The Panama Canal: a construction project of epic proportions
The Panama Canal is one of the few construction projects in the world. Let us explore how it can inspire project managers!
Bilal Khan
27 June 2017

The Panama Canal was one of the largest construction projects in history, requiring engineering on an unprecedented scale and innovative solutions to seemingly insurmountable problems. The goal for building the Panama Canal was to create a direct shipping route from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean because previously ships from east coast circumnavigated all the way through South America to reach the west coast, which took a long time and was dangerous!

Did you know that it is one of the few construction projects in the world that despite facing many challenges it was completed in 1914, two years ahead of the 1916 target! So, let us explore how the construction of Panama Canal can inspire project managers!

There were two attempts to build the Panama Canal. The first attempt to build the canal was made by Ferdinand De Lesseps (a French diplomat and administrator who initiated and led the construction of the Suez Canal). After the huge success of the Suez Canal he set his eyes on building the Panama Canal. But this new construction project failed spectacularly for several reasons. The first error was the lack of planning and not listening to experts. For example, during the international congress, organized by Ferdinand De Lesseps in Pairs and attended by participants from all over the world, it was suggested by the engineers to build a “lock and dam” canal rather than a sea-level canal which would be infeasible. However, it was later decided to build a sea-level canal! This is a classic example of not heeding to expert advice and ensuring the failure of the project from the beginning during the planning stage.

There were many other challenges. The weather was hot, muggy and rainy. The soil was not stable and there were regular floods and earthquakes. Diseases such as Bubonic plague, Malaria, Pneumonia and Yellow Fever were prevalent. Hence the environmental and geological conditions were not the same while building the Suez Canal. There was no proper risk management to tackle the challenges. Also, Ferdinand De Lesseps’s team lacked proper planning, resources, trained employees adapted to this context.

After the financial and technical success of the Suez Canal whose construction many thought was impossible, there might have been some over-confidence while building the Panama Canal! In the end Ferdinand De Lesseps and his team abandoned the project. Remember: no two projects are the same! Every project is unique!

In the meantime, the United States also wanted a canal in central America for military reasons. The US wanted their navy ships to travel easily from the east to west coast. At the behest of President Theodore Roosevelt, it was decided to buy the existing dilapidated assets of the French endeavor and restart the construction project. So, a new project leader was recruited – John Findlay Wallace, formerly the general manager of the Illinois Central Railroad. Wallace did a lot of investigating and experimenting but he also faced another challenge. He could not accomplish much due to red-tape imposed by the 7-member commission in Washington. So, he was replaced by another project leader – John Stevens, an engineer who had experience building railroads. And in the meantime, the bureaucratic commission in Washington was dissolved by Roosevelt. Unlike Ferdinand De Lesseps and John Findlay Wallace, he was a technical person and was familiar with construction projects. He put a halt on the digging and focused more on planning, infrastructure and logistics. Thanks to his knowledge and experience he employed the use of railroads to move resources and remove the mud that was dug. Since the construction project necessitated the knowledge of hydraulics and building of large concrete walls, which was too complicated for John Stevens, and because of his dislike for humid climate he resigned.

In then End president Theodore Roosevelt appointed a new Chief Engineer and project leader George Goethals of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Under his tenure risks were identified and tackled head on. To tackle the prevalent diseases, he invested heavily in insect control and public health measures. He made sure that his work force was well fed, well housed and well equipped.  He also rewarded his employees and workers with medals. This boosted productivity and moral. He planned every phase of the project in detail and allocated resources accordingly. And finally, the first ship crossed the canal on august 15, 1914.

The Panama Canal construction project also illustrates the importance of hiring the right project manager for your projects.

The Panama Canal construction project significantly altered modern commerce, trade and travel. It reduced the transit time from the east coast to the west coast of America in half. No wonder that The American Society of Civil Engineers has called the Panama Canal one of the seven wonders of the modern world.