Sunday, March 15, 2009

Getting Things Right by Avoiding Mistakes

I recently sold my copy of :

What Made Gertie Gallop? : Learning From Project Failures

by O. P. Kharbanda and Jeffrey K. Pinto

and wrote this review for Amazon when I did:

Useful and Readable, March 8, 2009

The projects reviewed here are old enough that they have been analyzed well enough for fairly complete understanding to be possible. The mega-scale of the projects makes them less than directly applicable for most readers, but their large scale makes for a completeness in their management, smaller projects frequently skimp on their formal management and are usually less well documented, that makes for a better analysis.

The techniques are well illustrated by the projects chosen and the writing does not get in the way of the analyses. This book is very clearly written, the individual project analyses can almost be read like short stories, but with the added benefit of being factual.

For those more interested more in a popular treatment of engineering failure than project management failure I recommend Henry Petroski's To Engineer Is Human: The Role of Failure in Successful Design. I mention this because when I bought this I thought this book was more on engineering failure than it was; a lucky mistake since it turned out to be more interesting and useful than I expected.

I think that reading about mistakes and errors is more useful to improving your own functioning than reading about positive techniques. As Marcus Ranum put it in "The Six Dumbest Ideas in Computer Security", "It is often easier to not do something dumb, than to do something smart."

The single best means of getting things right is to not do them wrong. Doing some reading in advance of starting a project is a good idea, but much more important is being careful while working - stopping when necessary to think things through or check reference works.

G Harry Stine in his The Hopeful Future wrote, "A self-taught person is usually deficient in one or more areas of his learning expertise."

Stine is a technocratic engineer, one of what Postrel calls a stasist in her book The Future and Its Enemies: The Growing Conflict Over Creativity, Enterprise, and Progress. Stine's book quoted above calls for planning the future, despite the inherent impossibility, and undesirability, of that task. Besides the general antagonism to his authoritarian, control-freak planning, I object to the quote above for more specific reasons. First, as phrased it is meaningless, what I think he meant is that a self-taught person may not be as "well-rounded" as he or some authority thinks they should be. Second, is why a self-taught person should care about someone else's judgement of them, unless that other is a potential employer, in first place. Third, if a self-taught person discovers he or she needs to know something that they missed earlier, they simply need to go find it out.

What Went Wrong?, Fourth Edition: Case Studies of Process Plant Disasters is a catalog of hundreds of things that have happened in chemical engineering plants. I own and have read an earlier edition not available from Amazon, but have examined this edition in a book store and it has even more case histories. Many of the case histories are widely applicable to many other situations.

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