2017 Project of the Year — Complexity and Risk

PODCAST | With Guest Doug Greenwell | 21 March 2018

Transcript

Announcer

The future of project management is changing fast. On Projectified with PMI we'll help you stay ahead of the trends as we talk about what that means for the industry and for everyone involved.

Stephen W. Maye

I'm Stephen W. Maye, for Projectified with PMI. For an easy way to stay up-to-date on Projectified with PMI, go to iTunes, Stitcher, Google Play Music and PMI.org/Podcast. In this episode we meet Doug Greenwell, who leads projects in one of the most dangerous and technically challenging environments on Earth, America's post-Cold War nuclear waste facilities.

Doug shares the experiences, challenges and insights behind winning PMI's prestigious Project of The Year award. He also shares lessons learned in dealing with diverse stakeholders and an unfriendly media and still manages to convince me that he loves his job.

Doug, I've had an opportunity to read the application that you and your team submitted to be considered for Project of The Year and it would be an understatement to say that I was impressed. So thank you for the opportunity to see that in part of my preparation. So I'm very much looking forward to talking with you about it.

Doug Greenwell

Thank you. I'm looking forward to discussing it too.

Stephen W. Maye

This is a fascinating project and I know we're going to have an opportunity to get into various details of it as we talk, but just from the outset give us the layman's version of what the project was. What were you setting out to accomplish? What problem were you setting out to solve? What were you up against?

Doug Greenwell

I'd like to say upfront that I'm doing this podcast with you as a Project Manager on AY-102. I'm speaking for myself, I'm not speaking as a representative of the US Department of Energy or the corporations that were involved. I'm going to give you my viewpoints on how the project went and the values that were represented by the team that did the work.

Stephen W. Maye

I think your story is probably more interesting to us anyway. So thank you for that.

Doug Greenwell

Okay. This AY-102 Recovery Project was performed at the Hanford Reservation which is an approximately 600 square miles reservation in South Eastern Washington State in the United States. It has a fascinating history. It began back in World War II and continued operating as a plutonium production site through the Cold War era and since then it's been in a clean-up mission to remove the radionuclides left over from plutonium production. At the site there are 177 underground storage tanks that contain highly radioactive and chemical waste. I believe it's about 25 million gallons which from a layman's standpoint you hear that and go, "Wow!" and that is quite a challenge for the country. But it's a legacy of World War II and the Cold War.

Stephen W. Maye

So 25 million gallons - how do we think of that in terms of volume? Is this a small lake, how many Olympic size swimming pools? What's the order of magnitude?

Doug Greenwell

It's a large amount. I think your average rural water system tower is about two million gallons. So a lot of those.

Stephen W. Maye

That helps, thank you

Doug Greenwell

But I want to emphasise it's a legacy of the history that made the United States what it is today. So it's an unfortunate challenge but this country's dedicated to cleaning up that mess and restoring the Hanford site to the beautiful high desert territory that it always was.

Stephen W. Maye

I'm grateful that we have people like yourself that are dedicated to seeing that happen.

Doug Greenwell

Of those 177 storage tanks, that range in size from about 50,000 gallons to a million gallons each, there are older tanks that were built from the 1940s up to the early 1960s that were single shell tanks. Single tank means there was just one concrete barrier between the tank wall and the soil, but as technology advanced and we became more environmentally conscious we started building double shell tanks. These tanks have both an inner and outer containment and have a lot more features to prevent and also to detect the possibility of a leak and there's 28 of those.

Stephen W. Maye

About when did we start introducing the double shell tanks?

Doug Greenwell

The first double shell tank that was built in 1970 and is the subject of this project, AY-102. Being the first tank built this way, there were some challenges in its construction and we know this because of the records taken at the time. Some of the welding that was done in the winter out in the desert required several re-works, and because of this we know the original construction of the tank was a contributing factor to its eventual leak.

Stephen W. Maye

So helpful that you had that level of documentation certainly.

Doug Greenwell

Absolutely. We have very good records throughout the years of what was put in the tanks and how they were operated.

Stephen W. Maye

So what were you up against? How would you define the project itself? So there was a challenge you were facing, how were you going to define success at the end? So what was it from a project overview perspective?

Doug Greenwell

The project began in 2012 when routine monitoring that we do on these double shell tanks identified leakage from the primary tank into the secondary annulus space. We were able to get into this annulus ring around the tank using a number of techniques, ultrasonic, video inspections and through routine monitoring we saw that there was some waste leaking into that annulus space. No evidence it had leaked into the soil column, into the environment yet, but this was the first double shell tank that was demonstrating failure of the primary containment. So quite an eye-opener for the site and caused us to move forward with a very fast-track project to remove the waste out of the tank to a different tank that was known to be sound and secure.

