Monday, October 22, 2012

The Unintended Consequences of our Decisions

Many Americans are not aware that the standard railroad gauge in the U.S. (the distance between the two metal rails) is 4 feet, 8.5 inches.  Why the heck did our country ever establish such an odd size for spacing the tracks when building our first rail lines?

Well, that is because, when our local government officials and business leaders decided to construct our first rail system, they relied mainly on British expatriates who had immigrated to America.  These English tradesmen were the same individuals who designed and built the British railways and they built railroads the only way they knew how.

You see, many years earlier, in order to encourage greater trade and commerce (what we call economic development today), the British government adopted 4 foot 8.5 inches as its standard rail gauge.  That was because a wheel spacing of 4 feet, 8.5 inches was needed to match the distance between all those ruts in English roads.  If the wagons and carts of the British merchants had wheel spacings other than 4 feet 8.5 inches, their axles would more than likely break while traveling over the ruts.

Wait a minute Gabe!  Why did English roads have ruts and where did they come from?  The ruts in the English roads were put there by the Imperial Roman Army when Rome invaded England in 25 BC.  The Romans brought with them war chariots.  Years earlier, Caesar had ordered all Imperial War Chariots to be drawn by two horses.  Caesar believed war chariots drawn by two horses would help intimidate Rome's enemies.

To comply with Caesar’s demand for two-horse chariots, Roman engineers calculated 4 feet, 8.5 inches as the ideal distance to space the chariot wheels if pulled by two horses. Therefore, if the British government wanted to continue to use all the wonderful roads built by the Romans, it too had to accept a standard wheel spacing of 4 feet, 8.5 inches.

Years later when the British Parliament authorized the first railroads, they called upon the craftsmen who, for years, had built and maintained their highway and tram systems.  Those craftsmen only had tools and jigs to construct wheel spacing systems of 4 feet, 8.5 inches.

Now it might be hard to believe, but it is true.  The standard U.S. railroad gauge of 4 feet, 8.5 inches is actually based on an ancient Roman law that required chariots to accommodate two horses side by side.  Nineteen hundred years later, the British Government perpetuated this 4 feet, 8.5 inch standard to ensure economic development.

So Gabe, what does all this ancient Roman War Chariot stuff and British trade have to do with decisions made in modern day leadership and management?  Well, get ready, the moral of this story might be crucial for your career.

You may have watched a news program and saw a NASA Space Shuttle sitting on a launch pad in Florida.  If you recall, there were two rockets attached to the sides of every space shuttle. Those rockets were what NASA referred to as solid rocket boosters, or SRB's.  The lowest bidder on the contract for the SRB's was a Utah based firm - the Thiokol Corporation.

NASA's engineers had initially envisioned much larger SRB's for the shuttle, but discovered a major transportation problem.  You see, the SRB's built in Utah had to be shipped by train to the launch pads in Florida.  All rail routes from Utah to Florida run through the mountains.  The mountains have rail tunnels and the SRB's had to be able to fit through those tunnels.

Railroad tunnels, you might surmise, are just slightly wider than the railroad tracks, and railroad tracks in America, as you now know, are 4 feet, 8.5 inches, or about as wide as two horses standing side by side.

Consequently, the US Space Shuttle program in place during the late 20th century and early years of the 21st century had to have significant components re-designed to meet mandates imposed by the Imperial Roman Government over two thousand years ago and later enforced by laws enacted by the British Government in the late 19th century.

The two very important management lessons local government officials can learn from this saga are:

1) Be extremely careful when making decisions in your organizations. The decisions you make today may have long-lasting consequences for future generations to come.

2) While participating in budget and planning sessions, never ever, under any circumstances, agree to accept a policy or vote on policies just to accommodate a couple of horses' asses who are in the room grousing about some insignificant issues.  If you do --- the odds are overwhelming that those programs and policies you agreed to will come back to haunt your local government body later on down the road.