Project Talk with Sven Swenson

By Sven Swenson | April 21, 2022

In the last edition of Project Talk, I spoke with veteran biomass executive Ken Ciarletta about the importance of recognizing gaps in collective project knowledge in order to fill them with qualified people who can keep projects out of trouble. Knowledge is power.

Along those lines but on a slightly different tack is the need for timely and accurate information as the project progresses—i.e., where are you really with regard to finishing the project in the magical land of “on time and under budget?”

To explore this question, I turned to a veteran of project management and project controls, Ugo Santone. Santone is the partner overseeing professional services and talent at PTAG, a global project and construction management services company headquartered in Toronto, Ontario. PTAG is primarily engaged in supporting the owner in execution of large-scale capital projects.

Among other things, Santone is working with a local Canadian technical university to introduce the basics of project management by developing a project management micro-credential course. Regardless of their ultimate profession, understanding the basics of project management, the interfaces and what each supporting group is responsible for can provide burgeoning professionals with insights into the grand scheme of things that will aid them for the rest of their careers.

When I asked Santone about first steps that he would take when starting a new project, he said, “First, find a really good project manager.” (No surprise there—we’ve heard that one before.) Getting the right people onboard early is key, no matter how many times you say it. Along those lines, a good project team feeds off itself, and allowing the project manager (PM) to have an early hand in selecting the team is a good move. Santone offered that project management is a lot like coaching, and pointed to famed basketball coach Phil Jackson, who was known to believe that coaching is about managing personalities. If you allow the PM to form their team, they are consciously and unconsciously thinking about future team interactions. The PM will select those who will work well together, or understand if there are relationships that will need to be watched closely with potential interventions necessary.

There are several people and multiple organizations who need to be on that team, from an owner’s perspective, including project controls, engineering, construction management, contracts and procurement. Regardless of the bells and whistles brought by your EPC firm, the owner needs a strong project management team, and some degree of project controls to ensure success. Business legend Louis V. Gerstner Jr. once said, “People don’t do what you expect, but what you inspect.” I live by a similar mantra in the project world.

INspect what you EXpect
The PM should always be considering the expectations of the project, and from the outset be thinking about the types of project controls and feedback that they and the rest of the team will need to ensure these expectations are fully realized. These controls can vary drastically dependent upon project size and scope, and while picking the right controls is beneficial, overutilizing project controls can be cumbersome, expensive and not always timely. Even with smaller projects, project controls can be time-consuming and rearward looking, allowing you to react to the data, but often too late to prevent issues: “Hey, I regret to report that the horses have all escaped, but the barn was on fire, so that’s a good thing.”

What you would rather hear as an owner—the aforementioned statement, or: “Jethro noted the barn door latch was broken, so we fixed it, and Elroy saw a lit lantern sitting on a hay bale, so we moved it.”
Relatively minor physical issues can derail a project in design and construction unless you are constantly inspecting what you expect, and it’s no different with financial and schedule issues.

Fortunately, there is a lot of information available to help, and you don’t have to be a certified project management professional to use it (although it certainly helps). There are many resources for project management, project controls and construction management, such as the Project Management Institute and Construction Industry Institute. I encourage all professionals in the industry to join and participate in these organizations.

There are also companies that actively participate in these industry organizations and educate the world with effective project management practices and tools. Some of these companies, like PTAG, have proprietary software based upon these tried-and-true project management guidelines that not only save time with regard to data crunching and outputs, but provide assurance that the best tools for the job at hand are being used. This is critical, as projects come in all shapes and sizes, and the controls and reporting must be adaptable. As such, a crucial part of initially setting up a project is selecting the project controls platform and the metrics that will be used for feedback. This should be done as early in the project as practicable, and take into consideration the size, duration, complexity and other aspects of the project to provide the most bang per buck.

For medium to large capital projects, investing in comprehensive project management tools will provide insights that can be used to help make the project a success and save money. Note that I did not say project management tools will save you money and make the project a success—the project team must use the insights provided by the tools to take timely action and reassess for the proper outcome.

PTAG has a fully integrated project management integration system (PMIS) that follows industry best practices and ties everything in from a knowledge and reporting perspective. The software is fully customizable, and the platform is modified by a team of advisors to meet the customer’s requirements. Categories include schedule formation, schedule progressing, cost, risk, quality inspections, testing, document controls, health and safety, etc. The information is consolidated and provided on a real-time basis to the PM and other appropriate team members via a dashboard, which significantly supports and enhances team communication, and allows the team to react and mitigate identified issues.

For large capital projects, Santone believes that integrated project controls following industry best practices are a must—and I agree. Even for smaller projects, the principles touted by PMI and CII should be applied. I encourage owners and managers to engage in a little project talk with their PMs and ensure they are familiar with and using these important principles.

The above just scratches the surface of project controls, so don’t be afraid to reach out to a company like PTAG and discuss options with a company that lives and breathes these principles.

Author: Sven Swenson
Senior Vice President of Technical Services Delta Energy Services LLC
[email protected]