Innovation explorer – Bulgaria, February 2019

In Sofia I shared three stories that highlight the importance of the intentional arrangement of design elements. Here is a partial transcript of what said:

In April 2014 a congressional hearing began into the recall of 800,000 cars.

A faulty ignition switch had been used in the Chevy Cobalt and Pontiac G5.

A weak spring meant that applying just a small amount of pressure to the key in the ignition – like with the bump of a knee or even just the motion of a heavy keyring – could cause the ignition to turn off.

Now that is scary enough, but on their own ignition switch offs were classified as non-safety issues. I’m not sure how that classification works – if the ignition gets switched off unexpectedly that would freak me out – and customers too were understandably concerned and were filing complaints as early as 2004.

In both 2004 and 2005 Gm engineers twice considered the fault and potential fixes but at the time GM decided that the cost of the parts and tooling was too high.

They failed to connect the facts that the ignition switch off would also disable the air bag systems significantly increasing the dangers of the fault. It wasn’t until around 2013 that GM finally put the pieces together and finally understood the true nature and costs of the fault and turned their attention to fixing the situation.

Now the reasons for that delay might date back to the 1920s – when GM re-structured into what they called ‘de-centralised operations with co-ordinated control’ – what we might term silos. It worked back then – through the 1920s they enjoyed unparalleled growth . Even through the Great Depression. By the 194s they were making half of all the cars sold in the US – twice as many as Ford.

But by the 1980s and 90s, communication and agility were much moreimgportant than the command and control model that had worked unto that point. Divisions still maintained their own design and marketing.

There was mistrust between teams and individual teams had little cross-silo information flow.

GM acknowledges responsibility for 13 deaths as a result of hte ignition switch fault. But here were over 150 claims. At a technical level the fault lay in a simple interface failure – one part of a design connecting to another.

But as the official report records, “the engineers did not know how their own vehicle had been designed. GM did not have a process in place to make sure that someone looking at the whole issue could understand the impact that that one fault would have on the system as a whole and on the human in the middle of the design, the driver.

All organisations, large or small face the challenge of information flow and interfaces between mechanical elements, organisational elements, human elements in a designed system.

But those issues grow exponentially with more complexity. I think the most significant technological challenge lies in the connections between elements in designed systems.

In fact in any system – here’s a quick detour. How many people have ever been to a meeting?

OK. So the loneliest kind of meeting will see you sat on your own in a room. Assuming you’re empowered to make decisions, that might not be a terrible outcome. But most meetings have at least two people. Here we have signals that we need to get from one person to another – create some shared understanding so that we make decisions and share meaning. Put someone else in that meeting and you have an extra set of interactions and relationships to design and manage. And this grows exponentially with every additional person you put into a meeting.

The same is true for any form of interaction or system – complexity requires conscious attention and focus to exploit those economies of scale and technology.

I’m an information architect and I put conscious effort into creating intentional information architecture – designing the connections and contexts that surround designed elements and experiences. Too often in technological design we can concentrate on technology without understanding the human in the experience – so we create unintentional architecture – architecture that is the result of other design considerations and not conscious effort.

For General Motors, the organisational complexity and the technological complexity compromised their ability to keep drivers safe. For those designs, while the individual elements might have seemed sensible choices, when they were combined into an overall design the meaning falls apart…

Digital technologies have created a tsunami of information – information environments expand, overlap and interact with frightening complexity…


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