A fork in the road

DATELINE: Chicago, August 1999 -- Heat wave. The lights have gone off. Electric power is out. Some areas will be without power for days. Others will have it returned only to have it go out again.
By Richard L. Dunn October 1, 1999

DATELINE: Chicago, August 1999 — Heat wave. The lights have gone off. Electric power is out. Some areas will be without power for days. Others will have it returned only to have it go out again. Throughout the city, power failures have become so common and so serious that the mayor is steaming. The CEO of the power company is making public apologies. Within the company, heads are rolling. The vice president of engineering, construction, and maintenance, a 23-yr employee, has “resigned.” The problems, a company official explains, are “inevitably attributable to lack of rigorous maintenance and attention.”

The experiences of ComEd, the power company serving Chicago should be a lesson to all industry. Cutting back on engineering, maintenance, personnel, and equipment is not good business in the long run.

For many companies, the Chicago Tribune hit the nail on the head when it ran a commentary that said, “Today’s industrial leadership is more interested in immediate results, head counts, cost per square foot, perks, bonuses, parachute packages, and Wall Street recognition.”

Of course, the downsizings, cutbacks, and reorganizations are always couched in the business-speak of return on investment, strategic repositioning, stockholder equity, competitive threat, and all manner of other obfuscation.

All of this translates into a frustrating dilemma for the conscientious plant engineer who is expected to prevent breakdowns and protect the corporate assets while supporting management’s business goals of maximizing short-term profits and returns.

Under such conditions, the best course of action, it seems, would be to follow the advice attributed to Yogi Berra: “When you come to the fork in the road, take it.” If only you could.

It’s easy to see which road should have been taken long after you’ve gone through the intersection. Hindsight is always 20:20 and all that. But at each decision point along the way, it’s not so clear.

I’d like to give management the benefit of the doubt by saying that they make the best decisions they can at the time, given the information available at the time. But it is becoming increasingly difficult to be so charitable. When an industrial infrastructure deteriorates, the condition of equipment and components is nearly always well known. And the decisions not to correct the conditions are nearly always based on short-term profit considerations.

With responsibilities both for preventing equipment failures and for supporting financial objectives, which route do you tend to take at the fork in the road?