Configuration Gear

Configuration Management, Who Needs It?

Configuration GearConfiguration Management is the foundation of the Capability Maturity Model (CMM), which has been adopted by many organizations worldwide, primarily those involved in the development of software applications.

Recently, the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD), specifically the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense, Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics, hired the Software Engineering Institute (SEI) at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Penn. to study and update CMM.

In 2002, they released version 1.1 of Capability Maturity Model® Integration (CMMI), a process improvement approach that provides organizations with the essential elements of effective processes. The latest version of CMMI, v1.2 was introduced in August 2006, and encompasses three disciplines – CMMI Development, CMMI Services and CMMI Acquisition.

CMMI can be used to guide process improvement across a project, a division, or an entire organization. It helps integrate traditionally separate organizational functions, set process improvement goals and priorities, provide guidance for quality processes, and provide a point of reference for appraising current processes.

For example, the U.S. Navy now uses CMMI in design engineering, manufacturing, repair and overhaul, and new construction. However, many people and organizations still do not under stand the importance of CMMI, or for that matter, Configuration Management.

Wikipedia defines Configuration Management as the “security features and assurances through control of changes made to product design, hardware, software, firmware, documentation, test, test fixtures and test documentation throughout the development and operational life of a system.”

In relationship to software, Configuration Management is also defined as the “control and adaptation of the evolution of complex systems. It is the discipline of keeping evolving software products under control, and thus contributes to satisfying quality and delay constraints. Software configuration management (or SCM) can be divided into two areas. The first (and older) area of SCM concerns the storage of the entities produced during the software development project, sometimes referred to as component repository management. The second area concerns the activities performed for the production and/or change of these entities; the term engineering support is also often used to refer to this second area.”

Configuration Items are components of Configuration Management. In the movie “Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark” starring Harrison Ford, Indiana Jones, and archeologist and adventurer was hired by the U.S. Government to find the Ark of the Covenant. After seeing the movie, I researched the Ark of the Covenant and found it described in the Hebrew Bible as a sacred container, holding the Ten Commandments.

In the Bible, God had some specific instructions, or Configuration Items for Moses when it came to the Ark of the Covenant. (Exodus 25:10).

The Ark’s key characteristics given to Moses by God provided a detailed description of the requirements. The following is an example of God’s “Statement of Work” (SOW):

  • Make a chest of acacia wood that is two and a half cubits long, a cubit and a half wide, and a cubit and a half high. Authors Note: A cubit is equivalent to about 18 inches or 0.5 meters.
  • Overlay the Ark with pure gold, both inside and out, and make a gold molding around it.
  • Cast four gold rings, and fasten them to its four feet, with two rings on one side and two rings on the other.
  • Make poles of acacia wood and overlay them with gold.
  • Insert the poles into the rings on the sides of the chest to carry it.
  • The poles are to remain in the rings of this ark – they are not to be removed.
  • Then put in the ark the Testimony, which I will give you.
  • Make an atonement cover of pure gold–two and a half cubits long and a cubit and a half wide.
  • And make two cherubim (angels) out of hammered gold at the ends of the cover.
  • Put one cherub on one end and the second cherub on the other; make the cherubim of one piece with the cover, at the two ends.
  • The cherubim are to have their wings spread upward, overshadowing the cover with them. The cherubim are to face each other, looking toward the cover.
  • Place the cover on top of the ark and put in the ark the Testimony, which I will give you.

God then went on to describe other configuration items in detail defining their key characteristics including furnishings and structure, table, lamp stand, lamps, tabernacle, crossbars, how to set up the tabernacle, colors of curtains, entrance, alter, west end courtyard, entrance courtyard, olive oil for the lamps, engraved onyx stones, and the list goes on.

In today’s manufacturing environment, what happens when we lose Configuration Management?

  • United Airlines Flight 811 crashed on February 24, 1989 during takeoff from Honolulu, Hawaii. On board were 337 passengers and 18 crewmembers. Only nine lives were lost that day, but it was reported that the Boeing 747-122 aircraft had both improper wiring and a poor latching mechanism in cargo door which caused “sudden explosive decompression,”
  • On January 28, 1986, the Space Shuttle Challenger disintegrated 73 seconds into its flight, killing seven crew members. Cause of the accident was a failed O-ring seal.
  • USS Dolphin AGSS-555, the U.S. Navy’s oonly operational diesel-electric, deep-diving, research and development submarine, experienced fire and flooding when the torpedo shield door gasket failed. Cause of the accident, a gasket purchased at Home Depot.

In the case of the USS Dolphin, the U.S. Navy’s Commercial Off The Shelf (COTS) program was misinterpreted to imply that subcontractors could purchase cheaper products for government contracts, resulting in widespread loss of Configuration Management.

During my career, I have been deeply involved in government contracts, as was in the U.S. Navy when the government initatied the COTS program. The intent was to allow commercial technology to be used on Navy ships, with the primary purpose of upgrading on-board software and embedded hardware in order to keep up with rapidly evolving communications technologies. However, the program was written to include everything used by the government.

 Authors Note: Navy ships are designed to withstand an attack and recover. Products made to military specifications are tested to distruction by a method we called “Shake & Bake” before they would be accepted as shipboard equipment.

As we compare the COTS and CMMI we see the ying and yang of the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing.

COTS, introduced to the U.S. Navy by the Commander, Naval Sea Systems Command, “is a prudent means of lowering the costs of acquiring equipment and systems that satisfy the Navy’s needs.” (Reference NAVSEAINST 9083.1, SER 04L1/402, 21 Jul 00)

CMMI focus on safety and liability by controlling the Configuration Management/Key Characteristics of a product throughout its lifecycle.

The COTS program can often be misunderstood, and taken too far when it comes to cost reduction. For example, when the USS Dolphin engineer purchase a gasket for installation on a submarine from Home Depot, he was exhibiting complacency, with no consideration for the safety of the gasket. The savings of a few dollars for a cheaper gasket cost millions of dollars in unscheduled repairs.

When we look at the hierrarchy of the authroity, the DoD supervises the U.S. Navy, but did the DoD support the COTS progam? There were comments in the COTS document (NAVSEAINST 9083.1, SER 04L1/402, 21 Jul 00) that stated various concerns including, “Traditional CM (Configuration Management) paradigms do not work for COTS products. How will you address the functional requirement to know what items are needed for production, support, engineering Change (EC) planning, COTS Management Strategies etc.? How will you insure form, fit and function inter-changeability throughout the lif cycle?” It is now evident that no action was taken to address the issue.

Corporations often exhibit the same decision-making practices as those illustrated in this military example. The hierachical leadership will make decision after receiving adverse input because it would be far too time-consuming to solve the problem. In fact, for many, asking for help might even deflate their egos.

All of us need various degrees of configuration management in our lives, even at home. As a family unit it is easy to define values and rules (Configuration Items and key characteristics) for the family. However, it is not easy to apply them and have the entire family understand the repercussions if they are breached. For example, we may only look at an O-Ring as a small component of a very large space shuttle, but let’s not forget that as minute as it may seem in the whole scheme of things, even the O-Ring cause the catastrophic failure, and death.

 Joseph Sorrentino is the President and CEO of Lean Quality Systems, Inc. based in Dana Point, Calif. For nearly three decades, Sorrentino has been instrumental in implementing successful quality management systems for commercial companies and government agencies throughout the United States. Sorrentino can be reached at (213) 880-3902 or