Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Airbus Discovers Integration Matters

Monday's Wall Street Journal front page featured a back-story on the delivery of the first A380 to Singapore Airlines, "Airbus, Amid Turmoil, Revives Troubled Plane" (subscription required).

Today, as its A380 superjumbos move down the assembly line, Airbus is clawing back. Such turnaround stories often star a company's top brass. But at Airbus, much of the credit rests with a few midlevel executives who found a way to fuse the company's balkanized units while the boardroom was in disarray.

One of them is Rüdiger Fuchs, a 41-year-old German engineer who forced designers, engineers and assembly line workers at Airbus's Hamburg factory to start cooperating. With the help of Alain Carcasses, a French engineering manager, Mr. Fuchs also coaxed French electrical specialists into helping their German counterparts at an engineering office in Toulouse, France. [...]

Airbus Chief Executive Tom Enders says the company recognizes what went wrong. "The underlying problem was the lack of integration," he says. "We're taking voluminous lessons from that."

The story goes on to look at the steps Mr. Fuchs took to address the technical, programmatic, and cultural problems that delayed delivery of the first plane by almost two years and overran the budget by $6.8 billion.

Unfortunately, expensive problems with complex systems seem to be more and more common. Airbus, Boeing, Microsoft, NASA, Lockheed, SAP, and Northrop Grumman are just a few of the companies and organizations that have suffered from poor systems integration and program management in the past few years.

We need a better approach to system integration (SI) for complex systems that are unique or first-of-class. Systems integration theory is non-existent: instead the standard definition of SI limits it to configuration management of system interfaces during development, and then melds it into end-product assembly, verification, and validation, aka "System Integration & Test."

Mr. Fuchs came to understand that his integration problems extended beyond the complex technical challenges of the A380 superjumbo. He had to address cultural issues that impeded communications between the engineering teams in Germany and France, and between the engineers and the assembly workers:
There was no single manager to force integration and spot problems.

"Nobody had a high-level view or the power to rule the game," he says.

Good system integration practices are good system engineering practices, but it seems few systems engineers and program managers really understand the "magic" that leads to successful integration. Effective SI requires good design, good communications, good management, and a supportive corporate culture.

Airbus has learned that lesson the hard way.