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Taran March @ Quality Digest


Designing for Failure

If at first you don’t succeed, make it a quality problem

Published: Thursday, November 14, 2019 - 13:03

So it seems the contentious wall along our southern border, variously known as the Trump wall or the Mexico-United States barrier, isn’t meeting requirements. Walls keep people in; walls keep people out. They serve as backdrops for graffiti. But aside from fulfilling the last item, this wall might more accurately be called a solution for the wrong problem. Time, and past time, for quality assurance folks to step in.

QD editors are avid members of the manufacturing peanut gallery, and naturally we saw the news item and speculated via group text about the latest episode in the saga of the wall:
Ed 1: Not being political, but hasn’t anyone clued Trump in on DFMEA?
Ed 2: Maybe we can get an interview with someone from Homeland Security. If we offer to cover the story in a positive light, we might get some money from the government.
Ed 1: It would make an interesting story, how they seem to be taken in, again and again, and across both parties, by contractors.
Ed 3: Shades of NASA’s $7,000 coffee maker.
Ed 2: Not a quid pro quo. Just a friendly, you know, transaction. You are right, though. It could be an interesting story. Wonder who the quality subcontractors might be... if any.
Ed 3: Could be just QC within the companies that are building the wall.
Ed 1: Or a historical perspective. Were Hadrian’s Wall and the Great Wall of China better engineered? Both are still standing.
Ed 2: GWC. Now there’s a wall. Of course, it took a jillion years to build. Or a jillion people one year. Not sure.
Ed 3: Seems like we could do better, in this day and age. I think they’re using multiple contractors. That’s probably part of the problem.
Ed 2: From what I understand, it’s just that it’s possible to cut through the wall’s metal with a Sawzall.
Ed 1: Army Corps of Engineers are the boss? I thought they knew their stuff.
Ed 2: Not that the wall is shoddy. Just that the metal is thin enough to cut relatively easily with a power tool.
Ed 3: There’s a difference?
Ed 2: It’s always a tradeoff. If they use thicker metal, it means more weight, more cost. But if it’s thicker, you just need a different tool to get through. Instead of a saw, you use a cutting torch. It’s why a wall is really just a deterrent. It’s not impermeable.
Ed 1: Maybe it’s the wrong sort of barrier entirely. How about a solar-powered wind tunnel or something?
Ed 3: I like it. Big repelling fans.

The article that prompted our discussion mentions that “the Army Corps has spent at least $1.9 million on quality assurance services for the project since the end of 2018, according to federal spending data.” ECO & Associates, the contract recipient, was tasked with “Border Wall QA Serices” (that’s DoD’s typo, not mine). The contractor’s website promises “a full range of environmental engineering, planning, compliance, consulting, and construction services.”

The $300 million the Army Corps of Engineers now plans to award for quality assurance will pay for such tasks as “material testing; quantity verifications; material scheduling; monitor construction progress and report to appropriate authority; project coordination with the Resident Engineer Office; tracking and reporting daily job activities; assist with the development of scopes of work (SOW) for potential construction modifications; review of Network Analysis Schedules (NAS); preliminary analysis of construction contractor claims; and other incidental services related to construction phase services.”

It would be interesting to learn what items on that list aren’t covered by ECO & Associates’ “full range” of services. Maybe all of them are covered, but $1.9 million goes only so far. It’s less than 1 percent of what the Army Corps now proposes to spend on damage control.

Pondering this and other issues regarding walls between territories, I did a little research on all three walls—Trump’s, Hadrian’s, and China’s—and concluded that three elements are needed for success. Let’s look at them in turn.


The Great Wall of China, 13,170 miles in length, took 2,500 years to build, which is a rate of 5.26 miles a year. Construction continued through 20 dynasties. It’s a work model that embraces doing it right the first time, since time was clearly no object.

The Great Wall of China

Hadrian’s Wall, running across the narrow north end of England for 73 miles, took eight years to build. Figure about 10 miles a year with time off for bad weather.

