John Crossan | Manufacturing Ownership Blog
Lessons from the Boulder Dam PDF Print E-mail

There's a really great documentary that shows up periodically on Public Television. It describes the building of the Boulder (Hoover) Dam on the Colorado River back in the early nineteen thirties. (Like many, I was never really sure if these were two separate dams ).

This was a project of truly incredible size at the time, one that needed and brought out some really innovative engineering, construction and logistical processes.

However there were some negatives brought out in the documentary. One of them being, that if OSHA had been in existence at the time, and visited the site, the project would have been shut down pretty much immediately.

Some of the work was incredibly dangerous. A premier high paying job, for example, was lowering yourself by rope down the sheer 700 foot canyon wall, where the concrete would eventually bond to the rock, knocking free any loose rock that would affect the concrete bond (and, of course, avoiding loose rocks knocked free by your coworkers).

(But contrary to the legend, no one actually ever fell into the concrete and was buried, because the concrete pour couldn't be stopped. (This would have caused a serious flaw in the concrete, and quality of the concrete was a paramount focus of everyone working on it).

This sort of leads to the implication that in today’s world, with the concerns and regulations about safety, environmental, fair hiring practices, etc. a project like the Boulder Dam just couldn’t be done, at anything approaching a reasonable cost.

The reality, though, is that in today’s world, this same project would be done faster, safer, better, and cheaper (even in today’s dollars).

There is a similar thought about manufacturing. We all just sort of know and feel, that if we could just focus on producing units, cases, tons, whatever, and not worry about, quality, housekeeping, paperwork, and all that other “B.S. stuff”, just “get the job done”, we would get a whole lot more produced.

The reality is the opposite, and we’ve all proven it to ourselves, time after time after time. It seems like it’s one of these lessons that we all just have a tough time learning.

Time after time we’ve convinced ourselves that we are just too busy, under too much pressure, to take the time, or apply the resources to maintenance, housekeeping, safety, quality, record keeping, training, etc. Every single time, that decision has eventually come back to bite us much harder, and painfully than doing it right to begin with would have.

We feel we can make choices about these essentials, treating them as opportunities. Thinking we can apply some cost / benifit analysis to determine if they are worth doing. Forgetting that they are essentials and not choices.

None of this is easy, as we all know, it takes creativity and effort, generating and exploring options. But if there is no continued commitment to the essentials, and easy, quick “obvious, common sense, business decisions" are made to skip them, we will pay the price.

None of this says, either, that we always accept, and don’t push back and question, the other “B.S. Stuff”. We also have to find creative ways to get maintenance, housekeeping, training, record keeping, etc., done in the quickest, cheapest, most effective way. One of the really great things about the North American worker is that they will always test the limits. Some will argue to the death, others won't argue, but just won't do whatever it is, unless they are convinced it has value.

The lowest cost, most productive plants are always the cleanest, safest and produce the highest quality product.

We see this often with equipment. If a machine is ignored and allowed to become dirty, loose, misaligned, and unlubricated, it begins to behave in a uncooperative, unpredictable, undependable, attention-demanding way ( just like people do), requiring more and more of the attention of its operators. This prevents them from doing many other things, and also forces them into more and more contact with the machine, raising the probability of more safety issues. Consistent product quality obviously also, becomes more of a struggle with an inconsistent machine.

If, on the other hand, a machine is treated well, and kept, clean, aligned, tight and lubricated its behavior changes amazingly. It becomes dependable, predictable, reliable and capable of performing well without constant attention, (amazingly again like people do) freeing up its operators for other improving activities that will increase productivity even more.