Whose Planet Is It Anyway?

Thursday, March 15, 2007


Suboptimization is an industrial term that refers to the common management mistake of adjusting a machine or process for maximum local efficiency, while overlooking the impact on production as a whole, thereby causing a decrease in the overall efficiency of the production line.

In the management book The Goal, Eliyahu Goldratt gives the example of a decision to make machining centers in a factory more efficient by increasing the amount of metal taken off with each pass of the cutting tool. Instead of shaving a chip one millimeter thick, the tool took off three millimeters. This made the machining of the parts a much speedier process and reduced the cost of operating the machining centers. Increasing the amount of metal taken off on each pass made the parts brittle, however, which necessitated heat-treating. The increased load on the furnaces gave rise to a serious bottleneck in heat-treating and made the plant significantly less productive and less profitable.

A similarly shortsighted thought process seems to be involved in today's clamor to cure or prevent autism and other developmental differences. Autistic children need more and/or different resources in the educational system, the reasoning goes. Therefore, our schools would be much more efficient if they did not have to educate autistic children or provide related services such as speech therapy. Proponents of this view assume that reducing the cost of education by preventing the existence of autistic children would translate into a more profitable economy.

This is a classic example of the suboptimization fallacy. Is a standardized, low-cost school system the ultimate goal of human society? Most people wouldn't think so. If a successful economy is the goal, then, which would be analogous to a company's ultimate goal of making a profit (leaving aside issues of spiritual and moral growth), how do we get there? We live in a highly complex society with an advanced, technologically dependent economy that requires a great variety of skills in its workers. Therefore, the most efficient educational system, from the standpoint of increasing the productivity of the modern economy as a whole, is one that produces workers who are diverse enough to give employers the flexibility to fill a variety of specialized niches.

In many other contexts, such as the hiring of workers with different cultural backgrounds, employers recognize that more diversity in today's global workplace increases productivity and profit. It's about time more people became aware that this is also true of diversity in learning styles, communication, and cognitive abilities.



  • It does seem to me (& has been our experience in our son's schools) that the teachers who are comfortable with IEPs & the students who have them tend to treat all of their students as individuals. This has a positive effect on all the student's educational experiences. It would be very nice if more attention could be paid to the effects of a school system that placess a high priority on turning our cookie-cutter people in the most efficient manner possible. I don't think this is optimum education for anyone...

    By Blogger The Jedi Family of Blogs, at 1:55 PM  

  • I've been wanting to write a post about how minimizing services and supports to students on the autism spectrum is penny wise and pound foolish, but I haven't wanted to come off as though the whole issue is one of dollars and sense.

    Thanks for doing a much better job of this than I could have. Money and time invested now in supporting those who learn and interact differently will be paid back later in adults who hold higher paying jobs, hold jobs rather than not doing so, and in the creative added value that would have been lost.

    By Blogger Club 166, at 2:04 PM  

  • Lisa/Jedi: You're right, cookie-cutter education is not optimum for anyone.

    Club 166: I think you should go ahead and write that post. Your point isn't exactly the same as mine, and the more we can get the message out there, the better.

    By Blogger abfh, at 9:04 AM  

  • "Therefore, our schools would be much more efficient if they did not have to educate autistic children or provide related services such as speech therapy. Proponents of this view assume that reducing the cost of education by preventing the existence of autistic children would translate into a more profitable economy."

    This if front of a backdrop of the US facing a shortage of a technically inclined workforce. If they'd only pay attention and work on the talent they have, they could have a socially challenged but technically proficient workforce in little less than 15 years. That's what engineers, programmers and the like are anyway!

    By Blogger LIVSPARENTS, at 6:00 PM  

  • I really really like this post.

    This is exactly the kind of thing that I am trying to get across to my futurist cohorts (though a fair number seem to indeed be "getting it") -- if you're going to think long-term, particularly if you're in favor of people being able to modify themselves and adjust their own skill sets and configurations in ways that will certainly be mutually exclusive of one another, then it's pretty obvious that any society worth living in is going to need to become much more flexible.

    It really gets me when people suggest that somehow by allowing the existence of autistics, all of society is somehow going to be "held back". If anything has the potential to hold back the development of a more civilized and egalitarian culture, it's forced homogeneity and consequent shortsighted elimination of diversity!

    (And no, I don't mean that every possible configuration is worth keeping for diversity's sake; I think the world could definitely do with a few less sociopathic bullies...)

    By Blogger Anne Corwin, at 9:19 PM  

  • This is the classic problem of top-down control, and why it always fails for large systems.

    You can "optimize" the schools by turning everyone into automatons, but that doesn't "optimize" the society.

    It is like picking the 10 "most important" nutrients and ignoring the rest, which results in eventual death from a lack of the 11th, 12th, 13th...

    By Blogger daedalus2u, at 4:05 PM  

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