The Perils of Over Engineering

Up late and unable to sleep, I’m doing one of my favorite veg-out activities – watching one of the endless Military Channel documentaries about WWII. I am fascinated by WWII; in hindsight there were so many decisions made by the Axis powers that were strategically and tactically wrong, that I shudder to think what might have been if they hadn’t messed it up.

Tonight’s topic: the Allied Sherman tank vs. the German Tiger tank…

The Tiger was technically superior by almost every measure – more armor, more firepower, and slightly faster. The Sherman had thinner armor and would almost always lose 1 on 1 battles. The Allies did have a few key advantages. The Sherman was easily repairable. Most important, the Sherman was cheap and could be pumped out in huge numbers. The Allied Generals realized that even though they were losing 4 Sherman’s to every one Tiger, they could take the losses and win the war.

The most puzzling thing about the Tiger was that the Germans were even making it. Their proven technology, the Panzer tank, was less expensive and took half as long to build. In the end, the Germans made less than 1,500 Tigers. The Allies made 50,000 Shermans.

What’s the point? If tanks are products, the Tiger was over engineered. Like many products today, it packed a ton of “neat” features into a bloated package. It was far too expensive, and the German military, always enamored with new technology, expended huge resources to build a few awesome tanks when what they really needed was a ton of average tanks.

The Product Management lesson I tank take from this is two fold. First, develop to your average user, not your subject matter experts. SME’s will feature pack your product with interesting features of dubious usefulness to the rest of the Market. Worse, they will mutate core features (armor and firepower) to the extreme, and you’ll end up with a scenario where you have important features that should solve user’s problems but are so bloated that they are unrecognizable or hard-to-use (Macros in MS Word, Adobe Download Manager, the HTML blink tag, etc). BTW, Engineering/Development are super-SME’s, so don’t let them define the product – ever!

BeOS, RIPSecond, keep one eye on the strategic place your product will fit in the Market at all times. If the Germans had realized that the war was going to be a numbers game with the U.S.A, they might have shifted their tactics and produced cheaper tanks in more abundance, or sued for peace, or not fought a second front with Russia. You can make a product that solves all of your customers problems, meets all your requirements, and still fails in the market if your strategy is off. For instance, you could make a great operating system that is better than Windows and works in innovative ways, but fails because Windows is embedded everywhere and Linux is free. Make sure you align your product with your strategy and place in the market as you think about requirements.

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5 Comments

  • Reply Dristen Darcy May 5, 2008 at 11:23 am

    You have to remember that there were people in those tanks. By the battle of the Bulge the German tanks were “manned” by 15 and 16 year old kids and the commanders were 17-19 old “veterans from the Easter front”. From February to September 1944, heavy battles were fought in the narrow, 50 km-wide, Narva front in the northeastern part of Estonia. Over 100,000 men were killed and 300,000 men were wounded there. During battles in the summer of 1944 over 700,000 men were lost. The Germans could ill afford to lose even 1 man to 4 and even at a ratio of 10:1 were losing the war. The Soviet-built T34/76A tank was superior to the Panzers thus the Tiger and King Tigers. It is pretty sad that Germans had more consideration for the lives of their men than the American Brass. One Tiger was taking out an average of 8 Sherman’s but the ration of Tiger The German tanks did not defeat the Tigers or the Panzers in the Battle for France after D Day During the Battle of t the Mustangs did. During the Battle of the Bulge the German Tanks literally ran out of Gas.

    The Japanese lost the air war because they ran out of pilots, and by the end of the war the Zero was technically inferior and a death trap as the fuel tanks were not self sealing.

  • Reply Dristen Darcy May 5, 2008 at 11:32 am

    Corrections to above, That was of course supposed to read Eastern not Easter front. Moderator please combine with first.

    But the Ratio of Tiger to Mustang was 0:4 and the ratio would have been higher if the Tigers had been more prevalent.

    One additional problem with the Tiger is that it turned out to be too heavy many of which got bogged down in the mud if it did not run out of gas first.

  • Reply JoseAngel de Monterrey December 15, 2009 at 8:37 pm

    This is probably a bit late but I just found your article and I thought it worth leaving a comment because I really liked it.
    It is indeed a great article abour over engineering. After many years of driving american cars I got myself a Mini Cooper. It is a great car, I like it and I enjoy it much, and as you probably know that the new mini cooper is actually german designed, even though it is still assembled in England, anyways, in my opinion there’s overengineering all around the little car. Many things break apart easily after a little usage and through no abuse of the driver. I have a neighbor who also drives a BMW, he has a problem replacing the windshield wipers, the BMW people developed their own design, while nearly 99% of the cars in the market use a standard windshield wiper that can be replaced with less than 15 dls, my neighbor had to spend more than 5o dls for the original ones. I don’t think a consumer would appreciate that kind of engineering that leaves you broke.

  • Reply Drew June 24, 2012 at 6:49 am

    I don’t know enough about the Panzer engineering to know whether it was over-engineered. However, I am sure the parameters of the tanks were calculated to make the best use of the German situation, which was one of finite soldiers and finite steel.

    German tanks typically took out 4-7 Shermans but had only twice as much steel. I believe more were abandoned without fuel than were killed by Shermans.

    If the German’s hadn’t run out of fuel (which would’ve happened regardless of tank size), the war would have lasted much longer–perhaps long enough that the Allies would have had to bring better tanks to the field.

  • Reply Paul Rako July 30, 2013 at 11:15 am

    I wrote an article about htis very thing– based on stories my dad told me:

    http://www.edn.com/electronics-blogs/other/4327368/Overengineering-How-much-is-too-much-

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