How not to do Project Management- Lessons from Bengaluru Metro

There’s one school of thought – that you learn something when you do it and experience the feedback. It’s true. When a parent tells a mischievous child that putting your finger on top of the lamp fire will hurt you, the child does not listen. It puts its finger on top of it and burns its finger. The next time it does not do it. It has learnt from it.

There’s another school of thought – which says that you can learn from another person’s mistake. You see the action and then the reaction and you already have learnt what not to do. A child sees a parent cutting the vegetables. In the middle of it, the parent is distracted by what comes on the TV. So instead of chopping the vegetable, the parent lands up cutting his finger. The parent is in pain for several days. The child has learnt its lesson that the cocktail of doing a dangerous job and getting distracted is explosive! It does not repeat it – when the parent asks for help in cutting something.

Well, for all practitioners of project management, Namma Metro (Bangalore Metro), provides you an opportunity to learn from their mistakes and mishaps! I have always thought I should write about it. So when Sreedharan – the father of Indian metro gave his observations recently, I felt it’s time to write.I am not here to say whether a technocrat or a bureaucrat should run it. This is about the mistakes in Project Management, as I see it.

When the risk materialized

Right at the beginning, when they did a feasibility study for the Namma Metro in Bengaluru (then Bangalore) – the obvious was well known. Bengaluru has an igneous rock base (Bengaluru rocks, anyway!). So what would you expect, when you plan your underground tunnel?

According to press reports, the MD of Namma Metro explained that the inordinate delays in the project was due to the hardness of the rocks on which Bengaluru resides.  Unfortunately when you have poor project management practice – you tend to blame the tough job rather than your incompetency to plan for the “known tough job”. So what is the risk you see here as a good Project Manager (PM). Is running into hard rocks in tunnelling a risk? Or the inability to predict when you run into hard rocks, the risk?

Lesson 1:  Any good PM, would immediately identify that the risk is not running into rocks, but planning for any failures during the process of drilling the rocks.

Let us now see how our Namma Metro people planned for this risk. The Tunnel Boring Machine (TBM) Godavari developed cracks in July 2014. So the tunnelling work came to a halt. After blaming the rocks, Namma Metro decided to place an order for a TBM cutter. It was placed with an Italian company. They initially “hoped” to restart the tunnelling in Feb 2015.

The cost of buying a spare cutter – 5 crores. The financial cost of every month’s delay (assuming even 3000 crores were spent in that track – 25% of the overall escalated cost) is 30 crores per month. So 7 months of delay would incur a financial cost of 210 crores. Not to forget the salaries paid to employees, and the inconvenience to the public – due to the delay.

Lesson 2:  Any good PM, would compute the impact of the risk first. When you know that the cost of mitigation is 5 crores; whereas the cost of accepting the risk is 210 crores ++, the mitigation plan of buying a spare cutter would be in play.

With Namma Metro constantly having missed many an earlier schedule and cost plan, what do they do? They start giving half-baked half-truth information. So without a real plan they commit to a target date – stating that the Metro will be operational by Dec 2015. It’s based on a hopeful “Feb 2015” start of the TBM.

A February departure from Italy did not mean the TBM Godavari will start working in March 2015. There’s the shipping time, the customs clearance, movement on the road, and finally decommissioning the old cutter and then attaching the new cutter. It finally is ready to operate in July 2015.

Lesson 3:  Any good PM, who has a professional reputation, would not operate on half truths. Nobody likes bad news. Delaying the bad news in regular installments only erodes the professional credibility and trust. (But our Metro folks – may never have worried about this. Why? What do you think was their reputation even before that?). A good PM plans and shares a credible plan with the stakeholders.

Now the Chief Minister has stated that the project will be fully commissioned by Mar 2016. Is this a target? A hope? Or is this backed by credible plan?

Let’s look at the data thus far. TBM Godavari, took 6 months to tunnel 350 metres.  It still has 615 metres to go. So, assuming that you have not done any changes to the way you work, and factoring in that the terrain would be similar the 615 metres would potentially need 10 months to tunnel. If you start in Aug 2015, that translates to May 2016. Then you need at least two months to test and get certification (the most aggressive plan). This would then lead you to Jul 2016.

Lesson 4: Any good governance team, would not just set targets. It would review the plan and ask the person to show the feasibility of the plan. If that was done, do you think a March 2016 date was a commitment. Or was it just a a target. Good governance – is not about setting targets. It’s about reviewing the plan, understanding the feasibility to meet the commitment.

When planning misses what’s critical

All of us, who run projects, invariably get a deadline. So the first thing you do is to work out the timeline for each of the deliverables. You then sequence them such that you figure out the critical path. Once you find that you act on that first. You then work on the other parallel paths, after that.

That’s the basic 101 for any Project Manager, isn’t it.

Let’s look at how our friends in the Namma Metro planned.

They figured out that the underground section would take the maximum time. Then they knew that the North-South and East-West line intersect underground. They also knew that tunnelling was more complex than building over ground. There was no prior underground tunnel work in Bangalore – so by definition there would be unknown risks.

How did Namma Metro approach the tendering process. They started tendering all the overground segments first. Finally they decided to start the tendering for the underground East-West segment, almost a year later. Further they took another year to start the planning  for the underground North-South segment.

What happens now – Your critical path is delayed by 2 years already.

Lesson 5:  A good PM  plans and acts first on his critical path, before looking at the other paths. When there are deliverables that are critical, complex, you act on them before you look at the others  – where you have the slack to help.

In Conclusion

I am sure eventually, there will come a day when the Namma Metro Phase 1 will be fully operational – if not March 2016, it could be September 2016. Sometime thereafter as we at Bengaluru start using it and would forget all these never ending promises, delays, and even the cost over-runs, as long as the quality of the service is good.

So I am sure that the program in total would turn out to be successful. However, it does not mean that the people who managed the project – did their job effectively. They failed and in my opinion failed miserably – due to poor Project Management. The two illustrations above show us how they failed in their risk management and schedule management.

I hope the rest of us as Project Manager, can learn from this, without having to repeat this by ourselves to learn and remember.

The bigger question – will Namma Metro learn (in the true sense) and work to a real, effective plan, with truthful commitment to the public at large in the future phases of the metro? Or do you believe that Namma Metro Phase 2 will provide us with even more hard lessons!

What do you think?

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