Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2010/11/26/pm_case_studies/

That wasn't so bad

Two projects that got it right

By Ken Young

Posted in Project Management, 26th November 2010 10:51 GMT

Project management The success of every project depends on identifying and managing risk factors. These two case studies illustrate how broad and specific risks can affect your project’s progress.

New year, new school at Culcheth

The project to rebuild Culcheth High School, near Warrington, took place between 2008 and 2010 under the Building Schools for the Future programme.

The requirement was to replace the existing building with a new school for over 1,300 pupils and staff at a cost of £28.5m, making it the largest building project ever undertaken by Warrington Borough Council.

The most obvious risks were not delivering on time and on budget. Less tangible was the risk of lack of focus through trying to meet the needs of so many stakeholders. This was mitigated by good communications and regular contact as well as a rigid process of change management.

Matthew Prendergast of Turner and Townsend Project Management was the project manager (PM) for the redevelopment. He says: “The role consisted of being the vital link between the school, the contractors and the council for all aspects of the development. We were lucky in that all the major players allocated key staff to the project.

“In addition to meetings we had social events to foster teamwork"

“The school seconded their business manager so that I had one point of contact at all times. A team approach was crucial to reducing risks, as were daily face-to-face meetings with contractors to ensure that I was aware of any problems as soon as they arose.”

The team developed a work breakdown structure from which the critical path and Gantt charts were derived using Microsoft Project.

“The Gantt chart was essential for the contractors while we used it more for monitoring the critical path. In terms of reporting tools we used Livelink to share project reports,” says Prendergast.

The most difficult aspect of the project was dealing with utilities and coordinating technology and multimedia installation with the construction. Prendergast says: “In hindsight it might have been preferable to choose a building contractor that incorporates ICT. That is more common now as many builders have alliances with ICT specialists. It makes the integration of ICT easier to coordinate. Having separate contractors increases the risk of missing deadlines.

“We learned that it is essential to take the design to an advanced phase in the planning and we saw the importance of having the same key staff on the project from beginning to end. We were perhaps lucky in that.

“We also had a very robust change control process. The standard joke was to say ‘you need a change control form’ for any activity, but people understood that changes must be approved and carefully considered. This reduced the risk of introducing changes that slow down or complicate a project.”

Good communication was also a key to success. “In addition to meetings we had social events to foster teamwork, which is essential on a project involving so many people,” says Prendergast.

After an 18 month building programme, Culcheth High School opened to pupils and the local community on target and on budget last July. Facilities include a dance studio, recording studio, and technology suites.

Prendergast sums up the process: "The key was that we had a client that bought into the process and we mitigated against risks small and large by dealing quickly with problems as they arose. My advice to anyone is, the more you do upfront in terms of planning and detailing the complexity of migration, the better."

The must-haves at Sellafield

It is not difficult to imagine the potential risks of a maintenance project at Sellafield, the nuclear processing and former electricity generating site.

Sellafield is operated by Sellafield Ltd, which recently completed a complex project to replace parts of two pipes that are integral to the process of turning nuclear waste (liquor) into glass. The liquor is merged with glass beads and melted, then cooled and placed into tiny welded containers for long-term storage.

A project had been started to replace parts of the piping that transports the glass but had run aground due to problems with the process. At that point Neil Crewdson, head of projects at High Level Waste Plants, took over.

"Worker safety became more of a problem than had been expected"

“I became aware that morale was low because the project team were being blamed for not delivering on an impossible timescale,” he says.

The biggest risk was that the work would continue to disrupt the plant’s core function of reprocessing nuclear waste. The project also risked breaching safety standards by exposing members of the team to excessive levels of radiation.

“I had to argue the case for a six-week delay and then for an increased budget of £3.4m. Both were approved and made all the difference. Now the project team had a timetable that was achievable, albeit with 24-hour working,” says Crewdson.

Crewdson also identified the “must-haves” and “nice-to-haves”. Ninety-five per cent of the latter were reassessed and shelved so the team could work only on what was essential.

The timescale slippage resulted in tension between the operating unit and the project team. Worker safety became more of a problem than had been expected. Radiation levels in the vicinity of the pipe were such that special shielding had to be constructed and the time engineers spent on the site had to be monitored to ensure they did not exceed yearly exposure allowances.

A decisive approach enabled Crewdson and his team to move from a “distress” rating to satisfactory completion. It is an example of how a project which seriously jeopardises the normal work of an organisation can be re-energised through effective risk management.

Footnote: Matthew Prendergast was awarded Project Manager of the Year 2010 at the Association for Project Management Conference in October. Neil Crewdson was awarded Young Project Manager of the year for his work at Sellafield. ®