Showers are lean-agile; baths are not

In the shower a few days ago I realized that showering vs bathing is a nice example of being lean-agile or not. Imagine 10 people bathing sequentially vs showering sequentially...

With a bath you have to wait (in a queue) while the bath fills up. Not so with a shower.

If you do something else while you wait for the bath to fill up you're likely to find the bathwater too hot or too cold.

Or the tap turns itself off (I have a hot tap that does that sometimes) and the bath is still virtually empty.

Or that might be the time you discover the overflow pipe is blocked.

Or that a fully-on tap releases water faster than an overflow pipe can drain it.

With a bath the water stays in the bath and gets dirty.

With a bath the water gets cold as you lie in it.

With a bath you have to drain the water before you can refill it so the next person can bath in clean water.

With a bath you use more water.

A bath takes up more floor space.

In a shower you stand up, you stay more awake.

A bath is less encapsulated.

Bath leaves a ring of scum that has to be cleaned.

Birth of the chaordic age

is the title of an excellent book by Dee Hock. As usual I'm going to quote from a few pages:
All things, even life itself, are a seamless blending of chaos and order.
By structure I mean the embodiment of purpose, principles, people, and concept.
The results of the best organizations are apparent, but the structure, leadership, and process and transparent.
Information multiplies by transfer and is not depleted by use.
Knowledge becomes understanding when related to other knowledge in a manner useful in conceiving, anticipating, evaluating, and judging. Understanding becomes wisdom when informed by purpose, ethics, principles, memory of the past, and projection into the future.
All knowledge is an approximation.
The information age is primarily an extension of mental power.
We are at that very point in time when a four-hundred-year-old age is rattling in its deathbed and another is struggling to be born.

Out of Our Minds

is the title of an excellent book by Ken Robinson. As usual I'm going to quote from a few pages:
People are not creative in general but in doing something concrete.
Spontaneity sometimes has to be carefully planned.
Creativity is not just a matter of letting go: it involves hanging on.
Creativity is as much a process of finding problems as solving them.
Trying to put some experiences into words is like stringing clothes on a washing line when in practice they are worn one inside the other.
Creativity is a process not an event.
We classify at our peril.
Creativity is incremental.
Creativity relies on the flow of ideas.

Important - do not rub off

In one of his books Jerry Weinberg mentions a cleaner who wasn’t allowed to wipe the whiteboards. The story conjures familiar images of whiteboards full of stuff labeled “important - do not rub off”. It’s likely the stuff has lain untouched on that no-longer-white-whiteboard for weeks or months. It’s no longer important but there it stays, filling the whiteboard. A whiteboard full of stuff discourages its use in exactly the same way an empty whiteboard encourages it. And a whiteboard with the words “important - do not rub off” positively discourages use. It's really saying "keep away".

The whole purpose of whiteboards is that you wipe them. Perhaps they should be called wipeboards! Buying a wipeboard and its special pens and its special erasers and then filling it with stuff just the once is silly and expensive. If you want something permanent why not use a permanent pen on a big piece of paper stuck to the wall?

Filling a wipeboard with stuff labeled “important - do not rub off” is also silly if the stuff genuinely is still important. Someone might be desperate for a wipeboard and decide their new definitely-important stuff is more important than somebody else’s existing possibly-important stuff. So they wipe it. Wipeboards are so easy to wipe after all!

Le Chatelier's Principle says "[good] systems tend to oppose their own proper function". What is the proper function of a wipeboard? To be written on. How do you oppose being written on? Simple - wipe them completely clean every so often. Ruthlessly. Even if someone's written "important - do not rub off" on them.

With this use-clean use-clean use-clean dynamic set up the wipeboards give a clear visual impression of their dynamic use since anything on a wipeboard must necessarily have be written fairly recently. If they remain mostly unused most of the time you get to see that very clearly too.

