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Thursday, 03 December 2009 05:00

Interface Management in Transportation Projects

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Since the beginning of time, projects of varying size and complexity have been constructed. They were pioneered by great Engineers of their time. Projects like the Pyramids in Egypt, the great China Wall, The Eiffel Tower in Paris and many others, represent the phenomenal endeavours to subject the laws of nature for the benefit of mankind.

Over time, project delivery has changed in nature as Engineers continue to improve the process. The project life cycle has been introduced to better manage projects. This resulted in the breaking down of the project into little phases. As time developed, the organizational structure of project organization changed accordingly. Previously, one organization handled the project from start to finish, today, each phase is handled by a separate department within the same organization, or sometimes by an external organization, thereby introducing more interfaces between which information flow is a key feature.

Transportation projects, by nature, trespass into the domains of other utilities and entities. These can be businesses, residential areas, commercial activities, and infrastructure utilities. The recent democratization in Bahrain has been accompanied by an alert and active public as stakeholders who insist to play a role in the project definition and implementation, bringing different kinds of interfaces.

What does this mean?. Well, it simply means that there is a multitude of interfaces which require proper management, coordination and agreements. Timely and appropriate communication between teams in the design phase and teams in the construction phase can lead to the elimination of constraints and smoother construction. This communication is required between all other phases, like design, procurement, delivery, testing, etc., as well as between different partners, like main contractors, subcontractors, suppliers etc.

Projects require timely interventions and inputs by critical stakeholders. This is more so when the entities concerned are external to the owning organization, or are geographically distant to the project.

It requires excellent skills and an alert approach to project integration management to ensure that the right input at the right time is made available to move the project forward to a successful ending.


2.0 Definitions

The terminology used to describe the title of this paper maybe somewhat strange for some people. It is a common term in the field of project management. It encompasses a number of processes portrayed in the Project Management Institute (PMI) Project Management body of Knowledge PMBoK.

What is meant by interfaces in projects?, and, what is interface management in projects?

Interface refers to the critical areas and issues which link the project, one of its components or project team members with an internal or external individual(s) or entity. It is the formal and informal boundaries and relationships among people, departments, organizations and functions.

Interfacing is the process of establishing a satisfactory working boundary between two adjacent parts.

Interface management is the management of communication, coordination and responsibility across the boundary between two organizations, phases, or physical entities which are interdependent. It is the actions, coordination and decision to mitigate the negative impact of the interface issues.


3.0 Basic Elements of Interface Management

Having defined the terms involved, and in order to develop sufficient understanding of interface management and its requirements, it is necessary to explore the basic elements which the project manager is required to understand for better control and management.

The PMI PMBoK explains a number of knowledge areas and processes which have a direct link to interface management, and contribute significantly to the success of project delivery.

Project environment is very sensitive. The complexity arises from the fact that there are several inputs at various phases and stages of the project. The coordination of these inputs by others is very critical to avoid costly delays.


3.1 Stakeholder Management

Projects have impact on their surroundings (individuals, groups or organizations), but are also impacted by the surrounding. It was recognized since the beginning of time that without effective, intelligent and continuous communication with such individuals, groups and organizations, the project can suffer serious delays and cost overruns.

Proper Project Management approach calls for the formulation of a comprehensive stakeholder management strategy, where stakeholders are identified, their needs and expectations are listed and assessed, and then management plans are developed and put to action to deal with them. Timely and appropriate response to stakeholder expectations is necessary to make a good impression about the project and to create support.


3.2 Communications Management

Following the identification of stakeholders, it is equally important to develop a well studied and orchestrated communications plan. The PMI PMBoK views communications to be the most important role to play in project management.

Communications management is probably the backbone of interface management in projects. Who needs to know what, and at what time? What is expected of them? The answers for such questions will give valuable information that enables the project manager build a good understanding of the project environment and the interface issues involved.


3.3 Risk Management

Most of the issues relating to interfaces will be identified through the risk management exercise that takes place at various stages of the project.  Since risk management is a detailed exercise to capture all possible negative events that can develop into a trouble making issue, the outcome of this exercise creates a very good understanding about the nature and possible directions that a project is likely to take.

The quantification and assessment of risks in terms of likelihood and impact, and their relevance to specific stakeholders makes it possible to set the proper communications plan to address this interface.  Most of the risk sources in projects are related to interface issues, thus calling for more stringent and vigorous exercises to address the relevant issues in major projects.


4.0 Paradigm Shift in the Project Life Cycle

The procurement management in project delivery has evolved to eliminate the project life cycle from being owned by several parties. Traditional project delivery methods segmented the project life cycle so that each phase is owned and handled by an entity, which can be a unit within the same organization, for example the design is conducted by the design department, or by an external organization (outsourcing).

Prime contracting is where all the phases fall under one Authority called the Prime Contractor. In between these two extreme methods, there were various forms of procurement allocating responsibility of the project phases. Despite all this change, there is always a need to manage input by different entities into the project at various phases, and a phase interface management (gate review) is required before the project is progresses to the next phase of development.

