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Chapter Eleven

1968 to 1983 - AWA

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When we got to Australia, I found the job market in Sydney much less active than I had expected. I applied for any job I thought I might enjoy and one of these was at AWA in the division which designed and manufactured professional products. I was puzzled when I went for the interview because I was sent to a little cottage in the grounds which I later was to learn was the headquarters of Field Projects which was in the business of running NASA tracking stations. I was asked to do a technical test which was supposed to take three hours. I had another appointment and could only spend an hour on the test but the guy said that was OK. I must have scored well because they offered me a job. The strange thing was that I was employed as a Mechanical Designer. I later got to know the guy who had given me the test. He was the Office Manager of Field Projects and the test I had done was a NASA test for tracking station techs and engineers. The company knew it should calibrate skills of potential employees but didn't have a clue how to do it.

For several months, I worked under Alf Urquhart, an elderly Scottish Mechanical Engineer, on various small projects. The Chief Draughtsman died suddenly and there was a considerable hiatus while the management worked out what they wanted to do. This turned out to be a significant restructuring of the mechanical design and drafting activities with me as the new boss. Alf was very gracious in moving from being my boss to being my subordinate.

One day, I was asked to read and advise on a report which had been commissioned of PA Management Consultants into the possibilities of introducing computerized production control to the Division. I don't remember the detail of the report but I do remember remarking on the fact that the last 50 pages were a repeat of the previous 50. I suspect that no-one else had read the entire document. The report was "filed" and the scheme was allowed to go quietly away.

When it was discovered that I was a trained Value Analyst, I was asked to implement a program for the training of staff in that discipline. This was in addition to my day job, but for eighteen months or so I prepared and ran regular week long training workshops for groups of twenty or so staff from various departments.

Initially I employed a consultant to the bulk of the training but eventually I developed my own course and had trained over 200 staff before the activity came to an end. Each workshop had an existing product as its project and while the savings were usually somewhat less than the 30% touted by the consultants, we did have considerable, and in some cases outstanding, success. Many years later I was discussing Value Analysis with a young engineer and one of my colleagues overheard me talking about the great results we had achieved on a product for which he had then been responsible. He joined in the conversation and claimed that the results were entirely illusory. I said that anyone could go to Accounts and see the results for themselves to which he replied "Yes, but we know you had Accounts Department in your pocket".

I was doing all this work largely under the patronage of the Manufacturing Manager who was the most far-sighted manager in the division. One day I said to him that I could prove that no other manager in the Division was interested in what we were doing and that without more general support I was unlikely to succeed. He asked how I proposed to prove my contention and I said I would stop doing VA and if he had anyone ask him why we had stopped I would start up again. I stopped and he never had anyone ask so that was the end of that. In my enthusiasm. I had forgotten the golden rule which is that without whole-hearted support from the very top, VA could never be a success.

There was some enthusiasm for Value Analysis in Sydney at that time and we started an organisation called the Australian Society of Value Analysts. We worked diligently to have monthly meetings with interesting speakers but the audience never grew terribly large. I eventually came to the conclusion that there was little point in the society. it was a fair amount of work to run and the results were negligible. At one committee meeting I proposed that we close the thing down and I got no argument from anybody. It was as though they had sub-consciously concluded that it was all a bit pointless. As far as I know, Value Analysis went the way of most new management techniques and quietly died. I did meet a guy some years later who was employed by the Navy as a Value Analyst but I don't think he was doing much to make the discipline more mainstream. It is sad because the technique was really powerful and could have worked wonders for most manufacturing companies if only it had been accepted and applied by top management. I have to admit that I never even considered trying it later in my career when I might have been able to influence top management. When I think about it now, I realise I never worked for any company that would have accepted it with any enthusiasm.

I was asked to join a team which was going to tender for Project Barra, a sonobuoy design and manufacture job arising out of some world class work done at the Weapons Research Establishment in Edinburgh, SA. A team of a dozen or so of us worked for several months on the tender and we won the contract. Our company had employed an English company called MarconI Elliot Automation Systems to do the project management. I was the senior AWA person on the project and I suggested to my boss that he should insist that I be appointed Assistant Project Manager. That way I would be involved in all the key discussions so that the company would be fully informed about all the dealings with the customer. He agreed but when the MEASL Project Manager appointed everybody on the project to be an Assistant Project Manager, he failed to take issue with them and we lost any control or influence over the course of the project. This failure to rein in our sub-contractor came back to bite us later in the project when MEASL cut us out of some of the best bits of the work. The Barra Project proved a success in the long run but my part in it was tainted by being on the outer. I was happy to leave to work on the next project.

We tendered for, and won, a contract to work with two other companies to design and build a ground support facility for the P3C Orion long range maritime patrol aircraft. CSA did the software and CAC did the aircraft sonics console . We at AWA designed everything else from the transportable building to the airconditioning and services cabin and all the special-to-type electronics.

