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Engineering the EPCOT Center Dream

Imagineer Art Frohwerk and Department 510

Anyone familiar with Imagineering knows that the term stems from Imagination and engineering. It was formerly referred to as WED Enterprises for Walter Elias Disney, a term that came about because Walt financed the original operation largely out of his own pocket. The term Imagineering soon took hold and during the Eisner era it was changed to Walt Disney Imagineering.


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In many of us is a desire to be an Imagineer. We relish the idea of designing new attractions for Disney parks. There is a healthy dose of blogs devoted to armchair Imagineering. I myself am no stranger to this fantasy. I admire the works of John Hench, Marc Davis, Herb Ryman, and in more recent years individuals like Tony Baxter and Eric Jacobson.

Most of these individuals were artists and story men. They were the "imagination" side of the coin. We don't talk much about the engineering side of the Imagineering story because it simply doesn't seem as exciting.

There are hundreds of men and women who created the conditions that made the magic real and come alive. The story of one such leader—an engineering leader—is what I wanted to share with you in conjunction with Epcot's 25th anniversary.

Recently, work in the Seattle area has provided me an opportunity to become acquainted with Art Frohwerk, a former Imagineering leader. Art worked in the development center for Procter and Gamble out in Cincinnati; in this role he had a chance to travel around the world to see new technologies become a reality, and learned to apply them in new ways. He was also a young father, and with family out West, he and his wife started to look for an opportunity to head in that direction.

In the summer of 1980 The Los Angeles Times ran several little ads for WED Enterprises. They were looking for all sorts of people. No job was of particular interest to Art, but he decided to send a letter and resume to WED Enterprises, introducing himself as a project engineer. Two weeks later, he got a call from WED's human resources representative, Conrad Blankenzee (a wonderful and eccentric individual with an unusual accent): WED needed project engineers for some "big project."

Paying his way out to California, Art found his way to Flower Street and Grand Central in Glendale. There he was introduced to a concept called EPCOT Center that was destined to open in only two years. They needed good project engineers, they needed people who knew how to approach complex problems and how to manage others in doing so. He was introduced to various models, drawings, sketches, and gadgets. There was a lot of excitement in the air, but there was also a lot of chaos and frustration. In his own words, "There were plenty of amazing ideas and stories. It was a time of great change and enormous possibility. But it seemed to me as an engineer that the vision would become a reality was still foggy. I wasn't quite sure of how it was all going work, much less how it was all going to pull together in two years."

Fast forward a few months, and Art finds himself in the middle of the Universe of Energy project. While another engineer focused on the ride system itself, Art became the lead engineer for the remainder of the attraction. This included the ride control system, lighting, show control and animatronics, sound and acoustics—not to mention the infamous solar power panels on the roof. It was going to be one of the most complex new attractions ever created. Just those 80,000 sun panels, the wire-guiding technology for the theater-sized vehicles, and the giant synchronized turn tables were enough of a major undertaking, but additionally, there were myriads of other "little" technical details.

Several issues quickly emerged: first, there was no project schedule, and no one had laid out a plan for how to get from here to there. Art's first undertaking was to get some sense of a plan and schedule for pulling it all together before October 1st, 1982.

Second, while WED had accomplished some amazing things in the past, there was no real engineering or shared project discipline behind it. Everything was a "one-off" project in the garage; projects were often jury rigged. The consoles and control systems used to run Pirates of the Caribbean in Disneyland were completely rearranged for the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World. There was no systematic engineering; the parts for one ride were different from the parts needed for another even within the same "Land" of the park. The result was operational and maintenance chaos and a high risk of downtime. For the first time in WED history, the technologies of Epcot were all new.

On the Epcot project Art found the third challenge, no one had technical ownership/leadership connecting all the parts in each of the other attractions. There were people assigned to various disciplines such as ride systems or show control parts—but no one clearly owned the Land Pavilion, no one was riding helm as a project leader with Spaceship Earth! Art spoke to his department manager about getting some leads for each attraction and focusing on technology integration owners as the technology was being created.

Using his gift for project management, Art started to get these issues resolved and organized within two months. By networking, Art found resources in other divisions such as Planning and Finance, so that he could depend on their support to accomplish the project plan. By the time Epcot opened, Art was department manager and chief engineer of show ride engineering. Art not only had the management responsibility for the people, but the technological responsibility of orchestrating the science behind delivering the experience.

The biggest challenge of getting Epcot ready for opening day was not a technological problem, but a cultural one. The VP of Engineering, John Zovich, called this "the invisible stuff" or "the voodoo," and the engineering division of WED wouldn't get anywhere until the problem got sorted out. Art soon found out after arriving at WED that his division was the most misunderstood and hated group in the entire Walt Disney organization. At the heart of this was a unhealthy dose of finger pointing that was going on within the organization. The Creative group at WED would point at an engineer and complain that they hadn't listened to what was at the heart of the design or story, while the engineer would whine about the impracticality of the design—"I'm waiting on them for specs!" On the other end, the Purchasing department was begging to get orders for materials like circuit boards, which had a painfully long lead-time and were difficult to obtain. In exchange, Engineering was complaining about the fact that they hadn't gotten all the details yet.

