22 April 2010

Superficial Agreements

People often respond to my FIST (Fast, Inexpensive, Simple, Tiny) presentations by saying that “Everyone agrees with this," by which they seem to imply this stuff is almost too obvious to say.

The thing is, that’s not exactly true.

Sure, everyone agrees in principle to the *objectives* of FIST, such as reducing the cost and time involved with developing new systems. But when it comes down to actual *implementation,* we quickly encounter friction. And it’s the implementation that’s at the core of FIST.

Let’s take a look at a few specifics, shall we? In my FIST presentations & articles, I say simplicity is desirable, a sign of sophistication. Adding more features, functions & widgets makes the system worse, not better. But take a look at almost any piece of consumer electronics or any weapon system, and you’ll find it’s chock-full of shiny bits and features, apparently added in the belief that more is better. In fact, when you actually analyze the system, you often find it’s full of extra features, which:
   a) are unused / seldom used,
   b) increase the cost of the system,
   c) increase the complexity of the system,
   d) reduce the reliability of the system (by creating more potential failure modes, for example),
   e) make the system harder to learn, use & maintain
   f) all of the above

I could go on, but you get the picture.

Similarly, FIST argues that constraints foster creativity, and thus small budgets are good. But as soon as a program runs into a technical problem, the same people who supposedly agree with FIST end up asking for more time and money. Or consider the huge pressure on military program managers to “keep your obligations’s & expenditures up,” (i.e. spend all your money) for fear of not getting as much money next year. Clearly, the environment does not reward thrift. Any DoD program manager who turns in money at the end of the year is likely in for some harsh words from the finance folks. Spend, spend, spend! But yes, we agree that FIST is a good idea… as long as we don’t make things simple and as long as we spend a lot of money.

Sheesh.

6 comments:

Keith said...

For some reason the iPhone App store popped into my head reading this. It doesn't make sense to me that they advertise over 100,000 apps in the app store. I only use 5 maybe...more doesn't mean better. It just means more.

You are correct that the financial incentives in the DoD are completely backwards. How can DoD align the right incentives with the right outcomes? I haven't really figured that one out yet.

Dick Field said...

Keith --

I think it boils down to taking FIST values first . . . embracing them - and owning them. Without that, the objectives remain conjectural - or, at worst, PC utterances that we really are good guys (just don't pressure us). Among the hard values of FIST, as I see it, are selflessness and courage. That way, we are not bound to hoard all the nuts we can, even if wasteful and unused, in the hopes the financial winter won't get us.

Dan -- sorry if I co-opted anything . . . and please make adjustments to this as necessary.

The Dan Ward said...

@Dick - you nailed it. I love the phrase "the hard values of FIST." Gonna totally use that. :)

Gabe said...

Your description is at the heart of why I'm an accolyte of FIST. The Defense Acquisition establishment wants to have cake and eat it too. If you're in test, your job is to find every reason why a system is not ready or a program should not continue. If you're in a SPO your job is to keep a program afloat come hell or high water. The system is set up to defeat itself with the ony common ground being "more money". All the recent program cuts are a sign that somebody is listening and attempting to implement FIST.

Paul said...

Thanks again for another great read--

Ironic that a user community that values simplicity is served by a professional community that embraces complexity.

Anecdotally on the shiny weapon system comment-- a JDAM user story. Dropping a JDAM from a TACAIR platform is fraught with tricky menus, button-mashing, and obtuse prompts. It's distressingly easy to drop the JDAM as a dud, or in the wrong place. Much has been invested in addressing this problem, which it seems to me originally spawned of unnecessary complexity. But the most-employed solution that has trickled down to the user community (at least for carrier TACAIR) is employment of over-the-shoulder cockpit cameras to supplement HUD video. They're used to debug the pilot-JDAM system failures after the fact, rather than providing an avenue to design them out of the system. Perhaps not fully a product of unreformed DoD acquisition, but non-FISTy nonetheless.

The Dan Ward said...

@Keith - great example! Clearly there are more apps than anyone could ever look at, let alone use... This might be an example of an oversupplied / overserved user.

@Paul - Great example of the fact that complexity is a cost, both financially and operationally....