Programmed for pride



VOICES | From the Top

Even as a young man working summers for his father on big construction sites in New York, New York, USA, Frank Russo recognized the importance of a motivated project team.

“After two summers at some of the most iconic projects in the city, I could tell in five minutes whether a job site was a ‘pride’ or ‘hide’ place to work,” he says. “On the bad jobs, the workers felt that if the guys in the trailers didn't care, why should they?”

If your workers think you're willing to compromise safety for the bottom line, you'll never get that bottom line because they won't give you the effort required to achieve your goals.

Now a project director at engineering giant Bechtel, Mr. Russo has tapped into that lesson for 40 years as he manages highly complex—and potentially dangerous—initiatives. He's currently leading a US$12.2 billion program to build a radioactive waste treatment plant for the U.S. Department of Energy at the Hanford Site in the state of Washington, USA.

What factors do you see as integral to this kind of program?

We can't meet cost or schedule goals without safety and quality. We've got to underpin success by making people feel confident in the environment, empowered to speak up and accountable for their actions across the team. That's how you create pride on the project team. And when there's pride, there is collaboration, quality and safety.

This construction project started in 2001 and isn't slated to close until 2019. With such a long timeline, change is inevitable. How do you deal with that?

Change creates tension. On this program in particular, there's an element of research in how we're going to treat the nastier nuclear materials, some of which also are horribly toxic. That research can and does lead to change, so we have to manage the interface between the research people, the safety people and the design people to be sure everyone is on board. It's about making sure that everyone knows if they change something, they have to factor in how it will affect everyone else.

Can you give an example?

We need to mix two types of waste. We've got to make sure none of those particles settle to the bottom of our mixing tanks because that can lead to a brief, uncontrolled nuclear chain reaction. Recently, the research team determined we needed to add another mixer to the tanks. That one decision impacts vendors, the piping design team, the instrument designers and the safety team.

How do you incorporate such changes into the program plan?

We have safety meetings every morning with each department to make sure everyone's on the same page. If there's a change occurring, we talk about that and why it's happening. Every team gets the same message, but it's customized to their goals and tasks.

The key is communicating not just what change needs to happen, but why. People take pride in their work, and when you tell them they need to change something, that can upset or frustrate them. If people aren't satisfied with the answers, they may make independent choices, and that's when you see signs of trouble in the culture. But if they understand why the change is necessary and the possible ramifications if there is no change, they may not be happy about it, but they'll accept the decision. PM




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