Let’s Manage Interactions

We are putting the finishing touches on a N-Squared Interaction Manager for our U.S. Government customer; it won’t be long until this new tool is blended into our Decision Driven® Solutions Framework.  I can write a lot about WHAT interactions (and their physical realization as interfaces) are, WHY the management of interactions is critical to complex systems and technology-driven products and HOW an N-Squared Diagram can effectively capture and communicate this knowledge.  But it makes more sense to start with a personal story of how I learned the value of managing interactions.

At the start of my career, I worked for a regional electric utility designing high-voltage substations.  I was a pretty quick learner, made some innovations in how we did things (e.g. developing reusable design patterns to accelerate projects) and was therefore given a “rising star” assignment well before I was equipped to be a special projects hero.

The assignment was to be the assistant construction manager on a major renovation project at our main service center.  We were remodeling some high-bay work areas into office space and adding a raised-floor computing center for our business mainframe.  The building had to remain occupied and fully functional during the remodeling.  It already contained our central dispatch center that controlled all of our generating plants and transmission grid.

I had no education in construction management other than some summer work as a concrete laborer at the wrong end of a shovel.  I had no formal training in building systems – either their design or operation.  The design work was all performed by a Boston A/E firm; I participated in only one design review.  I was essentially the go-fer for the construction manager, a grizzled veteran with large power plant design/build experience.  And he wasn’t there on my day of disgrace.

The finished office space surrounding the computing center required an extension to the building sprinkler system.  On the day the contractor first “charged” the system, i.e. filled the pipe extensions with water to test their operation, I learned the importance of managing interactions. The instant that water started flowing to fill the empty pipes, I heard the screech of the building-wide fire alarm.  700 workers headed for the parking lots.  The local fire department arrived.  There was nowhere to hide …

Manage Interactions graphic

It turns out there was an intentional interaction between positive flow in the sprinkler system piping and the building fire alarm system.  I had never dreamed that a fire alarm could be triggered by the flow of water; my naive assumption was that heat/smoke sensors sent an electrical “there’s a fire” signal directly to the fire alarm controller.

I wish I had been involved in the design of both systems.  If I had made firsthand design decisions concerning their technology and configuration, I might have avoided this learning experience.  I wish someone had shown me a schematic of both systems and highlighted their interface points.  I wish the contractor had pulled the alarm relays before working on the extension to the piping.  I really wish the construction manager had been there instead of me.

Good news – I didn’t cause a blackout across the Midwest. Good news – I kept my job and learned a valuable lesson about understanding and proactively managing the interactions between systems.

More to come …

About decisiondriven

Innovator in Decision Management, Systems Thinking and System Engineering methods and tools
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