Managing Large-scale Automation Projects

Dec. 1, 2009
Large-scale automation projects are high-stakes affairs, and project management largely determines their success or failure.
For example, the modernization of an oil refinery encompasses multiple process control and other engineering technologies, costs tens of millions of dollars, and might employ hundreds of people in different countries around the world. The main project participants will be the customer, the automation supplier, and one or more engineering procurement and construction companies (EPCs). The selection of an automation supplier starts the process. “For a mega‑project, the customer must choose an automation supplier that has mega‑project capability,” advises John Lewis, director of operations, at automation supplier Honeywell Process Solutions (, Phoenix. “Look at the automation supplier’s geographical footprint and at the number of qualified staff who will be available for the project.” Bill Robertson, PE, PMP, senior project manager at Emerson Process Management (, another supplier based in Austin, Texas, encourages customers to adopt a “show-me” perspective, “Any customer faced with selecting automation suppliers should challenge each supplier—early on—to show examples of how their execution processes will work.”The need for effective communication begins as soon as the project participants come together. “People ask me, ‘What’s the single most important influence on a project’s success?’ And I tell them: communication, communication and communication,” says Robertson. “Nine times out of 10, problems are caused by some form of miscommunication. The simplest way to avoid miscommunication is to hold regular meetings within the project team and also with the customer.”Organizational structure can actively promote good communication and problem resolution, says Honeywell’s Lewis, “On large projects, an executive steering committee (ESC) that sits on top of the project is a demonstrated success factor.” In addition to the project manager, members of the ESC are typically senior managers representing all the stakeholders. “Whenever there is a lack of clarity, the ESC steps in and asks, ‘What is the best and most cost-effective way to solve this problem?’ ”Clear Scope“A clear scope of work is critical,” says Robertson. “It may seem that a project will just happen, but it won’t. You have to make sure that you understand what the customer is asking for and expects.” That understanding should begin as soon as possible. “The early involvement of the automation supplier in the overall large project confers a big advantage, both in cost and schedule,” says Lewis.Once the scope has been established, execution becomes the priority. “In the past,” says Lewis, “people didn’t pay as much attention to planning execution. But when you’re working on mega‑projects, execution strategy is key—the planning, the scheduling and the project controls are all critical.” Robertson adds, “The overall objective with any customer is to minimize surprises.”The most direct defense against surprises is risk management. Vincent Zuffante, project director at automation supplier Invensys Operations Management (, in Plano, Texas, highlights its importance, “A detailed risk assessment and mitigation plan should be prepared as early in the project as possible. All stakeholders should be included and share information. It’s easy to think that a risk that seems to be the responsibility of one stakeholder does not have to be understood by all; but a risk that becomes an actuality has a way of cascading its effects throughout the project, and the mitigation plan should take account of this.”However complex, there is only one project. To achieve the best possible outcome, there can be only one team. “For us at Honeywell,” says Lewis, “team building has been an important success factor on large projects. When we’ve focused on up‑front team building and establishing trust and confidence, it’s paid dividends when we moved into the execution phase. Information exchange is open, candid, and quick. It’s one team.”Marty Weil, [email protected], is a freelance writer.Honeywell Process Process Managementwww.emersonprocess.comInvensys Operations

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