Friday, March 28, 2008

Heathrow Terminal 5 Chaos - management and leadership

It opened on time, within budget (£4.3 bn or $10 bn) and to spec, well the technical specifications anyway. A triumph of a new project management (actually on behalf of BAA it was project leadership and management) model that saw the sponsor taking responsibility, leading with vision and humility and not pushing the risk to the contractors in the usual punitive way of management. BAA looked at all the famous project management flops and realised that the often used model of abrogation of risk and responsibility (i.e. no leadership) to the contractors doesn't produce good projects. It is interesting that many managed and not led projects are government programmes, but that's another issue.

It is estimated by the respected transport Journalist Christian Wolmar that if this programme had gone the way of most other large capital projects it should have overrun on costs by about 40%, been about 1-2 years late and an average of 6 workers would have been killed during the construction phase.

As it is the project, one of the most complex yet, didn't have any of these problems and yet we see this happening, delays, the baggage system halted because the loaders couldn't keep up, glitches due to the complexity of the system, check in staff confused about the new systems. There will of course be a post-mortem, many reports and it will be interesting to see what the results will be of these.

However from a preliminary trawl of the media and BAA / BA material (they are staying very tight lipped at the moment, giving quick briefings and walking off before they can be asked any questions, listening to the passengers stories it sounds like the technical systems are working fine. The problems appear to be when humans who didn't design and grow with the technology are suddenly required to operate it all together.
I am reliably told (by a BAA employee) that every system was tested and retested and works. However everything working together with real people and not the experts and designers operating the systems things started to go wrong.

On the face of it the success of the capital part of the project was down to the sponsors bearing the risk, leading as well as managing the project, by which I mean taking responsibility, allowing the risks to be real and not pretending they don't exist or minimising them, keeping communications open at all levels, listening to feedback at all levels as the project progressed and learning as they went along. The failure of the operations appear to stem from the opposite. There appears to been a lot of management and little leadership when it came to the operations side of things. Both need to work together, especially when it comes to people.

The difference between management and leadership and what happens when both aren't operating together came out loud and clear in the very different press briefings given by BA.

The sight of BA Director of Operations Gareth Kirkwood, clearly rattled, giving a press statement to say sorry (which was good) and then walking off refusing to answer any questions (which was not good), did not help. He was clearly trying to manage the situation however in doing so displayed poor leadership and very little emotional resilience, which are closely connected, especially in times of difficulty.

This is in contrast to the performance today of The Chief Executive of British Airways, Willie Walsh, who was composed, honest and human, took responsibility and answered the questions put to him. Leadership matters as does management - they have to work together.

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