Monday, November 16, 2015

The Doctrine of Enough

photo by Koshy Koshy

In our previous blog we described how Don Margolies, a project manager from NASA, applied the 80/20 principle. Now we will describe how Don did not just apply this principle occasionally, but used it systematically through the “doctrine of enough.” This is how the British Philosopher of Management, Charles Handy, explains this doctrine and its impact on his own behavior: “‘Roses need pruning if they are to flower,’ a friend replied when I complained of being overstretched. With great reluctance, because I was enjoying the spread of my activities, although conscious that nothing much was coming out of them all, I resigned from seven different committees and groups on the same day.… It was my first introduction to the doctrine of ‘enough.’”1 
Following is one example where Don explains how he systematically adopted the “doctrine of enough”:   
What I set out to do was to establish a mutual agreement with everyone that “good enough” is good enough. Set your requirements and stick to those requirements. Once you meet the requirements, spend no additional money to make it better.2
Sufficiency and simplicity were strongly recommended by Norman Augustine (who later held the position of Chief Executive Officer and Chairman of Lockheed Martin) in his book, Augustine’s Laws. First, Augustine explains the serious cost implications of violating the “good enough” concept, followed by a metaphor that vividly illustrates how one can try to stick to the “good enough” concept: “The ‘best is the enemy of the good.’… The last 10 percent of performance generates one-third of the cost and two-thirds of the problems.… The secret, if there is one for controlling the costs which are added by the pursuit of peripheral, albeit impressive, capabilities is actually quite straightforward and can be seen in the workings of a sculpture creating a statue of a hippopotamus. How does one make a statue of a hippopotamus? Very easily; one obtains a large block of granite and chips away every piece that does not look like a hippopotamus.” In other words, your objective is achieved not when there is nothing more to add, but rather when there is nothing more to take away.3  
To clarify the critical impact of simplicity on reliability, Augustine offers the following example: “…A modern jetliner, for example, has about 4.5 million parts… If a system has one million single-string parts, each with reliability of 99.999 percent for performing some specified mission, the overall probability of the mission failing is over 60 percent.… Thomas Paine summed it up in the 1790s when he counseled, ‘The more simple anything is, the less liable it is to be disordered, and the easier repaired when disordered.’”4
The “doctrine of enough” has a second face, a paradoxical one. As Handy explains: “The point about enough is if you don’t know what ‘enough’ is, you don’t know what ‘more than enough’ is, so there is never enough.… Only if you can say what enough is… you are free to do anything else.”5 To paraphrase Handy’s point about knowing what “enough” is, one may use the following saying: “If everything is equally important, then nothing is important.”

1 C. Handy. 1998. The Hungry Spirit. New York, NY: Broadway Books, 106.

2 “Stopping at ‘Good Enough,’” Don Margolies, Goddard Space Flight Center NASA. 2005. In A. Laufer, T. Post, and E.J. Hoffman, Shared Voyage: Learning and Unlearning from Remarkable Projects, 32-3.  Washington, DC: The NASA History Series.

3 N. Augustine. 1986. Augustine’s Laws. New York, NY: Viking Penguin, 101-7. Dan Ward cites a similar concept from Eric Raymond’s book, “The Cathedral and The Bazaar”: “Perfection [in design] is achieved not when there is nothing more to add, but rather when there is nothing more to take away.” D. Ward. 2007. The Simplicity Cycle., 42.  In his book, Simplicity, de Bono argues that: “Complexity means distracted effort. Simplicity means focused effort…. Simple systems are easier to set up, easier to monitor, and easier to repair.” E. de Bono. 1998. Simplicity. London, UK: Penguin Books, 32-3.

4 N. Augustine. 1986. Augustine’s Laws. New York, NY: Viking Penguin, 121-25. Christopher Meyer who wrote a book on the implementation of Fast Cycle Time (FCT) strategy asserts that: “FCT competitors are fast not because they handle complexity better than their competitors, but because they consistently strive to eliminate complexity whenever possible.” C. Meyer. 1993. Fast Cycle Time. New York, NY: The Free Press, 8-9.

5 B. Ettorre. 1996. A conversation with Charles Handy: On the Future of Work and An End to the “Century of the Organization.”  Organizational Dynamics. Summer: 15-26.


  1. "Good enough" theory is against Taguchi's Loss Function. By being good enough ( conforming to USL or LSL ) , we make great loss to society.

    The author has taken a complex example (million single-string airline parts) to explain the effect of simplicity on reliability. Instead,the author could have taken just 3 parts in a system ( say a set of light bulbs )and how reliability of the whole system is reduced even if individual part's reliability is higher and the reliability of the whole system increases if the same components are connected in parallel.
    In situations where everything looks important, pair-wise comparison technique could be used to fish out the most and more important ones.

  2. Wonderful :) Through a series of great quotes, by well-respected people, you layer this idea onto the reader. I balk at the term "doctrine", but oddly I find it appropriate here. Thanks for another inspiring post.