Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Project Management Failure – The Story of Centralia (Part 2)

The mine fire in Centralia, Pennsylvania, USA, had been burning for nearly two months.  In my previous blog post I covered the actions and project management failures on the part of the city.  After several months of fighting the fire, the city council has given up and turned the responsibility for fighting the fire over to the state Department of Mines and Mineral Industries (DMMI).  Let's consider how they approached this problem.

Failure #1 - Unwilling To Think Outside The Box

By the time the state DMMI got involved, there was smoke and steam coming from fissures in the ground.  In early August, 1962, the DMMI held a meeting in Centralia.  At the meeting a small mining company offered to dig out the fire for free if they could then have the rights to any coal that they dug out at the same time.  The offer was rejected because that approach did not go through the normal state procurement processes.  First project management failure by the state – unwilling to consider innovate responses to unique project problems.

Failure #2 - A Rigid Allegiance To The Project Plan Overlooks The Project Goal

Another month passed and now the state hired a company to excavate the burning portion of the mine for $20,000. (Yes, they did follow the normal procurement process this time.)  But this contractor was not allowed to test to see where the fire had moved, but was required to dig the area that was specified in the contract.  Unfortunately the contract did not correctly guess the direction and speed of the fire.  Further, the contractor was only allowed to work one shift a day and was not allowed to work on weekends or holidays.  Unfortunately, the fire did not stop burning at night or on weekends and holidays, so it grew to a size much larger than what was in the contract.  Next project management failure – a rigid focus on the scope document ignores the goal of the project.

Failure #3 - A Re-baseline Of The Project Doesn't Consider The New Project Environment

By November, five months after the fire started, a new plan was initiated.  DMMI decided that the abandoned underground mines around the fire would be pumped full of crushed rock and water to isolate the fire.  This effort would cost an additional $40,000.  But there were several problems. There was no local source of sufficient water to do the work, so it had to be pumped in.  It was now winter; and winter in the Pennsylvania mountains can get cold.  The water lines and equipment for creating the crushed rock slurry froze so the pumping was delayed and sometimes curtailed.  Meanwhile, bore holes for locating the edge of the fire were actually creating paths to let the fire move into new areas. This part of the project finally finished in March of 1963.  By the middle of April it was clear that the fire was raging beyond the enclosing circle of crushed rock.  Next project management failure – poor planning of a rebaseline over-looked obvious constraints and risks.

Rescuing injured survivors from the Centralia mine fire
Failure #4 - Inability By The Team To Explain The Project Impacts To Management

The next proposal considered by DMMI to put the fire out was a three-pronged effort that could cost over $500,000 if all three prongs were followed.  That would have to wait until the state’s new fiscal year started on July 1.  The fire had now been burning for over 13 months.  Unfortunately, the DMMI budget was cut in the new fiscal year, so this project was not funded.  Next project management failure – inability of the team to explain the project impacts (threat or opportunity) to management, leading to a short-sighted decision. 

The DMMI did eventually allocate $40,000 for fighting the fire and in July of 1963 another small project similar to the first one the DMMI funded was undertaken with the same results.  The state now ignored the fire and it continued to burn until the federal government finally decided to step in.

The State Tries And Fails

In the first blog in this series I looked at the failures on the part of the city.  This time we considered the state agency. In my last blog I will talk about the response of the federal government.  But let’s review the project management failures by the DMMI:
  1. Unwilling to consider non-traditional alternatives to address risk. 
  2. A rigid focus on the original scope documents ignores the project goal. 
  3. Poor planning of a re-baseline ignores obvious constraints and risks. 
  4. Inability of the team to explain the project impact leads to short-sighted decisions by management.

References:  DeKok, David. Fire Underground: The Ongoing Tragedy of the Centralia Mine Fire. Guilford, CT: Globe Pequot Press, 2010.  


  1. Tag: PM202A56. Let me share all of you about #5 Tips for Project Management Success,, I hope you enjoy it

    1. Plan your day using time management techniques

    As a project manager, time management skills are essential because you are dealing with a wide range of tasks that demand a quick turnaround time. Planning your day will go a long way in keeping you organized and increasing your productivity. Assist your task planning by using project management software which helps you track the work of you and your team.

    If you are not very tech savvy, a simple to-do list can also be a great organizational tool. Prioritize your most important tasks by putting them at the top of the list and less important ones at the bottom. Having a visual plan of your daily tasks helps to keep you on track and aware of time.

    Related post: Free ebook 104 secrets to become a great project manager

    2. Include stakeholders in important project conversations

    While you will have plenty of responsibilities regarding the project, don’t neglect your clients.

    Good communication is essential is keeping both parties informed of project progression, curtailing scope creep, and apprised of changing requirements. Some clients may have different expectations when it comes to communication, so make sure to establish the frequency and type of communication (like emails, phone calls, and face-to-face conversations) at the beginning of your project.

    Establishing communication expectations early helps alleviate stakeholder uncertainty about communication frequency and delivery.

    3. Regularly communicate with your team

    Daily team communication helps keep misunderstandings and unclear requirements under control. Keeping your team informed in every step of the project is essential to project management success.

    For example, a study published by Procedia Technology found that good communication skills were the cornerstone of project management. The study examined over 300 “construction project managers, architects, construction managers, engineers and quantity surveyors” and their successes and failures on various construction projects.

    4. Anticipate project setbacks

    Even the best-laid plans often go awry.

    Remember that even with a high amount of planning and attention to detail, your project may still encounter some challenges. Pay attention to complaints from stakeholders or colleagues, and other warning signs, like a missed deadline or cost overrun, that there may be a problem.

    Preventing a crisis will keep your project running smoothly, save you a lot of time, and keep you, your team, and your stakeholders confident in progressing with the project.

    Unfortunately not every complication can be avoided. Crisis management skills are essential for dealing with the unexpected. Project managers need to be flexible and pragmatic. Improvise and make sharp decisions when needed.

    Related post: 92 free project management templates

    5. Stay focused on the details

    A common problem project managers encounter is having the project aims not aligned with the organization’s objectives. A great project manager will strategize a plan for the project to lead back to the overall success of the business.

    Know your project’s scope by heart and avoid wandering outside of the project’s requirements. It’s too easy to get lost in minor details and forget what your focus is, so a well-planned project scope is essential for success.

    And final, you should use KPI to measure effectiveness of the project, here are full list: 76 project management KPIs

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