I graduated from University in Dublin in 1988; the year work began on the Channel Tunnel. Since then I have spent the last 26 years project managing the design, construction, setting to work and operation of all kinds of buildings and infrastructure. I’ve built everything from power and sewage plants to airports, schools and high tech facilities for FI and the semiconductor industry, and in this time I’ve learnt a number of generic project management lessons.
I’ve always learnt the most when I had to project manage something unfamiliar, put something right or solve a major problem that was threating the success of my projects and our backs were against the wall. Under these circumstances my team and I looked at issues in a completely fresh way, mainly because we had no previous terms of reference. This meant that these situations tended to produce our most productive and creative insights and solutions.
For example in the late 1990’s when I was a Director of ABB Building Systems my team and I secured the design, construction and operation contract for a major district hospital worth tens of millions of pounds, under the first wave of the UK’s Private Finance Initiative (PFI). The key challenge with this project was that we had to build the hospital in 1/3rd less time than the previous best performance delivered by the public sector. This meant the hospital had to be built in 2 years rather than 3.
Our approach was to look to the manufacturing sector and examine how they improved their cost and time performance in factories. We then applied this thinking to the hospital construction site and asked ourselves how we could ensure that the workforce who had to build the hospital could stay at the workface and be at their most productive for their full working day. Asking this simple question meant we were able to a) identify what needed to be done to ensure the design information was always available when required, b) the logistics of servicing the workforce with materials, tools breakfast, lunch and comfort breaks were in place and properly optimised, c) the team were motivated, engaged and took pride in the purpose for building the hospital and d) there was a lesson learnt and briefing process in place for teams that meant mistakes and their rectification by one team could be shared with another to build quality and continuous improvement into the construction process. This approach resulted in the successful delivery of the project on time, to quality and within the cost constraints.
What this project and many others over the years have thought me is that leadership, clarity of purpose, workforce engagement, attention to detail, the use of appropriate and fit for purpose processes, and a strive for excellence are as important in delivering world class projects as they are in growing world class businesses.
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