Where Did the Senior Technical Project Managers and Experienced Decision-Makers Go?

January 15, 2015


Over the past 25 years or so, I’ve noticed a distinct change in how high level decision-makers expect technical projects to be managed. When I joined the engineering workforce, projects were nearly always led by senior technical staff who had substantial technical experience and expert engineering knowledge on the project subject. At the same time, they were also consummate project managers with respect to cost/time/quality. These staff considered a project holistically. What I mean by that is that substantial technical effort was exerted in the decision-making to weigh and value all aspects of accomplishing a project. This included considerations of reliability and robustness, including detailed technical challenges of options and their engineering, and weighing capital cost, installation cost, operating cost, and life-cycle cost of the overall project. Recognizing that there are always trade-offs in these costs, a total best net present value approach enabled a thorough evaluation and high quality decision-making.

Honestly, I don’t see this happening much in many of the large, medium, and even many small technical projects ongoing around the world. Most of the world’s engineering projects have been trivialized over the years with the “Low Bidder” project management style of the day. Capital cost and schedule are nearly the only discussions that include senior decision makers. They often have little to no technical background on the projects themselves. I see far fewer technically-educated project managers, fewer questions about operating and life cycle costs, and a tendency to assume that all bids are identical. The result is that capital cost and schedule become the only deciding factors.

I’ve never once seen an actual case where submitted bids can be evaluated in the often-termed “apples-to-apples” way. Yet every week I come across failed projects that need our help where this approach was used. Equipment vendors routinely vent their frustration of only being able to offer a low-bid set of equipment instead of the right solution, since they know that a high bid price will cause them to be eliminated early on. Often these higher capital cost bids are by far the highest value for the project, as they will avoid substantial cost later – often by order or orders of magnitude. However, project managers are usually not responsible for operating and total life costs. They just need to get through a one-month (or less) start-up proof-of-project deliverable, after which they can cut and run.

To some extent I fault our own community for accepting this lessened quality of project management. I also look somewhat US-centrically at the loss over the decades of STEM as a high caliber field of study and professional career. The returning excitement to STEM fuels my hopes that higher expectations will be placed on total project outcomes in the future, which will act like a fuel to innovation.

We at J&J are seeing some new project approaches by large, world-class firms moving towards this fully integrated style of technical project advancement. They are creating breakthrough processes – even with century-old materials and products. I look forward to the next 20 years.

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