Firefighting and other project dynamics

The tipping loop, a positive feedback that drives sequential or concurrent projects into permanent firefighting mode, is actually just one of a number of positive feedbacks that create project management traps. Here are some others:

  • Rework – the rework cycle is central to project dynamics. Rework arises when things aren’t done right the first time. When errors are discovered, tasks have to be reworked, and there’s no guarantee that they’ll be done right the second time either. This creates a reinforcing loop that bloats project tasks beyond what’s expected with perfect execution.
  • Brooks’ Law – adding resources to a late project makes it later. There are actually several feedback loops involved:
    • Rookie effects: new resources take time to get up to speed. Until they do, they eat up the time of senior staff, decreasing output. Also, they’re likely to be more error prone, creating more rework to be dealt with downstream.
    • Diseconomies of scale from communication overhead.
  • Burnout – under schedule pressure, it’s tempting to work harder and longer. That works briefly, but sustained overtime is likely to be counterproductive, due to decreases in productivity, turnover, and increases in error rates.
  • Congestion – in construction or assembly, a delay in early phases may not delay the arrival of materials from suppliers. Unused materials stack up, congesting the work site and slowing progress further.
  • Dilution – trying to overcome stalled phases by tackling too many tasks in parallel thins resources to the point that overhead consumes all available time, and progress grinds to a halt.
  • Hopelessness – death marches are no fun, and the mere fact that a project is going astray hurts morale, leading to decreased productivity and loss of resources as rats leave the sinking ship.

Any number of things can contribute to schedule pressure that triggers these traps. Often the trigger is external, such as late-breaking change orders or regulatory mandates. However, it can also arise internally through scope creep. As long as it appears that a project is on schedule (a supposition that’s likely to prove false in hindsight), it’s hard to resist additional feature requests and suppress gold-plating urges of developers.

Taylor & Ford integrate a number of these dynamics into a simple model of single-project tipping points. They generically characterize the “ripple effect” via a few parameters: one characterizes “the amount of impact that reworked portions of the project have on the total work required to complete the project” and another captures the effect of schedule pressure on generation of rework. They suggest a robust design approach that keeps projects out of trouble, by ensuring that the vicious cycles created by these loops do not become dominant.

Because projects are complicated nests of feedback, it’s not surprising that we manage them poorly. Cognitive biases and learned heuristics can exacerbate the effect of vicious cycles arising from the structure of the work itself. For example,

… many organizations reward and promote engineers based on their ability to save troubled projects. Consider, for example, one senior manager’s reflection on how developers in his organizations were rewarded:

Occasionally there is a superstar of an engineer or a manager that can take one of these late changes and run through the gauntlet of all the possible ways that it could screw up and make it a success. And then we make a hero out of that person. And everybody else who wants to be a hero says “Oh, that is what is valued around here.” It is not valued to do the routine work months in advance and do the testing and eliminate all the problems before they become problems. …

… allowing managers to “save” troubled projects, and therefore receive accolades and benefits, creates a situation in which, for those interested in advancement, there is little incentive to execute a project properly from start to finish. While allowing such heroics may help in the short run, the long run health of the development system is better served by not rewarding them.

Repenning, Gonçalves & Black (2001) CMR

… much of the complexity of concurrent development—and the implementation failures that plague many organizations—arises from interactions between the technical and behavioral dimensions. We use a dynamic project model that explicitly represents these interactions to investigate how a ‘‘Liar’s Club’’—concealing known rework requirements from managers and colleagues—can aggravate the ‘‘90% syndrome,’’ a common form of schedule failure, and disproportionately degrade schedule performance and project quality.

Sterman & Ford (2003) Concurrent Engineering

Once caught in a downward spiral, managers must make some attribution of cause. The psychology literature also contains ample evidence suggesting that managers are more likely to attribute the cause of low performance to the attitudes and dispositions of people working within the process rather than to the structure of the process itself …. Thus, as performance begins to decline due to the downward spiral of fire fighting, managers are not only unlikely to learn to manage the system better, they are also likely to blame participants in the process. To make matters even worse, the system provides little evidence to discredit this hypothesis. Once fire fighting starts, system performance continues to decline even if the workload returns to its initial level. Further, managers will observe engineers spending a decreasing fraction of their time on up-front activities like concept development, providing powerful evidence confirming the managers’ mistaken belief that engineers are to blame for the declining performance.

