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The quest for increased productivity, zero downtime, and zero defects

20 2017 July

A few years ago, I was selling services to the electrical validation labs at several leading silicon manufacturers when Intel CEO Brian Krzanich announced that they would be halving their validation timeline, getting to “A0” in less than 12 months. Everyone I talked to in the rank and file of these organizations thought this declaration was crazy. They’ve been “making the sausage” for decades. The cadence and timelines had been well established. In their minds, there was no way to achieve this outside of working your teams to death and burning them out. I agreed. I thought it was especially audacious that the CEO of Intel, the world’s expert in doing this work, would make such a statement. How? Did he have some special revelation that came to him in a dream? Did he believe that thousands of the smartest people in the business today are either so incompetent or lazy that they take twice as long as they should to do their job? Did he have such a blatant disregard for his workforce’s well-being that he’d gladly put them on the path to a 2 year burn out track? I didn’t know.

Rather than simply wonder at the hubris, shake my head at the stupidity, or broil in anger at yet another glass-tower CEO who can think of nothing more than chasing ever-higher “shareholder return” at the expense of his workforce, I started looking long and hard these teams. These are incredibly bright, hard- working men and women. What do they do? What do they do well? What don’t they do well? Where do they find themselves struggling with the same issues over and over? These aren’t people who simply wile away their days, leaning on the proverbial shovel while lamenting how hard they work. Are they being led by a ruthless robber baron who cares nothing for the well-being of his workforce? Possible, but I doubt it. What did he see that we were missing? Is there some systematic failure he saw that we’re blind to? The more I’ve observed, the more I’m convinced that BK saw a systematic failure. I’ll explain below.

I’ve broken down the idea of failure into two camps. There’s the catastrophic kind that certain industries can’t afford. The modern tech mantra is “move fast, break things.” That doesn’t work when you’re building assets that are incredibly expensive or people entrust with their lives (airbags, seatbelts, airplanes, satellites). Failure is not an option for obvious reasons. Herculean efforts are made to get from 95% to 99.9999% reliability. Even in less critical sectors, the costs of catastrophic failure can be staggering.

Remember when Intel took a $600M write down for a chipset redesign in 2011? More recently, the Galaxy Note S7 debacle comes to mind. Less than .001% of their phones started on fire. It still cost Samsung $1B.

I haven’t quantified the damage to their reputation, but you can probably conservatively double that hard number. These are examples of catastrophic failures. They’re huge, they get headlines, vast sums of money and trust are lost. In the worst cases people die. Executives lose their jobs, get sued, and go to jail. Respected businesses can be brought to their knees financially. Look at Takata.

Now, let’s talk about parasitic failure. This is the systematic failure where I believe BK saw opportunity. Let’s get back to his declaration that validation schedules were to be halved. At first, it sounds crazy. But then you start critically looking at all the steps. Things begin to jump out at you. The engineer who loses 3 days of work because he was making measurements on a defective oscilloscope. The OEM who went back and forth with a vendor for weeks on a measurement correlation issue, just to learn that one person’s VNA was properly calibrated while the other party’s identical VNA was making erroneous measurements. That’s two teams addressing the issue. For weeks. I’d like to say these are rare occurrences, but they’re not. They add up. Let’s look at the communications industry. I’ll start with wireless carriers. T-Mobile has the highest customer satisfaction marks of any major US carrier. Their customer satisfaction rate? 47%. Think about that. 53% of customers of the “best” carrier in the US are not happy. Let’s look at cable. They’re better, but not by a lot. In 2014 the average customer satisfaction rating for cable providers was 65%. For me personally, I remember a particularly painful cross-region move as a Comcast customer. I’ll save all the gory details, but it took 15 hours of phone calls, 4 modem re-provisions, two trips to the local service center because they broke my hardware, and then a call a month later to let them know that I shouldn’t be paying a rental fee on a modem I own. I’m not joking.

The purpose of my article here is not to rail against Comcast or the wireless carriers. However, the industry is ripe for its own “BK” moment. There are opportunities to increase productivity, customer satisfaction, and, ultimately, the bottom line. This requires a critical eye on the whole business, from infrastructure planning, installation, maintenance, and troubleshooting, to the back end business processes and handling customer requirements/etc… I’ll leave the discussion around back-office processes and customer interactions to the business consultants of the world, but want to talk about the technical side a bit.

Here at SAF, we’ve been building radios for point to point microwave communications for 20 years. We consider ourselves microwave experts, and are proud to have some of the best reliability figures in the business.

A few years back, a subset of our R&D team was playing around with a garage project. The idea was to build an ultra- compact, highly sensitive spectrum analyzer that would be ideal for field use in point to point. For our team, it was a fun challenge to see if they could pack the essential features into a form factor that wasn’t much larger than a smartphone. They achieved that, and started playing around, using their toy for antenna alignment. It made quick work of it. Nothing was done to “productize” it, but it was fun. A year or two later, SAF sold a large link deal in northern Africa where the customer wanted us to handle the installation as well. Besides the complexity of the path planning, the team encountered interference issues from other radios that were improperly installed, illegal spectrum use, and other challenges. Deploying what is now the Spectrum Compact to sort everything out made the difference between an unprofitable deal and a profitable one.

In the 3 years that we’ve had the Spectrum Compact on the market, we’ve helped multiple carriers save weeks of labor and maximize the throughput of their networks. The Spectrum Compact has been deployed for site investigation, troubleshooting link issues, recovering from weather events, and chasing down interference. For regulators, the tools make compliance investigation easy, helping them work more efficiently. Addressing parasitic failure is achieved through a series of small wins, not a single, world changing revelation that turns the world on its head.

For point to point links, I believe SAF has a compelling solution that addresses a key drain on the productivity and profitability of today’s microwave engineers.

This article was originally posted on Adam's LinkedIn profile. The information and views set out in this publication are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official opinion of SAF Tehnika.
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Adam Hostetter

North American Sales Manager for SAF Tehnika's Test & Measurement Product Lines.

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