Measurement: The best defense against wisdom is ignorance

Reylito A.H. Elbo

Reylito A.H. Elbo

OFTENTIMES, when I talk about the 5Ms (man, machine, material, method, milieu) to my class in Total Quality Management, there would be at least one smart student telling me that “measurement” should be a part of the equation. Sure, it is—except that I’d like them to concentrate only on the basic resources that we could use in quality and productivity improvement.

I’m happy to have those smart students in my midst. They remind me of a story about one teacher who set “measurement” as a test question: “How can you measure the height of a house with a barometer?” The teacher wanted the students to measure the air pressure on the ground and then the air pressure at the top of the house. Then, by using a formula, you can work out the height.

One student thought that this was too simple, so he suggested the following: “If I were to measure the height of a house, I would climb up onto the roof and lower the barometer tied to a piece of string until it reached the ground. I would then measure the length of the string.”

The teacher marked this answer as wrong.

But literally and logically, the student was not wrong. After all, he succeeded in measuring the height of the house with a barometer. The student did not give in. He asked the teacher to give him another chance to answer the question. This time, he wrote:

“If I were to measure the height of a house, I would climb up unto the roof and drop the barometer from there. I would time the process to see how long it takes for the barometer to reach the ground. From this, I could calculate the height of the house.”

Once again, the teacher gave him zero. This time the student suggested: I would climb up the stairs in the house, and on the way up, I would take measurements against the wall. On reaching the top, I would multiply the number of times I used the barometer by its length and then I could work out how tall the house is.”

The student was rebuffed once again by his teacher.

“Maybe the teacher is expecting a more mathematical answer,” he thought. His next idea was this: “I would place the barometer next to the house and measure its shadow. Then I would measure the height of the barometer and the house’s shadow in order to work out how the height of the house.”

The teacher did not like this answer either! By now the student was so fed up that he wrote:

“If you don’t tell me how tall your house is, I’ll beat you to death with my barometer.”

This story is part of Fredrik Haren’s The Idea Book (2004). Haren claims that the student in the story was Nils Henrik David Bohr (1885-1962), a Danish Nobel Prize winner who made the basic contributions to understanding atomic structure and quantum theory.

This story prods me to require my students to challenge my ideas under the context of academic freedom, and industrial democracy in real work-life. If you don’t’ allow students (or workers) to challenge the teacher’s (or the boss’) ideas, then how could you enrich learning and translate knowledge to wisdom?

The thinking that goes behind those business buzzwords is valuable. It often leads to a more robust understanding of management principles that both the students and teachers are targeting. They’re essential for success, but only if the challenger can prove it beyond reasonable doubt, if not cite a contrarian view from another expert.

After all, a student who carries a cat by the tail learns something he can learn in no other way. That’s why experience is always a difficult teacher. He gives the test first, then the lesson after.

More importantly, the key to successful learning is to set aside eight hours a day for hard work, and eight hours a day for sleep. But make sure they’re not done simultaneously.

Rey Elbo is a business consultant on human resources and total quality management as a fused interest. Send feedback to or follow him on Facebook, LinkedIn, or Twitter for his random management thoughts.


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