Finally, having blamed the cause of low performance on those who work within the process, what actions do managers then take? Two are likely. First, managers may be tempted to increase their control over the process via additional surveillance, more detailed reporting requirements, and increasingly bureaucratic procedures. Second, managers may increase the demands on the development process in the hope of forcing the staff to be more efficient. The insidious feature of these actions is that each amounts to increasing resource utilization and makes the system more prone to the downward spiral. Thus, if managers incorrectly attribute the cause of low performance, the actions they take both confirm their faulty attribution and make the situation worse rather than better. The end result of this dynamic is a management team that becomes increasingly frustrated with an engineering staff that they perceive as lazy, undisciplined, and unwilling to follow a pre-specified development process, and an engineering staff that becomes increasingly frustrated with managers that they feel do not understand the realities of the system and, consequently, set unachievable objectives.

Repenning (2001) JPIM

There’s a long history of the use of SD models to solve these problems, or to resolve conflicts over attribution after the fact.

Dynamics of firefighting

SDM has a new post about failure modes in DoD procurement. One of the key dynamics is firefighting:

For example, McNew was working on a radar system attached to the belly of airplanes so they could track enemy ground movements for targeting by both ground and air fighters. “The contractor took used 707s,” McNew explains, “tore them down to the skin and stringers, determined their structural soundness, fixed what needed fixing, and then replaced the old systems and attached the new radar system.” But when the plane got to the last test station, some structural problems still had not been fixed, meaning the systems that had been installed had to be ripped out to fix the problems, and then the systems had to be reinstalled. In order to get that last airplane out the door on time, firefighting became the order of the day. “We had most of the people in the plant working on that one plane while other planes up the line were falling farther and farther behind schedule.”

Says McNew, putting on his systems thinking hat, “You think you’re going to get a one-to-one ratio of effort-to-result but you don’t. There’s no linear correlation. The project you’re firefighting isn’t helped as much as you think it will be, and the other project falls farther behind as it’s operating with fewer resources. In other words, you’ve doubled the dysfunction.

This has been well-characterized by a bunch of modeling work at MIT’s SD group. It’s hard to find at the moment, because Sloan seems to have vandalized its own web site. Here’s a sampling of what I could lay my hands on:

From Laura Black & Nelson Repenning in the SDR, Why Firefighting Is Never Enough: Preserving High-Quality Product Development:

… we add to insights already developed in single-project models about insufficient resource allocation and the “firefighting” and last-minute rework that often result by asking why dysfunctional resource allocation persists from project to project. …. The main insight of the analysis is that under-allocating resources to the early phases of a given project in a multi-project environment can create a vicious cycle of increasing error rates, overworked engineers, and declining performance in all future projects. Policy analysis begins with those that were under consideration by the organization described in our data set. Those policies turn out to offer relatively low leverage in offsetting the problem. We then test a sequence of new policies, each designed to reveal a different feature of the system’s structure and conclude with a strategy that we believe can significantly offset the dysfunctional dynamics we discuss. ….

The key dynamic is what they term tilting – a positive feedback that arises from the interactions among early and late phase projects. When a late phase project is in trouble, allocating more resources to it is the natural response (put out the fire; part of the balancing late phase work completion loop). The perverse side effect is that, with finite resources, firefighting steals from early phase projects that are tomorrow’s late phase projects. That means that, down the road, those projects – starved for resources earlier in their life – will be in even more trouble, and steal more resources from the next generation of early phase projects. Thus the descent into permanent firefighting begins …


The positive feedback of tilting creates a trap that can snare incautious organizations. In the presence of such traps, well-intentioned policies can turn vicious.

