Defining the 'Wright' flight prototype

The Wright Brothers are credited with the first manned flight at Kittyhawk in 1903. 

Actually, theirs was not the first manned flight. Otto Lilienthal flew over 300 times in the 1890s.  Clement Ader flew a full 50 metres in 1890.  Sir George Cayley flew a glider in 1853.  Chinese, Arabic, Greek, Persian, Indian, Russian, African pioneers are said to have achieved flight imany years before. What the Wright Brothers really achieved was to solve the problem of motorised flight: in other words, they were the first to describe the problem correctly.

For them the problem was not to lift a manned aircraft off the ground, using a powerful engine and a very light framework. The problem is to control the apparatus once it is airborne.  The Wright Brothers were originally bicycle makers. They recognized the problem as being one of balance and control. And they built the first wind tunnel, where they could study the performance of the wings under different conditions.

They were able to analyse the situation that had caused the enterprising Otto Lilienthal to crash on his last flight. Other more celebrated engineers mocked the Wright Brothers.  The Smithsonian Institute had a budget many times larger. What could bicycle craftsmen working on a shoe-string budget possibly contribute? 

When we look back on those pioneering efforts, it is not the Wright Brothers that make us chuckle; it’s the old sepia films of hopelessly optimistic craft with ridiculously light frames collapsing on the runway. 

Define the problem correctly, build a prototype, obtain the feedback, identify the source of the problem, and you are on your way to success on your project.


Urban rail projects

A few years ago, the principle customer for the manufacturer of trains was the national rail company.  Specifications were defined right down to the last nut and bolt.  Now a typical customer would be Virgin Rail.  “What kind of train would you like Mr Branson?”  “Red, no doubt!”  In fact, Virgin knows very well the key performance indicators, the elements of customer satisfaction, comfort, punctuality, customer satisfaction, and profitability that it seeks.  But, factors such as tunnel size and train design are sub-contracted.  Instead of a technical specification, the project is defined in business terms.  “Build us the best metro system in the world”, is the customer specification. 

All over the world on metro station platforms, screen doors are being installed to improve the passenger experience and increase security.  Meanwhile, the trains are often driverless.  When the train comes into the station, the doors swish open automatically.  The doors are as high as the platform itself.  When they were delivered to Hong Kong for installation on the Mass Transit Rail system they were discovered to be too big for the warehouse.  Finding a new warehouse in the crowded area of Hong Kong, Kowloon and the New Territories at short notice would be an impossible task.  Reluctantly and with some embarrassment they revealed the problem to the customer.  “No problem”, he exclaimed, “I can find you another warehouse.”  It took less than a day. 

One of the metro projects, in an Eastern European city of the European Community, had been described as the “rotten apple” in the portfolio.  With an exceptionally ambitious timeline and strict technology transfer and sourcing constraints, the project was already challenged.  The fact that the customer is based in one country with its own style of management and the lead supplier in another is an inevitable reality on international projects.  Additionally, the train had been designed in one country, was being produced in another, whilst the major equipment suppliers were spread out over several countries.  You already have a formula for discord.  The project was placed under the spotlight in the form of a case study at the annual corporate meeting.

Two years further on, the “rotten apple” project had become a “role model” project, the best in the whole portfolio.  Would it be interesting to know what had happened?  A younger but very cosmopolitan project manager was chosen to replace the previous project manager, who had an excellent track record, but without significant international experience.  Team members had been empowered both by the project manager and by the executive to circumvent the sourcing protocols in order to recruit partner companies willing to set up a factory in the customer’s homeland.  Leadership had been demonstrated at every level in fact, including working right through the summer vacation in order to expedite every last nut and bolt through the local customs office.


In the end what is leadership, but a big heart, bags of belief, the trust that brings engagement and the authority to get the job done? 

Stories : Ian Stokes, Project Leader and Advisor

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