The Illusion of Ratings and Feedback

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The Illusion of Ratings and Feedback
Life in present times has become an increasingly rapid process of experiences and feedback. Businesses are always asking us to rate the services or experiences they offer. And often, they feel inclined to “reward” us for it. While no one’s complaining about the free stuff or great discounts, are we losing perspective of what’s genuinely good? Because, while the feedback is certainly far more in quantity, it can’t be as clean in quality.
Why, you ask?
For starters, the moment you bribe (yes, a strong but apt word) someone for a feedback or to leave a rating or review, you’re automatically influencing the purity of the feedback, rating or review. Same goes for a 10% discount for simply “checking into” a restaurant.
Everything from a review to get the free ‘dry fruit pickle’ or a discount on the food bill, establishments are literally paying to distort their own reality of their business.
A few years ago, a friend of mine started a business, and reached out to friends on Facebook to like their business page. I was well past the years when I’d actually ask people to convince me (or at the least, fill the ‘About’ section on the page), before asking people to simply like the page. So, while I liked the page and got on with my work, some months later, seeing the 800+ likes, I asked how business was. There was none. Even though am quite sure a lot of common friends might have had a need for the products being offered. What happened, was that the Facebook page (in herd mentality), gave them a level of instant gratification, while distracting them from the core. Is, or how can I make my offerings increasingly relevant?
Recently, an entrepreneur found me online and requested a meeting to help their business turn profitable and grow faster. They had exceptional social media following and activity, which of course I didn’t take at face value. But what came next from the entrepreneur was even more disappointing. That while a lot of the followers were fake, when visiting any business page, seeing a good following gives him a sense of trust and confidence too. That justified it.
Let’s forget fake following and likes for a moment. Besides, I’ve already written a fair bit about them years ago. But consider just the fact of a business incentivizing a feedback or review that should ideally be happening without influence. Each time we do that, we willingly distort our sense of the pulse of our business.
Last month, I had dinner at one of the Taj restaurants with relatives. While the starters and main course were exceptional, the service was aloof, and one dessert was a disaster. On another occasion, when at a relatives place, I ordered butter chicken from the Butter Chicken Factory, a nearby joint. The butter chicken was terrible! I wrote reviews about the Taj dinner and the butter chicken place on Zomato (neither ratings were too terrible). Both establishments responded. The Taj staff thanked me, saying they would incorporate the inputs. And that they looked forward to having me there again soon. The city head of the Butter Chicken Factory called to understand what in my opinion, they had gotten wrong about the taste. As I was busy, he called at a time I said I’d be free, and tried to understand. He had inputs of his own to reason out, like the very different taste of the dish in northern India and other places, and how theirs  was influenced more by a certain part of the country. It was a good dialogue, with me recommending they try out the dish at another old joint which I knew, was good. This felt like a far, far more human and involved business, as opposed to a template perhaps pasted by the Taj folk.
Now imagine, if the Taj people had offered me a 10% discount on my next visit. But the service remained unchanged and the same dessert was still on the menu, and still a dess-aster! Perhaps my reaction would have been milder, as I would have been indebted to the 10% discount. And the restaurant wouldn’t have learnt anything from the feedback.
And these are instances that are still the more evident, at least to most of us. There are so many where one aspect of the business could cause us to completely write off another aspect of it. Or an offer could skew our perception of what we’ve just experienced, be it food, an experience, an electronic product, anything.
A startup might justify the need to influence reviews to obtain a minimum critical mass to even survive. But in doing so, do businesses ignore real feedback and let performance slack? Thanks to early illusionary success, do they risk missing the growth bus?

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Pigs Rule

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Pigs Rule

I recently found myself around a humorous discussion around politics at a relatives’ home.
A grand aunt asked another relative if they planned on getting into politics. The relative laughingly retorted that for one to be in politics, they must be prepared to hit and to be hit. As an example, he cited a recent incident involving some politician.

My grand aunt, matter-of-factly replied that those are some of the things one needs to be prepared for, if one is convinced and focused on an important goal. She added something about the need to keep a certain type of people close. They were those who would attack, protect and defend. She quoted what sounded like ancient but obvious wisdom in my mother tongue. It translated to something like, ‘that is why one needs to rear stray dogs.’

