Discover more from Gad’s Newsletter
Building Bridges: The Human Side of Operations
Philadelphia rarely makes the headlines for something good, and this year is not much different. In sports, the city received several hits, counting losses in the World Series, the MLS Cup final, and a crushing seven-game series defeat in the NBA against Boston. It’s just not very festive at the moment.
So it was just par for the course when a few weeks ago we heard on the news how a tanker truck carrying gas lost control and crashed in the middle of the city while exiting the highway. The fire that broke out resulted in the bridge holding the interstate melting due to extreme heat and collapsing, causing massive losses to the local economy and supply chains. Nothing to blame Philly for, but again, not much to celebrate either.
The plot twist is that the city and the state are now being congratulated for achieving an operational fit of rebuilding the road in record time.
This is even more surprising when there’s so much criticism on how the U.S. “has forgotten” how to build transportation infrastructure:
“Transportation infrastructure across the U.S. is woefully underprepared to support manufacturers, retailers and logistics companies in navigating this new consumer landscape.
‘Over the past 25 years, the U.S. has been lagging in the push for infrastructure spending,’ Dunavant said. ‘Compared to China, the U.S. is way behind.’”
Have you ever wondered how much it costs to build a road? Or how long it takes?
When we drive, we often take the roadways for granted. However, someone has to construct and maintain them. In the U.S., for instance, there are approximately 4.09 million miles of roadway to upkeep. The cost and timeline of constructing such infrastructure depend on numerous factors, including location, terrain, type of construction, number of lanes, surface durability, and the presence of bridges.
The average time it takes to construct a road varies considerably, from weeks to several months or even years, depending on factors such as the complexity of the road, land preparation, weather conditions, the infrastructure involved, regulatory procedures, and work schedule. The process is different in each country due to geography, climate, the efficiency of government processes, labor practices, existing infrastructure, and logistics, as well as technology and construction methods.
This infographic illustrates the time it takes to build a bridge in New Zealand:
The overall time is around 25 weeks and up until week 20 it’s only prep work (including a lot of paperwork and approvals).
But one thing is clear: Money help:
“In 2022, China announced plans to funnel at least $2.3 trillion into growing its infrastructure, according to Bloomberg. The country intends to invest that sum over the course of one year. In comparison, the latest $1.2 trillion U.S. infrastructure investment will be distributed over five years.”
This amount is not only allocated to roads, but also to light rail. The problem is that the U.S. is also very inefficient in budget spending:
“On a per mile basis, America’s transit rail projects are some of the most expensive in the world. In New York, the Second Avenue Subway cost $2.6 billion per mile, in San Francisco the Central Subway cost $920 million per mile, in Los Angeles the Purple Line cost $800 million per mile. In contrast, Copenhagen built a project at just $323 million per mile, and Paris and Madrid did their projects for $160 million and $320 million per mile, respectively. These are massive differences in cost.”
Why? Because of slow processes and a lot of bureaucracy:
“Brooks, the George Washington University economist, explained that the case of the Purple Line might explain many of the cost increases we’ve seen over the decades. What does she call this phenomenon? ‘We call this the rise of citizen voice.’ Brooks ruled out the ‘perfectly reasonable explanations’ like paying workers more or the increased cost of highway materials as driving much of the cost increase. Instead, she says, judicial, statutory, and administrative changes — in particular the passage of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) in 1970 — have led to increased power for citizens.”
At this point, I'm not dismissing the significance or reality of these environmental factors, but it's not necessarily problematic — the increased expenses related to legal battles might be justified if they prevent detrimental actions by the government. After all, there are times when costs escalate due to funding essential elements, such as improved safety measures or accessibility features like elevators. However, it’s frequently the case that these increasing expenses merely serve to accommodate the preferences of the affluent at the expense of the broader population.
“‘There are egregious examples of this,’ SPUR’s transportation policy director Laura Tolkoff told me. ‘One person sued the San Francisco bicycle plan over parking losses which basically held up 34 miles of bike lanes for over four years. Over 2,000 individuals were injured during that same time period due to collision while riding their bicycle.’ In Tolkoff’s example, the state’s environmental protection law was being used to defend a parking lot.”
