by Don Kennedy, Ph.D., P.Eng., CPEM, FASEM
I recently read a post on social media about causes of project failure. Many of the typical suspects were on the list, such as poor communication, lack of planning, ambiguous scope definitions, unrealistic goals, etc. But you almost never see luck on such a list.
I will give an example of a small project I was on. It had a strictly required deadline. There was also a specific specialty component required. One vendor in New Jersey had it on the shelf for $40,000.
Another vendor could make one in 16 to 18 weeks for $10,000. I had a budget of $50k for the item so I could buy both if I had to. I went with the cheap one which gave me a few days float. After 16 weeks, the vendor notified me that they would not have it in time. I bought the expensive one and started transporting it to site. It would just get there in time.
Along the way, the truck transporting it had a tire blow out. A farmer heard the noise and came out of his house. A cow was dead. He claimed that the noise of the tire scared the cow and killed it. Although he appeared to have average cows, he also claimed the one that died happened to be a prize cow worth $30,000. The flat tire and giving the farmer a bit of money to go away put the project slightly over budget and a day late on the critical schedule. It was a failure. I did not learn anything from this and would do everything the same next time. It was just bad luck even with a great contingency plan.
W. Edwards Deming is often called the “Man Who Discovered Quality”. One point he often stressed is how Engineering Managers might spend a lot of effort in measuring performance of workers. Yet many times, the actual outcomes are just the result of dumb luck and the decisions made by those doing the measurement. It is an ongoing effort to educate new managers to critically think about their actions and the impacts of these on the organization. For the above project things did not work out. But to my credit other times luck was on my side. Should I be rewarded when things work and punished when they do not? Such are the questions discussed amongst the people who look at management for a living.
About the Author
Dr. Donald Kennedy, Ph.D., P.Eng., CPEM is a fellow of ASEM. He has worked on many large projects in a variety of industries for more than 50 companies. He hopes to retire soon if he can stay employed just a little longer.