Sometimes it is the simplest things…

Yesterday I took some time out from work to help hang some new light fittings at home. Our local handyman/neighbour was doing the hard work as my wife has seen enough of my father’s DIY exploits to have put an embargo on me even looking sideways at power tools.

The estimated duration of the job was to be about 45 minutes to an hour to hang three fittings. The first two fittings went up in about 20 minutes. The final one, that took us about 4 hours (and as of this morning still isn’t finished. We hadn’t factored on the “creativity” of the electricians who installed the original wiring.

When we opened up the existing light fitting in the living room we were faced with a spaghetti junction of cables. When we wired them into the new light fitting, the light went on but the switch wasn’t controlling it. It seemed we’d wired the light into a loop going somewhere else. We were faced with 5 live wires which had been going into 4 connectors on a connector block. So we had to then test each of the possible live/neutral combinations in turn to find the ones that actually related to the switch (which necessitated our handyman/neighbour having to play with live 240 volt electricity, which is never a good idea).

When we traced the correct cable pair I did a very simple thing. I dug out my label maker and put a label on the cables that related to the lighting circuit in that room. It struck me that that 30 seconds of effort was something that the electrician who wired the house could have easily done when they were installing the cables, making life simpler for him (or her) and for anyone who came after.

We wired everything up and fitted it up for a quick test before finishing the job. I turned the power back on.

Then there was a loud bang and the power went out.

It turned out that there was a break in the live wire we’d just labelled (the important one for the task at hand) slightly further up the cable from where the label was which had pierced through the insulation and come into contact with the metal mounting plate for the light fitting.

As a result, the magic smoke had escaped from the circuit breaker and the light switch.

What had ensued for my neighbourhood handyman and I was instead frustration as  a task which should have taken a half hour stretching into nearly six hours (over 2 days) and additional expense (to the handyman) in replacing the blown components.

To put it another way, for the want of €0.15 of labelling on the part of the original vendor to identify the attributes of the various wires we found (such as “this one runs the lights”), I expended a full half-day of work and the handyman was unavailable for other jobs which would have paid him a lot more than the rate we’d struck for fitting the lights – and that was before the additional cost and complication of having to go to the electrical wholesalers this morning to buy replacement parts and fit them as well.

It struck me that this is a situation we encounter on a regular basis with the information assets of an organisation.

Very often the important data for a given process in a given area is not clearly identified. Management say “give us everything and we’ll figure it out” and call centre screens and web-forms are cluttered with a variety of information capture points.

A failure to understand (or label) the purpose of that information, where it comes from and where it goes to, and its critical path in the business can result in undesired outcomes as soon as anything starts to change in the business, business processes, or technology platform (such as replacing your front end systems with a new one, the nearest analogy I can think of for changing a light fitting).

This results in expended effort on scrap and rework trying to get the blasted thing to work right with the desired outcomes (such as throwing illumination on a problem), and quite often can result in a critical information path way being blown and needing replacement or an internal control process in the business stopping a process.

Of course, things can often be worse in the Information Quality space where the internal controls on quality may not function as efficiently as a circuit breaker and a light switch which have planned failure built in to them to isolate the end user from the dangers of domestic electricity supply. When controls like circuit breakers fail, the results can be… shocking.

Sometimes it is the simplest things that are important, such as knowing what wires relate to the circuit you are fitting a light into, or what items of information are actually critical to the success or failure of a process (both the immediate process and down stream -remember  there were 4 other live wires relating to other circuits that had to be dealt with as well) is a key contributor to the success or failure of any change effort.

What controls do you have to protect your business knowledge workers from the dangers of a high voltage low quality information? Are the mission critical data in your organisation clearly labelled?

5 thoughts on “Sometimes it is the simplest things…”

  1. Great post Daragh! I couldn’t agree more with your statement!

    Our team was asked to support the implementation of a CRM solution and one of the very first things we did was to ensure that for each and every piece of data there was a definition, clearly defined rules, identified stakeholders and business purpose (I’ll call this data definition for simplicity). This information was (and is) shared throughout the organization and is essential to ensure that data creators and users all understand the whole point behind it all. To this day, data definition is an essential part of each successive deployment. Unfortunately, not all system deployments follow the same process, so we have a long way to go!

    What amazes me is how often this kind of information is discussed (the original electrician probably chatted about the wiring with all his co-workers) but never written down. What a waste. I sometimes rant that the persons who behave this way (have information but don’t share it) are… dare I say it: ‘narrow minded’, because they don’t think about the big picture and how others may benefit.

    Thanks again for a thought provoking post!

  2. Excellent blog post Daragh,

    I have to admit that I was LMAO at “then there was a loud bang and the power went out.”

    I think “magic smoke” is also a great metaphor for DQ/IQ. If only it was that simple to make the shocking truth of poor information quality that obvious to the organization.

    Best Regards,


    1. @Jim I agree – people need to realise that “magic smoke” comes in two forms, one that is found inside of the technology and one that is generated by the friction caused by poor quality information in an organisation.

      @Jill I’ve fought that same good fight. Glad to hear that the organisation is more or less taking the “reasons why” to heart. In my experience, IT Technology people will tend to focus on the Database platform, and (if we’re lucky) the technical tools being used, and the Business tend to sup the koolaid a little too much about how easy this stuff is (sure, just buy another BI tool or CRM platform…) Inevitably people carry a tonne of information around in their heads about “how things really work”. The problem is that if you get 3 of them in a room, you’ll get 4 versions of how things work.

      Check out for another take on this theme.

  3. Nice tale Daragh,

    In a similar vein, I came across a situation where field staff were paid based on their productivity – if they didn’t hit a set job average, their pay was cut. So if their average was down, and they should have been recording data on the assets they were replacing, they would tend to save the data update and hope they could catch up on it at the end of the week. Inevitably, they never recovered the time and the data was ‘lost’ to the organisation.
    The cost to send someone out to site to collect the data was far higher than the incremental cost of spending another 5 minutes to record the data.

    Conflicting targets are never a good idea, but can be hard to spot in large complex organisations.


  4. Pingback: Tweets that mention Sometimes it is the simplest things… | The DOBlog --

Comments are closed.