Project Management in the EPC industry- A compilation of posts by Ashok Iyengar

Leadership-

A huge part of Project management is to be able to  corral the troops, being able to deal with personalities, understand and getting the best of your team members- You can throw in all the buzz words you want, you can make it all glam and snazzy but its really the people that matter!  And if you are able to exploit other resources towards this end, good on you.  Some of the best PM’s I have come across are not the ones that can text with two thumbs but ones that could use an abacus to deliver a project-On time!

People – There is a difference between Process and Tools; let’s not assume or create chaos by confusing the two . It’s akin to a fire. I want you to light me a fire. You rub two rocks or use a blue tooth lighter doesn’t matter. If it’s warm enough to cook my meal I am good. Such is Project Management- the intent is to make the project deliver on time by measuring and working the right metrics. If you choose to use a toaster to make it happen good luck to you, as long as those metrics provide a forward looking view and someone can provide the insights and analysis. Planning still happens between the ears!

 

The EPC industry-

The EPC industry must be one of the most under-rated ones and perhaps a tad unsexy when compared to the world of Finance, Fashion or Hospitality. A poor cousin to the Production industry, it still struggles to get things right , a possible effect of the low margin and high risks involved. Why do we keep throwing buzz words around to address basic issues of execution? I am still flabbergasted by the churn of technology and rocket scientists that claim a few button pushes will define success. Seriously? My eternal mantra almost turns into this rant of- Get the Basics right Focus on- 1- Understanding the As-sold deal. That is the baseline 2- Understand and know your risks- Not every one of these risks is going to be mitigated 3- Define the right KPI’s – Do not measure KPI’s that have no relevance to execution or because a software can spew out pretty charts 4- Measure, monitor and look ahead 5- Keep people Safe No guarantees, but your chances for an on-time delivery just increased ten-fold.

All whining aside , EPC industry may have arrived late but the advancements with digital integration, smart analytics and AI are proving to be truly amazing. A self confessed dinosaur I started to crawl but now firmly believe there is a clear space to optimize all that clouds, lakes and all those paradigm shifting attributes have to offer.

 

Project Management-

Isn’t Project Management about execution and delivery? You make it on time and earn a fair return. Planning/Scheduling and Cost are intrinsically linked and must act as one. Time drives cost for most part no matter how it is spun. When Plans are not met, it will arguably drive cost (Float loss = Cost increase) and discussions on Project execution must always involve both Schedule and cost. Not doing this breeds a kind of monochromatic skill-set that will end up in its own silo.

As much of a platitude this may seem to be- The importance of an Operating Rhythm during the execution phase of a project is only exceeded by its effectiveness. If a project has discipline with an objective program of monitoring, you can maximize the use of technology to make these truly working for you. Again, I am not saying this guarantees success, but gets you a step closer to an on-time/on-budget project delivery.

Obvious but somethings will remain true eternally- 1-Change is inevitable- Like Death, Taxes & i-phones 2- Happiness is positive cash flow 3- Plans change but planning is inevitable 4- The width of a Project Manager’s smile is directly proportional to the bottomline 5- If you have control of your quantities, you usually have control of your project. 6- Bad news still doesn’t get better with age 7- Lying on your resume will get you no-where

 

I ask for nothing more, I ask for nothing else and I make no bones about being accused of being a Plannosaurus- an almost extinct species of the family of dinosaurs. Not only that I firmly believe there no substitute for experience. If the technology that is so enthusiastically utilized for all matters can be utilized towards development and on-the-run change to Plans the Plannosaurus shall be eternally grateful on behalf of the industry. Think about this- If I fed a recipe of a plan for building a combined cycle power plant or a coal plant, will you be able to create a plan for me ? Will technology help in collaboration between my experience and machine intelligence? If I gave you the optimal performance and productivity criteria, will you utilize technology with a solution that enables addressing construction problems on the run?   If you can respond with a YES on either of the two, I will not only give up my technological apprehensions, I will create a conglomerate that fuses the Plannosaurus with machine and actually generate an unequivocal  YES! to – It will indeed help you deliver as-sold!

 

The metrics-

Free Float in a schedule is highly underated. If stakeholders agree to a schedule and stop using free float as an excuse to justify “slips”, your project is positioned well to deal with genuine slips in future. Free Float is there and its there for a reason to account for resource availability and uncertainties but it is not meant to be a reason to “put off” starting an activity. Remember putting off starting an activity will most likely mean you will not finish on time and will result in float erosion across the schedule. And if your milestones are tied to payments, loss of free float inevitably will mean lost revenue when the free float diminishes and turns critical.