I was appointed Chief Engineer for the project and was able to work for several years for the best manager I ever worked for. Colin was an idiosyncratic manager doing some quite unpredictable things at times but his decision-making was superlative. I tried to get him to explain to me how he did it, but he didn't know; it was apparently quite intuitive. I did learn some valuable insights from him. The most remarkable one was "Never make a decision until you have to". This sounds odd or even stupid but the point is that a good decision needs the best possible knowledge to inform it and that may take time to assemble. Clearly there is a time when it is becomes necessary to make a decision to avoid delay in some future activity. Waiting until that point means you are as well informed as you can be and in a position to make the best possible decision.

The project was suppose to be undertaken in South Australia but when we tendered we had included some millions of dollars in relocation costs for the large number of hardware and software engineers required so we offered as an alternative, doing the job in Sydney and moving it to Adelaide when it was finished. They had specified that it be a transportable facility, ostensibly to allow its redeployment to Darwin if necessary. By the end of the project we had discovered that the real reason was to get the money from a different part of the Departmental budget. All the extra work we had done to meet the transportability requirements was unnecessary but it did allow us to do the bulk of the work in Sydney.

The journey to Adelaide in September 1976 was a highlight of the project for me. The building had been designed to fit neatly onto six 40 ft semitrailers though the cabins overhung the trailers by 2 feet all round which made for a convoy of grossly oversize vehicles. We had determined that, as all the equipment was to remain in place during the journey, the trucks should travel no faster than 30mph. We were not allowed to travel at night and we could only average 200 miles a day so the journey took five days. I had contracted with a large transport company to supply the prime movers, the trailers, and the escort vehicles, for all vehicles to be equipped with CB radios and for them to do a route survey before the event to ensure that we would have no trouble along the planned route. What I failed to do was to test them on any of this before the job began. We assembled the convoy on a Sunday at the factory in North Ryde and discovered the first deficiency, not all the vehicles had CB radios. We had a sister division open up on the Sunday to supply the necessary number of radios, transport them to North Ryde, and installed them.

Early on Monday morning we set off and within an hour were confronted with a major and unexpected roadworks which caused a considerable delay to us and a huge headache to the commuter traffic trying to get to work. When we reached the first low bridge at Leura, I found that the hadn't checked any of the bridge clearances and we had to wait on the side of the road while we determined if we would fit under the bridge, At Lithgow, they thought we wouldn't fit under the bridge so they asked for an unplanned diversion along the Rydal road. This turned out to be a narrow unsealed road with severe hills and it took quite a while to negotiate. It was good that we had been conservative in setting the overnight stopping places as we had time to reach Bathurst before sunset.

I had considerable difficulty enforcing the maximum speed limit until I discovered that one of the prime movers was a little Mercedes driven by an old guy who was happy to travel slowly. I put him at the front of the convoy and, as it was impossible to overtake, the whole convoy was limited to his speed.

All went well until we reached Mildura. Knowing that they hadn't checked any of the bridge clearances, I had to go on ahead and measure the bridge to ensure we could get through. It must have been a strange sight to other motorists as I climbed the bridge girders with my steel tape in hand measuring the bridge. This bridge was OK but the next, at Renmark wasn't as it had only 10 ft horizontal clearance and the trailers were 12 ft wide. It was established that we would have to divert through Loxton but sunset came while we were still out on the plain. The Air Force Regiment Corporal in charge of the squaddies who were securing the convoy each night told me he couldn't take responsibility for the trucks where they were because this was a favourite spot-light shooting place and the trucks would be ideal targets. I raced into Loxton, found the Mayor in a pub, and arranged to park the convoy in the showground. We had to break the "no night driving" rule for the hour or so it took for the convoy to get to town. We had arranged accommodation in Renmark so we all had to drive back there and then back to Loxton early the next morning.

I became an honorary truckies one day when I needed to get quickly from the back of the convoy to the front. The road was anything but straight and in the normal course of events it would have taken ages to overtake each vehicle in turn. The truckies encouraged me to drive at high speed on the wrong side of the road having them tell me when to tuck back in to avoid any oncoming vehicles. I put my trust in them and they welcomed me into their fraternity.

The last hurdle was at the turn-off to RAAF Edinburgh from the Gawler Highway. We were only a short distance out from the destination and I desperately wanted to arrive in close convoy so I jumped out of my station wagon and stood in the middle of the road trying to hold up the traffic so that the convoy would all go through the traffic lights together. A voice from behind me asked what the hell I was doing. I turned to find myself the subject of puzzled attention of a copper. When I explained my dilemma, he said to leave it to him and he stopped all the traffic while we all made the right turn through the red traffic lights as though we were royalty.

