The Simplicity of Complexity

During my 5 decades + of post-graduate experience in handling a wide variety of positions that have involved technical, functional, and mathematical challenges without any precedence, it seems that I have purposely sought out those unique engagements without any obvious solutions. I have done so based upon what I have proven to myself to be a truism: the more complex an engagement appears to be, the easier it is to resolve.   Although this concept is counterintuitive for most folks I expect, and not as true when dealing with leading-edge technologies, the fact is that too many professional types tend to over-think what needs to be done when it comes to threshold technologies. I am referring to those basic technologies that provide the data to support the processes that are required to manage one’s company’s operation in a truly cost-effective fashion. Unfortunately, it seems to me that the more that STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, & Mathematics) individuals are engaged with the subject at hand, the greater the risk that the solution will be over-thought … and therefore over-engineered … and therefore unnecessarily over-expensive as to both investment and maintenance. What is missing by the STEM professionals, in my opinion, are two primary principles of an MBA.


First, is the understated (and therefore underappreciated) principle in the application of statistics and realizing the rule of 80/20. That is, the variance in the coefficients of variables (if not the ability to identify all variables) that are required to make a mathematical / functional / technical analysis of (choose at topic) means that 100% of the objective is never achieved. Rather, one shoots for 80% of (chosen topic) which will require only 20% of the cost to purse an acceptable, achievable goal of (chosen topic).


The second principle of the MBA is to provide a Bottom line, Business perspective to what is being sought. This perspective suggests that STEM should be modified to be STEM-B. Below, I discuss Both the simplicity of complexity, the 80/20, as well as the Bottom line perspective. The distinction I am making here is the difference between STEM Technicians and STEM- B Technologists.


Complexity / Simplicity

As an example of the simplicity of complexity, I reflect on the early days of the U.S. space program. At one point, there was a significant effort on the part of space STEMs to develop a solution for astronauts to shave in a gravity-free environment so as to prevent the shaved whiskers from fouling the on-board electronic equipment. Several solutions would have been to use only Native Americans or female astronauts (assuming that smooth legs would not be a requirement). After significant research in vacuum-capture systems, the chosen solution at that time was to use a razor in concert with shaving cream that would capture the severed hair particles – how effective, how pragmatic.

In this vein relative to railroads, PTC is a prime example of how the technicians have clearly blown it. As addressed in earlier postings on this blog, these folks have totally over-engineered not only the functionality of PTC, e.g., the enforcement of intermittent signals (ISs), but also over-designed 2 of the 3 core technologies of PTC, i.e., communications and positioning (see posting on March 5, 2013 titled “The Goods, the Bads, & The Uglies” that can be found on the blog by selecting the category of “Strategic Core Infrastructure” on the home page). At least the third core technology of Information Processing was well thought out as to the use of 2of 3 processors to ensure the availability of the on-board PTC platform to avoid regulatory requirements to proceed at restricted speed should the PTC unit fail in route.

So! What is the simplicity of complexity? By this I mean that if one takes an 80/20 perspective of what can be accomplished by making good assumptions, then solutions can be realistically achieved.  For example, no railroad is 100% safe, even though the FRA fatuously states that there should be ZERO tolerance for unsafe railroad operations. The truth is that a railroad’s operation has 0% chance of being 0% unsafe unless it runs zero trains. That doesn’t make any sense, of course, and such expectations of absolute safety results in overbearing regulations such as the PTC mandate (thanks to a knee jerk reaction by Congress to the horrific MetroLink – UP accident in 2008) that is clearly not cost-effective for U.S. railroads. When I designed the first overlay PTC system in the U.S., and subsequently in Egypt (as discussed in the most recent postings on this blog), I made a 80/20 evaluation of what could be achieved with the technologies at hand relative to the operating environment of most railroads across the globe.  For example, it was clear that a vital system (that which generates the movement authorities for trains to advance) that integrated traffic control with enforcement, such as moving block, was not technically nor functionally achievable in a cost-effective fashion due to technologies, operating practices (including the handling of yard operations), given that the majority of train movements are unscheduled both within and between railroads (interchange). In the case of Egypt, the issues are even more complex given the use of “vital employees” that manually generate movement authorities. Hence, I designed Virtual CTC solution (VCTC) to address what could be done cost-effectively to prevent the majority of accidents in the U.S. as well as both the safety and efficiency of the Egyptian National Railways (ENR) and the majority of small and medium railroads across the globe. This process required making assumptions as to what was really needed for safety – an analysis that subsequently proved to be right on. Do these solutions meet the FRA expectations for ZERO tolerance? – Absolutely not – BUT, then again, nothing can. However, VCTC is very cost-effective … and exactly what the Egyptian Railways and many other railroads across the globe need to make their railroads financially viable while providing unprecedented safety not achievable with conventional operating systems.

