Lessons from history

March 8, 2010
Tom Moriarty, P.E., CMRP, contributing editor, explores politics, egos and plain-old bad decisions.

I love the History Channel. Two nights ago, I was watching the History International channel; the show was about engineering disasters. This particular episode had to do with the World War I Chauchats (pronounced show-shah) light machine gun.

The program chronicled how the weapon was notoriously unreliable. It had an open-sided magazine prone to attracting dirt; not good in trench warfare. The weapon had very poor quality control; many parts were poorly manufactured, so poorly that critical parts weren’t interchangeable. The sights didn’t stay in alignment, and when the barrel warmed up, shots were low and to the right. If you fired 400 rounds, the weapon overheated and jammed for an average of 10 minutes.

Why on Earth did the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) issue these glorified paperweights? Well, when the AEF arrived in Europe, it had no machine guns or artillery pieces. So, it had to rely on the allied forces for these weapon systems. The British machine gun was the Lewis Gun, which was widely available, highly reliable and had an excellent reputation.

Why not get Lewis Guns from Britain? There are conflicting stories about that. The first was political issues. The AEF commanding general, “Black Jack” Pershing, refused to have American forces under British or French command; the European allies wanted the American troops to integrate with their troops as replacements. Pershing was steadfast in his requirement to have American troops under American commanders.

Another story is that Isaac Newton Lewis, U.S. Army officer and inventor of the Lewis Gun, had a long-running feud with the senior officer in charge of the U.S. Ordnance Department. Lewis refused to provide the weapons; ego reasons on both sides.

Another obvious option was the American made Browning Automatic Rifle, or BAR. The BAR was a superior weapon; simple in design, highly reliable, accurate and beloved by the troops. So, why weren’t the AEF soldiers provided with BARs?

As the story goes, General Pershing made the decision because he felt the BAR was such a superior weapon that he didn’t want the Germans to capture a BAR and produce their own BAR knock-offs. Only after Pershing felt that the war was clearly coming to an end did he begin outfitting the AEF with BARs. They arrived just in time for the Meuse-Argonne offensive in October 1918. The armistice was signed on Nov. 11, 1918. This was a plain-old bad decision.

There’s no telling how many American casualties occurred because of politics, egos and plain-old bad decisions. But, how does this relate to the plant and facilities maintenance business? We often generate our own problems through politics, egos and plain-old bad decisions.

We have modern, dependable tools that can reduce equipment downtime effectively, which increases equipment and system reliability. Tools such as vibration analysis, oil analysis, thermography, ultrasound and motor circuit analysis are based on sound physics and engineering principles. They’re our BARs and Lewis Guns.

Sometimes we don’t deploy the best tool because we need to distribute discretionary funding equitably. “We can’t pay for an expensive tool for the maintenance department because that would affect funding for some other department.” It might not matter that a predictive maintenance tool will have a significant return on investment; “it just wouldn’t look right” — another political decision.

You might be working in a culture that fosters non-team behaviors. Maybe managers and supervisors are jealous or concerned that the person with the good idea will be looked on more favorably. This could make it ego-related or a plain-old bad decision.

Other times, senior people or decision-makers shoot down an idea because they don’t understand the subject thoroughly. It’s easy to say no, but often risky to say yes. When supervisors or managers develop an atmosphere that impedes good ideas from being voiced, it’s just a form of the plain-old bad decision.

Just as we don’t know how many casualties were caused by the WWI Chauchats debacle, we don’t know how many labor-hours, lost production rates and quality problems could have been avoided by making better decisions.

Take the time to increase your personal scope of knowledge. Be open to ideas. When you’re contemplating saying “no,” take a moment to understand why you’re saying no. There are perfectly good reasons to do so, of course. Just make sure it’s not from politics, ego or plain-old bad decision-making.

Tom Moriarty, P.E., CMRP, is president of Alidade MER Inc. Contact him at [email protected] and (321) 773-3356.

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