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Just Fix It!

May 4, 2007

There is both a philosophical and a practical difference between how much planning you can do to produce something, and how much you can plan ahead for fixing it later.

As Michal Migurski notes (via Haddock), quoting from David Edgerton’s book Shock of the Old, “So concerned were Ford with maintenance and repair that they investigated and standardised repair procedures, which were incorporated into a huge manual published in 1925. … However, this plan did not work – it could not cope with the many vicissitudes and uncertainties of the car-repair business. The Fordisation of maintenance and repair, even of the Model T, did not work. As the British naval officer in charge of ship construction and maintenance in the 1920’s put it: ‘repair work has no connection with mass-production.'”

This extends to support for computer hardware and software as well, a topic near and dear to my heart – it’s an easier thing to standardize writing a program, or building a computer, than it is to standardize figuring out just what could have gone wrong with them.

Not that design is at all easy either, mind you – as noted in an article about Apple’s design work (also via Haddock), “hard work is lost on many, and the seeming simplicity of the end product suggests simplicity in the process.” It’s harder, not easier, to do a good, simple design.

But it’s even harder to specify, in advance, what to do when that design breaks. While it may be possible to establish simple instructions for producing something to a consistent standard, what happens afterwards is unbounded. In any endeavor, there are more failure modes than can possibly be enumerated.

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