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Six Degrees of Estimation

February 3rd, 2005 · No Comments · NYC, Subway

The A and C subway line, which recently was hit by a bad signal room fire, was running again yesterday. While total service wasn’t restored, it is up to about 70% of the previous level. Remember that this is the same subway line that was going to take 3 to 5 years to get running again. But I’m not complaining.

How was something that originally was thought to take 3 to 5 years to do actually took less than two weeks to mostly fix? I think it is a fine example of how estimates are handled in almost all bureaucracies. Here’s what probably happened.

The engineers are digging through the burnt out signal room, trying to get a handle on things.

“How bad is it? How long will it take to fix?” says the crew foreman.

The engineers poke around, and look at each other in silent consultation. They mutter among themselves, and decide it is probably about two weeks of hard, around-the-clock work to get something running. The elder engineer hedges. “Four weeks,” he tells the foreman. The foreman nods, thinking that a month isn’t too bad, considering the damage.

His supervisor calls up the foreman. “We need an estimate, we’ve got to announce something to the press. How long to fix it?”

The foreman starts to reply, but pauses. This job is going to be under a lot of public scrutiny, and that fire damage looked pretty bad. He decides to be a little cautious.

“We can get it back up and running in 2 months. Maybe less, but it’s hard to tell,” he replies to his supervisor.

“You sure about that?” says the supervisor. “I have to report that estimate to the director.”

The foreman thinks about this. “Okay, three months. Three months for sure.” He knows the crew will be happy to have a little breathing room.

The supervisor hangs up, writing down three months as the estimate. He walks down the hall to meet with the director. He plays the conversation with the foreman over in his head. The foreman didn’t sound so sure about that estimate. And if this restoration work runs long, the public will be screaming and people could get fired.

“So,” says the director, “what’s the assessment? When will service be restored?”

Confidently, the supervisor responds “Six months.”

“Six months? That’s a long time to have no service on two of our very busy lines.”

The supervisor flinches inside, but sticks to his guns. “Well, sir, that fire caused a lot of damage, and the signaling system is key to the safety of the system. We have to do it right.”

The director nods grimly.

“Well, I need to run. I have a meeting with an assistant to the MTA President, who is about to have a press conference.”

They shake hands and the director gathers up his notebook and heads for the elevator. If it is going to take six months to fix it, he thinks, it must be really bad in that signal room. As he sits down and listens to other people gathered at the meeting, he ponders what he will say.

The assistant to the MTA President notices him at the table, and asks “Did you get that repair estimate?”

“I just met with the signaling supervisor who spoke with the foreman just a little while ago. He tells me the situation is very bad. In order to restore service, they’ll have to completely rebuild the signal room. We looking at a year before we will have restored service.”

The room gets quiet. Someone whistles in surprise.

“That is pretty bad.”

“I know, but since the damage is so extensive, we’re basically not talking about repairing the room, but more like a forced equipment upgrade. We’ve been meaning to update that signaling equipment for some time now, and it seems like now we’ve got no choice but to do it now. And you’ve seen the timelines for those upgrades.”

Everyone starts nodding. The director relaxes.

The cell phone of the Assistant to MTA President starts to ring.

“If you’ll excuse me, everyone,” he says as he steps outside the conference room to take the call.

“I go on in five minutes,” says Lawrenece Reuter, MTA President. “What am I saying?”

“Well, sir, according to the engineers, there’s nothing to salvage. We’ll have to completely replace and upgrade all signal equipment for the effected lines. It will take… 2 years for service to be fully restored.”

“Okay. Thanks. I’ve got to get ready,” says Mr. Reuter, as he hangs up.

Shit, he thinks as climbs up to the podium to address the press, if they are telling me 2 years to fix it, it must be a total disaster…

Well, you know what he told the press. And oddly enough, the engineers got the work done in about two weeks.

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