Project Management Institute

Innovation in action


Healthcare. Energy. Metals. Woven into people’s lives in different ways, each of these fields is rich with the possibility for innovation. The three finalists for the 2014 PMI Project of the Year seized that possibility to explore a brave new world.

One project showcased how an organization could scale its cutting-edge technology while far surpassing industry safety norms. Another integrated the needs of dozens of government agencies to deliver easy, intuitive health insurance access, striding where others had stumbled. A third project aimed to change how renewable energies and power grids are married by building one of the world’s most energy-efficient labs, backed by a supercomputer that can handle 1 quadrillion calculations per second.

Here’s a first look at the PMI Project of the Year finalists. And in the coming months, you will get an inside view of each of them through in-depth case studies in PM Network and videos on PMI’s YouTube channel.

AND THE WINNER IS… The 2014 PMI Project of the Year will be presented at PMI Global Congress 2014— North America, scheduled for 26-28 October in Phoenix, Arizona, USA. To apply for the 2015 Project of the Year or other professional awards, head to and click on “About” and “Professional Awards.”


Powering the Future

Figuring out how distributed energy systems and renewable power can be integrated into the grid requires data-heavy research and experimentation. But testing on existing city grids simply isn’t an option. To move the needle on energy capabilities, the U.S. Department of Energy (DoE) built a lab to support 200 researchers and their big-data trials.

Constructed at the DoE’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory campus, the Energy Systems Integration Facility (ESIF) now stakes its claim as one of the world’s most energy-efficient labs and supercomputer data centers. It includes 15 labs, an office wing and a supercomputer.

From the beginning, the team knew completing such a large-scale, highly complex project under a tight and inflexible budget would require a new kind of thinking. So rather than approach contractors with project plans, the team gathered requirements from end users and presented only a list of specs. From there, bidders presented how much scope they could deliver within the budget.

“We did it backwards. We didn’t come in with a set preliminary design,” says Drew Detamore, PhD, project director of ESIF. “Instead we said, ‘Here’s the function, you tell us how to optimize it within the budget.’”

That process helped minimize the risk of cost overruns and was but one part of a larger riskmanagement strategy to maximize scope. The initial risk register included nearly 40 items, and the team set aside 8 percent of the budget for contingencies. Each quarter, project team members would carefully review and update the register, releasing contingency funds as risks passed. In the end, meticulous risk mitigation and planning allowed for US$8.5 million in stretch scope to be integrated into the project plans, while just 0.5 percent of the budget covered realized risks.

To accommodate the scope additions, the team flexed its agility, sometimes beginning construction on one project phase before designs for the next one had been finalized.

The ESIF project team didn’t just come in ahead of schedule, under budget and exceeding its stated scope—it also created an ultra-green office wing that uses nearly 75 percent less energy than other comparable spaces.


Project: Design and build a giant research lab for renewable energy technologies and large, megawatt-scale research

Budget: US$135 million

Location: Golden, Colorado, USA

Key Players: U.S. Department of Energy, National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Alliance for Sustainable Energy LLC

Highlight: The project’s design-build approach helped fast-track the schedule and significantly reduce project risks, allowing the project to finish ahead of time and under budget.


Scaling Up

The project goal was succinct yet outsized: build the most advanced aluminum smelter in the world.

Rio Tinto Alcan (RTA) executives believed they had the aluminum technology that was next-generation in its sustainability. Dubbed AP60, the technology would deliver 40 percent more aluminum per container, or pot, than the best smelters in the market—while creating fewer emissions and costing less.

Yet AP60 still had to be proven at an industrial level. To scale the technology from pilot to a market reality, RTA partnered with engineering and construction giants SNC-Lavalin and Hatch to build the first state-of-the-art AP60 smelter in Canada.

Because the project would inform future smelter initiatives, the team knew its hits and misses would be carefully analyzed. So it started with some analysis of its own, visiting Rio Tinto and other smelters and interviewing operators and people who’d worked on previous projects for insights on how to minimize safety risks both during project execution and throughout the expected life cycle.

