Monday, February 16, 2015

Project Management Failure - The Story of Centralia (Part 1)

Let me tell you a story of a tragedy; an avoidable tragedy.  It is a case study in what not to do when managing a project with a problem.   It is the story of the mine fire in Centralia, Pennsylvania, USA.  The fire was intentionally started by the city on May 27, 1962.  It is still burning over 50 years later, and it is expected to burn for another 250 years.  It has grown so large that it can’t be extinguished.  It has made the town of Centralia and the neighbouring town of Byrnesville virtually uninhabitable.  The population of Centralia has dropped from over 2700 in 1980 to just 7 in 2013.  The fire now encompasses an area of 3700 acres, is 300 feet deep, and it is still growing.

Why is this fire a study in failed project management? It is an almost endless string of bad project management decisions.   I am not talking about Gantt charts and responsibility matrices.  I am talking about decisions by the stakeholders concerning whether and when to do a project and the approach that is taken.  I am talking about the risk management, scope management, and stakeholder management associated with a project.  In fact, there are so many project management failures to discuss that I will need to break this blog post into several parts. 

It All Starts.

According to most accounts, the fire was intentionally started on May 27, 1962 as part of a town clean up to prepare for the upcoming Memorial Day celebrations.  The new town landfill, which had only been open for a few months, was next to the cemetery where the memorial service would be held.  It was both ugly and smelled bad.  It was common practice in the town to “clean up” a landfill by heaping the combustibles and burning them. So, under the direction of the town council, the fire department did a controlled burn at the landfill that day.

Failure #1 - Not Understanding The Project Environment

This landfill was in an old strip mine that was above abandoned underground anthracite coal mines.  In fact the whole area around Centralia is honeycombed with these underground mines that had been in operation for over 100 years.  The strip mine was a surface mine.  According to state regulations, for it to be used as a landfill, any openings into the underground mine would need to be closed and sealed with non-combustible materials.  The city had sealed five holes and received a permit to operate the landfill.  Project management failure number one – not recognizing a high risk environment and taking that into consideration in the project plan.  The large number of holes indicated that the area around and under the strip mine was porous.  It was high risk area for breakthroughs into the underground mines.  Filling the strip mine with rubbish could easily destabilize some of the underground chambers leading to a collapse and more openings.

Failure #2 - Not Double-checking New Or Unique Tasks

The fire department regularly set and monitored landfill fires at landfill sites around the community.  Although this was the first fire at this site, there was nothing else unusual about May 27, 1962.   But the fact that it was a brand new site meant that there were unknowns associated with doing a controlled burn.  The rubbish was piled, the fire set, it burned for several hours and then the fire department hosed it down to put the fire out. Project management failure number two – when doing something for the first time, double check the results to be sure they are what you expected.  The fire department should have provided extra monitoring for this fire since it was the first fire at this site.  They didn’t. 

Failure #3 - Putting A "Band-aid" On A Problem Trend Instead Of Getting To The Root Cause

Several days later, the cemetery manager contacted the fire department to say the landfill was on fire again.  Once more the fire department hosed it down and said it was out.  Once more they left with no follow-up plan.  The following week the fire flared up again.  Again the fire department hosed it down.  Project management failure number three – when you have a problem trend, you need to take preventive action to get to the root cause or things will get worse.

Failure #4 - Not Spending The Resources To Resolve A Problem When It Is Small

Centralia 1962
Finally the city became concerned that there might be a problem. The fire had been burning for nearly three weeks.   They hired a contractor with heavy earth-moving equipment to essentially turn over the rubbish in the landfill and allow the fire department to hose down the inner core of the landfill.  As the rubbish was turned over, flames were everywhere, and that is when the firemen discovered another hole from the strip mine into the underground coal mines; a hole that was almost 5 meters long and nearly a meter wide.

The city notified the State officials, but their initial response was slow and they didn’t send anyone to investigate until July 19.  In the meantime, the city contacted a contractor who had handled mine fires in the past.  He came to Centralia and investigated the situation.  He said he could dig out the problem and stop the fire for $175.  But the city council said a project like that would need “to go through channels” which could take months.  Next project management failure – being so tight with resources that even small issues cannot be resolved.


The City Tries And Fails

Let me stop here.  The fire has been burning for almost two months.  The city has tried several approaches and failed.  Now they are turning the response over to the state.  In my next blog I’ll discuss the project management failures on the part of the state agency.  But just a quick review of the project management failures so far: 
  1. Failure to acknowledge a high risk environment, 
  2. Doing something for the first time without checking to see if it gives the result you want, 
  3. Experiencing a problem trend and continuing to do quick-fix actions instead of preventive actions, 
  4. Unwillingness to commit resources to an unplanned but necessary risk response.  

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

2 comments:


  1. Tag: PM202A57. 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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