Functions, Not Lists!, by Travis K.

This blog has endless resources for researching the needs and goals of a person preparing for an anticipated event.  Whether that event is unemployment, extended backpacking, or a SHTF scenario, you are likely to develop a “to-do list” for that event.   These lists might be compiled on loose paper, on a computer, or lodged in your brain.  Most of us make lists in one form or another since they are invaluable for organization.   While a “to-do list” is convenient for simple events such as going to the grocery store, they tend to be detrimental to a project such as “prepping”.  The purpose of this article is to show you how to begin thinking differently about your lists, organization, and prioritizing.

I am a Civil Engineer by training and occupation.  Engineering jokes aside, one of the practical strengths I bring to everyday life is project management and of course, “to-do lists”.  Oh boy, there are lists… I have lists for my vehicle maintenance, hobbies, vacations, and of course for preparedness.   Over time, I tried shortening and compiling these lists into one master list.  Bad move.  This massive list became overwhelming and I found myself scratching my head as where to prioritize.  I even found myself wondering how some items got on my list. 

The problem with a typical “to-do list” is the list itself!  How do you prioritize lists?  How do you ensure that you really should do the activities, or buy the items on the list?  Where do you begin working, and where do you allocate your valuable resources, whether that be time, money or labor?  As personal resources tighten, a methodical approach to prioritizing your lists becomes more important, and allocation strategies are likely to change.  For example, someone that works long hours is unlikely to have a surplus of time as a resource.  A single parent may not have extra time or a surplus of money.  For efficiency and practicality, priorities and a game plan must somehow be assigned.

Instead of developing endless lists that have no definite priorities, purpose, or urgencies associated with them, a better idea is to incorporate a strategy called Value Engineering.  Value Engineering (VE) is defined as “an organized effort directed at analyzing the function of goods and services for the purpose of achieving basic functions at the lowest overall cost, consistent with achieving essential characteristics”.   To simplify, you must think of your list items in terms of function, not simply items on a list. 

VE is a professional engineering focus that would require textbooks and coursework to completely cover, so in the space of this article I will condense basic VE lessons that will assist us in prioritizing our lists.  By the end of this article, you will have a new creative skill set you can apply to any project.  The 5 general steps in an organized VE approach are as follows, and explained below:

  • Step 1 – Information Phase
  • Step 2 – Function Identification and Analysis Phase (FAST Diagram)
  • Step 3 – Creativity Phase
  • Step 4 – Evaluation Phase
  • Step 5 – Development Phase

Step 1 – Information Phase
The general idea behind an Information Phase is to understand the “scope of study” for the item for which you are trying to create solutions.   To begin, consider what this “list” is that you have been periodically assembling.  What is the overall goal of the list?  What is the general type of project?  For those of us reading this blog, we likely share a blanket scope of study of “prepping”.  Therefore, let’s make our scope of study in this article to also be “prepping”.

The Information Phase is the key to the success of any study or project.   During the Information Phase of the VE process, you are not yet formalizing a list, approach, or plan; that comes later.  During this phase, you try to obtain as much background as possible about your scope of study.  For example, if your study is to secure food for your family, you must know how much they eat in a day.  This is the type of background information that is put together in the Information Phase.  If you have already been doing some prepping, your previous studying and list-making likely provides a good understanding that you need to consider shelter, food, water, and operational security, etc.  You may have also developed a reasonable concept of how to complete many of those tasks even if portions of them are unfeasible at this time.  Additionally, you may have developed a wealth of supporting data for the Information Phase, making this task easier.  This will be invaluable as you move to the next steps.

Since you will use your background data for the remainder of the VE study, careful attention to your information “team” should take place.  If you are not an expert in all areas of your scope of study, you will need a support team.  This team may only involve your direct family, but you still need their input as they are likely to have a better understanding of certain subjects than you.  Meeting and learning from people that know more than you about a particular subject is an often overlooked part of this phase.  For example, if you don’t know the first thing about farming, you should consider bringing in someone to help you obtain that information.  Start that learning process early versus later.  Bounce ideas off people with more experience or knowledge than you in order to verify your understanding as you begin planning your projects. 

For most people reading this blog, the Information Phase has likely gone on for some time, possibly decades.  The concern is that many of us (myself included) tend to stall out in the Information Phase.  We may have been slowly moving forward over the years without good organization, priorities, or direction.  You may have a list of firearms, food, books, and other miscellaneous items you feel you “need”.  But that is sometimes all you end up with, the dreaded list and a garage full of random prepping supplies.  You may also feel overwhelmed, intimidated, and discouraged during the Information Phase, and a long list of expensive items can make you feel hopeless.  This is the problem with our previous style of list making and prepping.

