What’s All This Brick Stuff, Anyhow?

July 13, 2012
From 1991, one of Bob Pease's lighter columns -- a double-barreled "fable" with a moral about project planning.

First published in the May 23, 1991 issue

This is an esaeP’s fable. Once upon a time, a very proper Bostonian lady decided to build a new home, so she hired an architect to design a new brick house. When he finished the design and showed it to her, she said, “That’s very nice. Now, how many bricks will it take?” The architect replied, “About 76,000 bricks, ma’am.” She said, “How many bricks, exactly?” He asked, “You really want to know exactly how many bricks?” she said, “That’s right. I want to buy exactly the right number of bricks.”

The architect realized that this was a reasonable request, so the next day he told the lady. “Exactly 75,885 bricks.” So she had the exact number of bricks delivered, and the masons and bricklayers worked for many days. Finally the last bricklayer set the last brick into place at the peak of the last part of the house. The bricklayer turned around and saw that one brick was left. So, he picked it up and threw it over his shoulder. Now if you were planning a project, you might want to plan carefully so that you had the right resources to finish the job. You might even plan to have some safety factor or margin, so that if some unforeseen problem caused delays of trouble, you would still be able to fulfill your obligations. For example, if a few bricks were broken, you wouldn’t want to have to go back to the brickyard and ask them to build some more bricks with the identical pattern, would you?

Some managers, though, write a schedule and if there are any unforeseen problems, they want the workers to invent bricks out of thin air, just to get the project back on schedule and back on budget. They claim they should not have to allow extra resources that might just be wasted. I mean, if they bought 75,886 bricks, the workers would just waste one or two, wouldn’t they? They might just take a brick and throw it over their shoulder.

By the way, have you ever tried laying bricks? I’ve done a little bricklaying, and while it looks like a simple “digital” procedure, it is not. It requires analog precision and judgment to get the bricks level and each course flat. Also, when you’re trying to fit an irregular space, you find that the broken pieces are pretty useful, as often you can find just the right length to fit in. If not, you have to break a brick into pieces until you get lucky and get the right size piece of brick. It’s an analog business.

Now here’s another esaeP’s fable. Sometime later, that same proper little old Bostonian lady decided to travel on the MTA to visit a friend. She started out on the subway with her little poodle sitting on her lap. At the next stop, a large churlish man got on and sat down beside her. He took out his Record-Amercan and spread it out full-width. Naturally, the newspaper flopped around in front of the little old lady’s face, and right across the ears of her poodle. Not very polite. After a short time, she nudged the newspaper. The man retaliated by nudging her poodle. He put out the newspaper again, encroaching on her space. She gave a flounce to the newspaper. He gave a shake to her poodle. She could not abide this, throwing the newspaper on the floor. He threw the poodle on the floor. She then took the newspaper and threw it out the window! He then took the poodle and threw it out the window!!

Of course, at this point, pandemonium ensued. She screamed, and somebody pulled the emergency cord, and the conductor came running up as the trolley screeched to a stop, and the lady tried to explain, “This terrible man, he threw my little dog right out this window.” And as the conductor and the lady and the terrible man all looked out the window, the little dog came trotting up the tracks. And what did he have in his mouth? The newspaper? No, the brick.

Now, this starts out with one absurd story, and it rambles along and crashes into a fragment of the first fable. What’s the moral of this story? I’m not sure. Maybe it’s that you can’t count on logical things happening all of the time. If your train of thought derails, what can get it back on the tracks? There are no easy answers to that one. But in the real world, you may find things happening that are worse than you expect. You may also find things working better than theory predicts, and you should be prepared to take advantage of them.

Remember, it was Branch Rickey who said, “Good luck is the residue of design.” Good luck doesn’t just happen to the lucky; it sometimes happens to those who are prepared to grasp it. Another aspect: Only a few years ago, we were reading about “The office of the future: The paperless office”—what a joke! Our offices generate more paper than ever (most of the computerized reports are never read). We now have a quasi-infinite thicket of computer files, floppy disks, floppy directories, and only the vaguest idea where to find that memo you sent out to an important client just a couple years ago. Are there new “file manager” programs that claim they can find anything in all of your files? Sure, and can I sell you a bridge? If you ask one of these file managers for a newspaper, will it give you a brick?

All for now. / Comments invited! / RAP / Robert A. Pease / Engineer

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