Managers Innovate to Keep Large Projects on Time, Budget

Compressed Timelines Require Communication, Collaboration and Flexibility

By Aaron Hand

ABB A&PW 2012

When managing a large, complex project, it's all about the pre-planning. It's also all about managing the schedule. And it's about being flexible when your schedule gets derailed. And teamwork. And communication. OK, let's face it: To manage large, complex projects, you have to be ready for just about anything.

Two presenters Thursday morning at ABB Automation & Power World detailed their management experiences on projects that include some of the largest wind energy sites in the world, major solar installations and an ambitious new energy transmission line. The bottom line in most cases is to expect the unexpected and be prepared for anything and everything.

Bob Venturin, senior project manager for the Renewable Energy Group at Mortenson Construction in Minneapolis, detailed the steps he must take to mitigate creeping costs. The project development phase, he noted, includes exhaustive preparations on the front end to mitigate costs in right of way (ROW), permits, engineering, procurement, environmental constraints and scheduling. Massive amounts of up-front details help prepare the teams for transportation difficulties, seasonal weather conditions, commodity fluctuations, unforeseen geotechnical issues, labor availability concerns, impacts on migratory birds and other wild animals, and much more.

San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E) faced considerable licensing and regulatory constraints to create the Sunrise Powerlink. A formidable project nearing completion, it's a 117-mile transmission line that SDG&E is building to carry 1000 MW of power from California's Imperial Valley to San Diego County. The environmental impact report (EIR) alone entailed some 11,000 pages, noted Patrick Lee, vice president of Sunrise Powerlink.

For his presentation, Lee focused on many of the time constraints and schedule setbacks he and his team have faced. The project has a completion date of June 2012—a date that has never changed despite delays in getting the approvals that had to come before construction could even begin. After getting the approvals from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), the project continued to wait for approval to come from the U.S. Forest Service (USFS), ultimately shortening the construction window from 24 months to 17 to 18 months, Lee said.

Lee also faced major logistics concerns when he learned that the 20% of the towers that would require aerial construction (with helicopters) turned into 55% of the towers overnight. It created several new demands not only in helicopter scheduling, but also in the weights the helicopters could handle as opposed to land-based cranes, and providing places for the helicopters to land.

While detailing their seemingly endless project constraints and requirements, both Venturin and Lee pointed to their reliance on project management software tools that help estimate costs, model logistics, detect and resolve conflicts, and more. Venturin mentioned in particular model-based estimating and model site logistics capabilities, and 4D scheduling through Primavera. "That's something new we're doing," Venturin said. "We can see things a lot easier that might be conflicts."

With the time constraints he's faced, Lee said that everything on the Sunrise project operates just-in-time. "Wherever we can work, we start working." He has relied heavily on software management tools that enable him to stay up-to-date on every aspect of the project, including Primavera software for contract management and McDonnell's OneTouchPM system to get multi-layered information about the route and other project efforts. Lee gets daily dashboards and reports that he can even push out to his iPad.

Lee and Venturin also noted how important it was to create a collaborative environment; to create project teams that really understand everything that must be done and communicate effectively. "It takes the collaborative effort of the whole team to meet a compressed schedule," Venturin said. Both men commented on the importance of accountability for the separate teams and managers.

Although changes in dates and other roadblocks could easily add cost to the process, Lee noted that there's a flipside to that as well. "Looking at all these roadblocks, for each category of cost, you can look at the risk or you can look at the opportunity in each area," he said. "There's always some opportunity that you can find—some expenses increase, and some expenses decrease."

Addressing a key discussion point from a session earlier in the week, Lee and Venturin talked about how they manage and motivate a four-generation workforce. "For us, we actually inserted a number of new engineers in the team," Lee said. "I don't want quality only; I want value." That included even bringing back retirees to train the younger engineers, who were rotated through different aspects of the project to help keep them motivated.

"We do a lot of cross-training," Venturin said, describing also how engineers would be cycled through activities on-site to keep them interested. Mortensen also brings retirees in as consultants in the office and out in the field. "We're trying to get more information out of the retirees," he added.

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