When we entered the base, a RAAF Police vehicle pulled out in from of us with its yellow light flashing and escorted us to the tarmac where we were to park. We had done 900 miles without his help, but he wasn't going to let us do the last mile by ourselves.

When the speeches were done and the photographs taken, I asked my opposite number in the RAAF if we should repair to the mess for a celebratory drink but he said the Officers Mess was closed for the weekend. I suggested that the truckies might get out of hand if they missed out on a little celebration but he couldn't offer a solution to my problem. Eventually, I found the Chairman of the Airman's Mess, a pleasant lady Corporal, and arranged for us all to be made honorary Airmen and we celebrated with them. We remained members of Airmen's Mess for three weeks while we installed and commissioned the thing. When I got back to Sydney, I was carpeted by my boss because the protocol said that contractor's engineers were honorary officers and we had committed some kind of lese-majeste by joining the Airmen's Mess. My reply was "You weren't there, I was, I got the job done and I don't give a fig for their protocol."

The Air Force was astounded when we got the thing up and running in the specified three weeks. The only piece of equipment that hadn't survived the journey was a console which had been assembled by the RAAF technicians. They hadn't asked for our advice and had bolted it together without any shake-proofing so it fell apart. All of our gear worked like a charm when we powered up.

The project was a resounding success coming in on time, on cost, and meeting all the technical requirements. Some time later I was told by one of my salesman colleagues that he couldn't tender for a job to design and build a trainer for the F18s because we didn't have any relevant experience. I asked what he thought we had been doing for three years designing and building the CMI and he said "But that was a patrol aircraft and this job is a fighter". My reply was "I don't care how many engines the damned thing has, it's just another job and we are perfectly capable of doing it". He didn't tender and so we didn't get to do the job. Even in our own company we didn't get any credit for doing world class work.

A small team of us from the CMI Project were asked by the Air Force to do a feasibility study on the older P3B aircraft which still had 20 years of airframe life left in them with an aim of upgrading them to make them interoperable with the new P3C aircraft. We did the study and were able to recommend a refit which would have cost about $400 million all up. Our proposal was never taken up because the Air Force decided that it would be better to sell or scrap the P3B aircraft and buy more P3C aircraft. This solution required that Australia pay a large fee to keep open the production facilities for the aircraft and for much of its avionics which were to be closed down as the US Navy were not planning to order any more aircraft. The total project cost of the Air Force proposal was much much greater than what we had proposed but, once again, our expertise was not recognised even in our own country. A charming postscript to this story occurred when my boss received, from the Chief of Air Force Technical Services, a personal letter of commendation to me for my contribution to the study. My boss was so impressed by this that he warned me to be careful when leaving his office as my head might have swelled enough for it to jam in the doorway. It's always nice to work for someone who appreciates one's efforts.

My next project was a computer totalisator for the two Sydney Racing Clubs. Once again we solved a lot of unique problems and once again we didn't get much credit, even in company. In the course of this project, I spent about nine months going to the races every Wednesday and every Saturday to ensure that we knew all the minutiae of the operation of an on-course tote. My abiding impression of horse racing is of warm pies and warm beer. I did learn that the people who run racing in Australia think they are some kind of elite but I found them to be particularly stupid. One of the many problems we had to solve was the delivery to the tote of interstate racing information including the official race start and official results. This computer was controlling the close of betting and the declaration of dividends and I insisted that we should be given the information officially and in a timely manner. To this end, I wanted to add another terminal to the system so that they could enter the information directly into the computer as they did for the local races thus taking us out of the loop and absolving us of any legal responsibility. Their preferred solution was for us to listen to the commercial radio station which broadcast the interstate races. I reminded them of the Fine Cotton scandal, a betting scam which had involved interception and delayed transmission of a race broadcast. They agreed that I had a point but the only thing they were prepared to do was hand us copies of the faxes they received from the interstate racing clubs.

Another strange decision involved the entry of off-course TAB bets into the on-course tote. The TAB was obliged by law to place all its bets on the on-course tote. They were allowed to aggregate the bets so that only the total amount wagered for each different possible result was communicated. This comprised a large amount of information with over a thousand bets on each of 24 races. I argued that the TAB and our computers could be programmed to send and receive the data electronically but the TAB said they couldn't do that but that they could fax us the print outs from their various computers. This was done and some poor operator in our van had to key in all the bets.

We had to got to Brisbane to gather information on which to base a tender for a Tote for the three Brisbane. racing clubs. We were the guests of the Committee at each race meeting we attended and were expected to bet. I did my betting unwillingly and returned to Sydney somewhat out of pocket. There was no way the company was going to pay for gambling losses even when incurred in the line of duty so I gather up the losing betting tickets, called them special stationery, and claimed their cost on my expenses.

