Posted by Glenn O'Donnell on February 7, 2013
As I write this, I am in seat 1A of United flight 1607 from Philly to Houston. playing on the screen in front of me is CNBC. I make no secret of my disdain for much of the so called "news media" so I won't launch into my usual rant there (there are some superb journalists out there, but Murrow and Cronkite must be rolling in their graves!). I am bristling over the coverage right now that is focused on the 787's latest woes. As usual, the talking heads are clueless and painting a doomsday scenario for Boeing! It's a bunch of finance people who don't understand the engineering realities. They're smart bean counters, but not engineers. I am an old engineer, so let me shed light on what the Wall Street mouths don't know. There is an important lesson here for I&O leaders!
A little background: The issue with the 787 is with some Lithium-Ion (Li-On) batteries. The lead NTSB investigator's briefing was professional, rational, and detailed. She's obviously an engineer! She explained how the batteries caught fire because a single-cell failure suffered a short circuit and the rest of the battery went into what's known as thermal runaway. Thermal runaway is a vicious cycle where any of several possible triggers cause the battery to get hotter which deteriorates the chemical reaction, which makes it hotter, and so on until it bursts into flames. The FAA was wise to ground 787s until this serious problem is resolved.
The talking heads are stirring fears that this condition is somehow devastating to Boeing. Sigh! The fact is, this is a common failure mode in batteries and the engineered resolution is well known. Remember the same hysteria back in 2006 when batteries in Dell laptops did the same thing? Dell reengineered the batteries, admirably executed a recall, and all was fine! The same will happen with Boeing. They are already reengineering their batteries and the 787 will be fine!
The fact is, the 787 is an absolute marvel of engineering! I have not yet flown on one, but I'm eager to. I often preach to IT professionals that we need to build IT services like Boeing builds planes! My vehicle to Houston is a 737, also a beautifully engineered system. I have extremely high confidence that I will arrive in one piece, deliver my speech, and return home in a similarly robust airplane. If I was instead flying in a typical IT service, my family would already be making arrangements for my funeral!
The not-so-secret secret to the astonishing reliability of passenger aircraft is systems engineering. In systems engineering, the behavior and reliability of the entire system is optimized. Every complex system is constructed of many subsystems that are constructed from other subsystems, and so on. Trustworthy systems are optimized at every level, but the engineers need to properly define what "optimized" means in the context appropriate to each point within the larger system.
In IT, we are focused heavily on services. This is a commendable trend that is revolutionizing a lot of what we do in IT. Services are indeed complex systems that require the same solid systems engineering principles and processes that Boeing follows. You want to optimize service behavior and service quality as defined in the eyes of the consumers of those services. This outside-in approach is central to Forrester's Service Management and Automation Playbook.
Optimization is a balance point, not an extreme. An IT service may not need a 10 gigabit, zero latency network. It has to be good enough for the job. I call this the "Goldilocks point;" not too little, not too much, but just right! Good enough is good enough, but what is "good enough" for your service? The answer comes from clearly defining the requirements for each element of the system and then designing and building to meet those requirements.
While a lot of us in IT call ourselves "engineers," we're usually not engineering what our customers need. We are performing local optimization, not the global optimization needed in systems engineering. Our network may be lightning fast and our storage subsystems may boast huge capacity and sophisticated tiering for supreme performance, but the services built atop these infrastructure components are awful! We are locally brilliant and globally stupid! We are not engineering the system!
Boeing's 787 issue is one where a subsystem (batteries) was flawed. The overall system is superbly resilient, so fixing the subsystem will fix the system. This aircraft has had other subsystem failures that were also resolved. Good systems engineering isolates these subsystems, allowing easier diagnosis and easier fixes. When a system as complex as the 787 is in its early lifecycle phases, failures are inevitable. You need to quickly isolate and therefore resolve these failures. The modularity of good systems design enables this and ensures the long-term viability of the system. The 787 will still prove to be one of the greatest engineering achievements of mankind!
By the way, Boeing stock continues to climb despite the pessimism spewing from the "media" pundits. Traders (overwhelmingly via automated algorithms, I might point out) see the potential of the 787 and are bullish on Boeing! So am I!
As a starting point to your quest for systems engineering, have your engineers study and adopt the principles of systems engineering. Embrace the teachings of W. Edwards Deming (one of my gods). Hire someone with a proven background in systems engineering. The Service Strategy and Service Design books in the ITIL library are helpful, but my favorite book on this topic is The Art of Scaleability. Read that book! I haven't yet read it's sequel, Scaleability Rules, but I will soon. The authors Martin Abbott and Michael Fisher are proven systems engineers who built eBay and some of the other massive, reliable systems that you need to emulate.
You want your customers to trust your services, so engineer them as systems, like Boeing and similar firms do. If your customers trust your services, they trust you. If they trust YOU, you enjoy a wonderful future! Your customers want to arrive at their goals just as much as I want to arrive safely in Houston!
My Forrester colleagues and I are happy to talk to you about this topic. Please let us know what you think, and bring us your questions! This is too important to ignore. Let us help you! Boeing, Airbus, Embraer, Bombardier, and the rest will make sure I'm here for you!
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