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The Hoover Dam

The Hoover Dam was originally known as the Boulder Dam lies on the Colorado River, near the border between the states of Arizona and Nevada. The dam was named after U.S. President Herbert Hoover who acted as sponsor for the project as both Secretary of Commerce and later as President. We’ll call it the Hoover Dam throughout this article to be consistent. The dam was the largest electric power generating station and the largest concrete structure in the world at the time of its completion in 1936. The reason for including this project in the series on Remarkable Project Managers is not because of the "firsts” or "largest” it lays claim to but the remarkable job of managing the project that Frank Crowe did. Let’s start the list of his remarkable achievements with this simple fact. Although Crowe was tasked with a monumental, groundbreaking project, he and his team completed the project over 2 years ahead of schedule!

Frank Crowe was assigned to the project by his employers, Six Companies, from the outset. He filed his first outstanding accomplishment by overseeing the compilation of the winning bid on behalf of the company. One of the key reasons his bid succeeded: he was within $24K of the government estimate put together by their expert engineers, on a $49M (USD) project. Of course it didn’t hurt his cause that he had a brilliant 20 year career with the government’s Reclamation Service and was known as the government’s best construction man. Crowe pioneered two construction techniques during his construction career with the government that would prove very helpful to the Hoover Dam project. The first was a pipe grid that pneumatically moved concrete and the second was an overhead cable system that would allow concrete to be moved anywhere on site, quickly.

The key objectives of the project were:

  • To provide controlled water access to the surrounding states – Nevada, Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, California, and Utah
  • To prevent/control flooding in the surrounding area
  • To provide hydro electrical power

Work started on the project in 1931. The first obstacle to be overcome was the lack of construction resources in the area. This obstacle was overcome by building a town (Boulder City) to house the workers. Of course it didn’t hurt Crowe’s cause that the world was now at the height of an economic depression so workers were relatively easy to engage. The second obstacle was the Colorado River. The site of the dam had to be free of water in order for the dam to be built. The Colorado River runs through a canyon at this point and the canyon walls secure the ends of the dam. The obstacle was overcome by drilling four tunnels, two on the Arizona side and two on the Nevada side, to divert the water.

The project was almost derailed in 1931 due to a strike. Working conditions were horrible at the site, partly because of the climate in that part of the world (summers in Arizona are notoriously hot) and partly because of living conditions. Construction on the tunnels started before work on Boulder City was completed and workers were forced to live in tents near the job site. Add to this misery the fact that mining regulations in force at the time were largely ignored and Six Companies decided to take advantage of the economic environment by reducing the already low wages, and conditions were rife for a strike. Six Companies would not be budged from their position and it fell to Frank Crowe to deal with the strike as best he could. He did this by remaining steadfast in his position that workers could either accept the reduced wages and working conditions or quit. This sounds like the best way to undermine a leadership position but in Crowe’s case he had sufficient trust points in the bank to weather the storm.

A motto attributed to Crowe by one of the project team was: "Never belly to desk” which meant that Crowe preferred the "walk about” style of management. Keep in mind the type of project we’re talking about and the magnitude of Crowe’s administrative duties and you can understand why it was not uncommon to see Crowe (or hear him) wandering the site at 2:00 AM. Crowe’s leadership on past projects also attracted a camp of loyal followers who enjoyed working for the man and weren’t deterred by pay or working conditions. The strike lasted only 8 days. In the end, Crowe’s leadership split the workers into two camps which effectively ended the strike.

Building the 4 tunnels was hard, dangerous, demanding work. The crews used dynamite to open the tunnels and the work of clearing the rubble from the tunnels was dusty, dirty, and dangerous and was carried out in heat that sometimes approached 140 degrees Fahrenheit! Conditions were made worse by the carbon monoxide produced by the trucks working in the tunnel. Conditions were so brutal that the heat alone claimed 14 lives. Despite these obstacles, Crowe and his team succeeded in delivering this phase of the project to schedule and avoid financial penalties for their employers. The accomplishment you should note here is Crowe’s ability to drive his team (the team counted some 5,000 workers as members) to complete the work on schedule despite the working conditions and a strike. Crowe’s ability to drive his team earned him the nick name "Hurry Up Crowe”. Crowe had no contingency reserve to deal with this strike, neither by increasing wages, implementing costly safety measures, or extending deadlines. He was on a tight rope with no safety net and he didn’t merely succeed in delivering this phase to schedule, he beat the deadline by 11 months!

