See things clearly

One of the most famous works of Scotland’s national bard, Robert Burns, is “To a Mouse”.


During 1785, on a bleak winter’s day, Burns addressed a field mouse whose home he accidentally turned up with his plough.


In the poem, the bard praises the ‘foresight’ of the mouse in building the ‘cozie’ nest in advance of the freezing weather, while there was still good grass to do so.


But, ultimately, one of Burns’ conclusions is that, although we can plan ways to achieve things, and anticipate how things could go wrong, and work hard to create success, events can still defeat us:

The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft agley [Go often awry]

The predicament of the field mouse came to mind last week, as I drove past a business where, about 10 years ago, we had done some free work for a blue-chip client.


The client was merging its three separate businesses that, together, formed a large industrial complex.  Our ‘loss-leader’, mapped how data flowed through various parts of that site. 


This merger created a large portfolio of projects, from removing individual company security access gates, to knocking down warehouses, to intensive civil works to share common utilities.


The manager who commissioned our work on data flow was pleased with the results, and wanted to pay us to map the data flows across the new complex.


But, although it was towards the end of the budget year, he thought we might face some problems in the organisation with budget allocation, and associated business politics. 


Taking his advice, we spent a couple of weeks speaking to key people in the business - in operations, administration and finance - and eventually secured verbal agreement for the proposed project from each person, in terms of cost, value, timescales, outputs etc.


We were delighted.  After two years of prior hard work, our first client would be one of the world’s biggest companies. 


The project was sure to help us to get more work in the industry, and help us attract investment to the company.  Both of which would helps us grow the business and create hi-tech jobs.


All that remained was to sign the deal the following week.


(If I have created an atmosphere of impending doom, my writing is getting better.)


A few days later we met the manager to go through the paperwork – and received some very bad news.


There was no way the deal could be done.  The price would have to come down ‘significantly’.


I was stunned. To cut a long story short, I offered to do the work at 80% of what had been agreed, then 70% then 50%.  At which point the penny dropped that there would be no deal, no matter what the price.


We left the meeting dazed and confused.  If you own, or have owned, your own business, you may know the gut-knotting feeling.


We tried discretely to discover what had happened to ruin the deal, but to no avail...


Years later, I bumped into the manager, who by then had moved to a different organisation.


A little embarrassed, he told me what had happened.


During the weekend prior to our final meeting, some of the civil works for the merger had been started, and a warehouse was being demolished.


But no sooner had the contractors begun, than disaster struck.  A demolition worker driving a JCB digger knocked down a wall on which a cable tray was mounted.


Within that cable tray was a fibre optic cable carrying critical plant control signals.  The JCB sliced through the cable and interrupted the flow of data, triggering an emergency plant shut down.


How could such a disastrous mistake happen?


There were inconsistencies in the documentation held by the demolition company as to where the fibre cable was routed - it was believed that the cable had been routed through a duct in a nearby underground trench. 


But neither the client, nor the demolition company, noticed that during works done the year before, the cable ducts in the trench had been filled to capacity, and that, as a ‘quick-fix’, the warehouse cable trays had instead been used to route the fibre. The work had been done on a very tight schedule, and the standard documentation had not been updated properly.


The upshot, was that the year-end budget that had been allocated by the client to OBASHI, was urgently re-allocated to provisioning new fibre optics.


The irony of the situation wasn’t lost on me. We had been asked to help the company understand how data flowed through what was a very complex business.  But we were scuppered by an interruption to one of the simplest flows in the organisation - a 200 yard long basic fibre cable routed between two large complexes.


When you run your own business, you get used to facing what England’s national bard, William Shakespeare, referred to as, “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.”


But the events described above would have been a lot easier to stomach if they’d been caused by a wee, timorous mouse, taking shelter on a bleak winter’s day. 


Nice and cosy...slowly chewing his way through a tasty data cable.





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