Wednesday, February 28, 2007

March 5, 2007


Okay, you've run your program debugger repetitively and everything checks out fine. But for some unknown reason, the whole system is inoperable. Both the software and data base design looks fine, but you are going stark-raving mad trying to locate the problem. Have you considered that it might not be a flaw in the design of the software or data base at all? That perhaps the problem resides in the overall system architecture, or possibly its just you?

In many cases, diagnosing a problem is more painful than correcting it. Whereas I have reviewed basic testing principles in the past (see; No. 41 - "Testing 1, 2, 3..." - Sept 12, 2005), here, I want to discuss some tips for diagnosing problems.


1. Walk through the system and check the man/machine interfaces.

Years ago, we were contracted by a large manufacturing company in the northeast who was having trouble implementing their new shop-floor control system. The system was state-of-the-art in terms of programming and DBMS technology. But they simply couldn't get it to work no matter what they tried. Frustrated, the company hired us to see if we could find the problem. Instead of studying source code, as the development staff had done, we began by mapping the overall system architecture.

I've described the "PRIDE" Standard System Structure Concept on more than one occasion, but in a nutshell, a system can be drawn as a four-tiered hierarchy representing a product structure. Whereas a product structure consists of four levels representing products, assemblies, subassemblies, and operations, "PRIDE" likewise decomposes the system into:

LEVEL 2 - SUB-SYSTEM (Business Processes)
LEVEL 3 - PROCEDURES (Administrative and Computer)
LEVEL 4 - OPERATIONAL STEPS (for Administrative Procedures) and PROGRAMS (for Computer Procedures)

This universally applicable approach for defining the system architecture makes a convenient road map for walking through all aspects of the system and validating its integrity. Such hierarchy diagrams can either be produced from IRM Repositories or from some simple graphic tools. In our consulting assignment though, we simply sketched it out using paper and pencil. Basically, we walked through the system, sampled work and looked for man/machine interfaces. Inevitably, we came upon a sub-system whereby the computer displayed errors in the shop-floor requiring attention by the foreman. The foreman was to take the corrective action and respond to the computer. There was only one problem with this: nobody had told the foreman about any of this. We then wrote a simple Administrative Procedure for the foreman who took the necessary actions and the system operated correctly thereafter ("miraculously" as our client said).

This brings up an important point: systems will fail more for the lack of administrative procedures than for well programmed computer procedures. Although the manufacturing company had produced some rather elegant software, they had completely overlooked the man/machine interface. Again, the "PRIDE" Standard System Structure Concept had provided the necessary road map, but because the client didn't appreciate the need for such a top-down blueprinting technique, they had no idea where everything was.

2. Work backwards.

When diagnosing business processes, procedures and programs, there is a natural inclination to go from start to end in diagnosing a problem. Sometimes you can find a hiccup using this approach, other times you cannot. Instead, try working backwards from end to start, from output to input. Again, map the design using a flowchart or some other graphical technique. If processing involves considerable decisions, draw a decision tree or table. Such graphics are invaluable for validating design logic.

3. Have a second pair of eyes look over your work.

As we become imbued in the mechanics of a design, too often the obvious becomes less obvious to us. Here, another set of eyes can readily see a problem we have overlooked. This is particularly beneficial in shops operating in accordance with certain design standards. Uniform design practices makes it easier to spot anomalies than without such standards.

Where the second person comes from is also important. If the person comes from your work group and is familiar with your style of design, he/she may very well be able to spot a problem. Then again, maybe not. Perhaps the problem will be invisible to them as well. In this case, you might want to consult a neutral third person with a fresh perspective on the problem. This can either be a person from within the company or possibly an outside consultant.


Graphic aids, such as flowcharts and diagrams, are helpful for diagnosing a problem but also remember to challenge the graphic. Its not uncommon for graphics not to match what is happening in fact. A good IRM Repository is also invaluable for substantiating designs. The design is either properly recorded in the IRM Repository or it is not. Further, such a tool provides the means to study the relationship of information resources (aka "impact analysis") which may reveal unknown components affecting a design.

More importantly, the idea of maintaining a system architecture (as implemented by the "PRIDE" Standard System Structure Concept) provides the needed road map to find your way through a system regardless of its complexity. Many programmers view such charts as frivolous primarily because they are only concerned with their small piece of the puzzle and are unconcerned about the total picture. But for those of you who need to see the total picture, the system architecture is the logical first step for diagnosing problems.