Le Chatelier's Principle revisited

I was chatting about Le Chatelier’s principle with Hubert Matthews at an accu meeting in London yesterday evening. Hubert is a very smart guy and explained to me that losing your boarding card is a nice example, but not necessarily of Le Chatelier’s principle. What did I misunderstand?

Le Chatelier’s principle says "systems tend to oppose their own proper function". I incorrectly read this as a description of a poor system, an unorganized system, a system with no feedback, no control, (you get the idea), a system straying further and further out of balance at the slightest touch. In other words the system opposes its own proper function - but only in the sense that it never really had a chance of functioning properly in the first place! A system likely to die a quick natural death. That was the kind of systems behaviour I was looking for a name for. But I’ll come back to that.

So what is Le Chatelier’s principle really saying? As always an example helps. Every cell in your body requires a constant supply of glucose for energy. If your blood sugar level rises (e.g. after a meal) special cells in your pancreas produce insulin. Insulin causes the liver and muscles convert the extra glucose to glycogen and store it away, helping to reduce blood sugar levels. This is normal functioning. This is proper function. Ok. Now, what Le Chatelier’s Principle says (assuming I've got it right this time) is that your body will oppose this proper function! And your body does indeed start this opposition, and for a very good reason – if the insulin is left unchecked it continues to drain glucose from the blood and your blood sugar level gets too low. So when this happens different special cells in the pancreas start to produce glucagon. The glucagon works in opposition to insulin, causing the liver and muscles to convert the stored glycogen back into glucose thus increasing your blood sugar level.

In a healthy person these mini-systems operate quite properly, just like a thermostat, keeping your blood sugar level safely between fairly strict limits. Not too much (hyperglycemia) and not too little (hypoglycemia). They do this by opposing each other. It reminds me of the Goldilocks Principle. Goldilocks didn’t like the bed too soft or too hard, or the porridge too hot or too cold. Goldilocks knew her own mind.

So what have I learned from this? I’ve learned that I understand Le Chatelier’s Principle a bit better if I reword it ever so slightly to start with the word good. Good is a bit weak but I’m a bit pushed for time so it will do for now.

So what is my boarding card example an example of? Does The Inverse Le Chatelier’s principle apply? If a system does not oppose its own proper function is it more likely to be a poor system? I think there's an element of truth to that. If so we have Le Chatelier’s Principles. There are two of them, in opposition to each other, which somehow feels appropriate!

Good systems tend to oppose their own proper function.
Bad systems tend not to oppose their own proper function.

Thanks Hubert.

Predictably Irrational

is the title of an excellent book by Dan Ariely. As usual I'm going to quote from a few pages:
We don't have an internal value meter...rather we focus on the relative advantage of one thing over another
Our first decisions resonate over a long sequence of decisions.
With everything you do you should train yourself to question your repeated behaviour.
Humans are intrinsically afraid of loss.
For market norms to emerge it is sufficient to mention money.
Money, it turns out, is very often the most expensive way to motivate people.
We fall in love with what we already have.
Expectations can influence nearly every aspect of our lives.
The majority of people cheated, and they cheated just a little bit.
What a difference there is in cheating for money versus cheating for something that is a step away from cash!

Thought for the Day

From Small Memory Software by James Noble and Charles Weir.

The fundamental difference between code and data is that programmers care about code whereas users care about data.

Le Chatelier - Systems tend to oppose their own proper function

One of the principles of Systems Thinking is Le Chatelier's Principle.

Systems tend to oppose their own proper function.

A nice example of this is checking your passport and boarding card at the airport. The comedian Michael McIntyre has a very funny sketch pretending to walk through an airport. Every three or four paces he has an uncontrollable compulsion to check that his passport and boarding card are still in his breast pocket. At one point he thinks he's lost them and goes into a mild panic.

