Simplicity is Eloquence

by Christopher Johnston, PE

In 1936 the world’s Best Airplane Engineer was listening to his Best Test Pilot confess that he felt technically inadequate for his job. The Best Test Pilot said that, when he asked a question of one of the other engineers, he couldn’t understand the reply. The Best Airplane Engineer’s answer was simple and direct, “Jeffrey, if anyone tries to tell you something about an airplane which is so damn complicated that you can't understand it, you can take it from me it's all balls.” While we use different words today, R.J. Mitchell’s reply is timeless and speaks to today’s critical facilities design.

During the same time the renowned physicist Albert Einstein said, “Everything in life should be as simple as possible, but not more simple.” While he was not speaking about critical facilities, his advice is something that we all should take to heart.

Critical facilities by their nature are complex. They are designed by technical people (you and me) who are trying to make the facility as reliable as possible, given (or, in spite of) the available construction budget. Every designer yearns to add an additional redundant component or tie circuit to prove that he/she is the sharpest kid on the block and can get closer to 100% availability than anyone else. Resist this impulse! Adding that redundant component or tie circuit:

  • Reduces the availability of the necessary parts.
  • Increases construction cost.
  • Increases operating expense.
  • Reduces availability because those who must operate and maintain the critical facility are often not as technically astute as the designer.

Let’s face it: facilities operators don’t have the luxury of sitting at their desks, sipping a cup of coffee and reviewing the drawings for the fourth time. They must react to failures at a moment’s notice (often with a manager nipping at their heels) and don’t have the luxury of leisurely contemplation.

Our goal should be to make the critical facility as simple as possible. We should resist the siren call to add just one more redundant component, tie circuit or another backup to the backup to the backup. The truly eloquent solution is one that, when we see it, makes us want to slap our head and cry, “That’s so simple – why didn’t I think of it?”