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Home Maverick Execution When customers drive you round the bend

When customers drive you round the bend

When customers drive you round the bend. Early in my career I made a simple observation that would have a profound impact on my development as an engineer in the automotive industry:

Customers go round bends. But, you can’t blame them, it’s what customers do!

Two years previously the company had launched a new range of trucks, to compete with their European rivals – spending millions of pounds on design and development – with a new state of the art production facility. But customers were unhappy and we were in trouble, – because cracks were appearing in the chassis frames of their new vehicles.

The repairs were expensive – but the reputational damage was far more serious.

To investigate the problem, we instrumented a vehicle with strain gauges, – to measure how the chassis deformed under load – and recorded data while driving on public roads and our own private test track. The results showed that in the critical areas the highest strains occurred as the vehicle went round bends, with stresses high enough to cause fatigue cracks to develop. So, if an operator or test engineer wanted to break the chassis, all they needed to do was go around enough bends and corners – and eventually the frame would crack.

So, the vehicle’s life expectancy could be measured in ‘round-abouts’ – not miles as we had assumed. We needed a much deeper understanding of our customers, if we wanted to regain and maintain their trust.

Observing that all the reported chassis failures could be induced by customers driving round bends, and that ‘normal cornering’ would be sufficient to break the chassis, I made the logical, and to me uncontroversial recommendation that:

To prevent premature fatigue failures of the chassis structure, the design and development process should give adequate consideration to the effects of cornering.

Exposing this fundamental problem in the design and development process apparently offended some design engineers and their managers. 

But:

  • If you don’t know or understand how customers use your products, how can you design them to meet customer expectations?
  • If your test and development process doesn’t predict the ‘customer’s experience’, how can you have confidence in the design and production process?
  • If you can’t make and deliver the product to the correct specification, how will you satisfy your customers?

Sadly, the test procedures used to approve designs for production were ineffective, because they did not reproduce the failures experienced by customers – due to a lack of cornering activity. But, the comforting assumption that any design that passed the test would be OK, had given managers the confidence to make really bad decisions!

When we changed the test procedures for the next generation of products, to represent ‘real world use’, we were accused of ‘moving the goal posts’ – because we discovered problems that not been found previously. So we always needed evidence to justify the changes we were making, and be willing to engage in debate:

  • What happens when a vehicle goes round a corner?
  • How often does that happen in a vehicle’s working life?
  • Are all customers the same?
  • What happens if …?

Gaining and maintaining the confidence of senior managers across the organisation became essential, as we needed the credibility to influence their decisions – making them better informed and alerting them to their mistakes.

Inevitably, test engineers are sometimes the prophets of doom predicting or confirming potential disaster. So, you must learn to deliver bad news with empathy for those responsible – critiquing their decisions – without undermining their authority. 

So, the more you understand about their decision making the process, and the constraints placed upon them – the easier it becomes to influence them and achieve your goals. 

When problems have an immediate effect, perhaps because they stop or disrupt production, they will grab management’s attention. For example, visiting the purchasing department in a large assembly plant I noticed a blue emergency beacon over each desk – and being curious I asked about them. The manager replied, “Oh, that tells me who is responsible for stopping the line, when the parts aren’t available”

Other problems are ticking time bombs that go unnoticed, until they suddenly overwhelm the organisation with disastrous consequences – as Boeing found with the 737 Max 8 aircraft following the death of 346 innocent people in 2018-19.

When you have to report that a project or product is going to fail, as I have, you may be perceived as a threat to the team or organisation. People who have committed their careers and reputations to the project will be emotionally invested in its success. So their first reaction may be an emotional one. 

When warning about long term consequences of mistakes being made today, we need to be aware of the Teflon Managers who plan to be promoted or retire before their sins find them out – and will always avoid personal responsibility for mistakes that are made. But, when presented with bad news most people will have a ‘Victor Meldrew moment’  as they try to ‘rationalise their disbelief’– challenging the messenger as well as the message. Therefore, give them time to absorb and think about what you are telling them. 

The most effective form of persuasion is when other people take ownership of your ideas, so let them. If you can get people thinking about the right question, before presenting the evidence, they may reach your conclusion themselves; in the process taking ownership of the problem and possible solutions. Framing the question in their mind is the real challenge.

You may be in the fortunate, or perhaps unfortunate, position that the evidence lends your predictions of gloom and doom some degree of certainty. But most predictions are uncertain, so we must acknowledge that we may be proved wrong by events, or that we may need more evidence to confirm our initial findings. 

Dimensions of risk
© Phil Stunell: September 2020

A risk matrix may help people prioritise different risks to the project or organisation, but we must recognise that risk management is the art of dealing with uncertainty. Sometimes you have to rely on judgement and trust your intuition. 

Sadly, a lack of certainty may lead to procrastination as people doubt the need for action, but waiting for confirmation of your suspicions can be an expensive mistake. To be effective warnings must create an opportunity for intervention to prevent, or at least mitigate the forecast disaster – so you may need the courage of your convictions. 

The evidence shows that the cost of correcting a problem rises rapidly as projects move through the development process and into production, before escalating dramatically when faulty products have been delivered to users. 

So prevention is always better than cure.

But, every problem is a learning experience – however painful, and we must decide:

  • How we can mitigate the effects of the problem we have found?
  • How can we prevent it happening again?

Working in a large multi-national company or small business, your long term survival depends on your ability to deliver the goods and services your customers want, consistently and profitably whilst adapting to an ever changing market environment. 

Success demands leadership, blending ‘systems and processes’ with an ‘organisational culture’ to create a ‘learning environment’ – in turn developing the next generation of leaders.

But remember even the best of us can forget the most obvious requirements, and some people will really drive you round the bend!

Phil Stunellhttp://www.stunell.com/
Phil Stunell is an experienced engineering manager – who has detected and investigated all sorts of ‘things that can go wrong’ in product design and manufacturing processes - learning from experience how people and organisations can confidently fail. Phil is passionate about improving the way organisations recognise and control risk – training engineers and management teams to understand Product Liability and improve their management systems.

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