Ted was the founder of a firm that made thermostats.  He was an engineer by training but his real forte was inventing things and patenting the designs.  He had personally invented all the thermostats produced by his factory.  It was a buoyant business with a full order book and an international reputation. 

Ted was the first person in the world to have a thermostat on his car that warned him when the road surface temperature was approaching freezing.  He rigged up the prototype himself, positioning the thermostat just behind the front number-plate.  His house was full of extraordinary gadgets – all invented by him.  He had switches that went on and off at set times long before they became fashionable.  Fires sprang into life without human intervention. Curtains would automatically close themselves at dusk and open themselves at dawn. Hot water was supplied by solar panels and the garden gate opened, as if by magic, as you approached it.

Ted had an intense, determined air and a decidedly stubborn streak.  One of his mantras was KISS – keep it simple stupid.  He had a gift for reducing complicated ideas to the straightforward and understandable.  He used to say, ‘If it’s simple, it’ll be practical.  If it’s practical, it’ll be used.  If it’s used, it’ll make a difference’.  Time and time again, if someone came to him with a complicated concept, he’d tell them to go away and simplify it.

A long-standing problem in the factory was how to select the people who made the final adjustments to the bi-metal blades (the mechanism inside thermostats that causes them to switch on and off at different temperatures).  The final setting of the blades was done by dipping them alternately into twin basins of oil, one at the ‘on’ temperature and one at the ‘off’ temperature.  

Factory folklore held that it was only women who had the necessary dexterity to do this work. But not all women; only some seemed to have the requisite touch.  The difficulty was that no one knew how to predict those who possessed the mysterious skill and those who didn’t. So over the years a rough and ready protocol had developed whereby anyone (provided they were female!) could have a try.  If after two weeks they could set blades fast and accurately enough they were offered the job when next there was a vacancy.  If they failed, they simply returned to their normal work with the stigma of rejection. Piece rates for the bi-metal blade setters were the highest in the factory, so competition for the work was fierce. 

As you can imagine, this process was divisive and, all too often, caused hopes to be raised then dashed.  Ted yearned for some sort of simple test that would identify whether someone had the necessary aptitude and save all the heartache. He contacted the psychology department of the nearest university and set them the challenge.

A graduate researcher from the occupational psychology department started work, confident that the problem could be solved. The researcher, a woman, started by observing the women who could set the blades. They worked fast, moulding the blades between their thumb and first finger while chatting away with their immediate neighbours.  Clearly the skill was something to do with eye-hand co-ordination.  Next the researcher watched a couple of women who were on trial and she invited back a couple of recent ‘failures’ and watched them too.  Then, with a sample of ten women who could set the blades and ten who couldn’t, she set out to find a test that would discriminate between the two groups.

However, all the obvious aptitude tests that should have worked failed.  There was no significant difference between the ‘coulds’ and ‘could nots’.  Puzzled, the researcher tried an intelligence test, then a personality test.  Again, they failed to distinguish between the two groups of women. 

Whenever the researcher met Ted he’d ask her cheerfully, ‘Got me a simple solution yet?’  She didn’t dare tell him that the whole thing was proving an elusive puzzle.

Baffled, the researcher talked the problem over with a colleague at the university.  They reviewed all the results and wondered what else to try.  Over coffee another colleague suggested the dotting test.  This involved giving someone a sheet of paper divided into half-inch squares and giving them 60 seconds to place three dots in as many squares as possible.  In comparison with the aptitude tests the researcher had already tried, this seemed absurdly simple and none too promising.  Still, since nothing else had produced a result, they decided they might as well try it.

To their amazement, the dotting test proved a triumph.  The women who could set the blades succeeded in putting dots in more of the squares than those who couldn’t.  Incredulous, the researcher tried the test on a bigger population and, sure enough, there was a significant difference between the groups.

The researcher went to Ted with the good news.  When Ted heard that the solution to his irksome long-term problem was a 60-minute test requiring a sheet of paper, a pencil and a stopwatch he became highly agitated.

‘What!’, he said, ‘Are we paying you fees for this?  It can’t be that simple!’.


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