2 minutes
Sue Ann Averitte
Brad Bell
Kevin McLaughlin

Vital to the nation’s economy for generations, the Ohio River has been the focus of epic feats of engineering and construction to ensure that this great waterway remains open for business.

The latest upgrades have been delivered ahead of time and below budget by using innovative ways of working explain Lean specialist Sue Ann Averitte, productivity manager Brad Bell and project director Kevin McLaughlin.


The village of Olmsted in southernmost Illinois is a modest kind of place. While it is home to only some 300 souls, it has secured a substantial entry in the history books.

Olmsted gives its name to the locks and dam which, thanks to a triumph of modern engineering and construction, have recently opened to replace the antiquated locks and dams 52 & 53 upstream of the project site.

The necessity for this recent work was without question. The dilapidated old structures caused a significant bottleneck to the nation’s shipping industry, resulting in countless hours of delays. About 6,500 vessels move 90 million tons (81.6 million metric tons) of cargo a year through this area, including vital supplies of limestone, coal, corn and soybeans for the domestic and export markets. The traffic makes this stretch of the lower Ohio River the busiest inland waterway in the United States.

The estimated US$3 billion program cost is considered one of the nation’s most expensive, making the project one of the largest civil works ever undertaken by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE). However, thanks to an innovative project approach and an efficient funding stream, the project advanced four years ahead of what was initially expected to be a 2022 completion. It also came in US$194 million under the 2012 cost estimate for the dam. The project is estimated to pay for itself within five years in terms of the economic benefits it delivers to the nation.


The opening chapter

Olmsted first achieved renown almost a century ago, two months before the Wall Street Crash. It was Tuesday, August 27, 1929 when President Herbert Hoover joined an illustrious party taking a cruise on the Ohio River. The occasion was to celebrate the opening of the Olmsted Dam and Lock 53, situated some 962 miles downstream from Pittsburgh. It marked the completion of the US$125 million improvement and canalization of the entire river. The president’s speech was prophetic, "While I am proud to be the president who witnesses the apparent completion of its improvement, I have the belief that some day new inventions and new pressures of population will require its further development."

Fast forward 89 years to 2018, and once again on a late-August day, a senior politician, this time Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, took to the podium at the Olmsted locks and dam. "We're celebrating that now, as then, we are a great nation that can undertake great works and write new chapters of our history together. Once fully operational, Olmsted will provide much-needed reliability and an average annual economic benefit of approximately US$640 million per year.” And he underlined the project’s importance, “It will be the lynchpin of our country's incredible inland waterways system.”

This latest event marked the completion of the new Olmsted locks and dam. It was a long journey, some 30 years in the making and requiring more than 45 million labor hours. This chapter began when Ronald Reagan was president and Senator McConnell was serving his first term in Congress, when the Olmsted renewal scheme was first authorized with the passage of the Water Resources Development Act of 1988, which allocated US$775 million for the project.

Latest scope and innovative build

To help make the river fit for the 21st century, the latest project was to replace the deteriorating locks and dams 52 and 53 from 1929 with two much larger 1,200-foot locks (approximately 366 meters) and a 2,500-foot (762m) gated dam across the river. Without the upgrade, the USACE estimated an annual loss of trade to be at least US$640 million.

The twin-lock chambers were completed using a traditional dry cofferdam approach, deploying a temporary wall to hold back the water. Following this, an AECOM-led joint venture constructed the dam for the USACE using an innovative ‘in-the-wet’ method to minimize impacts on the commercial towing industry and the environment.

This ‘in-the-wet’ approach involved creating massive precast concrete elements or shells — weighing up to 5,000 tons (4,500 tons metric) each, and measuring 100 feet wide by 100 feet long and 30 feet tall (approximately 30.5m by 30.5m, and 9.1m). The shells were transported on land to the river and placed on location using specialty equipment proposed by AECOM, including a Super Gantry Crane, a Hydraulic Skidway System, and a Catamaran Crane Barge. Once set on the prepared foundation in up to 40-feet deep (approximately 12.2m) moving river, tremie concrete was pumped into the annulus area under the precast shells to form a continuous bond between the pipe piles, rebar, and the surface shell.

The project encountered numerous challenges — from delays in receiving funding, rising material costs, changes to the design, and unpredictable river conditions. Work fell behind schedule and ran over the initial authorized cost of US$775 million approved by Congress.

It became clear midway through the project that action was required to bring the project back on track. USACE initiated preparation of a post-authorization change report (PACR) and AECOM proposed to implement a process improvement approach called Lean to execute the work.

Making Olmsted Dam a Lean project

Adapted from the car manufacturing industry, the Lean approach is rooted in a team-culture designed to optimize efficiency and eliminate waste.

Using this process at Olmsted in conjunction with USACE’s ability to provide an optimal funding stream resulted in achieving the dam’s operational milestone in 2018, four years ahead of schedule and approximately US$194 million under the 2012 PACR cost estimate for the dam. Illustrating the benefits of the Lean method, the average award fee score (1) for the fee periods after Lean was deployed increased by 8 percent.Award fee score — this is a method of calculating contractor payment. An award fee contract provides an additional profit fee amount that may be awarded, in whole or in part, based upon periodic evaluations of ongoing contractor performance

During the past couple of decades, the use of the Lean method has become far more popular in the construction industry due to its advantages; firms adopting the Lean method are seeing improvements in efficiency, which often results in delivering ahead of schedule and under budget.

At Olmsted Dam, the Lean approach was rolled out after training in 2011. The key to Lean’s success is in getting all team members involved with the project collaborating and contributing to planning and delivery, creating a roadmap to achieve the project’s operational goals of productivity, safety and quality. It is a cultural shift. Essentially, the people who do the work help plan the work and are therefore more committed to delivery. Improved sequencing and the early identification and resolution of potential problems are just two of the significant benefits.

The Lean program in five steps:

  1. Planning the plan: This first step addresses long-lead items, looking at the scope to determine which teams will be involved. Major milestones are set, master planning takes place and the project’s ‘promises’ are established.
  2. Aligning the whole: At this stage, members of the team understand each other’s scope and pacing, so that the project is as efficient as possible. Superintendents and engineers identify shared work areas and resources; hand-offs are planned; requirements are shared, so that all trades work in conditions suited to their tasks; and an overall phased schedule for the project is created.
  3. Phase planning: This step starts with creating a plan that outlines each particular task in clear and simple detail on one page. Drafted collaboratively by project managers, lead members of the crew, engineers, and safety and quality inspectors, this document addresses each aspect of the project. These aspects include the human resources and materials requirements for its successful completion, which is summarized in a comprehensive, yet easy-to-digest, document available as a reference guide for foremen and crew alike.
  4. Keeping on track: A weekly meeting with supervisors and engineers is used to create a visual 3-4 week plan containing major activities and upcoming milestones, along with a highly detailed schedule for the next week’s work. Importantly, the schedule for the coming week’s work includes daily activities plus measurable goals, and is developed collaboratively by the tradespeople involved. Each day, team leaders, supervisors and superintendents take turns describing ongoing and upcoming work in their areas of operation during their regular meetings. They coordinate material and equipment and synchronize their work with the other trades scheduled for the same area immediately before and after their own teams.
  5. Plan-do-check-act: This final component is a cycle of actions and reactions that occurs once a plan, project or task is underway and continues until it is completed according to plan. The team plans what needs to be done next, completes that action, checks that everything is as it should be, and acts if something is not done as planned. The plan-do-check-act sequence helps the team to maintain quality control of the project and facilitates the streamlining of processes as the team incorporates lessons learned into revised plans during the ‘act’ phase.
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