You must move out of the Information Phase and add sophistication to your approach.  Do not misunderstand me; continue to study and learn and identify things to add to your “list”.  But it is now time to prioritize and create an action plan!  It is time for the next step in the VE process.  Let’s get to work in Function Analysis.

Step 2 – Function Identification and Analysis Phase (FAST Diagram)
In the VE methodology, this is the most critical piece of the process.  We must stop thinking in terms of items on a list.  We need to back up at this step and trying to really get down to the brass tacks of what we are trying to accomplish.  This is where we start thinking about and identifying the basic functions of our list items.  This step may be frustrating to some as it feels like you are putting on the brakes or maybe taking a step backward.  As you will soon see, that could not be further from the truth.

We will now begin assembling a Function Analysis Systems Technique (FAST) diagram.  This diagram is made up entirely of functions only.  Why are we backing up and making this diagram?  The FAST diagram is going to allow us to brainstorm creative solutions for use in the next VE step.  By thinking conceptually of items on your list as functions, we can truly understand what we are trying to accomplish.  As you work through this step, try to think only in terms of function.  Do not think at the item or task level you previously used as it will sabotage the remainder of the VE process.  Your functions will now be written as VERB – NOUN combinations.

The easiest way to begin creating the diagram is with post-it notes.  Start by writing a two word (VERB – NOUN) function on each post-it note.  For example, a function might read “Survive Famine”.  Another might read “Secure Home”.  Write the VERB-NOUN functions out as you think of them and stick them to your workspace (typically a wall or table).

Both “Survive Famine” and “Secure Home” are likely to be the higher order functions and are likely the main problem you are trying to solve.  Stick these functions on the far left of your workspace.  The lower order functions will now go to the right.  The result will be a flow-chart of sorts that reads “how” from left, and “why” from right.  How do you “Survive Famine”?  The next function might read “Collect Food”.   See below for the “how”, “why” nature of the FAST diagram:

A simplified example of “how” direction flow for a FAST diagram is listed below:

Survive Famine (how?) – Assemble Supplies (how?) – Collect Food (how?) – Generate Grocery List (how?) – Inventory Pantry

The same simplified example written in the “why” (reverse order) direction is listed below:

Inventory Pantry (why?) – Generate Grocery List (why?) – Collect Food (why?) – Assemble Supplies (why?) – Survive Famine

Note that your FAST diagram should “test” as you read it in both directions.  As you are sticking your VERB-NOUN post-it notes to your workspace, continually test them by reading them aloud in both directions.  Why do you inventory your pantry?  To Generate Grocery List.  Why do you Generate Grocery List?  To Collect Food.  Why do you Collect Food?  To Assemble Supplies.  Why do you assemble supplies?  To Survive Famine.

Along this diagram, you will also have parallel functions that do not necessarily line up with the “how” “why” lineal nature of the other functions.   These functions would happen at the same time but would be a slightly different subject matter.  The example above was “Secure Home”, versus “Survive Famine”.  Both subjects are important and seem related, but will be placed on their own “how”, “why” alignment in the same FAST diagram.  This will allow us to completely understand the functions behind them. 

As you can see, this is a difficult diagram to explain verbally so I encourage readers to do an online search for “Function Analysis System Technique – (FAST Diagrams)” and learn more about them.   They can be used to begin creatively solving any problem.  This diagram is so effective that many inventors use this method on a daily basis to streamline processes or create new products.  The bottom line here is that instead of immediately brainstorming on solutions (the next step), you are slowing down and really trying to analyze the individual functions of your study.  Once you have your FAST diagram with the big picture identified, the Creativity Phase is next and you will use these individual functions to brainstorm for solutions.

Step 3 – Creativity Phase
The purpose of the creativity phase is to generate new ideas related to ways of performing the functions found above in the FAST diagram.  Now that the FAST diagram is complete, there will be several functions on which to start individual brainstorming.  In a prepping study, some of your functions might look like these VERB-NOUN examples:

  • Collect Food
  • Secure Home
  • Shelter Family
  • Establish Support
  • Transport Supplies

The Creativity Phase is used to determine new ways to solve problems that you haven’t previously considered.  Let’s use the “Collect Food” function as a short example.  Sit down with a pencil and paper (or better yet a spreadsheet) and brainstorm ALL the different ways you would be able to Collect Food.  Ask yourself questions:  Do you have a garden?  Do you have space for a future garden?  Do you work at a restaurant?  Do you like to dumpster dive?  Is your mother-in-law an extreme couponer?  Remember, that EVERY idea counts in brainstorming.  Do not criticize any ideas during brainstorming because silly ideas help you become more creative.  Make it fun, and go ahead and list every idea.  Children often have fresh ideas that adults are too intellectualized to notice. 