Art knew that something needed to happen, and that it needed to begin with Engineering. He gathered the entire team together in two sessions to go over the new rules; rule number one was no more finger pointing. Art explained what that looked like and he emphasized that if he saw any finger pointing occurring that they would visit with him personally in his office. The second visit would include a set of empty cardboard boxes. The success of this project was too critical for this team to not get along with others.

Having drawn a line in the sand, Art then provided a carrot at the end of the stick. The carrot was that Engineering would pay its employees to have lunch on the Mouse with others. The stick was that those who went with them to lunch had to be "them"—their peers from other divisions within the company—storytellers, show designers, manufacturing, purchasing, planning, and so on.

Art set aside about $5,000 to make this happen, and initially it worked. People were turning receipts in for having lunch with others. After a month or two Art stopped getting expense reports; he wasn't sure what was happening—was he suddenly going to get hit up with a bunch of receipts? Finally he asked the leadership team why he wasn't seeing any more receipts. No one said anything at first. Finally one Imagineer, Linda, spoke up in the back, and said: "Art, we wouldn't charge the company to take our friends out to lunch."

Art succeeded in busting down the silos and in establishing working relationships throughout the organization. Some six months later, they were invited to a prestigious club high above Glendale. There, Ron Miller and other Disney executives celebrated the progress and turn-around that engineering had made, not only in organizing themselves for building EPCOT Center, but in their becoming better team players. Each received a shirt with a graphic that stated "I love 510" with Mickey peering over the top. The number 510 refers to the name of their department. It was a celebration that the department Walt Disney Productions hated to deal with the most, was now the department most loved by others. Department 510 had learned to collaborate, explain itself, and facilitate whatever it took to pull off the mission.

Soon after this Dept 510 had its own visioning session to reflect on what it had now started to accomplish. It became known from within, they: "Pick up where dreams left off."

All of us have opportunities to "pick up where dreams left off," but it requires effectively working with others around us. Here is a graphic I use to illustrate the importance of this:

In this diagram, we look at two key facets of one's work, their ability to attain results and their ability to relate effectively with others. Given these two spectrums we can divide this matrix into four quadrants. As we review each, think about someone you have had to associate with. Maybe it's someone you thought was very good or perhaps it's someone you thought was awful to work with. Also, consider your own strengths and weaknesses and where you fall on this grid.

Quadrant A: We hope none of us fall into this category. In this category, you not only fail to perform, but you are frustrating those around you as well. You are an island unto yourself. It is here where you should be most concerned with your future in any organization.

Quadrant B: In this quadrant your accomplishments with deadlines, budgets, and projects may be great, but you are burning bridges in your path as you make those accomplishments. Others may become frustrated with you, they resent the way they are treated. They feel like they have no voice in what is going on. They feel their own contribution is unacknowledged and as a result, they withdraw their own passion and interest.

Quadrant C: The reverse of this is also true. You can be a great team player. You can get along with others, you can be the life of the office. But in terms of getting work done, you fail to perform what is required of you. Goals end up being unaccomplished or they are completed by others. In reality, this is sometimes no more helpful than being in quadrant B.

Quadrant D: Those who successfully combine B and C arrive at that level of excellence which is Quadrant D. Why? Because they do the right things (producing results) the right way (by building relationships with people). Those individuals fall into the upper-right hand quadrant.

At the time Art was brought in, the team was probably functioning somewhere between quadrants A and B. Some were getting somewhere in the project, some were not, but all had frustrated those around them. And the result was a pattern of very dysfunctional relationships. This is not surprising in arenas where technical people are employed. We often hire for an individual's skill in a particular technical expertise, without much regard for how well they get along with others.

Art worked with his team to move them effectively into Quadrant D, where they were not only getting results, but doing it effectively with others.

So where are you? What do you need to do to move to Quadrant D? If you want to build the dream, you will need to work effectively with others. That's how EPCOT Center came to be so many years ago, people working together to build the dream.


The EPCOT Center team.

We salute the many men and women who made the EPCOT Center dream a reality. In our next article, we will fast forward to the week prior to EPCOT Center's grand opening. We will learn from Art what really happened as Spaceship Earth prepared for its inaugural run. Until then, make a little magic in your own business.




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(Send an email to Jeff Kober)

J. Jeff Kober, (@MousePlanetJeff) president of Performance Journeys and CEO of World Class Benchmarking, is also a thought leader on best-in-business practices at the Walt Disney Company. He brings those ideas to organizations via keynotes, seminars, and workshops to organizations around the world. He has authored "The Wonderful World of Customer Service at Disney" as well as a "Disney at Work" series of apps for the iPhone and iPod Touch, available via DisneyatWork.com. You can find out more about his newest book, "Lead With Your Customer: Transform Culture and Brand into World-Class Excellence" at LeadWithYourCustomer.com.