Zach the Cat as an Example of Why Businesses Should Experiment More

We found our cat Zach at the beach as a tiny kitten, hungry and flea-ridden. We brought him, four kids in tow, to the anti-cruelty society (which we now refer to simply as the “cruelty society”), but they told us that he would almost certainly be put to death if we left him.

Not quite ready to give that life lesson to the kids, we let him join our family, and he has been a model citizen ever since.

Until recently. After a year, he suddenly stopped using the litter box, preferring instead rugs and piles of our clothes.

So Jeannette took him to the local vet, who advised the following plan of action:

1) Add an extra litter box.
2) Make sure all three litter boxes are scooped at least twice a day.
3) Never leave piles of clothes on the floor.
4) Pet him a lot.
5) Get rid of the rugs he has been using as a litter box.
6) Switch the type of litter in the box.
7) Give him one dose of Prozac per day.

I’m happy to say that Zach is now using the litter box again.

But here’s the problem: we have no idea why. Was it the petting? Or was it the constant scooping of the litter box? Maybe it’s the new type of litter. Or possibly it was just the trauma of going to the vet that snapped him out of it?

Does it really matter? The problem is solved, why worry about exactly what worked?

It matters for two reasons. First, some of the solutions above impose ongoing costs. We’d rather not scoop the litter box seven times a day if we don’t have to. His Prozac prescription was $29.95. Do we need to renew that until the end of time? Second, if we knew what worked this time, it might help us know what could work in the future when other similar problems arise.

Both of these reasons point to the value of controlled experimentation. If we had only changed one thing at a time, systematically observing the outcomes, perhaps starting with the simplest fixes, we would have learned a lot more and possibly saved ourselves ongoing time and effort. The downside, of course, is that it might have taken longer to solve the problem.

While this is a story about a cat, the parallels to the work I am doing with businesses are extremely strong. Businesses large and small are constantly being faced with problems and decisions, and the standard response is like that of my vet: make a half-dozen changes at once and hope one of them works.

In the end, though, it is really hard to learn from this approach, and learning on the part of businesses is perhaps the single most important element to future success. It is my strong belief that businesses that adopt a more scientific approach to decision making will benefit, and we have a growing collection of real-life examples to back that up.

It is just as true that experimentation can be valuable in your personal life.

Although we didn’t do a clean experiment in changing Zach’s behavior, that doesn’t mean we can’t make up for it now by undoing the changes one by one.

I think I’ll start today by taking Zach off Prozac. I’ve always wanted to try Prozac myself, and I really have had a strong urge to pee on rugs lately.


Joe D

Is Zach your only pet? Our older cat started over-grooming a few years ago, and our vet suggested simply getting a second cat for her to play with. Well, she's never really *liked* him (he's half again her size and is still quite kittenish), but she quickly perked up and stopped over-grooming. No Prozac for our kitty.

Eric M. Jones

You are talking about Taguchi methods. This has been well worked out (?) in science experiments for exactly the reasons you noted--What happens when you change variables in the experiment?

Taguchi is not without his critics. In one famous Taguchi experiment, the technique was used to optimize the design of a power supply used in a Sony TV, and it was used to promote his techniques for many years. The circuit of course, did not actually work in the Sony TV and the engineers (who were commanded to use the circuit by management) simply added voltage regulators that DID work downstream in the TV circuitry. Ahhh..science.

Ian

The problem with this argument is what if its some combination of 3 things that caused him to change. Testing all combinations causes exponential growth in the number of possible solutions to try. So while you don't want to do all 7 you might be happy with doing more than necessary to get a solution sooner rather than later.

Ron

The answer is: get a new vet. Your cat is likely sick.

Erin

I'm surprised your vet had you do all of those things at once. When I had a problem with one of my cats not using the litter box, the vet gave me a progression of suggestions but specifically told me to try each one first for at least a few days before moving on to another. There are often multiple reasons that a cat may stop using the litter box, ranging from the less serious (cleanliness concerns, litter preference) to medical (physical and psychological)reasons that require serious intervention.

You may want to consider finding another vet.

mike

Wouldn't implementing the suggested changes one by one have possibly failed to produced the desired result? Might it not have been a combination of some but not all of those changes -- e.g., losing the soiled rug, keeping clothes off the floor, adding the litter box, and using a different litter?

Maya G

The statement "His Prozac prescription was..." made me laugh out loud. So silly, and amusing. Good advice, though!

