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Great Project Management Challenges; The Hoover Dam

Driving in a convertible to the Hoover Dam a couple of weeks ago, I reminded myself why the American South-West is one of my favourite destinations. The cool air of the winter desert, the pure blue of the sky and the breathtaking (albeit, barren) landscape meld into a dramatic image. The day before, we hiked in the Valley of Fire, where vistas are even more remarkable.
The grandeur of the Hoover Dam makes one speechless, as you look down at birds of prey hovering down below in the canyon. Over 700 feet tall, it has been standing here, on the Nevada-Arizona border, since 1935, having been completed just four short years after the award of the contract (and two years ahead of schedule). The sheer scale of this marvel of engineering made me think of what managing a project like this must have been like.

Up to 5,000 people worked on the site at any given time. Workers from all corners of the country were employed and to house them; cottages and dormitories were built in a space of a year where Boulder City is now situated. Kitchens worked non-stop turning out simple but nourishing fare. The logistics of housing, feeding, transporting and managing the workforce must have been a great challenge in themselves

Construction methods had to be tried and adopted as the project was going on. The size of the structure required that many elements (such as penstock pipes measuring 30 feet in diameter) were assembled on or close to the construction site, for long-haul transportation was impossible. For that reason, grading and concrete plants and specialized metal works had to be built nearby. Access roads had to be built, as well as the cranes and cable cars used to deliver building materials down to the bottom of the gorge.

The construction contract was awarded to a joint venture called Six Companies Inc., comprised of six large businesses who were leaders in their respective fields. Although I am typically skeptical of the viability of joint ventures, it is clear that in this case the interests of the participants were exceptionally well aligned which enabled the success of the project.

At the end of the day, I believe that the project was successful because by the time the construction commenced all the preparatory work had been done, such as securing support of those stakeholders that matter. The construction itself was “just” execution, an impressive one, of course, but not plagued by the lack of sponsor support, “going to the well” to get additional funds or dealing with political, environmental or any other type of “concerned citizens.” People concentrated on their work and this is what really mattered.

Finally, the business case for the dam was as solid as she stands today. Not only does it serve as a source of cheap electrical power, it also provides water for drinking and irrigation to the adjacent states and has tamed the destructive Colorado River which in the past practically precluded any agriculture activities and settlement in its lower parts, due to its violent seasonal fluctuations and deadly inundations it caused. Today, these 5lands are among the most prized in the nation.

It is amazing what human spirit can think up and create when it is not hindered by doubts, hecklers or lack of resources.

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