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Parable of the worm

Parable of the worm

This simple real-life situation illustrates common pitfalls facing many product development firms, such as the fictitious Hi-Tech. See if you recognize any of them.

At Hi-Tech, the worm is a relatively junior (but highly educated) individual contributor and like most worms, he gets input from many sources, which include his education, training, and previous professional experience; scientific/-technical communities; marketing sources; customers; and management.

The invention. Drawing on his accumulated knowledge, the worm conceives of an invention: an improved heterodyne plasma gizmo that will elevate the equipment performance from the current average of 1 rock to about 10 rocks. Now he tries to put this 10-rock capability into the hands of customers.

From the joy of invention, he discovers the travails of product development. As Hi-Tech has no accepted product development process, the result is a chaotic process. Our hero draws up a Gantt chart and prepares a work breakdown structure that shows how, with help from other departments, all necessary tasks could be accomplished in an 18-month schedule by a team of three engineers, two designers, and 1.5 technicians. Several schedule changes were suggested and our worm made the changes.

The Dark Ages. Nothing positive happens. Functional managers explain that rocks are their number 10 priority; no resources can be allocated. Individuals explain that they are too overloaded to help. Discouraged, the worm updates his resume.

Months later, the worm quaffs a few beers with a field service engineer who complains about a customer who insists that their equipment live up to its 10-rock specification. The worm describes his idea and how it didn't get very far.

The Sale. A couple of months later, Hi-Tech's factory accepts an order for an implanter from XYZ corporation, for whom the worm's friend now worked. Delivery is scheduled in four month's time. One month into this period, engineering notices that the specifications call for a heterodyne plasma rock system. After some excitement, someone finds a copy of the plan, and our hero explains at a priorities meeting why the project is late. Engineering digs out the proof-of-concept prototype sketches and sends rushed drawings out for procurement. Our hero, the center of attention, does his best to explain the principle of heterodyne plasmas. Hardware arrives one week before shipment; the worm works 100 hours in the final week to get the system up and running.

The process engineer at XYZ works intensely on process and equipment interactions, and the first installation of the heterodyne plasma rock system is very successful in improving yield. Six months after the first shipment, the parts drawings are complete, but manufacturing does not have any assembly drawings. Training has been unable to procure a system for their machine and include it in training classes. Field service continues to look to engineering (the worm) to address all field issues.

Of these confusions, steel is substituted for the unobtainium at some sites, and customers scrap multiple lots because of iron contamination. Worm's general manager gets multiple irate phone calls.

See the next Management Forum to make product development less chaotic.

This is a modified version of a presentation by Frank Sinclair, director of engineering at Eaton Corp.

Ask the Manager

Q According to the Sinclair scenario, the heterodyne plasma rock system becomes a valued product. Where did they go wrong?

A Late delivery, higher product cost, insufficient training, inadequate documentation, and key people working too many stressful hours created the chaotic conditions.

Q As an engineer, what must I possess besides a good technical education to advance my career into management?

A According to an MIT Management of Technology Programs brochure, key managers need more than in-depth scientific or engineering education and on-the-job experience to provide strategic technological leadership. They must also possess substantial managerial knowledge for leadership within their organizations in planning and controlling projects, inspiring and developing professional technical employees, and integrating the marketing, engineering, and production functions.

Q You recommend that teams avoid groupthink. What is it, exactly?

A Some think "groupthink" is the process for achieving consensus. This is not true. When groupthink is in operation, the group limits its discussion of alternatives to a minimum. Members also don't fully examine alternatives and don't obtain outside expert opinion. Instead, the group is most interested in facts that support its chosen position and tends to ignore facts which question the chosen position. As a rule, the group avoids considering any contingency plans. The group involved seems to develop group norms that bolster morale at the expense of critical thinking.

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