October 17, 2009

Set Up For Failure

"We've been set up for failure."

I hear that expression from time to time, mostly from engineers... especially from burned-out engineers to whom things are looking exceptionally dim. The first time I heard it, it took me aback a little bit, though I'm sure by now I've said it myself or something pretty similar at least once to describe a project that I was on when I was feeling especially in need of a vacation.

I was talking with a manager about this sort of thing the other day when one of those overly-simplistic statements joined up with this one in my head. We were talking and he said, "You know, you engineers tend to lose sight of the fact that nobody on this project really wants it to fail." And I guess it took me aback because, with the exception of some really rare Machiavellian schemers, I can't think of a single reason why someone working on a project and investing time, effort and reputation in it would ever want the project to fail.

Of course, that doesn't mean that people will agree on how to make it succeed or even that someone won't make a decision even with the knowledge that certain experts predict that such a decision will lead to failure. But the point is, generally, everyone wants a successful outcome. Also, the road to hell is paved in good intentions.

Of course, nowhere is this more evident than in lowest-cost bidding. Imagine, if you will, that you're trying to solicit bids for the cheapest airplane. Company 1 quotes you a price of $50,000. Company 2 says "oh yeah, well if we make the airplane so that it's exempt from FAA regulations, we could do it for $25,000." Company 1 returns and says, "oh, if those are the rules, we could also go back to fly-by-wire and use some older avionics and get you down to $20,000." And before you know it, your airplane is a bunch of canvas and some bamboo with a cement-mixer motor tied on there with prop attached to the front.

Obviously, there are things that a customer won't accept, but you've just put together a bid to do the bare minimum that someone figured could be done. And the someone who bid it probably just told procurement that they could find parts that don't yet exist for cheaper than the ones that currently do, told the designers to cut their costs in half and told the engineers that historical indices are crap. The guy who bid this didn't want to bid a crappy product, but he wanted to win the contract and in so doing, set himself and his people up for failure.

I'm not quite sure what you do about a scenario like this. Obviously, if you're the buyer, you have to be very careful about not creating scenarios where you end up with MacGuyver's Getaway Plane instead of a 747. As to what to do if you've been set up for failure, I've asked older and wiser heads and availed no answers. Any thoughts?

Posted by Vengeful Cynic at October 17, 2009 12:46 AM | TrackBack