For more information on the "PRIDE" Standard System Structure Concept, see:

OUR BRYCE'S LAW OF THE WEEK therefore is... "Without a road map, you might be driving in circles."


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I recently bought a new car and took it on a trip with my wife. During this time, an Arctic blast of cold air pushed down from Canada and, naturally, we wanted to turn on the heat. Our car is probably no different than most cars today in that we have the latest computerized weather controls to suit the individual needs of both the driver and the passenger. But while driving on the Interstate, I had a heck of a time trying to figure out how to turn on the heat. After awhile we finally figured it out but I thought back to an old 1964 Plymouth Valiant we had years ago which had a simple bar on the heater which you could push from hot to cold and it worked quite well. No, it didn't accommodate the needs of the individual passengers, but it did a remarkably good job maintaining the temperature in the car. Frankly, I wish we had something like it again.

This got me thinking about how we like to make life more complicated than it really needs to be. A cell phone is a good example of this. In addition to placing and receiving phone calls, you can now send and receive text messages, e-mails, take photos, listen to your favorite podcast (mine I hope), watch videos, and generally surf the Net. Pretty sophisticated right? Well, maybe. I would wager you that the majority of people out there with cell phones only use a fraction of the services provided. Why? Because they appear to be way too complicated to use.

Not long ago, my wife had to switch cell phones. To do so, it was necessary to move the chip out of the old phone and put it into the new phone. Despite the instructions, which claimed this was a simple procedure to perform, we had a devil of a time getting the chip out of the device. My 19 year old son happened to come home just as we were about to give up and just popped it out in no time at all.

This brings up a point, the sophistication of our technology is primarily aimed at our youth, not for those of us in our middle age or older. As an example, I remember comedian Jay Leno tell the story of when he bought his father a remote control for his television set. He came back to visit his father about a month later, but couldn't find the remote. His father said he kept it in a drawer so that it wouldn't accidentally "go off" and start a fire. Jay said, "Dad, this isn't a phaser; you don't have to lock it up."

I question why we are making things so complicated, be it a cell phone, a remote control, a television, a camera, or whatever. Heck, I even heard of a refrigerator that is now Internet enabled. These advanced features may be nice but they are worthless if nobody knows how to use them. Just remember, most of these devices are designed by computer programmers who live in a world of technical complexity and haven't a clue how to make something "user friendly." If you want to blame someone for the needless complexity in our lives, blame the programmers. Better yet, blame guys like Bill Gates who foster a culture of complexity.

One last note, I remember years ago Bill Cosby talked about an old Philco radio he used to listen to as a kid. He said there were 52 knobs on the radio, but only two actually worked: the on/off volume switch and the station selector. The other knobs were replacements in case you lost the other two knobs. So much for complexity.

Such is my Pet Peeve of the Week.


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I received an e-mail from Judy Thurman in New Jersey who wrote me regarding last week's essay, "Our Growing Dependency of Mass Mediocrity."

Judy writes:

"Gee, you're awfully hard on Microsoft. Are their products really that bad?"

Thanks Judy for your note,

I guess its all in the eye of the beholder. But consider this, if Microsoft products were really that great, why would people even entertain the idea of using things like the Linux operating system or the Mac? In fact, usage of these products are on the upswing even though Microsoft commands the lion's share of the business. Why? Because people are becoming frustrated and disgruntled with MS products. The educated consumer wants reliablitiy, performance, and ease of use; the uneducated consumer doesn't care and behaves like lemmings. And when you think about it, can you really blame Microsoft who is a master of manipulating mindshare (or is it brainwashing?).

Again, thanks for your e-mail. Keep those cards and letters coming.

MBA is an international management consulting firm specializing in Information Resource Management. We offer training, consulting, and writing services in the areas of Enterprise Engineering, Systems Engineering, Data Base Engineering, Project Management, Methodologies and Repositories. For information, call us at 727/786-4567. For a complete listing of my essays, see the "PRIDE" Special Subject Bulletins section of our corporate web site.

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This is Tim Bryce reporting.

Since 1971: "Software for the finest computer - the Mind."


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