Crowe did change the plan for the tunnel phase to help his team complete work on time. Previous to this, tunneling was accomplished by constructing staging so workers could access the rock face they were removing, in this case an area roughly 56 feet by 56 feet square. The staging would be disassembled after the charges were set, the dynamite would be exploded, the rubble cleared and the staging assembled for the next section. Crowe’s innovation was to have a "truck” built of steel and wood which would make the staging movable. Instead of time spent on assembly and disassembly of the staging, Crowe’s team simply moved the truck into place for drilling and setting the charges then moved it back out of harms way until the dynamite was exploded and the rubble removed. The final step in this phase was the actual diversion of the river into the 4 tunnels. This was accomplished on November 13th, 1932 when a controlled explosion opened access and the river was diverted by the use of fill to alter the river bed.

The next project phase was the preparation of the rock faces for anchoring the concrete shoulders of the dam. This feat was accomplished by "high-scalers”, men who worked at the end of a rope with jackhammer and dynamite to smooth the canyon walls. This work was made especially dangerous by the fact that work was being rushed, not a lot of attention was paid to safely rigging harnesses, and the high-scalers were moved away from the blast just enough to avoid being blown up. Several of these workers fell to their death during this phase. By June 6th of 1933 preparations were complete and the first bucket of cement was poured. Up to this point a total of 65 workers had lost their lives on the project!

Crowe’s innovative system of cables to transport the giant buckets of cement enabled the project team to deliver a bucket in place every 78 seconds! Each one of those buckets carried 20 tons of cement, so in a 1 hour period it was possible to pour 923 tons of concrete. The huge volume of cement meant that a solution had to be developed to address curing time. Working in the temperatures prevailing on that site and with the huge volume of cement needed for the dam, engineers calculated it would have taken 125 years for the cement to cure! Crowe didn’t have 125 years, or even 5 so cement was poured into blocks 5 feet deep. These blocks formed interlocking columns and the columns formed the dam. This allowed the cement to cure in relatively small quantities so curing time was comparatively short, but not short enough for Crowe’s purpose.

Uneven temperatures in the cement were an additional problem which had to be overcome (cement heats as it cures). Uneven temperatures mean the cement will cure at different rates which would cause stress problems even in the small blocks Crowe was using. To solve this problem, and make the curing process even quicker, Crowe devised a refrigeration system to cool the curing cement down and keep temperatures even. Each block had a coil of 1” steel pipe embedded in it. Water from the coffer dams at the base of the main dam was used to run through the pipes and after the cement had cured the pipe was cut off and pressure filled with grout. Construction on the four intake towers on the cliffs behind the dam was proceeding in parallel to the work on the dam. These towers feed water from the reservoir (Lake Mead) to the penstocks at the foot of the dam. The penstocks gradually narrow the aperture the water flows through until it reaches a speed of 85 miles per hour as it hits the turbines.

Crowe made a "make or buy” decision at this point which likely saved the project. He realized that there was significant risk attached to having his team of engineers design and implement the cooling solution because they did not have sufficient experience in refrigeration applications. He decided to engage the Union Carbide Corporation which did have the experience to design and implement the solution without mistakes. This decision no doubt added cost to the project in the short term but the design and implementation of the solution without slips helped to bring the project in over 2 years ahead of schedule.

