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? rbrenrhNidNcFWzFzKkmDner@ChacHXogIUREBQvkoFTqoCanyon.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:

Benjamin FranklinProblem-Solving Ambassadors
In dispersed teams, we often hold meetings to which we send delegations to work out issues of mutual interest. These working sessions are a mix of problem solving and negotiation. People who are masters of both are problem-solving ambassadors, and they're especially valuable to dispersed or global teams.
Captain Robert F. Scott and most of his team returning from the South PoleProject Improvisation and Risk Management
When reality trips up our project plans, we improvise or we replan. When we do, we create new risks and render our old risk plans obsolete. Here are some suggestions for managing risks when we improvise.
A portrait of Matthew Lyon, printer, farmer, soldier, politicianHow to Foresee the Foreseeable: Recognize Haste
When trouble arises after we commit to a course of action, we sometimes feel that the trouble was foreseeable. One technique for foreseeing the foreseeable depends on recognizing haste in the decision-making process.
Dunes in Death Valley, CaliforniaHill Climbing and Its Limitations
Finding a better solution by making small adjustments to your current solution is usually a good idea. The key word is "usually."
An FBI SWAT team assists local law enforcement in New Orleans in August 2005The Paradox of Structure and Workplace Bullying
Structures of all kinds — organizations, domains of knowledge, cities, whatever — are both enabling and limiting. To gain more of the benefits of structure, while avoiding their limits, it helps to understand this paradox and learn to recognize its effects.

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

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Meerkats (Suricata suricatta), Tswalu Kalahari Reserve, South AfricaComing May 15: Entry Intimidation
Feeling intimidated about entering a new work situation can affect performance for both the new entrant and for the group as a whole. Four trouble patterns related to entry intimidation are inadvertent subversion, bullying, hat hanging, and defenses and sabotage. Available here and by RSS on May 15.
Portrait of Isaac Newton (1642-1727)And on May 22: Newtonian Blind Alleys: I
When we decide how to allocate organizational resources, we make assumptions about how the world works. Often outside our awareness, the thinking of Sir Isaac Newton influences our assumptions. And sometimes they lead us into blind alleys. Universality is one example. Available here and by RSS on May 22.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenmsJYFdzWsopXShoYner@ChacDPPfkvKSleBnbsBCoCanyon.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 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.