The Bridge Repair
With this as a background, let’s go back to the I-95 story.
This case presents an interesting study on how, when endowed with a sense of local pride and a good dose of urgency, people can deliver operations that far exceed expectations.
This may sound a little glib, so let’s delve into the details:
The immediate declaration of an emergency situation by Pennsylvania’s Governer unlocked $7M in state funds and made it possible to sidestep regulations that could potentially slow down the rebuilding process. Considering everything we wrote above, the importance of such decisive and immediate human action in the face of disaster is clear.
On the ground, the construction progress is a testament to human engineering ingenuity and efficiency. Despite the uncertainty surrounding the timeline for the permanent reconstruction of the I-95 bridge, the main achievement was in the form of a temporary bridge. While the use of new technology with accelerated bridge construction (ABC) techniques and the use of recycled material were critical, for me, the sense of urgency is best illustrated by how the state addressed the weather conditions in order to meet the deadline:
“However, rain in the forecast late this week threatened the reopening. There was an unlikely solution: On Thursday, Pocono Raceway in Long Pond, Pennsylvania sent its Track Jet Dryer propped on a red Chevy truck. The high-powered jet engines are used to dry NASCAR tracks, or in this case, a segment of a critical national interstate. ‘We need, sort of, patches of dry time in order to complete paving and really more importantly, the striping process,’ Shapiro said on Fox29 Thursday morning, describing him and Carroll as “big NASCAR” guys.”
Carroll explained that the workers were able to apply paint immediately after the road paving was completed, thanks to the use of a dryer. He realized that conventional road construction methods would typically require waiting for a sunny day, but they didn’t want to delay until the next day — they desired immediate action. Dryers are typically used on NASCAR tracks since the tires of the race cars lack treads, making it crucial for the track to be dry. Ricky Durst, the Senior Director of Marketing at the Poconos Raceway, commented that they frequently prepare for a variety of requests, but this particular one was new.
And this sense of urgency builds on the ability of the governor to create a narrative, building on a sense of community. Watching the 13,000-pound panels being hoisted for the sides of the temporary bridge, he spoke on this community’s resilience. ‘I think that speaks to the fact that we haven’t always had a can-do attitude around here, that we can get big things done,’ he affirmed. ‘We are going to make sure that we change that attitude. This is what it looks like when we all come together when we’re tested.’”
People and Operations
I will make an obvious statement: People matter!
Yet, many of our operations models don’t take people into account. And when they do, people are considered as rational players, making rational decisions, and exerting efforts to maximize an objective function. Even when we model them as irrational players (or boundedly rational subject to biases and heuristics), we take these as the main schema to analyze them. Rarely, and when I rarely say, I mean never, do we model “pride,” “community,” and “sense of belonging” as part of our model. Yet, when you talk with managers, this is one of the first things they mention. Now, you may chalk it up to just talking. But maybe it’s not.
This idea of pride in community achievement is not new. It is reminiscent of the story of President Kennedy asking a janitor at NASA what his job was, to which the janitor famously replied, “I’m helping put a man on the moon.” It signifies the power of a shared narrative, a collective goal that everyone works toward.
Admittedly, such a narrative often seems missing in the day-to-day operations of many organizations. Yet, the story of this bridge’s rapid construction indicates that when people are willing to work toward a shared goal, timelines can be shortened dramatically.
But then the question arises: Why can’t we do more of it?
The Dynamic Dance: People, Processes, and Their Mutual Influence
Pride and a sense of community are only part of the equation. The other part, which explains the speed with which the bridge was rebuilt, is the ability to overcome processes and adopt a “let’s get it done” mentality. Going back to the initial analysis of why the U.S. is slower, the processes created to address all kinds of “what if” scenarios or edge cases are now being used for purposes other than the ones they were created for.
The debate is often about which precedes which: the people or the processes.
