Worth the Risk
Three Project Teams Met Obstacles Head-On to Deliver World-Class Results
BY TEGAN JONES
Every project faces risks that could push it off track. But not all risks are created equal.
This year's PMI Project of the Year finalists navigated hurdles that threatened to disrupt entire communities and put lives at risk. One team had to move 800,000 gallons (3 million liters) of toxic and radioactive waste without contaminating a critical water supply. Another transported 2,500 truckloads of supplies along a deadly ice road to build a mine in one of the world's harshest climates. A third tunneled under a densely populated urban area, just 15 feet (4.6 meters) below a city's main transportation artery, to make room for a light rail extension.
Here's a first look at how project management helped each finalist avoid fatal pitfalls and deliver successful outcomes.
The Hanford site in Richland, Washington, USA developed plutonium for the United States’ nuclear weapon development program for more than 40 years. When the federal government closed facility operations in 1987, it was the most contaminated nuclear waste site in the country.
The U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) cleanup effort, which has been underway for 30 years, is working to remediate the hazardous and radioactive materials produced by the nuclear program, including radioactive and chemical waste stored in 177 underground tanks. In August 2012, a team discovered that one of the storage tanks was leaking nuclear waste. After an investigation found that the storage tank's bottom liner had been breached, the DOE's Office of River Protection shifted its focus to replacing the receptacle—and fast.
“We're very close to the Columbia River, so any time there's a risk of release to the environment, there's a risk of affecting the life and health of all the people living around here and downstream on the river,” says Sebastien Guillot, PMP, project manager, AREVA Federal Services, Richland.
But the recovery project had to fit within the existing budget for the larger cleanup program—adding more than US$100 million of scope to an existing baseline. And it had to be executed on a schedule so aggressive that the project team originally estimated it had less than a 20 percent chance of finishing on time. Yet the team met its milestones, as tank operations contractor Washington River Protection Solutions used schedule compression and earned value management to help the team make informed decisions with enough advance notice to course-correct as needed.
“It felt like a marathon at a sprint's pace,” Mr. Guillot says. “But, most importantly, we did it all with no safety issues. No one got hurt.”
“There's a risk of affecting the life and health of all the people living around here and downstream on the river.”
—Sebastien Guillot, PMP, AREVA Federal Services, Richland, Washington, USA
PHOTO COURTESY OF THE U.S. DEPARTMENT OF ENERGY
Project: Hanford AY-102 Recovery
Budget: US$107.3 million
Location: Richland, Washington, USA
Key players: Washington River Protection Solutions, U.S. Department of Energy Office of River Protection, State of Washington Department of Ecology
Goal: Remove nuclear waste from a leaking underground tank and transfer it to a doubleshell tank for safe storage
Highlight: The project closed ahead of schedule and US$8.7 million under budget.
Demand for diamonds is forcing companies to go to extremes. Industry leaders are increasingly turning to remote mines to deliver the high-quality gemstones their customers crave.
“The remoteness and the severe weather translate into a whole series of issues.”
—John Bryant, Hatch, Scottsdale, Arizona, USA
DeBeers’ Gahcho Kué mine, for instance, was built deep in Canada's Northwest Territories, just below the Arctic Circle. The largest new diamond mine constructed in the world since 2003, Gahcho Kué is located on an isolated stretch of tundra with no permanent roads.
“The remoteness and the severe weather translate into a whole series of issues you have to deal with in very specific ways,” says John Bryant, senior project manager, Hatch, Scottsdale, Arizona, USA.
Materials for the CA$1.1 billion project had to be delivered to the site by cargo plane or transported over an ice road only open two months each year. Blizzards closed the road three times in 2015, and delays surrounding the site's permanent airstrip almost pushed the project off track.
Lean management processes helped the team close the project and ramp up production two months early, which allowed the mine to exceed its 2016 carat budget—the average size and quality of diamonds per ton of material removed—by 60 percent. Plus, the new facility will contribute almost 1,200 full-time equivalent jobs each year of the mine's 12-year lifespan.
“It's not only the construction jobs, but the long-term jobs,” says Mr. Bryant. “The general economy is being impacted in a positive way.”
Project: Gahcho Kué
Budget: CA$1.1 billion
Location: Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, Canada
Key players: DeBeers, Hatch, Mountain Province Diamonds, local indigenous communities
Goal: Build a diamond mine and production facility in one of the world's harshest climates
Highlight: The facility started production two months early, despite the main general contractor leaving late in the planning stage.
PHOTO COURTESY OF MOUNTAIN PROVINCE DIAMONDS
University Link Light Rail Extension
When Sound Transit decided to expand the light rail system in Seattle, Washington, USA, it had to find a way to tunnel under the densely populated city without disrupting life above ground. Crews needed to carefully calculate how much stress, weight and vibration surrounding buildings and roadways could handle—or risk watching them collapse.
The regional transportation authority knew the project would be a risky endeavor, but the city—the second worst in the U.S. for time commuters are stuck in traffic—needed the train to reduce rising roadway congestion.
The project team managed risks by prioritizing them based on their potential impact to cost and schedule. When the chance of risk was 80 percent or higher, primary risk mitigation measures were identified. For instance, the team added advanced stabilization under a major highway to allow the tunnel-boring machine to safely travel under the roadway without impacting the interstate's structural integrity.
“Now you can get from the University of Washington through downtown in eight minutes.”
—Joe Gildner, Sound Transit, Seattle, Washington, USA
“Since you had such little distance between the top of your tunnel and the freeway's pavement, you had to pay very careful attention,” says Joe Gildner, the extension project's executive director, Sound Transit, Seattle, Washington, USA.
PHOTO COURTESY OF LMN ARCHITECTS
Project: University Link Light Rail Extension
Budget: US$1.8 billion
Location: Seattle, Washington, USA
Key players: Sound Transit, City of Seattle, University of Washington, Washington State Department of Transportation
Goal: Extend the light rail system 3.2 miles (5 kilometers) via underground tunnels
Highlight: The rail line opened months ahead of schedule, and the project closed US$200 million under budget.
Monthly schedule reviews helped keep the project on track. When contractors fell behind on a milestone, they had to develop and implement a recovery schedule—which often meant a shift or increase in resources. Pushing hard to keep everyone on schedule was worth it: The light rail extension already is providing relief.
“Now you can get from the University of Washington through downtown in eight minutes,” Mr. Gildner says. “You can't do that on the highway.” PM
And the Winner Is…
The 2017 PMI Project of the Year award will be presented at PMI Global Conference, 28-30 October 2017 in Chicago, Illinois, USA. Register at pmi.org/global-conference/register, and be sure to reserve a seat at the PMI Professional Awards Gala on 28 October. To apply for the 2018 Project of the Year or other professional awards, go to PMI.org/awards.
A Closer Look
Check out feature stories in future PM Network issues and videos on PMI's YouTube channel for in-depth details about each finalist's achievements.