Monday, February 23, 2015

Project Management Failure – The Story of Centralia (Part 3)

The mine fire in Centralia, Pennsylvania, USA, started in May of 1962.  In the first two blogs in this series (here and here) I reviewed the project management failures on the part of the city of Centralia and the Pennsylvania Department of Mines and Mineral Industries.  Both tried to extinguish the fire and failed and responsibility for leading the effort was turned over to the US government Bureau of Mines.

Failure #1 - The Project Management Methodology Inhibits Project Action 

In the summer of 1965, three years after the fires started, the federal Bureau of Mines created a plan to address the fire.  This two phase plan would cost $2.5 million. The plan was approved, but bureaucracy and red tape slowed things down so that Phase I did not start until September of 1966. First project management failure by the federal government – the project management methodology inhibits project action instead of enabling it.

Failure #2 - Changing Scope To Fit The Budget; But Not Achieving The Project Goal

Phase I took longer and cost more than planned.  When it was finally time to start Phase II, in October of 1967, a re-estimate of Phase II indicated that the project would now cost $4.5 million.  Rather than spend the money, the project was redefined.  The Phase I activities were expanded and the Phase II activities were cancelled.  This was done despite the report issued in 1965 that said both phases were needed to control the fire. The expanded Phase I was completed.  A project success clained, but the fie was still raging. Next project management failure – changing the project scope to fit within the available budget and claim a “success,” without considering the impact on the project goal.

Failure #3 - Refusing Help

By December of 1967 the fire had spread into an adjacent coal field.  The company that owned that unmined coal was naturally quite concerned that the coal would be consumed before they could dig it out.  But because the Bureau of Mines was involved in fighting the fire, the company was prohibited from doing any mining without Bureau approval.  The company offered to put the fire out at their own expense if they would be allowed to dig out their coal.  They even offered to let the Bureau of Mines supervise the effort.  However, the federal agency rejected the offer.  Next project management failure – refusal to accept help from others.

Abandoned house in Centralia, PA
Failure #4 - A Partial Success Leads To A Declaration Of Victory And Abandoning The Project Goal

With the fire still burning and spreading, the Bureau of Mines decided to try a new technique for building a barrier around the fire, using fly ash.  This innovative technique had worked well in several tests.  In May of 1969 this project was started in combination with yet another small excavation trench.  This effort was partially effective in stopping the fire from spreading further towards downtown Centralia, although the fire could continue to burn and spread in other directions, Therefore the project was of limited scope and did not completely surround the fire and extinguish it.  Although the fire was no longer spreading towards downton Cetnralia, by this time, three houses that were nearest to the fire had already been condemned because they were full of carbon monoxide venting from the fire.  Next project management failure – a partial success occurs and the team declares victory without achieving the full project objective.

Failure #5 - Not Aligning Stakeholders Creates Delays And Confusion

Move forward now to 1976; periodic monitoring revealed that the fly ash barrier constructed in 1969 had not sealed the fire.  Hot gases, primarily poisonous carbon monoxide, had jumped the barrier.   Although it did not appear that the fire had jumped the barrier, it was creeping around the edges of the trench.  The Bureau of Mines determined to conduct a repair project of the barrier and trench.  Again bureaucratic red tape delayed the start until July of 1977.  Phase I repaired the fly ash barrier and closed some vent holes.  Phase II of the repair project required more excavation.  This time a bigger, longer trench would be dug and now it was close to the town.  In fact, the line of the trench went through several houses.  Twenty-five families would need to move.  Needless to say there were was an uproar on the part of the citizens of Centralia.  Phase II was delayed.  Finally, by the end of 1978 the town decided to go along with the plan, only to find that the Bureau of Mines had again changed their mind and had a new plan.  Once again they were proposing to pump the area full of water and crushed rock.  Next project management failure – not aligning the project with the needs of key stakeholders will create delays, conflict, and confusion which leads to even bigger problems.

The Federal Government Gives Up

Well the story has a tragic ending.  While everyone was arguing over what to do, homes in Centralia were starting to be contaminated with toxic gases from the fire.  The government paid to put a carbon monoxide monitor in each home.  Many homes were repeatedly exceeding safe levels.  By 1984 the bureau of Mines gave up on controlling the fire. The US congress authorized $42 million to relocate the remaining residents of Centralia.  While many families took advantage of the buyout, a few families refused to accept the money and move.  In 1992 the government condemned the entire town and invoked imminent domain.  After years of appeals, the seven remaining residents are allowed to live out their lives in Centralia, but upon their death their property reverts to the state.

How The Feds Failed

We have seen the failures on the part of the city and state in the first two blogs in this series.  So let’s review the final project management failures made by the Bureau of Mines: 
  1. The project management methodology inhibits projects instead of assisting them. 
  2. Project scope is changed to fit the budget so that a “project success” can be claimed but the scope no longer accomplishes the project goal.
  3. A refusal by the project team to accept help from others. 
  4. A partial success is hailed as a complete victory and the full project goal is never achieved. 
  5. When in the midst of a crisis, not aligning the project approach with all the stakeholders only deepens the crisis.

One final ironic note about Centralia; it has now become a tourist attraction.  Visitors from around the world come to see the smoke and steam pouring from the cracks in the roads and holes in the yards of the abandoned homes.  The town has even been featured on the Travel Channel.  Due to the ongoing stream of project management failures, people all over the world have now heard of Centralia, Pennsylvania.

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

1 comment:

  1. Tag: PM202A55. 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