JNM Software

Principles and Dysfunction -- Keep It Simple Stupid

The complex systems that mark the histories of civilizations did not emerge from vacuums; neither did they occur by accident.

Throughout human history, every period of advancement has followed a top-down approach; from visualization, to concepts, to principles, to practices and processes, to physical implementations.

The rise and spread of Rome is a great example of this systematic approach to advances in human existence. While the Roman Empire was growing and spreading, they were designing and building aqueducts, sewers, dams, bridges, etc., and they were using systematic approaches to achieve advances in medicine, surgery, metallurgy, construction materials and methods, warfare, and many other fields of endeavor, including literacy that extended to peasants and rural people.

Conversely, every period of systemic decay and decline of civilizations has been characterized by attempts to maintain previously built systems using bottom-up methods and skills.

After Rome fell, and the legions had withdrawn from the far reaches of the previous empire, their infrastructure lingered on, but it suffered piecemeal dismantling at the hands of barbarians who, although they might have observed some of the operations, had little knowledge of the concepts, principles, methods, etc., that had preceded such operations. Over time, scavengers looted the various nuts, bolts, and other pieces of the machinery for more primitive purposes. As structures fell into disrepair, stones were repurposed for other structures, and wood was burned for heat or reused for other building needs. Knowledge was lost in most areas. One hundred years later, kings could not read or write.

Barbarians waste little time conceiving, planning, organizing, evaluating, or any other deep-thinking exercises. They tend to just slug their way through whatever obstacles they encounter.

If a hammer is the only tool you have, every problem tends to look like a nail.

Just as you cannot rebuild a complex empire from scavenged parts of the old one using barbarian-level skills, you cannot code your way back into well-designed systems, and you should not expect the quality and performance from a hacked-together collection of programs, that you would expect from systems that are properly conceived, designed, developed, tested, maintained, and managed by qualified people.

You cannot lie, cheat, and steal your way back into a functioning economic system. You cannot redistribute the remnants of a previously functioning economy, the residual assets, and expect it to blossom into a functioning system, as our communist population suggests. By the same token, "creative destruction", as practiced by our crony communist sector, is simply redistribution to a different unprincipled group of recipients. In a functioning economy, wealth is not a static measure -- it has to be produced every day, distributed every day, and consumed every day.

As W. Edwards Deming noted, when organizations compete with other organizations, the result is more efficient and more effective processes, higher quality products and services, and better prices.

When units and people within an organization compete with each other, the result is chaos, inefficiency, ineffectiveness, declining quality, declining markets; essentially all the expected elements of decline. Deming encouraged us to view an organization as a system, wherein all the parts must work together cooperatively.
"A system must be managed. It will not manage itself. Left to themselves in the Western world, components become selfish, competitive. We can not afford the destructive effect of competition."
In Deming's books, lectures, and consulting activities, over many years, he made the above contrast between cooperation and competition, variously using different wording and examples. Others have made such attempts also, but such efforts are lost on most of this population whose minds are warped from early ages with non-stop televised competitive sports, competitive entertainment, competitive communications, competive relationships, etc. Some occupations give lip service to the idea of cooperation, such as education, social work, charity professionals; yet these same groups compete for money, power, and prestige, within and outside their groups. Outside of our military, the idea of cooperative team effort to achieve objectives is lost on this population.

Need a more clear example? On an engineering or software project, wherein a system of some sort is being designed, developed, and implemented, there are usually several individuals responsible for the design of many various parts of the system, and several individuals responsible for the development of the many parts; sometimes the same group of people, sometimes different people for the different functions.

During those advancing times in our history, these groups of people worked together cooperatively to hammer out a cohesive set of design specifications, wherein all the parts of the system would be designed to fit together, and work together, like a smooth-running Swiss watch. Then the development people would use such a cohesive, comprehensive set of specifications to build the product, working cooperatively to ensure that the pieces adhered to the specifications. Yes, there were usually discoveries during the various phases that prompted alterations to the specifications or methods, but such changes were incorporated, and moved forward cohesively like the original plans. Most of America's history is filled with successful projects like this -- railroads, bridges, dams, tunnels, airplanes, cars, trucks, manufacturing systems, military operations, and on and on.

In the past few decades of decline, the tendency in such projects has been to hold a committee meeting of little purpose or decision, then send the designers and developers off to their various corners, to attempt their tasks with little or no cooperative interaction and effort. Project managers are often just time-keepers, having little knowledge of the project parts and functions, other than "who" and "when". Designers and developers do their best to imagine what and how their parts need to fit with other parts of the overall system. These individuals are competing with each other in a race to design or develop their parts individually; competing for compensation or other rewards for completing their parts most quickly, with little concern for how the overall pieces of the system will eventually fit or work together.

