Can You Really Cut The Red Tape?

The motorway from Nottingham to London is the most tedious and dreary road in the world.

There is nothing to look at except 1960’s concrete bridges and road signs.  Perfect for a grey October day.  Its only saving grace is that it is flat, straight and fast.  So you don’t really have to spend much time looking at it.

Except on this grey October day it wasn’t fast and I got to look at 15 miles of road works.  I looked at them for about an hour and a half.  They were (are, I guess they are still there) not the highlight of the English landscape.

Worse still, there wasn’t anything to actually see.  Lots of cones and barriers.  The odd dump truck.  But nobody was doing any work, no diggers digging or road rollers rolling.  Nothing to distract two bored and fractious children sitting in the back.

I shouldn’t be surprised, it was Saturday afternoon after all, nobody works Saturday afternoons, and it’s not like it is an important motorway, they only call it the M1.

It wouldn’t happen in California

On April 29th 2007 a petrol tanker travelling across the MacArthur Maze near San Fransisco (think Birmingham’s spaghetti junction with a touch more glamour) crashed and burnt into flames, destroying 2 of the overpasses.

The California Department of Transportation (CalTrans) estimated it would take at least 50 days to repair.

The MacArthur Maze isn’t a side junction.  It carries 280,000 cars every day.  It is so critical to transport in the area that Caltrans offered a bonus to the contractor who undertook the job.  For every day under 50 days that they took they would receive $200,000.  For every day over they would be fined $200,000

C.C. Myers won the contract.

C.C. Myers a man of action

By all accounts Mr Myers is the Red Adair of the construction industry.  Not short of self belief and with an eye on the prize.

  • It’s claimed he had a crew on the ground within 15 minutes of winning the contract
  • Steel came from Pennsylvania and Texas to Arizona where it was fabricated and then transported on to California.  Two drivers to every lorry to reduce stops
  • A preformed 110 tonne reinforced concrete block made the bridge span
  • Double shifts were laid on right across the build

No doubt people were jogging on the job.

Civil engineering at it’s finest.  Mr Myers completed the task in 25 days and bagged his $867,075 fee plus a full $5,000,000 bonus.

Should Mr Myers be fixing the M1?

Undoubtedly Mr Myers and his team are exceptionally capable people, there are very few project managers who could pull of a job like that.

But the real heroes are the civil servants at Caltrans.  They did everything they could to remove bureaucracy and red tape:

  • They had inspectors on site who were empowered to make decisions on the spot
  • They shipped staff to the steel fabricator in Arizona
  • They even gave the go ahead for the work to start before the plans were approved

And by stripping out all the wasted time and delay the junction was rebuilt in under a month.

Short cut the control and you short cut the quality

Critics will say “no proper control, no proper quality”; but it wasn’t like that.  The bridge span was concreted in place.  Conventional wisdom says that the concrete needs to cure for 48 hours before you can tarmac across it.  Caltrans didn’t want it to crack.  They insisted that it was left for 96 hours.  Four of Mr Myers twenty-five days were spent watching concrete dry.

Maybe we could ship in some Civil Engineers from California to have a look at the M1.

Maybe we could ship in some Civil Servants as well.

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MacArthur Maze

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Image via wikipedia



  1. James, great comparison. I wouldn’t be surprised if California regrets the efficiency of this project today, given the state’s rampant debt and insolvency. Next time, they may just add a few roadblocks and find a way to save money” on the deal.

    • James Lawther says:

      Thanks for the comment Mark, I suspect though that $5m is neither here or there compared to the issues California has


  2. Srila Ramanujam says:

    Hey all these seems easily possible also because the people’s mindset begins with a huge ‘Yes’ mind……but in most developing countries stifled by political influence on red tapism, we may most often need to ship out people with ‘NO’ minds to get the project rolling let alone within 15 minutes, even if under 15 days time!!

    • James Lawther says:

      Hi Srila, I totally agree, it is all to do with mindset, though I don’t think it is just developing countries. (Though the roadworks were round Luton, so you might be right)

      Thanks for your comment


  3. Hello James
    Another great post, I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. And I got present to that which I was not present: the importance of “administrative/managerial” innovation/creativity in generating the kind of effective behaviour you have so elegantly shared.

    Just today a friend with a middle management role shared how he has to get approval for all travel including flights. By the time approval is granted the cost of flights has tripled. If he was given a travel budget and allowed to manage that he is confident that everybody would win. Yet that is a managerial innovation that is a step too far for his particular employer.

    All the best

  4. Hi James,
    Great story and you make a great point in your comment to Maz that trust and innovation seem to go hand in hand. I would add another dimension onto that and that would be perceived need and urgency.

    In California the whole system had collapsed and so it created a crisis that needed to be solved. It’s a bit like in medicine….furry arteries still work but blocked ones don’t. Blocked ones cause heart attacks and other problems which are life threatening. Life threatening cases get seen to lickety-schplit!

    California had a road heart attack hence the response. Maybe, the M1 needs the same?


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