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Entries in Black Box (1)


Management of a Black Box

Engineers often look at the concept of a Black Box as being when you know the inputs & outputs, and not the inner workings.  Electrical components can be looked at as Black Boxes.

By contrast, a White Box is used to describe when the inner workings are known.

I’ve worked in environments where the concept of a black box can be brought to bear.  For example, if a data center is located in an evacuated building (think fire alarm or unknown white powder) you need to manage not overtly knowing the contents of what’s inside, i.e.  if the systems are responding, then they must have power.

A fire alarm evacuation of a data center often results in a fire department response.  If no smoke was smelled in advance (human smell is better than a smoke detector) and the servers are still responding…you can deduce there is no fire (the fire department would shut the power off in a real fire.)  You’ll probably be back in the space in 30 minutes.

In this context, knowing the inside workings of the black box are not needed for successful use.  When is this not the case?

When in eighth grade, we did an experiment using a black cardboard box and wood skewers to determine contents (see photo).  In this case, the skewers were used to prod the inside of the black box, with the intent of discovering the contents.  This was analogous to using particle acceleration and gauging the results.

When applied to business, some departments operate as black boxes.  When you are using a black box as a service, all you need to know are the inputs and outputs…the internal workings are gauged against a Service Level Objective (SLO).  SLOs are used to measure performance and are agreed to “up front” to avoid disputes later.

When managing a function, having the function operating on a closed basis can be very frustrating.  This can happen when the functional manager is not open and forthcoming. As such, executives are forced to manage based on inputs/outputs & other metrics.

For example, if you are responsible for a remote call center and the onsite manager is not forthcoming, you can “see” inputs (call volumes, call types, blocked/dropped calls) and outputs (trouble tickets, resolutions, etc.)  What you can’t directly see are the inner workings (efficiency, waste, employee satisfaction, etc.)  What often happens is there will be symptoms of issues developing (as measured at the input or output) or other outputs indicating issue (such as an increase in turnover.)

Managing an organizational black box often leads to trying to influence rather than lead.  Sometimes there will be success, and other times it will be frustrating.

I’m an advocate for transparency.  With clarity, great improvements can be made.

When managing a function where the manager isn’t opening their world, we’re left to measuring as we did in 8th grade – poking and prodding to determine the inner workings.  If a manager isn’t forthcoming, it is often indicative of deeper issues within the black box. 

Work with the functional manager to build trust and get the box open or replace the manager.  Life is too short to play games in a managerial context.