The value of information struck me while I was waiting for an elevator.

In the lobby of most buildings each elevator’s position is displayed above its door. Armed with that information you can intelligently decide whether to wait for it or climb the stairs instead.

But elevators give you no positional information on any other floor, forcing you to guess whether waiting or using the stairwell is the better vertical travel decision.

Fixing this is trivial engineering. As the Rutles once sang, all you need is cash.

Not so for the New York subway system, as explained in “Why New York Subway Lines Are Missing Countdown Clocks,” (James Somers, The Atlantic, November, 2015), a charming and fascinating article that explains the answer to the author’s question, “I honestly just wanted to know why the F train didn’t have clocks. I never expected it to be so complicated.” (And thanks to long-time correspondent Leo Heska for calling the article to my attention.)

Turns out, the answer isn’t what’s complicated. The New York subway system relies on early 20th century technology whose architects had a clear and well-chosen design goal: Subway trains must not collide.

To accomplish this goal they engineered an elegant combination of sensors, switches, and on-track displays, through which drivers know whether the next section of track is occupied by another train. If so they slow down. If they don’t, a mechanical relay tied to the train-detection sensor automatically applies the brakes.

The system, that is, was designed for Operations, and relies on a highly decentralized combination of human and automated decision-making. Nothing about it identifies individual trains and their positions, so there’s nothing in it to repurpose to tell passengers when the next train will arrive, let alone support any management analytics.

Solving this is a non-trivial problem.

If these were trucks, a GPS receiver, IoT chip, and Google Maps hack would make it pretty easy. But we’re talking about subway trains. They don’t have line of sight to any GPS satellites, and so, never mind.

Maybe there’s nothing to solve. Knowing each train’s position and velocity is, after all, a luxury, not a necessity. Well, okay, except for this small detail: The entire system is worn out, there’s no source of spare parts, and even the wiring’s insulation is about shot.

Oh, and the estimates for replacing this 1930’s vintage technology with something modern start at $20 billion.

Does any of this sound familiar — a legacy system that would be good enough except its architecture is obsolete, the platforms it runs on aren’t around anymore, and:

  • “Lift-and-shift” replacement provide no new features, and so no business-driven value to justify the expense?
  • Nobody can describe important new features that would justify anything more than a lift-and-shift replacement?
  • Investing in any kind of replacement system would drain needed capital away from other efforts that are also important for the organization’s ongoing survival and success?

Of course it does.

We’re dealing with a linked pair of seldom-discussed IT disciplines: Lifecycle management and migration management. Lifecycle management is about detecting incipient obsolescence and preventing it. Migration management is about becoming excellent at replacing obsolete or near-obsolete systems.

Together they make obsolescence avoidance an operational matter, from both a budgeting and an execution perspective.

Competence at migration management is what makes IT very good at moving from obsolete technology to something modern enough to last a while. Lifecycle management is what says it’s time to repeat the cycle.

Here’s how they might have helped New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority:

By 1985 (to pick a year out of the air), the subway system relied on 50-year-old technology. Computerization was by then mainstream. The subway control system was clearly obsolete.

So imagine if the MTA had started migrating to a modern system in 1985 through a phased, route-by-route plan.

By now it would probably be time to start the next migration … but it would be from a far better base state, with no looming crises from a lack of spare parts and failing insulation driving a high-risk replacement project along.

Depreciation is the mechanism through which the general ledger depicts how a capital asset … the New York subway system’s control system being an example … loses value over time.

What’s strange is how many business executives consider it an accounting fiction. If they just believed their financial statements they’d bank the funds needed for capital asset replacement as standard operating procedure instead of lifecycle management starting with hat-in-hand supplication.

That’s right: The problem isn’t executives managing by the numbers.

It’s executives choosing to ignore them.