Planning to Keep the Peace

I most enjoy writing to highlight the work that was done and the achievements made in the ‘dark ages’ without the benefit of today’s technology. Today’s post finds me in the thick of construction of a brand new chemical plant in Fayetteville, North Carolina. At 1980’s dollars, this plant cost $35 million to build. It was a big deal and required an engineering staff of ten or so, another dozen support staff, a few dozen construction superintendents and supervisors, and hundreds of skilled tradesmen and laborers.

The work for this huge undertaking didn’t just happen with some miracle. The only way we would be successful would be to create a plan, a schedule and execute to it. Scheduling a construction project of this magnitude required a dedicated person to create, update and manage the schedule. The person selected for this task was a Quaker named Bill. A real, practicing Quaker, Bill was very much the peace activist. It had to be fate that landed him square in the middle of Fayetteville, the home of Fort Bragg, the 101st Airborne, Pope Air Force Base and the Fayetteville Observer, the local newspaper.

Bill’s hobbies included writing letters to the newspaper editor. Perhaps because of his Quaker background, or maybe because he was now in military land, Bill was of the opinion that a standing army was not envisioned by our forefathers. He had a wooden plaque on which was engraved “Military Intelligence is a Contradiction of Terms”, attributed to Groucho Marx.

His first letter to the Fayetteville news editor stated his opinion about the need to dissolve the military. His letter’s publication was followed a few days later by a series of letters from colonels and generals in violent disagreement. Bill would just laugh, proud to be such a rabble-rouser, a minority in this military town.

Bill worked mostly in the scheduling room. Scheduling was not a task taken lightly and certainly was deserving of its own room. The master scheduler holed up in the room day after day early in the program. Finally it was showtime for the rest of us to view the master’s masterpiece.

The conference room was the largest in the building. Coming in second was the scheduling room. It was filled with stacks of paper, a drafting table, an ample supply of pens, pencils and highlighters, various colors of yarn and that plaque. The schedule hung on one wall of the room. It was one long sheet of paper on which was written the various tasks needed to put together a chemical plant and a time scale that reached across the wall. Red yarn placed vertically across the middle of the paper, was secured at its ends with pushpins. Its location indicated that day’s date.

Bill’s job was to identify the tasks, measure progress, or lack thereof, and mark it on the schedule each day. As a result, in addition to the red yarn, the schedule soon became full of various colors of highlighters and yarns indicating where we were falling behind, where we were ahead of plan and tasks coming up the next week or so. The scheduling room wall soon became as colorful as our peaceable scheduler.

Bill’s efforts introduced me to the importance of planning before executing. Over the years, I’ve become one ridiculously anal-retentive engineer regarding planning work. I obsess over ensuring the tasks are identified and laid out in my Microsoft Project schedule. I need that roadmap that takes me down the path to success in whatever project I’m working on at the moment.

Bill was certainly one of the quirkiest of people I’ve ever had the pleasure to work with but his ability to pull together the most diverse group of fumbling engineers and construction professionals to move together and put that plant together on time and within budget was nothing short of a miracle. I’ve not worked on many large programs since that can even come close to performing to the standard Bill set for us in his efforts. Peace and love to you, Bill.


About stemzandroses

I'm an engineer and writer with a built-in need to share my nearly 40 years of experience working in a male-dominated field with the rest of the world.
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