Friday, February 13, 2009

Closing the Loop: OODA, Feedback and Congress

My day job involves a number of electronic and electromechanical systems that test a value, make an adjustment and retest the value. A very common example of one of these systems is the household heating / air conditioning system. A simple one consists of little more than a temperature sensing device - a thermostat and a heat source. Operation is pretty simple - you set the desired temperature at the thermostat and when the temperature drops below a certain level the thermostat signals the heat source to go to work. The temperature rises until the thermostat goes over its upper limit and sends the heat source a stop signal. Viewed over time the temperature will average pretty close to the set value.

One of the systems that I have worked on in the past is the Helm control for the ship. There are a number of pieces in this system that work together to steer the ship in a particular direction. A quick outline of what is going on will help illustrate this - in a small sail boat sailing across a small lake we pick a point on the far side and adjust the rudder by hand to keep the boat aimed at that point. Now if we take this same system and apply it to a boat much too large to steer by hand, we might do it by sending an electrical signal to turn the rudder. So a very simple system only moves the rudder back and forth under our control but does not relieve us of the responsibility of stopping the motion or centering the rudder. A somewhat more sophisticated system will use a principle called feed back to allow us to select an end point to the motion. Now we have an option if we want to shift the rudder 10 degrees to the left we simply move our indicator to the 10 degree mark, now as the rudder shifts to the left as it gets closer to the 10 degree point, the feedback system begins reducing the signals driving the rudder left until we come to rest at the 10 degree mark. For safety reasons ships must have a rudder control method called non follow up or NFU where the operator acts as the feed back circuit to hold a specific course or rudder angle. A accessible example of NFU is the act of driving a car down the street. As we turn the wheel, the car moves in the direction the wheel is turned. The driver is adjusting the path of the car and making corrections as needed. Most of the time if no one is at the wheel of a moving car bad things will happen fairly quickly.

With the foundation of feed back laid lets move on to the Boyd Cycle or OODA loop. In essence it is a mental map of a generic decision making process. The four phases are Observation, Orientation, Decision and Act

  • Observation - This is where we observe a situation - sticking with our car example there is a pot hole down the road.
  • Orientation - We assess the size of the pot hole and seeing that it is large enough to damage the car determine that an action is required.
  • Decision - We decide that we should swerve left.
  • Action - we turn the wheel to the left
As proposed by the man who made OODA popular Col. John Boyd, it is a continuous process of adapting to conditions.

As practiced by Congress decision making tends to become fixated not on actual conditions but on favored solutions to problems. Dysfunctional decision makers often come to grief when confronted with situations that do not respond as expected or hoped for. One example for contemplation is the Maginot line, the assumptions that led to its construction, forced the opposing Germans to consider alternatives, and they decided to go through Belgium instead of driving headfirst in to the Maginot line as expected by the French.

"Life is hard, it's harder if you're stupid."

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