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Jun 08, 2012

The buck should stop with the project manager

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The buck stops here’ is a phrase popu- larised by US President Harry S Truman, who kept a sign with that phrase on his desk in the Oval Office.

We all know what ‘passing the buck’ means – to pass responsibility for a matter to somebody else – and ‘the buck stops here’ means that a person is facing up to that responsibility.

This article is about project managers. In general, there were no project managers in the commercial world when I was a young engineer – the architects did it (for an additional fee) and the engineers did what the architects told them to do. There were some project managers but they were mostly in the industrial world related to industrial or petrochemicals project construction. But, somehow, the architects were ousted and the modern project managers arrived. Now, on every contract, there is a project manager. Some are good, some very good and some just plain awful.

My practice gets work from project managers. If I bad-mouth them in print, they might not send us work. So, all you out there, assume that, if I have been under your guidance or on your project, I regard you with a reverence close on adoration. However, I have some general thoughts that I would like to get off my chest and hope you will not be too offended.

Firstly, on an electrical project . . . please remember that I have been an electrical engineer for 34 years and a professional engineer for 28 years. What this means is that my opinion on an electrical matter should have a lot more weight than that of an electrical contractor, a young engineer or a design technician. They may be able to argue better but, in general, in a dispute, I am right.

Secondly, it is not all simple. If I recommend a certain electrical contractor, usually it is not because the contractor’s fees are the cheapest – it is normally because the contractor is the best for the contract. And it is not my function to do quality assurance for a contractor. If I say: “Use this firm”, it is not because that firm will give me a back- hander; it is because it will produce, with a minimum of fuss, good-quality work that lasts. Ignore my recommendations and . . . you will be sorry.

Thirdly, in electrical work, there are very few ‘nice to haves’, apart from types of light fittings. If some smart person implies that the design can be done more cheaply than my design, he or she is usually right – only it will not work as well.

Unfortunately, electrical systems are deviously cunning. They lie in wait and take time to fail and, when they do, they do so in pairs, with one failure having nothing to do with the other. So, if you use cheap plastic distribution boards with cheap plastic circuit breakers, jammed with wiring since they are too small, the whole thing will fail– often on a long weekend, when the uninterruptible power supply (UPS) system has gone down.

Fourthly, in general, inte- rior designers know nothing about lights, light fittings, socket outlets, wiring, data points, cable trays, cable terminations, UPS systems, power poles or the SANS 10142 standard. Similarly, consulting electrical engineers know nothing about interior paint finishes, wall cladding, tile types, carpet finishes, counter tops, bathroom taps or sanitary fittings. Thus, in the same way that you do not give the consulting electrical engineer the interior design, do not give the interior designer the electrical design.

Then there is the impossible we do immediately. Miracles take a little longer. Nope, I’m being sarcastic. But do accept that, in my life, I have (as have many others) worked through nights, had very early starts and worked over weekends. Trust me, very little of it has been necessary or of value in the long run. If there have to be changes to a design, then allow sufficient time to make sure those changes are not a stuff-up.

Finally, if things go wrong . . . you are the project manager. The sign on the US President’s desk read: “The buck stops here.” For some project managers, the sign should read: “The buck stops here . . . very, very briefly.” Don’t you be one of the latter. Think about it.

Edited by: Martin Zhuwakinyu
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