By Alex Reed and Vince Sylvester
During a visit to campus on March 27th, the CRMER Student Fellows were able to listen to Timothy Barr speak about his experience with risk management during the construction of NBAF, the National Bio and Agro-defense Facility in Manhattan. Tim is the Project Manager for NBAF, and is responsible for overseeing the successful and safe completion of the project.
We were able to learn about how big of a role risk management plays in the process of constructing NBAF first hand from Tim, and how massive of a project the facility itself and the entire process is (The schedule alone has 30,000 activities!). Tim told us that the facility is essentially an insurance policy for managing the risk of agriculture, a sector that makes up a major portion of the economy of the United States.
With such a complex process from design and planning beginning in 2006 to fully operational by 2023, risks are everywhere. Due to the prolonged schedule, sub-contractors were exiting the deal because of the longevity before they could begin their work. To mitigate this risk, Tim explained that the team behind NBAF decided to allow sub-contractors to purchase all of their materials early. This gave the sub-contractors the benefit of having cash flows now, and gave the team at NBAF the confidence that these contractors would stay for the long haul and successfully complete the project with reasonable costs.
Any real-world project of large enough size to be interesting faces too many risks for each to be individually considered and prevented but by proactively thinking about what may happen, the effects it could have, and how we should react, we can start to take measures to protect ourselves. Tim talked about a few methods his team used in the risk assessing process. First, he talked about not starting out too complicated. His team sat down and brainstormed a whole swath of if- then situations and followed as many branches that each eventuality might take as they could think of. This process of thinking collaboratively and vocalizing what might sound like obvious risks is a good way to start charting out where your dangers are and where you need protection. Tim also mentioned more technical ways NBAF attempted to quantify and then mitigate their risks. He talked about using statistical methods with each risk they identified given a probability and a cost to simulate how much the project was expected to costs and various other questions in the design process. He also mentioned that before they started construction, they created a three-dimensional model of the facility, and then built it alongside the facility, with any change in the plans affecting the model first, and basing each step of construction off the evolving model. This took time and expense, but it allowed them to keep track of where they were at in construction and where they were going, so errors didn’t compound through development. All in all, we learned a lot about the difficulties of managing a large project; that while problems will come up that you could never have seen coming, a thorough, proactive planning process and room to change can help keep disruptions to a minimum.