Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Lessons from the Tu-144

I’ve been absent from this blog for the last couple of weeks – small matter of getting married and taking a honeymoon in Thailand.  This was my first visit to Asia proper – I’ve been to Siberia which is geographically closer to Asia than Europe but culturally part of Europe – and I’ve a lot to reflect on.

For now the only say I liked Thailand, and specifically Bangkok.  I didn’t like the new Bangkok airport, Suvarnabhumi.  This is a monster airport, far too big.  It seems the airport has been built for one purpose: to build something big.  It is totally dehumanising, especially the unrelenting shopping mall once you get past check-in.

Now I’m back, recovering from jet lag and reflecting on another footnote to air-travel the Tupolev-144, the Russian Concorde, or Concondski is you prefer.  I’ve been interested in this airplane for a while – if you haven’t guess already airplanes bring out the little kid in me.  And on several occasions I’ve cited the TU-144 as an example how documentation fails to capture tacit knowledge.

Some years ago I saw a TV programme about the TU-144.  I can’t remember if I saw the Channel-4 Equinox version of the program in the UK or the PBS Nova version in the US.  Either way my main reference has been the online transcript of the PBS version.  According to this report, the Soviet Union had the blueprints to Concorde in the mid-1960’s and to some degree tried to copy Concorde with the TU-144.  This isn’t news, the world has debated this question since the TU-144 was first revealed in the mid-1960’s.  However, the program seemed to say the Soviets has far more information than was previously known.

I’ve often used this as an example of tacit knowledge, the story goes like this: the Soviet Union had the plans for Concorde but couldn’t build a copy because it lacked the tacit knowledge associated with the plans.  Some of that tacit knowledge was contained in what Ikujiro Nonaka calls the “Ba” or space in which the knowledge exists.

While I was in Thailand I had the time to read Howard Moon’s book Soviet SST that formed the basis of the Equinox/Nova TV programme.  Well, it turns out the whole thing is more complicated than it seemed and there are several insights I didn’t expect to get.

One insight I wasn’t expecting was about incremental development.  It turns out that most Soviet aircraft design was a process of incremental development.  Sometimes only a few copies of an airplanes would be built and many new airplanes were modifications of existing designs.  Whether other airplane designers follow the same route I don’t know. 

This approach worked well, it was certainly low risk at a time when a failed project was simply unacceptable.  However, the approach failed when it came to the TU-144 for two reasons.  Firstly, a supersonic passenger plane was a massive leap rather than an incremental development.  And the only precedents for the plane were military.

Secondly, the demands on civil aircraft reached new peaks in the 1960’s and 70’s.  It was no longer enough for a plane to fly and carry a few passengers, it had to fly them in comfort, interface to ground systems and do so economically.  The incremental approach couldn’t deliver the TU-144.  It wasn’t really an increment on anything that went before.

Broadly speaking I’m an advocate of incremental approaches to most things: software design, business development and so on.  However, incremental developments have their limits.

The second insight I gained was about prestige projects.  The TU-144 project should have been scrapped a lot sooner.  The American’s scrapped their supersonic airliner in the early 1970’s and probably the Anglo-French Concorde should have been scrapped too.  But Concorde and the TU-144 were seen as prestige projects for their respective countries.

My question is: how do you tell a prestige project that should be scrapped from a visionary product?  Or a big-hairy-audacious-goal? Or a revolutionary product that changes the paradigm?  (Or whatever management speak you prefer.)

Frequently in business literature we find stories of people creating products nobody thought they could, of going beyond the current status-quo, of defying the cynics and so on.  We don’t hear about the projects that fail, only those that succeed.

So, I would like to know: how do I know that an ambitious project is visionary we should back?  And when, should we recognise it as built on sand and rooted in prestige?

And so back to my story.  Does it still stand up?  Can I still use the example?  Well, yes and no.

The TU-144/Concorde example still works as a headline but once you get into depth it is not the best example there is.  In fact, it turns out there are two better examples, the B-29 and the DC-3.  In the 1930’s the Soviets licenses the rights to build DC-3 planes.  Still, it was found necessary change the design, for a start the US designs used feet and inches while the Soviets used centimetres and millimetres.  In the end over 3000 LI-2 planes were built to this design.

In the 1940’s three of B-29 bombers fell into Soviet hands and Stalin ordered Tupolev to copy them exactly.  Still, the design was changed and the result was the TU-4.  Even having the planes it was impossible to completely reverse engineer them.

In both cases some changes were forced on the Soviets, like the measurement system, or the fact that some components or materials were simply not available.  Other changes stemmed from operating conditions, like the fact that dirt landing strips remained in use in Russia far longer than in the West, so planes needed to be able to land in more difficult terrain.  Either way, the “Ba” surrounding the Soviet and American versions was different.

 So, lessons from the Tu-144

  • Tacit knowledge and the environment knowledge exists in (Ba) are real and important.
  • Incremental development exists in many different industries; it is useful to enhance learning and reduce risk but it has limitations.  Sometimes you need to move beyond incremental development and when you do you need to recognise this.
  • Big prestige can be very damaging; we need understand when something is a prestige project and when a project is truly revolutionary

Interestingly, the Tupolev website lists a TU-444 project to build a supersonic business jet.  This looks a lot like an incremental development of the TU-160 bomber.  Similarly, the Sukhoi website lists a supersonic business jet  project without any information.

As a book Soviet SST could have done with a little more editing and some more effort to make it accessible, say, more diagrams, pictures, time lines and footnotes on airplane naming schemes.  As far as I can tell it is the only book (in English at least) written about the TU-144 which is a shame because it is a fascinating aircraft.  Perhaps some of the books on Concorde contain more information.

My guess is that the book was not a big seller, certainly it is out of print and I had to buy my copy second hand from the US.  Consequently I don’t expect there will every be a second edition.   This is to be lamented.  The book was written in 1989, before the fall of the Soviet Union.  Today it should be possible to conduct much more research into the project in Russia and access more documents and still speak to many of the people who worked on the project.

One of the things that fascinates me about Russian, or a at least Soviet, technology is that much of this technology was developed independently of similar technology in the West.  In effect two independent groups addressed the same problems, sometimes they came up with similar solutions and sometimes with different solutions, building on different knowledge stores.  Today we have one global knowledge store.  Communication channels, Internet and international mobility mean we are more likely to converge on the same solutions.