Saturday, September 10, 2016

Persnickety Penguins and Shellfish

Two engineers were discussing their company's relationship with a long time customer and one of them compared it to how penguins select a mate; The story goes that male Gentoo penguins will search through piles of pebbles looking for ones to present to their intended companion. If she approves, the stone is placed in the nest and the pair bonds and breeds. The engineer explained that the problem was that there didn't seem to be any way to know in advance if the customer was going to accept the pebble.

We've all heard stories of clients which were difficult to please and on the surface the penguin story appears to be an appropriate analogy. The problem is that the story leaves out some critical pieces of information; According to some online sources female penguins have a selection criteria; the rocks need to be very smooth. I suppose that would make sense. The gestation process lasts for weeks and sitting on rough stones would be a real pain, both for the mother and the baby.

But then I came across this video on YouTube;

Penguin Nest Building

After having viewed this a number of times, I can't tell if the stones are smooth or rough, just that they need to be small enough to pick up and carry to the nest. I also didn't see the female rejecting any rocks.

It struck me that the story was analogous to design as a consulting process; Customers have needs, which are obvious to them. As designers it's our job to figure out what those needs are and come up with a way to fill them.  This is where things start to get very interesting.

Disagreements and misunderstandings are funny things, particularly when you are getting paid for having them. If you don't believe that, take a look at this classic Monte Python sketch;

The Argument Clinic

The key takeaway from both of these stories is that when you or the customer don't understand what is wanted, things don't go well. So, what can be done to fix that? In the engineer's version of the penguin story, the female rejects some of the rocks, which is the equivalent of being told "That's not what I asked for." or Python's mirror image; "That's not what you came here for."

There is a book which describes how a large government agency does product development. It is over an inch thick and details every step of a highly organized and co-ordinated process intended to anticipate and mitigate every possible way something could go wrong in advance of situations where accidents almost always result in serious injury or death. The design process is thorough, repeatable, highly structured and predictable. Analytical minds love it. The problem is that its not particularly reliable or dependable in the face of the unknown.

Duct tape has been on board every NASA mission since early in the Gemini program and as you may recall, it saved the lives of the crew of Apollo XIII when their carefully planned mission hit a little snag. Ed Smylie's Tiger Team had 24 hours to solve that problem, or the crew would die. “My recollection of the threat,” said Jerry Woodfill, “was Don Aabian's voice bellowing from the mission evaluation room; "I need those guys to come up with an answer on the CO2 thing and do it fast!" 

Using only the equipment and tools the crew had on board, including plastic bags, cardboard, suit hoses, and duct tape, Smylie and his team conceived a unique and totally unplanned solution;

“The concept seemed to evolve as all looked on. It was to attach a suit hose into a port which blew air through the hose into an astronaut’s space suit. If the space suit was eliminated and the output of the hose somehow attached to the square CO2 filter perhaps the crew could be saved. The air blown through the filter by the suit fan would have no carbon dioxide as it reentered the cabin atmosphere.”

Jack Swigert working on Apollo 13's  LiOH canister.

"The biggest challenge was adapting from a small round hose to a much larger square filter. A funnel would most likely leak. Added to that problem was that the hose and plastic bags tended to collapse, restricting the air flow through the filter.

Then the thought came, ‘Use cardboard log book covers to support the plastic. It worked! But more importantly, they had to figure out how the funnel adapter could be fashioned to prevent leaking. Of course… the solution to every conceivable knotty problem has got to be duct tape! And so it was.”
I haven't read every word in the NASA Systems Engineering Handbook, but I'm pretty sure it doesn't mention using Duct Tape. Maybe it shouldn't. Handbooks are written to deal with situations which can be anticipated and predicted. They codify the tribal knowledge which we turn to when the complexity, ambiguity and risk threaten to overwhelm us. What Handbooks don't do is inspire the kind of ah-ha! moments which saved the crew of Apollo XIII.

How do you codify having a blinding moment of insight so it can be called up on demand?

Scamper-Duttton TRIZ Matrix
There is someone who tried to do exactly that. In 1945, after studying thousands of patents, Genrich Altshuller concluded that similar technical problems had been solved by resolving similar technical conflicts.  His Theory of Inventive Problem Solving, (TRIZ) got a big boost in the 1970's with the invention of the desktop computer, which enabled working thru TRIZ's 39x39 conflict matrix more easily.

That is one way of shortening the problem solving process; knowing how someone else resolved a similar conflict and reframing your problem to look like theirs. But it's not creative or innovative in the traditional sense. It does bring a certain predictability to the situation, which gives the illusion of being prepared and in control to the project managers. It's also technical.

Are you listening to me?
Which takes us back to our persnickety penguin. How can you know what rocks won't be rejected before you bring them? The answer is pretty simple; You have to understand penguins The pebble gathering isn't directed at the female, its directed at building a nest, which the male often begins before a willing female even arrives.  That is the message for the analysts and engineers; Your persnickety customer isn't being difficult, you simply don't understand their behavior.

The reason you don't is because you are shellfish and they are penguins.

We'll explore that in the next post.

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