July 14th. 2006
Sent to but not published in the Boston Globe

The Big Dig Investigation

Those politicians calling for an independent review of the Big Dig catastrophe are absolutely correct. It is a mistake to allow those responsible for creating the situation to have a major role in investigating the problems.

One of the more pervasive phenomena in human decision-making is “escalating commitment to a losing course of action.’ This occurs when early investments in terms of money, resources, energy, and time have been committed to a project. At a later stage, the expected pay-offs from the investment have not materialized and the person or organization has to decide whether or not to “cut their losses’ or to make an additional investment. Almost inevitably the person or organization “throws good money after bad.’

This occurs for a couple of reasons. People are very good at identifying external causes for the initial failure and do not expect those causes to recur so they can justify an additional investment in the project. Secondly, success in the project becomes inextricably tied up with their desire to prove themselves competent so the desired outcome has shifted from a successful project to that of a successful project PLUS a successful organization or individual. Te initial objective is swamped by the personal objective.

I said earlier that it is “almost’ inevitable for good money to be thrown after bad. The exception occurs when a different person makes the second decision whether or not to make an additional investment. Successful Banks demonstrate this when they turn non-performing loans to a “work-out’ unit rather than have the original loan officer attempt to resurrect the deal with the client – that way you get escalation!

If the engineers and officials of the Turnpike Authority are to be responsible for the inspection process, we run the danger that – despite their undoubted professionalism – they will be concerned about justifying their prior decisions and work at developing rationalizations rather than reasons for the problems with the tunnel.

It is essential for new eyes, with no emotional commitment to the past decisions,  to investigate the problems.