Project Management Institute

More power to the people



Jerry Fan, PMP, vice president, energy division services, Burns & McDonnell, Wallingford, Connecticut, USA

The essence of Jerry Fan's job is simple: He helps power the lives of people living in the northeastern region of the United States. In practice, his work managing major electricity transmission and distribution programs for utility organizations is complex. It involves stakeholder, regulatory and even weather-related challenges. And that can lead to other challenges, like scheduling. In one case, his team accomplished three years’ worth of work in two. Program budgets range from US$650 million to US$1.5 billion.

Mr. Fan's organization—the engineering and design firm and PMI Global Executive Council member Burns & McDonnell—has taken notice of his project management prowess. It promoted him last year from program manager to vice president.

The demand for electricity in this region has evolved considerably over the past five to seven years. This six-year program, scheduled to be completed in 2016, addresses line overload and voltage violations in the western Massachusetts and Connecticut area to improve reliability and performance. The program's first project, the Greater Springfield Reliability Project, included 35 miles (56 kilometers) of brand-new transmission line and about 27 miles (43 kilometers) of rebuilt transmission line.

Your team completed that project on time and US$40 million below its US$718 million budget. But there were major challenges, right?

It was one challenge after another. It seemed like we never could catch a break. The state siting agency was extremely focused on potential social impacts because the power lines traversed many densely populated neighborhoods. We also had unprecedented involvement from Native American tribes in the area. To obtain our permit, we had to address all of their concerns regarding preservation of historical artifacts and rock formations.

How did severe weather challenges, such as Hurricane Sandy in 2012, affect the project?

The topography was very challenging, and Sandy didn't help. We encountered a number of severe weather challenges such as microbursts, where you get 2 to 5 inches [5 to 13 centimeters] of rain within 30 minutes. We worked closely with state governments to demonstrate our focus on environmental compliance.

What did all of these hurdles mean for the project's schedule?

During our initial planning, we assumed 12 to 18 months for the siting and permitting process and a three-year construction window. But by the time we got through all the siting requirements and the added environmental and cultural consultations, we ended up with less than two years of a construction window. To help complete the project on schedule, we developed a project execution plan that was consistent with A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide).

How did you complete three years of work in two years?

Typically, there's a lag between these five activities: clearing the right of way for power lines, building the access road, drilling the foundation, laying the structure and stringing the cables. Our team developed a solution that allowed work to occur in multiple segments at the same time. We sequenced the work so that contractors could work uninterrupted on cable stringing and let the right-of-way, foundation and structure teams get ahead so that we could minimize downtime. We had to implement close to 800 power outages for the surrounding areas.

“It was one challenge after another. It seemed like we never could catch a break.... We worked closely with state governments to demonstrate our focus on environmental compliance.”


Can you describe the stakeholder management that required?

We had to go through eight municipalities—three in Connecticut, five in Massachusetts—along with all the local, state and federal agencies. Early on we put together a comprehensive stakeholder communication plan. We never sugarcoated the impact people would experience during construction. We weren't talking about guys driving up in a pickup truck with a shovel. Construction activities involve concrete trucks, excavators and cranes in people's backyards.

So throughout the entire siting process, we had a number of open houses where we educated municipal officials and residents. People could see exactly where construction was going to occur. That put them at ease.

How do lessons learned from that project help with current initiatives?

The project managers directly involved on the Springfield project entered lessons learned in a database, which was shared with the project team on the US$220 million Interstate Reliability Project, the second leg of the East-West Solution Program. For example, on the Springfield project, we learned that sometimes there's a delay in the distribution of a drawing between the construction office and the field, so there was a risk of something being built without reflecting the latest drawing. Now people have access to the most up-to-date drawings through a software program.

You began your career as a mechanical engineer. How did you transition into project management?

In 1996, the nuclear power plant I was working for in Connecticut was shut down. I was fortunate to be assigned as the project manager on a US$400 million decommissioning project, which had over 1,000 team members. That was the start of my project management career. PM


Small Talk

What's the one skill every project manager should have?

Communication skills—give project owners information so they can make the best decision.

The best professional advice you've ever received?

Surround yourself with people who are smarter than you.

Favorite pastime?

Soccer. I played in college, and my kids have grown up playing as well.

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