Category Archives: project management

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.


Secret of Rocket Science: Getting the Details Right

“This is not rocket science…” How many times have you heard that expression? In general, that statement is used to indicate that whatever you’re doing is not overly complex. It’s a tribute to the perceived complexity of rocket science. But just what is rocket science? Is it some arcane form of engineering that doesn’t relate to the things done in the commercial world? Or is there more to it? And, more importantly, can rocket science be relevant in today’s fast-paced market?’s first definition of rocket science is “rocketry” (English teachers used to scream at me for using different forms of the word in the definition but dictionaries seem to get away with it). Rocketry, in turn, is defined as “the science of rocket design, development, and flight.” The website’s second definition of rocket science is “something requiring great intelligence, especially mathematical ability.” So, on the surface, it appears rocket science is just that, the science of building and launching rockets with a nod toward things being complicated. Neither of those definitions satisfies me. Based on my experience in the industry, I believe they are incomplete. Only when you get into the nitty-gritty of a space launch does the essence of rocket science become clear. Rocket science is all about getting the details right.

With a space launch there are no second chances. There are no do-overs. If the launch fails, that’s it. A billion dollars may end up in the ocean, or scattered in pieces around the launch pad, or in a useless orbit around the Earth. No second chances. Once in space you can’t bring your malfunctioning satellite or probe into a local garage for repairs. You build in redundancies when you can and work to reduce the risk as much as you can.

The launch vehicle and its payload combined have hundreds of thousands of parts, subassemblies, and assemblies that must all work and function together for success to occur. A system with a million parts and 99.99% reliability can still exhibit a hundred malfunctions, of which any one may lead to a catastrophic failure. So the emphasis in the commercial space launch world is on the details. You have to get them all right. So when it comes down to it, rocket science is really the science of managing millions of details, while also working to bring operational risk down.

How does that relate to you? Your project of replacing a machine on your assembly line, or developing a new drug, or testing your electronics package certainly doesn’t involve millions of details. True, but it still may entail hundreds, or even thousands, of interrelated tasks, components, and tests or inspections when you add up everything that has to be done. These are the details you must account for in what you do. Furthermore, there may be one detail that is ignored because your team members believe someone else must be paying attention to it. You find this out after it rises up and bites you in the butt. Or there may be a detail you just didn’t think of. There’s a reason why project management is one of the core competencies in rocket science. But it’s far from the only one.

Every component, subassembly, and assembly used in a rocket launch is either analyzed or tested to determine its suitability for use during the launch or on the payload. For many projects and products this idea of analyzing and testing everything may seem like overkill and too expensive and time consuming. In the commercial world it probably is. Until you have a problem. Let me give you a real life past example. An automobile OEM supplier couldn’t seem to get its electronics to pass its shock or vibration testing. Since the electronics were packaged the way it was done previously they were confident in the design. However, to be on the safe side, because this new version was slightly different in size and shape, they decided to run some tests. They used the same fixture they always used that never had a problem. They made what seemed like a very slight modification to that fixture to accommodate new mounting holes. Yet the parts failed.

In discussions with them, the question arose whether it was the actual electronic hardware that failed or whether it was something in the test set-up causing the failure. They didn’t have the capability to run the analysis to know whether the fixture, the environment, or the part design was the cause. My company had the capability. Our engineer on the project had done this sort of analysis countless times. We proved the fixture was resonating, adding higher loads than the electronic components would see in real life. We helped them redesign the fixture and their parts passed.

Rocket Science Technologies, Inc. has the knowledge and experience to help you in situations like this. We have the experience to guide you through this kind of failure recovery in an efficient manner to find a solution. We can also help you plan your next new product design and development to help avoid these kinds of issues. We can help you corral those details so the risk of failure or issues is significantly decreased. We can’t guarantee success, but we can improve the chances dramatically. And, in the case of something going wrong, we can help you get back on track and recover.

