Lean Six Sigma

Systems Thinking and Ships in Shanghai

shanghai-shipQuality experts and practitioners alike know that a solution should be designed for a particular context of use. The complete environment of the problem should be considered, and political, economic, social and technical ramifications should be examined before investing in a costly project.

This wasn’t the case for the $260 million construction of a cruise terminal in Shanghai along the Huangpu River which was recently opened. The building is ultra-modern, environmentally friendly and a model for sustainable development. But to get to the terminal, ships have to sail underneath the Yangpu Bridge, which has such low clearance that a third of the world’s ships can’t fit (and the trip is risky for many of the others, who have to wait until low tide to navigate it).

An architect or designer should have recognized that for the terminal to achieve “fitness for use” as defined by Juran, the traffic pattern to bring ships to the building would play an important role. The situation is a little more striking when you consider the question of siting airports – how useful would it be to build an airport in the center of a metropolis where airplanes couldn’t find a clear path to the runway? Building the terminal without consideration for traffic patterns was wasteful: the city will miss opportunities to serve many customers, blocking out the possibility to drive passenger revenue to the city, extra time will be needed for captains to successfully steer their ships in, and extra fuel will be expended in the process. (Not to mention that the only solution now would be to raise the bridge, which would cost several tens of millions more.)

These types of problems are not limited to examples in transportation. I remember several years ago I went to a meeting where a group of highly skilled, senior engineers were discussing how to deploy a sensitive piece of research equipment they’d been working on for years. It had been a long, hard road, and they were finally ready to see the fruits of their labor in use. A concrete monument had been poured to keep the instrument level, and they were discussing in excruciating detail how to get the instrument onto the pad.

“Hold on,” somebody asked. “How many pounds can that monument hold?”

Another engineer quickly replied. “We used some really high-grade concrete. It can hold up to ten thousand pounds.”

“Yeah, but our instrument is almost twice that weight!”

Ten scientists and engineers looked around the room, pensively. Some wrinkled their brows and others started furiously scribbling notes on paper, but no one said a word. After a few uncomfortable minutes, the leader of the meeting said “Well, we’ve come to the end of the hour. Let’s talk about that next time.”

I don’t think the instrument ever got deployed. Remember: think about the whole system! Quality depends on fitness for use in a particular context.


Lim, L. (2008). Some Ships Can’t Reach Shanghai’s New Terminal. NPR News, November 3.

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