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Look at the failures – who’s to blame? – Mike Symes

Michael Symes

Michael SymesWhenever failures in business are exposed, there is often a tendency towards a quick root-cause analysis and specifically, searching for someone to blame. I recall a scenario that came up a few years back, where I had to work with a client who was looking for a ‘blame victim’.

My team at Vecta Labs had processed a large volume of antennas for a particular project, which demonstrated a failure rate that concerned him.

Upon seeing the failure rate data, he asked, “What’s gone wrong and who is to blame?”.

After years of hearing these and similar questions and knowing that what I was about to say would raise more questions and leave the explanation even more buried in a myriad of issues, my answer was well versed.

I said, “Nothing has gone wrong”.

This answer drew on decades of designing and manufacturing antennas, RF antenna line components and PIM instruments. While the failure rates were concerning, test outcomes like these are not abnormal.

And to a large extent, these failures are often the fault of the Carrier.

To answer the client’s initial questions, I could have honestly told him that it was the carrier’s fault, or his and his team’s fault!  Or maybe it might have been the subscriber’s fault, but responses like this probably wouldn’t have benefitted anyone without context.

Yes, the vendor is a stakeholder since product from their factories are failing, but they may be squeezed into a difficult situation, trying to balance commercial realities.

Putting the humour to one side, when we step back and look at everything, no one is to blame really, since all stakeholders from the subscriber to the lower tiers of the supply chain are dealing with the same commercial pressures, often attributable to commoditisation.

We all have a place in this industry, but margins are continuously tightening.

So, when responding to the client’s questions, I did stress the genuine belief that vendors and others don’t generally design and deliver substandard products, but no business wants to forgo purchase orders and once won in the face of stiff price competition while processes are refined (read trimmed from time to time) to make the commercial scales balance.

There was no doubt in my mind that these antennas had been built and supplied with best intentions from the manufacturer, yet they were less than perfect products. Sadly, this becomes the norm across the supply chain when margins are squeezed too far.

There is nothing new in this and nothing unique to mobile comms, since we see it every day in all that we buy, at home and at work.

The customer absorbed my response and after a pause replied, “I get it, yes, we do push them hard, but how do we fix this?”.

That was a great question and one that should be debated far and wide in this industry.

Vecta Labs doesn’t pretend to have the perfect answer, although the masses of data we see during the course of our business suggest that failure rates are often significant and may well result from the pressure of very aggressive pricing throughout the supply chain.

The data suggests that better designs, alternative materials and more controlled manufacturing and testing processes would largely overcome these ‘routine’ failures. The gains of lower Capex (purchase price) for the Carrier are substantially eroded through increased Opex these failures generate during the service life of the network. R&M activity and budgets become stretched in future years.

Our argument to deliver an improved product is that a greater focus on life cycle costing, as opposed to Capex Vs Opex, would result in more optimal designs, materials and manufacturing and testing processes, delivering a better overall quality and value result.

This Out of The Noise article was contributed by Michael Symes, a Director and Founding Member of Vecta Labs.

Michael is confident that wireless telecommunications will be increasingly dependent on test and measurement into the future.  He describes Vecta Labs as a business that doesn’t guess performance, doesn’t extrapolate it, and doesn’t assume anything.

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