Once you brainstorm completely through the “Collect Food” function, go on to the next function, “Secure Home”, and keep working until you have individually brainstormed through every function.  This process should not be rushed.   Individually document all the generated ideas under each individual function for which you have brainstormed.

This Creativity Phase is best completed with the assistance of several people.  In your case, this could be your immediate family or your crew that you anticipate “doubling up” with.  Two heads are better than one in the Creativity Phase.  It is common for ideas that were hidden in plain view to now become apparent.  For example, you might find that unbeknownst to you, someone you are prepping with has a family member in the grocery business with special discounts!  VE professionals learned long ago that very often the best solution is so obvious, nobody thinks of it! 

As you can see, the FAST diagram step was essential in order to truly study the basic functions of the project that you are trying to complete.  The only way to effectively brainstorm and create new solutions is to better understand the true nature of the individual function.  This approach is much different than simply making a list of items to buy.  You have now started a list based on functions, not on things.

Step 4 – Evaluation Phase
The Creativity Phase has been completed.  You now have dozens of ways drafted to complete the functions developed in the Function Identification and Analysis phase.   The next step is to eliminate silly ideas or unfeasible ideas.  Simply scratch out or delete the ideas you do not want to continue to evaluate.  If, in your brainstorm session you listed a .50 caliber machine gun to satisfy the “Secure Home” function, it is likely that this sort of idea listing will now be deleted.  After this you will have a shorter list of ideas to evaluate. 

The next step is to evaluate these individual ideas with a methodical approach.  Aside from the FAST diagram, this is where the magic really starts to happen.  As I mentioned in the introduction to this article, a primary goal is to determine a way to prioritize your lists.  The Evaluation Phase is where this begins.

Qualifiers must now be established in order to evaluate the ideas.  The qualifiers will depend primarily on the scope of study you have begun and the types of functions on which you have brainstormed.  Studying a better mousetrap will have different qualifiers than your prepping VE study.  If you have a hectic schedule, a big qualifier might be your Time.  If you have an extremely fixed income, Cost might be a big qualifier.  The attributes used to qualify evaluations are different for everybody, and may be completely up to the individual’s constraints or current conditions.  Continuing to use your prepping project as an example, the following qualifiers might be compiled in order to evaluate listings generated through the brainstorming sessions:

  • Cost
  • Labor required
  • Added security to household
  • Improved health to family

These qualifiers beg the next question; which one is most important?  A rapid way to determine this is to complete a “paired comparison”.  Initially, you may have compared cost to the labor required.  Which one is more critical to selection?  Perhaps cost wins.  Put a mark alongside cost.  Now compare cost to added security.  Perhaps security wins.  Put another mark alongside security.  Now compare cost to improved health.  Perhaps health wins.  Put a mark alongside health.  After cost has been compared to all, move to the next qualifier (labor required).  Compare labor required to the remaining two qualifiers.  Continue moving down this list until all have been compared against each other once.  After the qualifiers are all compared, you will have a ranking which will help determine which qualifiers are most important.

The paired comparison often brings surprises as you realize certain qualifiers may be more important to you than you previously believed.  Using this example, the following rankings could have been developed:

  • Added security to household – 3 points
  • Improved health to family – 2 points
  • Cost – 1 point.
  • Labor required  – 0 points

This paired comparison of qualifiers allows you to now rank each brainstormed idea carried through from the Creativity Phase.  The next question is how much weight to apply to the qualifiers?  Clearly, “added security” is more important in this study than “labor required”.  Since your rankings show that the amount of labor for you to complete a project is not more important to you, this qualifier should not be critical in your rating of brainstormed ideas.  Typical weights of 1 to 10 are now applied to each qualifier.  For example, you may assign 10 points to security, 7 points to health, 4 points to cost and 1 point to labor.   

You can then determine a system for scoring all the brainstormed ideas with the above demonstrated weighted rankings.  Many people will score each brainstormed idea using each qualifier from a range of 1 to 5, and then multiply by that the qualifiers weighted ranking.  There is no right or wrong way to do this scoring as long as it makes sense to you.  The actual method or math is not important as ensuring that your qualifiers are influencing the scoring systematically.  The scoring is most easily completed in a spreadsheet.

The scoring may illustrate that ideas you previously thought were ideal, may not actually be the best choices for your personal situation.  Using the above example, simply buying cheaply discounted foods may not be a great benefit if the foods are not healthy for your family.   The scoring may produce many surprises.  During the Evaluation Phase, you may also discover that your newly brainstormed ideas scored surprisingly well under the scrutiny of your personal qualifiers.  This is the beauty of the previous brainstorming sessions.

