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The Second Law of Thermodynamics

In my previous article, I examined the practical business application of the First Law of Thermodynamics for those of us more comfortable in the boardroom than the physics lab. Here’s a refresher: The First Law states that the total increase in thermal energy of a system is the sum of the work done on it and the heat added to it … or “you don’t get something for nothing.” In this second installment, I continue with the role of

This is entropy. With each energy conversion from one form to another, some of the energy becomes unavailable for further use. Turning on a light bulb shows that in addition to light, heat is generated—it is impossible to recapture that light or heat to do additional work. Energy must be continually added to keep productivity up. See the business parallel? Work environments gravitate towards disorder and lower productivity unless some form of constant intervention is introduced.

Think of it as “weeding a garden,” where inactions have consequences. Those pesky dandelions will show up unless you do something to prevent it. The braces come off and your teeth become crooked again unless you wear your retainer. Well, that all means very little to a young child growing up in 1970s Atlanta, so my Dad (yes, the very same Georgia Tech scientist and First Law protagonist) paraphrased it this way:

“Before something gets better, it will get worse.”

Wow, what a negative life view to impart. However, there are some applications of this phrase that help make sense of the Second Law, such as, be proactive and avoid negative outcomes.

Here’s a real life example. Growing up, we weren’t especially disciplined; I don’t mean to say we were hoodlums or didn’t brush our teeth or do any of the normal things a kid should do. We did, however, watch a great deal of television. Our parents (and five single aunts who lived next door) loved us perhaps a little too much for our own good. In fruit terms, we can best be described by this picture …

And if we weren’t spoiled rotten, we were well on our way!

Part of this coddling manifested in our studies—though arguably in the top five percent of our classes in potential, my siblings and I suffered from a lack of discipline that resulted in grades that weren’t as good as they could have been. We gravitated toward situations like watching TV first then studying (if at all), or starting the annual science fair project the night before it was due.

Not good.

So, case in point, when Dad asked if we had made progress on our science fair project, inevitably the Second Law would rear its ugly head. Layered on top of the reality that we weren’t prepared for this enormous undertaking was the “before it gets better, it will get worse” part of the equation. It often went like this: Dad realized that to avoid his child from getting a failing grade in this class (which he perhaps should have allowed for our own good), he was going to have to pass up a night of sleep helping his child with (or more so, doing) the project, keeping said child awake with him. Then he would still have to start a full day of work the next morning. For both of us, it was much worse before it got better.

As an adult now myself, I have learned to weed out these types of flaws (remember “weeding” where inactions have consequences).

Except, instead of weeding something that looks like this:

It feels more like this:

So, what is the net message for the Second Law?

Get it done.

Get it done as early and as proactively as possible.

Get it done in a manner that allows for time to thoughtfully make changes as new information is introduced so that the final product is your best creation.

Consider this business case … A financial services organization proudly boasts its successful acquisition record: “We have averaged one acquisition every 60 days for the last 10 years.” Well, that’s impressive, let’s learn more.

What went unsaid was that part of its success was based on the conversion of all acquired assets on to its systems platform.

No one wanted that. Updating its IT infrastructure wasn’t just a function of throwing a switch. Over an extended period of time, new hardware and software were rolled out to each location, testing and training took place, and daily operations were interrupted. Before it got better, it got substantially worse—and not only expense-wise.

Imagine the IT personnel situation. A project that should have been undertaken years ago is finally given the green light. Now the project is at mission critical creating a highly-stressful situation for team members needing to complete the work quickly, accurately and cheaply. These same employees given this responsibility are not exactly leaders of their industry. After all, what respectable IT person would choose to work in an environment like this? Over the years, a certain degree of adverse selection had manifested itself as this bank was viewed as a haven for “Luddites,” where sub-par employees adverse to change stayed on and shining stars sought more attractive work situations.

Nevertheless, an IT conversion became a requisite for continued success, and it enabled the bank to move into the modern world becoming more attractive to future acquisitions. They had dug a sizable hole for themselves, however, and it was considerably more painful and costly to complete than it would have been had they invested in IT along the way. These executives learned the Second Law of Thermodynamics the hard way. Get the tough work done—putting it off only results in financial and human capital losses.

To round out the series, the Third Law of Thermodynamics which defines absolute zero on the entropy scale.

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