The Appearance of the “Last Responsible Moment”

Frederick W. Taylor

Frederick W. Taylor

Returning to the idea of “buttoned up.” Because of a series of seeming unrelated coincidences, I’ve become interested in the idea of the “Last Responsible Moment” (“LRM”), a decision-making process that is sure to not feel “buttoned up.”

I happened to see Karl Scotland retreating a tweet by Alistair Cockburn that Alistair had blogged about LRM and then, coincidentally, at least according to site stats, I had just noticed a series of searches on “Model T Ford” have brought people to my own blog. They were probably looking just looking for photos of the car more than to think about – and question – Frederic Taylor’s School of Scientific Management (a methodology that was Fountainhead of the Waterfall process).

The reason the searches lead to my blog was just that I used the image of the Model T in a piece called “We Look to Scientists to Settle Them,” that talks about Laurent Bossavit’s article on the fundamental flaw of our reliance on Scientists (or any expert) to settle many questions. Oil Companies are playing on this right now to a get us to have enough “reasonable doubt” so we don’t convict and prevent that rape of the environment they’d like to undertake with hydraulic fracturing. This is another coincidence that relates back, by the way, although it seems to digress.

The point is, Bossavit’s article presents an argument that scientists just aren’t as empirical as we’d like.  We’re not even as empirical as we’d like.   The Alistair Cockburn LRM post talks about the fact that our hopes and fears have a huge affect on our selection of the “Last Responsible Moment:” we might sleep better if we decide sooner. Cognitive Psychologists like Keith Stanovich, John A. Wagner, and John R. Hollenbeck have research (and here I resort to the expertocracy!) about the fact that, whether or not we are scientists, nearly none of our decisions and conclusions are really rational. We are more irrational than we even suspect. Dan Ariely (Duke) talks a lot about this as well in his book, relating this back to Economics; Economist Richard McKenzie (UC Irvine) wrote a book to disagree with him So I expect there are plenty of advocates both for and against the rationality of the human mind and resultant behavior. 🙂

To understand why we are so irrational, and to help figure out when the “Last Responsible Moment” appears, it might be useful to actually think about how the mind works. For my model, I’m going to walk out on the plank for a second, and pull in thinking (as I understand it, anyway) from a book called Khenjug, by Mipham Rinpoche, written some time in the 19th Century. Using what I understand from Khenjug, (and to appeal again to authority) I’m going to describe the anatomy of a thought as a series of inputs and outputs. Please note that Mipham Rinpoche does not describe the functioning of thought in quite this way; this is my filter coming into play here.

Here goes:

Phase 1: Input causing thought to arise

– External or internal occurrence
* if internal, then input is previous thought
* if external (five senses), then input is experience of phenomena through all or any of the 5 senses

Phase 2: Processing – takes a flash
– flash of a moment of pure experience, no characterization takes place
– mind begins to “makes sense” explicitly or subtly, depending on individual’s context and characteristics of phenomenon.
** immediate previous thought
** current emotional state based on above
** comparison to other known and archived patterns recorded through individual’s life experience
** any emotion associated with patterns manifests
** other contextual factors

Phase 3: Labeling
– All the factors above converge immeasurably fast and, unless I have a retrieval challenge (“What was that pattern… I kind of forget…”), a label appears in my mind that might even not be named aloud in my internal dialogue, but certainly will have a connotation, a sense, feeling of some sort, associated with it.

Phase 4: Next thought
– Unless you know how to meditate, there will be no attention paid to the gap between thoughts. Rather seamlessly, next thoughts will start to bubble forth without our being so conscious of the fact that we are thinking.

Squirrel by Gardner41 on Flickr

Squirrel by Gardner41 on Flickr

For example, while typing this blog on my iPad a squirrel starts to chirp, whistle and chuck (I’ve written this blog post over many different time points but as I write this, I am sitting outside on a porch in a condo complex on the Connecticut sound). At first I was only vaguely aware of this appearance, aware, somehow, a squirrel was scampering around the yard.  As at the moment I need an example to show how mind works with appearances, so I shift awareness from the iPad to my environment. First I thought of leaves (the words “happen to be ugly” come to mind which fast followed by “are you sure ‘ugly’ maybe somehow lovely ?”), then focus on the squirrel. In a flash wondered if the squirrel was directing these defensive-sounding noises at me.

