What Has Your Program Manager Done for You Lately?

By John Bills, Chief Operating Officer, Building Program Management, NV5 Global, Inc.

Program management is much more than developing and managing a budget and schedule. It’s not about barking orders or documenting potential delays or issues.

Your program manager is not, or at least shouldn’t be, viewed as a hired gun to beat up on the architect, contractors and subs, or force the team members to do more work than necessary to accomplish a goal.

Good program managers are your communication bridge, the glue that helps connect the people and the processes in the best possible way to deliver a successful outcome. Their job is to listen, motivate and put in place processes and procedures that drive success. Effective program managers look for the root causes of issues … and then tailor solutions that streamline progress and remove obstructions.

The Gap Filler

When it comes to process improvement, I firmly believe in a bottom-up management philosophy that begins at the very basic level of a project—the people, equipment and materials.

Every subcontractor, laborer and material supplier is essential to the success of each project, as are the general contractor, engineer and architect. A good

program manager finds out what they need to succeed and then develops the processes to facilitate their success.

Throughout a project, the program manager should be reviewing the processes that are in place, looking for cracks and then filling them to minimize the chance of downstream problems.

“As we delved into the problem, we realized that there was a process disconnect … As a consequence, the schedule was exploding.”

A recent project provides a good illustration. We were brought in on a project by an owner when delays began to endanger the timely completion. At the time, every aspect of the project, from design through construction, was struggling and it looked like it would be completed six months behind schedule.

As we delved into the problem, we realized there was a process disconnect. The owner was struggling to respond in a timely manner to questions from the project team. The issue stemmed from the complexity of the owner’s organization. Every decision required reviews from several people in different groups within the company. Unfortunately, the additional time required was not built into the schedule. As a consequence, the schedule was exploding.

To further the challenge, we were told that the owner review process could not change—it is what it is. As the owner’s program manager, we sat down with the contractor to see how we could rework the schedule to accommodate the owner’s need for more time. The contractor was highly supportive and we were able to re-sequence the material and equipment procurement in ways that wouldn’t impact the project schedule. In the end, the contractor was able to get the project back to within a month of the original schedule.

Technology is a Tool, Not a Solution

Technology is also an important component of every project process. The program manager must be able to assess what tools and techniques are right for the project. Does the team respond to weekly in-person meetings or are regular conference calls a better fit? Is email an effective communication method or would a web-based hub serve their purposes better?

While it may surprise some, it’s possible to have too much technology. Sometimes a particularly sophisticated technology—or too many moving parts— may overwhelm or frustrate the owner and/or the project team. The results can be devastating to a project and, ironically, lead to a failure to communicate.

Remember, the primary purpose of a program manager is to find the problems and facilitate solutions; to essentially fill the gaps. He or she should be able to strip a project down to the basics, eliminate waste, and build out a plan for what needs to be done to make the project successful.

“So, what happens when the problem is not the process, but the people?”

Let’s Talk

As demonstrated in the example above, communication is essential; without it, all the budgeting and schedule planning in the world will not help a project succeed. So, what happens when the problem is not the process, but the people? If one or more of the project team leaders is overwhelmed or unable to manage the process or people effectively, an adjustment must be made to personnel. A program manager’s job is to identify the cracks—whether caused by people or processes—and make adjustments that result in wise solutions. The ability to listen to all the parties on a project and develop a plan is one of the unique skill sets of top program managers. The good ones essentially custom design a communication bridge that fits the personalities and capabilities of everyone on the project—from the owner to the architect, contractor, subs and suppliers.
It’s not always easy. On one project, we were working with a very strong-willed client who was making design changes during construction. His mandates were sending the project team into chaos. The first program manager, while technically exceptional, was not forthright enough to present the challenges that even small changes were creating for the project team, the schedule and the budget.

We brought in a program manager with a bit more savvy who was able to proactively, diplomatically and convincingly present the facts about design change consequences while creating a bond of trust and respect.

Done correctly, effective program communicators lead to exceptional teamwork between everyone—and every project is unique. Find the program manager that best fits your distinct project.

John Bills, LEED AP has been Chief Operating Officer of Building Program Management at NV5 Global, Inc. since January, 2016. He previously served as Managing Director of Building Program Management at NV5, a position to which he brought 20 years of experience working in the design and construction industry. As a project manager, John has demonstrated high-level expertise in planning, financing support, community outreach and overall strategy on his clients’ projects. He received his Bachelor of Engineering degree in Civil Engineering from the Colorado School of Mines.


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