Your passport and boarding card are completely safe in the pocket. They are not going to suddenly jump out of the pocket all by themselves. Gravity is not suddenly going to go into reverse. You're unlikely to start walking around on your hands. Pretty much the only way they're going to get out of that pocket is if you take them out yourself. Which is exactly what you do to check you haven't lost them!

On more than one occasion I've seen someone unknowingly drop their boarding card while checking they still have it. This is Le Chatelier. You have a goal in mind, you act to achieve that goal, and your action creates the opposite effect!

So now you know about Le Chatelier. You know that the time you're most likely to lose your boarding card is when you check whether you've lost it. So immediately after checking it you'll remember this blog and start to worry you lost it when you checked it. You'll probably have to check it again. Very soon you'll be checking it every three or four paces like Michael McIntyre. And of course, the more you check it the more likely you are to lose it! Le Chatelier again!

UDPATE: Losing your boarding card is NOT an example of Le Chatelier's Principle. It's an example of a different Systems Law: The Law Of Unintended Consequences! See Le Chatelier's Principle Revisited for what Le Chatelier's Principle really is (I think!)

Thought for the day

I think I read this on James Grenning's site somewhere:

It’s easier to act your way into thinking differently than to think your way into acting differently.

I think the origin of this quote might be Richard Buckminster Fuller:

You cannot change how someone thinks, but you can give them a tool, the use of which leads them to think differently.

How Buildings Learn: Chapter 11 - The Scenario-buffered Building

How Buildings Learn by Stewart Brand is a really great read about the underlying processes that govern the evolution of buildings over time.

All predictions are wrong.

The product of skilled scenario work is not a plan but a strategy. Where a plan is based on prediction, a strategy is designed to encompass unforseeably changing conditions. A good strategy ensures that, no matter what happens, you always have maneuvering room.

Many a building is a brilliant (or pedestrian) design solution to the wrong design problem.

The iron rule of planning is: whatever a client or architect says will happen with a building, won't.

"Our most important responsibility to the future is not to coerce it but to attend to it" [Kevin Lynch, city theorist]

Build something smaller and more solid now that can expand in a variety of directions later.

You have to iterate [Frederick Brooks]

How Buildings Learn: Chapter 10 - Function Melts Form: Satisficing Home and Office

How Buildings Learn by Stewart Brand is a really great read about the underlying processes that govern the evolution of buildings over time.

Too eager to please the moment, over-specificity crippled all future moments. It was the image of organic, not the reality. The credo "form follows functions" was a beautiful lie. Form froze function.

Houses evidently need more low-definition space for later expansion, and it's easier to add in than to add on.

Many a remodeling contract has to announce grimly higher costs upon discovering the product of previous do-it-yourselfers.

The trick is to remodel in such a way as to make later remodeling unnecessary or at least easy. Keep furniture mobile. Keep wiring plumbing, and ducts accessible.

[By] Far the greatest rate of change comes right at the beginning, as it does with everything that lives. Finishing is never finished.

You're right down to where the building most interfaces with the people who will be living in it, and they discover that some important things were left out, and some ideas that seemed so sensible on the plans aren't going to work. Last-minute revision - the most important stage of tuning a house - comes just when time and money are shortest. Aggravated compromise is the order of the day.

Inhabitation is a highly dynamic process, little studied.

The building and its occupants jointly are the new system.

Interior designers never satisfice. They are paid to optimize, to make perfect. Perfection is frustratingly temporary.

Paradoxically, habit is both the product of learning and the escape from learning. We learn in order not to learn. Habit is efficient; learning is messy and wasteful.

"Change is suffering" was the insight that founded Buddhism.

Once in place, the organization advances best by hordes of "small wins".

Chris Alexander: "At each level of scale, it is those actually using the space who understand best how it can be made/altered to have the character of being conducive to work. ... Therefore we suggest using materials and structural systems which invite change and allow changes to accumulate."

You cannot predict or control adaptivity. All you can do is make room for it - room at the bottom. Let the mistakes happen small and disposable. Adpativity is a fine-grained process.