Being 80/20 in one’s thinking means having the mental and institutional ability to be creative, To be mentally creative means having the ability, again, to make assumptions that eliminate that 20% of the problem that can’t be achieved in any reasonable fashion, and then design a solution, followed by a subsequent review of the assumptions made to be sure that nothing critical was left out.  As to institutional freedom, I am referring to the organization permitting its employees to pursue justifiable, cost-effective solutions that make financial sense. Unfortunately, it would be naïve to ignore the fact that most executive bonus programs are based on the near term, without a long-term strategic perspective, that may restrict such a process.  A case in point here is the lack of an industry-business perspective by the US freight railroads that could deliver interchange data for minimizing the effect on scheduled operations. That is, a railroad dependent upon interchange is constrained to running to schedule if the other railroad is not running to schedule, and visa versa. This is an industry issue. (Does any railroad have the evaluation of interchange efficiency in its executive bonus program?) Interestingly, it is the PTC mandate that is forcing the railroads to develop an interoperable, industry-wide wireless data infrastructure that can deliver such industry wide applications for the benefit of all. Without that mandate, it is my opinion that the technical solutions of individual railroads would have prevented such a strategic perspective. This point introduces the second issue of addressing the bottom line.


The Bottom Line

So, how did the technicians manage to ignore the bottom line with the over-engineering of PTC to meet the PTC mandate?  And, arguably more important, why is there no Industry Strategy on how an industry-wide wireless network, that will be delivered to meet the interoperability requirement of PTC, can benefit the railroads both individually and collectively (e.g., the ability to improve scheduled performance with the availability of timely interchange data of foreign trains …  or … How is that foreign locomotive in the lead of the train on my property performing?)

On June 6, 2011 I made a posting “Six Wireless Decisions Your Wireless Management Shouldn’t Make”  (which can be found on this blog by selecting the category of Strategic Railroading on the right side of the home page, going to the bottom of the postings that are provided and then clicking on Older Entries). This posting paraphrased an article in the November 2012 issue of the Harvard Business Review (HBR) titled “The Six IT Decisions Your IT People Shouldn’t Make”. Simply stated, the HBR article makes the point, and my wireless version parrots, that operations management fails “to recognize that adopting systems poses a business – not just a technological- challenge. Consequently, they (a company’s senior management) don’t take responsibility for the organizational and business process changes the systems requires.” The result of this lack of involvement is that the CIO (or CWP – Chief Wireless Person), with a technology perspective exclusively, is constraining the advancement of the company’s business processes, and most likely the return on IT (or wireless) investment and, more importantly, the company’s bottom line.

In that prior posting I suggested the following 6 decisions that the CWP shouldn’t make as to wireless in sync with HBR’s article as to CIOs and IT.

  1. How much should we spend on wireless?
  2. Which business processes should receive our wireless dollars?
  3. Which wireless capabilities need to be company-wide (and industry-wide)?
  4. How good do our wireless services really need to be?
  5. What security and privacy risks will we accept?
  6. Whom do we blame if a wireless initiative fails?

To add my personal touch here, I list below some questions that the senior railroad executives may want to ask their Engineering and Operations management.

  1. What are the plans to use the wireless data for our internal purposes?
  2. What is the strategy for the industry to use the forthcoming wireless data network?
  3. What accuracy do we really need for train positioning and speed?
  4. Does CAD provide the necessary traffic management tools to perform proactive traffic management?
  5. What can be done to improve the reliability of interchange to increase scheduled operations?
  6. Does Operations know the condition of the foreign locomotive in our trains?
  7. How do we measure the efficiency of the dispatchers?
  8. Is Service Design aligned with what can be done with timely train position and speed data as to developing an achievable train schedule?
  9. Why oh why are railroads enforcing ISs for PTC?

The closing point is that the rail industry needs technologists, in sync with technicians, that can deliver solutions based on the bottom line, both for individual railroads as for the industry.  The railroads are not on schedule here as well.

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Strategic Railroading™
Given recent tech advances there is now an unprecedented opportunity to advance railroad operations and the integration of high speed rail with freight. Real-time traffic management and communication is possible without significant development and deployment costs, but it will take a technology strategy working hand-in-hand with an operational strategy, it will take Strategic Railroading.™
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