The pieces get cobbled together somehow, and the bugs get hammered out somehow, in the dark hours of many nights, while the excuses get delivered in the daylight. There are some exceptions, but today in America, this is the prevailing project process.

Here is another of Deming's comments that is pertinent:
"There is no substitute for knowledge." This statement emphasizes the need to know more, about everything in the system. It is considered as a contrast to the old statement, "There is no substitute for hard work" by Thomas Alva Edison (18471931). Instead, a small amount of knowledge could save many hours of hard work.
The message here is that twenty or thirty years of experience in a technical or management capacity, without the requisite academic knowledge, is more or less doing things wrongly, or doing the wrong things, at the wrong times, in the wrong order, in the wrong fashion, with the wrong people or equipment, and producing the wrong results, for the wrong reasons. Deming may have been too polite to say this, but this persistent wrong-headedness could be the death of this nation.

In a period of decline, do all the visionaries just go away? Where are the principled and qualified leaders, managers, teachers, scientists, engineers; the apostles of sound ideas and principles; the progenitors of sure methods and processes? Obviously some retire and eventually die off; but some get driven into the wilderness as the primitives take control of the operations of what previously were the wheels of civilization.

Of all the American citizens who earned bachelor's degrees or better in management, engineering, computer science, information systems, and similar fields in the past three decades, probably less than half are working in their fields. The rest have either died, retired, or have been driven into other fields, just like the visionaries, planners, and leaders from the time of the Roman decline.

How does our discussion of systemic dysfunction apply to modern methods of management; team management; project management; process management; infrastructure management; to any and all types of management?

According to Peter Drucker and Warren Bennis, "Management is doing things right; Leadership is doing the right things." We need both principled management and principled leadership, if we are to reverse this decline, and recover as a nation.

Our objective as a nation should be to encourage more managers toward a path of effective leadership, and toward a path of tried and proven concepts, principles, methods, and processes.

Look back at one of the USA's crowning achievments, the mission to put a man on the moon.
The Apollo program was the United States space-flight effort which landed the first humans on Earth's Moon. Conceived during the Eisenhower administration and conducted by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), Apollo began in earnest after President John F. Kennedy's 1961 address to Congress declaring his belief in a national goal of "landing a man on the Moon" by the end of the decade in a competition with the Soviet Union for supremacy in space.

This goal was first accomplished during the Apollo 11 mission on July 20, 1969 when astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed, while Michael Collins remained in lunar orbit. Five subsequent Apollo missions also landed astronauts on the Moon, the last in December 1972. In these six Apollo spaceflights, 12 men walked on the Moon. These are the only times humans have landed on another celestial body.
The lunar mission was obviously one of massive complexity, yet it was accomplished about eight years after JFK declared it an imperative national goal.

Could we accomplish such a project today? Probably not.

Aside from our current almost $15 $16 $17 Trillion of national public debt (which is simply another measure of our systemic dysfunction), why could we not accomplish another manned lunar mission today?

Like so many other large organizations, public and private, NASA is now just one more national embarrassment.

The lunar missions proved that complexity is manageable, provided that sound principles are followed, standards are enforced, procedures are developed and followed, and every person on every team involved is fully qualified for their positions, and fully committed to mission success.

Unnecessary complication is, by design, not easily manageable. Rampant corruption is likewise not easily manageable. Incompetence is not easily manageable. Sabotage by teammates, internal competition, backstabbing, failure to communicate, failure to document, etc., are likewise not easily manageable.

The sad fact is that too many of the several millions of principled, honest, and highly competent professionals produced by our colleges and universities over the past few decades, those who could lead or guide systematic advances in a society, have been driven out of their fields by the liars, cheats, thieves, hackers, frauds and saboteurs.

If and when America and American companies are ready to rebuild from this depression, hopefully some of these people will still be available to assist with the efforts. It certainly will not be accomplished with the prevailing mindset.

  • Pseudo-intellectuals tend to deliberately complicate things.
  • Sensible people tend to simplify things that might appear complicated to others.
  • When we follow proven sound principles, processes are more simple and manageable.
  • When we try to find or make loopholes in proven sound principles, processes become unnecessarily complicated and more prone to failure.
  • When sensible people insist on keeping things simple, it is not proof that they are dumb; it is proof that they are smart enough to stick with what has been proven to work.

JNM - 2010