Letters from an old railway official (second series)/Letter 19
THE ENGINEERING OF MEN.
Chicago, August 12, 1911.
My Dear Boy:—As the old order changeth, yielding place to new, the last of the feudal barons among the chief engineers are passing. Bold have been their conceptions, faithful their performances and great their achievements. Their work has developed those splendid types of manhood which are characteristic of the futile struggle of nature against art, of the wilderness against civilization.
Partly because of better intellectual training, partly because of the rush to complete additions and betterments and partly because of the inborn tendency of human nature to over-specialize, the construction men of most railways have frequently put it over on the so-called operating men. Peace hath her victories no less renowned than war. As civilization advances the struggles of a railroad are less against physical nature and more against sociological and political conditions. This advanced stage makes for altruism and comprehensive coöperation. The problem of the construction engineer becomes harder when his work is interwoven with the necessities of everyday operation. A manufacturing plant can sometimes shut down during a period of new construction. A railway, however, cannot store its product, transportation. Some car wheels must be moving all the time. It follows, then, that construction must yield to operation rather than operation to construction. Again, from the nature of a railway, construction is a component of operation, and the whole is greater than any of its parts.
During the period of rapid expansion the construction men were kept “on the front.” Here is another bet that our predecessors overlooked. Instead of amalgamating construction with operation and developing a corps of all around men they sacrificed the future. The result is two sets of specialists lacking sympathy with each other’s difficulties. The point of convergence is the company’s treasury, which pays unnecessary bills. Sometimes these are in the form of a duplication of work train service; sometimes in idle equipment in which the construction bureau retains a proprietary interest on days of idleness. The construction people may be awaiting material or men. Meantime my work train cannot be used by the superintendent for maintenance purposes. The chief dispatcher has so little sympathy with new construction that the young assistant engineer dare not let go of my engine lest au revoir may mean good-by. Another delightful but expensive duplication occurs frequently in the matter of stores. Look around and see how many separate stores your construction bureau is maintaining, some of them within a stone’s throw of a well stocked permanent store.
After defying a few times the official lightning our wise construction Ajax learns to make his estimates large. Having beaten his own figures he exclaims, “Behold how much money I have saved the company.”
Comparisons of costs in construction work are much more difficult than in operation. This inability to control disbursement through the discipline of statistics should be met as far as possible by the most careful organization. Extravagance and waste in maintenance and operation are bad enough. In construction they are worse, because capitalized and bearing an interest burden for innumerable years to come.
All positions have their inherent temptations. The young engineer in charge of construction is tempted to nurse the job because when it is finished he may be laid off. Whether he yields or not, it is a poor kind of organization that places the temptation before him. Too frequently the construction engineer costs the company money because of his unfamiliarity with maintenance conditions. Experience in maintenance would help him in construction. Before being entrusted with authority an engineer should have experience in both maintenance and construction, regardless of the branch in which he may have happened to start. Check up your new branch lines and see how much money being charged to maintenance could have been saved if the construction people had better appreciated operating conditions. See how many side tracks and water tanks are on curves. Never investigate a collision without considering faulty construction and location as factors.
One of the easiest ways to save your company money will be to reorganize your construction activities. When you decide upon some new line, be it a branch, a second track, or an extension, call a cabinet meeting of all your assistants. Let the supply assistant of your grand opera troupe know at which stand you are to play. Call in the superintendent of the division concerned, with his maintenance assistant. Tell the superintendent that he will be responsible for the new work subject to the instructions of your construction assistant. Let it be understood that the work will be under the direct charge of his maintenance assistant, that the equipment will be looked after by his mechanical assistant and the material and supplies furnished by his supply assistant. Throw the whole official momentum of the division on the side of the new work. Under the old order of things the division people do what they are told in helping out the construction, but no more. The proposed organization will beget that extra individual effort which is relatively as profitable as the farmer’s extra bushel per acre. At this same cabinet meeting let your superintendent nominate a junior assistant to act as understudy for maintenance while his leading maintenance man is treading the construction boards. If, when the job is over, any scrimping has to take place it will not be the construction man who has to drop back. Two years hence the maintenance assistant will not give you the old song and dance about poor construction causing excessive maintenance, because he himself built the line. There is, of course, a danger that this maintenance assistant will be extravagant in construction for the sake of a future record in maintenance. You have two checks against this, one through the efficiency of your construction assistant and the other through the division accounting bureau, which should handle additions and betterments as separate accounts.
Once upon a time I ran across a contractor grading a new line. His organization, the most efficient that I ever happened to see in any line of activity, made that of the railway for which he was working look like thirty cents. He made the grading camp the unit. Each of his sixteen camps was in charge of a foreman who controlled his own commissary, his own timekeeper, his own blacksmith and his own animals and equipment. The first duty of the foreman was to supply his men with grub and his animals with feed. Normally this took two wagons. If he happened to be near the base of supplies he used only one team and put the other on a plow or a scraper. If he happened to be clear at the front he might have to borrow another wagon and use three teams for supply. The point is that he kept all of his teams working all of the time and never ran out of supplies. The railroad would organize a department of wagons, a department of plows and a department of scrapers, and the foreman who kicked the hardest would have the most grub, even though somebody else was short. These foremen were jacked up if they used poor judgment in accumulating supplies and had too much on hand when the next move came. No clerk at the base was allowed to cut the requisition of a foreman. The resident engineers of the railway in charge of the several staking and inspection parties could not procure railway commissary supplies without the O. K. of a clerk in the so-called boarding house department.
Another noteworthy feature was the constant presence of officials and sub-officials with authority to act for the contractor. A general foreman and two assistant general foremen were riding the line and giving instructions to meet changing conditions. For example, in the afternoon an assistant general foreman countermanded an order given by his general manager who had happened to be on the ground in the morning. When a resident engineer in charge of a party desired such authority he called up the tent of the division engineer and gained the desired information from the latter’s chief clerk, who was receiving a smaller salary than the resident engineer. I spare your feelings a description of the complex methods imposed by the railway accounting department in marked contrast to the simple common sense practice of the contractor. How much stockholders are paying for maintaining the sacred system of railways I am unable to state. Many administrative crimes are committed in the name of organization.
One of the fallacies sometimes introduced by the accounting department in construction organization is to have all the timekeepers report to a chief timekeeper, regardless of the engineer or other chief of party. A bright young engineer once told me his troubles in this respect. He was astonished at the difference when he followed the advice to make each party a complete unit with its own timekeeper, the chief of the party being held responsible for proper time keeping as well as for all other duties. This efficient youngster deplored the fact that neither his engineering school nor his official superiors had ever deemed it necessary to give him lessons in the applied science of organization. Never forget, my boy, the immortal words attributed to George Stephenson that the greatest branch of engineering is the engineering of men.
Affectionately, your own,
D. A. D.