Avoiding Over-Engineering the US Navy Way

At the hospital, we (the web team) are often asked to create a web-based this or that, such as a form or some kind of app. In the majority of cases such requests represent a huge amount of over-engineering based on the user requirements of the form or tool and the amount of use it is likely to get.

For example, creating a web-based form involves a fair amount of work for the developer and a not inconsiderable development time as there things to include like emailing a copy to the person completing the form and making sure it prints properly. It usually takes several iterations to get right.

Ongoing maintenance has to be done by the developer, and typically, based on the priorities of the organization and therefore the team, falls far down the list of things to do. Hence the form becomes out of date and usage falls. ROI, already small, becomes negligable.

On the other hand, to post a link to a, say, form created in Word or a PDF takes virtually no development time as the customer has done all the work to create the form. It is equally as usable - maybe more so as it can be more easily saved and printed. Ongoing maintenance is virtually nil: if there's a change we just save the updated document over the old one. ROI becomes far more substantial.

.h2 Keep It Simple Stupid

Consequently, I am a strong believer in the maxim that just because you can do something does not necessarily mean that you should, and also that you should always strive to Keep It Simple Stupid (KISS).

This was brought home to me the other day when I was watching a show about a US aircraft carrier. They have a guy who is in overall charge of organizing the planes on the flight deck. He does this with wooden models on a plan of the ship which represent the planes on the flight deck.

What really struck me was how he indicated what was happening to a particular plane. For example, if a plane needed refuelling he placed a purple nut (as in nut and bolt) on the plane - purple is the color the navy uses to represent fuel. If the plane was being refueled, he turned the nut on its side on top of the plane.

If a plane was being lowered into the ship it had a black drawing pin on it, and if it was being raised up to the deck, it had a white pin on it. If the plane needed washing (wait for it) he placed a washer on it. He kept all his pins and nuts, etc in a plastic toolbox with a key to them written on the cover in case he forgot what any of them meant.

So, in this age of computers and high-tech gadgetry, here we have tens maybe hundreds of millions of dollars of aircraft being managed via a system of nuts, pins, washers and other small machine parts . This system has probably hardly changed in the last 50 years.

Talk about keeping it simple. Could this method be any less over-engineered? So, the next time someone queries my not fulfilling their needlessly complex web request, I will tell them how the US Navy manages planes on its aircraft carriers. After all, if it's good enough for the US Navy, it should probably be good enough for me.

Posted on: January 1, 2004 | No comments

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