I recently read the classic ‘Animal Farm’, written by India-born English novelist, essayist, journalist and critic, Eric Arthur Blair, a.k.a. George Orwell.

Rear dogs. Interestingly in the book, that’s exactly what the pigs did to achieve and stay in power. To muscle their way to the top. To eliminate any competition. And to enforce their way on the people.

The philosophy of the ruling pigs in ‘Animal Farm’. Image source: link

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A Pad Idea!

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A Pad Idea!
Once upon a time, there was is a man named Arunachalam Muruganantham from Coimbatore in India, who could not bear to see the discomfort and embarrassment that his wife had to go through, just to buy/ wear a sanitary pad / napkin. Risking even his very marriage, Arunachalam’s empathy and resolve lead him to research everything from material to pricing of sanitary pads. And after a long, unrelenting journey, he makes sanitary napkins that become the preferred and highly affordable alternative to what many rural and even urban women were used to for the longest time; cloth. This inspiring story of an Indian hero was recently depicted by way of a Bollywood movie, Padman.
Now consider some Hollywood movies inspired by real-life heroes. Erin Brockovich (played by Julia Roberts), Joy (Jennifer Lawrence starrer), Sully (featuring Tom Hanks), Argo (Ben Affleck playing the cool, brave Antonio J. Mendez of the CIA), etc., etc. Noticed anything in common?
The protagonist always bears the real name of the character it was inspired by. The way I see it, that helps real heroes get the recognition they deserve in their home countries, if not the world. And it helps the masses connect better with the name and great actions of that hero or changemaker. Of course, there are other movies loosely based on some real-world people. In which case, I agree that moviemakers would be wary of incurring the wrath of linked families. And therefore use fictional names. But why the same even with movies completely inspired by one, known person.
Bollywood has been notorious for decades, for being “inspired” by original content from the world over, and repackaging it for our audiences. To add to the plagiarism, is the unimaginative rehashed Bollywood classic songs that regularly make their way back to newer Bollywood movies. The least this multi-billion dollar industry that avoids imagination and innovation like the plague could do, is let real heroes have a share in the limelight. By using the person’s real name in the movie it is inspired by.
They did with Padman. And with Airlift. With Guru, among other movies.

Why do they do it? Are box office proceeds all they care about? Or is it some lawsuit they’re trying to avoid? Or do they want credit for the empathy, innovation and perseverance of another?

‘Arunachalam Muruganantham’ is a tough enough name even for Indians to remember, without it being portrayed by Akshay Kumar but bearing a completely different name. Giving a fictional name takes away the powerful connect it could create among the masses. And this movie could have been the perfect effort to make the real man a household name. To inspire many more such changemakers because of the direct connect to the real person it creates.

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The Tripod of Success – Intention, Emotion and Logic

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The tripod for success…

Intention, Emotion and Logic.

You need logic.

Even when faced with a logically impossible hurdle, one can often break it up into its elements, and explore possibilities.

Emotion makes you see, and often strive for the seemingly impossible. Too much of emotion though, especially in comparison with logic, can delay failure, but rarely avoid it.

And without the right intention, things might begin, but rarely continue much further.

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Actions With and Without a Face

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Actions With and Without a Face

Even today, you can see people of some races cringe or gasp at the sight of the swastika, the symbol of Hitler’s party. Even though the swastika has much older roots. And Hitler himself, continues to be collectively and strongly hated today, over 72 years after his death. And rightly so. He and his people were the cause of unspeakable oppression and death. Collectively, around 42 million deaths (soldiers and civilians), and even more as per some historical estimates. What probably makes it most glaring, is the short span of 12 years across which this happened. And as the leader of the Nazis, Hitler remains the face of all the death and destruction by his people.

Going back again in time, the British atrocities in their colonies is another story altogether. In India alone, their rule lasted around 184 years. And this time too, was witness to unspeakable oppression and the death. Approximately 40-54 million Indians. Dead! Due to starvation. Due to manual labour; and worse, through artificially created famines. When we compare the British kill report card with that of Hitler’s, it happened over a comparatively much longer 184 years. But there is no single face of the oppression. Which is also perhaps why it lasted so long. And was so much more deep-rooted.

