Book Club: The Code Economy: The DNA of Business

“DNA builds products with a purpose. So do people.” –Auerswald, The Code Economy

McDonald’s is the world’s largest restaurant chain by revenue[7], serving over 69 million customers daily in over 100 countries[8] across approximately 36,900 outlets as of 2016.[9] … According to a BBC report published in 2012, McDonald’s is the world’s second-largest private employer (behind Walmart with 1.9 million employees), 1.5 million of whom work for franchises. …

There are currently a total of 5,669 company-owned locations and 31,230 franchised locations… Notably, McDonald’s has increased shareholder dividends for 25 consecutive years,[18] making it one of the S&P 500 Dividend Aristocrats.[19][20]

According to Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser (2001), nearly one in eight workers in the U.S. have at some time been employed by McDonald’s. … Fast Food Nation also states that McDonald’s is the largest private operator of playgrounds in the U.S., as well as the single largest purchaser of beef, pork, potatoes, and apples.  (Wikipedia)

How did a restaurant whose only decent products are french fries and milkshakes come to dominate the global corporate landscape?

IKEA is not only the world’s largest furniture store, but also among the globe’s top 10 retailers of anything and the 25th most beloved corporation. (Disney ranks number one.) Even I feel a strange, heartwarming emotion at the thought of IKEA, which somehow comes across as a sweet and kind multi-national behemoth.

In The Code Economy, Auerswald suggests that the secret to McDonald’s success isn’t (just) the french fries and milkshake machines:

Kroc opened his first McDonald’s restaurant in 1955 in Des Plaines, California. Within five years he had opened two hundred new franchises across the country. [!!!] He pushed his operators obsessively to adhere to a system that reinforced the company motto: “Quality, service, cleanliness, and value.”

h/t @simongerman600

Quoting Kroc’s1987 autobiography,

“It’s all interrelated–our development of the restaurant, the training, the marketing advice, the product development, the research that has gone into each element of the equipment package. Together with our national advertising and continuing supervisory assistance, it forms an invaluable support system. Individual operators pay 11.5 percent of their gross to the corporation for all of this…”

The process of operating a McDonald’s franchise was engineered to be as cognitively undemanding as possible. …

Kroc created a program that could be broken into subroutines…. Acting like the DNA of the organization, the manual allowed the Speedee Service System to function in a variety of environments without losing essential structure or function.

McDonald’s is big because it figured out how to reproduce.

source: Statista

I’m not sure why IKEA is so big (I don’t think it’s a franchise like McDonald’s,) but based on the information posted on their walls, it’s because of their approach to furniture design. First, think of a problem, eg, People Need Tables. Second, determine a price–IKEA makes some very cheap items and some pricier items, to suit different customers’ needs. Third, use Standard IKEA Wooden Pieces to design a nice-looking table. Fourth, draw the assembly instructions, so that anyone, anywhere, can assemble the furniture themselves–no translation needed.

IKEA furniture is kind of like Legos, in that much of it is made of very similar pieces of wood assembled in different ways. The wooden boards in my table aren’t that different in size and shape from the ones in my dresser nor the ones in my bookshelf, though the items themselves have pretty different dimensions. So on the production side, IKEA lowers costs by producing not actual furniture, but collections of boards. Boards are easy to make–sawmills produce tons of them.

Furniture is heavy, but mostly empty space. By contrast, piles of boards stack very neatly and compactly, saving space both in shipping and when buyers are loading the boxes into their cars. (I am certain that IKEA accounts for common car dimensions in designing and packing their furniture.)

And the assembly instruction allow the buyer to ultimately construct the furniture.

In other words, IKEA has hit upon a successful code that allows them to produce many different designs from a few basic boards and ship them efficiently–keeping costs low and allowing them to thrive.

From Anatomy of an IKEA product:

The company is also looking for ways to maximize warehouse efficiency.

“We have (only) two pallet sizes,” Marston said, referring to the wooden platforms on which goods are placed. “Our warehouses are dimensioned and designed to hold these two pallet sizes. It’s all about efficiencies because that helps keep the price of innovation down.”

In Europe, some IKEA warehouses utilize robots to “pick the goods,” a term of art for grabbing products off very high shelves.

These factories, Marston said, are dark, since no lighting is needed for the robots, and run 24 hours a day, picking and moving goods around.

“You (can) stand on a catwalk,” she said, “and you look out at this huge warehouse with 12 pallets (stacked on top of each other) and this robot’s running back and forth running on electronic eyebeams.”

IKEA’s code and McDonald’s code are very different, but both let the companies produce the core items they sell quickly, cheaply, and efficiently.