AlexC

Prozac for cats?! Now I've heard everything...

It's the litter tray thing. Cat's like cleanliness. They do not like using a dirty toilet.

Ken

2 Comments:

First - Stories like this make me glad to be a dog person rather than a cat person. Ugh.

But second - you can still experiment, but do it in reverse. Line up all of the elements of your behaviour-modification program by cost from highest to lowest, and experiment with witholding one of them. So stop feeding him prozac for a week (or however long it takes to get out of his system). If he's still behaving, you can eliminate that expense. Keep on eperimenting 'in reverse' until he starts messing up again, and then reinstate whatever element of the program seems to be the 'deal-breaker'.

terrafirma

Why not do the reverse method? Implement the battery of changes, then gradually take away the changes one by one, starting with the most expensive (Prozac probably). That way, we achieve the quick fix, but can eventually eliminate unnecessary ongoing costs.

As someone who runs a tutoring company (http://www.terrafirmaed.com), we're faced with this dilemma all the time. Not only do business problems require fast and effective solutions, but educators also need to constantly "experiment" with curricula and teaching techniques. Process of elimination is a tricky thing.

jonathan

Similar example. One of our cats - really our daughter's cat - has already cost us a fortune; he needed emergency bladder surgery, etc. He's been very healthy for a year. Then we found small dots of blood everywhere and discovered one of the pads on his foot had lost its covering and was weeping blood. $700+ later we had no answer why. No infection. Nothing.

We managed it as best we could and the pad healed. Two months later he was bleeding again. Why? I wasn't going to spend $700 again, so I changed his litter (fragrance free), cut the nails on either side of the pad, wrapped his foot in bandages (try doing that to a cat), soaked it every night (try doing that to a cat). It went away. Why? Beats me. Was it the litter change? Is the nail rubbing on the pad? Something else that comes and goes?

If we had enough patience, we'd try a few different baskets of remedies and then use multi-variate analysis to identify the effective ones.

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rfs1962

Of course, it may not be one of the seven things but a combination of two or three or four. The possibilities aren't infinite but they are numerous, and you have only one cat.

Stevie

To # 9 -- the more dogs I meet, the more grateful I am that I have cats.

Though, prozac for any animal is ridiculous imo. If it was me, I'd try one thing at a time and figure out what works. My older cat was one lazy feline until we got a second. Another animal to keep him occupied may help (but there is the risk that it will make the problem worse).

Elton

And I bet that rug really tied the room together.

Rocky

This vet of yours is a keeper! It is rare to find a vet who knows anything about feline behavior. Even rarer still, one who uses that knowledge in a practical fashion.

If the cat had a urinary tract infection, no amount of cleaning or scooping would stop him from continuing to go outside the box.

Interesting side note about alternate market pricing: the bottle of Prozac for Zach was ~$30. I believe Prozac sold to humans is about $1 to $3 per pill depending on dose. Veterinary product may be of lower quality than human, but my gut instinct says it isn't.

Karen

#5 and #8 --One of my cats does not seem to have any medical problems, and doesn't care if I keep the litterbox spotless. As far as I can tell, she's just a jerk. I started using special litter for errant pee-ers a few years ago, and she's more-or-less behaved since then.

To #1 -- my cat licked himself half-bald within six months after we got our own apartment. He was about 3 at the time. The aforementioned jerk is _his_ cat.

intricatenick

Design of experiments is an effective way to test for multivariate relationships without having to design n-factorial sets of runs.

Shelley

It might have been the best solution to quickly move away from what could be difficult habits to break.

See how well it worked, no piles of clothes on the floor and the objectionable rugs are gone too. Also, more and cleaner litter boxes! Well done Zac!

Now to the next stage...

KarenS

1) Add an extra litter box, (and clean it often)
3) Never leave piles of clothes on the floor.
5) Get rid of the rugs he has been using as a litter box.

And if that doesn't work:
6) Switch the type of litter in the box.

The above steps should be common sense to cat owners. I'm surprised you took Zach to the vet before you tried them.

jimmyc

Whats your Myers-Briggs personality type? INTJ?

Generally agreed with your supposition. Our cat did the same thing. We changed the litter. Nope. We scooped more. Worked. So I wanted to know why. I watched as she did her business. She eventually learned to pee in 1 box, and do her other business in the other box. When it wasnt convenient for her to paw through the mess to cover her mess, she used the floor. Your cat may just be spoiled.