nor more doubtful of success nor more dangerous to handle than to initiate a new order of things.” - Machiavelli
It’s one thing to sit in a comfortable, air conditioned office planning and controlling a project. It is quite another challenge to manage the heavy equipment necessary to move tons of raw materials to reshape Mother Nature. Or is it? Perhaps in both situations, the essential role is to just duck, bob and weave.
In this post, we’ll look at the path one project manager followed to restore a vital road in a northern community in the onslaught of winter. Are there different approaches construction projects use that business and technology projects could benefit from? Read on and find out.
The main road through this small community had been compromised by the combined impact of high waves from the adjacent lake and cumulative storm events. The townspeople depended on the road and its loss was a major inconvenience. The road had been raised and rebuilt a number of years prior but floodwaters continued to rise.
The provincial government awarded the contract for the work to G. Ungar Construction after a competitive bid process. The company appointed Cindy Friesen to manage the project. The Department of Highways, Water Security Agency and the Village appointed several professional engineers and technologists to oversee the project and look after the town’s interests.
Raise the road a meter to a meter and a half which will double as a dike along the 2 kilometer border with the lake using earthen materials and mechanically stabilized earthen walls (MSE) to prevent future flooding. Face the entire length of the lake exposure with riprap, underlain by non-woven geotextile to prevent erosion. Complete the work by mid-January.
Cindy took on the project in early October. She was an experienced project manager and in the past had taken on a variety of roles in a professional civil and environmental engineering setting. She identified the following challenges in her initial review of the mandate:
- The work would take place in late fall and early winter in northern climes. The weather would be a factor.
- The amount of fill that would have to be contracted for, hauled, dumped and placed would be significant – 2 kilometers long by 1 to 2 meters high by over 7 meters wide.
- The use of MSE, essentially sandbags, was very labour-intensive, time-consuming and costly.
- The low hanging power lines posed a danger to the heavy equipment operators and would need to be moved.
- The construction site was in the heart of the community. All workers would have to be mindful of the local population as they went about their daily business or stopped by to view progress.
Cindy’s team proceeded to develop a plan that would get the work completed by the mid-January target. Included in the initial tasks was a request to the local electrical utility to move the hydro poles. She then contacted local aggregate suppliers to contract for the granular and riprap that would be required and booked her firm’s heavy equipment and operators to carry out the build.
In the early stages, with flags and signs to caution operators about the low-hanging hydro lines, and cooperative weather, work progressed quickly. Cindy maintained regular contact with the engineers to make sure they were on side with the plan and the work being done. She’d also chat with the locals who were watching the work or passing by, commiserating with them about the inconvenience they had to endure and reminding them to be cautious around the heavy equipment and piles of material.
Early on in the project, Cindy and her team identified an opportunity to accelerate the work and reduce costs. The sandbags for the MSE wall were required to provide a stable 1:1 slope on the embankment. That’s one foot in for every foot up, a pretty steep 45 degree slope. Except, they noticed that most of the dike was in an area that would allow a more gradual 3:1 slope from the lake. That would allow the use of clay fill, a big time and cost saver. Cindy reviewed the proposal with the engineers. In the end, they agreed to use MSE for about 200 meters of the 2 Kilometer length, a huge savings. Cindy revised the plan, notified her team and the work continued on the revised basis.
At its peak, Cindy’s team included 20 core staff and 10 locals including labourers, operators, and servicemen. In addition, two of the rock truck drivers and one labourer were women, so the ladies constituted approximately 10% of the work force, Cindy included.
The contract with the province specified a specific level of granularity for the fill being used in the project. Cindy provided that specification to the aggregate suppliers who were responsible for ensuring their compliance. The engineer also tested the levels periodically. Unfortunately, about a third of the way through the project, the engineer’s test results revealed a deviation from the specification and he ordered the offending fill to be removed and replaced with new compliant fill.
Cindy reviewed his findings and saw a way around the costly rework. The granularity specification was intended to insure the stability of the dike while providing adequate drainage. She realized that the discovered variance was minor, didn’t jeopardize the dike’s stability and in fact improved drainage, a plus. Again, she reviewed her findings with the engineers. They agreed with her findings. However, to be conservative, a portion of the base course was removed and replaced. Cindy updated the suppliers to be more vigilant on material granularity going forward and the work progressed.
