Interview with: Stijn Van de Vonder
Interview by: Frank Turley
Date: June 2018
Job Title: Director- Primaned Belgium
Who is Stijn Van de Vonder?
I work for BMS at the Princeton, New Jersey, USA location. In addition to working for BMS, I am an Adjunct Professor at Villanova University, teaching various Project Management classes. I am also the Executive Vice President & Past President of the PMI Delaware Valley Chapter. Our chapter supports 3500 members in Southeastern Pennsylvania, Delaware, and parts of Maryland.
1) What type of project do you do?
Me and my colleagues are involved in complex projects with budgets ranging from 50 million euros to multiple billions of euros. We mostly work on projects in engineering & construction or in the pharmaceutical industry.
2) How are megaprojects different than typical projects?
These projects are almost always multi-disciplinary and involve multiple public and private actors with different interests, but they are heavily dependent on each other. A megaproject is not the same as a program consisting of many smaller projects; it is truly one interwoven project with many interrelations, which we call interfaces. Managing these interfaces is the key to make these projects successful, but because of the high degree of uncertainty in these projects, interface management is a challenging task. What happens if the owner delays the work of the contractor? These discussions quickly become very contractual. We are talking about a lot of money here, of course.
3) What is the role of the project manager in these projects?
Given the complexity of these projects, it is no longer realistic for a single project manager to manage all the various elements of the project. Hence, project management tasks are divided over multiple persons with specific roles. For example, the contractual aspect is handled by a contract manager. What my company is specialized in is project controls. This encapsulates the analytical processes within project management such as scheduling, risk analysis, cost control and reporting. We deliver the analytical insights to ensure the project’s success.
4) ) Do they follow standards such as PMBOK and PRINCE2?
It is a bit of a strange situation in my eyes. The adoption rate of PM certificates is very low in the construction industry, especially if we compare with the IT industry. Managers in construction are also not very much preoccupied with defining and implementing processes. It is still a very pragmatic sector, but if you look a bit closer, construction projects actually follow traditional project management processes quite closely, much more than IT projects do. Scheduling is, for example, very important for us.
5) How is scheduling done?
Traditionally in these projects, scheduling is done based on the critical path method (CPM). We even have professional schedulers that create and maintain the project schedule. They basically follow the step as described in the PMBOK. The resulting schedule is a contractual deliverable but is also used for all kinds of analysis. When I talk to PMs coming from other industries they are always surprised that the “theoretical stuff” that they learned during PMI courses such as Monte Carlo simulation or Earned Value Management are truly being used on these projects.
6) What tools do you use when Scheduling?
In our kind of projects, Oracle Primavera P6 is the standard. It has the advantage that it is a true multi-user tool and that it stimulates the usage of best practices. MS Project is also a good tool, but most users don’t use it the correct way. Apart from those, we have a lot of specialist tools for schedule, risk analysis, earned value management, 4D planning, etc.
7) Do you also use more Agile approaches?
No, we don’t use Agile as they do in IT development. No Agile manifesto for us. As I already said, we are rather traditional. A good schedule is absolutely required to monitor the overall flow of the project and to manage the interfaces, but our schedules are very dynamic and are constantly monitored and updated. We also have many mechanisms to deal with scope changes. Probably much more than Agile project managers realize. However, there is a trend towards lean scheduling and that certainly has similarities with Agile.
8) How does Lean Scheduling work?
I will start with explaining why it is being used. The problem with traditional schedules is that schedulers try to obtain certainty by adding details. Schedules of big projects may have tens of thousands of activities that form an unmanageable activity network with an uncountable number of precedence relationships. Using these kind of schedules to steer execution leads to micromanagement and a lot of resistance from the team members. They are controlled against a schedule that they did not agree with in the first place. Not very motivating.
Lean scheduling gives team members the responsibility to plan their own tasks. Often it is done by weekly (standing) meetings where team members use post-its on a big white board to make commitments. They will then be controlled against their own commitments and not against a detailed schedule made by someone else.
9) What are the main advantages of this approach?
It is part of the lean philosophy. The idea is to eliminate waste, which in this context means reducing time waste such as idle time or rework. This way the project delivery date should be optimized, but in practice, the commitment of team members to the plan may be a more important advantage. We really struggle with that when using a traditional scheduling approach.
10) So is this the end of traditional scheduling?
No, not at all. We are talking about two different level of details and two different purposes. CPM schedules are as important as ever to manage the bigger picture of the project. It is still being used as a contractual deliverable towards the project owner and as the basis for progress control, schedule risk analysis, claim analysis, etc.
We now only leave the (non-contractual) details out. These tasks are planned by the team members, but within the windows defined by the top-down schedule.
11) What tools do you use for Lean Scheduling?
As said before, a lot of lean scheduling occurs with post-its on a white board. Very powerful, but it has two main disadvantages. It is not digitalized and not directly integrated with CPM scheduling. The bigger picture might be lost.
We recently started to use a new tool called Oracle Prime Project. It has the great feature that it integrates lean scheduling with CPM scheduling. When a team member moves a virtual post-it on the digitalized work plan, we directly see its impact on the schedule and on measures such as Total Float. It really combines the best of two worlds. I believe that these kind of hybrid approaches are the future of scheduling.