Characteristics of successful/unsuccessful projects 26 Apr 2018

William Edgerton, Principal, McMillen Jacobs Associates

Contract practices as being a factor in whether a project has a successful outcome or not was a focus of discussion at the WTC (World Tunnel Congress) 2018 in Dubai.

Some of the recommendations relate to the contract form, such as the new FIDIC/ITA Emerald Book, which includes specific clauses related to underground works, and some of the recommendations are for the use of specific tools which can be specified by contract, such as GBRs (geotechnical baseline reports), Risk Management and BIM.

Other ideas for improving outcomes focus on the delivery method, whether design-bid-build, design-build or any of the other related options. Some, perhaps all, of these things might be useful. However, from my perspective, there are two primary factors that outweigh all others:

  1. The capability of each participant to perform its designated scope - eg:
    • The client-owner to provide the real estate and funding
    • The designer to provide a quality design in a timely manner, and
    • The contractor to manage labor and logistics in an efficient manner
  2. Perhaps more importantly:
    • The ability of these participants to adjust to changes as the project develops over time.

This last point becomes more important on relatively long duration projects, as is the case with most underground projects.

For any particular project with a specified client, the capability of the designer, and the contractor, can be influenced to a certain extent by the procurement method. For example, selection of contractor or design-build team via the low bid method makes no attempt to evaluate capability by any qualitative means, whereas a two-phase procurement process includes the determination of a satisfactory technical proposal and a best value selection process that considers factors other than price in making the final selection. Both these methods take into account some elements of capability.

Given the nature of long duration projects, it is unlikely that all possible events will be identified in advance, and thus be addressed in contract language. If this happens, then do what?

From the WTC Open Session discussion of what makes a successful project, the single common thread appears to be the ability for the parties involved to communicate with each other in a positive manner, that both recognize each party’s specific concerns and objectives, while focusing on the successful outcome of the project itself. This ability to communicate requires an in depth understanding of human behavior, and the dynamics of group decision-making; which, by the way, are not topics typically covered in engineering schools. Indeed, to generalize, these are skills that engineers do not have in great supply.

Nonetheless, virtually all large construction projects, not only those for underground infrastructure, require such skills, and, in our opinion, it is not feasible to scale up from smaller, shorter projects with fewer stakeholders to manage these megaprojects.

To the extent that these skills are learned on the job, given the typical length of underground projects, very few individuals will have more than one or two of these projects in a lifetime. The solution to this is not obvious, but addressing the above two factors will have the largest impact on the likelihood of successful outcomes of the future large underground projects.


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