Rocket Science Technologies, Inc., has gathered engineers, physicists, mathematicians, and project managers as associates, available on an as-needed basis, to add their know-how to help you get past even the most challenging technical obstacles. All of RST’s personnel have shown through their careers a propensity for taking on tough problems and solving them. We relish solving technical challenges. We also understand the needs of the commercial market for reduced costs and higher velocity to production and market. Check us out at

Project Management as a Cornerstone of Success for Small Business


In my years as IPT (integrated Product Team) lead and program manager, I don’t know how many times I’ve heard from a team member: “You worry about the budget and schedule and I’ll worry about the technical. That’s my job as an…” Fill in the blank: engineer, software developer, analyst, designer, technician, assembler, etc. This attitude is a recipe for failure, a formula for schedule and cost overruns. It’s not that these are bad employees. Most of them were top-notch people. They just didn’t understand the impact their actions could have on the project and ultimately on the company’s bottom line. As engineers, they were trained to strive to achieve technical perfection. As software developers they have an innate drive to make their software better and to include more functionality. However, in the real world of business, you live under constraints and expectations that impose limitations. Resources are not unlimited. Risks are present. Customers have a delivery time expectation. Project management provides the framework for performing under the constraints imposed on the project or task. More importantly, project management serves as a discipline that relates to almost all aspects of company activities. The disciplines learned in project management can help increase productivity and the bottom line because they provide a sound methodology for examining the impact of making a change or on how you approach a problem.

Project Space

As human beings we live in a physical world framed by four dimensions: length, height, width, and time. Everything we do physically can be described by those four dimensions. For instance, if you plan to meet someone at the mall, you have to state a location, which represents a place in the three physical dimensions, and a time. Thus, four dimensions. Within those four dimensions there are constraints from the physical world that limit things we can do. An example would be that gravity here on Earth is always present and makes thing fall, limiting our ability in height direction. Similarly in the world of software, upload and download throughputs are limited by the fiber optic pipes of the ISP. You get the point. We live in a physical realm whose physical laws place constraints on what is possible. We learn to navigate within these constraints.

A project is built upon a structure based on its scope, i.e., what you’re going to do; schedule, i.e., when you’re going to do it; and budget, i.e., how much it’s going to cost. You can see that there’s an inherent time element involved. For example, the budget must be spread out over time. I call the combination of these three elements of scope, schedule, and budget project space, analogous to space-time universe we live in (the three dimensions plus time) we live in. This is useful in understanding that they form a framework for projects in a manner similar to the way the three spatial dimensions plus time form the framework of the universe we live in. We must learn to navigate project space just as we lewn to navigate the physical world.

In industry, these three elements have been commonly known as the triple constraint, implying that every project event or detail must be evaluated in light of these three constraints. The Project Management Institute added, through its Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK®), \ three more constraints: quality, risk, and resources. The PMBOK® refers to these as the six constraints. I’ve given them the fun nickname, the sexi constraints, based on the Latin prefix, sex, for six (like sextuplets).

Some people in industryargue there are two other constraints: requirements and customer satisfaction. I’ll discuss that topic of how many constraints there are in a couple of other white papers. For now let’s stick to the six and understand their implications. Even if there are seven or eight it doesn’t change how you consider and respond to these constraints (except I lose the snazzy sexi nickname).

The point is, these constraints interface and effect each other, whenever you do something or make a change on a project. In performing a task on a project, you’re operating within these six constraints. You were assigned the task and it was approved by your manager (resources). Your labor must be paid for (budget). You’re expected to do it within a specified time (schedule). Your work may be reviewed (quality). The difficulty of the task must be taken into account to determine the best way to navigate any problems you may face (risk). Note that they all interact. For example, the review/quality element has a cost (labor of the reviewer(s), resource considerations (their availability and if it involves an inspection, the availability of the inspection equipment/facility), and risk (what if changes are required).

In another example to show the constrain interactions, let’s suppose you’re forced to reduce a project budget by 10%. What do you have to change to meet the goal of a 10% budget cut? Do you decrease scope by taking out some tasks? What does that do to quality and risk? Do you need to modify requirements to reflect the change, which may mean changing the project charter for an internal endeavor and the statement of work for an external contract? Or to reduce costs do you reduce quality, maybe use sampling instead of 100% inspections? Does that increase risk, such as missing a bad component? Is that another requirement modification? All of these constraints are tied together and must be considered when you make a change, or, in fact, when you perform the original project planning. They must be evaluated and balanced to reach an optimum combination that allows you to reach your goal. So, as you can see from the sexi constraints, there is more to project management than just Gantt charts and budgets. Learning to live and navigate in project space provides your employees with a new outlook on conducting business that extends to all aspects of your company operations.

Implications to the Bottom Line and to the Company Culture

Project management is a discipline that enables a project leader and his/her team members to navigate through project space and have a decent chance of arriving on time and within budget. If something untoward happens, the team is prepared to respond and recover. Furthermore, management is in a position to understand the project’s (and the team’s) progress and is less likely to be surprised if something unfortunate does occur.

