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
Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


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


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