True Story No3


Does anyone want an 8 foot kettle lead?

This story deals with an error caused by humans. Computers participated but they did well and even demonstrated the error, albeit too late!

Several years ago when a particular large project was moving from one company business to another it was relatively straightforward. All the components needed for the manufacturing phase were coded with company house-codes; all had been entered into the company-wide computer databases correctly; and all the supporting documentation had been completed.

At the precise stage in the transfer of the project however the R&D arm of the company had already started to input the final customers' requirement into the Automated Purchasing System and this was taken over and completed by the in-house manufacturing organisation chosen to build the equipment. Although this was about 80 miles away, thanks to telephone lines, the computers in both places knew exactly what was wanted and over a period of about 9 months or so…most bits had arrived in the stores of the manufacturing plant.

Regular meetings were held and progress was monitored. Budgets were closely checked and discrepancies having the smallest deviation argued at length.

Things were more or less on schedule…it was noted that some things were arriving a little later than planned but contingencies were in place to overcome this.

Week followed week and real progress became apparent as large trailers with metal containers fitted to them appeared in rows and gradually filled up with equipment. More and more of the factory began to fill up with these dark green containers and people began to relax. Finances were just within budget and at least this bit of the contract should make a profit.

At the end of one memorable progress meeting I recall asking if a couple of spare "kettle leads" were available for the test rig back at the R&D establishment where testing was in progress (these so-called kettle leads were used to interconnect radio equipment to the mains supply and had been specially designed for the project, looking like moulded kettle leads but being about two or three times their length).

The Manufacturing Director stepped forward.

"Allan," he said, "I've just been learning about the intricasies of the "Bill of Materials" computer system and I'm now a whiz with a terminal. Let me help". So saying he went to the nearest computer screen and started typing in the code I supplied for a kettle lead.

"There!" he said triumphantly, stepping back to admire his handiwork…"You can have any number between 2 and 9000".

I said 2 would be fine but why did we have 9000 still in stores?

Silence descended on the remaining members of the meeting who were just chatting, drinking coffee, and generally packing their papers into briefcases etc. prior to departing. Some rushed away.

What had happened was this.

When the contract details had first been computerised we were unsure of the numbers wanted of one particular set of equipments. Some said it was 30, others said 29 and some said 31. No-one was really sure.

The piece of paper carrying the information for ONE set was an Items List. The automation at the R&D establishment wasn't as complete as it could have been and quantities of major equipments were manually entered from the contract documents. The Items List had been supplied to the Purchasing Clerk, who co-incidentally was a young girl who had only recently joined the company.

Across the top of the original copy of the Items List had been written in blue biro "x30". The figure had been crossed out and "x31" had been entered. As everyone knows when you copied documents written in blue biro, results were not always consistent. In this case (it was later discovered) the "x30" and "x31" had come out OK but the line crossing out the lower figure had not. The young girl, working with a Xerox copy, had duly entered "930" (ie.30 x 31).

Each list had a quantity of 10 kettle leads hence we ended up with 9,300. We only needed 300 so we had 9,000 too many.

So no big deal you might say. Sell them.

First, we couldn't because kettle leads (at that time) couldn't be longer than a prescribed length which was less than half of ours. Second, what about the rest of the items on the Items List?

Well put it this way…when we tried to sell surplus Military Connectors to other companies we were met with initial comments such as "yes please they're as scarce as hen's teeth .. for some reason we can't get any" . It turned out that British Industry was having a mini-boom. All our suppliers were making things for us by the tens of thousands! Connectors were delivered by the van load for months.

Unfortunately our customer had wanted everything in a special matt black finish. When we quoted codes to would-be buyers they queried the slash MB at the end. "Oh that's no good, we only buy in NATO green" was the universal comment. The matt black finish rendered the surplus scrap!

There were about 35 items on the Items List in quantities of up to 30 (ie. the total of some bits was 27,900!) and the cost of the excess components turned out to be £2,000,000. I believe a local scrap dealer came in and bought the lot for a couple of hundred quid. At future progress meetings, when it came to manufacturing spend against budget, comments were somewhat muted.

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