Stephen W. Maye

Help us understand the risk. What were we facing here if this went unaddressed or if this wasn't addressed well? What were the implications of not getting this right?

Doug Greenwell

Well radioactive material has been identified as a carcinogen as well as other health effects and the contamination that's in these tanks is some of the most dangerous material in the world. So we take extraordinary efforts to take care of it and make sure it doesn't enter the environment.

Stephen W. Maye

There must not be very many people on Earth that are qualified to lead that project. How did you get here? What's your brief history that brought you to playing such a significant role in a project of this magnitude and of this significance?

Doug Greenwell

The Hanford site is run by the US Department of Energy and they also have a number of other sites around the country that were involved with the weapons production mission. I've spent the majority of my professional career working on clean-up of these sites and it's been an exceptional, challenging career and I've really enjoyed it and I feel like I'm doing something meaningful. So I've got 30 plus years of experience working on various clean-up projects in the US Department of Energy system.

Stephen W. Maye

One of the things that I noticed in reading the application, which was a quite extensive explanation, definition and summary of the project, was the first-of-a-kind nature of the project. So help us understand what was unique about it.

Doug Greenwell

So the US Department of Energy sites do have experience in retrieving tank waste at different sites, including the Hanford site, primarily with the single shell older tanks. This is the first fairly new double shell tank, built in 1970, that had demonstrated a leak. We had a great deal of faith in these tanks and this was not a situation that we expected to encounter before the waste was treated. Maybe we should have in hindsight, but we had not expected that. The challenge of pumping that waste out is not only just setting up all the very safety redundant systems that we put in to move the waste to a different tank, but we have to do it in a manner that avoids any potential of exposure to the workers that have to build that equipment, as well as protect the environment from a leak. I'm reminded of the doctor's creed, do no harm. Very true in our business too in our efforts to clean up nuclear waste. We don't want to set up a situation where we release it to the environment or get a worker exposed. In fact our workers now when they're in these tank farms are required to wear anti contamination clothing as well as fully contained breathing apparatus, basically a scuba outfit. So they're on supplied air whenever they're working around these tanks.

Stephen W. Maye

And that's if they are within this tank farm which you described earlier as a very large area. So if they're in that area, then they're on supplied air?

Doug Greenwell

That's correct.

Stephen W. Maye

Thank you.

Doug Greenwell

So there's the potential for a leak and the impacts to the environment and the community. But I tell you as a manager of a workforce my greatest concern is to ensure that the workers are not exposed to the waste or just simply the industrial hazards with working around a very busy site. For example tripping hazards and just all the standard industrial hazards that go along with the work is compounded by wearing all that protective equipment that they have to do to guard themselves from the radiation and chemical hazards.

Stephen W. Maye

I want to ask you about the most significant hurdles and I'd like to break that down into the most significant technical challenge or hurdle and then the most significant human challenge or hurdle. Let's start with the technical. When you look at the entire project from the recognition of the need, all the way through to having successfully delivered it. What do you view as the most significant technical challenge?

Doug Greenwell

Again there were attributes of the double shell tanks that we had to overcome that were different from any tank that had been retrieved in our history. Those were the technical challenges, so a flat bottom, working around the internal obstructions with our sluicing equipment, had to design different sluicing equipment. But I would say the biggest hurdle for us to overcome was justa sense of urgency and the speed in which the project had to be performed. It actually took years from initial discovery of the leak before all the waste was retrieved. But that's not because we were going at a average pace, it's just that much equipment had to be installed without compromising quality or safety. It took us about two and a half years from initial discovery tocompletion of construction before retrieval operations began.

Stephen W. Maye

I think that helps to provide a sense of scale. Are you at liberty to share the cost of this project?

Doug Greenwell

The cost was slightly over $100 million.

Stephen W. Maye

So not a small affair.

Doug Greenwell

No and we are very careful to spend our tax dollars wisely and that cost is driven primarily by the safety measures that we're required to take to ensure that we don't have a release to the environment. That we don't jeopardize the many communities in the area or expose a worker. So from that standpoint the cost seems high until you consider the consequences of having any of that radioactive waste get out.

