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

Last updated: August 8, 2018

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 2016]. 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

52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented OrganizationsAre your projects always (or almost always) late and over budget? Are your project teams plagued by turnover, burnout, and high defect rates? Turn your culture around. Read 52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented Organizations, filled with tips and techniques for organizational leaders. Order Now!

Footnotes

[Brenner 2016]
See "Call in the Right Expert," Point Lookout for December 30, 2015 Back

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenmhXARWRMUvVyOdHlner@ChacxgDmtwOKrxnripPCoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Problem Solving and Creativity:

Using an information kioskKnowing Where You're Going
Groups that can't even agree on what to do can often find themselves debating about how to do it. Here are some simple things to remember to help you focus on defining the goal.
2nd. Lt. Henry Martyn Robert, U.S. Army (center)What, Why, and How
When solving problems, groups frequently get stuck in circular debate. Positions harden even before the issue is clear. Here's a framework for exploration that can sharpen thinking and focus the group.
Louis Pasteur in 1885Wishful Significance: II
When we're beset by seemingly unresolvable problems, we sometimes conclude that "wishful thinking" was the cause. Wishful thinking can result from errors in assessing the significance of our observations. Here's a second group of causes of erroneous assessment of significance.
Airliner coach seatingVirtual Teams Need Generous Travel Budgets
Although virtual team members who happen to be co-located do meet from time to time, meetings of people who reside at different sites are often severely restricted by tight or non-existent travel budgets. Such restrictions, intended to save money, can contribute to expensive delays and errors.
An engineer attending a meeting with 14 other engineersOn Assigning Responsibility for Creating Trouble
When we assign responsibility for troubles that bedevil us, we often make mistakes. We can be misled by language, stereotypes, and the assumptions we make about others.

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

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

The Leonard P. Zakim Bunker Hill BridgeComing September 25: Planning Disappointments
When we plan projects, we make estimates of total costs and expected delivery dates. Often these estimates are so wrong — in the wrong direction — that we might as well be planning disappointments. Why is this? Available here and by RSS on September 25.
Samples of bubble wrapAnd on October 2: Start Anywhere
Group problem-solving sessions sometimes focus on where to begin, even when what we know about the problem is insufficient for making such decisions. In some cases, preliminary exploration of almost any aspect of the problem can be more helpful than debating what to explore. Available here and by RSS on October 2.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenmhXARWRMUvVyOdHlner@ChacxgDmtwOKrxnripPCoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

The Race to the South Pole: Lessons in Leadership

On 14The Race to the South Pole: Lessons in Leadership December 1911, four men led by Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole. Thirty-five days later, Robert F. Scott and four others followed. Amundsen had won the race to the pole. Amundsen's party returned to base on 26 January 1912. Scott's party perished. As historical drama, why this happened is interesting enough. But to organizational leaders, business analysts, project sponsors, and project managers, the story is fascinating. We'll use the history of this event to explore lessons in leadership and its application to organizational efforts. A fascinating and refreshing look at leadership from the vantage point of history. Read more about this program.

Here's a date for this program:

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power

Many The
Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.
If your teams don't yet consistently achieve state-of-the-art teamwork, check out this catalog. Help is just a few clicks/taps away!
Ebooks, booklets and tip books on project management, conflict, writing email, effective meetings and more.