Enhanced Project Cost Control:
A Dynamic and Contemporary Approach to Accessing and Modifying Project Information using the Intranet

by

Ginette B. Basak, P.Eng., and Ron Beugin
TransCanada PipeLines, Ltd.
PO Box 1000
Calgary, Alberta T2P 4K5
Canada

The right information at the right time! Communicating pertinent and timely information provides the critical links necessary for project success [PMI 1996]. Although highly successful, TransCanada PipeLines has moved beyond its traditional roots in natural gas transmission, transforming over the past few years into an integrated energy services company while also entering the international arena. Significant growth in the number and complexity of capital projects, less regulation and increased competition have led the company to examine its critical processes to ensure continuing profitability in the future.

A major focus on improving project management processes coincided with the advent of the Intranet at TransCanada. This provided exciting opportunities to enhance project management by simplifying access to detailed project and regulatory information and presenting a comprehensive project picture via a friendly graphical user interface.

Initial results yielded substantial benefits within a short time. The ability to view a total project on a single screen, with hyperlinks to multiple databases, combined with the capacity to revise project information directly on the same screen generated enthusiastic responses from all levels of project stakeholders. The new TransCanada Project Cockpit has had a galvanizing effect on increasing project cost-consciousness and commitment to proactive project control.

This paper will discuss how TransCanada met its goal to enhance project management while leveraging its older technology, thus extending the life of existing databases. It will review what was in place, why improvements were required and will describe the resulting Intranet-based Project Cockpit, along with key features and benefits. Also covered is how the TransCanada Engineering I.T. Support/Project Support partnership successfully developed this application while exceeding user expectations. Finally, the paper will describe how this approach has led to an awareness of the potential of the Project Cockpit as an integrated project management tool.

BACKGROUND

TransCanada Pipelines, a Canadian company with assets in excess of Can$12 billion, transmits, markets and processes energy for customers in Canada, throughout North America, and around the world. Its pipeline system transports natural gas and crude oil from Western Canada to the continent's major energy markets. Internationally, TransCanada pursues, evaluates and invests in energy-related opportunities, with offices in Colombia, Venezuela, Mexico, Tanzania, Indonesia and Singapore.

The Engineering and Construction (E&C) Group is responsible for all facets of project management for new capital projects including engineering, estimating, planning and scheduling, cost control, contract administration, construction management and quality assurance. The E&C Group provides support mainly for facilities on the Canadian Mainline (14,274 km of pipelines) but also assists with other North American and international projects. The capital workload approaches Can$1.5 billion annually.

EARLIER DAYS: THE "BEFORE" PICTURE

Early in 1996, it became clear that current project management and control tools were falling behind in their ability to support the growing volume and complexity of capital construction projects. Some of the recent changes included the following:

Functionally-Based Computer Applications

Given the functional nature of TransCanada's organization, there was a lack of shared goals and alignment among project participants.

As a result of this functional approach, project managers were using a variety of independent software applications, each of which was either developed by a separate I.T. team for a specific functional group or by an end user with very specific needs in mind. A complex web of data transfers had evolved over the years, built in valiant attempts to reduce reentry of data between these patchwork solutions. Figure1 shows the inter-dependencies between the various applications and manual procedures.

 

Figure 1 - Old System Applications and Interfaces

Having been developed independently, each application had a unique user interface, with a supporting database containing varying degrees of redundant information. Complicating the situation was the wide variety of technologies that had been employed over the years as available tools evolved in both industry and the organization. Older applications used an outdated, unsupported, and non-SQL-based Data Base Management System (Adabas/Natural), and were operated via terminal emulation software, effectively turning expensive desktop workstations into dumb terminals (Figure 2).

Figure 2 - Old System Screen

The project community had by now become accustomed to much more intelligent and easier to use client/server applications. Users found it extremely frustrating to use special "PF" keys to navigate through large numbers of very small, nested, monochrome screens to view cryptically displayed information.

Although the other more modern client/server applications provided significant improvements through intuitive user interfaces, users had to sign on to each application separately, with a unique password, then adjust to different user interfaces and navigation methods.

Impact on Project Cost Control

The overall impact of this fragmented approach to project information was becoming disconcerting enough to target project cost control as a key project management area for improvement. An assessment of the current status revealed that project managers and project team members were reluctant to use this dated and unwieldy patchwork system. They found it took too much of their time; there were too many different applications to learn and remember, and some systems timed out on users.

From a project cost control perspective, the situation was becoming alarming since pertinent and timely cost information is essential in various cost control process steps, including updating status, assessing performance, identifying variances and problems, developing sound forecasts and informing management early enough to take corrective action to minimize potential cost impacts [Knutson 1991].

THE TRANSCANADA PROJECT COCKPIT

 

Figure 3 - Project Cockpit Homepage

 

Figure 4 - Project Cockpit: List of Projects (with hyperlinks to individual projects)

The Project Cockpit is a significant step towards providing a "one-stop" source for timely, accurate and meaningful information to manage projects effectively. Key features of this Intranet application include the following (Figures 3, 4, and 5):

Figure 5 - Project Cockpit: Individual Project Screen (with hyperlink to details)

 

Enthusiastic Responses!