Stephen W. Maye

So you described in part the technical challenge being that these double shell tanks have a large number of internal structures that created simple obstruction in just trying to do the work. The fact that the tanks have a flat bottom which you could say would be similar to trying to finish a milkshake and having 30 additional obstructions inside the milkshake cup. The urgency that was overlaid over the entire thing and then the fact that it is an expensive and necessarily time consuming project. In the midst of all that what did you identify as the greatest human challenge?

Doug Greenwell

Well again the work is very hazardous. The actual retrieval equipment is operated remotely, essentially robotics are used so our operators are sitting in a control room looking at TV screen and operating joysticks to move the retrieval equipment within the tanks. So just the experience of the team that was necessary to perform that work is a very highly qualified workforce thatyou need to do that on a fast-track schedule. The human challenge was keeping the workforce safe while they perform this project at the highest quality level necessary to keep everyone from being exposed to that waste.

Stephen W. Maye

One of the things that keeps coming to mind for me is there seems to be so many parallels between doing this work properly and either working in space or working at the depths of the ocean. The need for robotics, the need for a sort of disconnect between the actual work and the humans that are performing it, the need for special equipment for the people and of course the work itself. I just keep having this image of it being almost like working at the bottom of the sea.

Doug Greenwell

That's a good metaphor and if you think about those other industries, the training that those workers go through is enormous and it's no different in the nuclear industry. We invest quite a bit of effort in our training programmes. In fact our workers are heavily involved as worker trainers and we rely very much on the corporate knowledge from the workers who've been out there many years and have seen how to do this work safely to train the new employees. So heavy investment in optimising human performance.

Stephen W. Maye

My understanding is that within a matter of months you were able to prepare a team that was then appropriate skilled up and ready to do this as well as it was done. How did you do that? How did you manage the talent challenge?

Doug Greenwell

Very aggressive recruiting and hiring campaign that involved the entire company, our HR department, our training department, all the different safety skills. We organised block training with our worker trainers who have extensive experience in this retrieval work. So we don't take a new worker and put them in a high hazard work environment, we mentor them for a period of time under the wings of experienced workers. There's a small amount of very high hazard activities from a work planning standpoint, but there's a much larger base of activities needed to support the work that we can put our new employees on so they can gain skills without being put in a situation they're not ready for. So by using that approach, we hired over 100 people and brought them in and completed the project meeting all of our objectives. But the human part was probably the most challenging aspect of the project, just because, going back to your metaphor of deep sea or space, the skill set needed to do the work is very unique and requires considerable expertise. It isn't gained overnight, but we do have a workforce at hand that is just outstanding. We just had not planned for a very fast-track project of this type and so we had to add employees and tuck them under the wings, if you will, of our more experienced workers who were there.

Stephen W. Maye

I realise you may not have the exact number off the top of your head, but approximately how many people worked on the project over the two and a half plus years?

Doug Greenwell

You know we actually tried to get an exact count on that because being the type of project it was, even before we had this Project of The Year recognition we did put out an internal recognition to all the employees who were involved. Because we knew this was not your average project and it was going to be a once-in-a-lifetime event for them. It was over a thousand people, I think. The number was around 1,100 people who had a significant involvement with the project over the years.

Stephen W. Maye

So you must have learned a lot in that process, managing and building the talent that you needed for that, bringing together the kind of team that could do this well. If you set out to do another one, so this was AY-102, if another tank required essentially a repeat of this project what would you do differently on the talent side?

Doug Greenwell

It's an interesting question because now that we've had a double shell tank have a leak, we are actively planning to be better prepared for the next one if it were to occur. Let me clarify one thing, these double shell tanks were designed exceptionally, even though it was back in the 1970s and '80s. And if you manage the chemistry of these tanks well they can last for hundreds ofyears. So they are appropriate for the mission of storing this waste. However, after we finished the AY-102 retrieval, we did inspections of the tank and we learned a lot about the conditions that led to the leak of this tank that we will use to help extend the life of the remaining double shell tanks. But to get back to your question, what would we do differently? We're in a planning process right now to say in the event that another double shell tank were to spring a leak in the inner containment, what would we do differently? Essentially we think the approach we used was very good. I don't know that we would pick a different approach, but what we want to do is be able to do that twice as fast. And we're in a position now which is much better than we were when AY-102 started, in that as we were preparing for the next single shell tank farm to be retrieved, we bought a lot of the specialised equipment that is needed for retrieval; the remotely operated sluicing systems and all the infrastructure that goes around it. We have a lot of that equipment in our warehouses now. Whereas when AY-102 happened it came on so fast wecouldn't build the equipment to even meet the timeline that we set out for ourselves to retrieve that tank. So we're challenging ourselves right now to be able to do the same approach just in a much faster timeline because the longer a tank that's exhibiting a leak goes without removing the waste, the greater the chance that a release could occur. So if anything I think we would use the same approach, the same techniques, the fundamentals of project management that we've learned through PMI, but we want to be able to do it in a much faster timeline.

