Published here January 2009.


Musings Index

The Effects of Institutionalization

It bothers me greatly, how institutionalization affects project management. "Institutionalization" is a fancy word that simply means that if you want to belong to the club you have to be committed to its dictates. The problem for me is that when it comes to project management, if you want to be a part of a recognized project management organization you are forced into accepting their norms and edicts. Lamentably, this straightjacket also includes professional and technical standards.

While in some circumstances this may be highly desirable, it also means that some things get firmly fixed in people's minds. Thus, some things become permanently frozen in time - even though they make no sense and are obviously restrictive, or patently wrong. If you want examples, I have identified plenty in the Musings, Papers and Glossary on this web site. But this problem applies equally to policies and procedures, and professional and technical standards.

You see, as institutions grow they become bureaucracies, and bureaucracies always feel threatened by fundamental change because it moves them out of their comfort zone. Often the result is to impose the straightjacket even more firmly. But the unfortunate affect is to thwart innovative thinking and to severely inhibit progress.

The following is a classic story that I am sure you have heard before. But what you may not know is the current effect it is having on the most advanced technology of our time.

The History of the Railroad Gauge and its Impact Today

The US standard railroad gauge (distance between the rails) is 4 feet 8.5 inches. I think you'll agree, that's a very odd number. Why was that gauge used? Because that's the way they built them in England, and the US railroads were built by English expatriates.

Why did the English build them like that? Because the first rail lines were built by the same people who built the pre-railroad tramways, and that's the gauge they used. Why did "they" use that gauge then? Because the people who built the tramways used the same jigs and tools that they used for building wagons, which used the same wheel spacing.

Okay! Why did the wagons have that particularly odd wheel spacing? Well, if they tried to use any other spacing the wagon wheels would break on some of the old, long distance roads in England, because that's the spacing of the wheel ruts.

So who built those old rutted roads? The first long distance roads in Europe (and England) were built by Imperial Rome for their legions, and those roads have been used ever since.

And the ruts? The initial ruts, that everyone else had to match for fear of destroying their wagon wheels and wagons, were first made by the Roman war chariots. Since chariots were made for, or by, Imperial Rome, they were all alike in the matter of wheel spacing.

Thus, we have the answer to the original question. The United States standard railroad gauge of 4 feet 8.5 inches derives from the original specification for an Imperial Roman war chariot. And why did the Romans adopt that particular width? Because the Imperial Roman war chariots were made just wide enough to accommodate the back ends of two war horses!

Affect on Advanced Technology

Okay, so now you know why the railroad gauges are the width they are. But railroads have been around for a long time, so what's with "advanced technology"?

Well, it just so happens that there is a direct connection and it goes like this. When you see a Space Shuttle sitting on its launch pad, there are two big boosters rockets attached to the sides of the main fuel tank. These are solid rocket boosters, or SRBs.

The SRBs are made by Thiokol at their factory in Utah. The engineers who designed the SRBs might have preferred to make them a bit fatter, but the SRBs had to be shipped by train from the factory to the launch site. The railroad line from the factory had to run through a tunnel in the mountains.

So, those SRBs had to fit through that tunnel. The tunnel is slightly wider than the railroad track, and the railroad track is about as wide as two horses behinds. As a consequence, the major design feature of what is arguably the world's most advanced transportation system has been determined by the width of a Horse's Behind!

Laws, regulations, standards and rules seem to live forever. A few people manage to get around that by starting over with a completely new community of practice - but that is not so easy and it is not always possible. So, the next time you are required to comply with some decree or other that seems utterly archaic or arcane, you may well ask: "Whose horse's behind came up with that one?"

Home | Issacons | PM Glossary | Papers & Books | Max's Musings
Guest Articles | Contact Info | Search My Site | Site Map | Top of Page