On February 6th, 1935 the last bucket of concrete topped of the dam. That same day the diversion tunnels were closed diverting the river’s flow back to the original course and filling the reservoir. Some statistics dam:

  • The dam is 726.5 feet tall (from its base to its top).
  • The dam holds back a reservoir called Lake Mead, which is 115 miles long and 500 feet deep in spots.
  • The dam is 1244 feet in length (canyon wall to canyon wall)
  • The dam is 660 feet deep at its base and 45 feet at its top
  • 4.36 million cubic yards of cement were poured into the dam
  • Maximum output from the water driven turbines: 2.08 gigawatts

Some results of the other objectives that were met (providing water access to the surrounding states) cannot be captured in metrics and are inextricably linked to other social influences. The growth of the states of California and Nevada were enabled by the water access the project provided. The state of California in particular benefited from this access. Up to that point, the state was fairly barren, depending on a meager annual rain fall for crop irrigation. Access to the Colorado flow changed that overnight. Now California exports fruits and vegetables all over North America and produces some of the finest wines in the world. Access to hydro electric power was also a significant influence on growth. The city of Las Vegas, in its present form, would not have been possible without the access to power that the project provided. There were initially 16 turbines in the dam, one for each of the counties supplied by the dam. Later this configuration would be changed as the plant was modernized and the power generated was fed to the grid system. The Hoover dam was one of the success stories of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s public works program. While it only put about 5,000 people to work it was seen as a tremendous success story and built good PR for other projects in the program.

Now the bad news. During the construction of the dam there were 112 deaths directly attributable to work on the project, 76 of them occurring on the construction site. Many other deaths could be attributed to work on the project but were not recorded as such. Many, many illnesses could also be attributed to the terrible working conditions on the project. Here is the dichotomy: one of Crowe’s most remarkable successes was the completion of the project more than 2 years ahead of schedule but cutting corners with safety measures and forcing desperate men to work in unsafe conditions are at least partially responsible for enabling that success.

Here’s what I take away from Crowe’s remarkable accomplishments:

  • Leadership comes from the top down and must be demonstrated on the ground with the team, it can’t be demonstrated remotely. I don’t mean that you can’t lead a remote team, you can but you must do it by creating a sufficient presence with the team that your drive is directly transferred to them.
  • Great accomplishments can’t be realized without taking intelligent risks. Crowe and his team took those risks. Crowe in making some of the decisions he made such as beginning much of the work in parallel and outsourcing refrigeration work to Union Carbide and the his team by working in the way they did. Exploding the dynamite charges in the canyon faces without descending completely to the ground and out of harms way is just one example of those risks. Some of the high-scalers paid for these risks with their lives.
  • Providing good leadership, being honest and straightforward (even if that means being tough and unrelenting) builds trust and that trust can be drawn on when a project manager has to ask their team to perform above normal levels and meet objectives other teams are not asked to meet. Crowe proved this in several ways. He had team members he had managed on other projects seek the Hoover Dam project out so that they could work for him again. He successfully ended a bitter strike in 8 days, in part because of the core of the team who trusted him. This was no mean feat, considering the legitimate grievances these men had.
  • Setting "stretch” objectives requires you to risk your trust bank. Project managers don’t get bank statements that give them the exact balance in the account; they have to make an educated guess. Crowe took an educated guess that he had sufficient funds in his account when he forced an end to the strike and set many of the team’s stretch objectives.

Looking on the downside of Crowe’s record with the Hoover Dam project, 112 workers were killed on the project and many others had their health ruined. There can be no legitimate excuse for some of the risks that were taken with their lives. The fact is that, in order to bring the project in under schedule and realize the substantial bonus for that accomplishment, men were unnecessarily put at risk and in many cases that risk resulted in death. The use of trucks in the tunnels is a particularly glaring example of this approach. Not only did Crowe and Six Companies know that the carbon monoxide produced by the trucks was dangerous and bad for the workers’ health, they flouted existing state mining laws by employing the trucks. You could argue that they were necessary to deliver the project ahead of time; on the other hand no effort was made to provide adequate ventilation that could have mitigated some of the effects of the carbon monoxide.

Crowe took some risks which were on his own and Six Companies shoulders. Some of the risks he took on the backs of his team. It isn’t always possible to achieve the most desirable results for the project without making a sacrifice. I’m comfortable with making those sacrifices myself, less so with putting them on the backs of the project team. Sometimes the project manager must make a moral decision: is winning at all costs OK? Is it better to accept a lesser degree of success without cutting those corners? The answers to those questions can only come from the project manager on the scene at the time.


 
  
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