When Is a Project Finished?


That was the question asked in all earnest when I was at Iscor’s Steelmaking Technology department. The situation was thus : for every major project, you had to write a project brief, stating the initial problem setting, the desired outcome and the steps proposed to achieve the latter. So far so good.

However, there must be something especially bureaucratic n the Afrikaner mind, because once you had stated that you were going to take steps 1 to 14 to resolve a problem, you were expected to complete all those steps. Never mind that it’s not always clear in advance what steps will have to be taken – you could, for instance, stumble upon an intermediate finding that looked so promising that it took on a life of its own and generated a whole new set of action steps. Or a finding quite early on could make it clear that steps 6 to 9 are no longer required because of something you’ve learned in step 5.

To the Afrikaner mindset the first instance, where one action step generates a whole new subset of its own, would require you to write a whole new project brief, in essence creating a completely new project. In the case of the latter, it is more likely than not that steps 6 to 9 would still be undertaken, or at least you would have a fight on your hands convincing your boss that it was indeed a good management of resources to drop them.

But the instance I’m thinking of was a project on the cleanliness of steel, where one action step made such a difference that the goal stated in the project brief was already achieved. This is what caused the question to be asked : now that we’ve achieved the aim, do we continue pouring resources into this project, or do we cut it short ? I can’t quite remember what exactly was decided in the end, but I suppose you could make a case for both types of action.

Cutting the project short once you’ve achieved your aim frees up finite resources in manpower and time on the production lines for other projects. Whereas continuing your project as originally planned makes it possible (at least in principle) that you’ll discover further means of improving the steel cleanliness.

In a way, the hydrogen project I described in an earlier blog was a victim of this type of box ticking. I had done my trial attempting to enrich the steel with hydrogen, had failed, and that was that action step taken care of. If anybody at this stage had said “hey, that’s funny …” maybe further steps could have been added to what was officially a completed project brief, but somehow that opportunity was overlooked.

Presumably as much my fault as the system’s (after all, I had by then started working on inclusions in DWI tinplate, and had lost interest in the hydrogen-in-steel issue), but a project leader more inclined to follow his nose rather than completing the paperwork might just possibly have found an answer to a question that hadn’t been asked, which is “How do you keep the hydrogen content of your steel low in the first place?”

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