I next took up a newly established position as Divisional Test Manager. I was given the management of both test rooms and of the new test engineering section. The Manufacturing Manager was finding it difficult to deal with the engineering sections and thought that having his own engineer to interface with them would help. I sat in on all the meetings between Engineering and Manufacturing and was able to make a considerable contribution to the boss's sanity by seeking out and correcting all the fallacious arguments put up by the engineers and, on occasion, by the customers. I enjoyed my time in this job and learned much that I would use later in my career.

One of my staff was a long time AWA engineer who had graduated as a mathematician and had worked in an great variety of jobs in his time with the company. He had been, at one time, responsible for the control of the glass processes on the TV tube manufacturing line. To equip himself for this job, he had studied the physics of glass and become one of the world's very few glass engineers. One day at lunch he had seen a cracked plate glass window and spent an hour or so telling me all the circumstances of the breakage which he could deduce simply by studying the crack. He was the most well educated engineer I ever met and I was blessed to work with him. Many years later I was able to use him as a consultant to prove that some failures we had suffered in manufacture were the fault of the component manufacturer and not of our process.

My last project for AWA was a contract from Hughes Communications in Los Angeles to design and build the ground station for the first generation of communication Australian communications satellites. I did a variety of jobs including Software Manager. I knew precious little about writing software but none of the software guys could manage a piss up in a brewery. My major task on the project was to keep track of all the deficiencies in the technical information our customer was required to supply to us, of which there were over 200 by project's end, as we needed to protect our position at contract sign off. I believe that I must have done a very good job because I heard later that somebody had to go over to Los Angeles to placate them because we had been a "difficult" sub-contractor.

It was on this job that I confirmed the quality of Australian engineers as compared to those in the USofA. Australian engineers have to be very capable in the broad because we are a small economy and we would not survive if we were not very good at a wide variety of things. The industry in America, because they have so many more engineers, can afford to employ engineers who are capable of a limited range of work. This is not to say that all American engineers are mediocre because the best of them are as good as any in the world, but rather the average standard is much lower than ours. On this job, we had to search high and low to find anyone at Hughes who could understand, let alone answer, the questions we needed answers to before we could do our job.

Another example had occurred on the CMI project. We had found that the computer program in use in the US Navy's P3Cs had thousands of binary patches in it. It was necessary for these patches to be worked back into the source code before we could modify the program to run on the Australian P3Cs. The Americans said that it would take an immense effort to do this and that they didn't have the resources. Four Australian software engineers spent three months doing the job, we had our clean code, and the USN had an "immense" task done for them at no cost to them by some smart Australians.

Macquarie University was just up the road from the factory and many of my colleague did the MBA course there. Only one of the twenty or so MBA students I knew ever showed any potential as a manager either before or after the course. Nevertheless, I eventually decided to enrol to arm myself to get the better of the relatively pedestrian people I was working for. I was invited to sit for a Graduate Management Assessment Test (GMAT) run by Stamford University. I spent the whole of one Saturday at the AGSM in the University of NSW. When the results came back I found that I was ranked in the top 1% of the year's candidates worldwide in the mathematical stuff and in he top 2 or 3% in the word stuff. When the time came for places to be offered, I was turned down. I rang to enquire why and they asked why I thought I should have been offered a place. I said I would be very surprised if they had filled the course with candidates who had done better than me in the GMAT and they asked me what ranking I had received. When I told them, they expressed surprise and said they'd get back to me. When they finally did get back to me, they offered me a place in the next years course. There was a distinct possibility that the Government of the day was going to introduce fees for all higher degrees for the next year so I said "Thanks, but no thanks". When I discussed all this with my bosses boss, he said "If you need and MBA to become a manager, you'll probably be no good. If you're going to be any good, you don't need an MBA".

Colin and I decided that we needed to study accounting and economics to equip us to argue with our non-technical bosses. We found that Ku-ring-gai College of Advanced Education offered a part time first degree course in business for mature age students only a few minutes drive from the factory. We enrolled and studied in the first year, accounting, economics, communications, and quantitative methods.

This last subject was elementary mathematics and as neither of us was not granted an exemption as we did not have degrees in mathematics, though Colin as a physicist and I as an engineer had both studied maths to final year standard in our respective degrees. I used to turn up once every few weeks and do all the work that the other students had done in three hours a week in half an hour.

The second year brought on some other subjects including legal studies, sociology, and systems analysis all of which were, to us complete rubbish. The sociology lecturer was so in touch with her students that she would would lock the doors of the lecture theatre at 5.30, the nominal start time of the lecture, and exclude all the students who had not made it in time after travelling from their jobs in the city. We both realised that we had already learned everything that was going to be of use to us and that four and a half more years studying rubbish was not a sensible way to spend our time so we dropped out. I never regretted starting the course because the original objective was achieved and I never regretted dropping out as I didn't need to be qualified to be an accountant.

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