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Remember the old kooks who thought they knew better, gave you stupid rules, and warned you about things you would come to regret because you ignored them?  They were your parents.  If you are old enough, maybe a parent yourself, or maybe not, you should realize that OMG!  I’ve turned into my parents!  It’s wisdom through experience and in particular from making mistakes and failure.

As a supervisor, one thing I learned, and is unfortunately a fact of life, is that you have to let staff make their own mistakes because no matter how many times you tell people not to do certain things – like use an old letter or old report and turn it into a new one – they will do it anyway and it will have links to the wrong files and the previous clients’ name will show up in the most embarrassing spots.  I recognize the signs when telling them things – their head bobbing up and down but their face and body language says, “Yeah, yeah old man, whatever.”

Other things include safety where there may be no learning from a mistake; there may be dying from a mistake.  The message for this one is more graphic and edgy.  They are past the immortal 17-18 year old age and maybe the consequence portion of the brain is finally starting to develop.  If I remember correctly, this portion of the brain is fully developed by 25-30 years of age.  Do you suppose car-rental companies have realized this????

Being old and having learned from many mistakes and failures in my experience generated my interest in history.  Success and failure will repeat themselves if you try xyz again and again.  It is important, for the love of Pete, that you recognize what failure and success look like.  For example, “we could have lost all 16 games rather than beating the only 0-16 team in the league” is not success.  What is versus what could be is not a metric for success either.

Two and half years ago while attending the ACEEE Summer Study for Industry in Niagara Falls, we had a group outing at the Robert Moses Hydro Power Station a few miles down the river from the falls.  Having occupied the planet as an adult (as determined by age, not necessarily behavior) for 20 years, I found the story of this engineering marvel to be incredible; and the engineering provided only perhaps 40% of my amazement.

In 1956, the former power generating station essentially collapsed.  At the time, Western New York was a booming manufacturing hub.  Today it gives new meaning to the term rust belt, unfortunately.  In 1957, congress approved construction of a replacement and the Moses station was built in 3 years.  But that isn’t 10% of the story.

Having visited the falls in 1991 but not the power plant, I seemed to remember a tour guide telling us river water was diverted around the falls at night to a humongous man-made reservoir to generate power during the day.  Twenty years later I thought, that must have been a Smokey and the Bandit moment – a tall tail heard in my naive years that would never happen.  But it did!  Two underground conduits each roughly 60 feet deep and 50 feet wide carved out of rock with TNT and earth moving equipment divert the water around the falls to the man-made reservoir.  Not only that, the conduits went right through town!  Homes were moved out of the way temporarily to dig the hole, pour the concrete, etc., and then the homes put back.  Temporary bridges over the cuts were there one day and gone the next!

The rush was to get this thing built so manufacturing wouldn’t leave.  Few questions were asked other than, “What can I do?”  It reminds me of life on the farm to this day.  When a disaster hits, neighbors say, what can I do?  Lawyers starve.  Today, three years wouldn’t even get the Moses project out of congressional committee.   There would be 10,000 protesters camped out in a makeshift city.  There is opposition to doing anything in this country.  Just check on statements from the late Steve Jobs who said it is impossible to build a manufacturing facility in this country.  While Apple became the most valuable company in the world ahead of Exxon, Microsoft, and Wal Mart, perhaps the most hated companies in the country, all of its stuff is manufactured overseas.

Lately, as anyone not cryogenically frozen over the past six months knows, the Keystone pipeline has been held up out of environmental safety uncertainty.  C’mon.  As shown in Monty and Me there are pipelines crisscrossing all over the country.  Moreover, the trans-Alaska pipeline was completed about 35 years ago (similarly in an unbelievable two years).  Are we that much dumber now?  No.  We just don’t want added supply of petrol into the country.  At least make an honest statement for the opposition.  This is like planting a row of Colorado spruce to stop the wind from blowing on the western plains.  The petrol will get here and be consumed one way or another, from our friends or enemies.

Americans whine about the trade deficit and lack of manufacturing in the country.  Meanwhile, a glut of natural gas has developed from shale and Europe with a brutally cold winter can’t get enough and they are to some degree hostage to Vlady and the Russians for natural gas.  What do you say we ship LNG to the Europeans with long term contracts?  Let’s sell stuff to other countries!

Similarly, energy companies want to refit defunct lumber ports in Oregon to export coal to the Chinese.  Can’t do that.  Again, like using a newspaper to keep dry in a hurricane the aim is really to reduce supply of hydrocarbon fuel onto the market.  But the Chinese will simply buy elsewhere – Australia for one.  Canada will ship their tar sands sludge to the far east if we don’t take it.

Every time I look at major engineering feats I think, “that would never happen today”.  Interstate highway system, hydro power dams, cargo transportation on the Mississippi (locks and dams, wing dams etc.), railways along the Mississippi, ports, canals and aqueducts, and the most ironic of all – diversion of nearly every drop of the Colorado River.  California, Phoenix, Tucson, and Vegas wouldn’t exist today.

We can’t have the economy we want, the energy independence we want, the manufacturing we want, the jobs we want, and the prosperity we want without building stuff that results in profit.  And one thing is for sure, leading by example only works within the family, workplace, team, and with allies.  Leading by example with the competition?  They will eat us alive.


You may be interested in watching stories from the tough guys that built the Moses Hydro Plant.  It’s quite long, but amazing.  They really were tough guys, and women!

Jeff Ihnen

Author Jeff Ihnen

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