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The Search for "Silver Bullets"

by William McCumber, Ph.D., P.E.

Home  --- Resources --- The Search for Silver Bullets.

The following is an excerpt from Professor McCumber's introductory material for a web-based graduate course he teaches at the University of Maryland University College.

The Search for "Silver Bullets":
There are no Magic Fixes, There are no Universal Cures

There are no silver bullets. Managers are bombarded daily with claims of paranormal results that can be achieved by merely following (insert catchy buzzwords of the day). Today's global panaceas are: Business Process Reengineering (BPR), Empowerment of Employees, and Total Quality Management (TQM). In the near past, we were to be saved by Malcolm Baldrige, W. Edwards Deming, Taguchi, and Juran. In the distant past, by Zero Defects, Quality Circles, Value in Performance (VIP), and so on. These silver bullets have one common characteristic. In the words of an old folk song, "They're like the stars of a summer's morning. First they'll appear, and then they're gone."

There are no silver bullets. The only road to success (meeting cost, beating schedule, and performing to specifications) is through personal integrity. The only persons who profit from buzzword mania are the buzzword generators who go on the lecture circuit while their star buzzwords are ascending and bail out before outraged victims find them out. I don't begrudge them their day in the sun, but I also don't want my students to be taken in by them. There have been literally dozens of proclaimed silver bullets. None work as promoted, none are long-term fixes. As information technology professionals, I expect you to look beyond the glitz. Follow the money. See who benefits. Look outside your immediate area.

Example: If your plant runs on the "just-in-time" philosophy (parts appear on a production line "just in time" to be integrated into a higher assembly, thus avoiding inventory storage costs). Those JIT parts were stored someplace, probably in your supplier's warehouse. The supplier's costs are higher in order to absorb the extra inventory costs, and the supplier ups his per unit charges to you.

Industry folklore is rife with examples of failed silver bullets, such as the "empowered" employee, who manufactured 2000 copies of a part without a part number, creating attractive but mysterious trash. Don't jump on the next set of supersonic buzzwords. Think. Reflect. Analyze. Then make a rational decision. It is up to you. It is a matter of personal professional integrity.



For related material on the subject of silver bullets in software engineering, see the classic paper:
Brooks, Jr., F. P., 1987: "No Silver Bullet--Essence and Accidents of Software Engineering," Computer 20(4), April, 10-19. Reprinted from Proc. IFIP Congress, Dublin, Ireland, 1986.

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