Friday, March 16, 2012

How Did This Happen?

Politicians and pundits, editors, advice columnists, financial advisors, and seemingly everyone else – they all ask the same question, in one form or another, again and again: How did this happen? Or as my paper said the other morning: How did we get in this mess?

The answer, 99.9% of the time, is simple: poor leadership and poor planning. Both are important, and they are, in fact, opposite sides of the same coin. Good leaders have good plans, good plans are found where there are good leaders.

But that doesn’t answer the question: how did this (whatever ‘this’ represents) happen? I’ll use the case discussed in my paper (The Virginian Pilot) to illustrate the point. The issue is the road network in the greater Hampton Roads area. For those not familiar with the area, Hampton Roads, the southeast corner of Virginia, is an area normally said to encompass the seven cities of Virginia Beach, Chesapeake, Norfolk, Portsmouth, Hampton, Newport News and Suffolk. The area is cut by dozens of waterways, estuaries and rivers, which translates into dozens and dozens of choke points in the form of bridges and tunnels. In addition, the area has witnessed remarkable growth over the last 25 years and the road network is therefore being used by more vehicles than intended, and the roads and bridges and tunnels not only need repair, they need to be expanded. All of which is driving (no pun intended) the governor and the Commonwealth bureaucracy to consider tolls on various bridges and tunnels to raise the necessary funds for expansion and maintenance.

As expected, many people are outraged and insist the state and federal funds should be used rather than charging tolls. Without getting into the specific pros and cons of these arguments, there are a number of lessons in leadership we can draw from this situation.

The first is that sound planning requires discreet planning sessions which ask extreme questions. If a road network is designed for a city of 50,000, with an expected growth rate of 3% for the next 25 years, that means the city will double in size. Simply put, if the road network is supposed to last essentially as is (less repairs) for the next 25 years, then the road network should be designed for 100,000 people.* But what happens is the city grows at 5%? That would mean that at the end of the 25-year plan the city would have more than 160,000 people and would therefore suggest that the infrastructure would be seriously overloaded.

What can be done about this? Despite what we often see from many ‘leaders,’ the answer is straightforward. Simply put, the leader needs to direct the planning staff to engage in more advanced ‘branch’ planning, and the planning staff needs to develop a plan that not only has planning ‘transients’ that consider more extreme planning assumptions (what if growth is 5% vice 3%?), but also tests for those assumptions. If at the end of the first year or second year of the cycle there is more than 3% growth, there should be a rigorous review not only of the plan, but also of the assumptions that underlies that plan.

How critical is this? The Japanese recently revealed that in their safety planning for the nuclear facilities damaged in last year’s tsunami, they never considered the possibility of an earthquake of the size which they experienced (9.0 on the ‘Moment Magnitude Scale’ (MMS)) or of a 30 foot tsunami hitting the reactor complex. Why was that? Of note, in the last 50 years there have been 4 earthquakes more violent then the one that hit Japan last year, 3 of the 4 were in the Pacific basin, the 4th was in Indonesia. If they were planning for worst event it would seem that they missed the mark. (The strongest earthquake on record is one that took place in Chile in 1960 – the Valdivia Earthquake – which registered 9.5 on the MMS.) As a 9.5 MMS earthquake releases 5.6 times as much energy as a 9.0 MMS earthquake, planning for a known earthquake value would have resulted in a substantial increase in survivability. In fact, one would think that, assuming a desire for an extra margin, one might plan for a 9.6 or 9.7 MMS earthquake to ensure some extra margin of survivability. Yet just recently the Prime Minister of Japan made the following comment:

“We can no longer make the excuse that what was unpredictable and outside our imagination has happened,” Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda said. “Crisis management requires us to imagine what may be outside our imagination.”

(‘Globe and Mail’ - YURI KAGEYAMA – TOKYO, The Associated Press, Published Saturday, Mar. 03, 2012 8:39AM EST -

Of course, some will respond that the entire problem is that such events are outside our imagination; hence there is no way to plan for them. In fact, good planning can compensate for a lack of imagination. And good leaders know it.

Whether the issue is fairly mundane one, such as the issue of a population growing at 5 or 6% vice 3% (though the consequences of such a situation can be far from mundane), or the issue is something as catastrophic as an earthquake, tsunami or a terrorist attack, the ‘trick’ of planning for worst case contingencies is actually fairly simple: avoid looking for the worst case cause (at least at first) and begin with worst case results; then work backwards.

Thus, in the case of the Japanese reactors, you would begin with this simple question: what will we do if the reactors fail catastrophically? Then planning would develop basic evacuation plans, containment plans, etc. As the costs of these efforts became more clear, the planners would also learn more about what might cause such catastrophic failure and would develop plans to mitigate or eliminate such risks. For reactors this might involve locating them further from cities, on higher ground, on certain types of ground or bedrock, certain distances from various fault lines, establishing large minimum stand-off distances for housing and commercial facilities, building them in different areas relative to prevailing wind and weather conditions, etc.

For city planners this might involve issues such as more robust road networks then would seem to be at first needed (building with extra margins of growth), providing tax incentives for more dense rural development so that there are fewer drivers on the roads during peak periods, working with commercial developers to develop different arrangements of industrial concentrations to alter traffic flow patterns, working with home builders to develop alternate locations for housing developments, etc.

The point is that there are many ways to address problems, and all of them are cheaper than dealing with a crisis after the infrastructure has suffered a major failure, whether that failure is a sudden one caused by a tsunami or a slow motion one caused by growth rates that no one anticipated and no one reacted to as it took place around them. And the way to address those problems begins with simple leadership and sound planning.

* I am assuming that the planning process has enough rigor that someone specifically laid out hard timelines and baseline planning assumptions, such as (for a city planner) clearly stating the period of study, growth rates for the period of study, basic assumptions about growth rates for neighboring cities during the same period, basic assumptions about regional, state and federal economic growth and populations growth, etc.


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