… testing plays a paradoxical role in multi-project development environments. On the one hand, it is absolutely necessary to preserve the integrity of the final product. On the other hand, in an environment where resources are scarce, allocating additional resources to testing or to addressing the problems that testing identifies leaves fewer resources available to do the up-front work that prevents problems in the first place in subsequent projects. Thus, while a decision to increase the amount of testing can yield higher quality in the short run, it can also ignite a cycle of greater-than-expected resource requirements for projects in downstream phases, fewer resources allocated to early upstream phases, and increasingly delayed discovery of major problems.

In related work with a similar model, Repenning characterizes the tilting dynamic with a phase plot that nicely illustrates the point:


To read the phase plot, start at any point on the horizontal axis, read up to the solid black line and then over to the vertical axis. So, for example, suppose that, in a given model year, the organization manages to accomplish about 60 percent of its planned concept development work, what happens next year? Reading up and over suggests that, if it accomplishes 60 percent of the up-front work this year, the dynamics of the system are such that about 70 percent of the up-front work will get done next year. Determining what happens in a subsequent model year requires simply returning to the horizontal axis and repeating; accomplishing 70 percent this year leads to almost 95 percent being accomplished in the year that follows. Continuing this mode of analysis shows that, if the system starts at any point to the right of the solid black circle in the center of the diagram, over time the concept development completion fraction will continue to increase until it reaches 100%. Here, the positive loop works as a virtuous cycle: Each year a little more up front work is done, decreasing errors and, thereby, reducing the need for resources in the downstream phase. …

In contrast, however, consider another example. Imagine this time that the organization starts to the left of the solid black dot and accomplishes only 40 percent of its planned concept development activities. Now, reading up and over, shows that instead of completing more early phase work in the next year, the organization completes less—in this case only about 25 percent. In subsequent years, the completion fraction declines further, creating a vicious cycle of declining attention to upfront activities and increasing error rates in design work. In this case, the system converges to a mode in which concept development work is ignored in favor of fixing problems in the downstream project.

The phase plot thus reveals two important features of the system. First, note from the discussion above that anytime the plot crosses the forty-five degree line … the execution mode in question will repeat itself. Formally, at these points the system is said to be in equilibrium. Practically, equilibria represent the possible “steady states” in the system, the execution modes that, once reached, are self-sustaining. As the plot highlights, this system has three equilibria (highlighted by the solid black circles), two at the corners and one in the center of the diagram.

Second, also note that the equilibria do not have identical characteristics. The equilibria at the two corners are stable, meaning that small excursions will be counteracted. If, for example, the system starts in the desired execution mode … and is slightly perturbed, perhaps pushing the completion fraction down to 60%, then, as the example above highlights, over time the system will return to the point from which it started  …. Similarly, if the system starts at f(s)=0 and receives an external shock, perhaps moving it to a completion fraction of 40%, then it will also eventually return to its starting point. The arrows on the plot line highlight the “direction” or trajectory of the system in disequilibrium situations. In contrast to those at the corners, the equilibrium at the center of the diagram is unstable (the arrows head “away” from it), meaning small excursions are not counteracted. Instead, once the system leaves this equilibrium, it does not return and instead heads toward one of the two corners. …

Formally, the unstable equilibrium represents the boundary between two basins of attraction. …. This boundary, or tipping point, plays a critical role in determining the system’s behavior because it is the point at which the positive loop changes direction. If the system starts in the desirable execution mode and then is perturbed, if the shock is large enough to push the system over the tipping point, it does not return to its initial equilibrium and desired execution mode. Instead, the system follows a new downward trajectory and eventually becomes trapped in the fire fighting equilibrium.

You’ll have to read the papers to get the interesting prescriptions for improvement, plus some additional dynamics of manager perceptions that accentuate the trap.

Stay tuned for a part II on this topic.

Positively pathological

When I see oscillatory behavior, I instinctively think “delayed negative feedback.” Normally, that’s a good guess, but not always. Sometimes it’s a limit cycle or chaos, involving nonlinearity and a blend of positive and negative feedback, but today it’s something simpler, yet weirder.


Mohammad Mojtahedzadeh just sent me a classic model, replicated from Alan Graham’s thesis on Principles on the Relationship Between Structure and Behavior of Dynamic Systems. It’s a single positive feedback loop that doesn’t yield exponential growth, but oscillates.

