The West Gate Bridge disaster was the result of several failures in project planning, structure, and management. The main aspects of these failures were planning problems, communication problems, and a poor authority structure. Planning problems created the tense atmosphere that precipitated the events of 15 October 1970(Royal Commission 1971). The Yarra River Crossing Authority (YRCA) had the goal of finalizing construction work within three years. While it is usual to have challenging deadlines for projects, it is not a good practice to have inflexible deadlines(Kerzner 2009). There was no time sensitive need that the bridge needed to meet to warrant the excessive focus on completing the project on time. The only pressure YRCA needed to mitigate was the cost of credit related to the financing of the bridge(Royal Commission 1971). With the benefit of hindsight sight, it is clear that the losses incurred after the collapse of the project outweigh any benefits the bridge would have brought based on a timely completion. If YRCA chose to manage the project schedule in a way that did not compromise on the quality of the works, then it could have avoided the losses it later incurred. Its ambitious schedule created undue pressure on all the parties especially in the face of delays caused by industrial workers(Royal Commission 1971).
Secondly, communication problems in the course of the project were part of the weaknesses in the project management model. One of the gravest aspects of the communication problems was the delay experienced by resident engineers when seeking information from the consulting engineers based in London(Royal Commission 1971). The project consultants were Freeman, Fox, and Partners (FF&P). FF&P did not provide critical information to the resident engineers relating to calculations and other project related issues. This was one of the reasons for the collapse of span 10-11. The engineers on site made erroneous calculations, which did not match the conditions on the ground resulting in overestimation of the allowable stress on span 10-11. These calculations were part of the chain of events that led to the catastrophic collapse of the span. The case study also reveals that relations between the stakeholders, who included contractors, consultants, and YRCA, were far from ideal. Internal communication was often acrimonious and included incidents of backstabbing. The professional rivalry between engineers from the two consulting companies involved in the project only served to complicate matters. The delays to the schedule caused by industrial action by steel workers also point to poor communication with the workers on site. In conclusion, there were no clear communication lines in the project, which affected relationships and the delivery of the project objectives(Holmes 2005).
The third main weakness with the project structure and management was the authority structure. There was a failure by the project planners to establish clear reporting structures for the project(Meredeth & Mantel 2011). Each of the players in the construction process undertook their duties with insufficient oversight. YRCA did not decide on proper monitoring and evaluation measures for the project. Rather, as YRCA passed on the contractual responsibilities to the consultants and the contractors, it did not develop the required support structures to support the communications processes between different players(Corson, Heath & Bryant 2000). The situation became worse after the cancellation of the World Services and Construction Ltd (WSC) contract(Royal Commission 1971).
After the cancellation, YRCA gave the WSC contract to John Holland’s Constructions (JHC) despite their inexperience in steel work. WSC retained the fabrication and the subassembly works while JHC took up the installation processes. Since JHC did not have sufficient experience in steel works of that magnitude, the company sought for contractual support from FF&P, and had WSC senior engineers at its disposal. The problem with this arrangement is that JHC did not inherit the contractual liabilities relating to the engineering processes used in the site(Royal Commission 1971). Its role was limited to installation. The events leading up to the collapse of span 10-11 included the failure of JHC to take advantage of the WSC engineers. In addition, FF&P did not play the oversight role required because of internal communication problems. At this point, the authority structures had collapsed, and JHC proceeded with the unfamiliar procedure without the input of experienced engineers. JHC did not realize that their failure to consult with senior engineers and the failure of FF&P to provide the required information would lead to the catastrophic collapse of span 10-11.
Proposed Structure and Management
The first proposal that would have prevented the fatal collapse of section 10-11 is the development of a clearer project organizational structure(Meredeth & Mantel 2011). In the time leading up to the cancellation of the WSC contract, the responsibilities of the contractors were clearer. Each contractor needed to work on a particular section of the bridge based on a certain timeline. JHC was closer to schedule compared to WSC, which suffered from work stoppages due to industrial action by its employees. While the responsibilities were clearer, the management structure of the project was such that the contractors and to some extent the consultants, did not feel obliged to offer substantive reports to the YRCA. In fact, there was resentment against the efforts of the authority to find out the progress of the project. The contractors worked independently. There was very little interplay between the contractors and the consultants because there was no stated requirement for them to work together. On the other hand, the consultants were not forthcoming with the information contractors requested. In the end, the project became an organizational nightmare. Clearer reporting lines and information sharing structures could have eliminated many of the issues that led to the collapse of span 10-11(Young 2009).
Secondly, there was a need to form a single project committee bringing together all the stakeholders of the project to provide oversight for the project(Klastorin 2003). If such a committee existed, then it could have forestalled many of the problems that the project faced since all the committee members would understand how each part of the project was faring. The composition of the project committee would have included the contractors, the consultants, the YRCA, and other stakeholders such as government and community representatives. An example of a problem the committee could help solve was the consisted disregard by FF&P to requests for information from the contractors. The committee could have found effective ways of dealing with the situation. If the committee dealt with the industrial issues affecting the operations of WSC, then quicker resolutions could have come up(Klastorin 2003). The situation on the ground was such that the only oversight the project had was from the YRCA. The authority could only resort to legal recourse whenever it felt things were getting out of hand. This was insufficient since the YRCA had no power to address issues affecting the relations between the contractors and the consultants. In conclusion, a project committee, constituted from all the stakeholders, would be a desirable element in a project of this magnitude.
Thirdly, the project needed an information-sharing plan to deal with the need for technical information(Kerzner 2009). The contractors wrongfully assumed that the consultants would provide all the design specifications they would need to complete their work. As time went by, it was clear that the consultants were inefficient in providing vital information to the contractors. The reasons for these delays are not clear. However, there is suspicion that there was professional rivalry between the senior engineers of the two consulting firms, which made the sharing of information difficult(Porter 1980). The fact that meetings between the contractors, the consultants, and YRCA were not regular also shows that the project did not have a proper information-sharing platform. The consultants did not send regular progress reports to YRCA hence there was no way for the Authority to find out the extent of the problems on site. In addition, the engineers provided by the consultant reported to their senior managers in London, and not YRCA. There was no mechanism to transmit the contents of these reports back to Australia. With the benefit of hindsight, it is clear that this state of affairs came from the poor design of the information sharing structures for the project given its international stature (Walker, Walker & Schmitz 2003). YRCA could avert the disaster involving span 10-11 by taking greater care to plan for the management of project information. It was reckless for the consultants to delay information requested by the engineers on the ground relating to calculations of the stresses on the bridge leading up to the collapse of the structure. YRCA needed to insist on the availability of copies of the detail design of the bridge at the site.
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