Infrastructure Triage 101

The U.S. logistics system is the nation’s life and supply line and deserves our highest attention. A sobering assessment of our regard for America’s infrastructure is found in the American Society of Civil Engineers’ (ASCE) most recent report card.

Here are the grades:

Rail: C-

Aviation: D+

Roads: D

Bridges: C

Navigable Waterways: D-

It’s a D+ average; not a stellar performance.

We appear to bleed at every intersection, gate, and runway, and there is more to fix than there are resources. Our logistics infrastructure – highways, bridges, tunnels, seaports, airports, railways, and all points in between – lies before us as a series of wounded systems.

How do we choose what to fix?

During World War I, the concept of triage – a strategy for saving as many lives as possible – was developed. We might now apply it to our wounded infrastructure.

In its classic sense, triage separates the wounded into three categories:

  1. Those who can recover without treatment.
  2. Those who can recover with immediate treatment.
  3. Those who will not recover, regardless of treatment.

The objective is to treat the #2 wounded, leave the #1 wounded to take care of themselves, and let all the #3 go.

In this context, consider an example of outsourcing management strategy practiced by the Toyoda Company, a leading mechatronic and machine tool builder. The company employs the following three levels or conditions for handling problems at factories outside Japan:

  1. Problems that can be resolved by local management.
  2. Problems that need an assist from Japanese management.
  3. Problems that must be handled by Japanese management.

Contemplate this strategy for a moment and it becomes clear that it is a variation of the three levels of triage—and perhaps a solution for treating our wounded infrastructure.

Don’t we need to see the system parts, measure their condition, and evaluate what has to be done locally, what may need help from farther up, and what will have to be designed and applied from above?

Of course, we may choose to ignore triage and give individual parts less than they need even if the system as a whole suffers; or selectively, give them more than they need and let other parts of the system suffer.

The late management consultant and writer Peter Drucker suggested the following course of action when approaching problems: define the problem; analyze the problem; develop alternate solutions; decide upon the best solution; and convert the decision into effective action.

As infrastructure triage ‘doctors’ we might do well to follow Drucker’s advice. But who will play doctor?

A new lobby – the National Surface Transportation Infrastructure Financing Commission – is charged with analyzing future highway and transit needs and recommending funding sources. It recently completed an interim report documenting the status of the U.S. infrastructure system.

It’s too soon to tell whether this commission can adequately address our need for engineering, environmental, and logistics knowledge, but it appears to be a step in the right direction.

The ASCE also keeps a running scorecard of America’s infrastructure on its Web site, with a blow-by-blow description of what Congress has done to staunch the bleeding (very little) and what it needs to do to improve the score (a great deal).

Time is running out, and time and tide wait for no nation, not even a so-called super power.

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