What’s The Real Cost of a Configuration Error?

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A configuration error, like any other error, most certainly comes with a cost. It might be tempting to think that most configuration errors are minor with any resulting cost being minimal assuming that the error is corrected before it becomes a problem. The problem with configuration errors is that the actual cost is usually not understood until the loss occurs.

People look at CPQ technology as something to speed up sales and reduce the need for high-priced expertise related to complex products. Both of those are true; CPQ does accomplish that. However, it also reduces liabilities after the sale and eliminates certain types of failure by making sure that the product is built to match the application it will be addressing.

Hey Buddy, Got a Light?

I used to joke with folks about building a log cabin using Duraflame® fireplace logs. Obviously, this would constitute a configuration error, and just as obvious to most folks would be the fact that the potential cost for this error would be quite high. After all, only an idiot would build a dwelling out of material as flammable as a fireplace log. Well, maybe …

If you have lived in the Silicon Valley area, you may be acquainted with Eichler homes. Eichlers were built in the post-war era and featured a typical ‘50s minimalist look with a shallow pitched roof, lots of glass and an interior built of wood—no sheetrock, no plaster; they have oil-stained mahogany paneling throughout.

There are a variety of reasons given, but the fact is that once a flame takes hold in an Eichler, your best advice is to abandon ship immediately. People would joke about having five, ten or twenty-minute model Eichler homes—the time reference being the time required to burn it down to the slab once a fire was established.

How much does a family home and the lives in it cost? This is precisely the kind of configuration error that a CPQ solution would prevent. Fire codes are translatable into business rules. Residential building specs do not include highly flammable wall coverings or combustible wood stains.

Let’s Dance

On July 17, 1981, the recently completed Hyatt Regency Kansas City held one of its famous tea dances. These affairs were held in the late afternoon and brought all manner of visitors into the hotel. The hotel lobby featured a vaulted ceiling that was crisscrossed by three pedestrian walkways suspended from the ceiling. Dancers and spectators filled the walkways that were hanging from the ceiling at the second, third and fourth levels of the hotel atrium. On this particular evening, disaster struck.

During the design phase of the hotel, the architects and construction engineers had traded some design information back and forth. The brackets holding the rods from which the walkways were suspended were modified, and the engineers had not approved the design change. The forth-level walkway collapsed and fell onto the second-level walkway causing both to fall to the floor of the lobby. As a result, 114 people lost their lives and an additional 214 people were injured.

How do you reckon the cost of this error? Once again, a CPQ solution would have inquired about the use of the brackets in question especially the weight load applicable to their intended use. A specific weight limit, well known at that time, would have removed these brackets from the list of options available.

We Use the Metric System on Mars

In November of 1999, the Mars Climate Orbiter was approaching Mars. NASA and the world scientific community in general were looking forward to having the first weather satellite operational in orbit around Mars. It was an exciting time.

As the vehicle approached the red planet to take up orbit, it quickly became obvious that something had gone very wrong. The telemetry from the orbiter showed it at an altitude of 37 miles. It was designed to go no lower than 53 miles. The speed of the spacecraft was also considerably higher than it should have been. All communications ceased abruptly, and it was obvious that the ship had slammed into the Martian atmosphere and burned up.

Analysis of the software controlling the flight of the ship revealed some confusion in the assorted telemetry used to report the condition, attitude, speed and altitude of the spacecraft. Essentially, the confusion was centered on the unit of measure for thrust. This is calculated in pounds under the English system of measurements. Under the metric system, thrust is measured in “Newtons,” which are of course, wholly different than pounds.2

Imagine you are driving down the highway and you confuse the kilometers per hour with miles per hour on your speedometer. Doing 65 KPH is not the same as 65 MPH. This is essentially what happened to this 125-million-dollar spaceship that is now spread over a substantial amount of Martian dessert.

How much did this simple mistake cost? A configuration solution would not permit mixing units of measure. When spec’ing out the flight profile for this vehicle, only one system would be used.

Complex Products, Complex Uses

Some may see citing examples like these as being somewhat over the top. I don’t see it that way. If you’ve ever used a chair as a stepstool, perhaps used a screwdriver and hammer as a way to pry open a recalcitrant window or even just employed a nutcracker to budge a lid on a bottle of salad dressing, you know that these tools can sometimes work. But, just as often, the salad dressing bottle is shattered, the window frame is bent or the chair reacquainted you with the power of gravity.

People can dream up the most amazing ways to use or misuse products. On your next trip to Home Depot, take a look at the labels on stepladders. Weight limits are spelled out. All manner of usage limitations are identified and labeled on the ladders. The labels are there for the lawyers. While you have every right to be stupid, the ladder manufacturer shouldn’t be expected to pay for your stupidity.

Migrating that level of misuse to an industrial scale means the risk is much larger and so is the price of failure. CPQ provides the technology to mitigate much of this risk to prevent many stupid mistakes and in some cases, even to save lives.


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