The Great Unknown

Where do you turn for guidance? Not just for the big decisions, but also for the medium-size ones. Recently, I discovered a shop that chose not to buy a new machine tool in the face of commercial pressures that would have been enough to lead other shops to buy the new machine.

Columns From: 1/1/2008 Modern Machine Shop, ,

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Peter Zelinski

Where do you turn for guidance? Not just for the big decisions, but also for the medium-size ones. Recently, I discovered a shop that chose not to buy a new machine tool in the face of commercial pressures that would have been enough to lead other shops to buy the new machine. I wondered whether the shop chose correctly. How do you conclude when the time is right for your own shop to add equipment?

You might say you decide with your “gut.” To me, it’s never clear exactly what the “gut” refers to. My own gut can be full of emotion—particularly fear. The gut may or may not be a source of sound advice.

Then again, you may prefer to use logic and little else—buying a machine only when you can demonstrate that you have the work to justify it.

Of course, the machine may be needed before the work can come. However, logical analysis still works in this situation. You can study the unmet opportunities you see in the market, and evaluate the likelihood of getting that work if your capabilities change. Logical analysis can address even these unknowns—the ones you recognize.

But that still leaves the unknown unknowns. What about these? Consider the shop that makes an investment with one aim in mind, only to attract an entirely unanticipated flow of work from a source that the shop never associated with that piece of equipment. The shop arguably made the right decision, even though the logical analysis had nothing to do with the success.

So: You face not only the “known” (as in the work you have) along with the “known unknown” (as in the work you can anticipate getting), but also the “unknown unknown” (referring to all that falls outside of what you know enough to think about). These three elements together affect the outcome of a particular decision.

Some say the gut, or some other awareness, can offer input about the “unknown unknown.” Others say that luck will flow where it will. But as for the “known” and the “known unknown,” both of these yield to analysis. Two thorough analyses of these elements will both lead to the same conclusion about a given situation. If these elements were all we ever had, then there would always be just one right answer to be found.

The third element is what makes the difference—the “unknown unknown.” When contemplating how we make the decisions we do, what truly separates us from one another is the way we face this larger unknown.

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