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Keep on talking

ANALYSIS; Conflict rarely achieves the desired result, says Civil Engineering Manager of the Year Graeme Stewart. Report by Adrian Greeman.

Graeme Stewart is disarmingly easy to talk to, not necessarily what you might expect from the busy boss of a £200M project, a polyethylene process plant for oil giant BP-Amoco. He even insists on fetching the coffee while we are talking.

But he believes that getting on with people is a major part of project management in the 1990s, where the emphasis is on partnership and team building. There is no point in riding a high horse and insisting on respect and status.

'I've been a bit lucky, in that my non-confrontational style fits the current way of doing things,' says Stewart, who has just become the ICE's Civil Engineering Manager of the Year.

BP-Amoco has been an early force in creating partnering or what it calls 'alliances'. There, most people who did things the old way have been retrained.

'Only very rarely does conflict work,' he says. 'You can force people to do things, but it does not work out well. With contractors, for example, all those letters starting 'pursuant to clause 19b' ... 'and hereupon I inform'... and so on, it is all nonsense, a waste of effort drafting and replying.'

At his presentation in the competition finals at the Institution, he showed a list of contractual letters. It was empty. Such an approach is important for team building.

'We want a no-blame atmosphere in which people develop trust and speak out when they have problems so that we can solve them quickly.'

Alliancing is based on trust and when it works there is no need for the client to have a large management team to oversee the work of its contractors.

As a result, Stewart's most recently completed project, the £60M Marine Vapour Recovery Project in Grangemouth in the Firth of Forth, used a team of only two full-timers, himself and the engineering manager. Others were drafted in from time to time, but only for specific tasks like commissioning.

The old approach would have meant a team of 18 or so - 'so we saved perhaps £3M or more in salaries over three years.' Most of those people would have been 'man-marking, checking the contractors daily'.

'With a team you find the best person for the job and let him get on with it,' says Stewart. 'You rely on knowing that the firms involved know what they are doing and want to continue the relationship with the client well into future contracts.'

Stewart may fit in with the partnering trend but he knows what he wants and is firm enough about setting targets. He comments on a recent partnership he read about in NCE that came in several millions of pounds under budget:

'I think partnerships will settle down now and move away from big windfall gains. They are there to encourage teamwork and the targets will be quite stretched.'

Sorting out a partnership or alliance involves tough negotiating and must end up with clear and simple targets, he insists. BP-Amoco knows what it wants and what the price of something should be.

Stewart knows what he wants personally too. When he was starting out as an engineer at Scott Wilson Kirkpatrick in his home town of Glasgow, he noticed that the oil sector paid three times better, so he found himself the funding for a Masters Degree in offshore technology.

He wrote to all the major oil companies for sponsorship. France's Total paid up, in 1981, though he then went to work for Britoil, and when it was taken over, for British Petroleum, now BP-Amoco.

Because Britoil was a small company he tended to see all sides of the early projects he worked on, from design to yard construction to offshore installation and commissioning.

Big team meetings for brain-storming through the risks and going over a project in detail early on to find value savings are part of BP-Amoco's methods. To do that all requires a good team sense, says Stewart, and is another reason for working at establishing good relations.

This needs to be done quickly. Modern projects proceed at a much faster pace than in the past and are front-ended. Getting a team working together rapidly is crucial because the first six months is the important time.

'You don't have five years to build up a knowledge of people. It is a good idea to share a beer or two sometimes,' he suggests.

Making decisions early and setting things in train is a theme that he returns to several times. 'If you line up the various parties and interests early on and find out their preoccupations, you can often sort out difficulties relatively simply and for low cost.'

He gives a number of examples from the Marine Vapour Recovery project at Grangemouth.

This was a high profile project aimed at cutting emissions of volatile gases and vapours during tanker loading. Despite the fact that the national and international environmental benefits will be substantial, it was a sensitive issue locally because of the location of the plant in the Firth of Forth and residents' concerns about noise.

More than two dozen environmental groups and local interests were concerned about the work and its long-term impact.

The project added new equipment to the terminal which loads tankers with oil from the Forties field in the North Sea. Crude oil arrives at huge tanks onshore from a pipeline connecting platforms run by BP Amoco as well as many other companies.

One issue was how it would look. The Scottish Fine Arts Society was concerned about the appearance of the structure in an area of some natural beauty and asked for a change in the colour of columns on a new 1,200t marine platform.

'Catching that early on, we were able to accommodate them and do it simply by ordering a different colour paint. Later on it might have meant going back, grit blasting, changing schedules and so on,' says Stewart.

Another early problem was residents' concern about noise. The project involves capturing 30,000t of volatile gases from the tankers annually and compressing them before passing them to shore along a new pipeline and then across land to a process plant in the tank farm facility at Dalmeny.

'By talking in advance to the supplier, Howdens were able to work on low noise equipment and sound suppression casings which would have cost far more to develop and go back in and fit if we had left it,' says Stewart.

Another advance decision meant an extra pile was installed a year early to support a cable sheave near the loading facility. Installation of the sheave will allow BP-Amoco to haul a pipeline from the shore using a loop cable rather than closing the Firth of Forth and carrying out the operation with a conventional hauling barge.

That was a higher risk operation, especially as the key requirement for the project was that it should remain operational throughout. At $22M (£13.7M) a day throughput, a single day's downtime was unthinkable.

There was also a request that the foreshore be kept free during the winter period when ducks were breeding. 'Knowing that early on meant that we could programme it in,' says Stewart.

Identifying these problems took people skills too, necessitating spending time with various groups.

Keeping people informed internally was just as important. Stewart made sure there was no 'information hoarding' by issuing small newsletters and regularly updated project handbooks.

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