For this edition of our Ask an Interface Manager Series, we asked three professionals with interface management expertise the question: How involved should owners be when it comes to managing interfaces?
Understanding Project Owner Roles & the Project Lifecycle
By John Thropp, Senior Advisor & Interface Lead
John Thropp is a project management professional with extensive experience in all phases of large-scale engineering projects. He is currently leading the interface group in a megaproject in execution in Europe. John discusses the two extremes of owner involvement and what he has seen as the best way to include owner involvement, which he says is essential for project success.
The role of the project owner changes throughout the lifecycle of the project, and also varies enormously depending on the project itself. Every project is different, and has its own unique features, depending on:
- the number, experience and corporate culture of the interface parties and their sub-contractors
- the division of scope and critical path of the schedule
- the total technical complexity
- the contracts and their scope description
- the basic architecture of the interfaces
- and many other factors
If the owner´s project management team is very small, or lacking experience managing major projects, it may be tempting to ask another party to manage the interfaces. This might be a PMC (Project Management Consultancy), a stand-alone specialist company, or possibly one of the EPC contractors.
Owners & Interfaces - Two Extremes of Project Interface Management
At one extreme, the owner might assign the specialists with defining the project interface management plan, procuring an automated system, and defining the detailed breakdown of scope and activities at the boundaries between each scope. And then, leave it to the contractors to manage the interfaces themselves with little monitoring or management by the owner. In this scenario, the scope of one of the EPC contractors includes acting in the role of lead interface party. However, megaprojects are not usually one project, but a group of related, yet separate, projects. Schedules change, challenges arise, scopes that appeared perfectly defined become uncertain, or change. To manage this requires active involvement by the owner, in ways that proxies cannot and should not control.
At the other extreme, owners used to have an enormous pool of internal resources that could be used to manage the interfaces of the project – with “gatekeepers” standing between the contractors, and approving or vetoing all the communication between them. This model requires a lot of resources in the owner’s organization, and the gatekeepers often result in bottle-necks slowing down or even stopping the flow of information. Indeed, there are situations where this style of management is necessary, but careful oversight is required to ensure it is effective. Benefits must also be balanced by the expense and need to find experienced resources to take on this role.
In my view, it is better to allow direct communication between contractors, but with close follow-up by interface managers within the owner project management team – alert for signs of problems or uncertainty over scope responsibilities. They must continually monitor interface activity for early signs of problems or uncertainty in order to minimize any impact and allow the contractors to keep up progress.
Owners and Interface Meetings
Involvement in interface meetings between contractors is crucial, with the owner´s interface managers and other technical discipline engineers attending and acting as “proactive referees”. Contractors should be allowed to lead the discussions, with the owner’s interface managers available to jump in when necessary if issues arise such as confusion over scope, roles or responsibilities, and to mediate disputes over implementation/design details. They can then discuss during internal meetings within the owner´s organization how best to guide the contractors in resolving challenges and uncertainties – possibly by intervening commercially towards one or more of the contractors.
This ability to see problems early, and mitigate them at lower cost than if identified later, is a key value-driver of proactive owner interface management.
In non-COVID times, having at least some regular interface meetings face-to-face is beneficial. This improves communication and can be extremely useful for making complex discussions. What to do in the time of COVID then, with no physical meetings and most or all people are working from home? The project I am currently working on (upstream oil and gas offshore Europe megaproject) was a few months into the execution phase when the lockdowns started. Not exactly ideal, but a combination of good internet infrastructure in most homes; regular video meetings – both formal and informal; and extremely proactive handling of small communication problems before they escalated has made it possible to closely maintain the original schedules.
Owner Involvement Is Crucial to Interface Management Success
The owner is the party who will be responsible for the facility during its entire lifetime. Delays in project completion or reduced operational efficiency of the facility will affect long-term profitability. For that reason alone, the active involvement of the owner in the interface management process between the contractors performing the project scope is essential.
There are many reasons why the type and intensity of involvement may vary, but I believe that a mix of direct communication between contractors with proactive monitoring of all interface communication by dedicated resources within the owners project team – and especially in meetings – is a critical success factor. At its best, a good interface management team within the owner’s organization repays its cost a thousand-fold.
More on Interface Management & Owner Endorsement
To read more on the topic of owner endorsement from other interface management experts, be sure to check out the full Ask and Interface Manager series.