In The Code Economy, Chapter 8: Evolution, discusses the rise of Tollhouse Cookies, McDonald’s, the difference between natural and artificial objects, and the development of evolutionary theory from Darwin through Watson and Crick and through to Kauffman and Levine’s 1987 paper, “Toward a General Theory of Adaptive Walks on Rugged Landscapes.” (With a brief stop at Erwin Shrodinger along the way.)

The difficulty with evolution is that systems are complicated; successful mutations or even just combinations of existing genes must work synergistically with all of the other genes and systems already operating in the body. A mutation that increases IQ by tweaking neurons in a particular way might have the side effect of causing neurons outside the brain to malfunction horribly; a mutation that protects against sickle-cell anemia when you have one copy of it might just kill you itself if you have two copies.

Auerswald quotes Kauffman and Levin:

“Natural selection does not work as an engineer works… It works like a tinkereer–a tinkerer who does not know exactly what he is going to produce but uses… everything at his disposal to produce some kind of workable object.” This process is progressive, moving form simpler to more complex forms: “Evolution doe not produce novelties from scratch. It works on what already exists, either transforming a system to give it new functions or combining several systems to produce a more elaborate one [as] during the passage from unicellular to multicellular forms.”

Further:

The Kauffman and Levin model was as simple as it was powerful. Imagine a genetic code of length N, where each gene might occupy one of two possible “states”–for example, “o” and “i” in a binary computer. The difficulty of the evolutionary problem was tunable with the parameter K, which represented the average number of interactions among genes. The NK model, as it came to be called, was able to reproduce a number of measurable features of evolution in biological systems. Evolution could be represented as a genetic walk on a fitness landscape, in which increasing complexity was now a central parameter.

You may remember my previous post on Local Optima, Diversity, and Patchwork:

Local optima–or optimums, if you prefer–are an illusion created by distance. A man standing on the hilltop at (approximately) X=2 may see land sloping downward all around himself and think that he is at the highest point on the graph. But hand him a telescope, and he discovers that the fellow standing on the hilltop at X=4 is even higher than he is. And hand the fellow at X=4 a telescope, and he’ll discover that X=6 is even higher.

A global optimum is the best possible way of doing something; a local optimum can look like a global optimum because all of the other, similar ways of doing the same thing are worse.

Some notable examples of cultures that were stuck at local optima but were able, with exposure, to jump suddenly to a higher optima: The “opening of Japan” in the late 1800s resulted in breakneck industrialization and rising standards of living; the Cherokee invented their own alphabet (technically a syllabary) after glimpsing the Roman one, and achieved mass literacy within decades; European mathematics and engineering really took off after the introduction of Hindu-Arabic numerals and the base-ten system.

If we consider each culture its own “landscape” in which people (and corporations) are finding locally optimal solutions to problems, then it becomes immediately obvious that we need both a large number of distinct cultures working out their own solutions to problems and occasional communication and feedback between those cultures so results can transfer. If there is only one, global, culture, then we only get one set of solutions–and they will probably be sub-optimal. If we have many cultures but they don’t interact, we’ll get tons of solutions, and many of them will be sub-optimal. But many cultures developing their own solutions and periodically interacting can develop many solutions and discard sub-optimal ones for better ones.

On a related note, Gore Burnelli writes: How Nassim Taleb changed my mind about religion:

Life constantly makes us take decisions under conditions of uncertainty. We can’t simply compute every possible outcome, and decide with perfect accuracy what the path forward is. We have to use heuristics. Religion is seen as a record of heuristics that have worked in the past. …

But while every generation faces new circumstances, there are also some common problems that every living being is faced with: survival and reproduction, and these are the most important problems because everything else depends on them. Mess with these, and everything else becomes irrelevant.

This makes religion an evolutionary record of solutions which persisted long enough, by helping those who held them to persist.

This is not saying “All religions are perfect and good and we should follow them,” but it is suggesting, “Traditional religions (and cultures) have figured out ways to solve common problems and we should listen to their ideas.”

From Ray Kurzweil

Back in The Code Economy, Auerswald asks:

Might the same model, derived from evolutionary biology, explain the evolution of technology?

… technology may also be nothing else but the capacity for invariant reproduction. However, in order for more complex forms of technology to be viable over time, technology also must possess a capacity for learning and adaptation.

Evolutionary theory as applied to the advance of code is the focus of the next chapter. Kauffman and Levin’s NK model ends up providing a framework for studying the creation and evolution of code. Learning curves act as the link between biology and economics.

Will the machines become sentient? Or McDonald’s? And which should we worry about?

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