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Week of 16 January 2023: Second Number Uttered

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Very long time reader Dene Taylor wrote me a note after last week's column (Week of 9 January 2023 "First Number Uttered") suggesting the second number uttered is the time to complete a project. Mike Higgins offered a similar comment.

This is so true and in line with the items I covered the first week of this series, the week of 2 January 2023.

I have seen so many schedules blown over the years that they are uncountable. The worst are the rebuild schedules, for they are the ones that take an operating machine out of production for a period of time, endangering the customer base. There is a lot of pressure to make these as short as possible.

I'll go back to a rebuild that took place nearly four decades ago for the penultimate example of a schedule disaster. Our employer was largely driven by the sales department, which pushed back on any schedule we suggested. We finally settled on 28 days paper to paper for this major rebuild (we had gotten all the equipment and materials on site on the time schedule promised).

We went out for bids on the construction phase. I wanted to bid it time and material but from my boss to the top of the company the answer that came back was "firm lump sum." From my decade plus experience at the time, I already knew this was a big mistake on a rebuild, but no one was listening to me.

We had three bidders, one non-union and two union. Personally, I was leaning toward one of the union contractors who had worked in the area. In our bid package, we told them our target downtime, 28 days, and stipulated there would be a bonus/penalty imposed of +/- $100,000/day, but we told them, if you don't feel this is the correct length, please so stipulate. By the way, $100,000 in that era is roughly $290,000 today.

Of course, they all said 28 days was just fine. What else could they do if they wanted to bid on the work? The winner was the union contractor furthest away who had zero experience in our region of the country and my least favorite (reminds me of National Lampoon's Vacation, "If you hate it now, just wait until you drive it).

We commenced at the end of third shift on a Sunday night. I was in charge of the night shift and my boss ran the day shift. He and I had met before the start of construction and agreed that our job was to manage any and everything that might be in the contractor's way. We felt we could do nothing that was in any way seen as managing the contractor, due to the firm lump sum status and the bonus/penalty arrangement. We wanted no claims of interference.

When the contractor's scheduler showed up three months before the start of construction, he had the entire project on two E-size drawings. I panicked--at my previous employer, we had had more scheduling sheets than that for a weekend outage. I knew we were already in trouble.

I'll spare you the gory details, but the ambulance was constantly running to the hospital. At one point, there were 70 jackhammers (I counted them) and two hoe-rams on the operating floor. Ear protection was not required nor available in those days, perhaps that is the reason I have tinnitus now. I was slightly injured one evening, knocked down to the floor by some flying construction debris, and I refused treatment. However, one of the EMT's that was running to attend me while I was down fell and broke a finger.

Never mind that, Jim, how did the schedule go? Glad you asked. After forty days (the length of THE BIBLICAL FLOOD), we started up. Yes, a $1,200,000 penalty. And since I was in charge of the extras, there was a stack of paper on my desk about 18 inches tall, 572 separate extras, claiming an additional amount worth about 1/3 the value of the original construction contract. I beat that down by about three quarters.

The icing on the cake came ninety days later. Corporate had decided, before the shutdown, that the mill had ninety days after startup to reach the promised production rate yielded by this rebuild. The experts we had hired had already told us this was an unreasonable goal. Well, on day 91 here they came in their cute little corporate jet. They fired the machine superintendent, a long-time company employee for not meeting the goal.

I was at the age and experience level that the headhunters were calling me quite regularly. Within a couple of months, a headhunter called with an attractive offer. I left, as did many others. Off to the next adventure.

Be safe and we will talk next week.


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