Thursday, June 5, 2008

The limits of quality, in a crane

I walked past a crane yesterday. I have to say, being New Yorker and hearing a little too regularly about the construction accidents that have been happening, makes me not want to walk so close to those cranes.

There were a few construction accidents earlier this spring, one of them involved a crane that was improperly secured to a building, falling onto a neighboring building. Very recently, a crane on 1st Ave and 91st Street collapsed onto a 23 story building and killed the crane operator.

Many critics will say that the problem is that there is too much construction going on and too much rushing to get the projects done. Seems to make sense to me, especially after reading about the repeated complaints and stop-work orders on that crane that collapsed most recently. If there was not such an urgency to get these new high rises up, then maybe the project could have stopped and the crane properly evaluated and replaced.

I've been especially sensitive to these types of issues lately because I've been reading the very interesting book titled "The Challenger Launch Decision: Risky Technology, Culture, and Deviance at NASA", by Diane Vaughan. It's a slow but very interesting read, and from what I've got so far it's about the 'production' pressures faced in the organization and the 'amoral' judgement and behavior used by the managers there. In both of these cases, the team just wasn't cautious enough, or chose to ignore the warning signs.

What stunned me was the statement New York Mayer Bloomberg made after the accident, something like (not exact quote) "there are only so many inspections that can be made and so many inspectors, sometimes problems aren't caught." When it comes to ensuring the quality of your system when the failure of that system can mean loss of human life, then the warnings have to be taken extremely seriously. I'm not exactly an insider in the construction world, but it looks like the warning signs were not taken seriously enough.

In my software projects we take quality assurance and control seriously and are trying to find ways to improve what we're doing.

Do we miss things?
Of course!

Do we put new bugs into the system when we launch a new project, I think I've got a perfect record on that one, there's always something we have to fix post launch. I'm happy to be in the field where a bug in my system will not cause the loss of human life. I guess I expect a little more from the more dangerous fields of work out there.

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