Goldilocks Problems

Quote of the Day

Take calculated risks. That is quite different than being rash.

General George S. Patton

Figure 1: Goldilocks and the Three Bears.

Figure 1: Goldilocks and the Three Bears. (Source)

I have been working on a simple optical deployment problem that is all too common. A customer has put together an optical plant (fiber, connectors, splitters, etc) that does not have enough loss on it — the laser transmitter is so bright that it blinds the receiver. In other deployments, customers sometimes have too much loss in their optical plant and the laser light is too dim for the receiver to read the data reliably. I refer to this situation as a Goldilocks problem.

Engineers do not like Goldilocks problems — not too little, not too much,  only just right works. In meetings with customers on optical plant issues, I prefer to use baseball for my analogies. For example, when customers ask how they should set the optical video power for their customers, I tell them that ideally they want the optical power “right in the middle of the strike zone.”

In this particular case, the amount of communication required to solve this simple problem has been surprising. Our modern trouble tracking systems are impressive, but they do generate a flood of email. I count 46 emails involved in resolving this issue — back in the old days there would have been four emails:

  • report of trouble from the customer
  • request for power data
  • return of power data
  • email diagnosing the problem and proposing a solution (i.e. add an attenuator — equivalent of sunglasses for optical telecommunication systems)

I am a student of the history of engineering. I find the story of how people came to be builders of things endlessly fascinating. Engineering processes and their history are also interesting. I started my engineering career as an integrated circuit designer with a handheld calculator and a set of x-acto knives for cutting rubylith. The changes during my 34 year career have been breathtaking. I sometimes wonder what it would be like to build the pyramids using the same approach to engineering processes that we use today. Could you imagine telling someone that they have to remove and rework a 100 ton block because a dimension was slightly off? The Great Pyramid of Giza contains almost 600,000 blocks — did they actually have a bill of materials?  Did they have Engineering Change Orders? I am sure they had some system of engineering control, but I have never seen any discussion about it.

The more I think about it, the more impressed I am with what the pyramid builders did. How many emails would we need today to build a pyramid?

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