Recently I had an open “debate” with the CEO of a pretty sizeable firm along with other members of the company’s board, on what’s more important, people or processes. As the CEO aptly pointed out, people make the processes. I argued, however, that processes play a role in creating a structure within which people operate. Even the most brilliant minds can’t shine in an organization with cumbersome processes. Even more so, capable people will just avoid an organization with too complex processes altogether.
But again, who created these complex processes? People. The traditional chicken and egg problem.
In every organization, there is a symbiotic relationship that exists between people and processes. This relationship is both dynamic and intricate, with each element shaping and being shaped by the other. Understanding this interplay can provide valuable insight into organizational behavior and success.
People Create Processes
To start, it is people who create processes. When a new organization is formed, its initial members draw from their combined experiences and insights to create processes - the systems and structures that will guide the organization’s operations. These processes range from methods of communication and decision-making procedures to recruitment strategies and customer engagement frameworks.
There’s no question that people use their creativity, foresight, and understanding of the organization’s goals to design these processes, anticipating potential obstacles and enabling smoother operations. These processes then serve as the foundation upon which the organization functions, guiding day-to-day activities and long-term strategies.
Processes Influence People
However, while people create processes, processes equally influence people. Once established, processes shape the culture of an organization, determining how people interact, communicate, and work. They set the expectations, rules, and boundaries within which the firm’s members operate.
Moreover, the processes in place significantly affect what kind of employees the organization attracts and how they can contribute once hired. For instance, an organization with rigid, bureaucratic processes may deter dynamic, innovative individuals who thrive in more flexible environments and who may be attraced by a company with robust processes that promote creativity and agility.
Similarly, the processes in place can either enable or constrain what people can do within the organization. Processes that encourage collaboration, open communication, and continuous learning can empower individuals, leading to increased innovation and job satisfaction. However, overly restrictive or complicated processes can stifle creativity and reduce efficiency, leading to frustration and decreased productivity.
Navigating the Dance
Understanding this dynamic interplay between people and processes is crucial for organizational success. Leaders must remember that processes, while necessary for order and efficiency, should not become “indisputable laws.”
In essence, people and processes dance together in a continuous give-and-take. The key to a successful organization is knowing how to choreograph this dance effectively, ensuring that the rhythm set by the processes is in harmony with the energy and creativity of its people. Doing so enables an organization to navigate change, foster innovation, and achieve sustainable success.
Processes, in and of themselves, don’t necessarily contradict a sense of community and belonging, but they don’t help much either. The more rigid the processes, the more workers delegate judgment to the processes, weakening any other aspect of human behavior.
I recently had the dubious pleasure of having my flight canceled from Montreal to Newark. That was the same day that United canceled 20% of its flights due to storms in the Northeast. I had the double misfortune of being booked by United on an Air Canada flight (the miserable idea of code-sharing), and every interaction I had during my 36-hour delay was absolutely terrible. The people were delightful, but every attempt to resolve the problem was met with the phrase “but this is the process.” For example, my flight was canceled, but until Air Canada unchecked me, I couldn’t book another flight. In the end, a United agent found a solution by canceling my entire reservation, which naturally unchecked me, and booked me on a new flight.
I’m not praising United or vilifying Air Canada, but the “there is a process that we need to follow” mentality was very strong on the Canadian side of the border. The only ones trying to make things work were the pilots. At one point, they were on their phones trying to find a gate agent to board us. When the gate agent arrived, they couldn’t stop complaining about how they were asked to hurry with their dinner break. If we missed the short window to board, I would spend another 24 hours in Canada. No sense of urgency – no sense of team playing – just processes. And dinner is not even the most important meal of the day,
The I-95 case serves as a potent reminder that reducing barriers and employing a workforce with the right mindset, motivated by a vision or a shared narrative, can lead to remarkable outcomes. It shows that when instilled with a sense of pride and belonging, the right people can do the right things - even constructing a bridge at a pace that defies traditional models.
Thanks for reading Gad’s Newsletter! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.