Entropy, Salmon, and Swimming

EntropyA can of soup falls if you drop it, your car tire blows out when a nail punctures it, and eventually my barbeque grill cools down after grilling steaks, even in the hot Texas air.

Why is this? Allow me to explain.

While these things are all different, they do share a common denominator. They’re all explained by the second law of thermodynamics – entropy.

Defined, entropy is a measure of the disorder or randomness in a system. Put another way, entropy helps us measure the energy that disperses or spreads out in a process, any process.

Entropy, our foe

Here is where we begin to understand how this second law of thermodynamics describes a fierce foe to those of us trying to improve processes in our factories, hospitals, and office buildings.

It would seem that entropy never seizes. It never grows tired, frustrated, or bewildered. It’s never sick or complains about a sore back. It just relentlessly presses on.

And while I realize entropy is a measure and not really a thing… I’m pretending, if you’ll allow me, that it is a thing… a relentless thing in fact.

This thing explains why my garage looks great for a week or two after our annual spring cleaning and then falls to pieces a few months later. It’s why the fifth S (sustain) is so darn hard. It’s why control charts were invented (to determine when the disorder is getting out of hand).

And its why, as I’ve stated many times before, I personally believe “controlling” or even “sustaining” gains is next to an impossible task, long-term. Why? Because entropy works harder than you and me and all our friends combined. It’s just a fact of life.

What to do?Salmon Swimming

Right, so entropy is relentless and never tires and controlling gains are next to impossible. That’s just great. Let’s all just pack our bags and quit, right? Wrong.

Have you ever watched salmon swim upstream? It’s really one of the most amazing things you’ll ever watch.

I can only imagine how hard it is for these fish to battle the current. I wonder how tired they get? I wonder what motivates them? I wonder if they realize many of them will die on the journey?

I can’t answer these questions. But I do know these salmon may be the perfect role models for how we should approach our battle with entropy.

Swim Like Hell

You see these salmon aren’t satisfied with maintaining their present position (i.e. controlling gains). Chinook salmon, for example, swim more than 900 miles and climb 7,000 feet from the Pacific Ocean as they return to spawn each year. So with massive odds facing them they set off against a mighty foe and swim.

And so it is with us, we too must swim (i.e. continuously improve). In fact, we must swim like hell with full knowledge that entropy is waiting for us to relax… so it can do what it does best… bring disorder back to the system.

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9 Comments

  1. Craig Wolf

    June 5, 2008 - 7:24 am

    Initially, I thought you had lost your mind comparing us to salmon. Then the more I thought about it the more I realize this may be one of the most brilliant analogies I’ve ever heard.

  2. Brian Buck

    June 5, 2008 - 8:37 am

    Simply stunning Ron. Great post!

  3. Ron Pereira

    June 5, 2008 - 9:36 am

    Thanks, Craig and Brian. I appreciate your kind words.

    I’ve thought about this post for some time and finally found a way of capturing my ideas on paper.

  4. Kelvin Lewis

    June 5, 2008 - 9:47 am

    How do you think of this stuff?

  5. Ron Pereira

    June 5, 2008 - 2:14 pm

    Gosh, Kelvin, I don’t know. My mind never seems to stop churning. I’ll be talking to someone and think of an idea… or I’ll be driving down the road and think of something.

    In this case, I am presenting at a conference next week and the topic of entropy came up… a few days later this post was born.

  6. Pete Abilla

    June 5, 2008 - 11:44 pm

    Good stuff, Ron.

    Extending you analogy, the salmon also know the best way to swim upstream — they don’t zig-zag or swim upstream in an s pattern, but they swim straight upstream, while jumping. This point might be subtle, but is instructive for all of us: when we create processes, let us do so with the least number of possible touches — elegance is simplicity and, as the salmon understands, simplicity is also practical — it gets them where they want to go.

    Mitigating the effects of entropy has everything to do with channeling energy more effectively, by eliminating unnecessary steps.

  7. Lester Sutherland

    June 6, 2008 - 2:34 am

    Ron,
    Very good thoughts, and the follow-up posts are interesting also. It is difficult to always keep the energy level high, even the Salmon rest at times in calm water; and the geese form V’s to save energy while flying. The best way to keep the ability to put energy into the system and keep forging ahead is to have a long-term goal. The vision is extremely important, to companies and to people. Toyota has had such a vision so far that includes community service and the famous “Respect for People”. That allows them to mesh their employees visions (and help them develop one) and gain energy from the synergy of a shared vision. Families do this when they are working well, and when they lose their shared vision they tend to fall apart. All the Salmon having a shared goal makes the swim worth it, even for those that only encourage the others into the great leap to the top of the dam. The thing that inspires me is when I see the organization underlying the chaos…. Now if only my toolbox would self organize.

  8. Ron Pereira

    June 6, 2008 - 12:30 pm

    Thanks for the excellent comments everyone. You are all the best at keeping things interesting. I learn so much from you all. Have a great weekend everyone.

  9. Mo

    June 22, 2008 - 2:47 pm

    As Kelvin said – How do you think this stuff up – I wonder if there are certain drugs involved – just kidding. Nice post!