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Lessons learned on hot mix asphalt from Pearl Harbour

What a book about Pearl Harbour taught me about hot mix

June 12, 2020  By Ken Monlux

Photo: traveler1116/iStock / Getty Images Plus/Getty Images.

I was recently reading a book intitled “All the Gallant Men,” by Donald Stratton and Ken Gire. It’s a firsthand account of the sinking of the battleship Arizona at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. It’s a good book, if you have the chance, pick it up.

At this point, you may be wondering what the attack on Pearl Harbor has to do with production of hot mix asphalt. The bravery of the U.S. military, and the loss of life that day, has very little in common with what we do. However, towards the end of the book, the author talks about the nine major investigations carried out by the government to discover what went wrong, and how to avoid making the same mistakes in the future.

The U.S. government saw value in shining a light on all the mistakes made in the run-up to the attack. This type of investigation is not pretty. In most cases, it will cause all involved to be uncomfortable. However, without taking stock of a serious situation of this type, we cannot go forward.

This type of investigation is to provide lessons learned. It occurred to me, our industry can enhance its future management by performing a lessons learned inquiry after suffering a major breakdown, material failure, or a safety incident.


Most failures are very expensive and at times can be dangerous as well. What caused the problem. How can we correct our actions and processes to improve the operation going forward?

With this in mind, let’s look at a summary of four major areas of concern that were identified by the U.S. government that were crucial to allowing the United States Pacific Fleet to be destroyed. By taking each of the four areas and looking at them from the point of view of the hot mix industry, we will be better able to see the advantages of a lesson learned report exercise.

Lesson learned
First of all, what is a “lesson learned” report? A lesson learned report documents important events, and corrections in your operational failure to help guide others down the road. Such reports are designed to promote desirable outcomes in future business projects and avoid having the same mistakes repeated. Key to this type of report:

  • Honesty is the best policy – The most important quality of a lesson learned report is honesty. This isn’t the time to spin the facts to make yourself look good by papering over negatives and accentuating the positives.
  • Record essential information – I am a big believer in documentation. A professional lesson learned report must be supported by clear, correct and current records.
  • A complete picture – Lessons learned reports should include information on what worked, what didn’t work and what changes the manager would make in hindsight.
  • Summarize findings – A final step might be the crafting of an executive summary that briefly describes the most critical takeaways. This can be a paragraph or a page and should be enough for a busy executive manager to get a clear sense of what the rest of the report contains. In addition, a summary allows easy circulation to all plant managers in the system.

Four areas of inquiry
Here are the four areas of inquiry from the U.S. government’s Lesson Learned report on Pearl Harbor, as looked at from the point of view of the hot mix industry.

1. Lack of foresight
It is often said in the military, “We fight today’s wars with the last war’s technology and strategies.”

In my conversation with many plant managers, I have come across the same seven words. “We have always done it this way.”

In many cases, that is the correct answer. There is a reason we have always done it this way. But what if we could go and do it better? What is the harm in asking that question and looking into newer technology or equipment, a more efficient mix design or ways to improve morale with the crew? A good plant manager may not change every aspect all the time, but a good manager is forever looking for ways to improve. Take what you know and build on it. Not every idea is a winner, but you never know until you think it through. Don’t fall back on the crutch of a lazy manager and not evaluate something new.

2. Communicate poorly
Many mistakes can be boiled down to a failure to communicate. The majority of downtime, failed materials, and general poor performance is due to the lack of communication. The communication I speak of is the two-way communication all the way up and down the line. The inability for the regional manager to correctly articulate the needs and desires of the executive staff. The local plant manager unwilling to provide accurate assessments on the ground for fear of perceived personal failure. Communication requires confidence to speak the truth. It takes documentation of actions to support the issue at hand. But most of all, it takes trust to work together towards a common goal.

3. Overconfidence
The position of a plant manager is not an entry level position. Usually, a tenure of a manager is very long term. In this position, a manager may become overconfident due to the time on the job. When making major decisions, don’t always default to the first thing that comes to mind. If you have the time to consider other options, take it. Don’t rely on your confidence alone, think the issue through.

4. We’re not on alert
This one may seem strange in the context of plant operations. At first you may feel you are on alert, but what does that mean to you?

Be alert to every aspect of your local market. What is your competitor doing? Where are we in the economic cycle? How stable are your suppliers? Thinking about these things and being involved with your plant’s many variables will keep you on alert. Don’t deal in hearsay or gossip. Deal in facts.

Never let any failure at the plant or other poor decision go without review. Even the best decisions or outcome can be a source for lessons learned. In the rush to get back online, don’t forget to document the event. Once the dust has settled, and as soon as time allows, retrace the causes and the decisions made to correct the breakdown.

In the case of poor decisions made in the fog of failure, the need for a lessens learned report is of upmost importance. You may never have the same failure again. However, this documented report may serve other plant managers in the company.

Failure of any kind is costly. The emergency corrections, and other actions taken will be viewed upon by many within the company. Be sure you are ready to answer any and all follow-up questions honestly and with detail. Don’t allow hearsay to affect your reputation within the company.

A successful plant manager will learn from failure and teach others.

If you have any questions about a Lessens Learned report, or would like help in instituting a company program, please contact me at

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