Juha-Matti Santala
Community Builder. Dreamer. Adventurer.

Inflexible systems grind my gears

I’m a techno-optimist. I believe devices and software can make many parts of our lives much better and more enjoyable. But I’m no fool and think that bringing a computer or software into everything would automatically make things better.

Inflexible systems really grind my gears. For me, an inflexible system is any system where the used tools (”the system”) make other things harder or practically impossible. I’m always disappointed if something cannot be done because the computer says no. In those cases, we’ve become subordinates to our systems rather than having systems that help us.

Restaurant booking system

An old story from over a decade ago which is one of my favourite stories is from Sweden, as documented by Richard Gatarski in Jävla Skitsystem.

In this story, Richard and his friends visited a restaurant where Richard noticed the headwaiter using a marker to write on the screen of a computer system when they arrived.

”That’s very interesting,” Richard asked the headwaiter. ”How come you do that?”

”Well, you know,” the headwaiter answered with a big sigh. ”The guys that create these kinds of systems … they have …. Well, you can’t do things the way you wanna do them. You can check off a reservation in the system, with the mouse, but hey, it’s at least four clicks away from this screen. And you can’t tell if the guests have been showed to their table or are waiting in the bar. So it’s much easier just to draw on the screen. (And when the evening is over you just wipe the screen with a cloth.) We’re very busy here, and this works just fine.”

This is an example of an inflexible system for which the users came up with a workaround. Not the best result but at least they managed to work with the system.

Apostrophes and geographical databases

More recently, I ran into a story from North Yorkshire, England where the council decided to remove apostrophes from street names because they caused problems with the computer system. The response by locals was very British:

Residents spoken to by the BBC urged the authority to retain apostrophes or risk "everything going downhill".

While I’m not sure if everything would go downhill by removing apostrophes, this is a sad example of a computer system’s restrictions (I’d even consider this as a bug) lead to the actual thing being stored in the system needing to change rather than the other way around.

Over-dependency of systems

In more “human sized” operations, there’s usually a way to overcome the problems caused by inflexible systems. A small independent bed and breakfast with an entrepreneur who understands business will likely do everything they can to serve their (potential) customers even if their booking system goes down or doesn’t have a way to manage a very specific booking.

But as the organisations and business grow, their systems grow too. Then we run into a situation where the person at the reception does not have power to make decisions, no exceptions can be made outside the inflexible system because that would cause “everything go downhill” (to quote the fine folk at North Yorkshire).

A situation where two people know that things in real life could be done but are both at the mercy of a system they cannot control and have to eventually not do the thing, is nothing sort of a tragedy.


Sara Jakša wrote a reply to the post, adding even more examples of these kinds issues.

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