The proposed Mexico-U.S. barrier will stretch for 1,900 miles, in which about 500 miles of fence are already standing. The project is looking at an additional 1,400 miles of barrier, in some form. Since 2017, some 60 miles of replacement wall have been completed, about 30 miles a year. At that rate, the project should be finished in 47 years. Or about a dozen presidential terms.


Given the centuries that passed while the Great Wall was built, you must admit its project managers did an impressive job of maintaining momentum. Unfortunately, this was likely achieved through fear. The workforce consisted of soldiers and conscripted peasants, more than three million all told. Attrition, from starvation, sickness, and overwork, averaged about 30 percent. This is teamwork of the mule team, or possibly anthill, variety.

Three Roman legions, each composed of four to six thousand soldiers, were the chief builders of Hadrian’s Wall. They worked in five-mile stretches, building a garrison fort every mile. The same legions later patrolled the wall, so it’s reasonable to assume they were motivated to do a decent job. The quality of their work would make their soldiering tasks and off-hours easier if they weren’t constantly repelling ferocious Scots clans.

Evidently the team spirit extended well after completion, since gates adjacent to the mile forts allowed people to pass back and forth. As long as they paid the toll and didn’t arrive en masse skirling pipes and gnashing teeth, it was live and let live. A tolerant and profitable strategy.

Hadrian’s Wall in northern England

The U.S. border wall project is a complicated amalgam of independent contractors, independent suppliers, and independent jurisdictions, which the Army Corps must herd like so many cats. After four contractors were hired to build prototype wall samples, another dozen were asked to bid on the construction. An estimated 10,000 construction workers will labor on it. That’s a lot of moving parts, and only a few of them have managed so far to work in synch.

Absolute rule

Maybe this element isn’t essential, but it certainly simplifies things. In China’s case, with its rulers considered semi-divine, there was no questioning the merits of extending a wall across desert or mountain. The project was as inevitable as the sun rising. Whether made of reed bundles and camel dung, or stone hacked from mountainsides, the thing was built. Period.

Hadrian enjoyed all-powerful authority as ruler of the sprawling Roman Empire, and his wall wasn’t Rome’s first rodeo by any means. The empire didn’t reach that uncivilized northerly point through incompetence and poor planning. Like a giant human hive with Hadrian as queen bee, all worked together for a single purpose: to extend and enrich the empire. Capital punishment, meted out creatively to dissenters and the inept, also helped.

Alas for the Mexico-United States barrier, built under a democracy with many skilled professionals, restless lawyers, and just plain opinionated people as stakeholders. About two-thirds of the wall will run along private or state-owned land, which will have to be bought ($$) or seized by the litigious process known as eminent domain ($$$). Already lawsuits are flourishing, including from a Native American tribe, the Sierra Club, and 20 states. A contractor is even suing the government for being rejected by the Army Corps for failing to meet standards. As fallout from all this, the wall remains underfunded, overly ambitious, and inadequately conceived.

A portion of the Mexico-United States barrier

Which brings us back to that extremely useful acronym, DFMEA. In the right hands, design failure mode and effects analysis can straighten rivers, launch spaceships, and shore up tottering walls. It can tell those faced with a staggering project what could go wrong, why it might go wrong, how likely it is to happen, and what the consequences might be. In a world lacking unlimited funds and absolute rule, it can mean the difference between project chaos and project completion.

Let’s hope the quality assurance fixers who will be arriving late to the party won’t forget to pack DFMEA in their bag of tricks. They will surely need it.


About The Author

Taran March @ Quality Digest’s picture

Taran March @ Quality Digest

Taran March is Quality Digest’s editorial director A 35-year veteran of publishing, she has written and edited for newspapers, magazines, book publishers, and universities. When not plotting the course of QD with the team, she can usually be found clicking around the internet in search of news and clues to the human condition.


The Wall

So am I to understand that you prefer absolute rule for the purpose of building walls?  We don't live in that country.

Wall building

For all the praise lavished on the Great Wall of China for its strength and longevity in the article, the GWC still failed.  Why"  The gatekeepers were bribed.  Human factors were as great a problem then as they are now, but with different culprits.