Tag Archives: Projects

Big Projects

I once read that, in order to further your career, you had to latch on to a “big” project and make a visible contribution to its success. I’ve never been as callous as to do this intentionally, and for most of my career I had very little to do with the big projects.

The one exception being my involvement with the Mossgas / Mossref project at Iscor. But that since that came with the territory of being superintendent for the plate mill, that was not even a conscious decision. The other locally big project I was involved with was Ebbw Vale’s traffic light system, and that only became big by accident, because it happened to be the right solution for the situation we were in.

But most of the rest of the time I’ve seen big projects come and go from a distance, at times being tangentially involved with them, but never in the centre of things. The last one I saw in operation was the Cost of Liquid Steel (CLS) in cooperation with McKinsey. I could see that if you managed to get on top of producing steel at minimum cost, then that could only benefit the company’s bottom line.

However, another aspect of big projects is often overlooked, which is that it withdraws much needed resources (both in manpower and in money spent) from other projects. Meaning that the savvy ones start attaching their project to the big project on the flimsiest of pretexts, in order to make sure that they’re not starved of resources. Which then dilutes the impetus of the big project because it has become too padded and bulky to achieve its main objectives effectively.

Then again, maybe I’m being unfair towards CLS – after all, something appears to have worked in bringing the South Wales branch of Tata Steel into a small profit, and maybe that was not all due to exchange rates and international steel prices. Still, I’ll always have my doubts over projects that hog the majority of the resources: after all, what is the effect of not completing the projects that have suffered from lack of resources ?

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?”