Conservation of Process, or What Congress Could Learn from Software Engineering

8 05 2010

Every time there’s a disaster, politicians vow to ensure that it will never happen again so that our children will not have to experience our pain.  We have to look no further than the reaction in the United States and other countries to the financial fubar of 2008.  When law makers only look at regulations when they’re looking for a way to show that they’re doing something, the result is a fragmented regulatory system that accumulates new laws year by year without regard for how the entire bureaucracy works as a system.  Perhaps we should prevent our legislators from changing laws without a comprehensive review.  Even better, perhaps they should be required to hold comprehensive reviews of the entire regulatory scheme for major industries every few years.  The industries could be staggered so that every year we would be entering the review cycle for a different one.  I wouldn’t be surprised if this would yield simpler but more powerful regulations, not to mention more stable legislative cycles where total overhauls such as the recent health care and financial reform bills are less frequent.

I think the same ideas apply to engineering, and most software shops actually do a better job of managing their processes than does the US government.  If they’re large enough, they have a committee that periodically reviews the entire set of engineering guidelines and looks for ways to both improve process control and streamline the directives.  These two are often complimentary rather than mutually exclusive.

That is, a naive political approach to regulation assumes that if something goes wrong, the correct solution is to add some new rule.  Typically, this is something along the lines of “next time, don’t do that.”  After all, how intuitive is it that reducing the number of lines in your handbook would yield more process control?  But once the number of regulations reach a certain level of complexity, following them becomes like driving a car with a steering wheel for each tire.  Sure, if you were an octopus you’d have more control, but you’re not – so you’re dead.  Businesses understand this.  The rank and file are more likely to follow a simpler process, and the regulators are more likely to catch breaches.

Businesses also understand that every line in the manual costs something.  So why don’t they just eliminate all the lines not mandated by the government?  Because they also recognize the competitive advantage of quality control.  The result is that these periodic process reviews also produce cost / benefit reports.  They force us to ask questions about what we really want to get out of our regulations and if the costs are worth while.  By undertaking a comprehensive review, we also get to see the ancillary costs of process reform.  There are many ways in which a new line meant to patch a hole in one spot might interact with other processes in unexpected ways.  Are the costs imposed on those processes worth the overall benefits?  There’s also the other side of the coin:  Can a single regulation replace two regulations that we would never have thought were related without performing the comprehensive review?  Of course, implementing cross-concern regulation requires actually having centralized control over disparate oversight boards.  This is something the federal government frequently lacks.

I call this approach conservation of process, after the laws of conservation of matter and energy from thermodynamics.  The conservation laws propose that while you can transform among different forms of matter and energy and between matter and energy, you can never create any more than the sum total of matter and energy in the universe.  The law of conservation of process proposes a constant cost / benefit function ratio, scaled by the total financial output of an organization.  This forces that organization consider making room for new processes by either removing obsolete (or less beneficial) ones or by somehow streamlining them to achieve the same results with less effort.

All this is possible by employing data-driven management.  One of the hallmarks of a CMMI Level 5 engineering shop is continuous process improvement.  We collect data and use that data to improve processes and improve the techniques for data collection.  As we get better at collecting data, we gain more visibility into what’s going on in our organizations.  This opens up new domains of process efficiency.  The only thing that stops us from using such an approach everywhere is a failure to recognize the need for both quality control and efficiency.  It’s something that business learned a long time ago and I don’t think it’s a lesson that our own governing agencies can ignore for long without impacting the competitiveness of our country.




3 responses

8 05 2010
Conservation of Process, or What Congress Could Learn from … | Process Less

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