Published here September 2006.


Musings Index

Taking Over an Existing Project: Things You Can Do

Some years ago, I was invited to an interview for the post of project engineer on building construction in a strange town in a foreign country. At the time I was responsible for work on a major dock reconstruction in the center of London, a contract that was nearing completion but still had several months to go. True, I had no intention of leaving before my current work was completed. Still, it is a good idea at a time like this to keep a weather eye on what is going on and what work is coming up or is available.

It turned out that the position would be responsible for a significant portion of a large building program in the downtown area of a major city. In those days, the idea of a new challenge in a new environment was very appealing. Of course the family needed some convincing, but that's another story. To my surprise, the new company was prepared to wait until I was "available", and the general understanding was that upon arrival I would have "several days" of orientation to get to know the company, the new working conditions and find some temporary accommodation.

In the event of course, it was quite different. I had two days to find accommodation, very difficult in those days it was one of those tight market conditions at the time and then I was promptly packed off to take on my section of the biggest project currently in progress. I should explain that in those days a project manager really was a senior position and, on a large project, a project engineer was like a project manager position but one rung down.

Although in its early days, my section was well underway, with construction staff in place. There was a substantial set of drawings, a thick binder of specifications and (apparently, somewhere) an extensive set of "procedures". And, as everyone knows, everything is always done according to the "correct procedures"! A large architectural/engineering firm was responsible for the detailed design and, as I was soon to learn, issuing new sets of drawings almost daily.

The problem was that as a "new arrival" with evidently little experience of "the way we do things around here" no one was about to take any notice of me. I was not comfortable with that situation and decided to do something about it. So, if you, dear reader, find yourself in the same position, perhaps you will find the following observations of some interest.

I decided that what was needed was a lot of homework. However, that involved a lot of office documents that could not be removed from the premises, and even if they could, the logistics of doing so was hardly practical. Further, quiet study of all this paperwork during the day was also impossible because of the rapid pace of the work and constant interruptions. The crews were working two shifts at the time, although office staff worked normal hours. I therefore obtained permission to stop over in the office for a late shift myself.

I found it useful to tackle the documents in this order:

  1. The drawings, so that I had a good idea of what we were building
  2. The index to the specifications, so I knew what to find where, when I needed the information on quality standards
  3. The trade contracts already let, so that I understood who was doing what and what was expected of each of them
  4. The related correspondence, so that I knew who was having an argument, and there were plenty
  5. The correspondence with the architects for the same reason
  6. And finally, I found those elusive "procedures" tucked away in the bottom drawer of the filing cabinet that apparently no one looked at but that essentially told me how I was supposed to do my job

I suspect that nothing about the foregoing list is very remarkable. What was remarkable, as I quickly learned, was that by the end of the second week, I knew more about that project than any of the other staff, even more than the project manager! So, the investment of a lot of late nights proved immensely valuable because now people sought me out for the answers, and I actually had some influence. Indeed, I had the temerity to prepare a detailed construction schedule, something unheard of in those days you never told a senior superintendent how to go about his job.

But the result was that we actually got the architects to prepare drawings in the same sequence as we planned to do the construction work, and that in itself was something of an achievement. Coordination is a wonderful thing, and we got the structure completed on a very tight schedule much to everyone's amazement.

However, looking back, there were probably other things that I might have done more effectively. Things that are now commonly recognized, for example:

  • Networking is a very good idea. I could have spent more time with my peers to learn from them, find out what "makes the organization tick" and where the "decision power" sources are. Also, get a feel for the "working atmosphere" and how people relate.
  • Spend more time with those reporting to me, to earn their confidence and to "teach me the ropes"
  • Even chat up those actually doing the work, to find out what the "front line problems" really are
  • Spend a little time back at head office, to open lines of communication, in case of need and find what other resources are available. A little visibility back there can also be very valuable later on.

But when you boil it all down, it's like the teacher in school. When it comes to content, you only have to be "one chapter ahead" and you are king (or queen) of the class!

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