Do not be fooled if you are doing well only on the Critical path; how you earn progress against the baseline plan is paramount. You may be maintaining the end date by tracking the critical path, however if you continue to gradually erode earnings and  keep deviating away from your baseline curve, chances are, you’re not going to make it. Any planner worth his/her salt can review the critical path. Earnings erosion is a slow, painful way to figure out that you have a problem. Therefore it is paramount to look at the below aspects of progress all the time- a- Critical path progress b- Overall progress based on earnings of manhours c- Progress on achievement of interim milestones Keeping an eye on the above three may not guarantee you success but you at least you are cognizant of where the project is and offers some kind of an early warning system so the project team has some reaction time to address issues.

Cost influence- It’s all about timing When the project is in its infancy there seems to be plenty of optimism around; there is time and the budget looks healthy. The team feels upbeat about progress and there is a general belief they will be able to meet deadlines and make a decent profit. If this sounds like a great position to be in, what makes it more promising is how much of an influence the team can have on project costs at this stage. What factors can the team influence- Ø Ability to optimize design to affect raw material – Early on, the design team has flexibility to evaluate several options on design and how design could specify low cost raw material by way of both labor and freight Ø Ability to optimize design for capital cost reduction- Design optimization plays a significant role with constructability options thereby leading to reduced labor cost. This becomes a key cost driver especially for projects in locations where labor costs form a high percentage of project costs Ø Ability to optimize the schedule by managing project float- The early part of the project is always the ideal phase at which time the execution team have the ability to look at options in terms of constructability, sequencing, heavy equipment usage, temporary facility sizing and staffing

If you as a Project Controls person can share the top five issues impacting project profitability to the Project Manager, it is worth more than any of the fancy graphics or scheduling tug-of-wars. A Project Manager needs you to deliver what’ll help in dealing with the future, anyone can take history and create a colorful report.

It is time people wake up to the fact that a good schedule in P6 does not guarantee project success. It is not rocket science . The ability to look at critical path and watching your float and communicating it is a better bet for success. Think of this, a good CPM network is like another weapon in a PM’s armory . You have the ammunition so you are prepared ; however the ability to win is governed by how well you hit your targets . Criticality , Float watch and adherence to your baseline are what you need to hit.

If Darth Vader is the Data monster, make sure you have a Luke Skywalker in your analyst who understands and can interpret the data!

As we progress during execution, the % of activities with Total Float less than 31 days continues to increase, when expressed as a % of to-go activities. Good scheduling practices suggest at the baselining phase, if this % is over 15%, the schedule is medium risk. If this % is over 35%, then the schedule is considered high risk. I am referring to the Project Master schedule.

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Cricket..You really don’t care? #Crotchgate

Its been called #Sandpapergate but I’d coin it #crotchgate. We all hear and get preached on “Walking the Talk”. For the limited few that are cricket aficionados you will appreciate of what I am implying here. Nonetheless, for those who have derived themselves the pleasures of the sport, cricket, I will deign to explain the role the 5.5 ounces of the red leather ball plays. Its delivered at over 90-100 mph from a distance of 22 yards at the batter. So the seam of the ball plays a huge role in how the ball will swing and the shine and roughness of the ball determines the swing and what the batter can expect. Except that no one and no one is allowed to alter the surface of the ball . So the Aussies, (I love the Aussies and have huge admiration for their way of living) were caught red handed on the cricket field in Capetown, South Africa trying to use sandpaper to rough up a side of the ball. The player in question was using sandpaper to rough up one side of the ball and then was caught surreptitiously trying to drop the “weapon” into his crotch. That is a blatant act of cheating, nothing less.

Walking the Talk comes into play because some of these Aussies have been acting high and mighty about upholding the spirit of the game and after having been caught with their pants down it begs the question..Why whine, why preach when you cannot walk it?

This is not too different for me when people cheat on their time cards, people trying to hide shady expenses; you’re bringing your own character into disrepute but then you represent someone and as it happens with #crotchgate, your country.

No condoning no justifications for cheating or stealing! Fight hard fight fair and then gloat!

PS- I feel sorry for my Aussie mates who I bet are gutted!

Disaster 10.0- The art of book writing- Do not read

Disclaimer- Every bit of this piece is intentional, well thought out and its from from the same publishing house that gave you “The Road East” . The author would like to apologize unreservedly if this piece causes you acid reflux, spasms, joint pains, migraine or eye twitching; these are only the side effects. Full reading will make you totally nauseous.

