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By Morley Selver, P.Eng IPMA B

Why Do Projects Fail

This article is a continuation of why projects fail.

Inadequate attention to quality.  

I have seen quality problems arise from a corporations desire to embrace Auotcad by getting rid of experienced designers and hiring inexperienced CAD operators, to companies suffering because they didn’t get involved in a total quality package.

Over my work history I have seen Vendors change from a lack of interest in equipment foundations to being very interested. One project I worked on were four pulp refiners. These were large revolving discs, of several tons,  attached to a 10000 hp motor. In the 70’s when the equipment was designed, the Equipment Vendor left the foundation design up to others and did not bother with any input into it. Well, in some cases the foundation design was not correct for rotating equipment. The assumption was the foundation was correct and any problems were blamed on the Equipment Vendor even if they made a quality piece of equipment. This was a constant quality problem Vendors were always fighting.


On my project, the facility for years had trouble keeping the refiners / motors aligned (they had the same problem at a sister facility). They finally got fed up and we got involved to determine what the problem was. We did some vibration studies on the foundation and determined there was a cold joint between the equipment foundation and the spread footing it was supposed to be attached to. When the equipment was running the foundation was moving and there was no way they were ever going to keep the equipment aligned.  Once we determined the foundation was the problem we set about arriving at a suitable solution. What we ended up doing was taking out most of the foundation and replacing it with a large concrete block on vibration isolation pads. This solved the alignment problem for the facility. I worked on this project in the early 80’s and by the end of the 80’s equipment vendors were involved in the foundation design of large pieces of rotating equipment. They were finally going to protect their reputation. I installed several similar pieces of equipment in the late 80’s early 90’s, and the equipment vendor either provided the foundation design or had to approve it.


Too many concurrent projects. 

This could be within a company or a region. This is always a problem and is going on right now with a lot of projects in the Alberta Oil Sands, a lot of work and not enough people to do the work. Even with resource planning, schedules are affected. There are just not enough quality people to meet the schedule. Within a corporation it is the same issue. Where do the people to do the work come from? In times of not enough resources,  all the good people are employed and the lesser qualified or people you would not normally hire are available. This can have a big affect on the project cost and quality. In some cases you are hiring a warm body to fill a seat (the mirror test?*). 


As a project manager you always have to have your ear to the ground to know what is going on around in your area and how it can affect your project. If you are constructing and starting up a new facility you have to be concerned about what is happening at other facilities or construction projects in the surrounding area. If there is a turn-around nearby, they are probably paying overtime. If you are not, people will go there and leave you short staffed. This is why you have to plan out how you do your start-ups and shutdowns. The locale where I live there are four oil refineries. They coordinate their shutdowns so that there is not a resource shortage and the shutdowns are successful.


Inadequate financing or functional authority.

If management do not have sufficient funding you may have to stop your project part way through. This is not good, as the team disbands and you will have to start over again once more funding is available. When you have an approved project there should be a funding component called Management Reserve. This is to provide the additional money should the project budget get out of hand. Depending on company policy, you may or may see this. Typically we fund our projects at the P50 amount and the Management Reserve could be the amount between the P90 and P50.  


Typically, the person who controls the money, controls the project. If you, as a project manager do not have spending authority or functional authority, then basically, you are not in control. The project will go down hill as you never know if you will be second guessed on items. Once second guessing starts, there is decision paralysis. I once had a project management contract with the Owners to manage the design and construction of a new facility for them. They knew their business and how to make money while I knew how to construct facilities. They tried to second guess me on what had to be done, but I ignored them and did what had to be done. I caught some grief  but figured they could fire me if they didn’t like what I was doing. In spite of them, we got the facility up and running under budget and ahead of schedule, which was the objective. 

At my last workshop was a manager who’s company had decided not to hire a project manager nor use project management techniques.  They figured they could save money (less financing?). He had authority and an approval limit of ~$200,000 so there was no problem there. By the second day into the workshop he was getting concerned as he could see there was more to this project management stuff than they had planned on. They were in the design phase and his plan was to move to the site and run that and manage the facility. I told him this was a prescription for failure as there is just too much work involved in getting a new facility operational. Somewhere along the line he will have to decide if he is the Facility Manager or the Project Manager. His main job is to get the facility operational, not manage the project so project management will suffer. Once this happens it will become a matter of constantly putting out fires with budget and schedule problems. This problem is more common than you realize and runs through all levels of an organizations.


I will discuss more project failure issues next month.



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* Hold a mirror under their nose to see if they are still breathing.

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