What do I mean by project management being a discipline? Basically, it represents a way of thinking about and approaching tasks and problems. Even routine tasks that are not part of a project. It comes with a new awareness of accounting for all the factors impacting a task. If your company’s personnel are trained at least in the basics of project management, and now consider the six constraints when they perform a task, might they end up with a more efficient way of accomplishing that task with less negative impact on other aspects of your company? For example, if I require five signatures on this new form, what will that do to the schedule of accomplishing this task? If I reduce the number to four what are the risks? Does that impact the quality because someone isn’t in the loop? Or, in requiring five signatures, am I creating a roadblock (schedule and cost) because of the potential delays to obtain approvals? It’s a different way of looking at things. However, care must be taken that this discipline is not applied by rote, where conforming to the process is more important than the results.

Project management involves a methodology that instills a systematic way of thinking about tasks and the implications surrounding the actions taken to conduct and support those tasks. Your employees learn to appreciate the consequences of their actions. Having your people imbued with this philosophy expands the possibilities for more critical reasoning and the resulting improved efficiency, even on things that are not part of a project.

Using the Risk Management Process to Address Global Warming

I’m a trained project manager with a project management certification or PMP. As such, part of my PMP training includes risk management, a process used in industry to manage the prospective risks or uncertainties encountered during a project. After reviewing the discussion on global warming I’ve come to a conclusion that risk management needs to be applied to the global warming debate. Risk management provides an approach to dealing with an issue that has some probability of occurrence and has the potential for devastating consequences. If you know something is definitely going to happen it’s easier to weigh the costs and make a decision to deal with the consequences if they’re bad enough to warrant action. It becomes more difficult to deal with the consequences of something that might happen. In the latter case, you have to weigh the costs of mitigating something that might not happen (and therefore you’ve wasted the money) versus not doing something and dealing with the consequences. The tradeoff is like determining to purchase insurance.

The idea of my applying risk management to global warming came about during my involvement in a number of LinkedIn group discussions centering on whether global warming/climate change is real or not, and to what degree humanity is responsible for it. Some of the discussions occurred in LinkedIn discussion groups representing science organizations, or at least people interested in science, and were quite technical in nature. The discussions delved into interpretation of geological data particularly from ice cores and evidence of past climate cycles. In the discussions, it seemed to me the term global warming referred to human-influenced changes in climate, while climate change is used for natural, long term changes in climate.

The media has reported that a majority of climate scientists support the idea of human-influenced global warming. In these LinkedIn discussions I observed the scientific opposition centered on the interpretation of geological data, and the lack of validation of climate models. It was pointed out in the LinkedIn discussions that the primary climate prediction model is in its 11th generation of iteration and we’re still not accurately modeling what has occurred already, no less the future. A recent article in the NY Times confirmed that the simulations are struggling, not because they’re wrong, but because they are limited by the complexity of the system and also by current computer capabilities.

To me, with my experience as an engineering project manager, it comes as no surprise that computer models and simulations sometimes don’t match measured data perfectly. The more complex a system, the more difficult it is for a computer model to perfectly match real world data. In some instances, as in the case of climate modelling, it becomes an iterative process, where each successive version of the model gets closer to the data as the modelers gain a better understanding of the physics, i.e., the response, of the system to various inputs. Sometimes, if a system is complex enough, it becomes a matter of available computer power. However, even when the model correlation to the data isn’t perfect, the simulations can be used to predict data trends. The models then become qualitative tools to help make decisions concerning a course of action.

Climate models are among the most complicated of all technical simulations, requiring the most powerful computers we have. I expect it will be a while before we can solve these models with a fine enough grid to get us the answers we need. Problem is, while we’re waiting, the Earth may be changing.

Prompted by the discussions and my thought of applying risk management to global warming I did research into the consequences of global warming, focusing on the potential impact to the coast of the United States if the oceans rise 7-10 feet as predicted. This is one of the primary outcomes described by climate scientists. Note, I was dealing with these as potential outcomes. So if the seas rise by the levels expected, a good portion of Manhattan would be under water, as would parts of the Carolinas, the Florida peninsula, and parts of Texas. The West Coast, with its higher shorelines, at least north of Los Angeles, would be less impacted. If you look at these consequences worldwide it gets even worse. Coastal flooding due to storm surge will also increase significantly. There will be many more Hurricane Sandys, and they will become more violent.

