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Never Postpone the Chicken Test!

By Steve Wetterling


When I manage projects, and when I teach project management, I know it’s important to understand project risk and to evaluate, plan for and mitigate risk.

When I’m teaching, sometimes a class participant stares back at me in puzzlement when we get to discussing project risk. “What’s so risky about doing a project?” The Chicken Test helps them understand.

Chicken Tests are one or more must-pass tests a new product must pass in order for it to be allowed on the market. Different kinds of products have different test requirements, but in airplane, jet engine and high-speed train design, the test simulates actually hitting a large bird at full speed. A new jet engine, new airplane windshield and new train-driver’s window all have to withstand a full-speed strike from a good-size chicken (substituting for a goose or pelican, which are actual flight hazards). Hence the name “Chicken Test.” Most electronic and medical products have their own versions of the Chicken Test as required by the FCC, FDA and various government and private safety agencies.

Failing the Chicken Test is a showstopper.

Here is what the Chicken Test has to do with managing project risk well:

→ If you, as project manager, properly identify and then schedule the required Chicken Test(s) early in the project, then you will likely have (or be granted) the time and resources to fix whatever problems the test reveals and to repeat the test. This is an example of anticipating and managing project risk appropriately. Good project managers do this.
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→ If you delay the Chicken Test until late in the project, you’re putting the project (and perhaps your career) at grievous risk because, despite lots of money already expended, lots of management oversight and high customer expectations, there simply won’t be the time or budget left to make a controlled recovery if you fail the Chicken Test late in the game. Good project managers don’t let this happen. If they’re forced to do so, they flag it all the way to the top of the organization so everyone knows and understands the risk the project is assuming.

There have been some spectacular business failures when an important new product failed its Chicken Test late in its development program. Here’s one story:

In the mid-1960s, the Lockheed Aircraft Company and Rolls Royce, the British maker of jet engines, partnered to co-develop a new wide-body transport for the commercial aircraft market. Lockheed was late getting into this game, behind both Boeing and the Douglas Aircraft Company, and similarly Rolls Royce was behind Pratt & Whitney and General Electric in this important class of aircraft jet engine.

Both companies set out to create operating efficiencies that would make their combined product attractive to the big airline companies. This was an expensive investment for which Rolls Royce received financial backing from the British government. Lockheed diverted profits from their military aircraft and missile businesses into the effort for the new plane they called the L-1011 Tri-Star.

To reduce the weight of their new engine, Rolls Royce decided to make the front-end compressor blades out of graphite-reinforced plastic. Significant problems with other advanced features of the new engine kept pushing back the Chicken Test. Lockheed was literally building their first airplanes without engines and parking them outside their assembly plant in California. When the Rolls Royce engine spectacularly failed the overdue Chicken Test, it bankrupted Rolls Royce and stopped the L-1011 program in its tracks. The British government rescued Rolls Royce from bankruptcy, and the US Congress saved Lockheed from bankruptcy with last-minute loan guarantees after their bankers had cut them off. Rolls Royce eventually recovered and delivered the new jet engine using steel alloy fan blades. Lockheed did eventually sell several dozen of their L-1011 planes. But the overall project was a huge loss for Lockheed. Not long after this, they quit the civilian aircraft business entirely.

Moral of the story: always schedule your Chicken Tests as early in your project as possible. This may be as simple as taking your very first prototype heart monitor to the emissions test chamber the first week it is built, when it has just enough software to demonstrate the basic functionality. It may be as simple as putting into the schedule two trips to the UL test lab and then cheering when you succeed on the first trip.

Project risks are very real. Your job as a project manager is to deal with them as early in the project as you possibly can.

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