It is often said--and sometimes it’s even true--that good engineers do not make good project managers.

Generally speaking, engineers are detail oriented. They like to look into the inner workings of an object or process to see what makes it tick. They like to tinker with what they see to make it better than it already is.

Unfortunately, that trait often runs contrary to what is required of a good project manager. A typical example is the plant engineer-as-project manager who conducts a project assessment walk-around and stops to examine every minor detail of piping runs and instrument connections. In doing so he or she loses sight of the big picture.

A good project manager must be able to see the whole picture, sometimes without the integral details; that is, to see the forest in spite of the trees. So when a good project manager wants to get a handle on when a project is expected to complete, he or she needs to step back from the details and determine what metrics are required to see the whole picture.

Project Status

To illustrate, let’s look at a new chemical process plant that’s just coming out of the ground. Let’s say it has been contracted to a turnkey contractor. And let’s assume the work is well under way, with eight months elapsed since ground breaking.

How close to complete a project is depends on what metric is chosen. Pipe welds vs. manhours expended yield different answers. Image source: Wikimedia.How close to complete a project is depends on what metric is chosen. Pipe welds vs. manhours expended yield different answers. Image source: Wikimedia.The plant engineer-turned-project manager now must get his or her arms around the project status and predict when work is expected to complete. Step one most likely will be to ask the contractor. Let’s assume the answer is that the work is currently 40% complete and is expected to complete within the original 20-month plan. Great, but this information needs verification. The engineering side of the project manager’s brain would likely check by extrapolating on a straight-line basis and concur that a completion date 12 months in the future is correct. After all, he or she started by assuming that if 40% was completed in 8 months, then each month nets another 5% complete, requiring 20 months for the total job and therefore leaving 12 more months to go. That conclusion may not be the reality, however.

A good project manager knows that work is achieved through effort expended, and effort expended is measured in hours of hands-on work, commonly expressed as manhours. So several follow-on questions must be asked: 1) How many manhours were originally budgeted for this work, and 2) How many manhours have been expended to date? Usually, the answers are straightforward.

In our case, let’s say that the total job has been budgeted for an expenditure of 100,000 manhours over a 20-months period. Let’s also say that the contractor reported that 40,000 manhours had been expended to date. Therefore, the 40% completion number sounds reasonable; end of story. However, a savvy project manager would ask one more question: How did the contractor arrive at the 40% number? Here’s where things get tricky.

Unraveling the Rest of the Story

There are probably as many answers to this question of how the completion number was determined as there are contractors. And because of this, the savvy project manager already will know the answer he or she wants to hear: It will be a measure of progress achieved to progress planned, not just manhours planned compared against manhours expended.

So assume that the original 100,000 manhour estimate was reasonable. But that estimate was based on an assumed productivity which may not have been achieved. In the case of this hypothetical chemical plant, almost all work efforts are expended with the goal of installing tanks, pumps, valves, and motors. The common thread holding these pieces together is piping, usually miles of it.

At this point, the engineer managing the project frequently has an “aha” moment and focuses on the quantity of piping to be installed, a reasonable engineering mindset. Let’s say there are 5 miles of pipe in total to be installed. One could suggest that after 2 miles of piping has been installed, the project should be around 40% complete. But is it really as simple as that? No.

The good project manager again will focus more on work effort and not just on progress. In this case, measuring progress simply by length of pipe installed does not reflect pure work effort. That’s because lifting a two-foot-long piece of pipe takes the same effort as lifting a four-foot piece, even though twice as much progress can be credited for the longer piece of pipe. That means another metric is required. In this case the metric is piping connections, or welds.

Consider this: Regardless of whether a piece of pipe is two feet long or four, it has two ends. It is in the welding of these ends to the ends of adjacent piping that the work effort is expended. So the most realistic measure of progress is reached by counting welds completed and comparing this number to the total welds planned for completion. (Here we assume that most of the welds are roughly the same diameter and wall thickness.)

Progress on pipe welds offers useful insight into the project’s true status. Progress on pipe welds offers useful insight into the project’s true status. As can be seen in the graph, the pipe welding was scheduled for a 10-month period. However, during the first three months actual progress was less than what was required for the project to remain on schedule. Because the project had already completed the first eight months of the 20-month schedule and the welding was behind plan, the savvy project manager would say this: Even though 40% of the planned manhours have been expended, the project is not 40% complete. In fact, it could extend beyond the planned 20 months and the 100,000 manhours.

Smell Test

The typical plant engineer tasked with managing a complex project such as building or expanding a chemical process plant must add to the details of each step a simplified view that captures the essence of what is happening. This is not to say that it’s not important to delve into the details; that also needs to be done. However, an easy-to-measure metric must be found that can be used as a “smell test” to verify what others are saying about the status of the work.

In the example presented here, the plant engineer wanted to confirm the contractor’s project status assessment by using manhours and time. After all, because 40,000 of the planned 100,000 manhours had been expended, the “40% complete” conclusion sounded reasonable. What’s more, because 40,000 manhours were worked over an eight-month period (averaging 5,000 manhours per month) the conclusion arose that the remaining 60,000 manhours would bring the project to a conclusion in 12 more months. Here too, the metric seemed to confirm that the project would be completed on time.

But as was shown, that was not the real picture. Measuring progress using weld count as the metric that would best reflect project status, the project manager could see that the work effort expended to date was not keeping the weld count where it needed to be. This project in truth was behind schedule.

The engineer-turned-project manager can do the same by stepping back and removing himself or herself from the details. Sometimes this requires more than just an “aha” moment.

Author: Peter Hessler, a former practicing engineer, is president of Construction Business Associates, LLC (email:, a provider of business-management services to the power and process construction community. He has 40 years of experience in the power and industrial plant construction and maintenance industry worldwide, having worked as an owner, contractor and now as a consultant. He has a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering from Virginia Polytechnic Institute, and is the author of two books on power-plant construction management. For a more in-depth discussion on managing large and complex industrial projects, please contact him, or read his book, Power Plant Construction Management: A Survival Guide, an overview of which can be seen here.

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