannesburg airport. There, my family and I waited with increasing concern at the baggage carousel. All other passengers had collected their bags and left; we were the only ones left staring at an empty conveyor. After some time, I decided to seek help. There was no one in sight except a half-asleep baggage handler, stretched out on a chair in the corner. When I told him our bags had not appeared, he scowled and gestured with his foot, without moving any other part of his body.

The foot pointed to my bags in the distance; they had been knocked off the carousel and fallen into a far corner. The said gentleman could see our bags from his vantage point, and could also see us waiting patiently on the other side, but felt no compunction to lift the bags back onto the belt (the job he’s paid to do) or even to inform us.

The difference in Germany was this: someone felt bothered enough by the messy carousel process to stop and think of a better way. Someone felt the indignity of disorder and inefficiency, and came up with a smarter way of doing things. And that’s the point: for things to get better, someone somewhere has to be bothered, really bothered, that things are not better.

Wait, you shout: the South Africans are creating jobs, while the Germans are destroying them. Not so. Non-jobs are not jobs. The Joburg gent is being paid to NOT do his work. He would evidently rather be sleeping or drinking, and should be released to do so full-time.

Also in Germany, I visited the VW factory in Wolfsburg, which contains several kilometres of vehicle assembly lines. Most of the assembly work is done by robots, but the complex still employs 50,000 workers. The difference being that those workers do the work of humans, not of beasts of burden.

So think about that for your country, or your company, or even your home. Who is bothered enough by inefficiency to make it disappear? Who cares enough?

Meanwhile, if only we could use sensors to force Kenyan drivers to wait in line on our roads…

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