What’s the trick? The loop is composed of pure integrations. The rate of change of each stock is the value of the previous stock in the loop multiplied by a constant. The pure integrations each add 90 degrees of phase lag (i.e. delay), so by the time a disturbance transits the loop, it arrives at its origin ready for a repeat performance.

The same thing occurs in a frictionless spring-mass system (think of an idealized hanging slinky), which oscillates because it is an undamped second order negative feedback loop. The states in the loop are position and momentum of the mass. Position is the integral of velocity, and momentum integrates the force that is a linear function of position. Each link is a pure integration (as long as there’s no friction, which adds a minor first-order negative loop).

So far so good, but the 4th order system is still a positive loop, so why doesn’t it grow? The trick is to initialize the system in such a way as to suppress the growth mode. To do that, we just have to initialize the system in a state that contains no component of the eigenvector corresponding with the growth mode, which is the positive real eigenvalue.

Continue reading “Positively pathological”

Oscillation from a purely positive loop

Replicated by Mohammad Mojtahedzadeh from Alan Graham’s thesis, or created anew with the same inspiration. He created these models in the course of his thesis work on structural analysis through pathway participation matrices.

Alan Graham, 1977. Principles on the Relationship Between Structure and Behavior of Dynamic Systems. MIT Thesis. Page 76+

These models are pure positive feedback loops that don’t exhibit exponential growth (under the right initial conditions). See my blog post for a discussion of the details.

These are generic models, and therefore don’t have units. All should run with Vensim PLE, except the generic gain matrix version which uses arrays and therefore requires an advanced version or the Model Reader.

The original 4th order model, replicated from Alan’s thesis: PurePosOscill4.vpm – note that this includes a .cin file with an alternate stable initialization.

My slightly modified version, permitting initialization with different gains at each level: PurePosOscill4alt.vpm

Loops of different orders: 3.vpm 6.vpm 8.vpm 12.vpm (I haven’t spent much time with these. It appears that the high-order versions transition to growth rather quickly – my guess is that this is an artifact of numerical precision, i.e. any tiny imprecision in the initialization introduces a bit of the growth eigenvector, which quickly swamps the oscillatory signal. It would be interesting to try these in double precision Vensim to see if I’m right.)

Stable initializations: 2stab.vpm 12stab.vpm

A generic version, representing a system as a generic gain matrix, so you can use it to explore any linear unforced variant: Generic.vpm

Gallatin County's Zoning Enforcement Trap

I’m playing a big role in a local effort to get the regulations of our zoning district enforced in the case of an egregious violation. Our planning and zoning commission’s habit, and apparent preference in this case, is not to enforce. Instead, it is proposed to enable the violation through a PUD amendment, and issue a trivial fine ($200, or 0.2% of the stated value of the structure).

Unfortunately, this proposal is illegal, because it contradicts existing covenants and a variety of goals and specific provisions of our General Plan and Zoning Regulation. This action might make sense if it were a naked political ploy to undermine the zoning through administrative rather than legislative means, which I hope is not the case. I think it is more likely an effort to “play nice” with violators and to avoid costly enforcement action.

If so, the resulting weak enforcement posture is a short-sighted avoidance of conflict, that encourages far more problems in the long run. As the diagram below illustrates, backing down on the case at hand solves the immediate problem, but has terrible consequences.

Enforcement Dynamics

  • The precedent for non-enforcement and amendments to legalize violations erodes the legal basis for future enforcement actions.
  • Accommodation creates an expectation of forgiveness, encouraging owners and builders to violate in the future.
  • Exceptions created to accommodate violations make planning documents and title histories more complex, creating more opportunities for errors.

These side effects of lax enforcement accumulate. As violations mount, time that could be spent on productive activity (ensuring a thorough permitting process, or revising zoning regulations to clarify standards and streamline processes) gets squeezed out by time wasted on enforcement.

These reinforcing feedbacks create a deadly trap, into which the unsuspecting can easily step. Once triggered, the vicious cycle creates more pressure to relax enforcement standards, capturing the county in an undesirable equilibrium with many violations and no meaningful enforcement. Ultimately, the citizens (who initiated the zoning district) suffer from the side effects of density granted to violators, that is unavailable to those who comply with the law.

