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Taking control

T5 Management

Sixteen granite milestones will be handed over this year to mark progress on T5. Jackie Whitelaw reports on how the management team intends to keep the £4bn project on track.

All those with an overview of the T5 construction programme are looking forward with a mix of excitement and apprehension.

The management challenge is changing and new complexities are looming.

The heavy civils work that has dominated the project for the last 16 months has involved a relatively settled workforce and a relatively small team of suppliers. Milestones have been hit, but more lie ahead - and life is set to become even more complicated.

Throughout the coming year, as the T5A roof lift continues and more and more of the substructure work is permanently buried underground, the workforce and the number of companies employing them will undergo an inevitable change as mechanical and electrical skills come to the fore.

There are currently around 50 first tier suppliers on the packed site; by the end of the year there will be substantially more. And the 3,500-strong workforce will have risen to its peak of 4,500. The logistics techniques and systems in play for the civils work including off site prefabrication, careful control of deliveries and scrupulous attention to safety will be newly tested.

'Right now, we are dealing with large volumes of materials and a small number of companies, ' says T5 head of construction John Harden. 'What we'll be moving to is a large number of companies with smaller loads.

'We've been developing the strategy to manage the influx for three years. The numbers are going to be a major challenge - you can't underestimate the complexity of this.'

Harden and his colleague, construction manager Richard Rook, are the eyes and ears on the T5 site for its construction director Andrew Wolstenholme, whose attention is also on the gradual shift in concentration at T5 in the coming months, but at a more strategic level. 'It's my job to look ahead and take away any road blocks, ' he says.

'We are all aware that Charles de Gaulle airport decided on a Sunday night not to open its new terminal on the Monday morning because of problems with the systems integration and baggage handling and we don't want the same to happen to us. It's up to me to ask the right questions, make sure we've thought everything through. These are chunky issues on a £4bn project.'

Nevertheless, Wolstenholme is able to make the construction management of one of the UK's largest pieces of infrastructure sound simple. 'We've unbundled the £4bn into 16 core projects, not all to do with construction, ' he says (see box).

The vital part is turning the projects into a programme that will allow T5 to open fully finished and working on 31 March 2008.

Wolstenholme and his head of operations Colin Reynell need to understand exactly where the project is on time and cost and where the risks are.

'You can't go down into the detail, ' Wolstenholme says. 'Eighty to 90% of issues are solved at site level. Really it's about being curious. Asking questions, being supportive and making sure the projects are coming together as a single programme.

'If you hang on to the steering wheel the projects can work together. If you let go - which is what industry does too often - that's when it goes wrong.

'And when issues do arise you have to have the courage to make controversial decisions.'

Wolstenholme cites a situation back in July last year when T5 had eight reportable accidents in one month. 'It was serious. It was telling me something about the site. Safety is a reflection of how good your processes are on site.

'So I stopped night working, stopped shift working and told everyone to get back to basics. At the time we were behind on the programme and it seemed counter intuitive to most people. But it was the right decision to make though it took a lot of courage.'

By October, T5 was bang on schedule and by January the accident rate was 1:900,000 man hours - well on the way to the project's ambition of one in a million.

Curiosity is a word Wolstenholme uses regularly when describing his role. He is curious about how other industries complete their major programmes.

He has looked at how the army does things, and at the nuclear sector and other construction clients.

He also recruited Reynell from Ford for his experience in the motor sector. Wolstenholme has turned to motor sport again, in particular, McLaren to find out how to generate a passion for quality into a workforce - a target for T5 in 2004.

'One of our biggest risks is that we get complacent, ' he says. 'It is why we need to be constantly learning and improving our culture.'

Wolstenholme's curiosity about what is happening on site day by day is satisfied by regular team meetings - one catching up with progress on each project, the other dealing with the programme which would include issues like industrial relations and resources.

He is also constantly walking round, looking, and asking questions.

Issues that can't be resolved at project level are sorted out at the monthly sessions.

The teams are talking all the time and the crucial thing, says Wolstenholme, is to make sure they understand exactly what their goals are.

There are 16 milestones to hit in 2004, with the underlying requirements always being to maintain programme, stick to cost and improve safety and quality.

Milestone achievements are always celebrated, even down to the ceremonial handing over of a granite block.

On site, hitting the milestones is a matter of 'balancing enthusiasm with the need to get things done and with the need to get things done safely, ' Harden stresses.

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