In project management, you can never underestimate the value of good estimation, especially when it comes to managing expectations with respect to timing and the completion of projects. Take for example the process of electrifying a railway line.
The East Coast Main Line (ECML) is an electrified, high-speed railway line that runs between London in the United Kingdom and Edinburgh in Scotland. The line is 632 kilometres long and runs through several districts.
The ECML was not always electrified, however, and in 1985 the UK government sponsored a massive electrification project. This project impacted on signal systems along all 632 kilometres of railway track. The project managers working on this project had never had to test that many signals, going through so many different districts.
A date was set for completion. It had seemed possible, even generous but it wasn’t based on any evidence. So nobody was really surprised – though perhaps disappointed – when nine months into the project, it was clear that the signal testing teams were ‘off the pace’. So, a new date was set. Once again this extension was based on a ‘feeling’ – surely, giving the signal testers another 6 months would be possible, right? Wrong!
Crucially, however, this time two questions were asked and evidence was sought. The first question, “how long does it really take to test a signal / points?”; and, secondly “how many signal point are there?”. I know, simple questions, obvious questions, but at that point unanswered questions.
When the numbers came in and the maths was done – it was obvious that they were never going to get close to the new deadline. First principle signal test engineers are like hens teeth. Very rare, and take years in the making. There was no way more could be conjured up, and so the length of calendar time it was going to take could be directly calculated from the effort time involved – an unusual, and in this case, useful observation.
The project management team (now armed with real data) approached senior management to discuss the evidence based estimation of completion time, upon seeing the evidence for the first time; senior management truly understood the immensity of the task. The project managers now had the senior management team on their side. Management knew that they were going to have to tell the government that there was to be yet another change in date, but they had confidence that they now knew when trains would be able to start running under the new signalling regime.
At last, the third end date that was set, was also met – the ECML was implemented, under high standards of safety and under total project management control.
Delays always have the opportunity to create a crisis and on this project where rail transport is a key mode of commuting and public scrutiny was at an all time high, the delays could have created much distress. Delays in clearing the signals had already caused comment in the press; another delay might have resulted in the public losing confidence in the project.
In a moment of inspiration, it was it was decided to transform the new delay into a straight win for the public – it was widely splashed across the media – for this year only the summer timetable was to be continued through the winter! More trains! Shorter intervals between trains, with trains running later into the evening. It was a minor PR victory and no additional pressure on the team – just another wrinkle in the tapestry of excellent project management.
The result was a satisfied public, a sophisticated and safe modern signalling system, and the fastest inter-city railway (at that time) that provided commuters the opportunity to commute between Edinburgh and London in under 5 hours.
Reflecting back upon this project it is easy to see the value of counting, the value of checking the estimates made by the experts. It is tempting to be critical of the lack of appropriate estimating before the first end date was set. That might, however, overlook the very real impact on the project of the political dimension in getting commitment to the project.
The valuable lesson for me was the level of project management integrity shown. When faced with a repetition of the previous ‘estimating’ process, the project manager went straight to basics: how many? And how big? If you have to commit to an end date – you really do need to know these details. The important question is, “Why do project managers forget it, and why does management find it acceptable?
Don Heath, the Director of Projects for ECML was awarded a CBE for services to the UK rail industry in 1994.