The chief architect for a large federal project determined that 15,000 new doors would be required, and of course also 15,000 pairs of hinges. For once, the shipment was expedited. However, someone in Washington, desirous of avoiding waste, reduced the door order to 12,000. Someone else, somehow concluding more hinges would be needed, increased that part of the order. Then—somehow—the hinge order was multiplied.
The contractor received 12,000 doors and 240,000 pairs of hinges!
That tale comes from a dependable source, David McCullough, The Path Between the Seas. The construction project was the Panama Canal, the year 1904.
The Isthmian Canal Commission, as it was first set up, was composed of seven distinguished military, engineering, and business men, none of whom had experience directing large construction projects. They worked from the States, 2000 miles from Panama. Communication had to be via mail sent on a ship, or telegraph. The commissioners had trouble agreeing with each other, but on one matter there was consensus—waste and fraud prevention. They wanted no repeat, or hint, of the French canal failure with its revelations of mismanagement and fraud and they wanted to be sure the taxpayer’s money was not wasted, hence the directive that orders should be mailed, not telegraphed!
David McCullough writes in The Path Between the Seas:
Each member of the seven-headed Isthmian Canal Commission considered himself personally responsible for every step taken, every dollar expended. An elaborate, insanely deliberate system of forms and regulations was handed down…with the inevitable result that delivery of equipment…took months instead of weeks to reach Colon. One shipment of urgently needed water pipe ordered in August would not arrive until January, and then by sailing schooner…
On the isthmus, to hire a single handcart for an hour required six separate vouchers. Carpenters were forbidden to saw boards over ten feet long without a signed permit…