If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!

Has there ever been a better way to avoid work that reciting this bromide? It sounds like real common-sense homey wisdom, comes trippingly off the tongue, and raises the fear of all the things that could go wrong if we go turning over rocks and stirring things up.

Look how well it’s working for Southwest Airlines, after all.  Nobody died when the one plane came unstitched, and all the others were racking up revenue miles; what’s not to like?

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

7 thoughts on “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!”

  1. My personal philosophy starts with “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” However, it doesn’t end there. It goes on with two more points: “If you can’t fix it, don’t break it,” and finally “Just because it works doesn’t mean it ain’t broke.”

    And I’m sort of with Anderson here. This may change as more information comes out, but from what I’ve read so far, it’s not clear that Southwest really should have done anything better. Except in very specific hindsight that would have qualified as precognition before last Friday.

  2. Anderson: There’s a really well-thought-out (if not perfectly implemented) regime for inspecting aircraft. All the structural people in sight do extensive analysis (backed up with ongoing data) to ensure that any crack or other flaw would have to be developing for at least two inspection intervals before getting big enough to cause a failure. (Yeah, there are other criteria as well.) People have been watching cracks propagate around aircraft rivets for upwards of 60 years now, so the process is pretty well understood. Initial reports say the the whole area around the break contained pre-existing cracks. So either the inspection of hard-to-reach areas was not as thorough as the rules specify, or almost everything we know about metal fatigue in aircraft is wrong.

  3. Paul, I dunno, I’m not an expert (or a Southwest shill), but an easy Google hit yields this:

    In a media briefing Monday in Yuma, Ariz., where the damaged airplane made an emergency landing Friday, NTSB board member Robert Sumwalt said both Boeing and the FAA “have not believed that this particular lap joint on this model airplane was one that warranted attention on an aircraft with this amount of takeoffs and landings.”

    “It was not believed that this was an area that could fail, until we see it now,” Sumwalt said.

    So it doesn’t seem too surprising that no one checked the area in question. Maybe now planes will be subjected to periodic whole-fuselage tests with the electromagnetic tool mentioned at the link. But evidently that wasn’t anyone’s policy beforehand. I am happy to be shown otherwise, of course.

  4. Anderson: It’s unusual for NSTB people to say something so clear at such an early stage, but you’re right. The public statements, at least, suggest that something, uh, interesting, is happening. (It also suggests that, as has sometimes happened in the past, the FAA and the airlines have been taking a head-in-the-sand approach assuming that newly-discovered problems are as narrow as the data can be construed to permit. Which also makes the engineers’ and modelers’ job harder.)

  5. I believe in the adage of not fixing things that aren’t broken, but a fuselage with stress fractures IS broken.

Comments are closed.