Category Archives: life

How Does Your Company Deal with a Failure?

Having spent forty years in R&D and production I’ve experienced my share of unexpected and undesired outcomes of projects, products, processes, and tasks. I’ve also been in a number of different environments where these undesired outcomes were treated very differently. I even had one boss early in my career chide me for being complacent about a successful test of a new design. He got on my case about design margins on a couple of the critical components and told me to “go break it.” Turns out he was right. Subsequent testing proved that there was not enough margin in the design. In contrast, and counter to that attitude, I had one corporate VP at another company admonish my team for a rocket test firing in which we ejected the nozzle before completion of the firing. He couldn’t accept that this was a test to examine the margins on a new design. We were attempting to determine how much material we could shave off to reduce weight, and we were operating in a regime beyond the resolution of our computer models. With customer concurrence, we had decided to conduct a test. The customer fully understood that the result was not a failure. “This company will not accept failures!” this VP proclaimed proudly at a monthly program review meeting. He was only concerned about his perception of the reputation of the company even though the customer had signed off on the test. As I indicated, our customer was perfectly satisfied with the result. The VP wasn’t. Or maybe his ego wasn’t. This was R&D and this was a test designed to push the margin. If this had been a production motor I would have been on his side about declaring it a failure, but this was R&D. Of course, this was the same VP who said he didn’t believe in his corporation investing in R&D. Instead, he believed if the company needed a technology he could just buy it. Let other companies deal with R&D failures. Well, that’s a subject for another blog.

When you get into the production arena, attitudes toward failures change. Production failures can have significant long term effects on the bottom line, customer relationships, and company reputation, depending on the industry and circumstances. Acceptance tests and inspections are conducted to ensure the quality of the unit going out the door to a customer. How does your company treat an acceptance test failure? Or an out of tolerance dimension?

I’ve worked at companies that operate on the opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to quality and treatment of failed units. I worked for an automobile parts manufacturer delivering a $.25 spray nozzle assembled from two pressed-fit injection-molded plastic parts. The units were 100% tested. Nozzles exhibiting spray considered out of tolerance were discarded. Statistics were kept of the number of failures. No paperwork was generated for a failure. The part was just discarded. The company understood the variability in the manufacturing and assembly processes and had calculated what percentage it needed to make its required margins. Only when the rejection percentage begin to creep up (they counted the discarded units), endangering their margins would they begin an investigation. They also understood that the design was simple enough that it was highly unlikely there would be any long term latent defects hidden in the nozzle.

Contrast this to the rocket launch industry. I’ve worked for both a components supplier and for a launch integrator. The industry’s slogan concerning failures can be summed up as “one failure is a trend.” Failure during acceptance testing was seen as an indication of a potential latent failure in units, even those that passed, that could have an impact during a launch or satellite/payload operation. When you consider that the value of the payload, rocket and launch cost is typically in the hundreds of millions of dollars or more, you understand this philosophy. You only get one chance with a launch and there are no repair facilities in orbit or deep space. So the launch and satellite industry has, in general, accepted this manifesto of “one failure is a trend.” Other industries, such as healthcare, either have or are adopting similar attitudes toward failure because of the potential cost and damage impact of a systemic failure. On the other hand, I also recognize new entrepreneur-led space launch companies like Space-X are trying lower the costs of launch; how that will change the launch industry remains to be seen..

So what are the implications of the “one failure is a trend rule?” Essentially a root cause investigation must be conducted for each failure. There are many methods of performing root cause analysis (RCA) including the Five Whys, Fault Trees, “Fishbone”, and Kepner-Tregoe. It really doesn’t matter which process you use, as long as you work through the layers of design, manufacturing, human influence, etc., like peeling back an onion. The one thing you don’t want to do is take shortcuts, or jump to conclusions. I’ve been on too many of these exercises where part-way through everyone “knew the answer,” only to find, once every box was checked. that something else, often a seemingly innocuous something that no one suspected, was the cause. This is why root-cause analysis is not cheap, because it has to be comprehensive and complete.

Am I advocating using RCA in every case of a production or process failure? No, of course not. The method used on that automobile component worked for them. For the rocket launch industry, they’ve decided it’s a case of “pay something now, or pay much more later.” A company has to weigh the costs vs. the consequences and then decide how it will treat failures. If you determine an RCA is necessary, whatever method you choose, finger pointing should not be part of the process. It doesn’t mean that the consequences of a failure shouldn’t be addressed if it involves personnel. It means that everyone participating in the process understands that this is being undertaken to find and correct the cause of a failure, not to blame someone. The culture of a company will determine how this plays out.

If you have a failure and decide RCA is required, and that you need some help, Rocket Science Technologies can provide assistance. We offer a free hour of consultation with initial inquiries that may help you decide whether you need to proceed with RCA and what method suits you the best. There are no one size fits all answers but there are no shortcuts either. Rocket science involves the science of getting the details right and that is our goal in helping you.


Microsoft Surface Pro 3 and the Laws of Computing and Growing Old with Computing

My trusty ASUS laptop is dying. It takes forever to boot up even after cleaning out the startup files. It also has exhibited a few blue screens of death in recent weeks. It is over three years old, which in computer years is two generations (and it was certainly not the most advanced when I bought it). So what to replace it with? I ended up with a Microsoft Surface Pro 3? Why? Well, let me tell you.

Buying computers these days is worse than buying a car. So many bells and whistles, add-ons. Of course, the temptation is to buy the newest and coolest. Apple has lived off of that impulse for decades. But do I really need a Ferrari or BMW (though I guess a Prius is considered cool by those concerned about global warming)?

