"The difference between complexity and simplicity is understanding."
This is not all there is to our corporate philosophy but I can't think of a better way to describes how we approach technical problem solving. And the truth is that this is what people pay us to do at Qsine.
The point is that things that seem overwhelmingly perplex, become quite fundamental when a path from the problem to the solution can be completely mapped out logically in the mind. By taking the time to understand minute details and how they all inter-relate, we can somehow make revelations about seemingly complicated subjects that we really have no prior knowledge about. The satisfaction that comes at the moment in which one's mind connects the abstract concepts of thought to the physical world about which it is thinking is, I believe, called the joy of learning. Why this stimulates some of us emotionally is up to the psychologists to find out. Suffice it to say that some of us find this process exciting and fun. We are most commonly referred to as geeks and at Qsine... nobody minds.
Another point that the quote alludes to is the "Keep It Simple Stupid" approach. So often it is easy to make a complicated, clutter of solutions that solve one aspect of a problem or another each. Keep pasting on these solution modules until the whole problem is solved and you have one answer. To get to a more direct answer one must study the nature of the whole problem and then look at an efficient way of solving the problems, one and all.
I hate analogies because if you can't understand the problem, then reducing it so you can means you will always miss something but I want to use one here. If we think of solving a problem like playing a game of pool, we see that some people play one shot at a time. They leave the ball after a shot in a place where they cannot make their next shot. Good players leave the ball where they can not only make the next shot but also make the next shot and have a good leave again. Some people get good enough that they plan the whole game's execution in one try. The difference is understanding the shot and understanding the whole table. The KISS principal seems like a very basic idea but I believe it can only be executed by people who are capable of understanding the whole problem and not just certain aspects of it.
I would love to brag and say "Come to Qsine if you want somebody who can understand the whole problem and give you a great solution!" but I have been humbled by too many simple problems to try that approach. Realistically, our endeavor at Qsine is to practice and become the people that can understand the whole problem.
Is It Really Dedication When There is Nothing Else That I Would Rather Be Doing?
I don't know that I can really state dad's philosophy, or mine for that matter, in writing. However, the motivation that created Qsine and all the innovations coming out of it, stems to more than just a man seeking his fortunes. More times than I can remember, I have heard dad in a rage, ranting about so-and-so who can only focus on money. I don't know how many times we have talked about bureaucrats and policy laden companies and institutions with anger, laughter, disbelief and a thankfulness that it wasn't us. Nor can I recall how many times we have discussed technology and business in favor of recreation.
Some people tell us that they don't like to take their work home with them. We can't understand that. We take our work home and we take our home to our work. Some people tell us that we have chosen a lifestyle that suits our career or vise-versa but that is not it - not even close. Most of the time I would say that we don't even have careers. We just wake up in the morning and have things that we need to do. I think people that preach: "Don't take your work home" should stop hiding behind euphemisms, and say: "Don't let stress from work turn you into an ass around your family".
Dad started Qsine out of initiative to take responsibility for himself. By freedom of choice he ran it in such a way that it became a place where the challenges and triumphs reminded everyone involved that they were human. This has not been the most lucrative way to run a business but there are other rewards - namely it's the way he wanted to do it.
100% or You Fail
This is probably the hardest lesson I've had to learn and one that running Qsine has taught me over and over again. I grew up in the public school system and learned from a young age that 50% and you pass. In University it was even worse, make class average and you pass. With "the curve" that they claim they don't use, the highest mark could be 65% and a class average of 35% and somehow 70-80% of us passed the course.
So when I first started working for dad I thought "Man is he ever picky! How annoying!" But if I ever miss a dimension on a drawing or forget to Loc-tite a thread, somewhere down the road I'm re-doing it. My brother Jody worked with us for a while and I remember him making the observation: "How come I never have time to do it right but I always have the time to do it twice?". Since then, I have caught myself in his observations and now I try and avert those situations.
Every detail counts: lock washers, surface finish, chamfers on corners, bolt torque, accumulated tolerances, oops I need another port on the tank! If we could get the money back on how much these "little" errors cost us, maybe we would be rich!
When I think back to the schools, media, places I have worked and many other things and people that influenced my thinking as I was growing up, there were so many messages saying "Shoot for mediocrity most of your life kid, then shoot for 150% when it counts". Now that I'm too old and brittle to play hockey I often wonder: "Well when does it count?"
Qsine has taught me that it always counts. When a failure shuts a machine down, especially if it's in the bush, it doesn't matter if it's a $20,000 major component or a 5 cent screw that caused it. A failure that causes a shutdown is a failure just the same.
More than anything, dad has taught me to shoot for 100% all the time; "Even if you think you don't need to" he'd say. That's more idealistic than either of us actually are because we've both been know to say: "Ahh that good enough" and then been wrong! Consistency is a tough thing but we keep working on it. The point is, shoot for perfection, and then have the tenacity to achieve it. Don't shoot for mediocrity and then expect to make up for it by making a valiant effort at the impossible every once in while.
I've been criticized on this philosophy from the standpoint that shooting for perfection is not possible in practice. But anyone who has studied system reliability knows about the 5-nines (99.999%) for system success rate. Shooting for 5-nines is about the same as shooting for perfection and is required for many things. On the other hand, if you think 99.9% is acceptable, consider that 0.1% system failures in 2006 would have caused:
- 11,267 commercial airplanes to crash or not complete their flights successfully
- 1,050,000 ATM banking transactions to misplace money in Canada alone
- 30,985,000 barrels of crude oil to spill or not make delivery
- Google to lose about $10,493,000 in revenues due to missed mouse clicks
Avoiding the Temptation to Say: "Me too!"
Looking back at all the projects and products that have come through Qsine, we have probably never sold a one. Most days we think Qsine survives as a business in spite of us rather than because of us. In fact, most of the things that we have done, we classify as privileges, not sales. Someone was bold enough to have the faith to say: "I think you guys can do this" and then put their money up to show that they were not kidding. The fact the we have been able to find people to give us such chances seems to be very fortunate indeed. Earning these type of clients is another unexplainable endeavor. Maybe because we have always felt an aversion towards competitive marketplaces, we have seldom had to make pitches about how or why the things we do is better than what someone else does. For this we are forever grateful as there can be no difference between bragging and stating the facts in such a situation. Our clients have generally said: "Well if you can do that, then I'm sure you can do this!".
Stick to What You are Good at... or Not!
Looking back, there were many times we would discuss a new venture that we thought Qsine should pursue, only to have someone makes a funny face and says: "Stick to what you are good at." In the past, I backed off on those crazy ideas thinking older, more experienced people knew more than me... and the thinking seemed sound. Then one day I realized that in my not too distant past I was not good at anything. If I tried sticking to what I was good at then I would still be doing nothing. This is not to say that all the dreamy headed ideas I have had needed to be chased but I think that, somehow, we all have to find new things that we can be good at. And not cling to only the things that we already know.
In many ways we are simply opportunistic at Qsine. We don't have a core business to focus on. While this makes it hard to concentrate on some days, it makes it easy to undertake new opportunities on the days when they surprisingly arrive. Nowadays people call the more planned version of this re-engineering a company, we just say "Look there's one over there! Let's go get it!"