Tuesday, 29 November 2016

Taking the turnip challenge

I have recently been involved in responding to a tender to build a scientific instrument. When I say "recently", what I actually mean is that I've been dealing with this tender for the past THREE YEARS. Because everyone likes a nice bit of government bureaucracy* don't they?

Initially I prepared a quote for the researcher. He had a small fit when he saw the price and insisted he could make the same thing cheaper himself. I politely suggested that in that case, he should do just that. Funnily enough, he didn't decide he could do it himself. Instead, we proceeded with technical negotiations about just what was required. And then... it turned out that the price had exceeded some magic threshold and the whole project had to go to public tender, and we've been stuck in that morass for some time. I've even had legally dubious communications direct from the researcher "instructing" me in the correct answers to provide to the purchasing department. I have ignored them.

I've been trying to think of way to explain the frustration I'm having with this particular tender, without descending into obscure technical jargon, and I think I've come up with a reasonable analogy. Obviously, what we actually build are mass spectrometers, but just for now, I'm going to pretend that we make cross-bows. And we also make the arrows, and the targets, and a camera. And we absolutely promise our customers that if they set the cross-bow up exactly as we tell them, and position the target exactly where we tell them, and set up the camera to watch the target at just the right distance, and load the arrow exactly as we tell them, then when they fire the arrow it will hit the bullseye of the target, and the camera will capture the result.

Sometimes, though we don't like to do it, we sell only part of this whole set up, and we let the customer supply the remaining part of the equipment. Our rule of thumb however, is that this Never Ends Well. In this case, the customer is supplying both the arrows and the camera. And they are refusing to place an order for our cross-bow unless we guarantee that their arrow will be seen to hit the bullseye of the target. But they won't tell us anything about their arrow, or their camera. It might be a man standing three miles away with an iPhone. We've offered to lend them our arrow and our camera and prove the cross-bow works. But no, they want their arrow and their camera. And I'm refusing. Because, while they might make a perfectly balanced, beautifully flighted arrow, they might try and use a turnip. And I'm not promising anything about turnips.

You might think I'm exaggerating about the turnip, but I've been caught out too many times with the things our customers have "forgotten" to tell us until it's too late....

... like the customer who didn't mention he was going to put our instrument in a helicopter** and take it to the top of the Jungfraujoch.

... like the customer who didn't mention that he was going to install our instrument inside the Arctic circle and wanted an installation visit there.

... like the customer who didn't mention that the entire instrument would be disassembled when it arrived on site and then rebuilt inside a lead-lined box through holes no larger than 60cm across.

... like the customer who didn't mention that he needed the entire instrument to operate at 200 degrees Celsius.

... like the customer who didn't mention that he intended to analyse Uranium hexafluoride

... like the customer who didn't mention that the instrument would need to run in the back of a van being driven along pot-holed roads**.

... like the customer who didn't mention that the instrument would be installed in a hospital and needed to meet medical electronics standards***.

... like the customer who didn't mention that the thing he was asking us to do was widely accepted as being impossible****.

There have been far too many occasions when the psychological equivalent of a turnip has been lobbed our way for me to believe in the non-existence of a turnip in this case. So I'm digging my heels in, and seeing what the wheels of bureaucracy do. So far, each revolution of the wheel is doing what a wheel does, and returning to the starting point. I've now been asked to make promises about the performance of a turnip three times, and I've said no three times. Your move Mr Turnip...

* In this instance, not our own government, another government that has really, really, really mastered bureaucracy.

** As a general rule, precision scientific instruments are not built with sufficient shock absorbers to withstand travel. We now always ask our customers if the instrument is going to be moved around.

*** We found a way round this. Medical electronics is a huge can of worms.

**** It remains one of the high points of my career that I did it anyway.

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