I decided to take stock of what I needed in a computer. I’m 65 and supposedly retired, but ended up starting a technical consulting and innovative development business. That’s a challenge in itself. Try explaining to a 30-year old Venture Capitalist that you really are an entrepreneur even though you collect social security and a pension. Well, that’s a story for a different time. Back to the laptop. It must handle Microsoft Office to support the business and my writing. I recently self-published my first novel, so it would need a keyboard. Those two factors rule out most tablets. At age 65, I’m victim to the Law of Age-related Laptop Weight Inversion. What’s that you ask? It’s a modification to Newton’s Theory of Gravitation, and Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity. It simply states that gravity has an age-related time function. At age 20, a three-pound laptop weighs a pound, or at least that’s the way it feels. By age 50, a three-pound laptop seems to weigh around three pounds, maybe a bit more. However, at 65 a three-pound laptop weighs seven or eight pounds, particularly in an airport. By the time you’re 72, its probably feels like ten or twelve pounds. Who knew that Newton’s Law of Gravitation had a time constant in it? I don’t think that not the relativity Einstein had in mind. Anyway, all of this ruminating on weight seemed to be pointing me to an ultralight. Wait, that’s an aircraft isn’t it? Ultrathin? Whatever they’re called.

I did the 21st century thing and went online, using different websites’ comparison software, and I discovered another law. You have two laptops of equal capability, but one is lighter. Which is cheaper? You would think it would be the lighter one. Less material, right? I learned that the Law of Inverse Laptop Weight ignores that factor. The lighter a laptop (usually with a smaller screen), the more it costs. I proved that empirically. The comparisons on the computer shopping websites brought that home.

After pondering all the variables in purchasing a laptop I decided I needed to touch and handle these machines to truly evaluate them. I don’t care what the purveyors of Web 2.0 think. Or is it 3.0 by now? I needed to determine how much a pound (of weight, not the British pound) was worth to me. So I decided to do the 20th century thing. Off to Best Buy we went. I dragged my wife Janeen along as my conscience in terms of cost.

Arriving at Best Buy and wandering among the machines I met the Microsoft Lady. I never caught her name. I’m not even sure what she did other than check computers for Microsoft products. For all I know she could have been a lonely old lady who liked to hang around computers but I don’t think so. She saw me looking for help and offered me some. She didn’t really care which computer I bought as long as it used Windows and wasn’t a Mac. More importantly, she was carrying a Surface Pro 3. She demonstrated how quickly it booted up. Compared to my old ASUS this machine seemed like it had a warp drive. And then I held it. Wow! My conscience spoke up. Janeen was standing at my elbow whispering in my ear about what I had said about keeping the cost down. So the Microsoft lady took me over to the cheaper laptops. I lifted one. My God! It was like lifting weights! I kept trying out different ones. Janeen grew bored and drifted off to look at cameras. Then we came to an HP 2-in-1. Their latest one. Ultra powerful. And light. Well, relatively so. Three pounds. I lifted it. No wait, ten pounds. And it cost $1100. But it was so cool with its swiveling screen and detachable pseudo-tablet. Janeen magically reappeared at my elbow and began urging me to make a decision already. “This isn’t rocket science,” she reminded me. With the help of the Microsoft Lady I realized I can get the same thing with a Surface Pro 3 and it weighed only two pounds! Of course, by the time I priced out the version I wanted with 8 gigs of memory and 256 gigs of hard drive, plus the keyboard/cover (which is extra), it came out a bit more than the HP. As expected, lighter cost more. I firmly proved the Law of Inverse Weight. Janeen sighed and gave in, happy to get out of Best Buy. I went home with my brand spanking new Microsoft Surface Pro 3.

I’ve had it for almost two weeks now. How do I like it? Like most technology I love it and hate it, with an overall lean toward love it. My biggest complaint probably has more to do with Windows 8. Once home I discovered another inverse law: the more powerful the processor, the software geeks who program it think they can make type on a screen smaller. The Surface has a default screen resolution setting of 2160 x 1440. This allows the geeks to think they can get away with 8pt font as a default. I guess they don’t know the Law of Inverse Font Size with Age. At age 20, 8 pt font seems like 12 or 15 pts while at 65 an 8pt font is really 4 pts. Windows 8 does not make it easy for you to change the defaults. Changing the resolution distorts everything plus you end up with ugly black bands around the screen. The personalization function allows you to change some font sizes but it doesn’t seem to change everything. So error messages and notifications are still too small, almost impossible to read. I can read them but at the price of squinting. I also downloaded Office365 that weekend and found that it exhibited the same law of small fonts. Outlook, in particular. I think the geeks think small is cool. It’s a struggle keeping things a size that I can read. To date there are parts of Outlook I haven’t been able to fix the font size despite repeated searches on Google.

Still, overall, I love the Surface. I even used it as a tablet at a meeting, taking notes with its stylus. (Yeah, I’m not immune to cool). Well, there goes another trusty friend, my black, bound notebook/journal. The Surface also takes up less room on my desk than the ASUS. However, another natural law prevents me from enjoying the new found spaciousness. Ever hear of the law that nature abhors a vacuum? Well, I proved its existence. My desk is as cluttered as ever.

Do I recommend the Surface? Yes. It’s a winner from a company that I grew up in the tech age with. Microsoft is 35 years old or so. In tech years that’s positively ancient. And here they are with some new innovations! Gives me hope for my own company. I can empathize with their attempts to innovate in this world of 20-something entrepreneurs. It does prove we old geezers ain’t quite dead yet.