Captain Composite


The glitter and power of new technology can blind the eyes of those not fully cognizant of its true function. In Peter Clark's article "Captain Composite," he says, "The tool (technology) can become the product rather than a means to the project's goal." Enthusiasm born of this fascination for novelty tends to overpower one's ability to accurately assess the technology's limitations and risks. As a result, risk management is lost in the hype. Peter's tale of the fallible, almost quixotic, "Captain Composite" warns us that disregarding risk management inevitably leads to the pitfall of any project.

It's late at night after a long, hard day at a customer's site. The normal installation panic has been worked through, the list has been punched, and the customer is happy... at least until the next crisis. It's "Miller Time" and the beers and stories are going around the table. John is quietly sipping his brew, not saying much. Finally, he puts his beer down, looks around the table, and says, "I've got a story that tops all of these."

Once upon a time, many years ago, I worked for a company that manufactured and installed Automatic Guided Vehicle (AGV) systems in factories. This company has long since gone out of business, but at the time it was on the bleeding edge of technology. AGVs are electric vehicles that follow wires embedded in the floor, automatically trundling material. They are extremely quiet, so to prevent people from absent-mindedly stepping in front of them and getting run down, they make a beeping noise as they move.

One time the company was installing a system for a large airplane manufacturer. This system was to transport the tooling for the tail section of a jet airplane. The tail sections are made entirely out of carbon-fiber composite materials that are heated under pressure in large autoclave ovens. The ovens are constructed like massive bank vaults. The AGV would roll right up to the vault; the door would magically roll open; and the vehicle would dutifully roll inside, pick up or drop off its tooling, and then roll out--the door majestically closing behind it.

This facility cost the customer several hundred million dollars to produce. When a company buys a facility like this, it typically contracts a large firm and buys the whole facility from the AGVs to the autoclaves, including the office furniture and the paper clips. Afterwards, the facility is turned over from the contractor to the company. This transaction has great legal and financial ramifications, so there is often an official ceremony when the purchaser takes ownership.

The project management team for the contractor and the aircraft company were fascinated by the AGVs. They would watch the AGVs for hours. The vehicles glided up to the autoclave door, the door rolled open, and the AGVs disappeared inside. Minutes later, the vehicles exited and the door closed. The project management team thought it was the coolest thing in the world.

It is easy to become captivated by the technology you are managing. The tool can become the product, rather than a means to the project's goal. This is especially easy for project managers who typically aren't as close to the technology as the technical staff. You can get blinded by the blinking lights and lose your sense of perspective.

For the change of ownership ceremony, the project managers decided that it would be cool to showcase the great technology the customers were getting. Presidents, vice presidents, and members of the boards of directors for both the customer and the vendors would be present for the ceremony. It would be a great opportunity to show everyone how spiffy this facility was, and how wisely their money was spent.

The project management team recalled how elegantly the vehicles followed the wires in the floor,and the majesty of the whole transportation process. Couldn't the team use the AGVs as part of the ceremony? Couldn't the person who ceremoniously presented the facility to the customer ride one of the vehicles to the ceremony platform? The project management team members imagined a heroic figure, a Captain Composite , who would emphasize the mythic size of their accomplishments in


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