Covid-19: An Engineer Takes Charge

Article By : Junko Yoshida

Meet Todd Semonite, Chief of Engineers of the United States Army. Knowing how to get things done is a prerequisite to doing it right.

In the throes of the Covid-19 pandemic, the need for nuts-and-bolts guys has intensified.

More specifically, this crisis requires people who know their stuff and understand their role — well-versed in social, mechanical and bureaucratic issues, with practical experience with the intricacies of operational systems. We need a man (or woman) with a plan who knows how to get things started and how they’re supposed to end, who can not only design a system but keep it simple and deliver it on time. Ideally, we need someone who, facing a seemingly unprecedented dilemma, can honestly say, “Been there, done that.”

Meet Gen. Todd Semonite, Chief of Engineers of the United States Army.

When I saw him speak on TV last week, I almost shouted at the screen: “An engineer at last. Thank God!”

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the name of Gen. Semonite, the commanding General of Army Corps of Engineers, sounds like an explosive. Bluntly and forcefully, during a press conference, he explained the goals, priorities and steps required of all stakeholders. He offered specifics about the designs the Army Corps of Engineers has drawn up to turn existing buildings — hotels, sports arenas, convention centers, college dormitories — into coronavirus hospitals.

Semonite’s refreshing directness provided a reminder that politics and politicians have very little real power to battle the pandemic, because they don’t know jack about the nuts and bolts.

Here’s a video posted by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers last week:

My impulse to single out Gen. Semonite sprang from several comments in this video that resonated deeply with me.

My reporting covers design and engineering. I’m familiar with a few basic rules that design engineers must apply in developing new technologies, so that those new inventions will have a chance, although not a guarantee, to succeed in the commercial market.

Here are the relevant high points from Gen. Semonite’s speech.

1. Complex Problems Need Simpler Solutions

As Semonite said, finding hospital beds for overflow of Covid-19 patients “is an unbelievably complicated problem, and there is no way we are able to do this with a complicated solution. So, we need something super simple.”

Rule #1 for every design engineer is to be on the lookout for Occam’s razor — the simple, elegant answer.

2. Reuse What You Have, Always Opt for a Standard Design

In an ideal world, the Army Corps of Engineers would do everything possible to build a fully equipped first-rate medical facility for the wounded on the battlefield.

But the goal at a time of crisis — whether in war or pandemic — isn’t about recreating the Mayo Clinic from scratch.

Semonite noted, “What we are going to do is we want to go into existing facilities primarily, places that are out there.”

In short, re-purpose the tools you’ve already got.

He added, “Our concept here is a standard design. This is the approved design that’s been through Health and Human Services (HHS), briefed to the members of the White House, and through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).”

Standard design, useful in different parts of the country, is a critical concept, given the need to expedite approvals from various agencies. One “OK” fits all.

3. Time to Market

Time is of the essence. No system designers can afford to miss the critical “time-to-market” window. The Army Corps of Engineers has even less time to dither.

The mission, as Semonite lays it out, is “to take the [existing] building over in an exceptionally short amount of days” so that they can “go in and turn this into an ICU-like facility.”

4. Articulate Steps to Get Everyone Aligned

Every product launch must be coordinated among all stakeholders. You can’t have miscommunication or message ambiguity within your organization. More important, you need to build consensus across the board to support your technology.

The path to consensus requires clarity on every step that need to be taken by everyone on your team and in the ecosystem.

Semonite listed, for example, four phases needed to fulfill the Corps of Engineers’ mission.

Number one, he said, “The state has to nominate the facilities in a prioritized order.”

“Number two is the Corps of Engineers has to come in and to be able to modify that facility… it goes back to being able to change the pressure in certain hotel rooms to be able to have a negative pressure in a hotel room.”

“Third… supplies.” Semonite said that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is working with the Dept. of Health and Human Services (HHS) to make sure that every single hotel room gets the same bill of materials.

“The fourth step is to be able to staff it,” said Semonite. “This has to be a state job, the state has to put the people in there, you’ve got to clean and train it. Just think, you’ve all been in hotels, think of the second floor of a standard hotel, the rooms would be like a hotel room and then we would build nurses stations in the halls. We would have all of the equipment, wireless going into the nurses station so you could monitor how it all is going to work.”

5. Make It Scalable

Every business seeks scalability. So does the Army Corps of Engineers. By keeping the design simple, the Corps’ goal is to just hand over the exact same design — right away — to any state that asks for help, not just in New York, the current Covid-19 epicenter, but everywhere in the United States.

Standard design is meant to accelerate the process. It produces little confusion, less handholding from the Army Corps of Engineers.

Citing the Army engineers who were assessing buildings and open spaces in New York last week, Semonite explained that their goal was “to be able to figure out what does right look like and then we give this design to a contractor…then the site adapts that design. If it’s a hotel with four floors, they change [the plan] a little bit. If it’s got central air, we also change it. But the bottom line is we’ve got to do something very very quick.”

6. Knowing What’s Good Enough

“Most of the governors are saying that their peak is somewhere around the middle of April… so this is not ‘take all the time in the world to do it’,” Semonite stressed.

“The most important things we have to do and have to be able to come up with is a good-enough solution.”

In the history of high-tech products, whether DRAM, PCs or mobile handsets, there always seems to be a nimble and pragmatic market segment looking for a good-enough tech solution.

Aspiring to the highest possible spec is admirable. But the quest for perfection too often ends with a product that’s dead on arrival, too late, too expensive and not really what the market was looking for.

There is no magic in what Semonite is saying. But hearing him lay out a sort of blueprint with every nut and bolt set in place, is immensely reassuring, especially after all the hesitancy, delay and bickering that has characterized this country’s “official” response to the pandemic. For the first time in weeks, I saw a glimmer of hope. With a guy like Semonite blasting through the red tape and blame-calling, we might be able to save some lives that will be otherwise lost.

Last Friday, the Hill reported that the Corps of Engineers is eyeing at least 114 facilities to potentially serve as hospitals to treat patients during the coronavirus pandemic.

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