Don’t Waste Your Time with a Functional Spec

Recently I was called in as an independent third party in a dispute between a modeler and a stakeholder. The stakeholder said “I have significant experience in both my application and modeling and I know what I want, but I am not getting it.” The modeler said “I have been modeling for 30 years and I know exactly what the stakeholder needs, but he just won’t listen to me!

It was obvious that they weren’t communicating well, but not so obvious why two such highly experienced people were at such odds. So my first question was “What was written in the functional specification?” You might guess the answer … “What functional specification?

My second question was “Well then, what did the contract say?” The answer again was unfortunately along the lines of “I’ll give you $x to model this” (refer to a recent blog of mine on this topic).

So in hindsight it is pretty easy to see where the misunderstanding came from. They had not agreed on model scope, approach, animation, units of measure, or even basic modeling objectives! Of course that leaves lots of room for experienced professionals to interpret the problem in totally different fashions and end up with totally different approaches to the problem.

Many people think that doing a functional specification (FS) is a waste of time. But a FS is rarely extra work. Rather it is work that must be done at some point and if it is done early it can have tremendous positive impact on project success. A FS is almost never a waste of time — even if the project is cancelled as a result of the FS, it is better to have “wasted” a few hours on the FS, rather than to have wasted significantly more time on the project before enough was learned to cancel it.

So who was right? I don’t even need to discuss the technical merits. In my perspective it comes down to two things:

1) A modeler who embarks on a journey with little clue where he is heading (an FS) is setting himself up for failure. An experienced modeler should know better.
2) While it is certainly the responsibility of the modeler to attempt to educate and persuade a client of the best approach, ultimately the customer is the one who decides if the project is successful, not the modeler. So in the end, the customer is always right.

Happy Modeling!

Keep Simulation Projects Simple Too

We all have stories about company decisions that make us shake our head. If you have ever worked for a large organization, it may have seemed that some of their decisions were, shall we say, sub-optimal.

For example, one particular organization was using a “home grown” time reporting system that was simple, efficient, and worked well. However upper management felt the need to buy a more sophisticated “name brand” system. Unfortunately it was poorly designed and overly complicated. Rollout required extensive training and retraining to learn the simplest tasks. It was so difficult to use that many employees simply stopped using it in favor of informal arrangements with their managers (who also found it difficult to use). As a result, the company spent a lot of money and wasted a lot of employee time, and in the end they had a system that produced inferior results.

If this was an isolated case, it could be easily forgiven. But I expect most people working for large organizations could cite similar situations. Large organizations often tend to replace simplicity with complexity.

Last week in Keep Simulation Simple I talked about KIS; the Keep It Simple concept of doing just enough to do it well and no more!

I discussed how KIS could be applied to model building, but you can also extend the KIS principle to many other aspects of simulation, especially the tools you routinely use.

For time tracking, you can buy expensive highly integrated software systems like the organization above, or for desk- bound employees you can buy software that will sense or periodically ask and record what you are working on. But the cheaper, simpler and more effective solution is simply using a spreadsheet or paper form and having the employee take two minutes at the end of each day and record time against their tasks for that day. Sure there can sometimes be reason for other methods, but for the majority of us the spread sheet solution is superior.

For project management, choose the simplest tool that will meet your needs. Some projects are complex enough that they need project management software like Microsoft Project or something even better. But in many cases, such software results in a waste of time when a simple spreadsheet could meet your needs. In my experience project management software is often overkill for the types of projects we usually encounter.

In simulation software there is some inclination to buy the most comprehensive software that you can afford. But it is often better just to buy the simplest software that is likely to meet your short to intermediate-term needs. An important caution here – make sure that your software has an adequate upgrade path so that as your needs evolve you can migrate into more feature-rich software without losing your initial investment in software, training, and models.

Stay vigilant for time wasters – they often come disguised as “cool technology” and “time savers”.
Keep It Simple.

Dave Sturrock
VP Products – Simio LLC