In present times, the world citizens should always be on the look out for the second kind of mass-murderers. Eaters of countries. Because the world is a dynamic flow of information, even if a lot of it is manipulated by whorish media, the world citizen is still aware, and will not tolerate a single face of oppression for too long.

However, the second kind of oppression won’t have a single face, or perhaps have one that appeases a section of the masses, speaks directly to their concerns and hopes; while the arms of the organization carry out deep-rooted decay.

Many of us have heard of the myth around the frog and hot water experiments. While frogs aren’t so tolerant to heat, history bears testimony of human ignorance to oppression without a face.

British colonies were a live example of it. Albeit not the most subtle example, given the difference in race/ colour, etc. But imagine the harm a domestic movement with ulterior motives can do. Let’s ensure we guard against history repeating itself in other forms, but using similar tactics.

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Number Fifty-Four…The Bike with a Bamboo Core

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Number Fifty-Four…

…The bike with a bamboo core!

What does it take for innovation to be possible? Simply, just the intention. You need to want it badly enough to make it possible.

I happened to see this online a long time ago. I am still in awe of it though. People in Ghana find themselves in unfavourable temperatures, with long distances to go, but with limited connectivity. But rather than endure, with some external help, they designed bicycles built with a bamboo frame. They could easily source the other parts, which were standard to regular bikes. This innovation however, helped build a bike at a fraction of the cost of the ones normally available.

And I’ve found that regular bikes these days, corrode easily, and require considerable maintenance. These bamboo bikes however, seem to be easier to maintain. They can also be built for different sizes and for different applications (carrier, etc.). A green, economical idea that addresses so many needs. In times of compulsive and impulsive purchases all over the world, this is just the kind of impressive and refreshing innovation the world needs.

Don’t miss the video at the end.

A standard bike: source

A bike with a carrier and a carrier support frame: source

Image: source

 

You can read more about it here: link

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A Session on Innovation, Design Thinking & The Future of Work

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A Session on Innovation, Design Thinking & The Future of Work

Earlier this week, I was invited to conduct a session around ‘Innovation, Design Thinking and the Future of Work’ at the Indian School of Management & Entrepreneurship, for a batch of about 170 grad students from Vaze College. The most enjoyable session I’ve had so far.

 

An ideation exercise I conducted, had the students thinking of ideas to replace the irreplaceable smartphone. And what innovative ideas they were!! Absolutely impressive! I barely heard 6-7 ideas for fear of running out of time. If only there was enough time to hear all the ideas.

 

 

The session started with about 4-5 students believing themselves to be creative and innovative. By the end of the session, over 80% of them believed they were innovative and creative. It was a truly humbling experience. With these brilliant folk entering professional life soon, the future looks promising!

 

 

While I’d really like to list out some of the ideas that the students came up with during the session, I’ll resist the temptation. In the hope that at least some of them would pursue their idea and make a world-transforming business out of it in the near future.

 

 

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Design Thinking – Shelters for the Homeless

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Design Thinking – Shelters for the Homeless [3.5 minute read]

Here’s the next post, towards sharing stories and incidents around design thinking in daily lives, towards a better collective understanding. My earlier post was about taps at home, and why house helps might be wasting water. If you missed that, here’s the link.

Now, in developing India, as the nouveau riche buy vacation home after home after home, we are still home to an astronomical 18 lakh homeless (as of 2011)!

Now this post is not on wasteful spending, or on “prudent, realty investments” either. Actually on second thoughts, prudent realty related investments might be right at the centre of this one.

I had read about this story over 2 years ago, and was so fascinated with the design thinking connect, I’d shared it on Facebook. Thanks to Facebook’s random annual reminders, this one popped back up recently. It showcases a classic design thinking flaw, of thinking for the user, instead of simply observing and asking them.

New Delhi faces some really bitter winters. I’ve spent some time there on work over different winters, and on some of those nights, the cold was mind-numbing. So one can only try to imagine how tough it would be for Delhi’s homeless people. Right? Think again!

Some years ago, the state government in New Delhi, with good intentions for its homeless, built 218 shelters with a capacity exceeding 17,000 people! Impressive, right?

