A Challenging Opportunity
In the stages of my career I worked designing radios for military aircraft. Typically the gestation period to develop test and productionise a new radio back in the 80’s was about 18-24 months.
We had a situation where the US had bought the UK design for the Harrier jet and they had made it lighter special wing section. When the UK wanted more it made sense to have this specification, the problem for my company was it meant that it came with US radio equipment fitted. So we said we would like the opportunity to supply. We were told that if we could get a flyable prototype ready in 6 months our radio would be considered. The trouble was it needed to fit into a smaller form factor than our current radio and it had to be electrically equivalent. So a plug’n play replacement.
So that was the challenge, from a blank sheet of paper to flyable prototype, meeting all the specs in 6 months!
It was a tough challenge. I remember my manager at the time saying that if we sat down and planned it in detail, all we would prove was that it couldn’t be done in less than 18 months and that wasn’t the answer that anyone wanted to hear. So he and the four of us in the lead design team decided to take a radically different approach.
We looked at the 6 months and worked backwards from what success looked like. Of course all that proved was that we needed to have started a year previously! We then time-boxed the 6 months and working backwards came up with some tangible goals for each period. From memory it went something like this:
- Month 6 Integration and Unit Testing
- Month 5 Module Testing & Environmental Tests
- Month 4 Module Fabrication
- Month 3 Component Sourcing & Procurement
- Month 2 Committed detail Design, electronics and mechanicals
- Month 1 Design options leading to agreed outline design
The key thing was that there was absolutely no leeway. If we were not finished what we had to do in Month 1 we would have failed. Similarly in Month 2 and so on.
Clearly it was all well and good having a team of engineers committed to this timescale but the one thing that could jeopardise success was other parts of the company not being agile enough. So another radical decision was made, ‘give every lead engineer the golden ticket’ this meant that we could circumvent slow processes and departments. As an example, this radio design was full of multi-layer PCBs and our internal design office simply didn’t have the bandwidth or the processes to do all the work we needed in the timeframe we had so we were given the licence to go outside and place contracts with smaller, specialised, companies who were hungry for the work. We paid more overall, they worked long hours and weekends and so did we checking, modifying, and signing off their work but we got results.
Delivering the Programme
We set off on the programme, we made Month 1’s objective and we moved quickly into Month 2’s, if a particular team could move ahead of the schedule they did, but the magical thing was that teams that got ahead of their schedule volunteered to help those that were slipping. We created a ‘One Team’ dynamic that had incredible coherence and cross loyalty because the team goals were always tangible and always frighteningly close.
We progressed through Months 3 and 4 without too much drama but Month 5 was always going to be a challenge. Could we get the individual modules to perform to specification in the timeframe? Could we pass the environmental tests, we had to undergo 10g rms performance testing to cope with the vibration levels on the Harrier. It was close and we got some really promising results and some disappointing ones in equal measure. Again all the team members pulled together helping solve problems outside their area or simply making coffee and ordering in the ubiquitous pizzas.
We reached Month 6, Integration & Test with apprehension, we had hit every objective but this was the stage where all the risks could suddenly materialise and bite us. The modules were bolted together with draw bolts and the flexible film pcb connecting all of the individual modules together was fitted. External connections were made and we linked up to a simulated aircraft supply with the current trip set low. We threw the power switch and it tripped, there was a large current drain.
The radio was broken down and each module went back to its design team for module test, no problems individually. Then the problem was isolated to an error on the flexi-film. This was corrected with a scalpel cut and we reassembled and threw the switch again. This time no big current drain. The receiver side of the radio was checked on some test channels, it worked. Then the transmitter, again it worked!
There followed days of testing and module alignment to get the interfaces performing just right. The radio then went down to the customer for safety of flight certification and testing. This was easy since it dropped into the test harnesses and systems used for the US equipment. The customer ran the automatic tests which lasted for hours, this radio had thousands of channels on which to check its transmit and receive performance. The automatic testing produced lots of pass/fail sheets and many A3 charts characterising performance. The great news was that the radio passed all the tests and the graphs characterising performance showed it worked at least as well as the US radio and in some areas better because of design differences.
This was a radio design that we started from scratch using a lot of innovative and new technology so it was particularly gratifying that it performed so well.
So what did this teach us?
- Planning bottom up does not always give us the best schedule and more importantly one that the team understand and buy into because the detail often obscures it from the team.
- Make your goals tangible and make them time-boxed team goals so that you can leverage from sub-teams helping one another as ‘One Team’ to reach common objectives.
- Sometimes you have to be a maverick, bypass the standard procedures and break the mold.
- Success only comes from meticulous care and preparation. If each module owner in the radio hadn’t thought about the whole radio as well as his own element the integration would have been full or problems.
- When you empower people and give them a tangible goal to own, they deliver more, they work at 150%, and I am not talking about long hours I mean they are 150% effective, better than their best.
- Being part of this kind of team is a life experience that sticks with people for the rest of their lives and enables them to tackle seemingly impossible tasks in the future.
What happened with the radio? We passed all of the tests, did a very successful flight trial and we got a multi-million pound order! Follow this link.
What happened to the team? Everyone walked around in a bit of a ‘post success daze’ for a while but they all went on to do great things in their careers making huge contributions to their companies and the communications world.
What happened to my manager? He and I started to get into the psychology of achievement and motivation, we attended some courses, drafted the manuscript for a book and then tried to bring the rather unusual blend of engineering and psychology to everything we did from thereon in.