Monday, June 26, 2006

Failure Was The Only Option, slight return

Schroeder at People Get Ready raises an important question about the flood and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in his post Organizational dysfunction at the Corps of Engineers.

Should individual Corps engineers have spoken up if they knew the designs were flawed? That assumes that someone knew what was happening in a multi-tiered decision-making organization. It also assumes that the Corps had a system in place for self-criticism.

[Civil engineer Bob] Bea argued [on WWL-FM] that the Corps had, and still has, an organization that kills the messenger who bears bad news. I know that to be true. That's why, notwithstanding the fact that individual engineers know why the levees failed, the Corps as an organization keeps trying to publicly defend its actions.

In part, that might be due to the patriarchal military hierarchy of the Corps. It is also, however, a function of how the political goals of whoever sits in Congress and the White House percolate through the organization.

I think Schroeder is pointed in the right direction. What occurred where engineering failures in a highly technical sense, but these moved from the drafting board onto the ground not because the CoE was staffed with bad engineers, but because of the political and budgetary imperatives of the USACOE. The culture of the Coe was at odds with good engineering practice and true public service.

The people who designed the I-walls didn't choose them, or decide ultimately on the depth or frequency of soil tests: people at the level where politics (internal and external) and money prevailed ultimately made those decisions. The people at the engineering level didn't resist moving the pumping stations to the lake or decline to gate the canals or build a structure across the mouth of Lake Pontchartrain or Lake Borgne.

These decisions were the outcome of political algebra that weighed cost and political influence more heavily than substrates and wind-and-water loads. These were multi-layered failures that go all the way up to Congress, but don't let off the hook the local levee boards or the port authority (who gets far too little blame for insisting the MR-GO be kept open until an expensive rework of the Industrial Canal locks was completed) or other responsible local officials.

It seems to me increasingly analogous to the failures that led to the loss of two space shuttles. In the case of Challenger, NASA had evolved from a quasi-military defense project with clear objectives and chains of command (and little budgetary pressure in the early days), into a contractor-run bureaucracy more answerable to stockholders and managing directors elsewhere, and not to the guys who routine strapped great, dangerous rockets to their butts for the greater glory of mankind.

If the managers of NASA had only known of what had happened in southeast Louisiana with the CoE, they would have a a model for how to fix NASA when the right stuff went wrong. By the same lights, the people running the CoE and overseeing it in Congress (and on the levee boards) might have taken the Challenger disaster as a warning against allowing organization charts to trump schematics,weighing budgets more heavily that the calculations of ultimate stability, if only someone had stepped up and said: Stop, wait, something here is not right.

In the end, the only thing more powerful than the storm surge of Katrina was the bureaucratic inertia of the Corps. And the Levee Board. And the Port Authority. And the Congress.

The question for the individual engineers and their engineering-trained managers (and not the officers who run the place or the politicians they ultimately must answer to) is this: when do the imperatives of professional conduct trump organizational (dys)function? When should individual's have stepped forward (possibly jeopardizing their careers) and said You Are Not Being Protected. What can we put in place so that no engineer inside or outside the USA CoE has to ever make that choice?

N.B.--The title comes from this earlier postand comes from from the film Apollo 13, the failed mission to the moon in which engineer struggled valiantly to bring home the three astronauts. The mission director in the movie (but not in reality; this is an urban myth) tells his team that "failure is not an option".

Thanks for the nice comments on my blog. I'm glad to see you're writing this; I've been checking it regularly.

~Andréa Cecil
The Challenger analogy never occurred to me, but it's right on the money.
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"And when we speak we are afraid our words will not be heard nor welcome, but when we are silent we are still afraid. So it is better to speak remembering we were never meant to survive." -- Audie Lorde

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