Under Armour Speedskating Suit: A Cautionary Tale (Told Yet Again)

One of the most interesting side stories of the Sochi Winter Olympics is the poor performance of the United States speedskating team. They were heavily favored to win a few medals, including gold, but no U.S. speed skater has reached the podium so far, or even finished in the top six in any race, and the team will likely go home without any medals for the first time in three decades.

What went wrong? Probably a lot of things, but the factor getting the most attention right now is the new “Mach 39” speedskating suit that Under Armour developed for the team. According to a Wall Street Journal article detailing the story behind the suit:

Under Armour produced dozens of prototypes stitched together with five different synthetic materials, each selected to reduce drag and friction on different parts of the suit. They built fiberglass mannequins and logged more than 300 hours in a high-speed wind tunnel. Defense stalwart Lockheed Martin Corp., which declined to comment, was brought in for its aerodynamic expertise. A person familiar with the matter said the resources poured into the effort totaled nearly $1 million. 

When Under Armour announced the suit last fall, U.S. Speedskating’s technical staff and athletes were so impressed that they decided to keep the details of it secret…The decision was unanimous [that] the skaters wouldn’t compete in the Mach 39 until the Olympics.

But when the races started and U.S. speedskaters failed to medal, the blame game began and the new high-tech suit became the easy scapegoat.

This cautionary tale has been told countless times before: We are quick to view technology as a “silver bullet,” but we’re also quick to blame it when things don’t go as planned.

Remember Hershey’s in 1999? Halloween is the Olympics of the candy industry, and Hershey’s failed to deliver that year. Literally. Here are some details from a WSJ article published October 29, 1999:

For the nation’s largest candy maker…this could turn out to be a very scary Halloween. New technology that came on line in July [from SAP, Siebel (now part of Oracle), and Manugistics (now part of JDA Software)] has gummed up its ordering-and-distribution system, leaving many stores nationwide reporting spot shortages of Kisses, Kit Kats, Twizzlers and other stalwarts of the trick-or-treating season.

In mid-July, Hershey flipped the switch on a $112 million computer system that was supposed to automate and modernize everything from taking candy orders to putting pallets on trucks. Two months later, the company announced that something was wrong. Now, an additional six weeks later — and with Halloween looming — it’s still working out the kinks and says it hopes to have everything running smoothly by early December.

Instead of rolling out the system in phases, Hershey’s took a “big bang” approach and brought the whole system live at once, with very little time for testing. This is analogous to the “big bang” approach the U.S. speedskating team took with the new Under Armour suit. Instead of testing the suit in competitions leading up to the Olympics, and at sea-level conditions like Sochi, the team waited until the last minute (the equivalent of the night before Halloween) to go live with the new suit.

Remember Nike and i2 Technologies (now part of JDA Software) in 2001? Same story. And there are plenty more in the annals of enterprise software deployments.

The reality is that technology is never a silver bullet, and it’s never the lone culprit when things go wrong. In fact, many IT projects fail because they are understaffed and rushed, or because of data quality issues (“garbage in, garbage out”).

For example, over the years, I’ve heard many companies say, “We had a transportation management system, but it didn’t work well, so we stopped using it.” The reality is that it takes time to set up and fine tune a TMS, particularly its optimization capabilities, so that it accurately reflects your transportation operations. And since your operations change over time, you need to continuously fine tune the TMS, otherwise the quality of the output degrades and you end up thinking the solution is “broken” and stop using it. Unfortunately, many companies don’t review and adjust their TMS setup after the initial implementation — but when “garbage in, garbage out” sets in, they’re quick to blame the software.

The U.S. Speedskating team ultimately ditched the Mach 39 suit and went back to the Under Armour suit they wore at the World Cup. It wasn’t a silver bullet either. Let’s hope the team stops looking for one before the 2018 Winter Olympics.