Some Project Risks Are Not Easy To Manage
Upon receiving my MBA, I was hired by Hewlett-Packard as a process engineer. One of my first assignments was to design a state-of –the-art printed circuit manufacturing and assembly facility. It was a real challenge simply because I had little experience with this new technology.
I began with what I knew best. I established the scope of the project, completed a WBS, and then planned the project using the Critical Path Method.
I then undertook a risk analysis and it quickly became clear to me that one activity would carry with it significant risk. But it was an activity over which I had little control. There was nothing I could do except keep my fingers crossed and hope for the best.
My boss, Ken King, was an incorrigible inventor. He was very creative and held several patents. In fact, he was the inventor of the “Heel-Free Safety Binding” a novel ski binding that was popular in California and Colorado. As the manager of manufacturing at Hewlett-Packard he seldom had the chance to exercise his need to tinker. For some reason, he felt that my project would give him that chance.
The printed circuit manufacturing and assembly process begins with the manufacture of the printed circuit board, then proceeds to component placement on the board, then soldering, and finally cleaning. It was the cleaning process that caught his imagination.
He argued that it made no sense to have two or three people “wash” these boards. If a dish washer could wash dishes, why couldn’t we design a washer to “wash” boards?
For three weeks he worked day and night on the design. The boards would be fed by conveyor into a drum, similar to a 55 gallon drum, and then washed with trichloroethylene, a colorless non-flammable liquid with a chloroform-like odor. It is often used as a degreasing solvent for metal parts, and is rather toxic so his challenge would be to design a reasonably airtight machine with adequate ventilation to prevent the fumes from invading the assembly area.
While he was busy designing the washing machine I was busy designing the manufacturing and assembly facility. Two months later my job was done, but Ken was still building, tinkering and tweeking. The truth is I never saw a happier man.
Then two months became three and then four. At every test the washer failed: boards were jettisoned out the end and crashed to the floor; the conveyor motors failed; the hydraulic system had to be redesigned; and the jets continually clogged. And the machine leaked. But thanks to a truly gifted tinkerer, the problems were addressed one-at-a-time .
I remember that Monday morning when he declared he was ready and we officially started the full production process. In one room the boards were fabricated, in the next room they were plated, and then they were sent to the assembly floor about 50 yards away. Components were assembled and the boards then “launched” into world’s first completely automated printed circuit board cleaner. In theory, it was a “well-oiled” manufacturing and assembly process.
Then it happened. Within fifteen minutes the room filled with the toxic fumes of trichloroethylene. Human Resources demanded that we evacuate the building.
No, the machine was not as air tight as we had expected, and the trichloroethylene found its way out of every hole and crevice. The solvent was lost or evaporated faster than we could pour costly 55 gallon drums of trichloroethylene into the washing machine.
Then Dave Packard (in those days Dave often hung out in the plant) dropped by to see what had happened. You can only imagine his response!
But Ken confidently insisted that the problem was under control and would be solved in hours.
We endured three days more of tinkering before he admitted defeat. The machine was then permanently shut down, dismantled, and shipped to the local dump.
It was several months before we had an effective (manual) board washing facility in operation. As a result, the project was about four months late and considerably over budget.
Ken eventually left HP, opened and managed a very successful restaurant in the western part of the state, and renovated an old water wheel on his property. This time the tinkerer prevailed. The water wheel generated electricity which he then sold to the local utility company.
Tinkering with water was clearly more forgiving than tinkering with trichloroethylene.
- It is difficult to get in the way of someone else’s’ enthusiasm. Especially if that person is your boss.
- Overconfidence at the beginning of a project is hard to detect because we often want to believe in miracles.
- Risk assessment needs to look beyond the confidence expressed in the project
- It is difficult to abandon a project when you are promised that the problem is under control and will be solved.
- People heavily involved in a project will find it very difficult to abandon a project even when the evidence suggests that the likelihood of a successful outcome is very remote.