Jefferson and Lincoln
….and midges, spiders, and pigeons
Most every American is familiar with the Jefferson and Lincoln Memorials in Washington, DC. They are powerful and majestic reminders of our heritage; they pay homage to two men who each had a profound impact on our country. These memorials are important tourist attractions, and they serve as wonderful history lessons for schools and travelling families. And now, due to something that occurred back in the 1990s, they serve as lessons in business school classes across the country. Here’s the story.
In the late 1980s, the stonework of our beloved Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials started deteriorating at an unprecedented rate. Puzzled by this, the National Park Service commissioned a $2 million study by a group of private consultants to learn why. In April of 1990, the consultants published a report in which they said that “the increasingly toxic effects of nature” were accelerating the erosion of the monuments (Acid Rain was the hot environmental topic of the time), and a recommendation was made to very quickly remedy the “very serious structural problems.” The Park Service promptly responded that “both memorials are in excellent shape overall” and further stated there was “absolutely no danger to the public.” Approximately one month later, a 50 pound block of marble fell from the top of a column in the Jefferson memorial. Fortunately, there were no injuries.
This got things going, and as the experts explored how to counter the “increasingly toxic effects of nature” they suspected that there must be another contributing factor. They learned from the park’s maintenance staff that the staff was using a powerful cleaning agent every other week to clean the monuments. Cleaning agents can be corrosive, and the experts had a hunch that the cleaning agent was eating away at the marble. Upon further examination, it was revealed that cleaning agent was being applied with a high-pressure power washer. Was the soap the culprit, or the power washer, or both? The experts felt that the power washer was doing most of the damage, and they asked the cleaning crew to cease using it. The cleaning crew objected. They explained that the statues quickly started to accumulate bird dropping and discoloration, as opposed to their normal majestic white, and the staff was receiving numerous complaints. This led to the question of why the intensive cleaning was needed every two weeks on these monuments. After all, Mr. Washington appeared unsoiled with much fewer cleanings.
A plan was made to deter the birds with nets and plastic barriers. Unfortunately for the statues and tourists, this had only modest success: birds were still getting in, and the nets and plastic were unsightly.
A different remedy was needed, and the question was asked as to why birds liked to poop on Mr. Jefferson’s and Mr. Lincoln’s statues, and not on Mr. Washington’s and others. They learned that the birds were there to feed on an inordinate number of spiders that were on the Jefferson and Lincoln Memorials. Aha, problem solved! They could spray the structures with poison.
The poison option was quickly ruled out due to toxicity, and the experts were forced to delve into why Mr. Jefferson and Mr. Lincoln were overrun with spiders. After investigating this phenomenon, it was determined that there were droves of midges on both of the memorials. So, the birds were there to feed on the spiders, which were there to feed on the midges. But, why were all these midges there?
Mating! But why were these shameless midges mating on Mssrs. Jefferson and Lincoln? As it turns out, they were attracted to the lights that illuminated the statues at night. But again, what was different about these two statues? Both are located close to the Potomac River, and midges are larval in their aquatic state. When the lights were turned on at sunset, these two memorials were like enormous, brilliant midge discos (perfect for attracting amorous midges).
A local professor of Entomology, Dr. Don Messersmith, and his class were brought in to do a study. They found that if the lights were turned on one hour after sunset, there was an 85% decrease in midge “activity” on the statues. Finally, after all these twists and turns, a simple solution was arrived at: just turn the lights on an hour later.
So, the memorials were eroding at an accelerated rate because they were being cleaned too frequently due to bird droppings deposited there when birds came to feed on spiders, which were there to feed on midges, which were there to mate because the lights came on during the midge “happy hour.” A lot of “why” questions were asked to get to the bottom of this.
This story has become a case-study in business classes all over the country. The lesson is to keep asking “why” until you get to the root cause of something. Taking action prematurely will not solve the problem and might cause harm. Children serve as a model to emulate. Whose patience hasn’t been tested by being constantly asked “why” by an inquisitive child? Children are naturally inquisitive and oftentimes they take less in this world for granted than adults do. So the next time a grandchild asks you “why, why, why” about something, tell them they should go work for the National Park Service. Never mind — they’ll just want to know why.