Networking

Soviet-era thinking clanks back into life in Western tech

Those who believe encouraging mediocrity in industry died along with USSR tractor factories should think again - you don't have to look far from home to find modern-day examples in the West.

Written on a flight from Abu Dhabi to London and despatched to Tech Republic at 3.5Mbps via 3G on the drive home from the airport.

At the height of the Soviet era, the USSR's approach to industrial design and manufacture differed fundamentally from the West's. The state ran a centrally planned quota system and set targets. But it functioned poorly and resulted in shortages of everything from food to industrial machinery.

The old Soviet mindset is perhaps best exemplified in tractor production. The USSR needed tractors, lots of tractors, but they didn't adopt a model of continual inspection, trials, testing and enhancement. Consequently, designs barely changed, progress was imperceptible and maintenance and repair bills per unit shipped continue to mount.

In the West an unreliable product gets fixed quickly or the producer rapidly goes out of business as a producer. Continual improvement and quality is the credo. But that was not the case in the old USSR, which adopted a stunningly simple solution: build more tractors to replace the ones that failed.

Reversal of the old Soviet-Western mindsets

We wouldn't do anything like that in the West, would we? Well, I have just come across a stunning example of exactly that phenomenon in a reversal of the old Soviet-Western mindsets.

In a European country, in a city and a coffee shop I choose not to name, I have enjoyed an open wi-fi connection of 20Mbps or more for some time. But I have noticed that the incumbent carrier had its own paid-for wi-fi service also available accessible at the coffee shop.

Out of curiosity, I tried this paid-for service using my roaming account but only managed to get speeds of between 1.5Mbps and 2Mbps.

Now this poor performance seemed strange because both hubs were the same distance from the switch and both services were provided by the same carrier. I could not imagine why this situation obtained unless the incumbent has decided to limit the bandwidth for some reason.

Anyway, I have always opted for the coffee-shop service because it is free and fast, and all has been well until my last visit. Suddenly, I found the coffee shop only delivers a maximum of 2Mbps max. So where has the other 18Mbps gone?

I talked to the owner and she mumbled something about being supplied with more bandwidth than she had been contractually promised and the incumbent bringing her coffee shop into line with the rest of the area in terms of bit rate and service level.

Punishing high-performers

I know some of the EU is seen as Left-leaning but this set of circumstance is far worse than the Soviet-era tractor-supply philosophy. Who was it that came to the conclusion that knee-capping a high-performer was the solution to poor performance elsewhere? I'd like to meet them. They need educating.

Now I would find all this amusing if this case appeared to be a one-off incident or indeed confined to this particular telecoms provider and network supplier. However, there seems to be growing incidences of the same thinking in healthcare, education and public services, as well as some parts of industry, across the West.

Killing the exceptional and good performers because they make the rest look really bad is not the way to go. It is the start of a negative spiral toward mediocrity, and God help us if this mentality permeates the IT and high-tech industries - because it would lead to a total collapse.

We need to strive for Six Sigma quality. We need people who fix problems and not those who hide them. Perhaps more fundamentally we need systems that identify and reward the performers and penalise the hiders.

With economies on a knife edge, this no-fix behaviour is exactly what is not required.

About

Peter Cochrane is an engineer, scientist, entrepreneur, futurist and consultant. He is the former CTO and head of research at BT, with a career in telecoms and IT spanning more than 40 years.

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