There's a whole story behind that. For a whole week they couldn't get the new sludge line to flow. I was always called in when all else fails. I told them to turn the main valve in the other direction. They said, "But it's a right hand valve"! I said, "Humor me and just do it". They turned it clockwise like I told them. Well, the contractor ordered a left hand valve by mistake. Meanwhile there were sample taps open all along the line to see where the problem was. The built up pressure let loose and everyone standing by was totally covered with the worst smelly digested sludge. It was a Kodak moment.
The story typifies the kind of ad hoc decision-making and process control that characterized the operation of the long-serving people in the agency and its predecessor agency, the MDC. I memorialized this kind of behavior in a Harvard Business Review article, "The Nut Island Effect," in March 2001. A precise of the article follows. Perhaps running a sewer agency is good training for running a hospital, after all:
The team that operated the Nut Island sewage treatment plant in Quincy, Massachusetts, was every manager's dream. Members of the group performed difficult, dangerous work without complaint. They needed little supervision. They improvised their way around operational difficulties and budgetary constraints. They were dedicated to the organization's mission. But their hard work led to catastrophic failure. How could such a good team go so wrong? In this article, the author tells the story of the Nut Island plant and identifies a common, yet destructive organizational dynamic that can strike any business. The Nut Island effect begins with a deeply committed team that is isolated from a company's mainstream activities. Pitted against this team is its senior management. Preoccupied with high-visibility problems, management assigns the team a vital but behind-the-scenes task. When trouble strikes and management is unresponsive, team members feel betrayed and develop an us-against-the-world mentality. They stay out of management's line of sight, hiding problems. Management, disinclined in the first place to focus on the team's work, is easily misled by team members' skillful disguising of its performance deficiencies. The resulting stalemate typically can be broken only by an external event. The Nut Island story serves as a warning to managers who concentrate their efforts on their organization's most visible shortcomings: sometimes the most debilitating problems are the ones we can't see.