When is Complex worse than Simple?

Complexity Creep: BMW’s Electronic “Dipstick” Causes Oil Grief – Jalopnik

Thanks to blog reader Marc for sending this along. Technology for the sake of technology doesn’t just happen in the factory floor, it also happens in product design. How many overdesigned products do we struggle with because they are too hard to use or because they could have been designed in a simpler, cheaper manner?

Along the lines of the infamous overly-complex BMW “i-drive”, described on this site as:

BMW’s 2001 introduction of iDrive, its pioneering driver information/entertainment system, was arguably the biggest corporate disaster since Coca-Cola Co. decided to tinker with the formula for its eponymous beverage.

Lesson? Sometimes simple and straightforward can be best. Separate, single-function buttons can be better than a multi-function controller (I complain about this still with my Toyota Prius and it’s non-tactile touchscreen).

Simple and low-tech and also be better than the high-tech approach. That brings us to the oil sensor system on the BMW 328i, which did away with the time-tested dipstick approach for checking your oil level.

The Jalopnik blog quotes a Car & Driver letter writer:

I was told the proper way to check the oil is to return the car to your BMW dealership and it will put the vehicle on a rack, drain the oil, measure it, and then reinstall the oil in the car.

There are reports of drivers over-filling their oil, risking engine damage, because of problems with the electronic oil sensor.

Maybe the sensor problem has been resolved, according to some discussion on this Edmunds message board:

I just read that the latest 3series LACKS an oil dipstick. A little graphic (of questionable accuracy) warns you if the oil is low. To truly check the oil, BMW recommends that you have the dealer drain the oil and measure it cup by cup. !!!!

Is this for real?? can someone confirm? It’s the silliest thing I ever heard.

And response:

It is true to a point. There was a period when there were either faulty sensors and/or condensation collecting in said sensor, and that incorrect readings were the result. FWIW, I haven’t heard of an incident of incorrect reading in several months and so it would seem that the problems have been ironed out.

For my part, I have a problem with the lack of a dip-stick for a different reason. As I am inclined to perform most of my own maintenance, I prefer to remove used oil via the dip-stick tube as opposed to crawling underneath the vehicle. Eliminating the dip-stick has also brought about the elimination of the tube that it is slid through. Grrr.

Why not have a sensor AND a dipstick as a backup?

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Mark Graban's passion is creating a better, safer, more cost effective healthcare system for patients and better workplaces for all. Mark is a consultant, author, and speaker in the "Lean healthcare" methodology. He is author of the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, as well as The Executive Guide to Healthcare Kaizen. His most recent project is an eBook titled Practicing Lean that benefits the Louise H. Batz Patient Safety Foundation, where Mark is a board member. Mark is also the VP of Improvement & Innovation Services for the technology company KaiNexus.

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3 Comments on "When is Complex worse than Simple?"

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  1. curiouscat says:

    When is it worse? Always. In processes complex processes have more possibility of problems. And the same thing for products. Examples of non simple thinking: If Tech Companies Made Sudoku by Kathy Sierra, Simple Cell Phone and The Psychology of Too Much Choice.

    Einstein said something close to “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler”. I think that sentiment provides a good aim.

  2. Mark Graban says:

    Right answer! I love that Einstein quote, too.

  3. Mike R. Lopez says:

    I had the same reaction as curiouscat. I think far more interesting question is, “When is simple worse than complex?”

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