Lessons from the Dreamliner?

Up here in Seattle, Boeing is a very important company. Now that their Dreamliner is going through some "teething pain," as they phrased it, I read a little bit about how this happened. After all, they had spent years designing the plane, built simulators, tested all the parts but still had a problem once the plane actually took to the air.

The article I started with is here at the Harvard Business Review: http://blogs.hbr.org/cs/2013/01/the_787s_problems_run_deeper_t.html. It reminded me of the challenges of software testing, so I gave it a thorough read a few times seeing what I could learn from it.

What really caught my eye started in Allworth’s 8th paragraph in which he talks about integrating all the parts together and the testing needed there. That is essentially the same integration problem we face as testers. A team may give us code for some shared feature – I’m thinking spell check, but you can also think file I/O, http communication or whatever you want – and we have to ensure our implementation of their code works as designed. Typical errors are that we implement their code incorrectly, we uncover a bug in their code, or there is some unique feature to OneNote for which the original code was not designed.

So that part of this article wasn’t new to me. And Allworth’s reminder that if you wind up in the situation in which you and your partner team have to make changes you are no longer dealing with only an engineering problem. Allworth points out corporate boundaries, lawyers and suppliers. The closest analogy here is time constraints for the partner team, relative priorities and we can leave out lawyers. I think his point is the same. When the design changes for just OneNote, we have to adjust what we do, but we control everything about OneNote. When the design changes for us and a partner team, we lose direct control over half the equation.

But I knew that already since this has happened several times in the past.

Looking at the 10th paragraph it appears that the parts coming from the various suppliers would not fit together. This reminds me of the Mars Orbiter failure which I have written about before:

http://articles.cnn.com/1999-09-30/tech/9909_30_mars.metric.02_1_climate-orbiter-spacecraft-team-metric-system?_s=PM:TECH since my initial thought was the unit testing could have (should have?) prevented this problem. But if the specifications were not clear, you have to expect variance. So this, if true, would simply point to the need for a clear design before starting production. If all the parts came in at the correct and expected size – none of the linked articles clarify this question – then we can move the discussion back to integration concerns.

So I am still thinking about this. I don’t think I have made too much progress here but this is a fascinating problem that closely mirrors software testing. I’ll keep thinking about it.

Questions, comments, concerns and criticisms always welcome,


Comments (1)

  1. Andrew says:

    Oliver Williamson shared the Nobel Prize for Economics in 2009 for his work in the 1970s & 80s highlighting that losing direct ability to control conflict resolution was a primary reason for firms to keep work in house. He said that for outsourcing to be efficient either (a) there needs to be alternative sources in the market for the outsourced product (e.g. buy A320s instead of 737s) or (b) it must be possible to write a simple contract for the outsourced product (e.g. buy 'n' Windows licenses for 'x' dollars). If neither of those conditions holds true then the outsourcing will be inefficient and over time the relationship will get more and more complex and often one company ends up acquiring the other.

    Because Boeing outsourced both manufacturing and design work on the 787 neither of those two conditions were true. Boeing ended up with both product introduction delays and spent a lot of money to acquire suppliers, like spending $1Bn supporting and ultimately buying Vought Industries in South Carolina.

    What's truly amazing to me is that Williamson did his work in the 1970s & 80s and he won a Nobel prize for it in 2009 because his theory has shown to stand the test of time yet almost no managers I've ever spoken to have heard of it.