Stephen W. Maye

I'd like to hear more about the communication challenge of a project like this. So two and a half years, 100 plus million dollars, 1,100 people. A mix of stakeholders that ranged from the community at large, I'm sure politicians, federal government agencies, private sector, the team itself. What was your communication philosophy and then how did you execute that to ensure effective alignment and support from such a mix of stakeholders?

Doug Greenwell

It was a challenging mix. You're right, community, Washington State, the Department of Ecology which is our state regulator over the project, our workforce, the media, politicians. So all of the above were actively involved with the project. I would say my basic approach was to be as transparent as possible. The significance of this tank leaking its internal liner raised a lot ofconcerns. Not only about the potential of a leak from this tank but what does this mean to the rest of the stored waste out there? So whenever possible we would try and update the public with progress on how we were preparing to remove the waste. We would show what the leak rate was into the annulus space, which fortunately was fairly slow to begin with but over time was very slowly increasing so we knew there was a sense of urgency. So we tried to get the message out as broadly as we could and as transparently as we could. I'll say from a personal standpoint my experience in this industry is that you use the word radioactive or nuclear and immediately you can spread a great deal of fear within the people that matter a lot in the community including decision makers. My best response to that is to share openly everything we know about not only the good news, but the potentially bad news and the uncertainty associated with a project like that. By doing so I think you can at least win the hearts of these people, so that they understand the people involved and that they care and that they're doing the best they can with what they've got. And that may be the best you can do in a situation like that. I would say it's more the multiple channel approach. I will say just for the sake of sharing openly the evolution on this project, it didn't start off well. The news of a leaking double shell tank got very negative headlines. And one of my greatest frustrations as a project manager is there are media outlets out there who will take opportunities on a interesting topic to sensationalise.

Stephen W. Maye

Give me an example of the kind of thing that might be reported and the impression that would create, versus what you understood to be the reality being someone on the ground, heavily engaged in the project.

Doug Greenwell

I've got a good example and I won't name the media outlet, it wouldn't be fair of me to do so. And actually it's a lessons learned too and the lesson I'll say upfront is if there are significant contingencies involved with these complex projects, you not only need to communicate the planned evolution of the project as you know it, but you also need to communicate key contingencies.So what happened was as we were retrieving this tank we knew, through our risk management analysis, that there was a good chance that the leak would open up by virtue of us putting retrieval activities into the tank and putting the energy required to move the waste out. That that would exacerbate the leak and cause waste to flow into the [annule] space.

Stephen W. Maye

So it might have to get worse before it got better?

Doug Greenwell

Exactly. And as we approached about 92% retrieve that's exactly what happened in the middle of the night. Our retrieval crews operate 24 seven and they were retrieving and our sluicers were spraying in the location which turns out to be where the primary leak sites are. And that sluicing operation opened up the corroded through liner of the tank and a great deal of [annule] or a great deal of the liquid within the tank went into the annulus space. Well we had planned for that evolution all along. In fact we had installed a pumping system in the annulus to pump the waste that would accumulate in the annulus back to the primary where it could then be pumped out to the double shell tank. So from our standpoint our crews reacted to that situation by implementing the procedures that had been already established, activating the pumping system, pumping it back to the primary. It was a planned evolution, we knew what we were doing. It worked flawlessly. There were media channels, including one that presents weather out there that most people would know, that report general news in the course of their weather forecasting. And they presented a story of America's Fukushima at Hanford. And they described our situation as some kind of a tragic event and we're just stunned watching this. So the big lessons learned that I took to my heart was to the extent that you can, you need to communicate key contingencies and that they're planned for and that we're going to implement response actions and that's part of the plan. We've taken a more active role in doing that in the projects going forward.

Stephen W. Maye

So not to in any way diminish the significance of what you were dealing with and what you were working on there and the project that you were executing, but I just continue to be amazed by how the same issues, the same concerns, the same patterns emerge in major projects, whether they are dealing with radioactive nuclear waste or whether they are dealing with deploying a new ERP system. What you just described, you could change a few words and you could actually apply that in a large technology implementation where perhaps you know, for example, that there'll be a certain decline in productivity. Or you know there'll be a certain decline in employee satisfaction or some other factors. You know it, you've planned for it, you have a contingency in place and yet if you haven't set expectations well you get a similar kind of blow-up. Although maybe less significant, maybe in a more contained environment but it's remarkable to me, the way those patterns continue to emerge regardless of the type of project.

