About one year ago I was given the opportunity to work on an inquiry that involved a technology for which I had limited exposure. As an engineer I was incredibly excited, but also fearful of what I didn’t know and the time it would take to learn it. I am one of a handful of engineers in my department and there are only two other engineers at the company familiar with the technology – one is semi-retired and the other one works in another department. The inquiry was passed along to me from two heads of engineering that were themselves mostly unfamiliar with the details of the specific technology, but consulted with the “experts” and decided that we should proceed with lab scale testing. However, we didn’t have the equipment to do the testing onsite. My first task was to specify the needed lab equipment and come up with a budget. The charge to the customer for conducting the testing was just enough to cover the cost of the equipment so it seemed like a good opportunity overall – gain hands on experience, get new equipment for the lab and potentially go on to sell commercial equipment.
Once the equipment arrived I ran a series of tests which took, in total, about six full weeks over the course of six months. The tests got progressively better as I learned from mistakes and refined the procedure. I directed questions to the “experts” as they arose, but often found that the questions I needed to ask weren’t apparent until it was too late. On top of that, the responses I received weren’t exactly “expert” level.
After the testing was complete, the customer finally sent the RFQ so that we could design and quote commercial equipment. Upon reviewing I found that request was over my head. I reviewed the RFQ with the “experts” – one said it was “mind-boggling” and outside of our expertise, the other said we would need to run even more tests before we could quote. Just last week I had to go back to the customer and let them know that we are unable to provide a quotation and don’t have enough resources to conduct additional testing.
Since we just discussed project selection in class, I thought this was a great example of how chasing the wrong projects can get you trampled by the “White Elephant”. If anyone had asked any of the following questions at any time during the project we could have prevented wasted effort and embarrassment.
- What specific strategy does this project align with?
- What are the project objectives?
- Who is the project sponsor?
- Will resources be available for this project?
While I feel like the problem originated from the head engineers/management, I know that I am not blame free. I’m curious if I had MGT 598 one year ago if I would have approached the project more wisely or if I just needed the failure to open my eyes.
I think there are many other questions we could have asked along the way to save face. Do you have any advice for me or my department?