Fortunately, with a little fortitude, the process can be reversed. A single forceful enforcement action has a salutary effect on expectations, stemming the tide of violations and freeing up time for the improvement of regulations. There’s still the hangover of side effects of past accommodation to contend with, but surely the withdrawal is better than the addiction to accommodation.

The Health Care Death Spiral

Paul Krugman documents an ongoing health care death spiral in California:

Here’s the story: About 800,000 people in California who buy insurance on the individual market — as opposed to getting it through their employers — are covered by Anthem Blue Cross, a WellPoint subsidiary. These are the people who were recently told to expect dramatic rate increases, in some cases as high as 39 percent.

Why the huge increase? It’s not profiteering, says WellPoint, which claims instead (without using the term) that it’s facing a classic insurance death spiral.

Bear in mind that private health insurance only works if insurers can sell policies to both sick and healthy customers. If too many healthy people decide that they’d rather take their chances and remain uninsured, the risk pool deteriorates, forcing insurers to raise premiums. This, in turn, leads more healthy people to drop coverage, worsening the risk pool even further, and so on.

A death spiral arises when a positive feedback loop runs as a vicious cycle. Another example is Andy Ford’s utility death spiral. The existence of the positive feedback leads to counter-intuitive policy prescriptions: Continue reading “The Health Care Death Spiral”

Maya fall to positive feedback

NASA has an interesting article on the fall of the Maya. NASA-sponsored authors used climate models to simulate the effects of deforestation on local conditions. The result: evidence for a positive feedback cycle of lower yields, requiring greater deforestation to increase cultivated area, causing drought and increased temperatures, further lowering yields.

Mayan vicious cycle


“They did it to themselves,” says veteran archeologist Tom Sever.

A major drought occurred about the time the Maya began to disappear. And at the time of their collapse, the Maya had cut down most of the trees across large swaths of the land to clear fields for growing corn to feed their burgeoning population. They also cut trees for firewood and for making building materials.

“They had to burn 20 trees to heat the limestone for making just 1 square meter of the lime plaster they used to build their tremendous temples, reservoirs, and monuments,” explains Sever.

“In some of the Maya city-states, mass graves have been found containing groups of skeletons with jade inlays in their teeth – something they reserved for Maya elites – perhaps in this case murdered aristocracy,” [Griffin] speculates.

No single factor brings a civilization to its knees, but the deforestation that helped bring on drought could easily have exacerbated other problems such as civil unrest, war, starvation and disease.

An SD Conference article by Tom Forest fills in some of the blanks on the other problems:

… this paper illustrates how humans can politically intensify resource shortages into universal disaster.

In the current model, the land sector has two variables. One is productivity, which is exhausted by people but regenerates over a period of time. The other… is Available Land. When population exceeds carrying capacity, warfare frequency and intensity increase enough to depopulate land. In the archaeological record this is reflected by the construction of walls around cities and the abandonment of farmlands outside the walls. Some land becomes unsafe to use because of conflict, which then reduces the carrying capacity and intensifies warfare. This is an archetypal death spiral. Land is eventually reoccupied, but more slowly than the abandonment. A population collapse eventually hastens the recovery of productivity, so after the brief but severe collapse growth resumes from a much lower level.

The key dynamic is that people do not account for the future impact of their numbers on productivity, and therefore production, when they have children. Nor does death by malnutrition and starvation have an immediate effect. This leads to an overshoot, as in the Limits to Growth, but the policy response is warfare proportionate to the shortfall, which takes more land out of production and worsens the shortfall.

Put another way, in the growth phase people are in a positive-sum game. There is more to go around, more wealth to share, and population increase is unhindered by policy or production. But once the limits are reached, people are in a zero-sum game, or even slightly negative-sum. Rather than share the pain, people turn on each other to increase their personal share of a shrinking pie at the expense of others. The unintended consequence-the fatal irony-is that by doing so, the pie shrinks much faster than it would otherwise. Apocalypse is the result.

Making climate endogenous in Forest’s model would add another positive feedback loop, deepening the trap for a civilization that crosses the line from resource abundance to scarcity and degradation.