We have seen the future, and it sucks.

Institutional Memory and Reverse Smuggling

29th December 2011

Read it.

I worked for several decades at a large petrochemical company. In the early 1980s, we designed and built a plant that refines some hydrocarbon type stuff into other hydrocarbon type stuff. Over the next thirty years, institutional memory of this plant faded to a dim recollection. Oh, it still operates, and still makes money for the firm. Day to day maintenance is performed, and the skilled local crew is familiar with the controls, valves, safety systems, and other such.

But the company has forgotten how it really works.

3 Responses to “Institutional Memory and Reverse Smuggling”

  1. Dennis Nagle Says:

    We run into this problem all the time in machine control, usually having to do with uncommented spaghetti code produced by a short-term contractor who was hired for a specific project and told, “Don’t worry about the documentation, we’ll follow up with that later. Just make it work.” But of course ‘later’ never comes, because we’re already hip-deep in the next project and no one can be spared–or so management thinks–to revisit what is already sold and in the field. After all, that’s last year’s problem.

    As long as the machine is running and producing good parts, nobody concerns themselves. It’s only when the customer comes back in a year or two and wants to adapt for a new process or a new part that the nightmares begin.

  2. RealRick Says:

    Corporations are no longer operated to produce a product. Yes, you make something to sell and you try to maximize the amount you make, but there is no “tomorrow” to worry about. Suck the life out of the plant (or entire business) and hope you can sell it for a profit. Eventually the assets get so outdated and so highly leveraged that the business becomes terminal.

    It’s not unusual to dig a hole and suddenly discover a pipe that has no documentation. Chemicals in it? Could be. There are a lot of companies that just won’t do construction on older parts of the plant for fear they’ll turn something up.

  3. Dennis Nagle Says:

    That hasn’t been my experience, RealRick. I can’t speak for other industries, but all of the machine manufacturers I’ve worked for have striven mightily to build a customer base for repeat business into the forseeable future.

    It has only been in the last decade or so–when drastic downsizing for survival was the order of the day–that documentation really suffered. The folks who designed the machines were let go, and temp programmers were hired ad hoc to get the product out. Now that the industry is rebounding (somewhat), management is trying to re-establish an orderly way of doing business with an eye to continuation. But we still have to work our way through the mess before we can get back on a firm footing.