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Leverage Point

In this terrific systems article pointed out to me by Byron Davies, Donella Meadows states:

Physical structure is crucial in a system, but the leverage point is in proper design in the first place. After the structure is built, the leverage is in understanding its limitations and bottlenecks and refraining from fluctuations or expansions that strain its capacity.

The first sentence doesn’t tell me anything new, but the second one does. Many systems, especially big software systems foisted upon maintenance teams after they’re hatched to the customer, are not thoroughly understood by many, if any, of the original members of the development team. Upon release, the system “works” (and it may be stable). Hurray!

In the post delivery phase, as the (always) unheralded maintenance team starts adding new features without understanding the system’s limitations and bottlenecks, the structural and behavioral integrity of the beast starts surely degrading over time. Scarily, the rate of degradation is not constant; it’s more akin to an exponential trajectory. It doesn’t matter how pristine the original design is, it will undoubtedly start it’s march toward becoming an unlovable “big ball of mud“.

So, how can one slow the rate of degradation in the integrity of a big system that will continuously be modified throughout its future lifetime? The answer is nothing profound and doesn’t require highly skilled specialists or consultants. It’s called PAYGO.

In the PAYGO process, a set of lightweight but understandable and useful multi-level information artifacts that record the essence of the system are developed and co-evolved with the system software. They must be lightweight so that they are easily constructable, navigable, and accessible. They must be useful or post-delivery builders won’t employ them as guidance and they’ll plow ahead without understanding the global ramifications of their local changes. They must be multi-level so that different stakeholder group types, not just builders, can understand them. They must be co-evolved so that they stay in synch with the real system and they don’t devolve into an incorrect and useless heap of misguidance. Challenging, no?

Of course, if builders, and especially front line managers, don’t know how to, or don’t care to, follow a PAYGO-like process, then they deserve what they get. D’oh!

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