One thing that will become apparent during the evaluation phase is that many of the same solutions belong to different functions.   For example, during the FAST phase you determined a function of “Shelter Family”.  You also had a function of “Transport Supplies” and “Establish Support”.  Then during the scoring, the solution of owning a quality vehicle consistently scored highest in fulfilling those vastly different functions.  The bottom line is that your good ideas or critical elements will keep popping up, further streamlining the Development Phase, which is the next step.

Step 5 – Development Phase
By now you should have brainstormed and scored dozens, or perhaps hundreds of ideas.  Many of them scored low and were eliminated.  Many of them scored well and will be carried forward to the Development Phase.    Some of them, such as the “owning a quality vehicle” example above have kept popping up under several functions.  This is a clue that your Development Phase should focus on that idea.   It is now time to combine and further develop these ideas in the Development Phase.  The goal of the Development Phase is creating a detailed plan that is prioritized, organized and based on functions versus “things”.

In the Creativity and Evaluation phases, you developed unique ideas that had not been previously considered.  For example, in the Creativity Phase an idea of wind generated power may have been listed.  Then in the Evaluation Phase, the consistent wind at your property scored that idea as a better long term option than purchasing a generator.  Or perhaps your Evaluation Phase determined that given your climate, you would be better off to learn to garden versus stockpile food.  You were able to completely change some pre-existing notions of your prepping, and have essentially thrown out those “lists” that you were scratching together the last few years.  Now you have some realistic, workable goals to further develop.

The Development Phase is when the individual ideas are combined into an action plan.  This is the time your team will come up with a game plan and likely a newly updated “list”.  Given our wind power example, you might need to temporarily go back to the information phase and start learning about wind power.  You can then re-asses the wind power project and implement as appropriate.  If you are prepping with a team, this is the time to delegate, break, and plan on reconvening at a specified time to discuss progress.

The Development Phase end result will be a list much different in appearance than you previously completed.  It will be organized by function, not random item after item.  You will clearly understand your priorities and have developed a plan accordingly.  You will find that many items you felt you previously needed have been permanently removed, as you now have cost effective creative solutions to complete that function.  You will also find that many of your solutions now serve to complete multiple functions.   Your list will have become a streamlined game plan that has a purpose based on your prioritized needs.  Your list has been transformed into a sophisticated master plan.

Simplification and Summary
As discussed earlier, the VE process is a little difficult to describe verbally.  You might have read this and thought, “Come on now, I would never work through that entire process!”   I strongly urge you to work through a simple VE scope of study before deciding that it’s not for you.  To make getting started easier, I have a Reader’s Digest version for you, so keep reading. 

You can take pieces of the VE process to improve your lists or goals.  Let’s say you clearly understand the prepping solutions available to you, but your Information phase has produced endless understandings and you have this massive list that is bogging you down.   You are having a hard time prioritizing your list and it’s not clear where to start.  What you need to do is determine a way to prioritize your massive list.  Let’s go back and steal some ideas from the Evaluation Phase.

Begin with a paired comparison in a spreadsheet.   Let’s assume you have a long list of food and cooking type supplies which you would like to purchase.  Take the first item on your list and compare it against all that are below it.  Continue the paired comparison as described previously until you have compared all the items in your list against each other.  You will quickly see that several of the items on the list get a tally much larger than other items.   This should demonstrate to you which items are needs versus wants.   These rankings may shock you.  Unfortunately, this also means that maybe that third rifle you want just doesn’t make the first round (pun intended).  Be prepared for some letdowns!

Another slightly more complex yet helpful way to complete these paired comparisons is to determine a short list of qualifiers as previously described.  Some qualifiers might be time, money, longevity, storability or overall utility value.  This time, just keep them in mind as you are completing your paired comparison.   Think in terms of qualifiers, not your emotional “wants” such as that third rifle!  Neglecting the previously described sophisticated scoring methods, these qualifiers will still influence your decision process as you work through your list.

The take-away here is to be deliberate in your list making and dreaming.  Think in terms of functions, not items on a list.  Ask yourself the following types of questions:

  • What is the true function behind the items on our lists?
  • Is there a better way to complete that function?  
  • Is there a cheaper way? 
  • Is that function so important that you should actually spend more money than you had previously planned?  
  • Is there a way to complete that function that also serves to complete several other functions? 
  • Should you hold off completing that function in order to complete other functions faster or cheaper?

In summary, think in functions, not in simple lists.  This is the type of strategic thinking that will serve you well whenever you need to think on your feet and be creative.  Using the Value Engineering methodology to study your projects will save you money, effort, time and labor, as well as enable you to complete more goals.  But best of all, you will save your sanity!