Elon Musk’s The Algorithm

Man shows his ignorance of tandem horses in comic. Illustration published 1894. Original edition is from my own archives. Copyright has expired and is in Public Domain.

There is a lot of digital ink spilled by Elon Musk. I’m less interested in him as a person than in some of the systems & processes that he’s pushed to the limit.*

I didn’t find Walter Issacson’s biography worth reading in full (though TBH – it’s probably unfair of me to judge all his work against Benjamin Franklin…).

But! I think Elon Musk’s “Algorithm” is a significant contribution to humanity’s collective ability in the 21st century (just like Toyota’s in the 20th Century). Like Warren Buffet’s investing principles, no part of The Algorithm is original or inventive, but putting all the parts together and allowing employees to push the process as far as possible is new, different & useful.

Here is The Algorithm in full.

Question every requirement.

Each should come with the name of the person who made it. You should never accept that a requirement came from a department, such as from “the legal department” or “the safety department.” You need to know the name of the real person who made that requirement. Then you should question it, no matter how smart that person is. Requirements from smart people are the most dangerous, because people are less likely to question them. Always do so, even if the requirement came from me. Then make the requirements less dumb.

Delete any part or process you can.

You may have to add them back later. In fact, if you do not end up adding back at least 10% of them, then you didn’t delete enough.

Simplify and optimize.

This should come after step two. common mistake is to simplify and optimize a part or a process that should not exist.

Accelerate cycle time.

Every process can be speeded up. But only do this after you have followed the first three steps. In the Tesla factory, I mistakenly spent a lot of time accelerating processes that I later realized should have been deleted.

Automate. That comes last.

The big mistake in Nevada and at Fremont was that I began by trying to automate every step. We should have waited until all the requirements had been questioned, parts and processes deleted, and the bugs were shaken out.

Elon Musk via Walter Issacson

My Notes

  • Question – this one could use more nuance. I think it’s important to remember that, in nearly every case, anything humans put in place, humans can also undo. Humans do not create Laws of Nature. Now, I think most rules aren’t necessarily “dumb” as they are (or might be) in conflict with other goals. For example, the rules that dictate that “we should all have affordable cars” might conflict with “we should have cars that keep everyone in the vehicle 100% safe)”. Resolving those conflicts is something humans can actively do.
  • Delete – this is a brilliant, active push against the deep human instinct to solve problems by addition & optimization rather than subtraction.
  • Simplify – yep, this, again, is obvious…but rarely explicitly called out.
  • Accelerate – this one is obvious…but brilliant by putting it after Delete and Simplify. Most human activities focus on this point first – so we all end up doing frantic busywork…instead of being more effective. And we do underestimate work effort & focus and overestimate work time.
  • Automate – this is where I’m most guilty. Robots & automation are so good that I think I can hand off tasks too early…but it really pays off only once you have a perfect process.
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