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A Practical Example On How To Use Agile And Scrum Techniques in EPC (Engineering, Procurement and Construction)

Project management openings for large scale infrastructure projects are only increasing while the traditional way of project management is used.  While this isn’t wrong or bad, as the complexity of these projects grow and more hardware and software are being used in today’s technologically savvy world, we need a better way to approach these large-scale multi-faceted projects.  How can we manage this better?  By implementing agile and scrum techniques and methods in EPC of course!  It can save you enormous amounts of time and money whereby the shareholders and directors will be very pleased (and probably recommend you on other projects they may be involved in).

So how do we implement agile and scrum methods into large-scale EPC projects?  As a personal example, I have had to use agile and scrum methods in building railways.  In one particular huge construction project where a lot of civil works and structural works were required, we also needed programs and computer software to operate the trains. After all, in today’s world railroads, as most things, are more automated and are operated by programming and computers. To run a train from A to B requires a lot of logic to ensure a safe, efficient and problem-free journey.

This particular project needed to be well thought-out on the programming side as well as with all the supporting systems around it it.  In short, it took a lot of design and engineering (lucky for me, I have an engineering background so I could oversee this part more thoroughly).  Towards the end of the project where the construction portion and all the mechanical works were completed, we also needed software to be tested and agreed upon to use for final operation. In other words, it needed to be tested in-depth to ensure the safety, efficiency and practicality of the entire system.  Unfortunately, the kind of software even needed often only becomes visible at the end of the project.  Because this can only be seen at the end of the project, it is often that situations like this prove to be the factor for project delays and overrunning cost due to remedial works.

Why do these delays and costs happen? Because before we can even implement the software, the design process must come first.  The design is completed via drawings and documents, but there is no real visible peace of software available to show the screen, the menus, how the layout will look like when it is completed, and so on.  On top of that, the end-user also may need training on this software in order to understand the ins-and-outs of usability.  Another problem is that, during the project design and implementation, the end user, in this case the operation personnel is not usually involved and the project engineers decide based on the design on paper how the project shall be delivered in detail.  So often the guy that is supposed to use the software daily isn’t even involved on the decision-making processes!

Only at the end of the project is the operation personnel involved, and usually it is for the testing to ensure the software works according to the rules and regulations. This is when the critical comments arise about issues which were never thought of before (often because they are thought out by those who won’t be using it daily and who don’t fully understand what is needed) and this is usually when there needs to by implementation of software changes. Changing software at such a late stage is a nightmare as it could effect the core of the software.  If this happens, then there is a lengthy procedure that has to be undertaken to ensure the safety.  Luckily, if you ever work on a railway project you won’t have to worry about this because you have read this article and can foresee this particular challenge!

This is where Agile Project Management principles like SCRUM can be applied for the software portion of the project; it helps to enable the right project stakeholder at the beginning of the project to influence the design and immediately see in a simulation how it will look like for final operation. With the SCRUM practice, software modules can be approved of well in advance while construction is going on.  And with good system integration, software and hardware can be brought together in a much faster way due to the fact that there are much less critical comments to the application software at the end of the project.  It’s a win-win for all concerned!  This is also why in today’s technologically-savvy age, it isn’t a bad idea to consistently keep yourself updated on agile and scrum methods.  EPC and programming are coming together…possibly forming a new kind of project management.

In summary, the product owner in SCRUM should be nominated very early in the EPC project to liaise with the end-user of the infrastructure project to understand exactly what the end-user wants and needs, and then starts developing the software, plans, designs, demos and simulations in order to release software modules early in the project to give real views and functions for hands-on testing. Having this level of understanding would, in many cases, simplify the interfacing and its respective specifications because it is very clear what the application level must be and what it must deliver to satisfy the client and the EPC contract.

Wishing you well in your project management journeys!


Peter Wyss