Every Project Needs a Contingency Plan

April 26, 2011
Contingent Thinking: If We Don't Train Ourselves in Proper Planning, Contingency Included, Then We’ve Learned Little From the 100-Year Floods Past
By Jeremy Pollard, CET

My son always tells me I think negatively. What does he know—he's only 30. In fact, he's misinterpreted something I just said to him.

He recently bought a house and told me, "House prices will always go up." To which I said, "You can't always think that. There will be times that the value will drop, and you have to be prepared." Negative thinking at its best, I suspect. Many homeowners in the U.S. second my comment, I'm sure.

We can anticipate and manage events that are within our control. Out of our control is another story. Japan comes to mind, and a word that has crept into my vocabulary—contingency. The 100-year flood mentality works well here.

The nuclear plant had contingency for failed power: generators. They even had portable generators. According to one report, the plugs weren't the right size and type. Huh?

The "fail to plan is a plan to fail" mantra is in flashing lights above Fukushima. This is a nuke plant, folks, not a cereal packaging line. Many in the media have been quick to criticize the Japanese company Tepco for its inabilities and their contingencies.

Not likely. The amount of contingency and preparedness was arguably outstanding. Everyone trained and practiced for just such a day—what you had to do in case of the 100-year earthquake, and maybe a tsunami. There was no third-string night shift. It didn't matter what time or what day the number came up.

This could have been a lot worse, although the mismatched plugs still make my head shake. Design came into play as well. The power plants built at Fukushima were designed to deal with a 15 ft storm surge from a tsunami. The quake woke up a 30-35 ft surge—the 100-year flood.

Where does the point of diminishing returns come in? What would the contingency be if the design boundaries were breached? We won't know, I'm sure. The unthinkable happened, and they dealt with it.

What surprised me the most were the efforts and dedication of the nuclear workers. I wonder if they had any personal contingencies in place—for whatever reason they would need them. I wonder what we would do if/when our 100-year flood happens.

I've been involved in startups for the past six months—projects that have to get done or something bad will happen. These projects have been designed and implemented from a back-of-the-napkin plan. "We'll git 'er done." Kind of like we always have done.

Every project has issues and gotchas. Some are within our control and some not. Some require you to be up all night to stay on the timeline that someone else has given you. This has happened three times so far.

The reasons are really silly. One instance required the area power to be shut down. Because the plan specified "Just git ‘er done," someone in planning forgot that the mechanical guys needed power to run their cutting tools. So the work had to get done linearly, and so here I am troubleshooting some code with power restored, and sparks, flames and many people milling about my space. It's hard enough to concentrate at midnight…without all this commotion.

Contingency was non-existent, and the software guys are always on the bottom rung in the ladder.
This is nowhere near the same as a nuclear almost-disaster. But if we don't train ourselves in proper planning, contingency included, then we've learned little from the 100-year floods past.

We pride ourselves in knowing we can get the job done. But it took me three days to recover from my first little ordeal. Things are working.

We rely on engineers to design our roads and bridges, the power system, etc. How well have they designed for the 100-year flood? The World Trade Center was designed to take a really big punch. Who knew that the aviation industry would design a bigger puncher?

How we reconcile our future is up to us. In our own little control world, you do what you can and, as always, what you should.

My son and Chicken Little are on opposite sides of the coin. Somewhere in the middle is good. Japan has affected us all, as 9/11 did. I don't want to think of the next one.