The following excerpt is from "Measure What Matters" by John Doerr. Could you please help me find out what "to keep the plumbing going" means in this context. Is it an idiomatic expression?

Note: OKRs is an abbreviation for Objectives and Key Results which is a goal-setting system.

The problem was our shared engineering team, which got caught in the middle. The engineers weren’t aligned with the product managers’ objectives. They had their own infrastructure OKRs, to keep the plumbing going and the lights on. We assumed they could do it all—a big mistake. They got confused about what they should be working on, which could change without notice...

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    As far as I can see it means exactly what it says - it was the engineers' job to keep the water supply in the building working correctly, the toilets flushing and the electricity on. May 27, 2022 at 7:43
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    In IT, computer programmers build applications (for users) on top of the infrastructure (that users don't see). Those underlying basics are metaphorically the pipes and sewers, or the plumbing and lights. You gotta keep them all going even when they're not sexy. May 27, 2022 at 15:37

1 Answer 1


"...to keep the plumbing going and the lights on"

Translation: keep the basics working.

"lights on" is a metaphor that refers to making sure that the basics are met. A typical usage is financial: keep enough income coming in to pay the electric bill and keep the "lights on". In retail, there is a phrase called "lights on, doors open" that refers to the basic -- often menial -- tasks of just making sure that customers can come through the door and buy items.

"keep the plumbing going" is similar: make sure that the basics are working.

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