Size Matters

Published: Jul 14 , 2014
Author: Alan Smith

Size matters. But so do lots of other things.

It’s all in the detail, and we all know that. So, why are so many problems only discovered after the ink has long dried?

The temptation as we approach the end game of a long and difficult negotiation is to heave a great sigh of relief and run to the pub to celebrate a job well done over a glass of our favourite tipple.

Forgotten are the issues of which currency we are being paid in, the precise size of the rebate and what factors influence its payment. Not to mention the specification of the delivery and what happens if it is late. I did the deal, what is wrong with you?

The problem is that without the detail what exactly have we agreed to?

The discovery by the French state-owned railway company SNCF that 2,000 new trains are too wide for many station platforms is embarrassing, and extremely expensive. Almost £40 million to reconfigure over 1,000 platforms. But this is far from the first time a small mis-measurement, miscalculation or misunderstanding has had serious repercussions.

Here are 3 other miscalculations with disastrous implications.

  1. The Mars climate Orbiter. Designed to orbit Mars as the first interplanetary weather satellite, the Mars Orbiter was lost in 1999 because one Nasa team used imperial units while another used metric. The $125m probe came too close to Mars as it tried to manoeuvre into orbit, and was destroyed.
  2. The Millennium Bridge. To mark the new millennium, London got a new footbridge in June 2000, linking the newly opened Tate Modern art gallery, on the south bank of the Thames, with the north bank near St Paul's cathedral. But people noticed that the 350m-long structure wobbled alarmingly as they walked across. The designers had failed to take into account the "synchronised footfall" effect - as the bridge began to sway, people would adjust their footsteps to the rhythm of the bridge's movements, inadvertently magnifying them.
  3. Scott of the Antarctic. The polar explorer Robert Falcon Scott made a famous miscalculation about the amount of food his men would need on their 1910-1912 expedition to the South Pole. They were given rations of 4,500 calories per day, which is now known to be insufficient when hauling sledges, and especially at higher altitudes. As their energy failed the expedition members slowly starved to death.

Take time to double and triple check the detail and the assumptions you have made, and build time into the discussion to agree precisely what it is that you have agreed.

As my old woodwork teacher used to say to me. Measure twice, cut once. Good advice.

Alan Smith


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