|John V. Clemente, P.E.,
BEI Engineers, Inc.
Project managers in the chemical process industries (CPI) have challenging, stimulating jobs. Part magician, part juggler, the project manager must meet specifications and schedules while staying within budget and meeting all safety and environmental objectives. Clearly, not everyone is up to the tasks and the pressures involved. However, those with the right personalities and backgrounds will find project management the perfect opportunity to shine, professionally. This article highlights some of the requirements, and offers some suggestions, for succeeding at project management in the CPI, whether for an operating company or a contract engineering and construction (E&C) firm.
In-plant and E&C project managers have similar jobs and backgrounds. The in-plant project manager generally is a direct employee of a chemical or refining company. He or she develops or receives from others the conceptual process for plant improvement, and is expected to develop it into a project. The in-plant manager communicates knowledge of the plant's process, history and culture, or how things get done, to the project.
The E&C project manager has a background, training and experience similar to those of the in-plant project manager. In addition, though, he or she is aware of how other firms have accomplished similar projects. He or she is also well acquainted with relevant standards and codes, and industry and regulatory requirements.
Plan for Success with S, S and B
To succeed, all projects must be thoroughly planned, with well conceived scope, schedule and budget (SSB). Many people think of these as independent entities, but they are, rather, like the legs of a three-legged stool. A change in one affects the other two.
Without a well-defined scope, the project will either fail to meet specifications, go off schedule or exceed its budget - or, in the project engineer's worst nightmare, it will fail in all three areas! Project scoping is the key to succeeding with a small engineering project. The project manager should meet early with key people, including operations and construction personnel. It is critical for the manager to plan for everything, and to understand, fully, the need for the project. The goal is to eliminate the need for changes in either the project's design or its field-construction phase and to minimize costs.
Projects must meet real and realistic, rather than arbitrary, schedule milestones. For example, the project may have to be installed during an upcoming plant shutdown and maintenance turnaround. This period is usually set well in advance, and cannot easily be altered to accommodate a late-running small project.
Or else, the project must meet a government agency requirement for improvement in the areas of safety, or environmental performance. It may be part of a risk management plan (RMP), in which there is always a mandated date for compliance. If the project provides an improvement in product quality or production rate, it must be installed within a certain timeframe to justify its costs.
A project's budget is clearly affected by scope and schedule. An increase in scope, such as adding more equipment, will require more funds. A fast-track schedule may require funds to accommodate overtime work or premiums for vendors to complete equipment fabrication early. If the project's scope changes, impacts on its budget andschedule must be assessed immediately. All possible factors must be accounted for by contingency funds, which can cover equipment cost increases, overtime, or new and unexpected safety or environmental needs
Successful project managers generally have certain skills, abilities, character traits, and temperaments. Typically, they are generalists who are more interested in the "big picture" than in becoming expert in one narrow subject. Optimistic and good at working with people, successful project managers can handle any kind of project by working closely with the experts for that project - specialist engineers and designers and operations staff from all disciplines..
Project managers generally like to work on varied assignments at the same time. Three to five active projects should be the limit, per manager. A number of additional projects may also be dormant, awaiting approval either from management or a government agency. The project manager must move deftly between projects.
Very small projects can be quite challenging, with little room for error, so project managers must be able to handle stress. For a project with a $50,000 installed cost, for example, 12% for engineering is about 80 to 100 person hours. Even one small error in scoping, budgeting and scheduling will use these hours up quickly.
If an outside E&C firm is contracted to perform any aspect of design or engineering work for the project, the in-house project manager becomes a liason to the E&C firm. First, he or she must be sure that the chosen E&C firm is aligned with the size, complexity and type of project.
Does the job 'fit' the contractor?
For instance, the largest engineering firms typically have 2,000-50,000 employees worldwide, and work on turnkey plants or refineries in the $100-million to multibillion-dollar range, requiring many thousands of personhours of engineering. The medium-sized engineering firm typically has 200-2,000 employees and may have overseas offices, but, more likely, practices in a specific region of the country. Medium firms' projects typically range from $5-million to $200-million installed cost and require 10,000 to 500,000 personhours of engineering. Finally, the small engineering firm, with 2-200 employees will typically undertake projects ranging from $50,000 to $5 million installed cost and require 100 to 10,000 personhours of engineering. These firms are small enough to step into the plant environment, assess the SS&B and quickly complete the project.
In the real world, a small engineering company may successfully perform a project typical of the medium sized firm and so on. The project sponsor must contract for engineering services with a company working at its normal project size and expertise level, or risk setbacks or failure.
Once the project manager has scoped the project, received management approval for the schedule and budget, and made a decision regaring in-house vs. outside engineering, he or she must show the right "people skills," to see the project through to a successful conclusion.
Team-building is a key part of the job. Whether the project is in the scoping, planning or design phase, line people will make or break it. In their area of expertise, experienced piping designers, electrical and instrument designers, civil and structural designers and others know more than anyone else on the project. The successful project manager supports them and listens to them.
Develop construction savvy
Project managers are savvy about construction issues, working with field representatives early in the project scoping phase and throughout the design phase. Planning ahead saves time and money, reducing or eliminating field change orders. Close collaboration may even identify, early on, such project killers as the wrong locations for equipment.
Successful project management also requires computer skills - not just with the software packages used to solve key engineering problems. Project managers should also be skilled at using word-processing or e-mail software for meeting notes, spreadsheet software for tracking action items and equipment lists, and project scheduling software for tracking project progress.
Everything related to the project should be documented in meeting minutes and memos, no matter how inconsequential each issue may at first appear. During the scoping process, promises are made and expectations raised; if they are not documented and followed up on, resources will be wasted. After any meeting, action items must be assigned and then followed up at the next meeting. In whatever spare time is available, project memos for other active projects should be completed.
Take ownership and be ethical
The best project managers champion their projects in the competition for scarce resources. They do whatever it takes to secure talented, disciplined designers and engineers, to ensure each project meets its SSB.
Top project managers are always ethical, particularly when analyzing bids from competing vendors or E&C firms. One golden rule: Never request a bid from a vendor, engineering or construction company if you have no intention of ever using that company.
Blessed, or cursed, with the people-oriented of engineering project managers need a sense of humor and perspective. By maintaining a good rapport with engineers and designers, they develop a following, so that others want to work with them.
Edited by Agnes Shanley
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