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.

9 comments
Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

Soviets would have kept the high speed link for their aparatchiks, and give the foreigners the slow stuff. Whereas what happened here is someone realised they'd gifted someone with a better free service than the one they were trying to make money off. Faced with make paid for service better or cripple free service, they chose the low cost, maximise share holder value, cripple option... So come again?

peter
peter

Simon = I did my best to change all that during my time there, but culture and habit + vested interests could not be overcome. I suspect you have to start with a clean sheet and a new company/team to win. Peter

SimonHobson
SimonHobson

It's been BT's business model for as long as I've been involved in telecoms. ISDN ? Yes we've heard of it ! You actually want it ? Oh go on then, but just wait until we've figured out how to cripple it enough that you can't do away with our vastly overpriced leased lines. Yes, we paid around £6k/year for a 64k leased line between two sites. Most of the time we could have made do with ISDN D channel signalling and bring up a B channel as required (I gather it was commonplace in Germany and other forward thinking places). No, not available from BT - they daren't have let that one out of the bag as it would have trashed their leased line business. More recently, one of our customers at work has internet via a wireless service - put in as one of the earlier "get businesses connected" schemes where he pays for a "2M ADSL" but gets this business grade wireless. As it happens, he was the only customer on the particular segment at the base tower - and got near enough 4M symmetric for a few years. Last time I was there, he commented that it wasn't as fast, and yes, the ISP has now hard throttled him down to 2M. It's still better than the alternatives, but only just.

lehnerus2000
lehnerus2000

This reminds me of the scene in "The Adventures of Baron Munchausen" (1988) where Sting is taken away to be executed for "[i]... singlehandedly destroying ... six enemy cannon ...[/i]" The reason: "[i]This sort of behavior is demoralizing for the ordinary soldiers and citizens who are trying to lead normal, simple, unexceptional lives. I think things are difficult enough as it is without these emotional people rocking the boat. [/i]"

MyopicOne
MyopicOne

Two points: 1) In the throwaway society that is the US these days, I'd suggest simply making a new model every three-four years is better than making zillions of the same antiquated model. But it's true that we (the US, again) replaces rather than fixes in many cases. 2) When legislation designed to protect everyone turns out to be expensive enough that it becomes a measurable barrier to entry into business and/or markets, then the larger companies will dominate, crush (in business or politically), or buy up those brave souls who fight the now regimented, legislated system. Not hard to predict at all.

peter
peter

Simon = They do look a lot like the music industry of old don't they ! Peter

peter
peter

That sort of thing actually happened during WWI !!

peter
peter

Provided the product actually works well that is OK, but when it is second rate on day 1 you are in real trouble....

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