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Do you think you can manage?

MANAGEMENT: Good project management is vital to the success of major schemes. Antony Oliver finds out why.

When the first stretch of the Jubilee Line Extension opened last week, it was a major technical achievement for engineers on the £3.2bn job. But it was perhaps an even bigger success for the project management team.

Commissioning manager David Waboso is one of them. An engineer by background, he is now responsible for bringing all trains, control systems and power supplies into service and has been central to the project since joining JLE on secondment from management consultant Nichols Group in 1996.

'To manage a very complex project and all the people involved, it is very important to understand the technical side of how things work,' he explains.

'You have to be able to take technical and engineering problems and break them down into key actions so that the project is always moving forward.'

Waboso was the Association of Project Management's project manager of the year in 1996. He says he soon realised that it was vital to improve his people and management skills if he was to get on in his career.

'People who do engineering are generally comfortable with inanimate objects and less comfortable when dealing with people,' he says. 'The two require completely different skill sets.'

Civil-engineering courses and professional training are changing this view slowly, he points out, adding that altering the whole industry's mindset towards the project management role is the vital step that must be taken.

Increasingly, with very complex projects, the vital task is not technical design or construction or the work - but managing the interfaces between all the separate parts. Too often, says Waboso, construction has dealt with these interfaces by putting contracts in place rather than good management.

In a paper presented to the Institution of Railway Signal Engineers last February, Waboso pointed out that most specification of engineering projects is still at the contract level, giving little consideration of the whole job. 'This results in a 'spaghetti' approach to interface management, with the project team continuously on the back foot as the interfaces become battlegrounds.'

For Waboso, implementing Sir Michael Latham's 1994 industry reforms or Sir John Egan's more recent tome on improving construction efficiency means just one thing: better project management.

'The market sets the requirements and the industry has to respond,' he says. 'If it doesn't, then other people will soon step in to do it for them. It's a threat but also an opportunity.'

Waboso's own management expertise came via a short MBA on the Advanced Management programme at Oxford University. On top of this he has an MSc in civil engineering and a qualification in safety critical systems from Imperial College. He has also completed the certification programme of the Association of Project Management.

That said, he is not in favour of everyone rushing off to enrol at management school. 'There are many good courses available for engineers but many are hugely expensive,' he says. His view is that, although full-blown management training provides an excellent skills base for engineers, what is often more appropriate is using the numerous books and lectures available to boost expertise in a more cost-effective way.

Waboso is convinced that engineers and their employers must have a clear idea of what they want to achieve if they do invest in management training. 'People have got to be able to demonstrate that spending money on this training is good for their business,' he says. 'And, once trained, firms must use engineers in a role appropriate to their new skills.'

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