For the last couple of days, I've been spending time with Panasonic's Toughbook hardened laptop division, going over its line. However, part of the discussion that really stuck with me as an ex-internal auditor is that many of the products that sell as Mil-Spec compliant, in my new view, aren't.
Panasonic is one of the few companies that tests to the full U.S. military specification; others often don't. My point here is not to buy Panasonic, but to actually audit the tests of products before you buy them from anyone.
Now it isn't as if any of these non-compliant vendors are aggressively covering things up. They do supply the supporting test documentation; it is just apparent that they are betting you, the buyer, won't read it.
Mil-Spec should mean something. Let's talk about why it often doesn't.
As with any testing against a standard, the test results can be kind of daunting, with page after page of line items that typically say "pass." However, what I discovered this week is that the devil is in the details, and some companies alter these tests so their products will pass.
They may shorten the duration of the test, reduce its severity, have the product turned off rather than running during the test, or change some of the test provisions in order to pass it. To me, that is like starting with the product and a pass and backing into documentation that supports this position. I used to help run a testing lab -- this is not how testing like this should be done.
Mil-Spec Compliance Failure Risks
People's lives depend on Mil-Spec products, and that is why we pay extra for this classification. We send our people out into oil fields, on hazardous duty on ocean-based oil rigs, or into the field on military engagements and expect them to respond quickly to criminal attacks and fires. When this hardware fails, they can fail, and it isn't just their life and jobs that may be at risk, but the lives of others.
In short, if the product says Mil-Spec, we need to ensure it meets or exceeds the tests that validate the class. We need to ensure it passes the tests unaltered.
Bradley Fighting Vehicle Lesson
A few years back, I watched a movie called The Pentagon Wars. It was released in 1998 as a comedy staring Kelsey Grammer. It was based on a book about the Bradley Fighting Vehicle, an armored personnel carrier that was so poorly designed it was a death trap. Israel bought it from us, and the fascinating and sad thing was there were two lines, one for Israel that produced safe products and one for the U.S. that didn't. This was because Israel wasn't about to put its people into a death trap, so it ordered much needed changes that those on our side did not.
The implication of the movie and the related book was that the people managing the project for the U.S. were more interested in making a healthy margin than in protecting the troops. As a comedy, I had a hard time laughing at any part. This really happened, and probably is still happening, to our own military.
People who should know better often put folks at risk for bad reasons. Don't be one of them.
The lesson here is that we need to provide tools that will do what they intend. Getting a product that asserts it is Mil-Spec but isn't, regardless of the price, is a waste of money. You are simply paying extra for fluff. If Mil-Spec is important to you, then it is just as important that you, or your people, actually read through the certification documentation and ensure the full tests were taken and passed. That is true of Panasonic or FMC. If you don't do the work, you are not only helping cheat your company, but you may be putting real people at real risk. In the end, how can any of us live with that?