"Wanderer", wrote a Spanish poet, "there is no path. You lay down a path in walking." [Antonio Machado]

How Buildings Learn: Chapter 9 - How Buildings Learn From Each Other

How Buildings Learn by Stewart Brand is a really great read about the underlying processes that govern the evolution of buildings over time.

The heart of vernacular design is about form, not style. Style is time's fool. Form is time's student.

Specialized space hinders future flexibility.

However much buildings may be sold as a product, they are lived in as a process.

Small invites the metamorphosis of growth.

The difference between style and form is the difference between a statement and a language.

How Buildings Learn: Chapter 8 - The Romance of Maintenance

How Buildings Learn by Stewart Brand is a really great read about the underlying processes that govern the evolution of buildings over time.

The issue is core and absolute: no maintenance, no building.

A staggering one fifth of the sample said that the need to clean their windows had not even been considered during the design and construction of the building.

The root of all evil is water.

A building's most important organ of heath is its roof.

The worst of it is, when water comes through a flat roof, you can't tell where the leak is because the water travels great distances hidden in the roof, ceilings and walls.

The question is this: do you want a material that looks bad before it acts bad, like shingles or clapboard, or one that acts bad long before it looks bad, like vinyl siding?

What you want in materials is the quality of forgiveness.

Redundancy of function is always more reliable than attempts at perfection, which time treats cruelly.

Bricks more than any other material look like they were made to fit the human hand.

If that small stuff isn't happening all the time, you're not going to take care of it, and it isn't going to come to order.

In his book The Oregon Experiment, Alexander elaborated "Large-lump development is based on the idea of replacement. Piecemeal growth is based on the idea of repair."

Large-lump development is based on the fallacy that it is possible to build perfect buildings. Piecemeal growth is based on the healthier and more realistic view that mistakes are inevitable.

I'd like to see building designers take on problem transparency as a design goal. Use materials that smell bad when they get wet.

Maintenance, in this light, is learning.

How Buildings Learn: Chapter 7 - Preservation

How Buildings Learn by Stewart Brand is a really great read about the underlying processes that govern the evolution of buildings over time.

Preservation has become the best carrier of that moral force architecture needs if it is to have value beyond shelter.

Why are old buildings more freeing? They free you by constraining you.

It is much easier to continue than to begin. Less money is needed, as well as less time, and fewer people are involved, so fewer compromises are necessary.

How Buildings Learn: Chapter 6 - Unreal Estate

How Buildings Learn by Stewart Brand is a really great read about the underlying processes that govern the evolution of buildings over time.

Rushing is at the root of all lack of quality.

Form follows failure.

City lots...(as in parking lots). Their size is enormously influential. Small lots make for constant fine-grain adaptation instead of the sudden devastating changes that can come with large parcels. Everything depends on the pattern of ownership of the land.

American planners always take their inspiration from Europe's great cities and such urban wonders as the Piazza San Marco in Venice, but they study the look, never the process. .... Venice is a monument to a dynamic process. Not to great urban planning.

As usual, the rate of change is everything.

Chris Alexander agrees: The money is all wrong in most buildings, and it's crucial. There should be more in basic structure, less in finish, more in maintenance and adaptation.

Work done in haste is necessarily shoddy, a house of cards. On a go-fast schedule there is no margin for a single error, and error is inevitable. High risk, high loss. The opposite strategy is much surer, because the errors are piecemeal and correctable. When you proceed deliberately mistakes don't cascade, they instruct. Low risk plus time equals high gain.

How Buildings Learn: Chapter 5 - Magazine Architecture: No Road

How Buildings Learn by Stewart Brand is a really great read about the underlying processes that govern the evolution of buildings over time.

Architects offered themselves as providers of instant solutions, and only the look of a building gives instant gratification.

