Have you seen my bulldozer?

a case study on why integrating the execution of risk and quality processes are critical for project success

Dr. Joseph A. Griffin, PMP

Northeastern University, College of Professional Studies

Have You Seen My Bulldozer? is a humorous and, unfortunately, true case study of how one project leader experienced an unexpected challenge when he watched a multimillion-dollar bulldozer sink from sight. This paper will introduce the case study and provide readers with a foundational overview of why integrating risk and quality processes is critical for project success. Both the benefits of leveraging such an approach and the consequences of failing to integrate them are explored as part of the case study. This paper provides the reader with a copy of the case study, and provides a rationale for how one can approach this case study as a means of addressing the complex challenges that one faces when managing the execution of risk and quality processes.

Introduction

This paper is different from most conference papers. Most conference papers—at least, those I have written—provide the reader with a detailed analysis of a particular topic for the purpose of introducing the reader to the issues one will cover as part of a conference presentation. It provides readers with a way to begin formulating the questions they want to ask when they attend the actual presentation. This is not that kind of paper. This paper provides the reader with very limited information about the actual topic—integrating the execution of risk and quality processes. The purpose is to provide readers with the case study and some prompts so they can reflect on the case study details and on their own experiences so as to arrive at the conference session prepared to engage on the case study. The goal of the case study is to help participants apply their real-world experiences and knowledge to a particular situation. Often when people do this, it helps them begin to identify areas where they could benefit from a more refined or mature approach to project management. Although we are all analyzing the case study, it should lead us to analyze our own approach to integrating project quality and risk processes. Therefore, this paper contains only the case study and some considerations on project quality and risk complexity, which should serve to “prime the pump” or “jumpstart the conversation” that will occur when one seeks to analyze and address the challenges and situations present in the case study.

Case Study: Have You Seen My Bulldozer?

The following is the Have You Seen My Bulldozer? case study, which has been adapted from a real-world project. It provides relevant details and prompts to help the reader focus on key points within the case study.

Background:

Jill is a project manager at a mining company working on an open-pit mine project. Currently, she is working on a major deliverable—building a 3-mile road to the new mine site. The first phase of the road (1.3 miles) has just been finished, which the company considers a major accomplishment. The company has decided to hold an event to recognize the completion of this first major deliverable and to symbolically initiate phase two of building the road. The company has invited members of the senior leadership team; local, state, and federal elected officials; and members of key regulatory agencies and the local media to participate in this event. The organizers have decided that instead of a traditional ribbon cutting for initiating the next phase, they will have their Cat D11T bulldozer drive through the ribbon, breaking ground for phase 2.

Current Issue(s):

Jill couldn't be happier about completing phase 1 of the road. The most difficult phase is behind her, and the celebratory event has gone very well. All the “bigwigs” gave their congratulatory speeches and everyone is watching the bulldozer drive through the ribbon. Jill turns to speak with the project sponsor for a couple minutes, when she hears a member of the project team screaming, “The dozer is sinking! The dozer is sinking!” Uncertain if she has correctly understood her teammate, she turns and watches in frozen horror as the bulldozer steadily continues to sink into the ground. The driver is desperately trying to free the dozer, but this only seems to be quickening the decline. Within six minutes, the dozer has completely disappeared from sight.

After the initial shock has passed, Jill begins trying to answer a few specific questions:

  1. What happened to the bulldozer, and how do we retrieve it?
  2. How did this happen?
  3. How could this have been avoided?
  4. How can we mitigate the impact on the project?

After some initial work, Jill discovers the following answers to some of her questions:

  1. What happened to the bulldozer, and how do we retrieve it? It drove onto an unidentified/unmarked muskeg pocket (bog/quicksand). The crust covering the pocket cracked under the weight of the dozer, and it sank into the pocket, completely out of sight. A few different methods were attempted to retrieve the dozer, which was 50% self-insured by the company:
    1. Sonar was attempted, but could not pinpoint the location of the dozer given all the other solid objects in the muskeg pocket.
    2. Drag lines using a concrete pylon were attempted, but they did not locate the dozer.
    3. The company sought permission to drain the pocket, but the environmental agency denied permission.
  2. How did this happen? Jill knew that this was addressed in the risk management plan and that the quality plan addressed the possibility as well. After questioning the lead geological engineer, Jill learned that soil samples had in fact been taken every 10th of a mile per the project plan, but that the lead geological engineer had not actually performed the core test on the samples, as he had completed a flyover of the landscape at the initiation of the project in the company helicopter and believed the terrain to be stable.

