The Human Factor: When losing older workers leads to obsolescence
Ask anyone who drives an older car. As the system ages, it develops its own quirks. You have to jiggle the shifter in park to get the keys out of the ignition. You have to pump the gas twice before it starts up on a cold day. The AC has to be turned off when going up a steep hill on days over 96 degrees. A particular brand of brakes work better when driving in California, as opposed to Montana. You know that you can get away with just 2/3rds of the thread on the bolts, but only for 6 weeks.
In short, you know that system inside and out: all the bugs, the features, and quirks that impact operation and repair.
Unless your mechanic is into vintage cars, though, he’s not going to relish working on an older vehicle. A younger mechanic may tell you the car is “old” and you’re better off just getting a new one – just when the old one was about to become a “classic.”
Not everyone, however, wants to — or can afford to — just buy a new car. The same goes for trying to sustain a legacy mission-critical system.
At a time when UAVs are a priority, funding is difficult for a replacement board in a Navy submarine from 1973. It’s not uncommon for companies to save on the cost of passing on sustaining support knowledge to new generations of engineers, instead relying on the ingenuity of a shrinking group of more experienced engineers. Indeed, RoHs was implemented before some young engineers were even out of high school, and we see nuclear power plants that have been running since 1969, — before some were even born.
Traditionally, the dialogue around obsolescence has been focused on keeping access to critical IP, or being able to acquire needed components. But what also needs to be considered is the human factor necessary to sustain these legacy systems.
Legacy systems aren’t getting any easier to sustain. Today, as the workforce ages, the engineers who know those mission-critical systems inside and out have been retiring for years…and will continue to do so. The challenge faced by program and engineering managers alike is how to feasibly “institutionalize” this know-how, in a time of rapidly shrinking budgets.
Handling this challenge proactively can ensure your perpetual access to necessary IP, and is a wise option to consider. We’ve seen that being proactive is often the difference between ongoing legacy success, and a legacy system at risk.
The GDCA Team