Of all the subjects that I studied at graduate business school, I found statistics to be one of the most interesting. One used computer simulation to decide on the optimum, lowest-cost inventory re-order policy in a store where both demand and ordering lead time were random, using a computer program written in FORTRAN, that ancient king of scientific languages.
I used to remember our fifth-standard maths teacher trying to explain the then-abstruse concept of average to us 9-year-olds, by saying “average means more or less”, leaving us to wonder why you don’t always find, say, a boy with the average height in the given sample.
But the true appreciation of this discipline came later, when statistics and the learning of life in general came together. Statistics talks about the normal distribution and the bell curve, manifested by many natural attributes, where 99% of values of a given attribute vary within 3 standard deviations (sigmas) from the mean. A very few are beyond the + and – 3-sigma limits.
However, there is nothing unnatural about these “rank outsiders”, just because they are so rare. At the most, such values are not the norm. With this new understanding, we appreciate the power of variation in human behaviour, and begin to realise that all behaviour is natural, however strange and unfamiliar. This in turn tends to increase our tolerance towards those that are made quite differently from us, and so helps us to look upon, and treat them with greater patience and understanding.
For instance, the homosexual is not unnatural, just because he does not conform to the norm in sexual behaviour. He deserves our respect and understanding. Some homosexuals are very fine human beings, so what if they are homosexuals? How many of us obsessively pull the locks on our front doors repeatedly to ensure that they are securely locked? If just two percent of the population do this, does that make them unnatural? They are simply the people that are outside the 3-sigma limit of deviation from the average level of security consciousness. So what? They are quite “normal” and often quite distinguished in many other things.
I know a few dedicated professionals who feel embarrassed charging fees to their clients. They are in a minuscule minority and we accept them as highly unusual at most. There are the complex, bewilderingly ambidextrous left-handers, the genocide specialists who have created history of a different sort, the musicians with huge repertories drawn from the works of composers spanning three centuries of the evolution of European music, the highly successful stock-market investors who are more famous for their humour and uncanny ability to write stuff and its mirror-image simultaneously with both hands, left to right and right to left, starting from the middle of the page. Not to mention Zarathustra, Jesus, Prophet Mohammed, Sri Aurobindo, Ramana Maharshi, Sai Baba, Guru Nanak and others of that kind.
Statistics is the great teacher every time, and constantly reminds us that all these types, and more, co-exist harmoniously in one vast, constantly varying kaleidoscope of humanity.
The Japanese understand statistics all right, but most interestingly, endeavour to beat it! In an interesting story illustrating the concept, a leading American manufacturing company placed an order on an equally respected and prominent Japanese firm for supply of a particular required component. The quantity ordered was 10,000 numbers, and the defect tolerance specified in the order was a fairly stringent 3 parts in 10,000. Statistical methods were extensively used to monitor the quality of shop-made and bought-out items.
The consignment duly arrived and was received for inspection. The bulky crate contained a large parcel, a very small parcel, and a file with the relevant commercial and shipment documents. The large parcel contained the ordered component, while the very small one was found to have three more pieces.
After scratching their heads in utter bewilderment at the raison d’etre of the little packet, the receiving department faxed a query to the suppliers. The latter’s reply hardly needs explanation:
“Your defect tolerance specification is irrelevant to us, since we produce our goods in accordance with our zero-defects policy. The large parcel contains 10,000 good pieces. However, we sent you three defective pieces in the small parcel since your order specifies the same. Please refer to item No. 2 of our packing slip.”
Statistics also helps us to understand the Japanese.