Zit Seng's Blog

A Singaporean's technology and lifestyle blog

Mediocre Engineering, Failed Management

Like Transport Minister Mr Lui, I am extremely concerned. I am extremely concerned that mediocre engineering and management failures are accepted as the norm. These are how things are, and Singaporeans are expected to deal with them. Whatever has become of striving for excellence? Are we now more concerned about managing expectations, than to set performance targets to improve ourselves?

SMRT Train

On the topic of the recent SMRT breakdown, the SMRT chief executive Mr Desmond Kuek had said that they will not be able to catch every potential fault in the system. In all fairness, that’s quite true, and perhaps at some other time that is something reasonable, and acceptable, to say. However, at this inopportune time, we expect that they do their absolute very best to find and fix every flaw in the system. What kind of signal is he sending by announcing that it cannot be done?

This is coming from the same person who wanted to shorten the mean time between failures. Apparently the chief executive feels that the trains are not breaking down frequently enough. He wants it to happen more often. How does a person who doesn’t understand MTBF, but wants to use such a buzzword, get to run an engineering and operationally intensive outfit like SMRT? Is transportation not quite a core business of SMRT anymore?

Never mind that the big boss is a little clueless. SMRT Trains’ Managing Director Lee Ling Wee was apparently the Head of Air Engineering and Logistics at RSAF prior to joining SMRT. I’d imagine where flying machines are concerned, operations and maintenance procedures are very flawless. I mean, you don’t want to be flying to your next holiday in an airplane that the airline has declared is impossible to be rid of all flaws eh? Might I point out that the root cause of the massive SMRT breakdown earlier this month has yet to be identified.

Perhaps the RSAF doesn’t fly 200 fare paying passengers in their planes. But surely their F-16 and F-15 fighter jets are pricey enough that you don’t want accidents to happen. In fact, I’d imagine that it was Mr Lee’s position in the RSAF that helped land him his role when he first joined SMRT. If there was anything wrong with SMRT in the past, he would be the one to turn things around. Unfortunately, it looks like the trains have quite decided on the direction they’re heading, and Mr Lee is simply riding along, and going on TV to talk about how they don’t have the organic capacity to cope with their own problems.

SMRT is working on installing more sensors and condition monitoring tools. Mr Kuek explains:

“So that as and when in real time, things fail, we have triggers that allow us to take preventive actions based on predicted model and where that failure might be, this is part of the technology that we are working to put in place – both on the tracks as well as on the trains”

Sounds exactly like an engineer trying to smoke and confuse his manager. In this case, it is the chief executive, no less, trying to confuse the public because he thinks he knows more than the public. When your sensors tell you that something has failed, then it is already broken. What kind of predictive model preventive action mumbo jumbo is he trying to smoke us with?

There’s more to say, but I think this is enough of SMRT-bashing. It is not my intent to focus on SMRT, although admittedly they are a favourite target. But let’s move on to SGX now.

You remember the SGX data centre blackout from last year? That they had also setup a Board Committee of Inquiry (BCOI) to investigate the outage? Well, the BCOI report was out earlier this year. Datacentre Dynamics reported on that report, and I am extremely concerned again.

“The facilities at SGX’s PDC [Primary data center], including the power supply architecture and systems, are provided by the DCP. SGX does not have in-house expertise to design, construct or operate data centers from the facilities perspective. SGX therefore relies on the DCP for their expertise.”

In other words, SGX is not to be blamed at all. They don’t know. They have no idea. It’s not their problem. It is the third party who is at fault.

However, considering that IT is such a vital part of SGX’s operation, I cannot believe they could have such a casual and nonchalant attitude towards their data centre facilities. IT is a critically strategic component of their core business. Look at how DBS outsourced their IT back in 2002 and then subsequently decided it was better that they keep it in-house. If SGX found it was better to outsource their data centre facilities, at the very least they must make sure they are capable of supervising and managing the outsourcing provider. Outsource doesn’t mean you kick the problem out of your door and forget about it.

To SGX’s credit, at least they accepted full responsibility for the outage. I don’t know if they tried to make some excuse out of it, but it’s strange to me that the BCOI should make excuses for them. I don’t understand why the BCOI doesn’t take issue with SGX’s disinterest in properly managing a critical component of their core business.

In both cases, it seems the authorities are quite satisfied with substandard management and substandard engineering. Whatever happened to wanting to be world class? Best in the world? We’re not going to be very world class if we continue to run our critical infrastructure this way.

1 thought on “Mediocre Engineering, Failed Management

  1. Engineering industry is not well appreciated compared to financial or commercial. However, I believe engineer is the only sound base for all the others. If engineers are not well paid, why should people take up this career while they have other choices that committing less but earning more? Personally I have great passion in engineering. However, seeing many friends quitting their profession makes me feel bad. Yet I cannot help at all, because it is true that their new choices give them better life work balance. I hope I do not need to wait too long for society to realize that engineers deserve more than what they have been given. Because now I have doubts in my own engineering career as well.

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