Contract Management, reliance on data, and near disaster on the M1

The traffic that afternoon on the M1, the UK’s second busiest motorway, was very heavy, but moving steadily. I was doing around 70 miles per hour, in the middle and fast lane by turn. A large contingent of heavy lorries and trucks occupied the slow lane, plus the odd Honda Civic driver.

As I accelerated to overtake, something didn’t feel quite right. The power wasn’t there. In fact, the engine just wasn’t responding at all. I managed to pull into the slow lane, between two trucks, and to my horror heard the engine splutter, then found the power go completely. Trying to keep calm,  I managed to turn on my indicator and glide gently onto the hard shoulder. I tried the ignition, but nothing. Completely dead.

The hard shoulder was very narrow at this point, with trucks tearing past no more than five or six feet from my vehicle.  And over the safety barrier, the land fell away down a very steep bank. Not the best place to be stuck. I also remembered that, very sadly, my cousin was killed a few years ago by a truck after his car broke down on the M1. So I gingerly headed a few paces down the bank, and phoned for the AA recovery services.

As I did, trying to make myself heard over the roaring traffic, something struck me. Just a few miles earlier, I had looked at my fuel gauge, which was at three quarters full, and thought “that’s funny, I’ve travelled 100 miles today and it hardly seems to have moved.”

Yes, dear reader, you have guessed. My fuel gauge was faulty (a jamming of the mechanical mechanism in the tank, it later turned out) and I had, very embarrassingly, not to say dangerously, run out of petrol in the fast lane of the M1. When I thought about it, I hadn’t filled up for some time, but I had assumed without really thinking about it deeply that perhaps my wife had done so, as we share car usage. And I felt very stupid, as this isn’t a car that has great fuel consumption – I certainly should have realised  sooner that something was wrong.

The AA was great. After about 20 minutes, the truck arrived, loaded my car up onto the back, and got me to the nearest services. I then had to wait for a different AA mechanic to do the diagnosis – an interesting division of labour, but one that makes sense when you think about it. Now I’m no car expert, but after a few minutes of him trying to work out what exactly might be wrong, I said to him “as we think it might be the petrol, why don’t we just put some in and see if it works?”

“Good idea” he said. Ah, the power of the Scientific Method! And two hours later I was safely in Leeds, where my favourite pub was closed just for that evening.  But at least the workshop I was running the next day went well.

So what’s the message from this, other than do make sure your AA membership is up to date (other recovery services are available), and that the idea of using the hard shoulder for all traffic during busy times scares me now? Incidentally, that is being implemented on certain Motorways in the UK now. Someone will get killed because of that, I’m sure, before too long.  If lorries had been running on the hard shoulder that afternoon, I think there is a non-trivial chance that person would have been me.

The key message to me is around measurement. When you write as much as I do about procurement and related matters, you start seeing everything as having some relevance to that topic. So as I sat in a Leeds Wetherspoons that night, with my pint and a plate of gammon and chips, listening to a conversation at the next table that could have been an Alan Bennett play, I thought about how much I’d relied on that fuel gauge. So in part 2 I’ll explain why that has some more general lessons for all of us.

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