Doug Greenwell

I agree. What I've seen in my career is large complex projects share many attributes in terms of risk management, communication, the human factor in terms of trying to maximise the performance of the work team and leadership. And those shared attributes are areas where you make or break these complex projects. And by the way the world does not have the best track record on very large complex projects, bringing them in on schedule and on cost, especially those that exceed a billion. I think they just become so difficult to manage that they are at great risk of going long and expensive.

Stephen W. Maye

And to some degree there's a really important factor here of the human tolerance to live in the midst of the disruption. So you look at these projects that take years to deliver well, achieve their objective, produce the value that they're intended to produce and it is very difficult for people to stay focused, to stay in the game, to continue to make the sacrifice, to continue to be committed throughout that entire process. It's a significant human challenge even when the technology is stellar.

Doug Greenwell

That's absolutely true. One of the things I'll mention is through this Project of The Year experience I got to meet the management team representatives from the other finalists and what an opportunity to meet some highly talented people and see some of the same types of challenges across very different industries.

Stephen W. Maye

I'm not surprised to hear you say that and I'm glad you got the opportunity to connect with them. So Doug, if you came through this entire thing as you have from the start deeply engaged and involved, you've got the tattoo and the scars to show for it. If you wrote a book about the most important thing you learned in the experience, what would the title be? What would you call that book?

Doug Greenwell

Risk Management, No Kidding It Works. I'm an engineer by training and I don't have the crispest title. But one of the things I see in these large complex projects, because I have been involved with more than one that's been successful over the years, is that we have very well developed risk management processes. PMI has a very good body of knowledge associated with that. But in these complex multi-year, 100 million plus projects the degree that you need to implement risk management and keep it in the forefront of your decision making all the way through the process is tenfold. There are so many opportunities for one variable to derail one of these large projects and which variable could it be? Well there are many that could be the problem. So we spent quite a bit of effort as a leadership team monitoring and updating our risk profiles and establishing mitigation actions and some of them I'll say we spent effort on and the risk didn't materialise or it wasn't as bad as we thought it would be. But there were others that if we had not taken the action that we had done, we would not have been successful. There's just no doubt. So I think that's a life lesson for me. And then the other one is just that of leadership. I think about the project team that we put together, again in a very fast timeline. The principal project manager that we put on this had never done this type of work before. Has experience in the nuclear industry but had not retrieved a radioactive waste tank. But we put him with a select group of engineering leaders and other management disciplines that had a great deal of experience in radioactive waste tank retrieval and we also put other members on the team that had other skill sets or just personality types, if you will, that provided a great diversity within the team, that allowed them to not default to a group think. And I think the construct of that team and how they performed, which was a combination of new insights as well as expertise from the field, was a big contributor to the success of the project.

Stephen W. Maye

That's great. And that really plays to something that we've not talked about but came through to me as I read about the project and in the conversation that we've had. Underneath this highly technical, dangerous, large scale work was actually a great deal of creativity and innovation.

Doug Greenwell

Yeah I have to say I love my job. It's intellectually challenging. The calibre of people I work with is exceptional. This country is in good hands in terms of the nuclear industry. We attract some exceptionally talented people. And then the impact we have on society and generations ahead is not trivial, so it's extraordinarily challenging, it's not without its daily frustrations which I'm sure every interesting industry has. But it's been very rewarding and I love what I do.

Stephen W. Maye

That's great. Well I was going to ask you why you do it. I think you've just answered that. So one more question. You've been incredibly generous with your time and your experience, Doug I appreciate it. What do you believe is the primary reason that this project won Project of The Year?

Doug Greenwell

Well again the other finalists were exceptional representations of projects in their industry and every one of them was worthy of Project of The Year. it's just an amazing group of talent. I believe we won because we demonstrate the most positive impact to society through the application of the fundamentals of project management. That's the best way I could put it. It was a very successful project, it was accomplished through the fundamentals of what we've learned through PMI and years of experience and it made a big impact.

Stephen W. Maye

With a quick commercial there for project management making a significant impact to society, Doug gets the last word. Doug, thank you so much for being here, it has been a pleasure.

Doug Greenwell

It's been a pleasure too, Stephen. Thank you very much.

Stephen W. Maye

For an easy to way to stay up to date on Projectified with PMI, go to iTunes, Stitcher, Google Play Music and PMI.org/Podcast.

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