In the 1980's, 80 percent of the ever-growing post-construction claims against architects were for leaks. Domes leaked, always. Worst of all, domes couldn't grow or adapt. What's good about 90-degree walls: they don't catch dust, rain doesn't sit on them, easy to add to; gravity, not tension holds them in place. We are 90 degrees to the earth.

The specious old-box is old because it is profoundly adaptive.

Instead of steady accumulation, the business of contemporary architecture is dominated by two instants in time. One is the moment of go-ahead...The other is the moment of hand-over.

All the design intelligence gets forced to the earliest part of the building process, when everyone knows the least about what is really needed. A lot of the time now you see buildings that look exactly like their models. That's when you know you're in trouble.

There is real misunderstanding about whether buildings are something dynamic or something static.

Architects think of a building as a complete thing, while builders think of it and know it as a sequence.

The race for finality undermines the whole process. In reality finishing is never finished.

Unchallenged practices persist for decades.

Admiration is from a distance and brief, while love is up close and cumulative.

The needed conversion is from architecture based on image to architecture based on process.

How Buildings Learn: Chapter 4 - Houseproud: The High Road

How Buildings Learn by Stewart Brand is a really great read about the underlying processes that govern the evolution of buildings over time.

The High Road is high-visibility, often high-style, nearly always high-cost. This is the way to grow a High Road building. Take it by stages with constant minute refinement. There's a huge time lag between when you need something and when you actually get it. Trust, intimacy, intense use, and time are what made these buildings work so well.

How Buildings Learn: Chapter 3 - Nobody Cares What You Do In There: The Low Road

How Buildings Learn by Stewart Brand is a really great read about the underlying processes that govern the evolution of buildings over time.

What do people do in buildings when they can do almost anything they want?

How Buildings Learn: Chapter 2 - Shearing Layers

How Buildings Learn by Stewart Brand is a really great read about the underlying processes that govern the evolution of buildings over time.

Building on the theme of time again he quotes Frank Duffy (ex president of the Royal Institute of British Architects) "Our basic argument is that there isn't such a thing as a building. A building properly conceived is several layers of longevity of built components".

Some layers live longer than other layers.

Some layers are more stable than other layers.

Layers change at differing rates.

The rates of change over time define the layers as clearly as the individual physical changes.

Brand extends Duffy's four S's shearing classification to six S's: Site, Structure, Skin, Services, Space plan, Stuff.

Quoting Duffy again "The unit of analysis for us isn't the building, it's the use of the building through time. Time is the essence of the real design problem."

Many buildings are demolished early if their outdated systems are too deeply embedded to replace easily.

Hummingbirds and flowers are quick, redwood trees slow, and whole redwood forests even slower. Most interaction is within the same pace level.

The dynamics of the system will be dominated by the slow components, with the rapid components simply following along. Slow constrains quick; slow controls quick.

Echoing the quote from Churchill, that the building learns from it occupants and they learn from it, he provides a fascinating insight - "In classical Greece and Rome domus meant house in an expanded sense: People and their dwellings were indistinguishable: domus (as in Romanes eunt domus - Life of Brian) referred not only to the walls but also to the people within them."

How Buildings Learn: Chapter 1 - Flow

How Buildings Learn by Stewart Brand is a really great read about the underlying processes that govern the evolution of buildings over time.

At the heart of this book is the idea of change - of time. That buildings change. That people change them. That the elements change them. This, fundamentally, is the reason the parallels with software leap off every page. Understanding and managing change is arguably the fundamental aspect of understanding and managing the process of developing software. Software isn't written perfectly in a sudden flash. It takes time. It takes lots of small changes.

The author writes "My approach is to examine buildings as a whole - not just whole in space, but whole in time". He laments the aphorism "Form ever follows function" written in 1896 by Louis Sullivan (A Chicago high-rise designer) because "it misled a century of architects into believing that they could really anticipate function". The idea is to aim for software that gets better over time. Or, more accurately, that is capable of getting better over time.