About Me

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I'm a life-long New Englander, father of 4 challenging kids (I know: I'm supposed to say "wonderful", but while that'd be true, technically speaking, it'd also be misleading), and fortunate husband to my favorite wife of more than 20 years. I've got over 20 years experience breaking things as a test engineer, quality engineer, reliability engineer, and most recently (and most enjoyably) a Product Safety / EMC Compliance Engineer. In the photo, I'm on the left.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Decision Making Paradigms

Have you ever seen the 2005 movie "Sahara", with Matthew McConaughey and Steve Zahn? Despite the 5.9 stars that it's got on IMDB, it's a great movie that I like to watch every now and then; it is, in my opinion,  Steve Zahn's best performance bar none.

A scene from this movie has been playing pretty incessantly through my mind recently; lodged therein by a morass of stupidity that I've waded into at work. The scene has our two main characters, Al & Dirk, travelling through the desert (the Sahara, specifically...surprise, surprise), on camels, and they have this conversation:

Hey, you know how it is when you see someone that you haven't seen since high school, and they got some dead-end job, and they're married to some woman that hates them, they got three kids who, like, think he's a joke? Wasn't there some point where you stood back and said, "Bob, don't take that job! Bob, don't marry that harpy!" You know?

Your point?
Well, we're in the desert, looking for the source of a river pollutant, using as our map a cave drawing of a Civil War gunship, which is also in the desert. So I was just wondering when we're gonna have to sit down and re-evaluate our decision-making paradigm?

It might be just me, but this scene always makes me laugh like I'm watching a Monty Python repeat. The one with the dead parrot comes to mind.

So the issue that's got this on my mind is as follows...maybe you can tell me that I'm off base and too close to the conversation:

My job is Product Compliance; I make sure that my company's devices are safe for the end user to use them. I liken my work to the work that they do at Consumer Reports: have you ever read the annual issue of that magazine where they buy a bunch of laptops, and they proceed to drop them, bake them, pour coffee on them, and generally abuse them to see which ones are more robust and a better value for we, the readers? This is sort of the work that I do, except I don't care if my devices get damaged or no longer work, only that after testing, they don't present a hazard to the user.

Ok, so we have a vendor with whom we work to get this stuff done (we'll cryptically call them VM). You may recall that I'm only in this job at this company for a short while thus far, so I'm still the low man on scrotum pole, so to speak. I'm still learning the particulars of business at this particular company...learning the product line, the corporate standards, culture, etc.

But my company has been using this vendor for over a dozen years, and in big company it's hard to change vendors, which is what I'm advocating we do. Why? Well, VM just plain sucks as a vendor. The folks in my group are very frustrated with having to work with them, the project folks are very frustrated with how much time it takes to get a project through the cycle, and they cost way too much.

OK, it's not easy, but we can certainly change our vendors here. I have been doing this exact work with a direct competitor to VM for something like 15 years. In fact, up until about 12 years ago I was working with about a half dozen such companies, VM included, and I stopped sending work to VM because they took 6 months to perform work that should take a few days. They haven't changed their work habits.

To wit: just this week I received a quote for work from them. A quote that I asked for during the ides of December. I've badgered them for this quote through January, February, and half of March. 3 months to get a damn quote?!?! At the end of February I had requested a quote for the same work from one of their competitors (I figured that VM had taken 2 months at that point, why not see what a competitor might do). It's a harder thing to quote this work without any real understanding of the product line or system as a whole, but I got a reasonable quote from the competitor in about 5 days.

VM takes forever to furnish a quote, and even longer to do the actual work. This, of course, affects our project cycle time, and therefore time to market, and as we all know: that's money. And lots of it. It's an industry-wide criticism with regards to VM.

So when's it time to reevaluate our decision making paradigm?

I presented the project with both quotes, and was vehemently challenged with a "we can't do that" response. There are, of course, many difficulties in changing this sort of vendor, but I've done it in the past. It *can* be done, and it *should* be done under circumstances like these.

The arguments against, unfortunately, came from folks of power and of fairly limited knowledge of my work or the requirements in this sort of work.

"That company's approval is necessary!"
No, it's not...approval from that SORT OF COMPANY is necessary.

"Our customers want that specific company to do that work."
No, they don't. They want that work performed by an accredited company, LIKE this one.

But really, project management would rather complain about the lack of service and whine about why things should take so long, instead of addressing the problem and getting better service elsewhere? There's precedent for this: my company has, in the distant past, changed these vendors before; they used to be with "GN", but GN was very expensive and extremely slow and non-responsive. So, they up and changed. To VM, who is now very expensive and extremely slow and non-responsive.

An analogy that presents to me is going to a restaurant. Let's imagine that you go to the restaurant, and they tell you that it's a 30-minute wait. 3 hours later,  you're shown to your seat. 30 minutes later the waiter shows up to take your order. Food shows up 2 hours later, and it's ok...not great, but ok. An hour after you're done eating, you get the check, and it's super expensive. You talk to friends about this experience, and every last one of them relates a similar story about their own experiences at that establishment. Apparently, it's the Modus Operandi for that restaurant.

I ask you: do you go back to this restaurant? I certainly don't. There are other places to eat, that have better food, shorter waits, and are a lot less expensive.

So when do we start to question our decision making paradigm? Is this a problem at my company alone, or does this sort of issue exist everywhere? Me? I'm still working on changing from VM.