Case Analysis Prompts:

After considering the case study above and the information provided, please discuss the following questions within your team:

  • What should Jill do now?
  • Did Jill do what was reasonable to manage this risk? What else could she have done?
  • What might be the short-term and long-term impact on the project, and how can it be mitigated?
  • Do you believe there is a difference between how companies tend to manage risks and quality on internal versus external projects (internal versus external clients)?
  • How does one learn to integrate project risk and quality processes most often? Is this sufficient?

Quality, Risk, and Project Complexity

In recent years, much work has been done on project complexity in general. Some have sought to identify certain kinds of processes as more complex than others. This was the approach taken by presenters at a recent project management conference. For instance, in the view of these presenters, quantitative analysis would be considered potentially complex, while qualitative analysis or the risk identification process would not be. This is a very narrow and shallow understanding of project complexity. But much better work has been done on project complexity. For instance, one could look at Navigating Complexity: A Practice Guide (PMI, 2014) or Heaslip's Managing Complex Projects & Programs (2014). These are strong resources that recognize just how complex complexity is.

If one looks at the above case study, it is fairly simple. Items were overlooked and not executed properly, and a serious issue occurred, leading to a major financial and reputational blow to the project. Yet, the reality is that the issues within this project are fairly complex. For one to fully understand what actually occurred and why requires looking beyond the direct facts and considering the factors that conspired to create this unfortunate outcome.

This case study provides readers with an opportunity to use a fairly straightforward scenario as a means to begin exploring the complex realities that one faces when executing a project. In this instance, particular focus is being given to the issues of project quality and project risk concerns, but the case study is equally relevant as a foil for considering other areas, such as stakeholder engagement, ethics and professional responsibility, and legal issues and concerns. What on first glance seems to be a fairly simple story provides a picture of a fairly complex reality, the kind faced quite often by many a project professional.

It is easy to identify what should have happened or what one might do now, but to take a case like this and use it to create a proactive strategy that matches the needs of a particular project is more challenging, and yet that is the goal of exploring such a case study. How should one approach risk and quality management to ensure that situations like these are avoided? How does one create an ethical environment that promotes the avoidance of some of the behaviors presented in this case study? How does one ensure that the mitigation strategies taken are appropriately integrated and tracked in the project plan?

These and a range of other questions begin pointing to the reality of the complexity that exists below the surface of most projects. Our project management processes are focused on creating simple paths for navigating complexity; processes are designed as shortcuts to managing complexity, but increasing complexity requires sophisticated processes that are mature enough to manage the correlative complexity of the project. Processes should be mature and “sophisticated” in their execution, not overbearing and stifling in their creation. Complex processes are not the answer to complex situations; rather, maturely executed processes are often the answer to complex challenges. By taking a mature approach to the integration of project risk and quality, one can overcome the inherent complexity and the complexity that is often created. This requires not the approach of some authors who seek to simply identify some processes as more complex as others. It requires the recognition that all project management is complex and that we do not need more “complex” (i.e., complicated) solutions; rather, we need more mature execution.

In this case study, as stated previously, particular attention is given to addressing the challenges and need for integrating quality and risk processes in the execution of a project. As readers explore the case study, the goal is to apply these lessons to their own project environments, which will allow them to analyze and seek a means of improving the manner in which they integrate these processes.

Heaslip, R. (2014). Managing complex projects and programs: How to improve leadership of complex initiatives using a third generation approach. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Project Management Institute. (2014). Navigating complexity: A practice guide. Newtown Square, PA: Author.

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI or any listed author.

© 2015, Dr. Joseph A. Griffin
Originally published as a part of the 2015 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Orlando, Florida, USA.

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