Now you probably imagine that as winters approach, these places must be getting mobbed with homeless folk rushing in to keep warm? Especially considering there are about 125,000 homeless people in Delhi.

To the contrary, even on the coldest of nights, apparently these places were sparsely occupied. As per government estimates back then, at its highest occupancy, there were only 8500 people at the shelters.

The homeless somehow preferred enduring the cold in the open, to these warm shelters. According to the statistics, for every person who huddled up in one of these shelters, about 15 remained in the open. The government even had cops spotting and taking any homeless to the shelters. But the homeless were like mischievous children, waiting for an opportunity to sneak out of this situation they didn’t like.

Does that even make sense? Who, in their right mind, would prefer to freeze outdoors, as opposed to being warm in?

Unless a bigger picture was missed out. About them and the lives they lived.

It turned out, the homeless were afraid of contracting fleas from other homeless folk packed into these shelters. Which in turn would make even their waking hours miserable. The shelters also didn’t have any storage areas for people to keep their few but priceless belongings safely. And the few belongings they probably had on them, were always at risk of being stolen at such places.

In total, a somewhat hostile place for them to stay in, even in the most unrelenting of winters.

In their empathetic and genuine concern for these people, the government somehow assumed many things about their lives, or conveniently skipped them out in light of the greater good they were doing for them. They forgot to actually involve the very people who would be using those facilities. To know what they could be like. To know if they’d missed out on some aspect. They too are, humans after all. Or if even that didn’t matter (as seldom does for our elected rot from across the country), at least to justify their investment in the project.

Some observation. Some asking. And then more of both, could’ve truly taken India a step closer to being a concerned and inclusive society.

You can read about it here: link

Would love your thoughts on it.

And if you’d like my to look at some complex business problem you’ve been grappling with, drop me a mail at shrutin[at]ateamstrategy[dot]in Hopefully, I’d be able to give you a fresh perspective in an effort to help you solve it.

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Design Thinking – Water Taps at Home

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Design Thinking – Water Taps at Home [7 minute read]

I’ve had the habit of applying aspects of Design Thinking to my work and personal life for some time now. In fact, off late it is literally a ‘permanently on’ app running in my head. I use it to review products or services, or to wonder why some startup is loved and others aren’t so much.

Now Design Thinking has been getting thrown around a lot in recent times. So I thought I’d share some of my experiences in applying different aspects of this simple, yet seemingly elusive concept.

So I’ll occasionally share a few (hopefully short) posts about applying Design Thinking to random, everyday life.

Here’s the first one.

Now this scenario is probably limited to countries like India, where we have the luxury of house help. They range from your full-time servants living in adjoining quarters, to pay per task (washing dishes, cooking, sweeping, etc.). People, mostly women in the profession, have really innovated and kept pace with increasing needs and disposable incomes of nuclear families. That and people’s seemingly decreasing free time to finish household chores themselves.

For quite some time now, one thing about many of them has really bothered me. The part-time maid at home leaves the tap on full while washing utensils (no dishwasher here). And that tap remains on full blast even when she keeps washed utensils in the drip basket. Or when she is arranging dishes in the basket to make place for more. The huge wastage of water didn’t seem to bother her. And if we brought it to her notice, she would only be careful for a day. What’s most puzzling, the area the maid lives in, is known to face slight water shortages from time to time.

So, over the last few months, I randomly asked relatives and friends if this was an isolated case, or a common problem they faced too. There was a resounding ‘yes’ from all quarters about the excessive water wastage. And when asked what they felt the reason might be, the answers were almost identical too. That the maids just didn’t care or that as long as water was sufficiently available at the house they worked at, wastage didn’t matter.

In the past, when the maid was casually questioned why, you didn’t really get any answer. So without wanting to risk pissing off this temperamental lot, I wondered if it was possible to just think of broad areas of possible reasons for this (just an example of moving beyond the seemingly obvious reasons for any problem).