Think of all major disasters in your lifetime- Stop hard, think and think again. Then multiply that by 10 and what you get as a product is the result of my first book; Unmitigated disaster is a generous euphemism for it. So you read a few Grishams, a few Sheldons and you think its as easy as candy. And you thought you’d be gaping like an idiot at your name in the NY bestsellers’ list on a Times Square screen. Really!

A wise old man once told me – “Believe in yourself, you know son, you can write , you should write a book”. Well an old man, a wizard, a strange Miyagi like man I met on the beaten path? Not really. He is a figment of my silly imagination I just made up a few seconds ago to lend some gravitas to an otherwise pedestrian piece. So I am thinking. This is easy,  if Shobha De can write, if Jackie Collins can write (For those who haven’t heard about Jackie, her style is as classical as “Where’s Waldo?), then all those hundreds of writers who occupy the echelons of the local library, what’s the big deal.

WW

So on a quiet weekend, full of inspiration, dreamy eyes and grinning like a complete jackass, I am flying high ready to embark upon my first book. 80,000 words later a classic piece of trash is ready to be disposed, ready to be let loose on unsuspecting phantom readers. No research (who needs research? I know enough), no editing (Why flounder precious $$ on editing, I know my grammar and punctuations well, thank you!) and before you say pop, the book’s out. Well out because it is out not adorning the shelves of WH Smith or Barnes & Noble but out in the garbage pile. As an author I remember having received a few complimentary copies, so I decided I had to put them to good use and perhaps I ‘ll find some gullible souls. So I decided to use a few copies as props for my Ikea coffee table, I gave away a couple of copies to unsuspecting trick or treaters the rest I buried in the backyard, not mine but my neighbors’ ! You think I’d want that associated with me?

In case you want to to know more about that catastrophe, all you do is walk in a park where people walk their dogs. See that bag they’re carrying? Well….

Dare to venture, dare to dream and do it all that looks good, but here are some tips-

1- Do not believe in what your parents think of you. Yes, they exaggerate

2- You are not as talented you think you are. You are fairly ordinary

3- Just because you have a degree , do not assume you are smart. I know people who have no degrees way smarter than me and who’d run circles around me

4- The guy or the girl on screen makes it look easy. That’s it. Just because they can do it doesn’t mean you can too.

5- Ever tried sitting on the couch watching TV? I tried, its easy and that’s something you should be able to do it. (See, I am not always glass empty !)

A herd of trouble- Here come the tourists!

This is work of non-fiction. Resemblance to anyone living is intentional. No animals were harmed during the writing of this piece , they were all let loose.

A herd of wildebeest , a flock of sheep – And who do you reckon resemble these creatures representing the world’s most intelligent creature (kinda, sorta, rumored) homo sapiens?

Think Think..cannot be that hard and surely you may have been part of this motley group that mindlessly follows the other without any semblance of intelligence, expensive cameras slung around their necks, excitedly whispering in a language that is alien to all but themselves, eagerly pointing fingers to their offsprings, eyes wide open, mouths animated and limbs moving in a synchronous fashion. And let me provide some more hints! They do not pay much regard to their ambience, they do not worry too much about the weird things that hang in the air which others call traffic lights and the only only thing that may perhaps change is what they’d wear depending on the clime. TOURISTS! That’s right ..You finally get it..

And if you thought I was referring to a certain tribe in eastern Botswana or the central Amazon, I may have said like a quiz master-  “Not quite, close but I’ll give you the points”

They rush through things, they do what lesser humans can hardly dare achieve, run through Europe in just over a week, mock the seals in Monterrey, blow raspberries at the White rhino, pile on to Roman ruins taunting Nero and their ilk, moon the Statue of Liberty, finger on the pyramids of Giza and “holding” the Tower in Pisa. Oh yes, it is not an exaggeration but tell me if you haven’t seen this obnoxious behavior or even having been of this herd. It may be endearing sometimes but I am also told by certain medical experts that such sights may act as emetics (a substance that may cause involuntary retching), stampedes (a fairly common occurrence at the Niagara Falls, NY or the Taj Mahal, India or the Jungfrau, Switzerland.

 

Tourist

So kind folks, keep away when you spy these marauding creatures approaching you in peak summer and run as fast you can in the opposite direction. Woe betide anyone if you’d dare stand in their way  (seen the rampaging bulls in Pampalona?) and take your self to a happy place. There is nothing you can do, but stand back and admire their tenacity and perhaps secretly hoping you were born in their party of the world.