In the Quebec construction industry, safety issues frequently slow project progress: The average lost-time injury frequency rate—reflecting the number of injuries suffered on the job—is 23.5 per 200,000 hours of work. Instead, the team sought to create a zero-accident work site. “We wanted to change the culture in the region, to convince people that this level of safety is achievable,” says Michel Charron, project director, RTA.

The team delivered 35 hours of customized safety training to each of the site’s 6,000 workers, who were also taught to report any near-misses or high-risk incidents. “We made it clear we would spend energy finding a new way of doing things, not on assigning blame,” says Mr. Charron.

When the project was finished, the team had worked more than 5 million hours with a lost time injury rate of only 0.27.

Safety wasn’t the only place where project leaders took a new approach. They also made iterative improvements to work flows. To more efficiently craft the 38 massive pots needed to produce aluminum, for example, the team carefully measured and analyzed construction of a pot. Most crews reach an ideal building pace after constructing 60 pots, but by scrutinizing the data and making adjustments to the process, the team did it in only 22.

“Instead of waiting until the end of the project, when we don’t remember half of the good things, every step involved lessons learned,” says Mr. Charron.

That project management rigor helped the team finish one month ahead of schedule—and fuel efficiencies on future projects.


Project: Design and build a new aluminum plant to demonstrate the industrial viability of a proprietary smelting technology

Budget: CA$1.3 billion

Location: Jonquière, Quebec, Canada

Key Players: Rio Tinto Alcan, SNC-Lavalin, Hatch

Highlight: The project, completed ahead of schedule, showcased how to scale a new technology while improving safety standards.


Healthcare Reboot

To appreciate the complexities of the Access Health CT project, one must retrace the history of the U.S. Affordable Care Act.

Signed into law in March 2010, the bill mandated health insurance for U.S. citizens, made available through federal or state online marketplaces. Connecticut was one of 16 states that opted to build, launch and operate its own exchange, with a fixed deadline of 1 October 2013.

But the state didn’t have approval to develop the exchange until December 2012. What would have been a three-year project had just 10 months to be up and running.

To meet the deadline while balancing political pressures and enormous operational challenges, the team turned to outside vendors and consulting firms. KPMG was engaged as the technical adviser, while Deloitte served as the system integrator.

“Everything that wasn’t our core strength—setting up call centers, scanning paper applications, printing, development—got outsourced,” says Jim Wadleigh, CIO of Access Health CT.

The team also established a project management office (PMO) to manage the intense requirements analysis and stakeholder issues. “I wouldn’t ever even consider not having a PMO on this type of project,” he says.

The team had to coordinate services with federal agencies and integrate work flows into state groups—all while staying focused on the 365,000 uninsured and under-insured Connecticut residents using the site.

Each stakeholder group was represented during weekly meetings, where the team discussed problems and hashed out solutions. That intense coordination took time, but it also ensured issues were addressed early on and the team’s rolling-wave project plans weren’t disrupted or reworked unnecessarily.

Likewise, each vendor was required to submit a one-page status report to the PMO each week, including the top five risks, dependencies, accomplishments and priorities for the week ahead.

With federal requirements still being finalized and the team in the thick of execution, project leaders realized their full ambitions wouldn’t be realized by the deadline. So they reassessed the critical path and reduced the scope to 19 business-essential functions, delaying or eliminating other features such as mobile device support.

That scope reduction allowed the project team to meet the October 2013 deadline without going over budget. When the site went live, there were no major IT glitches or stakeholder uproars. As of March 2014, more than 190,000 residents had signed up for health insurance, exceeding federal enrollment targets. PM


Project: Create an online marketplace for Connecticut, USA residents to purchase health insurance

Budget: US$180 million

Location: Hartford, Connecticut, USA

Key Players: Access Health CT, Deloitte, KPMG, Connecticut Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Connecticut Department of Social Services

Highlight: The site launched without a hitch despite an unmovable deadline, compressed schedule and fluctuating scope.


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