One reason, as mentioned by some of the informal group I questioned, could be the abundance of water in the homes they work at. The sufficient supply allows them to mentally relax the otherwise alert behaviour in them to conserve water (and many other resources in their lives). And this trait isn’t just found in them. Believe me, most of us, if not all, all guilty of such indulgences at others’ expense. From those who charge mobile phones and laptops only at work, to those of us who have (over the years, I’ve consciously managed to get rid of the habit) left the air-conditioning at hotels on (sometimes by sticking paper or cards into the key-slots), so as to return to a wonderfully cool room from a scorching outdoors. Even if we were out for a large part of the day.

One more probable cause could be the speed of the water. Having to do dull work across multiple homes from early in the morning, a jet of water helps clean utensils much faster than having to manually scrub them off under a slower flow.

Another probable cause for the water wastage came from a random memory from probably my high school days. I was at granny’s place, and had just finished a glass of juice, and was at the kitchen sink to rinse the glass. For some reason, I held the glass in one hand, and tried turning on the tap with the same hand. In the process, the glass caught the stem of the tap, and broke. That, and I somehow tend to accidentally break things (including, but not limited to breaking toothbrushes while brushing, or plastic spoons while eating ice-cream). 😐

Indian families can be cruel when it comes to dealing with breakages at the hands of their house helps. Now, most taps aren’t designed to allow sufficient free area to manipulate dishes while washing. ‘Manipulate’, I used to use that term a lot when working in the industrial robotics space). So it is possible that taps are left on fast to allow for washing a safe distance from the tap stem?

So let’s assume another constraint here. Let’s say you can’t interact with them towards understanding why they waste water. After all, they are a highly temperamental. So if they get angry and quit, a lot of households tend to come to a standstill.

Unlike in normal problem-solving, design thinking works wonders with many constraints too. So don’t get too disappointed with this crazy constraint.

So, instead of assuming they just like wasting water, is it possible that an ergonomically designed tap could help prevent breakages? And therefore, fix this precautionary ‘bad habit’ of theirs? Or that a better designed valve could help use less water without reducing the speed of the jet? Or both?

Any solution would involve nozzles that save water, like the one popularized by Altered: Nozzle, which fits onto existing taps, and claims to save up to 98% water! A tap stem design change would be the other aspect of it.

The possible causes of the problem, and possible solutions thereof, are many. And I didn’t even use much of the design thinking process to get to this stage. Imagine the possibilities on the home or business front with just some effort.

Would love your thoughts on it. Any other possible causes or reasons?

And if you’d like my to look at some complex business problem you’ve been grappling with, drop me a mail at shrutin[at]ateamstrategy[dot]in and I’ll hopefully be able to give you a fresh perspective in an effort to help you solve it.

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Does Your Fire Escape Plan Work?

Reading Time: 6 minutes

Does Your Fire Escape Plan Work?

Early hours of 29th December saw a horrific fire at a rooftop restaurant in Mumbai. I could hear a continuous stream of distant sirens just before going to sleep. I couldn’t have imagined the extent of death and destruction. The restaurant is a breezy rooftop one, with plenty of bamboo and plastic on the premises. And the staff, towards making the experience more memorable, had a fireworks show on. A possibly illegal structure. A common, narrow exit for 3 restaurants. The result, 15 dead, including a girl who was there to celebrate her birthday. A very tragic, and avoidable mistake.

Many of those who died, were huddled up in the bathroom, after having mistaken it for the exit.

While the media was quick to blame the owners and management, it seemed like the municipal corporation managed to slip out of the spotlight. They are responsible for enforcing safe design, entry/exit criteria, and even ensuring collective safety of an area, as they have a birds eye view of it. However, I have seen numerous restaurants and bars over the years, springing up right next to each other in this seemingly haphazard layout. And as per different sources, many of the establishments are illegal.

A social media friend of mine had a great idea of having Google encourage users to share the Fire Exit plan of establishments and hotels, so that those planning to visit can get a sense of  the exit strategy beforehand.

While it would certainly help, I think establishments need to rethink their Fire Exit Plans themselves. Over the years, at several places, I have seen Fire Escape Plans stuck upside down at premises.

