Project management: Getting everyone on the same track

Cultural fit and communication proved crucial as London Underground sought to standardise the management of some 1,700 projects across a diverse range of users and partners. Arif Mohamed reports on the lessons learned along the line

Cultural fit and communication proved crucial as London Underground sought to standardise the management of some 1,700 projects across a diverse range of users and partners. Arif Mohamed reports on the lessons learned along the line.

Managing the complexity of about 1,700 simultaneous projects is no mean feat, especially when you are also working with a number of partner organisations on each project.

This is the challenge that faced London Underground, and its solution was to introduce a central project repository and encourage its partners to adopt both the repository and its project management platform.

The road was rocky at times, but the exercise has led to London Underground standardising the way both its staff and the parent companies work with project data, and will ultimately lead to better and more accurate data.

This in turn will mean projects meet their deadlines, budgets, compliance requirements and other metrics more smoothly.

London Underground said it has often faced criticism for the inefficiency of its services, but argues that the sheer intricacy of its operation and the number of projects it runs at any one time can help to explain some of its shortcomings.

For example, three million passengers travel on the Tube on a daily basis, and the network covers 253 miles of train routes. The corporation manages 12,000 operational staff, engineering and commercial assets, ticketing and the new Oyster card system, plus power, radio, PA and CCTV systems.

Another level of complexity comes from London Underground having to coordinate its operations with several organisations working under private finance initiatives (PFI) and public private partnerships (PPP). These infrastructure companies help to maintain and upgrade the network.

London Underground itself is responsible for operating the trains, but oversees the whole network, working with eight PPPs and PFIs. The main PPP is Metronet Rail, which helps maintain two-thirds of the London Underground network.

Tube Lines is another PPP, and maintains the Jubilee, Northern and Piccadilly lines. Among the PFIs are Terminal 5, EDF Energy Powerlink, and Citylink Telecommunications consortium. 

One of London Underground’s major successes was getting these organisations to implement the same project management system, from supplier Primavera, and to use a single project database designed and hosted by London Underground.

London Underground has been using Primavera’s software since 1989, and decided to adopt the system as its main planning and management tool during the Jubilee Line extension in the mid-1990s – the largest project London Underground has undertaken.

In 2002 and 2003 various infrastructure companies signed PPP contracts and agreed to emulate London Underground’s Primavera format for maintaining and transferring their programme information. They did, however, require some way for a wider pool of non-technical staff to access this information.

In response, London Underground’s Programme Assurance Office designed and commissioned a central project database, which it was keen to share with its employees and infrastructure partners.

The aim was to help coordinate the activities of all projects and programmes taking place on the underground network, and to be able to drill down to the details of each project.

London Underground considered its options, which included building a system from scratch, using a commercial application, a web-centric application, or an open source platform.

It chose to create a bespoke software system, called The Master Project Database (MPD) that ran on a powerful Compaq Proliant DL740 datacentre server. This was based on the Primavera Enterprise 5.0 system and a Microsoft SQL Server 2000 database and web browser interface, so users could easily access and input project data in a common format.

Mark Zehnder, director of London Underground’s Programme Assurance Office, said, “Coordination is based on communication, and if we could provide the added value of communicating project information as a common language across all organisations, the infrastructure companies would be compelled to buy into the new system.”

In April 2003, London Underground was ready to introduce the MPD system. But before it could convince its infrastructure partners to use it, it first had to convince its own staff.

Users revolted over a pilot programme, with some staff deciding not to cooperate. There was widespread anxiety regarding the new system, and London Underground realised they had a cultural change problem. The project leaders feared they would need to abandon the central database idea altogether.

“The initial response was of significant pushback, particularly from the top. There was an interest in understanding it more, but a lack of clarity in what the information was going to be used for,” said Zehnder.

On top of this, the infrastructure partners did not agree with the process London Underground had chosen for recording and managing project information. “[They] had issues regarding transparency of detailed budgets and actual costs for project activities,” said Zehnder.

London Underground decided to relaunch the database system, after a long period of talking to staff and explaining the purpose and benefits of the system. It brought in external IT consultants, Stapleton International, to review both the system and London Underground’s roll-out approach.

Then, to address the concerns of the infrastructure companies, London Underground carried out an independent legal review with law firm Manatt, Phelps & Phillips. This led to an agreement in December 2003 over new guidelines for the provision of data, which was signed and implemented by March 2004.

During this period, London Underground worked with project staff, both internal and from the infrastructure companies, to make sure they understood and were happy with the new processes.

MPD “desk reference” and website resources were produced, and data providers were assured that the information would aid the communication and successful delivery of projects. User meetings were held every four weeks, to discuss new developments and listen to requests.

The second attempt at implementation had a better reception, said Zehnder, and staff and the infrastructure companies were more cooperative. There was an informal launch in June 2004, and an official launch at the end of March 2005.

One thing that helped the infrastructure companies adopt Primavera and the bespoke database was London Underground’s willingness to help them develop their systems, said Rory Hunt, master projects database manager at London Underground.

“We share IT professionals on an open non-formal basis if they are stuck,” said Hunt, adding that London Underground staff would spend several days at a time on the partner’s premises, talking them through technical issues.

Zehnder said, “The key to all of this has been very good co-operation. We often meet face to face, and have e-mails flying back and forth. At a technical level, there is lots of interchange.

“We are very open and frank about problems. If Metronet has problems with their system, it is our problem. Our collaboration is non contractual.”

Since 2003, all projects from all the infrastructure partners have been put into the MPD system, and there are 1,200 people using it via the web. The database now contains more than 1,700 projects at a total estimated value of £21bn. London Underground’s Primavera system has 120 users.

“We are all coming into a unified system, all speaking the same project language and we can view all the capital works on the underground networks, from tracks to stations, trains to signalling, radios to Oyster card readers,” said Hunt.

Much of the project data is commercially sensitive and so the system has features that can control how the data comes into the system and how it is used, he added.

Because London Underground manages the central database, it is able to run a Business Objects business intelligence application for ad-hoc interrogation of the data and to build review charts.

London Underground recently upgraded its server system to run Primavera and SQL Server 2003, and between 2004 and the end of January 2006, helped the infrastructure companies move onto the same version of Primavera.

London Underground designed a roadmap to help the organisations upgrade to Enterprise version 5.0, which required close communication and coordination and three months’ testing prior to the roll-out.

The main driver behind getting all the partners to upgrade together was to ensure that project data was as good as it could be. “People’s confidence in [a project] is very much down to how good the data is,” said Hunt.

“We are always working with [the other infrastructure companies] to ensure that what they think they are sending is what they are actually sending. We have to be assured the data sent is of the highest quality,” said Zehnder.


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