Crossed wires isn’t something we often talk about at Azenby, what with us being mobile people and predominantly wireless experts, but the recent news about crossed wires, delays and cost overruns on the Crossrail project got us thinking about why is it that strategic projects so often fail to deliver on time and to budget.
Like many other UK businesses based in London and the south east, we have been looking forward to the opening of the new east-west rail route linking Essex and Kent to Berkshire through central London. Last week’s news that the opening date has been put back by one year, just three months before planned completion, was therefore a nasty shock. A project that started with a strategic study in 1974 and a construction start of 2009 just shouldn’t get to within three months of completion, before deciding another year is needed. Having over 100 consecutive RAG status reports at Green and then to go Red at this very late stage, must be major cause of concern for Crossrail and its customers. How could this happen though when Crossrail claim ’the key to managing a programme of this scale and complexity is the programme controls process. The Programme Controls sets out how Crossrail developed a world class controls function.’
Crossrail’s own account is of delays to fitting out stations and software delays for the new signalling. We are not construction experts, but we can imagine that building huge station complexes 40m below ground in central London is difficult and prone to delays from unforeseen circumstances. As for software delays, this is a 10-year programme of work which does seem plenty of time to develop some software! Doubtless the programme has had a small army of Project Managers working hard and adopting all the latest start-of-the-art project processes and using all the best tools and systems available befitting a £15bn project. Yet still the project suffers problems at the 11th hour. So again, we ask; how can that be? Especially as we don’t doubt the dedication of the team on the ground, the excellence of the processes and the strategic commitment of the leadership.
While we don’t have the inside track on all this, we are pretty sure that at Azenby, we can hazard a good guess! That’s a bold, brash statement to make but we do have many years’ experience of large complex projects in the mobile industry and have the battle scars to prove it. We can honestly say, ‘we’ve been there done that!’ Our own conclusion is that this “last minute nasty” surprise is the result of two factors.
Firstly, programme failure. It isn’t for the want of project management that projects overrun, it’s the lack of real subject matter expertise that underpins the timing and budget assumptions that go into the making of a project plan. Project Managers may have PPM, Prince 2, Six Sigma, PMP or any other of the long list of qualifications behind their name, but without subject matter expertise to really understand the time and costs of delivering the desired outcome, they are really only making their best guess. Good project management alone is not enough. Real depth of experience counts.
At Azenby, we have seen at close quarters many major mobile projects from 1st generation onwards and that is a lot of projects and a lot of learning. Something we are very proud of. Can we say the mobile industry is a role model for others to follow when it comes to delivering projects on time? Well hardly. 2nd generation (Global System for Mobile Communications, as it become known) was a good example. The introduction of GSM was indeed a large and complex project. Roll-out everywhere was plagued by delays. Circumstances outside of our control. Planning permission for the vital infrastructure needed, specification and network equipment delays, billing systems to be designed and built, sales channels to be established, nothing was off- the -shelf or ready-made. We were in unchartered territory. And just when we finally thought we had the networks ready, we looked around and discovered that there were no mobile devices for customers to use. In fact, Mario Sentinelli from TIM produced those now famous badges saying GSM stood for God Send Mobiles. Maybe every project needs divine intervention of one sort or another!
What we at Azenby have learnt over many years of being practitioners in the mobile industry is that good and strong project management is vital, and no one stands above us in the support and appreciation of good project management, but a project plan is only ever as good as the intelligence it contains and that’s where subject matter expertise comes to bear. Thinking about that, we go through our check list starting with understanding what is really involved in each stage of the project; how long will it really take; what are all the third-party dependencies; have the all the costs really been captured; is the critical path missing vital parts; where will plan Bs be needed, are all the resources available when needed, are the subcontractors and their sub-contractors really prepared? Of course, Project Managers go through the same thinking process, but they don’t always know the answers to these vital questions. They are Project Managers, not subject matter experts. The value that Azenby adds is to ‘road test’ the project plan in conjunction with the project manager and project team. We bring an external, independent audit and review to the plan before it starts. We scrutinise and critique the plan and make sure it is robust, realistic, resourced and achievable.
A second crucial ingredient in the failure of large projects comes from the contracts structure. Often little over runs are over looked, swept aside, ‘hidden’ perhaps until the nasty surprise at the end reveals systemic failures in the project. Creating a transparent and communication rich contract structure where 3rd parties and teams at all layers in the delivery can openly and honestly express concerns and challenges is an extraordinarily tough challenge, but time and again we have found excellent programme management can only be fostered when time has been taken to ensure absolutely that the leaders can hear, communicate and act on feedback from all the projects’ actors. We fully realise this is especially hard in large public contracts with political components, but nonetheless needed.
Azenby often act’s as an expert support to the leadership team in large deliverable. A second channel freed of political, departmental, managerial constraints can help gather a more nuanced perspective on a projects progress.
Over the years we have helped many Mobile Operators deliver complex projects such as RAN share and Network merge programmes all over the world. We bring our unique experience of these projects and provide the subject matter expertise to the type of projects that only ever get done once, helping make sure that they get done right first time. There is no second chance with these projects.
At Azenby we have lived and prospered from 1st generation mobile to 4G LTE and now we wait with anticipation for 5G which is just around the corner. We write this article in the earnest belief that we can all learn useful lessons from Crossrail. At Azenby we will be delighted to share and support those successes.