Marcel Pelgrom consults on analog IC design.

13 January

Step by step, the drama leading to the crash of two Boeing 737 Max planes starts to unravel. Triggered by the good reception of the Airbus 320neo, Boeing started the development of the Max in 2011. The desire to keep up with competition and even try to surpass them led to a number of disputed decisions. Before the plane was delivered to the first customer, Boeing technicians already signaled their doubts on the plane’s safety – signals that were ignored to meet the delivery deadline. Company commitments and the desire for a larger market share outweighed the public safety precautions, which consequently resulted in the death of 346 people.

Planes aren’t the only technical piece of equipment subject to the idea of the ‘green banana’: deliver a half-baked device to the customer, where it will ripen further. This pops up everywhere in society. In many building projects, the contractor rushes in, delivers a green banana and waits for the complaints to come in. Many companies have permanent fixing teams, often staffed with experienced employees, to swiftly calm down angry customers.

When our kitchen was refurbished, the assembly team arrived at seven in the morning and finished the job twelve hours later. Immediately after, however, the list of issues started to grow. We had a flooding, the countertop had to be replaced and much more. A repair team had to come back to our house three times, spending another twelve hours.

Quick satisfaction comes before product quality. The idea that the market requires fast delivery at a low price over any measure of quality has become an overriding theme in the last 30-40 years. The “when” question is getting more important than the “what” story. Sales forces tend to yield to delivery requests from their customers. Fast delivery is paramount, exceeding delivery deadlines causes executives to do penance in front of the customer.

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Unrealistic delivery promises come from a lack of understanding and communication with the engineering community. And perhaps also from a perverse bonus system that drives salesmen and managers to irresponsible behavior. Middle management is often not selected for their ability to raise justified obstacles. They pass the pressure they’re experiencing on to their teams. Ultimately, the engineering team faces the time pressure to meet the deadlines.

Time pressure does strange things to people. During a training session, a group of young managers was asked to climb over a wall, which could only be scaled by good collaboration. Next, the instructor told them: do it again, but now you have just three minutes. The collaboration vanished, everybody started on his own and the group failed. Afterward, the baffling revelation was that the first climb had taken just two minutes. Time pressure is fatal to group processes: the wide view on solutions reduces to a narrow tunnel vision on the prime problem.

Excessive time pressure creates the green bananas of our high-tech industry. Everything becomes fluid under pressure: designs fail to meet all the specifications in the parameter space, not all test procedures are followed, customer trials are skipped, GUIs aren’t fool-proof and so on.

It’s the responsibility of the middle manager to oppose the pressure from his seniors, and allow the project sufficient time to ripen. That requires some personal courage and a good feeling for the technical and engineering capabilities of the design teams and their tasks. Or to put a spin on an Albert Einstein quote: “Do it as fast as possible, but not faster.”