Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 16, Issue 1;   January 6, 2016: When Fixing It Doesn't Fix It: I

When Fixing It Doesn't Fix It: I

by

When complex systems misbehave, a common urge is to find any way at all to end the misbehavior. Succumbing to that urge can be a big mistake. Here's why we succumb.
Vintage slot machine at the Casino Legends Hall of Fame at the Tropicana Las Vegas Casino Hotel Resort, Nevada

Vintage slot machine at the Casino Legends Hall of Fame at the Tropicana Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada. Slot machines reward behavior in an irregular manner (technically called a variable-ratio schedule). The reward induces the desired behavior (making a payment and pulling the lever). "Random twiddling and part replacement" also produces intermittent rewards (the system in question begins to work again), which induces further application of RTAPR in future incidents.

Photo courtesy U.S. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

From the outset, sound quality on the virtual conference was poor, even with that wonderful new system that shows everyone each site's whiteboard, and lets everyone see each other. After 10 minutes it got so bad that they suspended the conference and resumed on a plain old bridge line. The CEO was livid. But there was no alternative right then.

Overnight, people from IT and Facilities and the vendors went over the system, updated the firmware, replaced some boxes at two sites and got things working. When people signed in for the second session of the meeting the next morning, it worked a little better, but after 10 minutes, the system was again unusable. They had to sign off and resume on the bridge line. "Livid" was no longer a word strong enough to describe the CEO's state of mind.

The system didn't work, but more deeply disturbing is the problem-solving approach of IT, Facilities, and the vendors, which could be called "random twiddling and part replacement" (RTAPR). It's a standard method, and it usually ends in tragedy, because it wastes time and resources, rarely provides a lasting fix, and delays (if not precludes forever any possibility of) determining root causes.

Whether it's a complex system of electronics and software (as in our example), a process design for projects in a large enterprise, or regulations governing the banking system, RTAPR rarely works. So why do people approach complex problems this way? Here are four factors that drive us down this particular blind alley.

Periodic reinforcement
Every once in a while, RTAPR works. The chance that it might work again seduces us into trying it, against our better judgment. Psychologists call this phenomenon periodic reinforcement.
Extreme time pressure
Exerting Whether it's a complex system
of electronics and software, or
regulations governing the banking
system, "Random Twiddling and
Part Replacement" rarely works
pressure on repair teams limits their ability to perform problem diagnosis. The greater the pressure, the more powerful is the urge to use RTAPR.
Limited availability of relevant expertise
Staffing the repair team is a task that itself requires expertise, because the repair team needs expertise in all relevant fields. [Brenner 2015]. Unless they have the expertise they need, their only real recourse is RTAPR.
Confidentiality or security
Complex systems can exhibit problems in patterns we call "intermittent," though the term intermittent might not be truly applicable. Often, the problem is predictable, but we lack the knowledge needed to predict it. That's why someone with appropriate expertise must be present at the onset of the difficulty. Sometimes the people with the needed expertise lack the stature (or maybe the security clearance) necessary to be "in the room" waiting for an incident. In some cases, unless qualified system experts can be present for the incidents, identifying the conditions that precipitate the difficulty can be impossible.

Now that we understand some reasons why repair teams resort to RTAPR, we're ready to look at an alternative method. Next time.  Next in this series Go to top Top  Next issue: When Fixing It Doesn't Fix It: II  Next Issue

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Footnotes

Comprehensive list of all citations from all editions of Point Lookout
[Brenner 2015]
Richard Brenner. "Call in the Right Expert," Point Lookout blog, December 30, 2015. Available here. Back

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See also Problem Solving and Creativity and Critical Thinking at Work for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Saturn during equinox — a composite of natural-color images from CassiniComing May 22: Rescheduling Collaborative Work
Rescheduling is what we do when the schedule we have now is so desperately unachievable that we must let go of it because when we look at it we can no longer decide whether to laugh or cry. The fear is that the new schedule might come to the same end. Available here and by RSS on May 22.
The Leonard P. Zakim Bunker Hill BridgeAnd on May 29: Rescheduling: Project Factors
Rescheduling is what we do when we can no longer honor the schedule we have now. Of all causes of rescheduling, the more controllable are those found at the project level. Attending to them in one project can limit their effects on other projects. Available here and by RSS on May 29.

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