CategoriesCasesProject Team

Case: McRoy Aerospace

Thanks for trying. But if I had to choose one of your co-workers to take another look at this project, who might have even half a chance of making it happen? Who would you suggest? I just want to make sure that we have left no stone unturned,” he said rather glumly. Mark’s words caught Jack by surprise.

Don’t feel like reading? Listen to the answers instead:

McRoy Aerospace was a highly profitable company building cargo planes and refueling tankers for the armed forces. It had been doing this for more than fifty years and was highly successful. But because of a downturn in the government’s spending on these types of planes, McRoy decided to enter the commercial aviation aircraft business, specifically wide-body planes that would seat up to 400 passengers, and compete head on with Boeing and Airbus Industries. During the design phase, McRoy found that the majority of the commercial airlines would consider purchasing its plane provided that the costs were lower than the other aircraft manufacturers. While the actual purchase price of the plane was a consideration for the buyers, the greater interest was in the life-cycle cost of maintaining the operational readiness of the aircraft, specifically the maintenance costs. Operations and support costs were a considerable expense and maintenance requirements were regulated by the government for safety reasons. The airlines make money when the planes are in the air rather than sitting in a maintenance hangar. Each maintenance depot maintained an inventory of spare parts so that, if a part did not function properly, the part could be removed and replaced with a new part. The damaged part would be sent to the manufacturer for repairs or replacement. Inventory costs could be significant but were considered a necessary expense to keep the planes flying. One of the issues facing McRoy was the mechanisms for the eight doors on the aircraft. Each pair of doors had their own mechanisms which appeared to be restricted by their location in the plane. If McRoy could come up with a single design mechanism for all four pairs of doors, it would significantly lower the inventory costs for the airlines as well as the necessity to train mechanics on one set of mechanisms rather than four. On the cargo planes and refueling tankers, each pair of doors had a unique mechanism. For commercial aircrafts, finding one design for all doors would be challenging. Mark Wilson, one of the department managers at McRoy’s design center, assigned Jack, the best person he could think of to work on this extremely challenging project. If anyone could accomplish it, it was Jack. If Jack could not do it, Mark sincerely believed it could not be done. The successful completion of this project would be seen as a value-added opportunity for McRoy’s customers and could make a tremendous difference from a cost and efficiency standpoint. McRoy would be seen as an industry leader in life-cycle costing, and this could make the difference in getting buyers to purchase commercial planes from McRoy Aerospace.

The project was to design an opening/closing mechanism that was the same for all of the doors. Until now, each door could have a different set of open/close mechanisms, which made the design, manufacturing, maintenance, and installation processes more complex, cumbersome, and costly. Without a doubt, Jack was the best— and probably the only— person to make this happen even though the equipment engineers and designers all agreed that it could not be done. Mark put all of his cards on the table when he presented the challenge to Jack. He told him wholeheartedly that his only hope was for Jack to take on this project and explore it from every possible, out-of-the-box angle he could think of. But Jack said right off the bat that this may not be possible. Mark was not happy hearing Jack say this right away, but he knew Jack would do his best. Jack spent two months looking at the problem and simply could not come up with the solution needed. Jack decided to inform Mark that a solution was not possible. Both Jack and Mark were disappointed that a solution could not be found. “I know you’re the best, Jack,” stated Mark. “I can’t imagine anyone else even coming close to solving this critical problem. I know you put forth your best effort and the problem was just too much of a challenge. Thanks for trying. But if I had to choose one of your co-workers to take another look at this project, who might have even half a chance of making it happen? Who would you suggest? I just want to make sure that we have left no stone unturned,” he said rather glumly. Mark’s words caught Jack by surprise. Jack thought for a moment and you could practically see the wheels turning in his mind. Was Jack thinking about who could take this project on and waste more time trying to find a solution? No, Jack’s wheels were turning on the subject of the challenging problem itself. A glimmer of an idea whisked through his brain and he said, “Can you give me a few days to think about some things, Mark?” he asked pensively. Mark had to keep the little glimmer of a smile from erupting full force on his face. “Sure, Jack,” he said. “Like I said before, if anyone can do it, it’s you. Take all the time you need.” A few weeks later, the problem was solved and Jack’s reputation rose to even higher heights than before.

Was Mark correct in what he said to get Jack to continue investigating the problem?

Mark’s approach to encouraging Jack to continue investigating the problem is rooted in a psychological technique often referred to as “reverse psychology” or motivational strategy. By expressing doubt in a way that challenges a person’s abilities, it can motivate that person to prove the doubter wrong. In Jack’s case, Mark expressed his absolute belief in Jack’s capabilities, which had two major impacts:

  1. Affirmation of competence: By consistently emphasizing that Jack was the best person for the job and that if Jack couldn’t do it, it likely couldn’t be done, Mark affirmed Jack’s competence. This can boost self-esteem and confidence, which are crucial when facing tough problems.
  2. Challenging to prove worth: By subtly suggesting someone else might look into the problem after Jack, Mark presented a challenge. Jack might have felt a mixture of doubt about his initial conclusion and a renewed desire to prove he truly was the best fit for solving the problem.

In the context of the story, Mark’s strategy was effective. However, it’s essential to note that this type of motivational approach doesn’t work on everyone. Some people might find it demotivating or disheartening. It depends on the individual’s personality, their relationship with the person challenging them, and the specific circumstances surrounding the situation.

So, was Mark correct in what he said? In this particular case, yes, because it led to a breakthrough. However, such tactics should be used carefully and with a good understanding of the individual being motivated.

