Wednesday, March 21, 2007

"The Decider"

I have a colleague who teaches a class on failures in engineering. He is considering writing a text, and wants to open with the problems that arise when you have a single person acting as "the decider" -- that is, one person, whom everyone else on the project reports to, who does not directly answer to anyone else, and who makes the key decisions on the design and implementation of the project.

His first example would be the 1844 explosion of a cannon (called "The Peacemaker") on the USS Princeton The gun's designer, Captain Robert F. Stockton, was also in charge of its manufacture, testing, and installation. He even supplemented US Navy funding with money from his family. The gun was installed on the newly built USS Princeton, commanded by -- surprise -- Captain Stockton, so he was now in charge of its operation as well.

Stockton's gun was inherently flawed, such that someone experienced in the art of gun design would have caught the error. But Stockton was not such a "someone." Had the gun undergone extensive testing, it would have failed then, before entering service. But Stockton had limited the number of test firings.

On February 28, 1844, President Tyler, his Cabinet, and 200 guests boarded the USS Princeton for a pleasure cruise and trial of the gun. The Peacemaker fired its charge (40 pounds of gunpowder and a 228-pound iron ball) without incident twice. The third time the gun was fired it exploded, killing six, including the Secretary of the Navy and the Secretary of State.

Had there been an independent check at some point in the process, the error may have been caught. Had someone else been commanding the vessel, that someone might have recognized the potential failure and not allowed the weapon to be fired. Instead, Stockton was the unary "decider" who followed his gut when what he really needed sound advice and detached oversight.

Stockton, who had absolute control over the gun project from its inception to fatal explosion, was absolved of all blame. He may have been "the decider," but, honest, it wasn't his fault!

My colleague said that this title for Chapter One, "The Decider," just popped into his head while reading the news from Iraq. He's seeking a non-engineering example for the chapter as well. Say, something from the political areana, such as ..... Watergate.

Or were you thinking of something else?

(Image source: Wikipedia)



Anonymous Celia said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

4:58 PM  
Anonymous the dryyyyyyy cracker said...

Dude, the weird thing? I KNOW Celia. That comment's her honest-to-God reaction to your post.

And I concur. You did a very good work.

5:37 PM  
Blogger J. said...

Hey, what was that deleted post? C'mon! Let us in on it.

11:05 PM  
Blogger Jim said...

J., the deleted post was a delightful piece of comment spam from "Celia" promoting a website where one can purchase a fine array of drug paraphernalia. While I am unfamiliar with the emporium, you might ask the dryyyyyyy cracker to email you about it and its (I presume) proprietress! ;-)

3:13 AM  
Blogger Michael O'Neill said...

This is actually a very interesting story, and consistent with a larger issue many of us are watching with great interest.

Playing itself out on the national stage these days is an archetypal conflict, between a centralized command-and-control organization and a decentralized, network-centric "organization."

More than a little academic ink (electrons?) has been expended on debating the merits of each. Let's sit back, get the popcorn out, and watch the drama unfold.

Thanks for the thoughts.

12:48 PM  

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