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Wires Crossed?

If projects today are largely labelled business projects, and not IT projects, then it's time the business starts taking it on the chin when it can't get IT right

A month or so ago, I started compiling my annual "things that need to be done around the house that are driving me crazy" list. It's largely a surreptitious effort on my part, because if I do it in consultation with Chez K's CEO, he inevitably feels he has to tackle a handful of the repairs - all of which have been blatantly obvious for months (thus the driving-me-crazy part of the prefix) - himself. Nonetheless, after tallying up the this and thats, I figured there wasn't much use in wasting time and money on multiple calls from various tradesmen, so I grudgingly solicited his input.

"Did you remember the broken soap dish in the upstairs bathroom?" he asked. "We should get a plumber in to fix it."

Plumber? To fix a soap dish?

Well, I think you see why at Chez K the CEO is not the go-to guy for skills matching.

Which brings me to why projects go wrong. But first, a two-question quiz: 1. What is the most colossal project disaster of 2006? (Answer: Airbus's A380.) 2. Why? (Answer: software.)

The A380 has seen three delays announced this year, with the super jumbo now two years behind schedule. The setbacks led to multiple executive sackings, a plummeting share price and reports that the company will lose up to $US6.1 billion in revenue.

There's a heap of pain in all those zeros, but it was a single digit that brought the A380 to such grief. In early October, then-CEO Christian Streiff admitted that design software used at different Airbus factories was incompatible.

BusinessWeek.com's Carol Matlack provides the gory details in her story "Airbus: First, Blame the Software". Here are the salient points from her post.

Earlier this year, Matlack reports, pre-assembled bundles called harnesses were delivered from a German factory to the French assembly line. Workers discovered that the harnesses, containing hundreds of kilometres of cabin wiring, didn't fit properly into the plane. Assembly ground to a standstill as workers tried to pull the bundles apart and re-thread them through the fuselage. Airbus had to redesign the wiring system.

"How could the global No. 1 aircraft maker have messed up so badly?" Matlack asks, and provides her own response. "The answer lies in another major Airbus undertaking that was largely overshadowed by the launch of the world's biggest passenger jet. At the end of 2000, just as Airbus gave the go-ahead to the A380, the company announced it was completing the process of transforming itself into an integrated corporation."

Citing Hans Weber of US-based aviation consultant Tecop International, Matlack notes that the various Airbus locations had their own legacy software, methods and procedures. Airbus never succeeded in unifying all those efforts, Weber said.

Matlack reports that the design centre in Germany and the assembly plant in France used different versions (v.4 and v.5 ) of CATIA, a sophisticated design software tool made by France's Dassault Systemes (DASTY).

The impact of using the different versions was catastrophic. Matlack cites an astonishing quote from Robert Weigl, the director of professional services for a US-based company that specializes in helping manufacturers integrate different design software. "As a result," he said, "design specs could not flow easily back and forth between the two systems. The two systems are completely different, they have nothing to do with each other."

Matlack's conclusion to this sorry tale sounds awfully familiar to too many CIOs. "Why wouldn't Airbus factories all clamour to switch to the latest software? Some local managers apparently baulked because of the time and expense involved in retraining engineers to use new design tools. Still, Airbus's top management could have insisted on the changeover . . . but it didn't."

And that's why we don't let upper management at Chez K make certain skill-matching decisions. It's a lesson Airbus learned the hard way. And, you know, all they had to do was ask IT.

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