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What a Fountain can Tell us About Process Design: Mechanistic isn’t Adaptive

One of the things I really enjoy doing on a sunny day is going out walking.  It doesn’t matter whether it’s windy or cold, as long as there’s no rain, I find it a really enjoyable pastime.  I was recently walking on a really windy day in my hometown, and I walked past this fountain.  

You’ll see from the picture that the fountain isn’t fully active, it’s just bubbling over gently.  In the summer, the jets fire straight into the air, and children (and the occasional adult) can jump in and cool down.

Initially, I’d assumed that the jets had been turned off for the winter, but a few minutes after walking past, I noticed the jets were active again.  This piqued my curiosity—why had they suddenly switched on again—were they on a timer?  My attention was drawn to a small wind speed instrument on a nearby lamppost—you can barely see it in the following photo:

I then made the connection.  The fountain is designed to switch itself off when it’s windy.  This prevents water getting lost from the system, whilst also ensuring that those passing by don’t get an unwelcome surprise when they suddenly get soaked when there is an unexpected gust of wind. Genius!

The Danger of ‘Hard Wiring’

At its essence, this could be considered an example of a mechanistic system that is ‘hard wired’ to respond to its environment.  This is a convoluted way of saying it has been designed to respond in certain pre-designed ways to certain types of stimuli  If the wind increases, it stops the jets.  If the wind stops, it starts the jet.  Job done!

However, if the environment changes in unexpected ways, the fountain won’t be able to respond—it probably won’t even detect the changes.  What if the temperature drops and the water ices over? Unless a temperature sensor has been included and a response has been designed, nothing will happen, it will still try to pump water.  What if aliens land and steal the water to take back to Mars? As far as the fountain is concerned it’s just another day…

This type of design makes sense for something like a fountain, where the number of relevant states in the environment is reasonably predictable (OK, there’s an outside chance that aliens land and try to steal the water… but dealing with wind-speed is far more likely!).  Yet many organisations take this type of approach to designing services and processes.  In a relentless pursuit of efficiency, processes are designed to fulfil the needs of the current environment, ignoring the fact that the environment might well change.  Customer expectations and the external business environment are fast moving and the metaphorical ‘aliens’ are far more likely to land. They might not be from Mars, but could well be a competitor finding a brand new way of meeting customer needs more effectively.  And if we miss the early warning signs, then we may not even spot this until it hits the bottom line.

Let’s take a hypothetical example: Imagine an online store has a ‘contact us’ facility.  When a customer initiates contact, an internal ‘ticket’ is raised.  This is then managed, and tracked, with strict KPIs and targets.  The organisation is proud that they respond to all customer queries within 30 minutes—and customers are generally happy with the responses that they get.  With their deceptively green dashboards, the organisation might miss the fact that an increasing percentage of their customer contact is asking for a particular product that they don’t stock.  When customers get a ‘no’, they politely shrug their shoulders and buy elsewhere.  If we’re not regularly accepting feedback from and scanning our external environment, then green dashboards can suddenly and urgently morph to ‘green with a distinct shade of red’.  Momentum grows and we miss it as we are so busy fooling ourselves with metrics that made sense yesterday.

As professional practitioners of change, it’s crucial that we consider designing processes, services and service journeys that are flexible and adaptable and that appreciate and draw feedback from their environments. This involves asking broad and difficult questions, after all it is often difficult to think beyond today’s ‘urgent’ issues. Long term our stakeholders will thank us for doing so!

What are your views? Please add a comment below, and let’s keep the conversation flowing!

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About the author:

Adrian Reed is Principal Consultant at Blackmetric Business Solutions, an organisation that offers Business Analysis consulting and training solutions. Adrian is a keen advocate of the analysis profession, and is constantly looking for ways of promoting the value that good analysis can bring.

To find out more about the training and consulting services offered at Blackmetric, please visit

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