In this example, it’s easy to see judgments fly into mind immediately. First in simply choosing the example itself. Then, when the example of something of minor relevance is selected, the lack of relevance (of the squirrel to typing an example for this blog) dissolves in the act of selecting it.

The point is, even just sitting on a porch by the Connecticut sound in sunny, Fall weather, mind floods with completely non-empirical and possibly one or two empirical thoughts.

Which brings me back to that executive this past Spring who mused with me about being “Buttoned Up” as it relates to Project Management. This started me on a train of thought about the team-directed world of Agile. As I concluded here, “just-in-time” does not feel “buttoned up.” To be truly “agile,” how “just-in-time” do we need to be? Is “just-in-time” the same as “the last responsible moment?” How comfortable do we have to be with discomfort?

Very little of this is empirical, you see. All colored by my prejudices about what “buttoned up” means, what patterns I’ve named “buttoned up” or “agile.” Or “project managed.” I may or may not share my recognition and naming of such patterns with others. If we share context, it is more likely that our patterns will match.

In the meantime, and finally, back to the “Last Responsible Moment.” I’ve been trying to root at the source of LRM, but haven’t dug deeply enough yet, I think. Seems both Kent Beck and Martin Fowler (both with roots in XP) mention it in their work somewhere, as well as Craig Larman (UML).

Lean Software Development: An Agile ToolkitMary and Tom Poppendieck talk a lot about LRM in their book, Lean Software Development: an Agile Toolkit, and it seems as a result LRM gets attributed to Lean. They do seem to discuss LRM more explicitly. In any case, on their site they say:

Last Responsible Moment
Learn as much as possible before making irreversible decisions. Don’t make decisions that will be expensive to change before their time – and don’t make them after their time!

But in their book they go much deeper, covering this as a complete set of practices under the umbrella of “Last Responsible Moment.” They warn us that this approach is not the same as procrastination, but in fact purposeful delaying is very difficult to do. They offer us these practices:

Share partially complete design information.

Organize for direct, worker-to-worker collaboration.

Develop a sense of how to absorb changes.

It’s pretty easy to pull LRM out of the context of a series of practices, much in the same way as it is easy for folks to pull the word “Agile” out of the context of the Agile Manifesto and start attributing all kinds of notions as being “Agile.” In other words, to assume a pattern because we hear a word.

The “Last Responsible Moment” might come back to awareness of self, team, immediate context and, maybe if we’re really clever, larger context; the full picture of our circumstances. And when do we really have that awareness? When do we “wake up” and know what to do based on our “common sense” of “this is what we must do right now?”

“Common Sense” may be neither common nor sensible, depending on your immediate and even cultural context. An extreme example, but it may be “common sense” in Papua New Guinea, for instance, where meat might be rare, to eat a neighbor you just killed for practicing black magic on your family. It’s *meat.*

Or, closer to home, it may seem to make sense to send all the jobs your company offers overseas because your high costs are labor. It’s *money.* It might seem to make sense to drill horizontally and pump millions of gallons of toxic water into the deep earth – and pump it back out again – because, well, *it’s gas.*

How often do we make decisions because we think we “need to do that,” need to take a course of action because we’re “just trying to survive” or get ahead? In fact, the idea we’ll “sleep better” making a decision now, versus collecting more information, shows exactly how we are just not that empirical. (And of course cognitive scientists have shown this, anyway, in research as I mentioned.)

The trouble is the Law of Unintended Consequences comes into play and we might find our good deeds going all too well rewarded. Suddenly, maybe, there won’t be anyone left in our own country with jobs and money to buy the products we fervently invested in factories overseas to produce. Suddenly we might find that, no, we can’t not spill millions and millions of gallons of spoiled water so now water becomes as scarce a resource as gas.

In a great blog post Rebecca Wirfs-Brock writes that she’d rather make decisions at the “Most Responsible Moment.” Of course, even then we’re still stuck having to fine tune our awareness so we can have an idea of when that might be.

LRM or MRM might work if you have developed excellent awareness. But if you don’t, better decide now but be open to responding to change.


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