Infrastructure projects pose unique challenges because of their inherent complexity; uncertainties related to geological, hydrological, and climate conditions; labor and other supply chain constraints; and a difficult regulatory environment. As a result, we have come to expect that infrastructure and civil engineering projects will be delivered late, out of scope, and over budget.
Many organizations attempt to solve this problem through the rigorous application of traditional project management practices. Unfortunately, this creates more complexity for project managers because these practices emphasize adherence to a pre-set fixed schedule that quickly becomes virtually unusable due to events on the ground.
Particularly in India, where both government and industry are eager to build new infrastructure to support the nation’s rapid economic growth, a new method is taking hold – synchronized project management – that focuses on eliminating organizational multitasking and keeping everyone working in sync to bring the project to completion. It is setting new performance standards across all types of projects, including large-scale civil engineering projects.
Where traditional project management fails
Coordinating projects with hundreds or thousands of interrelated activities while making adjustments for unexpected events places a lot of pressure on even the most talented and seasoned project teams. Although there have been significant advancements in scheduling and tracking since the development of Gantt charts, most projects do not meet targeted completion dates and budgets.
In fact, most project planning and tracking activities are viewed by many as administrative chores that do not help execution. Moreover, spending considerable time and resources in developing and completing a project plan serves to create a false sense of security. It’s inevitable that unforeseen events will derail schedules at some point and that tasks will take longer than expected. Additionally, it’s entirely possible that vendors will be late, requirements will change, and approvals will be held up.
Managers’ typical response is to abandon the original project plan and re-set the priorities for individual teams on a weekly or even daily basis. The project plan that took considerable time and resources to develop is essentially outdated. What’s worse, these new priorities are localized and out of sync with the priorities of other groups.
Once these events occur, project personnel start tasks but cannot finish them. Project teams don’t get the inputs they need from other departments in a timely manner and constantly are pressured to do "more urgent" tasks first. They stop their current tasks and start others, and a cycle of multitasking begins.
Synchronized project management
If detailed and sophisticated scheduling is not the answer, how can we stop multitasking and keep everyone in sync at all times? The answer lies in the following three rules that define synchronized project management:
Rule 1: Reduce the number of open projects or workstreams by 25 to 50 percent. Working on fewer projects or workstreams is counterintuitive, but it works. Fewer projects/workstreams mean fewer tasks, and therefore, less confusion about task-level priorities.
Rule 2: Establish a simple mechanism for task-level priorities. For simple projects, a mechanism based on "project priority equals task priority" is sufficient. For complex projects, a rule based on "relative criticality of the path" is needed. The key enablers here are giving up fixed schedules and software that automatically provides priorities across the organization.
Rule 3: Don’t start a project without adequate preparation. Well begun is half done. If teams have everything – good design specifications, clear goals and the necessary inputs, and work front availability – in place before starting a work stream or a phase, they encounter fewer questions and issues in execution.
Application of synchronized project management
In India, national and regional governments are putting an enormous amount of effort into building new infrastructure, which is necessary to sustain the country’s impressive rate of growth. In the state of Bihar, for example, which is India’s third most populous state, the state government formed Bihar Urban Infrastructure Development Corporation Limited (BUIDCo) in 2009 to accelerate urbanization through the construction of parks, sewage treatment plants, water utilities, and other public infrastructure. BUIDCo began execution on projects in 2011.
Historically, execution on public works projects in Bihar had not been encouraging. Out of 31 projects undertaken in the previous seven years, the typical delay had ranged from 10 to 45 months. To improve project performance, BUIDCo took several measures: establish win-win relationships with vendors and contractors, institute a zero tolerance policy for corruption, and adopt synchronized project management.
The results have been impressive. In April 2012, BUIDCo had cleared land on 22 projects and had gained approval on zero designs. Six months later, after having adopted synchronized project management, BUIDCo had cleared land on 68 projects and obtained approval on 33 designs.
The principals of synchronized project management, of course, can be applied to any project, anywhere. Better synchronization and less multitasking can easily speed project completion by 20 to 50 percent.
Prabhakar Venugopal is CEO of Realization, India, a subsidiary of Realization Technologies (www.realization.com) of San Jose, Calif., a Silicon Valley firm that has helped more than 250 companies reduce multitasking in engineering and projects and produce more than $3.5 billion in additional cash and profits by finishing projects 20 to 50 percent faster.