Friday, April 17, 2009

Here come the sludge!

Another in our occasional retrospective pieces about my years (1987-1992) as Executive Director at the MA Water Resources Authority, the region's water and sewer authority. This came in the form of a Facebook message from George Goldstein, a former MWRA guy, who sent me the attached picture of me in the pit (before I was joined by Eric Buehrens and Lorraine Downey) to turn off the line that had been sending sludge into the ocean:

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.


Megan said...

Nice photo, but I don't see you wearing safety glasses. :-)

Anonymous said...

Right! I don't know if that was required back in 1989. But at least I had a hard hat and was in a harness so I could be lifted up if need be.

Bill Geary said...


If ever there was a photo to prove that you were "down in the trenches" this is it......The story behind it is also great.....I think each of us has a similar vignette and each of us can reflect on how far we have come in 24 years since the Boston Harbor lawsuit was filed.

I just came in from Houston and got yet another bird's eye view of Deer Island....and each time I fly over the facility I think back to Mother's Day of the darkest days for Boston Harbor even though it was warm and sunny that Day.......I had been MDC Commissioner for 4 months and had spent almost all my time working on the harbor that era, the plant was down to 2-3 operating turbines as all the other obsolete Nordberg turbines had been cannibalized for spare parts.....the operating engines spewed oil from their stacks which formed pools on the roof of the pump house and administration building and the pools caught fire several times a week....On the weekend of Mother's Day the valve on the main line under the harbor into the facility had a catastrophic failure and filled the bottom of the cavernous building with sewage 40 feet deep. To solve the problem required that some of our personnel do some unbelievable things.....In issuing commendations later, I made the point that "They were asked to do the unthinkable, and accomplished the impossible"....We had a team of Metro Police Divers working from plans provided by plant personnel, dive in the sewage with no visibility to find and close the valve.......One of them contracted a stomach virus from which he never recovered.....I will never forget the sheer courage, dedication and determination of those public employees.......We owe all of them a tremendous debt of gratitude and each of us can be proud that we got to play a role in reversing the contamination of the harbor.

Best Wishes to all,


REKording said...

You have made me wonder about your prudence, Mr. Levy. "I don't know if that was required back in 1989." Safety glasses have been a standard practice since the 1950s for working with dangerous or infectious liquids. Did you start usings a seat belt only after they made it mandatory? Would you ride a motorcycle without a helmet, just because the law says you can? It's strange, but the use of Safety Glasses still carries a stigma, and people will go to all lengths to justify not wearing them, as you have just demonstrated. Is it vanity, fashion pressure, or what?

Anonymous said...


I wasn't working with liquids. I was in a vault, turning the handle on a pipe valve. As I said, I don't know if safety glasses were required at that time in that setting.

But in any case, please relax, it wasn't vanity or anything else you suggested. I put on the safety equipment that I was told was required at the time, the hard hat and the emergency lift harness. So I didn't "just demonstrate" anything, except following the rules I was told at the time.

REKording said...

Following only "required" safety rules is not prudent. Wearing Safety Glasses is always prudent, especially when working with stuff that moves through pipes under pressure.

My vanity comment was directed at the strange behavior of humans, as a class, when it comes to Safety Glasses. You hear "they weren't required" a lot in the Emergency Room.