Project Management Institute

Power source

Daniel Poneman, U.S. Department of Energy, Washington, D.C., USA

FROM THE TOP

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EVEN AMONG the U.S. government's highest echelons, Daniel Poneman is a true power player. And project management is turning out to be his not-so-secret weapon.

As deputy secretary and COO of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), Mr. Poneman relies heavily on project management to keep the massive portfolio on track.

“We view project management as one of our absolute highest priorities,” Mr. Poneman says. “From our energy projects to our national security projects, our goal is to bring cutting-edge project management skills to bear.”

What changes have you made to the DOE's approach to project management since you were appointed in April 2009?

Before President Barack Obama took office, the DOE drilled down pretty deep through a root-cause analysis on some issues that needed improvement and put together a corrective action plan.

We established a set of guidelines to be sure we have sufficient design maturity before we start building, which had been a chronic source of concern. We also began “chunking” to avoid getting very large projects that do not have early deliverables and tend to get out of hand.

We've worked hard on creating transparency to eliminate all of the distortions and inaccuracies that can be encountered on capital projects, and to avoid the issues that arise when things get lost in translation.

Does the DOE have a uniform project management methodology, or does every team and department customize its approach?

We have broad project management principles that we apply to all projects, including guidelines to be sure we always have funding stability, which is always a challenge in government. And we have project peer reviews, a very powerful tool for us.

We want every individual, whether they are on the federal side or the contractor side, to feel investment and ownership in the outcome of their projects.

We also believe very strongly in putting the best authority in the places closest to where the responsibility should be felt. For example, the largest capital asset project we are managing now is a US$12.3 billion waste-treatment facility. We looked very hard to find a capable project director on the federal side, and we gave him authority on the ground to make decisions for the site.

Do you plan to make further changes to the DOE's project management process?

We say that we will only succeed through teamwork and continuous improvement. That lessons-learned process is not confined to the management level. We want every individual, whether they are on the federal side or the contractor side, to feel investment and ownership in the outcome of their projects.

What advice would you offer other project leaders about the lessons learned at the DOE?

Abandon the superficial approach to things that won't give you the tools and traction to make progress.

We abolished quarterly reviews and replaced them with a deep dive. Now, we go project by project and look at where this initiative came from, where it is currently, if an issue has been raised how we come to terms with it, and whether we should be looking for smarter ways to get the same job done. PM

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»Head to PMI.org for an exclusive podcast with Mr. Poneman.

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FEBRUARY 2011 PM NETWORK

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