In early December, with the finish date in sight, Cindy and her team suggested a solution to the pending problem of water accumulating inside the road/dyke. The site had experienced periods of heavy rainfall with more to come, and combined with the ground frozen solid and the anticipated spring runoff, the water had nowhere else to go. The engineers proposed using surface pumps within sumps to direct the water over the dike and into the lake. Cindy and her team considered the options and suggested an alternative – directional drilling HDPE pipe from the sumps under the dike. There would be some added cost but it would provide a permanent solution for directing ground water under the road and into the lake. The engineers agreed to the expanded scope and the work was completed expeditiously.
And so the project continued to its successful conclusion. Cindy and her team worked 12 hour days with minimal time off and slugged through it in time for Christmas. I’m told they all felt pretty good about their achievement. Justifiably so.
The project was completed and signed off by the engineer on December 15, a month earlier than planned and considerably under budget. The engineers were pleased with the results and the conduct of the project. The townspeople were thrilled to have their main road back in service before the worst of the winter weather hit them.
The construction company and Cindy could chalk up another successful, referenceable project. Unfortunately, the hydro lines weren’t raised until months after the project was completed. Fortunately, no one was injured because of the delay. By the way, the photo at the top of this post is of the completed project. Quite beautiful isn’t it.
How Great Leaders Succeeded
I have a friend who was involved with delivering health care services to people in their homes, including many elderly. Her favorite saying was “just duck, bob and weave”! It aptly described her working world. While there were standard processes and practices in place for almost everything she did, invariably she also needed to “just duck, bob and weave” to get the job done right.
That phrase also describes how Cindy approached and conducted this project. While there is no doubt a standard approach for building a dike like this project called for, the circumstances called for continuous awareness, negotiation, adaptation and innovation to achieve the desired results. Just duck, bob and weave indeed!
Here are some of the other approaches Cindy and her colleagues used to deliver successfully:
Enlighted planning – The original plan was developed to achieve the original goals. Cindy used that plan as a communication framework for getting the work underway and for assessing the impact of alternative courses of action. As new opportunities were identified, the plan was reviewed and revised as needed to accommodate new priorities and directions. It was enlightened planning.
Risk management – The plan was informed by a comprehensive risk assessment and incorporated the necessary mitigation plans to deliver an appropriate solution on time and budget. Tellingly, there were no unanticipated surprises that negatively affected the outcome.
Issue management – As issues arose, including the groundwater challenge and the granularity issue, the senior managers and team members took stock, assessed options, discussed the alternatives openly and made collective and collaborative decisions to keep the project on track.
Stakeholder relations – Cindy worked hard establishing and maintaining a trust relationship with her team members, with the engineers, with the granular haulers and with the townspeople. That effort helped avoid conflict, facilitated mutual trust and commitment and expedited decision making to reach the end goal.
Continuous collaboration – This project involved, in fact depended upon ongoing, multiway communications. It was that core value that enabled this team to deliver a massive infrastructure repair in less than three months. Even the president of Cindy’s company was engaged. It was his idea about the directional drilling under the dikes to drain the roadway.
Jon R. Katzenbach and Douglas K. Smith captured the spirit of Cindy’s team in their collection High-Performance Teams, where they state “What sets apart high-performance teams, however, is the degrees of commitment, particularly how deeply committed the members are to one another.”
Creative solutioning – Our understanding of a project’s many dimensions at initiation is an empty shell. The details take shape only as a project progresses. It is vital that the project’s stakeholders stay open to opportunities to enhance the value delivered as knowledge and awareness increases. Creative solutioning was a hallmark of this engagement.
Most of the cases I’ve dealt with in this blog are about managing information in a business or technology setting. And most of the successful ones incorporated most if not all of the best practices Cindy and her team applied on their project. It seems the path to a successful project, whether it’s capturing and manipulating bits in an office setting or carting and shaping tons of soil and rock in the wilderness, is the same – good people, good project management, good change management and essential domain knowledge.
So do yourself and your colleagues a favour. Put these points on your to-do list for your current and future projects. And also remember; use Project Pre-Check’s three building blocks covering the key stakeholder group, the decision management process and the Decision Framework right up front so you don’t overlook these key success factors.
Finally, thanks to everyone who has willingly shared their experiences for presentation on this blog. Everyone benefits. First-time contributors get a copy of one of my books. Readers get insights they can apply to their own unique circumstances. So, if you have a project experience, good, bad and everything in between, send me the details and we’ll chat. I’ll write it up and, when you’re happy with the results, Project Times will post it so others can learn from your experiences.