For the last mile, be prepared to run a different race!

The last mile of the marathon

Even the most complex ideas can be made simple and relevant with the help of a story or an example. This is illustrated beautifully by Sendhil Mullainathan, a behavioral economist whose TED talk describes social problems that remain unsolved because of  “the last mile” problem.

In 1960 India, the child mortality rate due to diarrhea was 24%. Even after the invention of oral-re-hydration salts and a huge effort to distribute the salts freely, the mortality rate remains around 6.5% today i.e. 400,000 deaths, even if the dying children have access to the salts.

This is not unique to diarrhea or to India but to a variety of problems where we have a solution and we know it works, but we just cannot crack the last mile of the problem. In the last mile, this problem has nothing to do with salts. It boils down to the simple fact that “people are weird” i.e. the brain functions inconsistently or is prejudiced in some way towards a false notion. In the case of diarrhea, when mothers are asked if they will hydrate the suffering children, 35-60% of mothers answer “NO” i.e. they will reduce fluid intake for the suffering child. Thus effectively increasing the chances of the child dying. Intuitively mothers ask, “why put water in a leaky bucket”. Oh-oh! Intuition is wrong in this case, and in many other cases where the last mile problem manifests. As a result, persuasion or behavioral change becomes a key challenge for the last mile.

In my personal experience, several products that target new markets suffer from a variation of the last mile problem. The fact that these markets remain largely untapped is often because some mental model is preventing the spread of technology solutions. For example, although millions read the newspaper in a local language in India or watch TV in local languages, the spread of the same content on other mediums such as mobile or Web is limited. I’ve encountered many educated people who “believe” that computers or even printers work only in English.

In another experiment that I’m working on, I came across a different mental block among Indians. They know that English is crucial to career growth, they desperately look for ways to improve their English, and yet when confronted with a solution or a person who will fix it, they freeze! They pretend they never asked for it, yet I have with me a written application saying “Help me with English” from these same people. I’m totally baffled. Any idea what the problem could be? What’s stopping them from going forward?

The last mile is about behavior and mindsets, and often lies beyond the realm of ordinary persuasion techniques such as data or free-trials. Products, social concepts, even human relationships often lose the race in their last mile.  Just when you thought it’s all going to work out, it stops working. Everything seems logically right yet behavior does not follow the logic. And, often until we run the previous 99 miles, we don’t even know what the last mile problem will look like.

The only thing I keep telling myself – for the last mile, be prepared to run a different race!

–References and More Last Mile stories–

  • TED talk by Sendhil Mullainathan
  • “The Checklist Manifesto” by Atul Gawande. Although I did not use an example from this book, it has a few examples that illustrate last mile problems.
  • I request readers to share the last mile problems they’ve encountered in their readings or in their personal experience. I’d love to build a collection of such problems and share them with everyone.
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6 comments

  1. The challenge with English speaking is that although people recognize the need to learn English as a way to advance their career objectives, they don’t want to acknowledge this fact in public. This is a classic Indian problem. Have you heard of a book called “Rapidex English Speaking Course”? I read that this book, and its clones, sold more than 2 crore copies.

    This is called ‘Conspicuous Consumption’. Marketers in Indian FMCG know this for long. A ‘Hammam” is replaced by a “Lux” or “Pears”, and sachets with bottles in an Indian household when relatives stay over. Ditto with shampoo brands.

  2. For me, it is quite clear: most of the time, people who suffer from the last mile problem, are, in one way or another, just not conscious enough. Now what does that mean? Sometimes educated or uneducated, intelligent or unintelligent people will just act in one way, but unconsciously (I don’t mean sleeping or so, but rather, I mean they don’t act in a deliberate and conscious way), and therefore haven’t internalized what that act represents, and therefore, when confronted with something that should, objectively, trigger this action or intent, instead, act differently.

    In the mother’s case, it could just be that they didn’t know better. I am excluding this case here. But the example of the person who wants to learn english, I think this applies. Or someone who wants to lose weight, but is not actually acting accordingly.

    Now, where does this come from? I think this comes from society, and the way we’re used to be brought up. In some countries like India, I have found, that people are just more likely, on average (if you were to take a random unbiased sample of university students or graduates from above average universities) to say things that they don’t ACTUALLY mean, to perform acts without meaning to do so consciously. You don’t find that in German, for example, or the UK. And the trap is that if, for whatever reason, everyone around you acts like that, then most likely, you are going to act like that as well.

    Now there are some individuals like yourself, Anjali, who are not like that. It is the duty of such lucky individuals to point out the problems, and show other people the ‘right’ (subjective!) path!

    It’s not that we’re weird, but most people on this planet just not all that conscious (or rational) as the scientists who come up with models based on rationality (or even bounded rationality).

    Just my two cents.

  3. Anjali

    @Arpit Your points are all valid. Thank you for writing in. The experiment I referred to did not ask people in public, they were at home, with privacy and the class was in a private tutoring format. They did not have to tell anyone that they have signed up for an English class. I have seen the crowd problem on Facebook where Indians don’t interact on forums for learning the English language because their comments get shared with their friends.

  4. Anjali

    @Anthony Well said! Sometimes human behavior is beyond the realms of scientific modeling and the outliers are many. I think some of the issues – not losing weight, or not having medicines, are common across cultures. In India, I find that very few people want to “stand out” as you have noticed too. In America, it’s the reverse. People want to stand out by what they say or do. That’s why after a talk people ask questions and individually try to make a mark. In India, people wait for someone else to ask. If you go to Disneyworld, you will see Americans follow the TV instructions before a ride, and if the TV recording asks them to scream out loud, they will do that. Indians will keep quiet as they are shy or just insecure to behave kid-like in front of a crowd.
    Hope things are going well with you and Sapna Solutions! Take care.

  5. i think it may be related the human tendency of not changing their mind and may be they don’t want to change.
    Nice Article.

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