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Top Led Failures – Ailment #1 Leading to Project Failure (#3 in the series Decoding the DNA of Failed Technology Projects)
By Robert Goatham

Top led failures occur when an organization’s Senior Management makes strategic blunders that set a project on course for disaster. One of the best documented examples is the Denver International Airport Baggage Handling system. Although the story dates back to the 1990’s, it’s a useful example because of the level of publically1 available information.

Faced with an aging Stapleton International Airport, the City of Denver decided to develop a new airport. Covering a total area of 140 Km2, the new airport was to be one of the largest ever built. To ensure efficient operations planners decided to build an automated baggage handling system. While prior airports had used simple conveyor belts with manually operated tugs and trolleys, planners felt that due to the airport’s size, automation was the only way to operate the airport efficiently.

Although on paper the project made sense, it represented the most complex baggage system ever built. Ten times larger than any other system, the chosen design involved a level of complexity never attempted before. Designed to integrate all three concourses and all airlines into one seamless system, the project collapsed because of the system’s complexity and the failure to allow adequate time for its development. The completed Denver International Airport famously sat idle for 16 months while engineers tried to correct the problems. Eventually project scope was slashed and only a fraction of the system was deployed. All other baggage handling reverted to using the traditional tug and trolley system. The total cost of the debacle added at least $560M to the cost of the airport and due to frequent operational problems, even the functioning portion of the system was abandoned in 2005.

The epicentre of the fiasco can be traced to the strategic decisions made by the airport’s Chief Engineer, the Project Management team and the vendor’s Senior Management. Prior to proceeding, the City of Denver had commissioned a study of the project’s feasibility. The report advised that the project’s complexity made it extremely risky and research would be required before such a system complex could be built successfully. Despite the report, similar advice from internal experts and an independent study that showed that none of the companies bidding for the project could build the system in the available time, the project’s senior leadership team decided to proceed. That decision made at the very highest of levels in the project and the refusal to listen to expert advice prevented the project team exploring other options that may have been more feasible. The ultimate effect of the decisions set the project on a course for disaster.

Top led failures can be amongst the most difficult to correct. Because the flawed decisions were made at the most senior of levels, changing course requires an admission by the organization’s senior leadership that an error was made. The political and psychological barriers needing to be crossed in order to make such an admission, prevents many such mistakes being corrected. Failure to brave that admission has however resulted in some of the largest project failures in history and has even seen complete organizations go out of business.

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Robert Goatham is the principal of Calleam Consulting. Robert founded Calleam in response to the on-going challenges organizations face in developing the leadership skills necessary to successfully deliver today’s complex technology projects. Specializing in the study of failed projects, Robert translates hindsight from yesterday’s projects into the foresight needed to ensure tomorrow’s success. Robert has more than 20 years experience in the technology sector playing roles that include developer, technical lead, architect, quality manager, coach and senior project manager. As a public speaker, writer and trainer Robert provides audiences with insights that go beyond the theory of a text book and speak directly to the challenges people face in today’s workplace. Robert is passionate about helping organizations and individuals develop their skills. Visit www.calleam.com for more information.

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