I consult, write, and speak on running better technology businesses (tech firms and IT captives) and the things that make it possible: good governance behaviors (activist investing in IT), what matters most (results, not effort), how we organize (restructure from the technologically abstract to the business concrete), how we execute and manage (replacing industrial with professional), how we plan (debunking the myth of control), and how we pay the bills (capital-intensive financing and budgeting in an agile world). I am increasingly interested in robustness over optimization.

I work for ThoughtWorks, the global leader in software delivery and consulting.

Friday, February 28, 2014

Making is Part of Design

I had intended this month's blog to be about how industrialization would expand the secondary labor market and subsequently be a lost opportunity to create a new generation of knowledge workers rather than the next generation of wage laborers. While writing that, it occurred to me that industrialization appears to separate design from making, when in fact it does not, and that separation - real or otherwise - is essential to understanding the separation of labor into primary and secondary strata.

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[P]roducers sought to overcome the uncertainties of output and quality associated with domestic production; to serve the new markets created by expanding world trade and a growing population (certain privileged sectors of which had a rising standard of living); and most important of all, to take advantage of mechanical systems of production.
-- Gareth Morgan, Images of Organization

Prior to industrialization, demand for manufactured goods overwhelmed the capacity of guilds to produce them. This was due in no small part to the fact that in guilds, the process of engineering (designing things) and manufacture (making things) were intertwined. A watch wasn't just a piece of precision engineering, it was also a piece of precision manufacture that required a highly skilled person to make it. Production volume couldn't increase any faster than the rate at which tradespeople acquired the skills necessary to produce things.

Industrialization changed manufacturing by separating engineering from production. Product engineers concentrated on the design of a product - sketching, prototyping, tweaking, and refining - until they got the right combination of features, materials, and configuration that was useful, provided sufficient (but not excessive) durability and performance, and could be built economically. Once the designers had done this, they could turn their creations over to manufacturing operations to produce them at scale.

The separation of design from manufacture subtly disguises the fact that making is an essential part of the design process. Before we mass produce anything - whether a consumer product or an ad campaign - we build a prototype that has very much the same componentry of the finished product we expect to produce. We subject the prototype to a number of stresses & analyses to make sure it will work reliably and consistently in benign and challenging conditions. We also make sure that the design isn't so complex that manufacturing it will be prohibitively expensive. We use the feedback from these analyses to adjust our prototype, and we repeat the cycle until either we know what we are going to build and how we are going to build it or we scuttle the project entirely. We do this because no matter how smart we are at things like materials science, chemistry and physics, we are not omnipotent. We are investigating the what, why and how, and using what we learn to develop a useful product that provides economic value to the customer and profit to the producer. When we are developing complex products, we do not go from engineering drawings directly to mass production. We think, we prototype, and we tinker before we enter a phase of mass production. Design and architecture truly are emergent in most things we make.

People have tried to separate design from making in many different fields. Perhaps the most ambitious was the corporation itself. In the 1960s, firms like Singer, Litton Industries and TRW were presented by management theorists as the triumph of complex corporate strategy derived from analysis and modeling based on "a single comprehensive evaluation of all options in light of defined objectives". In his book Obliquity, economist John Kay contrasts this big up front corporate design to companies that "muddle through": those firms that follow a disciplined process of "...experiment and discovery. Successes and failures and the expansion of knowledge lead to reassessment of our objectives and goals and the actions that result." He points out that the strategies of Singer, Litton and TRW all fell apart rather quickly, whereas firms that muddle through by making "successive limited comparison" tend to be more robust and resilient. Design (in this case, strategy) largely emerges from the experience of lots of incremental changes. Success favors a bias for action over analysis.

There have long been attempts to industrialize software development. The thinking goes that we can separate the design of software from the construction of software. The design consists of business requirements and architecture documents that define the product, a simple proof-of-concept (incorrectly passed off as a prototype), and a detailed project plan that provides the instructions for production. But engineering and making are tightly coupled in software development. As we create code, we learn what users like, what scales, what is secure, what isn't reliable, what is too complicated, and so forth. All of this learning needs to be factored into our design. An industrial approach to software development denies the need for the kind of learning. Given the consistent history of disappointment and failure of large scale software development projects, that denial is very costly indeed.

Industrialization seems an unnatural fit for software, but that's probably what many in the watchmaker's guild thought at the dawn of the industrial age. Tolerances, components, and production tasks were standardized and made repeatable, and design was successfully separated from production. Yet it remains elusive in software: integration of software components is still a context-heavy and therefore very labor intensive activity, and development remains a creative process of problem solving and not a repetitive act.

Still, as I wrote last month, as long as demand for software developers outstrips their supply, there will continue to be a great deal of pressure to find ways to industrialize software development to achieve scalability. Next month we'll look at the ramifications of industrialization to people and society.