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Final Thoughts: Project Management Often About ‘Common Sense’

Robert Schickel on December 16, 2018 - in Articles, Column

I begin this column knowing I may offend some people in project management, because my contention is that project management of engineering projects isn’t that complicated. Project management relies on common sense we all use every day in our lives (with some additional paperwork).

Managing a project can be simple and requires sound practical judgement. I think about when I was much younger and was preparing to build a model car. A step-by-step process might look like the following:

• Decide where to build the model.

• Assemble all the materials and tools required.

• Read the instructions.

• Figure out how long it will take.

• Will help be required?

• Do I know when to paint and how long to let the glue dry?

• Build it.

• Any additional add-ons such as paint or decals?

The plan was developed, the materials were gathered, and the plan was executed (followed by a recap). How long did it take? Did it come out right? Were there any extra parts? (I always had extra parts.)

So is project management for engineering that easy? Well, probably not. A typical civil engineering project such as a bridge design will require a significantly more complex set of steps to complete. First you need to determine the exact layout and location, make sure you have the appropriate software for design, and gather the standards. Let me put this in a different format:

• Determine site conditions.

• Check for appropriate software.

• Become familiar with the preliminary reports and design documents.

• Prepare a schedule and budget.

• Assign support staff.

• Gather the design standards and make sure they’re followed.

• Design the bridge.

• Make sure the work is checked.

Seems similar, doesn’t it? However, the major difference is that a bridge designer is accountable to others for producing the product. A bridge normally is owned by a government agency; therefore, accountability isn’t only to the agency, but also the public. The bridge must be designed to very specific standards and in the most economically feasible manner. There are numerous constraints, including the footprint (right-of-way), time (schedule), cost (design and construction) and appearance. Managing these constraints becomes more complex than building a model.

In addition, there are constraints placed on the design team, especially if the team is a consulting firm. The design team must meet all items noted above, but also must be accountable to the company performing the design. Issues such as staffing availability, scheduling, budget limits, etc., must be managed. After all, the firm needs to be successful in performing good work as well as making a profit.

Teaching Project Management

To manage all the materials, staffing, costs and schedule, a project manager (PM) needs specific tools and skills. During my somewhat long career, I have taught numerous project management sessions and courses. They range from a short two-hour-long overview to a one-week intensive course with workshops to a year-long, two-hours-a-week course designed specifically for our company. Obviously, there’s a wide range of opportunities for developing project management skills.

I discovered that much of what we were discussing in these training sessions was common sense. The specific software to be used for tracking hours, costs and scheduling became the focus of much of the time spent in the courses. These tools enable reports that can be used to analyze work complete vs. costs and schedule.

But setting up the data that go into the planning tools requires good practical judgement. What must be done first? What information is required? Who needs to be involved? How long is this going to take? These are the same questions you ask before you go to the grocery store or throw a birthday party or build a model car.

Relaying Project Status

A PM is required to know the project status at all times. During design, there are numerous times when a PM has to report on progress. When it’s time to prepare an invoice, it’s often at least once a month. It’s during this part when project management becomes more complex, but it’s not because the process is different; it’s because the client and consulting firm are more concerned about cost and schedule and, of course, the standard of care necessary in a public project. But what engineer wouldn’t be concerned about these issues anyway? It’s common sense.

I have been involved directly with managing projects of varying complexities and in the training of many PMs. I completely support the development of PM skills, but I always try to instill the use of common sense in planning and executing a project.

At the end, check to see if you feel confident about adding any decals, such as your P.E. stamp. And hopefully you won’t have any extra parts …

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About Robert Schickel

Robert Schickel was born in New Jersey and received his BS in Civil Engineering degree in 1971 from Valparaiso University in Indiana. His career started as a bridge design engineer and expanded to include design of various transportation facilities, including highways, bridges, rail lines and stations, and airport runways. Mr. Schickel managed engineering offices ranging from 20 to 140 people. He also served as a consultant to a large utility company. Mr. Schickel currently resides in Indiana and serves as Adjunct Professor for the College of Engineering at Valparaiso University. He enjoys his retired life at his lake house, playing golf, listening to music and spending time with his family, especially his grandchildren.

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