Said a leader of a tourist group (he wished to remain unanonymous)- Cameras, handycams, smart phones, selfies, selfie-sticks- We have it all. Bring it on Evil Knieval we dare you, we are unstoppable and we have basically taken over humanity and if its summer do not even attempt to get the term “challenge” in your thoughts!

Happy hunting all!

 

Tastes and sights- Washington DC

Disclaimer- Opinions expressed below are solely mine, none of the places are fictional and resemblance to anyone living or dead is purely intentional. For most part, no mammals were harmed but cannot claim the same for birds.

Its been a while since I actually sat down to pen down something meaningful. Having been overcome by distractions like travelogue-ing, Project management and self inflicted racism, I figured a wind swept Sunday morning in suburban Maryland was a decent indicator.

What and where all have I been out chasing international cuisines?

1- Asia Nine – This place at Crown, Gaithersburg, a real find. Excellent service, non-existent wait times with some superlative service. The Eggplant Gai Sub is worth dying for ! This is where I would go to to get a sumptuous Asian meal without the hassles of travel or commute

Sr Lucia Trip Apr 2012 002

2- Rasika, Penn Quarter- A fancy top of the line Indian. Pricy but unlike most neighborhood Indian curry houses, the selection is different, not too westernized and highly palatable. A place to take your out-of-country Indian friends and non Indian colleagues. A great dining experience by all standards.

3- &Pizza, Gaithersburg- A fad, not all that novel inspite of what they claim. And one thing you never want to do- Order online. They find ways to screw it your order and you end up with toppings you detest and not getting the toppings you were craving after a 5 miles run

4- Food carts, 13th & F, NW DC- Watch where you stop. Certainly not all of them are what they advertise. Especially the kabobs, shawarmas or Mediterranean , they can get as soggy as sponges left out in a drizzle. The Indonesian cart is something though  and it seems they actually make a good meal of it. And Gourmet is a term that may be used liberally so its more mediocre than deletable.

Must-do’s – Nasi Goreng, Indonesian, Philli cheese steaks, Asian veggie fried rice

Stay away from – Fried chickens, Masala foods, Shawarmas, kabobs

The good news is nothing will cost you more than $10 so if you hit the motherlode, you’re in for a treat

5- Sweetgreen- Anywhere in DC. Well I happen to be an old fashioned warm/hot food connoisseur. Cold foods just don’t cut  it for me, I don’t even consider a salad as lunch. God knows, I have tried several times but just cannot seem to say anything positive about this place. If you’re out meeting me for lunch, you can bet on me not taking you there! Perhaps I am just not “cool” enough for this place.

6- Choolah BBQ, Sterling, Northern VA- After being told it was the Indian Choptle, I did venture out and savored the offerings. Not disappointing, in fact it was rather refreshing for a change. Certainly not a place I’d frequent unless I had a craving for Sodium overload. Worth paying a visit but only if you’re in the neighborhood!

Now on to trails for a good evening’s run- For rookies like me!

1- A good 4 mile loop around Muddy Branch- Lake Winds Way onto Travilah is as good as it gets especially if you can make it before dark and get to take in the visual delights of the fall foliage

Great Falls

2- Seneca State Creek park- A hidden treasure and I only wish I had discovered it sooner. Rolling hills, tranquil ambience and a trail that makes you want more

PS- As I write I am clutching my left calf in pain since I underestimated the power of warm ups and cool downs.

D-I-Y- A four letter word

So what’s this DIY again? Seems as mythical to me as the Unicorn, Santa Claus or tax cuts. Did you grow up in India? Well, if you didn’t you probably have no clue what I am talking about do you?

I actually grew up in a quaint little town called Bhopal; Bhopal known world over for all the wrong reasons- The 1984 Union Carbide gas leak accident that left thousands dead. It used to be an erstwhile Kingdom and it was actually one of the most fun places to be in. I lived in a huge converted palace with god knows how many relatives. So big that it gave me plenty of secret alleys to hide in and it took me 6 months to realize who my brother was. That’s the thing about joint families, no one bothers and you basically get away with anything.

And then of course , being India, everything was done by someone else. D-I-Y? Well the only DIY we did was to pick up the phone ourselves and ask for someone to come over to fix a broken piece of furniture or wash the vehicles. And before anyone gets any ideas, we eventually moved out of that gigantic joint family and spent the rest of my formative years in a 200 sq feet tenement. So of course the only vehicles we saw were the ones driven by others and owned by the others. And how about laying floors, fixing a broken fence or assemble a bed? Now that is really pushing it because as simple as it sounds to you, its still rocket science to me. It just simply does not happen in India. We never got to do do anything ourselves. Someone else was always called upon!