Should Mark just have given up on the idea rather than what he said to Jack?

Deciding whether Mark should have abandoned the idea or persisted in challenging Jack hinges on several factors. Foremost is the potential value of the solution. The aim of crafting a singular door mechanism promised to substantially cut costs and amplify efficiency for McRoy Aerospace and its clientele. If this promised a significant competitive edge and savings, Mark was correct to investigate all possible options before giving up.

However, there’s also merit in recognizing the boundaries of feasibility. While fostering innovation and lateral thinking is commendable, there comes a point where pressing on an elusive goal risks wasting resources and dampening team morale.

Mark’s tactic with Jack wasn’t arbitrary; It was influenced by his perception of Jack’s strength of character and abilities. Deploying such a strategy, rooted in challenging an individual to reinvigorate their drive, can be potent, but it’s a double-edged sword. If misapplied, it risks inducing undue stress or burnout.

While the focus was on this singular challenging problem, an alternative route Mark could have taken was to open the floor to other avenues of innovation. Perhaps other cost-saving or efficiency-boosting measures awaited discovery. A broader, collaborative brainstorming effort might have unearthed diverse perspectives and solutions, enriching the overall process.

In the end, given the triumphant outcome with Jack’s breakthrough, Mark’s decision to prod him further seems justified. Nonetheless, in different circumstances, a more circumspect or diverse approach might be the wiser course of action.

Should Mark have assigned this to someone else rather than giving Jack a second chance, and if so, how might Jack react?

Deciding whether Mark should have assigned the task to someone else instead of giving Jack a second chance requires a balance of understanding the situation, the team dynamics, and the potential consequences. Let’s explore the implications of both choices:

Assigning the task to someone else:

  1. Fresh perspective: Another person might bring a new viewpoint or different methods that could lead to a solution.
  2. Resource allocation: If Jack is highly skilled in many areas, he might be more effective working on a different project while someone else tackles the door mechanism challenge.
  3. Message to the team: Assigning the task to someone else might signal to the team that continuous efforts and multiple approaches are valued, and that it’s okay to pass on a problem if you feel stuck.

Potential reaction from Jack if the task was assigned to someone else:

  1. Demotivation: Jack might feel that his abilities are being questioned or that he’s no longer valued as a problem solver. Given that he’s considered the best, this sudden switch might hurt his pride or confidence.
  2. Loss of ownership: Jack had invested time and effort into the problem, and handing it to someone else might make him feel that his work was in vain.
  3. Enhanced motivation: Contrarily, seeing someone else work on the problem might push Jack to think about it more or offer collaborative support, stimulating a team-based solution.

Giving Jack a second chance:

  1. Reinforcing belief: It tells Jack and the team that Mark has faith in his abilities and is willing to be patient for results.
  2. Depth of investigation: Jack, having already spent considerable time on the problem, might have a deeper understanding of its intricacies compared to someone starting fresh.

Given the specifics of the narrative, Mark’s approach of giving Jack a second chance seemed appropriate. Jack’s initial inability to find a solution was not due to a lack of effort or skill but rather the complexity of the challenge. Mark’s expression of faith served as a catalyst for Jack to revisit the problem with renewed energy.

However, if Mark had assigned the task to someone else, it would be crucial to manage the transition delicately to ensure Jack’s expertise is still recognized and valued. In such situations, open communication is key. Mark could have approached Jack to explain the decision, ensuring Jack understood that the goal was to bring fresh eyes to the problem, not to undermine his abilities.

What should Mark have done if Jack still was not able to resolve the problem?

If Jack had remained unable to resolve the problem after his second attempt, Mark would have had a variety of strategic options to consider. One logical approach would be to form a cross-functional team, combining expertise from various departments. This blend of perspectives might foster innovation and help crack the challenge. Alternatively, Mark could seek insights from external aerospace experts. Such experts, having possibly faced similar challenges in other contexts, might introduce a fresh approach or solution.

Another method to consider would be iterative prototyping. Instead of seeking an immediate perfect solution, McRoy could develop and test various door mechanism prototypes, allowing for refinement over time. If these approaches still didn’t yield a solution, it might be time for Mark to reframe the problem. Perhaps the challenge isn’t just about finding a universal door mechanism, but more broadly about achieving cost savings and maintenance efficiency in alternative ways.

However, if all attempts prove unfruitful, acceptance and contingency planning would be crucial. Mark might need to acknowledge that a one-size-fits-all door mechanism isn’t achievable and direct the company’s focus on other aircraft features, like enhancing fuel efficiency or offering superior in-flight experiences.

Regardless of the technical outcome, Mark’s responsibility would extend to the interpersonal domain. It would be paramount for him to ensure that Jack, despite his dedicated efforts, didn’t bear the weight of responsibility for not finding a solution. Emphasizing the value of the journey, the learnings along the way, and the fact that not all challenges have immediate answers is vital to maintaining morale. To further this aim, organizing a feedback session with Jack and other involved stakeholders could provide insights into the process and potentially unearth other routes to explore in the future.

Moreover, documenting the process is essential. This documentation can guide future attempts, serve as a resource for training, and ensure knowledge transfer within the organization. While the door mechanism is just one aspect, Mark could redirect the team’s energy towards other innovative avenues, ensuring McRoy Aerospace remains at the forefront of the industry.

In any challenging situation, the key for leaders like Mark is to remain adaptable, keep an open mind, and communicate effectively, ensuring that both the team’s morale and the company’s objectives remain in focus.

This case, and questions, is take from the book “Project Management Case Studies – Sixth Edition” – 2022, by Harold Kerzner.

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