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Two Weeks in Fire-Fighting Mode

M. Kemal Atesman

I was the project manager of a large project to design, build, and install an automated positioning system on a new offshore oil platform. The design and construction of the system were completed in the United States. The system components were shipped to Norway for installation. I had to send an application engineer to Norway to see the installation of the positioning system on the new oil platform and train the responsible people from our customer's team for its operation and maintenance.

I had a young and very inquisitive engineer on my team who was trained for six months during the construction and testing of the system in our facilities. He knew all the intricate details of the automated system. He was also well versed in troubleshooting the system components. I decided to send him to Norway for three months to oversee the installation of the system and to train the customer's team members. I discussed his mission with him. He was very excited and elated that he was going to represent our company by himself in such a detailed project. I told him that we were going to have a daily telephone conference five times a week. I promised him that I would bring in other design specialists to the telephone conference calls if there were any issues during the installation. I asked him to keep an engineering notebook to record all the daily tasks, mishaps, issues, and all important facts regarding the system installation. I also cautioned him to carry along a complete toolbox to be used during the system installation and some cold weather clothing.

The first month in Norway went well. The engineer did a great job during the installation of our automated positioning system. We had a telephone conference call at 8 a.m. California time and 5 p.m. Norway time during every working day. There were some minor issues such as interference with another piece of equipment, which was solved by removing a quarter of an inch from the side flanges of our equipment. Several bolting patterns with the oil rig floor did not match. We had to slot our bolting holes to match theirs. Installation was completed in a month and test runs were starting. My engineer was freezing in Norway in the month of February, but he was upbeat and ready to start the test runs.

The control panel of the system started to have problems during the test runs. Watertight pressure switches were not sometimes switching at their set points. My engineer on location tried to find the cause of this intermittent malfunction without any success. I immediately collected the available brains in our plant and an application engineer from the pressure switch manufacturer and brainstormed the control panel problem in Norway. We provided several suggestions to our engineer over the telephone for him to try. Nothing seemed to work to correct this malfunction. We tried all the fire-fighting ideas for two weeks without any success.

I had another option. There was a very experienced consultant in electro-mechanical system design. My company used his services from time to time in the design of our control panels. I tried to reach him by telephone and by e-mail. I learned from his family that he was on a sailing vacation in Tahiti for a month. I asked his family as to how I could touch base with him. Apparently, he called his family at least twice a week when he was on land. I asked his family to help me to touch base with him on a crucial issue. I asked them to ask the consultant to call me as soon as possible.

After two days, I received a call from the consultant from Bora Bora in Tahiti. I explained the situation and told him that we were in a bind. I asked him if he could cut his vacation short and fly from Tahiti to Norway and help my resident engineer solve our control panel issue. I proposed an incentive to help him make up his mind. I told him that I would pay him his regular hourly rate even during his travel time and reimburse him for business class airline fares. He agreed to my proposal and promised me that he would be on the first flight out of Tahiti to Europe.

After troubleshooting the control panel together with my novice engineer in a very methodical way, the consultant found the problem that was causing our control panel to malfunction. The power that was feeding the control panel was sometimes below the allowable lower limit and was causing the pressure switches to not function properly.

Being in a fire-fighting mode for two weeks to troubleshoot the control panel by telephone conversations in a remote location in Norway with a novice engineer did not work out well. My hindsight told me that I should have sent my novice engineer to this important offshore assignment in a foreign country along with an experienced engineer as a team. In the end, my customer was not happy because it took us three weeks to troubleshoot the control panel malfunction. We were lucky that we were not penalized for this delay because the new oil platform had other functional issues. My solution to our problem was an expensive one. I was over budget and my management was not thrilled about it.

I thanked my consultant for saving our butt by cutting his vacation short. I showed my gratitude to him with a bonus payment. I did not forget to praise my novice engineer for performing a very detailed and a courageous job by himself working the first time on an oil platform. He also received an outstanding performance review from our customer's project manager.

Lessons Learned from This Project Event

  1. In a project, sometimes it takes very unusual and expensive decisions to solve a problem.
  2. A novice engineer and an experienced engineer working as a team on a complicated project task can be more efficient and more effective.

Read more IT Performance Improvement

This article is an excerpt from:

The author describes surprising, unexpected, and catastrophic cases that he encountered during his 35 years of project management experience in the global arena. The author details the background of each challenging case and then explains how he remedied the issue at hand. Some cases involve a logical step-by-step approach toward a solution, while others require unorthodox steps to get the project on the right track. The book includes lessons learned after every case.

This book is designed to help global project managers become more proactive, careful, disciplined, and ready for sudden surprises that can affect their projects. The project cases detailed in this book support and guide the strategizing process that occurs during the execution of global projects. The book emphasizes the importance of documenting lessons learned after each project to prevent making the same mistakes in the future.

About the Author

M. Kemal Atesmen completed his high school studies at Robert Academy in Istanbul, Turkey in 1961. He received his B.Sc. from Case Western Reserve University, his M.Sc. from Stanford University, and his Ph.D. from Colorado State University, all in mechanical engineering. He is a life member of ASME. He initially pursued an academic and an industrial career in parallel and became an associate professor in mechanical engineering before dedicating his professional life to international engineering project management and engineering management for 33 years. He helped many young engineers in the international arena to bridge the gap between college and professional life in automotive, computer component, data communication, and offshore oil industries.