So imagine the shock of it all when I started living in America. So the guy at IKEA hands me a compact box and says that’s my bed. If jumping out of one’s skin is possible, it actually happened to me then. So I am supposed to put this together? I am supposed to look at that sketch of that Apollo 13 and use the screws, nuts and bolts and assemble a bed? Sure enough being hard up for money, I attempted it. And of course after a sweaty, on-the-knees session on the bedroom floor, I thought it was mission accomplished. Then my eyes go and I see 21 screws quietly ensconced in a corner. May be the Swedes were generous and gave me that extra helping of screws? You can run your mind on what the bed looked like? Well it wasn’t exactly a square. If I call it pathetic it would be highly unfair since that is a superlative for the piece of wood that stood on three and half legs!Bad Assembly

And then there was this instance when I had to fix a couple of floor boards which of course involved some rather mule like adamant adhesive. After having smartly spread that adhesive on the floor board, somehow in a fit of extreme enthusiasm I ended up kneeling down promptly on the part where the adhesive was generously spread.So here I am in this position, stuck to the floor and by myself in my kitchen. I managed to slither and reach for my phone while still having my knees stuck to the floor. Voice recognition or Siri doesn’t recognize an Indian accent if you knew that. So 911 and here comes the guy a few minutes later and guess what he does? He laughs until he cries! He couldn’t stop and for him it was the most ludicrous thing he’s ever seen. And being at the receiving end, it was very unfunny to me. I am sure he must have thought- What’s Apu doing on the floor? Isn’t he supposed to be running the cash register at  7-11?

Since then I have vowed not to get too adventurous with DIY.  I will skip a meal a day, I will walk to work, I’ll try to live off one kidney so I can afford to pay those handymen that have absolutely no compunctions about charging me $50 for a 15 minutes check in. Of course if not for me, their families will die of starvation and I’d be accused of stealing those American jobs!

So much for D-I-Y! It is truly a four letter word!

A-Shock! 8.2…

A Shock!

That got your attention, right? That’s just one of the ways I’ve been called! My parents, from a modest middle class family did their due diligence and named me “Ashok”..An Indian name as common as say “John” or “Mohammad” or “Chang”! While they thought they had a special gifted child, I was one of 500 million, so as special as they get!

Things only get better from here..I show up at the engineering school and turns out we have an “Ashok” as the mess boy, an “Ashok” as the neighborhood cobbler and the janitor as “Ashok”. While I hold every trade in high esteem you’d have to in India in the late 70’s/mid 80’s in India to be able to appreciate what these mean. If you didn’t become an engineer or a Doctor, you were an abysmal failure, a loser who would struggle to meet ends meet (including aspiring gymnasts if you get my drift)

So here I am the “special” child getting out to making a career outside of India and then “Ashok” gets butchered, mutilated and any form of disembowelment possible. My parents in all their infinite wisdom thought “Ashok” was easily palatable but wait ! They named me during the times, when Russia used to be Soviet Union, we loved “Different Strokes”, Bjorn used to win Wimbledons and it was actually fashionable to be seen in Momma jeans! And then reality strikes- I get called in as many names possible!

 

EQ

“A-shock” like I am an after tremor, “A-shook” like I am the guy who shakes in the past with a double “O”, then perhaps the more innovative “A- shoock”. I mean I just cannot win!  I have to borrow Mr McEnroe to say – “You cannot be serious”!!

After all of 20 years in America, I wonder, why I never considered something more pronounceable to the Western tongue- Ash, Ashk or may be a just a KO. Then I see my fellow “brownies” with names like Steve (short for Srinivasan), Chuck (short for Chakravarthy), Aaron, really? (short for Arun) , Vince (short for Vinod).. Now at almost 50, I start to contemplate why I didn’t change my name. It would have been brutal, it would been unfair and it would be downright stupid.

Hey if you cannot pronounce me correctly, do not feel offended if I refer to you as “Jos” (instead of Ho-say) or “Tat-Jana” (instead of Ta-Yaana) or refer to Grosvenor as “Grows-Wennor” or  “Illionoi” as Illi-noise”. Fair trade right?

So when I hear the cliché “What’s in a name” I cannot agree more. My friends and colleagues know me as the brown knucklehead who never feels any compunctions or for that matter offense . The A-SHOCKS shall continue!

 

PS- Everytime I wrote “Ashok” spell check suggests something that will be deemed highly inappropriate for this site. I presume this site is rated “G”