CICIORA’S CORNER: Engineering projects and the Panama Canal

Sat, 01/31/2009 - 7:20pm
Walter S. Ciciora, Ph.D., Recognized Industry Expert on Cable and Consumer Electronics Issues

Engineers need to take early action to keep management’s visions realistic.

Late last year, my wife and I took a cruise through the Panama Canal. This is something I’ve wanted to do for quite some time. Big engineering projects of all kinds fascinate me. I highly recommend doing this. The cruise included a four-part Walter S. Cicioralecture on the canal’s history and construction.

The experience motivated me to get the book by David McCullough, “The Path Between the Seas.” I was warned that the book is excessive in its detail, very long and hard to stay with. The author is “verbally incontinent.” So instead of buying the paperback, I got the book on CDs from the library in two parts, each with 14 CDs! We use books on tape (or CDs) on long driving trips to keep from falling asleep at the wheel. The first half of the book was heard while traveling to and from a Thanksgiving holiday. The second half is being heard during our now annual trip to Aiken, S.C. The book is an excellent case study in the politics of engineering projects. These are lessons applicable to the politics within cable companies, but more particularly to politics the cable industry faces with regulatory and governmental bodies.

The first part of the story is a lesson in how a major success does not mean there will necessarily be another. The story starts much earlier with the French entrepreneur, Ferdinand de Lesseps, who built the 119-mile-long Suez Canal.

In 1854, de Lesseps obtained a concession from the viceroy of Egypt to form a company for the construction of a canal, which would be open to ships of all nations. Politics limited the acceptance of the stock in the company to citizens of France. Significant political, financial and technical problems were overcome, and the canal opened to shipping on Nov. 17, 1869. It comes as no surprise that the final cost was more than double the early estimates. Nonetheless, the canal was an immediate technical and financial success and made de Lesseps into a national hero. The canal is a single-lane, sea-level canal with four passing places. It has no locks. The brave stockholders of the company became rich.

If the story ended there, de Lesseps would have gone to his eternal reward remembered as a hero. But he was too young to rest on his laurels. He wanted another major success. He turned to the problem of a short-water route between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans as his next challenge. His earlier success left him a person uninhibited by questions of self doubt. He was convinced that this canal project would be even easier, since it would be about half as long as the Suez Canal. Just like the Suez, de Lesseps wanted a sea-level canal.

Because of his earlier successes and international reputation, he formed a company in 1876, La Société Internationale du Canal Interocéanique, and easily raised money. He obtained a concession from the Columbian government, since the Panama region was then part of Columbia. Construction began in 1882. But de Lesseps was not an engineer, although he would not acknowledge that fact. Like much of management throughout history, he had insufficient respect for the engineers. When his engineers estimated it would take seven or eight years, he reduced the number to six. He drastically reduced the budget twice. His fame and self image left him out of control. Does any of this sound familiar?

The geography and geology of Panama is very different from that of the Suez region. Instead of a sandy, flat and dry desert, Panama is a rocky, mountainous, tropical land rising to 360 feet above sea level at its optimum crossing point. A sea-level canal would require massive removal of rock. In addition, the Chagres River flows across the path of the canal. During the rainy season, it would flush the canal and make it unusable. The massive river had to be diverted. A canal with locks was the logical technical solution, but de Lesseps would have it no other way. He had staked his reputation on a lock-less, sea-level approach and would not be convinced by the technical facts.

Disease in the tropical jungle presented a great obstacle. It is estimated that more than 22,000 workers died during the French effort.

In truth, his engineers were not forceful enough. They failed to face up to him and force him to see the facts. As a consequence, the project and the company failed. The company went bankrupt in 1889, and after eight years, only two-fifths of the project was completed. The savings of thousands of small investors were wiped out, and the French government fell.

The major lesson here is that engineers need to take early action to keep management’s visions realistic. Realistic technical specifications, time estimates and budget commitments are the tough messages that need to be delivered early in a project. These messages only become more difficult later as reality forces its ugly continence in your face.


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