The breaking of projects into small phases is intended to better manage the project delivery points and ensure that all the requirements of the previous phase are fulfilled before the project moves to the next phase. This interface issue is very important to manage by the project manager in order to make certain that the project is moving in a healthy manner.


5.0 Examples of Interfaces

Highway and transportation projects are unique in that they involve a variety of stakeholders. The function of a Project Team transcends the boundaries of the project as the interactions are countless. As such, the challenges that these kinds of projects impose are numerous and more difficult to handle.

The interface issues can be at team level (personal interfaces), organizational level (interface between units of the same organization), or, and it is often the case, with other external entities (cross organizational interfaces). Because of their nature, transportation projects usually have a tremendous number of stakeholders, thus bringing difficult challenges.

These projects also have a direct impact on the public. It is therefore very important to develop strategies to accommodate the public and mitigate the impact of the project on them. Often the public will have a direct stake in the project, especially those stakeholders who are in close proximity to the project, either through their direct involvement, or through their legal representatives (Municipal and Parliamentarian Members).

During the initial phases of project team development, the project manager plays an important role in managing the tensions that develop as a result of inherent differences in attitudes, culture, capabilities and other aspects among the team members.  Issues between team members are usually difficult to handle at the initial stage of forming the team, and when the team members are pulled from different units of the organization, thus causing conflicts and competition for key roles. Leaving these issues unresolved can cause inadequate cohesion amongst the project team members and eventually adversely affect the performance of the project.

Often adjacent projects can have issues that require preplanning and coordination to ensure clear definition of scope and responsibilities, as well timely actions so that the operation or commissioning of one project is not hindered by the delays or disruptions in the other.  This is critically important when deliverable in one project are required so that activities in the other can start.  These dependencies are frequently overlooked when there isn’t sufficient communication between the two project managers.

Unless a clear strategy and practical steps are taken to address these interfaces, the project may undergo a turbulent time.


6.0 What can be done?

The implications and risks of improper management of interface issues increase with the size of the project. They can be catastrophic in terms of time and cost. New directions in project management approach are required to mitigate such implications. There are established practices already in the construction industry which address these issues. However, farming them together can direct all resources and personnel towards giving interface management the right level of attention.


6.1 Early Stakeholder Involvement

Communication of and capture of information to and from critical stakeholders is key to smooth interface management. The expression of needs and the assessment of such needs at an early stage of the project pave the way for clear plans and allocation of responsibilities.

Our experience shows that this approach has a significant impact on communication and schedule management. As a result of early stakeholder involvement, we were able to prepare for the procurement of critical items for the project, and also identify time slots for stakeholder subcontractors to do work appropriate for our programme requirements.


6.2 Partnering Philosophy and Supply Chain Management

It is critical that interface issues are looked at collectively through the adoption of an integrated approach encompassing the supply chain entities.  The supply chain management approach uses the collaborative philosophy in addressing the project requirements.

The advocation of a partnering approach to project management contributes to the creation of one team sense. Much of project delays in the field of transportation are attributed to the unsynchronized priorities between key stakeholders, thus depriving the project from important inputs.

When the project interfaces with an organization that bears a sense of ownership and belonging to the project, the dedication and motivation that moves that organization is at a level which guarantees continuous contribution, and a focus on a happy ending for the project.


6.3 Project Integration Management

In the process of managing the different components of the project and caring for the different knowledge areas, we tend to ignore the bigger picture of integration. While each knowledge area and component is important to look at in great details, it is essential that an overall view of the whole project environment is maintained. Integration management gives this opportunity and ensures that all the necessary aspects are looked after.

Integration management widens the horizons of project managers to bear a comprehensive view and understanding of the project life cycle. It also enables an analytical approach to all constraints that can hamper the progress of the project, thus equipping project managers with in depth understanding and tools to overcome all the difficulties and push the progress of the works forward.


7.0 Conclusion and Recommendations

Our experience in the Ministry of Works has given us an in depth knowledge and an insight in managing multiple projects. We have learned that the Project Manager is required to spend sufficient time and give enough thought to address the various interface issues.  In all cases, our experience shows, preplanning, effective stakeholder assessment and communication are important tools and practices that can bring good benefits for the project.

In a project environment, the multiparty participation and interaction is an essential ingredient for the process to move in a healthy manner.  The need to appropriately manage this interaction therefore arises from the criticality of this issue and its impact on the success or failure of the project.

The project interest should always be at the forefront when considering interface issues, but at the same time a fair approach is needed to ensure others needs are also managed.

The interface management is based on principles which are already common practices. Risk and stakeholder management, communications management and integration management are core activities which the project manager and his team should undertake during the project life cycle.

The contribution of the various entities and groups at different phases or points in time can best be managed if the project manager adopts a coordinated overall view of the project, and a detailed analysis of the relationships and interface borders that develop during the life of the project.

Partnering and collaborative approach can lead to the accommodation of the expectations and needs of key stakeholders, and the smooth implementation of the project. It should be part of the culture and a regular practice in managing transportation projects.



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