Thursday, March 19, 2015

Off at the Knees

I work at a U.S. National Laboratory, a facility funded by the Department of Energy. This laboratory is not like what you remember from your high school physical science class, where a group of folks was packed into a small room of wooden benches outfitted with balance beams, a handful of yardsticks, and a few beakers. This facility is a world-class operation that has an annual budget of over $200,000,000 and employs roughly 800 people. The state-of-the-art experiments that we carry out typically take about 10 years to complete, from their inception to the publication of the results. At the current time we are working to finish a major $350,000,000 upgrade of the entire facility.

Anyone who has ever managed a multi-faceted project that takes any amount of time, will appreciate that over the course of the project you can expect to see schedule shifts (as work always takes longer than what is planned) and cost overruns (as things always end up costing more than you expect). Our facility upgrade is no different. The budgets for major projects such as this always include a sizable allowance for schedule slip (called float) and budget uncertainties (called contingency). However, for a fixed-cost project, things always get a bit tight near the end of the work.

In our case, a recent project review by the Department of Energy expressed a level of nervousness about our project's cost and schedule, and that certain "adjustments" were called for in our management team. Several folks at the top were removed from their roles. Folks who had given their heart and soul to this project suddenly found themselves on the outside looking in, cut off at the knees. The shock of being unexpectedly severed from leadership roles of work that they were fully vested in clearly left these people shell-shocked and left to take the blame for problems that were mostly outside of their control. What made it even worse for these folks is that the project is so close to the finish line.

As only a couple of individuals at the laboratory were impacted by the changes, most workers just went about business as usual. These changes were not given a second thought. However, as I worked closely with the affected folks and understand exactly how much they gave of themselves, I felt their pain personally. I so hurt for them. I think that our level of empathy toward the problems of others is directly correlated with how well we can put ourselves in their shoes.