Opinion: It's easy to "improve" a manual process in ways that lead to new kinds of errors.
I had an opportunity last week to observe a transition, still in
paper-based record keeping to an online operation. The new system was
vastly superior when everythingand crucially, everyonewas
behaving according to specifications. Its important to remember, though,
the dictum of "Systemantics"
satirist John Gall, whose "Systems
includes the warning: "Any large system is going to be
operating most of the time in failure mode."
I was one of the adult leaders taking a group of 32
Boy Scouts to a week of summer camp, where we found that the "Blue
Cards" used by generations of Scouts to track their fulfillment of
merit badge requirements had been replaced by a Web-accessible
database. One unintended consequence of this change was that adult
Scout leaders now had to resistoften unsuccessfullythe temptation
to check their e-mail,
as long as they were logged on to the system
to update Scouts records anyway. So much for getting away from
The major problem arose at the end of the week, when Scouts
who had attended a classbut not correctly signed up for itreceived badge completion reports that did not show their work. I
suspect that the system simply did not ask the counselors for input on
Scouts that the system didnt know were there. Crucially, I saw the
clipboard of one counselor, who had added hand-written rows of names
and data to his class roster printout and had carefully tracked the
progress of his "phantom" Scouts. When asked, he was therefore able to
that they were there and had done the work. There was even a stack of
little cards prepared that counselors could use to file late
corrections to the office so that oversights like thisonce noticedcould be fixed.
With the old Blue Card system, though, this simply wasnt an issue:
a Scout showed up at his first class with his Blue Card, which the
Counselor then held for the week while adding requirement completion
informationand then turned in to the office, effectively combining
the sign-up and the completion report in a single operation.
Cards, one might say, were an object-oriented system: The data
structure followed the flow of the work and arrived at the end in one
piece instead of requiring assembly from several pieces in several
different places. With the Blue Cards, moreover, an incomplete class
roster would find itself at the end of the week sitting side-by-side
with cardsphysical objects, difficult to ignorethat did not
correspond to roster entries. The system would send, in effect, a
tangible signal of a problem.
As I said, the new online system had a lot of advantages. I could
export sign-up information to Excel and sort by Scout, or by time of
day, or by class. I was able to arrive at camp with printouts that told
me, at any given time, which Scouts should be where.
The system knew
which badges were offered during which sessions of the camp day, and
would not allow a Scout to prepare an impossible schedule. Overall, it
was a definite improvement, and I commend those who are making the
effort to streamline summer camps classic but cumbersome systems.
Remember Galls warning, though, that systems are rarely working
entirely as they were designed, and his corollary (borrowed from family
) that "Problems are not the problem: coping is the problem."
Gall further offers the Unawareness Theorem, phrased as the question:
"If youre not aware that you have a problem, how can you call for
help?" Both of these statements are important warnings to application
Dont merely build a system to work correctly; build a system to
fail, when it does fail, both gracefully and also loudly. That is, the
system should do as much as it can, rather than collapsing completely,
but it should also be designed to anticipate and clearly signal likely
A system, in short, should be trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly,
courteous… Oh. Right. I thought that sounded familiar.
Application builders, like Boy Scouts, should be prepared.
Tell me how you build your systems to do a good turn daily at email@example.com
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