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

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

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 2015]
Richard Brenner. "Call in the Right Expert," Point Lookout blog, December 30, 2015. Available here. Back

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenXEiRBfuFHUtjHrqUner@ChacpYPvvSVhUNIOeXHKoCanyon.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:

James Madison, author of the Bill of RightsTeamwork Myths: Conflict
For many teams, conflict is uncomfortable or threatening. It's so unpleasant so often that many believe that all conflict is bad — that it must be avoided, stifled, or at least managed. This is a myth. Conflict, in its constructive forms, is essential to high performance.
Then-Capt. Elwood R. Quesada who became commanding general of the 9th Fighter Command in operation OverlordGroup Problem-Solving Tangles
When teams solve problems together, discussions of proposed solutions usually focus on combinations of what the solution will do, how much it will cost, how long it will take, and much more. Disentangling these threads can make discussions much more effective.
XP-80 prototype Lulu-Belle on the groundRationalizing Creativity at Work: II
Creative thinking at work can be nurtured or encouraged, but not forced or compelled. Leaders who try to compel creativity because of very real financial and schedule pressures rarely get the results they seek. Here are examples of tactics people use in mostly-futile attempts to compel creativity.
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 nonexistent travel budgets. Such restrictions, intended to save money, can contribute to expensive delays and errors.
Samples of bubble wrapStart 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.

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

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Adolf Hitler greets Neville Chamberlain at the beginning of the Bad Godesberg meeting on 24 September 1938Coming October 20: On Ineffectual Leaders
When the leader of an important business unit is ineffectual, we need to make a change to protect the organization. Because termination can seem daunting, people often turn to one or more of a variety of other options. Those options have risks. Available here and by RSS on October 20.
Browsing books in a library. So many books, we must make choicesAnd on October 27: Five Guidelines for Choices
Each day we make dozens or hundreds of choices — maybe more. We make many of those choices outside our awareness. But we can make better choices if we can recognize choice patterns that often lead to trouble. Here are five guidelines for making choices. Available here and by RSS on October 27.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenXEiRBfuFHUtjHrqUner@ChacpYPvvSVhUNIOeXHKoCanyon.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 500-1000 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.

Bullet Points: Mastery or Madness?

DecisBullet Point Madnession makers in modern organizations commonly demand briefings in the form of bullet points or a series of series of bullet points. But this form of presentation has limited value for complex decisions. We need something more. We actually need to think. Briefers who combine the bullet-point format with a variety of persuasion techniques can mislead decision makers, guiding them into making poor decisions. 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.