I also investigated the predicted weather pattern shifts across the US. Increased droughts are projected for the West Coast, including more forest fires and water shortages. Parts of the Midwest would also face severe droughts, key habitat changes, and higher temperatures severely impacting its ability to continue acting as the breadbasket of America. Alterations in habitats to birds and other animals will have major consequences on the insect population. There is also an expectation for the East Coast of increased occurrences of storms like Hurricane Sandy, possibly with even more increased intensity. Weather over the Midwest is also expected to turn more violent.

These were indeed dire predictions. Even if they’re only half right, the negative impact on our economy, and the potential for loss of life are still very high. Project management practices dictate that when identifying a risk with consequences to the project potentially as dire as the global warming predictions, even if the engineering simulations were mixed or uncertain, a risk mitigation plan is required. Even if you believe the probability is only 20% that global warming is real, the consequences are significant enough to require a plan and a response.

So how do we deal with a risk like this? In industry, risk management provides a process to address risk. A quick sidelight. I received my PMP certification from the Project Management Institute, which is recognized worldwide. PMI publishes the Guide to Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK®) which summarizes the best processes involved in project management. Risk management is one of those processes included in the PMBOK®. There are four methods of dealing with risk:

  • Accept the risk: Acknowledge the risk and accept the consequences.Let’s look at the four options of dealing with the risks of global warming and climate change:
  • Avoid the risk: Remove the risk by eliminating whatever is causing the risk
  • Transfer the risk: Pass it on to someone else, e.g., purchasing insurance
  • Mitigate the risk: Make changes to reduce the probability of the risk occurring or prepare plans to ameliorate the consequences once they happen

Let’s look at the four options of dealing with the risks of global warming and climate change:

  • Avoiding the risk involves eliminating the causes of the risk. I don’t believe we have a really good option for avoiding global warming/climate change at this point. If the changes are the result of natural climate processes, as some advocate, there is little we can do to avoid them. If they’re due to human influence, I think it’s impractical to expect an instantaneous change to less polluting energy sources. It’s unreasonable to expect every country in the world, or even the major polluters, to stop using fossil fuels immediately. It will take a decade or more to get the plan in place and to begin making all the changes. Politically, it just isn’t going to happen. Besides, we’re already seeing some of the predicted effects. I believe we’re just too far along to avoid at least some of the global warming/climate change consequences. (This is different than mitigating them which will be described later).
  • Transferring the risk is the next method of dealing with risk. To me this method is unacceptable because the consequences are even half as bad as predicted, there isn’t enough insurance money in the world to pay for the consequences, not to mention the cost in lives lost to flooding and famine. The only thing we’d be doing is transferring the consequences to our children.
  • Accepting the risk signifies indicates the risk is acceded to because the cost of risk avoidance is unacceptable compared to the cost of the consequence. This category is usually used only for risks with low impact consequences or for risks with damaging consequences but with an extremely low probability of occurrence. Opponents of global warming will obviously favor this approach. It’s the one seen as having the least near-term impact on the economy because we continue on our path of utilizing fossil fuels.
  • Finally, the fourth method, risk mitigation. This involves taking action to reduce the probability of occurrence of the risk or to reduce its impact. Risk mitigation, then, requires we start addressing those consequences regardless of cause (natural or manmade). For example, we can begin planning our response to coastal flooding on a national scale. If there is a significant probability that human-induced component to changes in climate, then it may also not be too late to reduce the impact and perhaps even influence the degree to which it occurs (as opposed to completely avoiding it). We can accomplish this by reducing the emission of greenhouse gases by increasing the use of alternative energy sources. Replacing old industries with new is part of the creative destruction process that has occurred throughout human industry. (See my LinkedIn Pulse post Horse Manure, Buggy Whips, and Global Warming) In creative destruction, the displaced workers often find work in the new industry.

In my opinion, it comes down to which is worse:

  1. Accepting the impact of global warming/climate change happening and we aren’t prepared for it with all of the consequences because we wanted to keep the status quo, or
  2. Waiting for 100% proof that global warming is real in order to protect the status quo and then finding out that it’s too late for many of the mitigations identified, or
  3. Begin the mitigations identified to reduce the effects of global warming/climate change (and accepting the cost of near-term economic dislocations) and then finding out climate change is a false alarm.I guess your answer depends on whether you care more about yourself or your grandkids.