I recently went on an almost week-long business trip to Rome. Four companies were collocating to solve a technico-contractual dead-end. I was representing one company, just below the customer… so typically with the highest contractual volume and risk.
Basically we were dealing in solving some sort of stochastic (and some experts thought completely random) spurious problem. Experts with up to 24 years experience in the field were showing up.
The issue was known to all parties since 5 months. No investigation plan had been agreed upon, no recovery actions could therefore be envisaged.
When one start talking about investigating the source of the problem in order to fix the design, this has usually direct impact on the schedule and the cost of the production.
These costs, depending on the agreed recovery solution, could be: additional man power, test house renting, expert consultancy, hardware, penalty for not meeting some customer requirement.
Cost! Means that very quickly the discussion gets heat up and people start arguing who of the tree companies below the customer should bear which additional cost. Therefore depending on who an expert is working with you are not sure any longer if his observations are purely based on engineering assessment or his company’s cost mitigation plan.
For some manpower reason and also because the decision point was not a question of days at the time I traveled alone to this meeting.
I work paperless. I even scan papers if I cannot find the original electronic version and then trash the sheets of papers. Indeed, I realized that paper was one of the biggest source of stress for me. Before I would go to a meeting I would need some time to sort out my stack of paper and decide which notes to take with me. By having all papers scanned or better in original version I would always have all information at hand, stored in my laptop. Now finding the right piece of information on the spot during a meeting was easy and only dependent on me maintaining a coherent folder structure and mastering the search options of Google Desktop.
So for such a meeting, I had all documents I could have prepared, all the design justification files, all the previous test reports and assessment, I even had some publications from researchers in obscure laboratories in Massachusetts or in Toulouse. I also had everything prepared on the contract side, I was ready to argue on any word. Like the Ugly would have his guns loaded for high noon, I had my laptop loaded for the meetings discussions.
Little did I know that Amelie Poulain would step in and bring back some Latin communication techniques wonder.
Amelie Poulain must have decided that as the dwarf from his father, my laptop wanted to travel the world and get some Spanish sun and tapas…
I normally never check my luggage in when I fly on a business trip but that time as I was in no rush on the way in and as my luggage was very heavy I decided to check it in, with the laptop inside. It was such a pleasure to go through security check not having to take out my laptop and cosmetics plastic bag.
This is when Amelie Poulain started a farce and had my luggage travel to Madrid as I was going on a business trip to Rome.
So I showed up at the meeting in tee-shirt and jeans equipped with a pen and a small block note I borrowed at the hotel. Oh! And the hotel I was staying at had high speed wi-fi but no computer just to make sure I would not check e-mail on that week…
My customer and my suppliers must have thought that I misunderstood the meeting with a guided tour of the Colliseum. There was also for me no need to read any book on credibility to realize that for someone like me just joining the project at a management level, showing up at a meeting unshaven and in tourist outfit was not sending the right signal.
In a minute of despair, as I was trying to get some courage forcing myself to bite into the disgusting breakfast of the budget hotel, I almost thought of rather spend the week visiting Rome that show up half naked at a networking event.
So here I introduce myself and before the meeting start I make a joke about how “ground care” that was supposed to look after my luggage could be re-baptized “don’t care”.
Thanks to Amelie Poulain farce a completely new dynamic took place. I just couldn’t argue about the contract, I just couldn’t argue in a big round discussion about documents I didn’t have. So I started to go to talk to people, one after another. Like an external consultant would do, I took the time to listen to explanation, ask people to draw plots and sketches on my notepad. I genuinely had no counter argue to nobody, I just had a rough memory of some figures and concepts so I would know what sort of question to ask to get to the information I needed.
Interestingly I also took the time to joke, talk politics with engineers at the plant we were visiting which would otherwise not have taken an active part in the meeting. I realized that with my knowledge of French and Spanish I could understand their Italian.
Bottom line is that the risk is still on my company but with this unexpected meeting proceedings I got everyone, from management to the shop floor to express their opinions and ideas on how to solve the problem. On some delicate technical problems that can be the best approach as there is not always a single way of investigating and solving the problem. It might have been beneficial that I didn’t started the discussion by saying: “here is what I propose, what do you say?” because the owner of the design could have reacted: “i fthis is what you want, I will do it but you pay for it and you bear the consequences!” and then we would have been stuck in a responsibility and cost discussion.
Thank to Amelie, I rather started like: “Dude, do you think that if Berlusconi doesn’t get elected this week-end he will try to be the next pope?” “Well my friend you laugh but let me tell you: he has so good connections it could happen!” “LoL” And after a while: “what were exactly the test result values? And where are we with the investigation possibilities?” And after a longer while: “oh, and let me show you this, it is not official, but we are starting to investigate on this piece of hardware which is not representative but still, I believe that…”
Epilogue: Just before I had to go to Rome airport to take my flight, Ground Care told me on my mobile that I could come and pick my luggage at Rome airport, it just arrived from Madrid. So I flew back to Northern Europe with my laptop and as much as I was happy to see it again and would have loved to hear stories about Madrid and Rajoy’s friends corruption I decided it could wait for the week after to switch back at work to tie and paperless mode as I had to sort all the information I gather the Latin way.
But as a matter of fact, by not bringing with me all my documentation to the meeting I was forced to communicate with humility to everybody there and I flew back with information that would certainly help me orienting us toward an optimum decision for all companies in ensuring the project success.
What this is demonstrating once again is that to find a solution technical and pragmatical talks have better be run thoroughly before any contractual discussion kicks in.