Resilience Engineering #12: Party Time!

by Gary Monti on August 29, 2011

“Party responsibly.” Beer commercials come to mind when reading that phrase. Let’s nudge it a bit and maybe drop the alcohol to show practical application of FRAM, the Functional Resonance Accident Model, initially introduced in blog #7 of this series. Why? In complex situations FRAM helps explain what happens much better than any linear model. Also, it has some added benefits we’ll see in a minute.

Specifically, an example from my RE workshop will be addressed. It has to do with a child trying to get permission to go to a party. This permission is predicated on homework being completed adequately by 5 PM for parental review (see figure below).

What we have here is a FRAM diagram. The goal is to show the dynamics at play and how they can be mapped out for a given situation. Each hexagon is a function. The attributes for each function are:

  • I (Input). Raw material needed to execute the activity, e.g., actual math problems that must be performed for “do homework.”
  • O (Output). The measurable deliverable from the activity.
  • P (Preconditions). Environmental and contextual considerations needed for success to occur, e.g., “work in class,” is a precondition for “study” to be effective.
  • R (Resources). Classic project management resources, e.g., bringing “books/work home” so that study can be facilitated.
  • T (Time). This can be either classic duration, e.g., two effort hours, or calendar time, e.g., one evening.
  • C (Control). The parameters for setting acceptance criteria as well as process requirements that insure an adequate job is done, e.g., all math problems must be performed correctly.

The first thing you might say is, “Couldn’t this simply be done as a network diagram?” It could but a lot would be missing. Specifically:

  • Flexibility. The big plus of this approach over network diagramming is freedom from left-to-right-to-show-the-passage-of-time. It lays out the dynamic and allows for brainstorming in terms of being able to add function points without worrying about chronology. Once the dynamic is completely expressed then a traditional schedule can be made.
  • Heads-up Display. Notice how all the elements associated with a function are provided in one spot. This allows a faster, more intuitive approach to assessing a situation, e.g., there’s no changing of “views” to see important information. This having to flip back and forth can fragment one’s thinking potentially causing the overview to be lost.
  • Impact of Functional Resonance (variance). With this model one can see the effect that changing multiple variables can have on the process, which, in turn, can impact the project.

For example, take the function “Dad Reviews.” This can have variance (functional resonance). If Dad has had a long day at work, is tired, and would like to just sit for a while then “Dad’s Principles,” which is the control mechanism for the review, could resonate from when Dad had more energy and was thinking about how important preparing for college is.

Another example is bringing “books/work home.” There is a great deal of nuance with this function. It is a direct input and resource for “study” providing the material covered in class. It also is an input and resource for “do homework.” This is very rich information-wise. I helps explain the broad frustration parents feel when their child says, “I’m sorry I forgot my books (look of disgust)! It’s no big deal. I’ll call my friend for the problems.” It was trying to make something linear (and less significant) which actually is indicative of something larger in the entire process of learning.

Compounding effects can be illuminated. Look at the 5 PM deadline for submitting the work for Dad’s review. If class was cut so that “work in class” was nullified what impact could that have on making the 5 PM deadline. It could lower the probability of the homework being done on time so the failure to get to the party might have already been determined earlier in the day. Then again, combined with Dad being tired, the cutting class can be compounded and the child gets to leave and essentially “Party Irresponsibly.” See how this works?

FRAM gives a nice picture of the dynamics of a situation. It helps tell the story. In complex situations this is extremely critical because success and failure emerge from the dynamic interplay between the variables rather than residing in any one part.

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