Six Sigma
Last Word


Quality Management
A. Blanton Godfrey

Planned Failures

Is your organization "wired for failure"?

Most frequent flyers are bothered by late-arriving or late-departing aircraft. When our incoming flights are so late that we miss our connections, we get more than a little annoyed. What most frequent flyers don't realize is that the airlines routinely overschedule flights in popular time slots so there's no way they'll have high on-time arrival rates. In other words, they plan to fail.

 In a recent USA Today article, David Field reports that overscheduling in busy airports is common practice. During the 7:45 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. time slot at Chicago's O'Hare, the nation's second-busiest airport, the average number of scheduled arrivals is more than double the airport's ideal capacity (55 vs. 25). So it's no surprise that many planes don't reach their gates on time. In August 1999, 318 major airline flights (29 percent of all flights) were 15 or more minutes late in that peak quarter hour. During the 4:15 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. time slot, 35 arrivals are scheduled in Atlanta, but even in optimal weather conditions the airport can handle only 25 in 15 minutes. On days when bad weather slows operations, the airport can handle only 17--about half of the scheduled flights.

 These late flights not only annoy passengers, but they also contribute to a staggering cost for the airlines. United Airlines has reported that flight delays cost about $373 million in 1999, 22 percent more than in 1998. If the value of the passengers' time was ever considered, the figure would easily be in the billions of dollars.

 It's not just airlines that plan to fail--we can find examples in almost every company in every industry where we are "wired for failure." Companies frequently sell more than they can produce. This past Christmas shopping season, many Internet retailers made front-page news by promising far more before-Christmas deliveries than were feasible.

 One company recently celebrated the largest sales contract in its history only to discover it had absolutely no capacity to produce this product to the agreed specifications. All of the qualified suppliers for the critical materials needed were already running at full speed. To qualify new suppliers, even if they could be found, would take months. And the contract was with the company's biggest customer, a customer known for its strict enforcement of all specifications and delivery times.

 Some planned failures are even more basic, such as when designers specify components that have failed repeatedly in similar usage in the past or when purchasing departments buy components or critical parts that have long histories of in-process or in-service failures. Other planned failures are the result of poor scheduling. Companies frequently reduce design cycle-time targets without changing anything in the design process; then they're somehow surprised when they don't meet the schedules. What gets shortchanged at the end of the design cycle is prototyping, testing, phased field introduction or even product qualification.

 Other times, the designers have carefully evaluated the product design, but no one has evaluated process capabilities, including facilities, or people's skills in assembling, testing and servicing the new design.

 One of the most common planned failures occurs when new software, procedures or processes are introduced without training any of the staff who will have to use them.

 Any organization that designs new products or creates new production or operations processes without doing a formal review of lessons learned from the past is planning failures. If projects have failed in the past with these designs or production processes, we can be sure they will fail in the future. Similarly, launching anything new without adequate testing of prototypes in the real world is another way to plan for failure.

 When we examine the root causes of these planned failures, we quickly discover some strong themes. Lack of communication, internal and external, is a primary cause. Purchasing departments don't intend to sabotage product quality or reliability by buying components with known problems; it's just that the problems are known only to the service departments, warranty departments or others--not the purchasing department. No one has provided purchasing with any information about the performance of these components. Designers don't deliberately choose components or materials that will fail in the plant or in service, but often they have little information about plant or field failures. Designers often have incomplete or poor information about the product's actual use in the field.

 The second common cause of many of these planned failures is the crush of time schedules. Launch targets are set by management based on hope rather than analysis of past similar designs and resource requirements. Frequently no slack time is built into the schedules to allow for all-too-common problems. The schedule crunch then prevents adequate prototyping, testing and field evaluations.

 The third cause is the unwillingness of internal departments or external organizations to work together. In the case of airline scheduling, the obvious solution is for the airlines and FAA to work together to create realistic schedules based on solid experience and data. Many product problems could be solved by marketing, design, purchasing, production, distribution and service working closely together on all new product launches.

About the author

 A. Blanton Godfrey is chairman and CEO of Juran Institute Inc. Contact him by e-mail at agodfrey@qualitydigest.com .

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