Masters in Major Programme Management
How then do we, as mere mortals, design and deliver perfect programmes?
The psychologist Michael Cole and some colleagues once gave members of the Kpelle tribe, in Liberia, a version of the WISC similarities test (a modern day IQ test): they took a basket of food, tools, containers, and clothing and asked the tribesmen to sort them into appropriate categories. To the frustration of the re-searchers, the Kpelle chose functional pairings. They put a potato and a knife together because a knife is used to cut a potato. “A wise man could only do such-and-such,” they explained. Finally, the researchers asked, “How would a fool do it?” The tribesmen immediately re-sorted the items into the “right” categories.
This story, I quote in verbatim from Quora, pretty much sums up the raison d’etre of systems engineering. Over the past week, Dr. Alex Budzier, other distinguished professors and a plethora of industry practitioners explained in no uncertain terms that the templated approach prescribed by various frameworks often fails to see the bigger picture. More specifically, the course lectures emphasized that the human part of the equation in major programmes is conveniently forgotten in the design and subsequently “bolted-on”.
A highlight of the week was the “Food Systems Workshop” during which the members of the cohort were split into teams— to design, plan and deliver a three-course meal for over 70 people. The activity was led by Daniel Ospina, affiliated with the “The Fat Duck” restaurant, a man whose experience and knowledge paradoxically exceeded his age. This activity was not only fun and entertaining but also served (pun intended) to help us understand the complexities of designing a system, in this case an evening meal— right from the factors that affect the layout of the plate, user experience design to interface management. Having now understood the intricacies involved, everyone who participated took a silent vow to never again reprimand service staff, ever, for serving food late!
On a more personal note, I was also able to retrospectively connect the dots and understand why one of the largest programmes I had ever been involved in was a success. The “decisive factor”, which I have now come to understand, was “systems engineering”.
It was one sweltering summer afternoon in 2008, when I first laid my eyes on the magnificent glass and metal exoskeleton of the half-finished terminal 3, a $4.5bn extension to the Dubai International Airport. It’s large, oblong structure lay like a resting giant in the middle of the largest construction site I have ever seen until this point in my life. Around the periphery of this structure was a flurry of activity; more than a hundred cranes, Bobcats and over 30,000 men toiled, bringing the building slowly to life, which when completed, would be one of the largest man-made structures on earth.
My team was specifically tasked with designing and provisioning the contents of work package AX324, which comprised of the network backbone and connectivity requirements for the 40,000 or so, odd devices, within the airport’s infrastructure, that relied on a communications network to operate. Like the autonomic nervous system of a mechanized giant, our setup included over twenty five thousand network switches connected by miles of cabling, which would soon carry VoIP (Voice Over IP) phone data from over 6,000 telephones and digitized security video from over 20,000 CCTV cameras. Baggage handling systems, which were the largest in the world, with 90km long conveyor belts, would talk to each other, through our networks, to find the most efficient path to move passenger belongings. Even passenger preferences and on-demand movies would be wirelessly transmitted to parked aircraft, via our networks.
Right from the start, what I now understand to be a “systems” approach, was taken. Large causal diagrams, depicting passenger flows from disembarkation to terminal exit were mapped and all teams (over 200 vendors) were briefed in tandem. The design plan and the logical interfaces emerged autonomously and democratically. Every single person and system that had a part in the airport’s operation was tested, taught and their roles reinforced as a cohesive whole. Operational staff, who would soon run the airport were included in all programme communications— the efforts were focussed on fixing the largest piece of the puzzle; i.e. “wet-ware” behaviour. Even the canines who would secure the terminals, in operation, were trained to operate effectively within the system.
The industry practitioners who spoke during this module covered the why, what and how of each of the above concepts and methodologies.
On the 14th of November 2008, the airport opened to the public, right on schedule. Everything ran like clockwork. I remember the day vividly; I was sitting inside the Network Operations Centre (NOC) and intently watched the giant plasma panels that filled the room.
I saw the switches connect with one another, little blips of light, racing across the screen— perhaps, it was a father using a ticketing terminal to book a ticket for his daughter’s graduation, I wondered to myself, or was it the baggage system routing the jewel box containing a man’s engagement ring for his fiancé? — I may never know but deep inside it felt right.
Try this thought experiment— visualize our presence in this universe as threads, with each of us represented by one of 7 billion hues, running horizontally from one end to another. For most part, a thread runs straight, unfettered but every so often, threads, of varying shades of grey, cross a coloured one, defining a point in time when one of us becomes impacted by the consequences of a major programme— such as using an airport terminal or accessing drinking water from a storage dam.
With every programme delivered successfully, more people have access to services, more events link to even more people and as more people interact with one another, more threads cross each other and systems engineering may likely hold the key to making this happen.
Can you imagine what this fabric of threads would look like, if one were to picture, the impact of global programmes on the lives of seven billion people?
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