Monday, April 30, 2012

April 30th, 2012

Fresh Air Matters... with Capt. Yaw

It is amazing how many things we take for granted, no matter where you are in the world. However, one person’s 'for granted' is not the same as another’s 'for granted'...

I take for granted that my staff will not hesitate to take a shovel to clear and level dirt, by hand – all day. Others take for granted that they can pick up a phone and ask for a 'JCB' to come and do the job. The world is a tiny place, with a lot of anomalies. Wherever we live and work we take many things for granted that are a massive advantage, and regularly bemoan the 'for granted' that others take, whilst they bemoan our own 'for granted' list.

A good Ghanaian friend of mine recently moved to the UK. She wrote 'I miss the sunshine', whilst here she would always find an excuse to 'stay out of the sun'. Perhaps we all have a tendency to want what we do not have. Such thinking is counterproductive and causes developmental delays of ourselves, our business activities and our country.

Last week, a team went to Accra to purchase some printing paper for posters (glossy paper for our Laser printer) to be used for aerial health-drops to the rural communities. After half-a-day of 'go come', 'co bra', 'yi na va' and general pillar-to-post movements, the call was made 'we will make do with what we have'. It would have been easier to say 'we can't do what we planned, so we stop'. We could have gotten into a long and expensive quest for the desired supplies. Yet, the need to move forwards with the available resources, those which could do the job, safely, effectively and productively, even if they were not 'perfect' was the key to timely completion of the project.

I have been told many times 'oh, we cannot do that because...' and the desire for what is available readily elsewhere and the 'reasons' why the project cannot be completed, are poured into the ears of any available listener.

One of my bosses, years ago, when I was programming computer-controlled production machines, taught me a good lesson. I would regularly enter his office, drawing of a new product in hand, expounding to him ‘how much we need a new machine, new tooling, new staff, new computers and the rest’. He would listen, smile and tell me 'Please, bring me solutions, not problems. There is no more money. You are creative. Solve it.' Simple.

Then, one wondrous day he burst into my office with an exclamation 'We have a grant for a new machine!', the relief on my face was so obvious I could I feel it to my very core.

Going to the showrooms of one of the world’s leading computer-controlled/robotic machine producers in the world was even more amazing. The implementation team chatted excitedly all the way to the showrooms. The machine was demonstrated, capable of hundreds of holes per minute in 6mm steel, with an accuracy of a fraction of a millimetre. The production manager smiled, almost as much as if you had given him a cigar. The drawing office manager smiled as if it were a new Mercedes motorcar! However, I looked worried. This machine was light-years ahead of the existing machinery we used to produce car, aircraft, air-conditioning, genset and other parts with. It would need a special programming system, and in 1985 that meant a new computer system.

I was shown the, then GBP25,000+ mini-computer-based programming system. The software was slow, but could be used to produce the part-programmes. I explained to my implementation colleagues that 'the computer system is essential to the realisation of production'. Their eyes were feasting on the fast moving X-,Y-axis positioning and the ability of the 72-tool-turret to change tools in less than 2 seconds from any position…

They took for granted that the machine could do amazing things, without passing a second thought for how the programmes would be produced or uploaded to the control system.

The next day, we briefed the boss. He smiled as my colleagues expressed the amazing potential that the machine held for profits and creativity. I then spoke about the marvels of the new computer system and expressed a desire to have the computer system two weeks prior to installation of the machine itself.

The boss gave me that 'Don’t give me problems. Give me solutions.' look, verbalising it with 'We only have a grant for the machine. Not the computer system.' I felt as if I was falling backwards through the open cargo-door of a C130 Hercules from 20,000 feet. I metaphorically grabbed at a cargo net and pulled myself back to a safe place. 'You mean we don’t have a programming system?'. 'No.' came the monosyllabic response that was about to change my future. The talk continued and I sat quietly, letting them wax lyrical as much as they pleased. Then, hanging back as the rest of the team left, I simply asked 'Can I have a budget to solve the problem?' The response was 'GBP5,000'. Barely enough to obtain the most basic of systems at that time, let alone software.

My boss had done me a favour, he 'took for granted' that I could 'Provide a solution. Not bring a problem.’ The next few days passed without sleep. Then I placed an order for an early PC (an 80286 processor, 128kb RAM, 20Mb hard drive, monochrome graphics and a BASIC programming system). I also ordered some data cables and connectors. That was the money spent.

Now, I needed to learn a new skill, and a skill that I would go on to use in many fields. I had to produce the programing software necessary to programme the new machine. Sleep was a luxury as I keyed thousands of lines of code and tested my 'self-designed' CAD-CAM solution. I worked on a coding system and a back-plotter (software that interprets the code used to produce the part, and then draws the finished part for you, showing the tool paths), post-processors (able to convert code from one language to another) and more. Finally, I worked on the DNC (Direct Numerical Control) protocols - the wizardry of the day.

As the new machine’s heart was being wired up to the three-phase, and hydraulic oil poured into its veins, my company was equipped with a better IT solution than any on the market. Why? Because my boss took it for granted that I could solve the problem. I did not know that I could do that, nor did he. He NEEDED me to be able to solve the problem, and took it for granted that I could, which inspired and enabled my 'can do' attitude, and we won.

There are still many challenges in West Africa that we could empower those on the ground to overcome, through believing that they can, and then following through with the training, support and encouragement to enable it to happen, creatively.

As my boss used to say: 'Bring me solutions, not problems. You are creative. Solve it.'


Capt. Yaw is Chief Flying Instructor and Chief Engineer at WAASPS, and lead Pilot with Medicine on the Move, Humanitarian Aviation Logistics ( e-mail

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