While I was pretty savvy with survey maps in school, an earlier role of mine involved numerous meetings in sprawling industrial areas, and I’d use their map to navigate from company to company located there. And whenever I had colleagues with me, I saw how they struggled to understand and guide me while I drove around. And these were amazingly clear maps that I felt one could figure out, no matter from which direction they looked at it. If those were tough to understand, imagine expecting someone to try to understand a floor plan in the urgency of a burning building.

This is what an average Fire Escape or Floor Layout plan looks like.

Image: source

However, maps need to be better designed to serve the purpose of guiding people both in normal times, and in emergencies.

Which means, the layouts need to be layered, using appropriate colours, to allow for prioritized access of important information. How this can be done, is by using a slightly lighter (possibly grey) colour for the more detailed schematics, and bright colours and simpler steps to direct people in an emergency.

For instance, let’s consider the following map.

Image: source

This is the kind of floor/escape plan you see at many places. However, it can be extremely confusing to understand in the panic of an emergency. These plans are on walls to serve a purpose, emergency exit! Which means, users don’t need so much information. A map must offer the entire schematic in a slightly light colour. This way, in regular times, people can take a moment to stand close and figure their way out. Bright colours should highlight the shortest paths to be taken in emergencies. And this information should stand out in a glimpse. And maps should be customized for each section of every floor. That way, such important information should be rapidly accessible when the need arises.

For smaller establishments, a map near the entrance will give people an idea about available exits, as they walk in.

The objective should be for information to come out in stages, depending on the urgency. For those in a hurry, just the fire exit. For those working in their way around, a few more moments to understand the layout.

Restaurants in the area were quick to bounce back after this incident. Hopefully the tragedy will remind businesses to put people before profit.

On reading this post, Dr. Patell, a great buddy of mine, sent me some valid points that could really save lives, if factored in. Here they are:

A few thoughts on Fire Safety in view of the recent fire in pubs/restaurants. From what I have read or seen on TV fires in pubs/discos are disastrous all over the world because of the numbers packed into the area, compounded by the fact that these P/D tend to restrict entry/exits to prevent gate crashing. This itself is a deterrent to rapid exodus in case of an incident. In the recent fire what was observed was the following:
a) A very narrow Fire Exit passage leading quite a distance to the fire escape door
b) Mistaken entry into toilet door as a possible escape route
c) A fortunate door separating two areas which was locked
My thoughts firstly on these three:
a) I do not know if there is any norm for distance to the actual Fire Exit to the width of the passage. In my opinion, if the passage is about 20 ft long, from the door of the premises to the actual Fire escape then the width should be at least 25 to 30 % or say at least 5 to 6 ft wide. The door at the end of this passage must be equally wide to avoid interruption in the flow of people. This is perhaps utopian, but can there really be adequate exit for say 300 to 400 persons being packed into the P/D. One must also consider that many of these are on higher floors of a building. Such long passages must be avoided and in the planning the Fire Exit must be as near as possible. Additional Exit at the other end on large premises must also be provided.
b) Here also the following may be considered. The door is usually labelled Gents/ Ladies Perhaps an additional board, in luminescent sign, saying NO EXIT could perhaps help in not mistaking the door in an emergency.
c) Where there is fortunately a door separating two areas, which are independent of each other, this must be kept accessible in case of emergency. If, for security reasons this needs to be locked to prevent unauthorised entry, the following could perhaps be thought of as a possible solution. The door should be locked by a key lock. Both sides should place one key in a small box with a glass front, as is used for the fire alarm. In case of emergency, the glass is broken, the key accessed and the door opened. Of course, there will always be apprehension, that this may be misused. Now several systems are available where an alarm sounds once the contact is broken on opening the door. This could be placed on either side.
These are possibilities for what came to mind on seeing the tragedy. The very main systems for such establishments do not seem to have been in place. Were there smoke alarm systems, what about a well designed sprinkler system. The pyrotechnic display would have triggered the system and hence may have been avoided. Was there adequate water supply storage for such sprinkler systems. Portable fire fighting systems, and were the staff trained to use them, or were their skills only tossing booze bottles. Has any authority calculated, how many persons would be in each restaurant at any given time including peak occasions. Are systems in place to a) take care of one such establishment and b) all in that particular area. I am sure there are experts in this field, who could advise. But ultimately their advise must be scrupulously followed.

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