Thoughts on delaying a hair cut

I needed a hair cut a year ago. At that time, it was past the height of the uncertainty about this situation so I felt it would not be long before things would return to a form of normal. In particular, I was waiting for the time when I’d be welcomed to a barber shop without the need to wear a mask. That did not happen, and it now appears it never will.

The last time I got a haircut, I did suggest a cut that would grow out better. It was not a short cut on the sides. I think it was in the very earliest weeks after the pandemic situation became known, but before things started to get crazy. I made the suggestion out of a prior desire to let my hair grow a little longer.

I am on older man and my hair is showing my age. I have a good coverage for hair, but the hair is wispy fine with abundance of grey. This is hair is best cut close to the scalp. I wanted longer despite the fact that it doesn’t really work any more. Perhaps I wanted it for exactly that reason.

In any case, I did not expect it would grow out this long. When I tug on the back, it is reaching the lower part of my shoulder blades, but it is naturally curling so it normally just dangles at the shoulder level. I expect to let it grow for another year. That is about the time I expect when I’ll be able to get a cut without being expected to wear a mask.

I did some research to see if I could cut it myself. I probably will cut it myself shortly before I am ready to see a barber. The idea would be to to roughly cut it down to size that the barber can work with. In any case, I looked into getting one of those electric shears and reviewed some videos about how to cut some basic cuts that are close to the scalp. These instructions pointed out the need to match the landmarks of the scalp and also align with the face. I don’t see how this is possible when the customer is wearing a mask. The barber must be trying to visualize the face, or he must be secretly resenting the inability to see it.

People leaving barber shops have very good haircuts. From a passerby perspective, a haircut would have to be really bad to be noticeable. I’m thinking particularly about the hair cutter and his customer. The hair cutter will know where he had to guess. The customer will know that the cut is not quite what he wanted without being able to explain exactly why.

All through my life I have been disappointed with haircuts. The only time when I was satisfied with a haircut was when I had to cut it to regulation cut. I’m fine with someone saying it needs to be a standard cut, then giving me a cut with some kind of assurance it is standard. I think it was while I was in grad school where I went to a barber that primarily cut hair for the military cadets in school. I was fine with asking for the same cut they were getting. It was not personalized.

My problem is when I am given the opportunity to personalize my haircut. I want a haircut that uniquely fits me. This is where I am frequently frustrated. I recall many a time coming home from a hair cut and then cutting some more with my own scissors. I was not perfecting the cut, instead I was planning ahead. The next cutter will recognize the uneven cut and think something parts of my hair was growing faster than others and then guess where the real cut should be.

I must have had some good hair cuts. I do recall feeling satisfied with some, but right now I can’t describe what it looked like. I only know it was long enough to go over the ears some way, and it touched the back of the neck. It was not as long as it is now. I hope I live long enough, and my hair lasts long enough, to get a good hair cut again.

I don’t know anything about cutting hair. I know some haircutters put a lot of effort in carefully cutting the hair with frequent periods to step back and check out how it is all fitting. These haircutters are trying hard to get the hair to fit the face. I appreciated the effort. Even if I got something different than I expected, I would be more likely to enjoy it because I know there was effort to get it right. Instead of walking around thinking this is the hair cut I wanted, I would think this is the haircut the hair cutter wanted. In a sense I was wearing a wig. It was well designed, it just wasn’t mine.

I am fascinated by the effort to gradually shape a hair style to a face and a perceived personality while at the same time trying to satisfy the customer. The end result is always a joint achievement. There is a haircutter’s signature in the cut, even it is very subtle.

The process is similar to the continuous improvement cycles used in business processes. The cycle assumes an operational state of affairs. Something exists and needs to continue to exist. The objective is to improve things without disrupting things. The cycle has a variety of descriptions that I would describe as observe, analyze, plan, and implement.

The first step is to observe what happened after the implementation phase of the last cycle. This is like the hair cutter stepping back to see how well things are going. The analyze phase evaluates how well things are going, and the planning phase prepares for the next action. The implementation phase commits to some action that generally can not be undone. After this phases, there is more hair on the floor and less on the head.

I started my career with aspirations of being an engineer, but more specifically one that is involved in innovation. I fantasized about designing something on paper so that when someone builds it according to my instruction something valuable would emerge. I never actually did that, or I always failed when given the opportunity.

This is like my attitude entering a barber shop. I think I know exactly how I want my hair cut, and even describe it in detail to the hair cutter. If he follows my instructions exactly, I don’t like it. More frequently, there actual cut had a good deal of the cutter’s choice. The result was ok, but it was not entirely my idea. That is analogous to what happened when I tried to be a designer.

That phase in my career was short. I realized I did not belong in the field. But ever since I still retain the notion that someone is doing that. There are designers who only design, and implementers who make every effort to match the design. I recall an early project where I made a drawing for something to be cut from metal. The machinist came back to explain in the nicest way possible that I over-specified something. He was obligated to meet what was on the drawing, but I also had a responsibility to make the specification that was affordable to build.

Good designers need to consider how easy and affordable something is to produce. The fact that I mentioned this now after all these years is proof for how embarrassed I was to not do this. It all worked out fine after I altered the drawing appropriately. It was in many ways like getting my hair cut and the hair cutter telling me my hair is just not right for that kind of style. He could make it work but it would take a long time, cost a lot of money, and probably be annoying to maintain.

