Rescue Mission

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Categories: culture, risk


A major renovation project at Denver International Airport is sending out Mayday signals, with cost overruns that could exceed $350 million and delays measured in years. It’s déjà vu all over again. 

I once did a story on an infamous project debacle—a complex baggage-handling system that had delayed the opening of Denver’s new airport back in the 90s. Years later, I focused on the project rescue that had finally got the system working. I can’t speak to the issues plaguing that same airport’s current renovation project in 2019, but revisiting the lessons shared in that 2002 case study just might help you get a troubled project back on track, too. 

At the crux of Denver airport's baggage problem—as with so many projects gone wrong—were promises that couldn't be kept. Such a complex baggage system had never before been attempted, and the contractor originally estimated it would take four years to complete. But caving to political pressure to cut ribbons and craving a big commission. the contractor squeezed the schedule down to two years. About a year in, as problems began to multiply, airport officials called on a team of rescue specialists.

No two projects are alike, and few operate under the intense media glare that fell on the Denver airport, but the rescue team’s systematic approach to salvaging the situation is instructive. It shows that project recovery is not an exact science, but it is often rooted in a most eternal of quests: the truth. The recovery required rapid stabilizing, ongoing reprioritizing and team rebuilding. And at each step, some hard truths had to be told.

Unload the Baggage

On a failing project where finger pointing is as abundant as straight answers are scarce, separating the core problems from the distractions is a crucial first step. Everyone has opinions about what has gone wrong and why. In Denver, it took eight weeks of meetings to stabilize the situation and set a constructive tone that would guide the turnaround.

“It's imperative that you take time to take a balanced look at the overall situation," says Phil Veal, an infrastructure project turnaround specialist. "It doesn't happen overnight or in one meeting. You have a series of meetings that are tough for everyone. You slowly work on making people see the big picture."

For the picture to come into view, airport stakeholders had to come to grips with the fact that the original opening date had passed. "You need to put that to one side, and say, 'Here's where we need to be, here's the date and here's how we're going to get there.' This is where you need to establish trust by talking honestly and scientifically with all the stakeholders."

Only after taking stock of the situation could the project's requirements be renegotiated and, once agreed upon, a new strategy developed.

Reality Check-In

Team members have to acknowledge the need for project recovery, too. When consultants arrived, they were handed piles of reports on tests showing on-time delivery of bags was actually improving. Digging deeper, they found the numbers had to improve at a rate 10 times greater in order to declare the system ready. "By looking at this curve, there was no way they were going to meet the required metrics for opening the system," Veal says. "But they were still saying, 'We'll open it,' because they had to."

Team members were also fighting too many fires, or perhaps hearing too many alarms. "If one bag in every 1,000 was falling off the conveyor, they were sending a team to solve that issue," Veal says. "That sucks up valuable time and effort. You worry about that later and go figure out where 100 bags out of 1,000 are being lost. You need to focus on the real crisis points."

Unrealistic performance measurements and the inability to rank priorities had overwhelmed the team. "They had never dealt with anything quite this complex," Veal says. "There were so many problems unlike any of the other projects they had delivered. They couldn't see the woods for the trees."

They developed a "70 percent solution." It involved this question: What will keep the most people satisfied for six months until we can get the rest of the system running?

The answer may have seemed as cold as a jet's cargo area, but it was honest. "We could put up with travelers complaining that their bags were 15 minutes late to the carousel [on arrival]," Veal says. "But we had to get the outgoing bags through the gate in the target time, otherwise aircraft can't depart. It wasn't realistic to deliver the whole complex system, but if we got this significant part running to satisfactory levels, then we could declare this airport open."

Cut to the Chase

“It is easy to get confused between meaningful metrics and a sheet full of numbers that aren't germane to the issues," says Veal. "A misperception is that if you have an inch-thick report with a bunch of data, the team is on target. A concise report is much better for decision-making.

When managing projects, Veal circulates an executive report to facilitate what he calls the "elevator conversation." It summarizes the top issues so that if you run into a stakeholder, you can pinpoint in minutes what is going well and what needs improvement. If a project manager is talking for an hour about the issues, then they don't know where to focus energies.

Prepare for Turbulence 

Once the system's requirements were adjusted, the team had to adjust its attitude and approach as well. As the project was broken into chunks of work that people could get their heads around, changes were made in who was assigned to do what.

"You need to realign the team and send the signal that things are different now," Veal says. "You don't do that by sweeping out the entire team. You put capable people in a couple of key roles." 

Typically, a troubled project is lacking a technical expert or a delivery specialist, and sometimes both, Veal says. He developed "tiger teams" charged with resolving specific parts of the project. Then, as a project regains momentum, you might tweak the team again. "Over time, you start thinking about how you strengthen or refresh this team, and you reassign people who don't have the capabilities to match what you're trying to achieve."

It can be effective for the recovery specialists to "shadow" the project leaders and other key technical or delivery roles. It may be just a case that people got distracted by the detail and lost in the complexity of the system, so they need someone to make sure they have the correct perspective. There's no single way to strengthen a team. You need to be situational in your approach.

Create an Early Win

In addition to determining a project's crisis points, it helps to find a secondary issue that can be fixed fast to improve perceptions. For example, Denver airport visitors saw bags falling off carousels during tests, creating a poor impression that fed bad publicity.

"It's not a crisis point, but it may be something you artificially raise in your hierarchy of issues," Veal says. "If you can resolve it, you can use it as a public relations lever and a stepping stone to greater things.”

Cleared for Landing

In the heat of a project recovery effort, participants often lack the perspective that the passage of time can bring. If it feels like a war has been fought, victory is sometimes hard to recognize. Veal says the experience is not always as bad as it seems upon reflection.

A positive, supportive partnership with the project sponsor or client is not only helpful, but often essential to success. By the same token, success requires the project team to act with the urgency of a vested owner when red flags arise. From both sides, it comes down to insisting on the truth, however difficult that may be.

Team leaders and members must have the courage to speak out at the earliest signs of trouble. And they have to be brave enough to tell the project leaders what's going on.

"Human nature is to shy away; and then the problems build until it's patently obvious you're not going to deliver anything," Veal says. "You need to always confront the issues as they arise, in the open, with honesty and integrity."

Posted on: September 10, 2019 03:13 PM | Permalink

Comments (6)

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@Aaron - great case study with lessons learned. Thanks for sharing the DIA debacle.

Very Informative !!! thanks for sharing it ..

Very interesting. Thanks for sharing.

Very enlightening. Thanks for this.

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