The Schedule Master
David Mercer, National Grid, Warwick, England
PHOTO BY JON BOYES
EXTENSIVE OFFSHORE North Sea gas fields used to make the United Kingdom self-sufficient in natural gas. No longer. Today, the country's 21 million gas customers are increasingly relying on imports. According to forecasts by British utility National Grid, imported gas will jump from roughly 50 percent of consumption by 2010 to a massive 80 percent by 2016.
The gas is shipped to the United Kingdom in giant vessels. Once unloaded, it needs to be connected to the U.K. National Transmission System, National Grid's network of more than 6,600 kilometers (4,100 miles) of pipeline.
And that's where David Mercer, senior project manager at National Grid, comes in.
“A good project plan has some form of contingency, mitigation or alternative action built in to allow time for critical decisions.”
In 2005, two new liquefied natural gas import terminals located near Milford Haven, South West Wales needed connecting to the National Transmission System. And it was Mr. Mercer who got the call.
His mission: bury 197 miles (317 kilometers) of 48-inch (122-centimeter) diameter steel pipe under prime agricultural land, a national park, and a maze of roads, rivers and railway lines.
And he had to accomplish that mission on schedule—or else. The project deadlines came laden with penalty clauses.
Crucial to keeping the project on course was obtaining the necessary permissions—permissions that would have to come from bodies as diverse as central and local governments, the national parks authority and no fewer than 833 individual landowners.
It was a process that Mr. Mercer knew all too well could derail the project's timetable. When he'd worked on another major infrastructure project to erect a 400,000-volt power line through Britain's Vale of York, it had taken nine years to secure the required consents.
So to keep the pipeline project on track, he took his case directly to the people—each and every one of them.
“A communications strategy to explain the need for the project to every stakeholder is vital,” he says. “And the message is a complex one. There will be communities that are affected by the project that won't directly benefit from it.”
To secure stakeholder support, National Grid carried out a widespread public information program before and during the construction period. Along with holding face-to-face gatherings for those likely to be affected by the project, the company gave more than 80 public exhibitions and presentations, issued 20,000-plus letters, met with government officials over 40 times and launched a project information phone line that has logged more than 3,500 calls.
Mr. Mercer also called on the experts drawing up the pipeline's projected route to work as one team. “There's always a balance to be drawn between cost, construction, difficulty and environmental impact,” he explains. “You can't have one important part of the team working in isolation from other important parts of the team.”
Of course, when timing is tight, the slightest delay can throw the project off schedule. So risk management takes on a starring role—especially on projects where companies will have to pay for their scheduling missteps.
“Having understood the key risks, I map them out on the program, and then put in place mitigation and contingency plans for each one,” Mr. Mercer explains.
And when all the facts aren't at hand, don't be rushed into making decisions, he advises.
“You need the confidence to make the right decisions—not just the decisions that the project plan calls to be made at a particular point in time,” Mr. Mercer explains. “At the planning and consents stage of a project, a wrong decision can add years and sometimes it is better to make decisions later than planned to ensure they are right. A good project plan has some form of contingency, mitigation or alternative action built in to allow time for critical decisions.”
His efforts seem to have paid off. The pipeline officially opened on 27 November 2007—meeting the deadline. “I'm required to deliver to time, cost and specification,” says Mr. Mercer. “That's the job of the project manager.” —Malcolm Wheatley
Leadership 2009 www.pmi.org