The Project Cockpit generated enthusiastic responses beyond original expectations from all levels of project stakeholders - project managers, team members, management and executives. The Project Cockpit has had a tremendously positive impact on increasing project cost-consciousness and commitment to proactive project control.

Project managers and team members can now concentrate on content rather than format, resulting in greater and more frequent use of the Project Cockpit as the key source of project information. Updating project information is much simpler, leading to better quality data, and thus allowing for management awareness and cost control decision-making which can minimize potential cost variances. The integrated information access has also resulted in an increased sense of teamwork and shared goals within Engineering.

Benefits for the Engineering I.T. Support group include the following: a maintenance-free client/server framework provided via Netscape software, elimination of time-consuming and disruptive client software deployment (other than Netscape upgrades), and a transition mechanism for replacing old technology on a structured timetable with minimal user impact, thus extending the useful life of older applications.

THE DEVELOPMENT AND IMPLEMENTATION PROCESS

The successful development and implementation of the TransCanada Project Cockpit was the result of a strong Engineering I.T. Support/Project Support partnership which went beyond simply trying to put a new face on existing data.

By early 1996, Internet technology was emerging as a simple and convenient method to disseminate internal information within an organization, and the term "Intranet" was coined. A few I.T. groups at TransCanada were starting to experiment with this new approach.

Proof of Concept

In June 1996, the Engineering I.T. Support team was looking for solutions to the project management system issues described earlier and initiated a technical "proof of concept", using an early and now long outdated version of Netscape. A basic prototype screen was developed, proving the capacity to access and display information from the older project administration system (PAS) database. This was well received by Engineering Group business partners and the vision of a "one-stop shopping" entry point for project information began to look possible.

Pilot Project

The prototype was then demonstrated to Engineering Management who approved a proposal to initiate a full pilot project. A well-contained component of the older project administration system (PAS) was selected for the pilot - the project approvals function, which allowed managers to approve project revision requests on line. The scope was later expanded to include direct access to project expenditure details from the accounting Capital Information System (CIS) database.

By the end of November, the Project Approvals module had been fully developed, tested and was in production, including a quick-hit enhancement which allowed approvers to request and receive further details from project managers via an automated e-mail system. This became the first module of what was now known as the TransCanada Project Cockpit.

Full Production

The Project Cockpit was now being demonstrated to other departments and, by year end, most Home Office managers with project approval responsibilities were using this new application rather than the older PAS screens. This effectively moved one complete set of users to the Project Cockpit, the first step towards the eventual replacement of old technology.

At the beginning of 1997, the focus turned towards project managers, a key group of users who would benefit the most from an easy to use, one-stop shopping site for project information and updating. Field Pilot Testing for Project Approvals was initiated while, concurrently, the Engineering I.T. Support/Project Support team held small, intense meetings with project managers in the Home Office and in two of the five Regional Offices to establish and prioritize the most useful type of information and functions for managing their projects via the new Project Cockpit.

These requirements were defined and grouped as packages of deliverables for phased development and implementation to encourage project managers to use the Project Cockpit as soon as possible. The first Feature Set was completed, tested and fully implemented in production by mid April 1997. Five of the seven items in the second Feature Set were in production by year end. All of these items are described in the earlier section on the Project Cockpit. The last two items, Contract Details and National Energy Board Information, are scheduled to be implemented in the first quarter of 1998.

Acceptance of the new Project Cockpit system and the gradual reduction in use of the older legacy user interfaces were tracked and reported on a monthly basis. Publication of statistics on the increasing usage of the Project Cockpit was also intended to encourage use of the new system by all project participants.

CONCLUSION AND NEXT STEPS

TransCanada has made significant progress in enhancing project management, and cost control in particular, on its capital construction projects. The I.T. Support/Project Support partnership developed and implemented an innovative and dynamic approach to accessing and updating project information via Intranet, based on existing databases. The results are easier access to better quality information.

Project participant reaction has been extremely positive, with greater cost awareness and a focus on anticipating potential cost hazards. This has also generated high expectations as to future enhancements to the Project Cockpit.

Integrated Project Management Tool

Although initial efforts concentrated on developing reliable project cost information, the ability to expand into a broader and more comprehensive project picture soon became apparent with easily added "quick-hit" enhancements such as access to downtime scheduling and bills of materials.

A formal feasibility study has been launched to evaluate the enhancement of the Project Cockpit as a fully integrated project management tool, with on-line access to the following items:

The potential for the Project Cockpit to venture beyond the traditional definition of an integrated project management tool and become an innovative and dynamic vehicle for the total project management process presents exciting opportunities.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

The authors wish to acknowledge the significant contributions made by Sue Eveleigh, Project Support, and Pasquale Fabrizi, Engineering I.T. Support, in the successful development and implementation of the TransCanada Project Cockpit.

REFERENCES

Knutson, Joan. 1991. Bitz, Ira, and Henderson, Linda S. Project Management: how to plan and manage successful projects. New York, NY: AMACOM, a division of American Management Association.

PMI (Project Management Institute) Standards Committee. 1996. A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge. Sylva, NC, USA: PMI Communications.



Click here to return to ICEC menu