At some point, I recall being impressed with people’s haircuts, but instead of thinking how great their hair cutter must be, I was thinking how lucky they were to have hair that could be cut that way. I know of at least one person who had natural tightly curled hair. He hated it while at the same time I wished I could do that with my hair.

In a recent post, I described a separation of science endeavors into analysis, synthesis, and observation. There are some people who can fully dedicate themselves to just one of these areas. The analyst only works on paper. The synthesist will only work in the shop, and the observationist will only work in the lab. They often stop talking to each other. The developer will see that things don’t work according to the predictions of the analyst. The observer will see that thing that the analyst cannot explain and that the developer can’t fix.

The later model is a more operational approach. This model attempts to replace the different specialties with a more holistic approach to consider the entire process. This introduces a process cycle that has different stages for observation, analysis, and synthesis. The process requires everyone to participate at each stage. Theoretically, there is no seat available for someone who can only do analysis. He needs to also create and to observe by testing.

One model for this approach is called Agile. When I first encountered it, they made the distinction by describing the old approach a waterfall model. The idea of a waterfall is that activities and work-products flows downhill as if directed by gravity. The analysts create requirements that the designers must meet. The designers then draw up instructions for the manufacturers to implement, and so on. In the waterfall model, once the analysts were done, they would be assigned to work on something else long before even the designers were done designing.

The waterfall model is consistent with my expectations and aspirations when I first started my career. I fantasized about being so well prepared that I could draw out a flawless list of specification that guaranteed success when the specification was met exactly. This preparation would include education on what is possible and practical to specify. There are a finite amount of materials to use, and for each material, there are only a few variants or sizes available for use. All of this would be known by the analyst. They would draw up the specification with confidence that everything can be built and when built the product would work.

Even in the height of the waterfall era, this process often failed. Even when the analyst had a good design, the implementation took so long to implement that there was a need for substituting new materials to replace the originally specified materials. Even more frequently, the original requirements later showed their flaws when it came time to actually built it, or to test the final product.

The agile process takes a different perspective by removing the importance of extensive requirements analysis and specification. Agile processes accept the possibility of failures while the waterfall process must avoid failure. The agile process lessens the cost of failure by vastly shortening the development cycle. Failure is more acceptable if it occurs quickly and it occurs with the expectation that there will be an immediate follow up cycle.

There is one hair cutter I went to that had a book of hair styles you can browse through. Another had a wall poster showing different styles. The waterfall approach is the expectation that you can ask for a particular haircut in a catalog. For some people that may work easily, but for most they would not have the right hair type or density, or their faces just would not match the style. In the latter cases, there may be ways to achieve the desired appearance but it would cost a lot and take a long time.

Some people do ask for specific styles, but it is usually the style they already know would work. I typically just give vague gestures about how I want the hair to look. I do have an private goal of how I want it to look, but that is a younger look, more suitable for a person with thicker lusher hair and a younger face.

From an engineering perspective, I found it hard to adapt to agile approach. I felt comfortable with the agile cycle because I relish being involved in the entire process. The problem I found is that most people prefer to specialize. People who are good at analysis are not going to like being involved in the implementation and testing, and they are likely not going to be very proficient at either. A similar kind of conflict occurs with each skill set. People want to do a particular type of activity.

The agile process attempted to accommodate this by the concept of a team having people who have lead roles at different stages of the sprint cycle. The problem remains because the phase relevant for a particular person is brief compared to the overall sprint, and all team members are expected to contribute to all phases.

I never really was involved in a functioning agile team working through multiple sprint cycles. I did approach my projects with an agile approach, but this was primarily my own efforts. I did not have to work with others to design and implement things quickly.

There takes a specific type of person to follow a continuous process improvement cycle, especially if that same person needs to be productive and relevant at every stage. The person needs to observe, analyze, design, and build.

There are plenty of people who do this. The problem is that they do not work in teams. The hair-cutters are an example. When a customer gets his hair cut, there is only one person doing the cutting from the start to the finish. That cutting involves observing, analyzing, planning, and acting. He succeeds because this is not a team effort.

Some of the hair cutter places had many cutters working in the same room. I was always amazed at how they ignored each other. There was not even any consultation between them. There was not even any consistency between them. Getting an identical haircut as before requires specifically asking for the same person to do the cutting.

This is also a trait of the Agile process. The products of the process is largely determined by the make-up of the particular agile team. To get a similar result, the same team would need to do it. The problem is that it is very difficult to maintain a team for very long. People will leave, new people will arrive. The character of the team changes each time.

This does not happen with the solitary craftsman. The craftsman has competence in all phases of the effort. His work is consistent because he has everything he needs to be consistent.

While the above examples emphasize the hair-cutter, I often see more practical examples in various YouTube channels of various craftsmen either showing off their techniques, or documenting the stages of a project they are working on. The one that fascinates me is a person building a large machine that plays music using falling marbles that are raised using a hand crank. He is doing every aspect of the development cycle, and he is doing it in an agile way with seemingly endless cycles as he keeps encountering new failures.

Agile is a process that works best when the team is just one person. There may be a few instances where agile teams can be excellent teams. There are similar examples of waterfall-type teams making fantastic achievements. In general, the success of teams is far from certain. We sometimes fool ourselves into thinking the right leader would make the team succeed. Frequently, the repeatable success of such a leader is the result of that person doing the most critical steps himself.

Good work involves being able to observe, analyze, and produce. Humans have been doing that for eons. They do it alone after they mastered their trade.


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