On time, on budget and on spec!

This simple phrase typifies the not so simple profession of project management, an engineering services discipline that is misunderstood by many and deliberately avoided by some in an effort to save money – often at great cost.

Wikipedia defines project management as the discipline of initiating, planning, executing, controlling, and closing the work of a team to achieve specific goals and meet specific success criteria.

There is a generally held perception that hiring a contractor to perform an engineering function should be good enough to get the job done. The contractor possesses the necessary skills to tackle the work but his standards, organisational ability, cost and time control and dare we say it his integrity, may not be the best.

Almost all contractors, consulting engineers and some architects and quantity surveyors claim to be project managers as well as experts in their field which could lead to the misbelief that project management is a minor discipline that can be accomplished by anyone.

Project management is an allied discipline to various forms of engineering but where it stands out is that by employing a project manager on a contract, one is getting a qualified, independent overseer that has the client’s or employer’s best interest at heart.

He or she is there to organise and administer the contract, to ensure that it is executed to an agreeable time frame, at the quoted cost and is constructed to acceptable standards.

That means that the project manager must be thoroughly versed in the legal and contractual aspects of the contract, understand and apply management processes, have sufficient engineering expertise to understand the process, be adept at financial estimates, project costs and cost control, understand intricacies of time and labour management, recognise the difference between acceptable and substandard workmanship and be a skilled communicator and negotiator.

Quite a list of talents!

So, they have to have a broad and flexible toolkit of techniques, can resolve complex, interdependent activities into tasks and sub-tasks that are documented, monitored and controlled. They adapt their approach to the context and constraints of each project, knowing that no “one size” can fit all the variety of projects.

Project managers are found in every kind of organization — as employees, managers, contractors and independent consultants. With experience, they may become programme managers (responsible for multiple related projects) or portfolio managers (responsible for selection, prioritization and alignment of projects and programmes with an organization’s strategy).

And they are in increasing demand worldwide. For decades, as the pace of economic and technological change has quickened, organizations have been directing more and more of their energy into projects rather than routine operations.

Today, senior executives and HR managers recognize project management as a strategic competence that is indispensable to business success. They know that skilled and credentialed practitioners are among their most valuable resources.
The voice of reason
Let’s say you are running a project, and the goal is to upgrade a road to a remote property. You solicit bids from several contractors and ask them to do it for the least cost possible, and you also stipulate you don’t want to get any permits.

None of the contractors are willing to work under those conditions, so you get your own earth moving equipment and a friend with some experience to help you upgrade your road.

In the process, you fill in a spillway to a dam for a reservoir. You think this is no big deal because the fine you pay for that is far less than what it would’ve cost to hire a contractor to do the job properly.

Three years later in a heavy rainstorm, the dam breaks because the spillway has been compromised. Seven homes are washed away in the ensuing flood and ten people die. Now, what was intended as a shortcut to save money ends up taking lives.

Is it so far-fetched? How often is safety comprised every day because people are looking for the quick way out? Even more importantly project managers have a responsibility to be the voice of reason that understands the hidden costs and dangers of the shortcut.