Coupling & Crosstalk: Project Management – What me worry?

Courtesy of Mr. Murphy!

Coupling & Crosstalk is my column in the MEPTEC Report. This column appears in the Summer 2018 edition on pages 8-9.

Electronic coupling is the transfer of energy from one circuit or medium to another. Sometimes it is intentional and sometimes not (crosstalk). I hope that this column, by mixing technology and general observations, is thought provoking and “couples” with your thinking. Most of the time I will stick to technology but occasional crosstalk diversions may deliver a message closer to home.

Project Management – What me worry?

Alfred E Neuman’s famous “What me worry?” quote should always be in your thoughts at the optimistic beginning of any project. As reality kicks in and the project grinds on-and-on you will finally start remembering Andy Rooney’s somber, pragmatic quotes.  Project success will depend on your team’s ability to realistically control enthusiasm and expectations while minimizing the disruptions to ongoing operations.

Being a do-it-yourselfer humbly reminds me that many of life’s lessons are applicable both personally and professionally. On a bigger project like our currently underway kitchen remodel, the family team clearly started with Alfred’s “What me worry?” approach as we drooled over magazine pictures.  Switching to my consultant’s hat I started to address “reality” with the following success factors:

DON’T DISRUPT ONGOING OPERATIONS. Simply put, we needed to have meals throughout the project: i.e., refrigerator, stove, and sink had to be operational at all times.

ESTABLISH PRELIMINARY BUDGET. We switched our reading from House Beautiful to the IKEA catalog. Even then, we had concerns that infrastructure costs (more on this later) would dwarf the cost of cabinets.

ASSEMBLE AND SUPERVISE A COMPETENT TEAM. There was a lot of work to be done in a short time: demolition of the existing kitchen, assembling and installing a garage full of IKEA cabinets, In house staff – my spouse and children, my parents, and my brother’s family – all pitched in. However, we also needed to hire and schedule professionals for floor refinishing, drywall, plumbing, counter tops, and tile setting. Of course, acting as the “General Contractor”, – i.e. project manager – yours truly got involved in contracts, insurance, permits, inspections, and (gasp) legal not to mention risk management, scheduling, and accounting.

DOCUMENT AND PLAN THE ENTIRE PROJECT BEFORE STARTING. Building permits were the starting point and we knew that we had to purchase and install the cabinets and appliances all at once rather than one at a time. Here is where it became interesting…

Our house is just over fifty-years old, so planning the kitchen remodel was a mix of architecture, archeology, and reverse engineering.  As we poked and prodded during the planning and demolition, we became archeologists when we found remnants of prior improvement work. Everything from original linoleum (still tough as nails fifty years later) to layers-upon-layers of old wall paper (of questionable taste even when originally installed). And , reverse engineering to figure out why things were done a certain way and the purpose of mysterious wires and fittings.

 DEFINE REALISTIC SCOPE OF PROJECT. We decided to dramatically expand the scope of this project for peace of mind and to avoid exorbitant future costs...  Our house was plumbed with galvanized steel pipes and we have reached the upper end of the maximum service life of approximately fifty years. So, we decided that since the walls would be open it would be best (cost-effective) to replace our plumbing and water heater at the same time. Especially since several of our neighbors have had to deal with similar-aged broken pipes in the middle of the night requiring emergency repairs followed by repiping the entire house with copper supply lines. Our pipes had become occluded due to rust and sediment build up over time resulting in low water pressure… Think rusty arteriosclerosis.

This logical and “simple” add more than doubled the scope of the overall project compared to   a simple kitchen remodel. The cost of the repipe was a contingency in the budget from the beginning since as a good project manager I knew not to confuse the headline with the detailed project definition. And the need to repipe reminded me of the importance of proper building and maintaining of infrastructure.

Plumbing, like many other types of infrastructure, is out of sight and out of mind until it no longer functions properly. More likely than not a catastrophic event announces the failure of this critical infrastructure. And to make matters worse, I hate plumbing!  What is more maddening than a confusing array of “(non-)standard” part types is that a plumbing connection looks good now but in hours or days may start leaking. Even the work of experienced and licensed plumbers has needed after-the-fact “adjustments” due to leaks.

Infrastructure of all types has a cost to implement and maintain. And since infrastructure is often ignored – both professionally and personally – maintenance is not regularly performed and the cost to repair / replace is not often obvious. In the case of plumbing, the issues may not become obvious until the work is underway.

The repiping was added to our official plans and budget but we then were exposed to a third sage: Murphy! The one whose law will mess up anyone’s project estimate.

We knew that our water main was also galvanized but we took steps to avoid “touching it” during the repipe in the hope of avoiding cracking it. However, to our surprise  just the act of pressurizing / depressurizing the main was sufficient to have it rupture under the driveway about sixty feet from the house. And even though we knew the main valve at our house wasn’t closing fully we shortly discovered that the city shutoff was also broken. It was good that we chose to repipe since we would have had no ability to quickly shut off the water from an unexpected burst pipe… Needless to say the broken water main was not only a mess, it doubled the cost and time for completing the infrastructure repairs. Not only did it tax my project management skills, it had me doing a very dour Andy Rooney impersonation.

When running over budget or encountering large surprises in scope, it is far easier to deal with corporate versus personal projects. A well-managed company will redefine, delay, or simply cancel a project that no longer has the proper return on investment (ROI). And if the ROI is still acceptable, the company typically has the wherewithal to allocate additional funding. Individuals are likely to succumb to the fallacy of sunk costs, because there is a high degree of attachment to our homes and a high transactional cost to moving. In the end, most home projects need to be completed once started and the homeowner borrows the money if not readily available.

Why our house and many others were built in the 1940-60’s with galvanized pipes in the first place remains a mystery since the issues we had were known shortcomings at that time. The only thing we can attribute this to is greed on the part of the builders and lack of knowledge or caring on the home buyers of that era. And if any of the parties thought about it, they probably decided that deferring the problem 25 to 50 years was fine since they were likely to be someone else’s problem.

One of the few areas to fully consider service life is in residential condominiums where significant reserves to fund the majority of the replacement cost of infrastructure are required.  In many states, condo associations are required by law to rate the service life of each major item and put a proportionate amount of money into the bank each month for the item’s upkeep. Yes, there may be other unexpected surprises when making repairs or dealing with an issue, but the good news is if the association is run correctly a significant amount of required funding is available. Unfortunately, this mode of thinking is not typically employed by corporations, governments, or individuals. For me? Let’s discuss it after I’m done paying for this project…

So meanwhile let us add to the success factor list: PREPARE FOR MURPHY!

As glamorous and fun new product introduction (NPI) is with all the challenges of ramping up new products, the supporting or continuing engineers who maintain the existing products and factory infrastructure should receive more recognition for their contributions. Successfully managing to keep things running is essential to any business. And as always, my DIY project has provided more insight into project management and the importance of infrastructure. I hope “all’s well that ends well” and that we will be finished shortly.