AFTER the Space Race (1955-1975) between the two Cold War superpowers — the United States and the USSR — that competed against each another to show their spaceflight capacity, there came an interesting story that won’t go away. It’s how ballpoint pens were used in space and revealed a problem and its solution.

According to scientificamerican.com, National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) “scientists realized that pens could not function in space. They needed to figure out another way for the astronauts to write things down. So they spent years and millions of taxpayer dollars to develop a pen that could put ink to paper without gravity. But their crafty Soviet counterparts, so the story goes, simply handed their cosmonauts pencils.

“This tale with its message of simplicity and thrift — not to mention a failure of common sense in a bureaucracy — floats around the internet, hopping from inbox to inbox, and even surfaced during a 2002 episode of 'The West Wing.' But, alas, it is just a myth.”

Even today, there are still people around us using the same old story to connect it to the theory of many efficiency experts, including Toyota icon Taiichi Ohno (1912-1990), who castigated his engineers to “use their brain and not the (company’s) money in solving problems.”

The ballpen was invented by John Jacob Loud in 1888 as an alternative writing instrument against the early models of troublesome fountain pens that were prone to ink leakage, smear and frequent refill. Indeed, necessity is the mother of invention, while perfection is the father of competition.

It was in 1938 when a Hungarian journalist named Laszlo Biro used the smudge-free ink for newspaper printing for ballpoint pen that have been improved, perfected and sold millions since by different manufacturers. So what makes me reflect on the wisdom of the ballpen as an efficiency tool?

Simple and efficient tool

If you’re a bit paranoid like me in this pandemic lockdown time, I prefer to use my own ballpen wherever I am, including at home. I don’t share my ballpen with others. And it’s not like your ordinary ballpen as I prefer the retractable model in black, blue and red (sometimes green) inks.

In justifying retractable pens as an efficiency tool, I remember the former boss of my boss who read more than one million times the 1982 opus In Search of Excellence by Tom Peters and Robert Waterman Jr. That was in the mid-1980s, when he, like Ohno, chastised me to focus on excellence “by paying attention to small details.”

Lucky me, after more than three decades, that same excellence principle still rings true to me even to this day. Somehow, it’s the same theory that made me enamored with Kaizen (continual program) and the teachings of Steve Jobs, who said: “Be a yardstick of quality. Some people aren’t used to an environment where excellence is expected.”

Going back, what’s so special about retractable ball pens?

A three ink-color retractable ballpen, or even those with four or five colors, regardless of its brand as long as it’s made, quality-wise, in Japan, the United States or Europe, is my preferred variety. The cheapest one I got was a Pilot worth around $6 that I bought in Tokyo three years ago. With it, I saved a lot of money in the long term. Even today, it’s still working to my full satisfaction, which made me efficient in the following ways:

One, a retractable ball pen is easy to use. Its click-and-write feature is a valuable tool for  good, smooth scribbling on  whatever surface — cartons, bond paper and newsprint, notebooks, and even wood and plastic.

Two, you can’t lose the removable cap because it has none. The cover is built-in. All one has to do is to click and unclick the top of the ballpen. It’s a good example of Pokayoke or a mistake-proofing device that prevents you from smudging your shirt or your bag.

And third, it’s a handy ballpen with three colors. You don’t have to bring in as many pens wherever you go. You can slip it in the pocket of your office or factory uniform like how Japanese managers and their workers wear them like their everyday work tool.

Blessed little things

The major point is: how many of you would become cognizant of the value of a retractable ballpen? And who cares? Before you answer that question, it is worthwhile to note, however, that there’s such a space pen being sold online. This pen, the Fisher Space Pen, is not your ordinary pen. It can be used in many extreme environments, including in space with zero gravity, or even when the user is tilted upside down.

The so-called space pen uses a “cartridge (that) is instead pressurized with nitrogen at 35 pounds per square inch. This pressure pushes the ink toward the tungsten carbide ball at the pen's tip,” so that it can be used even under water and over greasy materials. So what can you ask for?

If you’re thinking, maybe, the first on your list could be a special kind of paper or any writing material where you can use that kind of pen while you’re under water. It’s a case of having a solution to an existing problem but creates another problem in the process. So we have a retractable pen as too insignificant to some people, but not for the Japanese.

Today, we realize if there’s no coronavirus disease 2019, we won’t appreciate our health and safety before the pandemic. If we are safe, healthy and wealthy, many of us would rarely think of thanking the Lord for the blessings. For minimum wage earners, we take for granted our jobs until the notice of employment termination comes along.

Therefore, it’s better time for us to reflect on the blessings of those little things, like a retractable pen, unless you prefer another type with a detachable cover that you can use to clean your ears and fingernails.

Rey Elbo is a business consultant specializing in human resources and total quality management as a fused interest. Send feedback to [email protected] or via https://reyelbo.consulting.