The Qantas Network Redesign Project had all the ingredients for a big-budget disaster movie: around-the-world locations, a huge cast, diverse cultures, a do-or-die deadline and a host of big name players. Instead, thanks to superior project management, the endeavour came through with . . .
Great project managers thrive on complexity and can seemingly effortlessly juggle new technology; tight schedules; multiple players and conflicting goals, defying the pressure of demanding and totally intractable deadlines. The best of them display exceptional ability to grasp the big picture and to get on with the job in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. However, even for a project manager with Keith White's vast experience, managing Qantas' massive Network Redesign Project (NRD) felt at times a lot like handling a bowl of jelly: "The more you poked it on one side, the more another part bulged out," White says.
Managing that complexity involved detailed planning, careful handling, and cargo loads of project management best practices. It also inspired the project management team to develop numbers of distinctive, innovative and original management practices as part of its risk management strategy. In fact, White and the entire project team managed the project so well they won a high commendation in the recent NSW Australian Institute of Project Manage-ment awards.
For the project team, one of the more demanding aspects of the project was its wide geographical spread. One of the big Australian IT projects of the decade, NRD spanned more than 170 sites throughout Australia and across the globe and involved more than 200 staff from Qantas (including Project Risk Management Group and Resolve Engineering), Telstra (including Advantra) and Sita. Both the high numbers of players and the massive dispersal all but guaranteed the project would prove enormously complex. "The project was building a worldwide new network and we had sites all over the world. Understanding at any one point exactly where we were was a demanding task," White says.
With Qantas continuously evolving to meet current and future commercial demands, the NRD team had to be highly flexible in the incorporation of scope change in order to reflect the organisation's fluid and dynamic nature.
Qantas began the Network Redesign Project to gain a new worldwide, fault-tolerant and Y2K-compliant fibre-optic network suitable for the integration of voice, fax and data and capable of providing a technical foundation to make Qantas far more customer-focused.
The capability was sorely needed. Qantas' old network evolved from the amalgamation of the disparate Qantas and Australian Airlines systems. It was complex, non-standard and inflexible, as well as difficult and expensive to manage and maintain; it was also incapable of supporting anticipated growth and the use of new generation, bandwidth-hungry applications. Also, just to put Qantas and the entire project team under immutable time pressure, nor was it Y2K-compliant.
NRD changed all that. The resulting QIP Net (Qantas IP Network) is not only everything the old network was not, it has also enabled the implementation of far greater levels of customer service, via:
Vastly improved levels of reliability, bandwidth and fault tolerance. (Qantas says that fewer computer crashes translate to higher levels of productivity and improved customer satisfaction about bookings and check-ins.) E-ticketing.
Through check-ins for seating allocation, meals, connecting flights and baggage retrieval.
Internet access for customers and staff.
Lower overheads - for instance, all Qantas voice (telephone) traffic is now digitally integrated onto the Internet Protocol (IP).
Thanks to the network upgrade, all staff now have intranet and Internet access. Expanded bandwidth is accommodating growth in network use, currently doubling annually. Additionally, in QIP Net, Qantas now has one of the world's most advanced telephone, computer, Internet and intranet networks, connecting all operational sites around the globe and providing for a significant presence on the World Wide Web.
More cost-effective, robust and innovative than anything Qantas has had before, the new network has created additional capacity for the airline's day-to-day business, in particular improved services for customers. Meanwhile, the improved telecommunications network is significantly increasing the capacity and reliability of the airline's existing voice and communication systems.
Nevertheless, the project was so all-embracing and difficult, the result could have been very different, without the highest possible standards of project management.
There were times during the early stages of the project when the gains eventually achieved seemed far from certain. Indeed, after a somewhat shaky start, when questions started to be asked about the project's ability to deliver on time, Qantas seconded White, as director of Project Risk Management Group (PRM Group), to the role of project control officer (PCO). That was in late 1998. By then the project was about 12 months old.
White is one of the founding partners of PRM Group, a company dedicated to project management, quantity surveying and cost management. He is also a highly experienced project manager, whose extensive probity-driven experience ranges across risk analysis, quality assurance, process procedures, establishment and control of project finances, contracts and the conduct of tenders and management of consultants and contractors. Over the years, White has provided strategic consulting advice to a wide variety of corporate clients, including Telstra, Commonwealth Bank, ANZ, IBM and Woolworths. At Qantas he took steps as soon as he came on board to wrest better control of the NRD project.
"The project had been going for about 12 months and, without casting any aspersions, I believe that it was felt that it wasn't going quite as well as it should at the time that I was asked to take on that position," White says. "There were a few issues and concerns, particularly on the scheduling front. The whole project was absolutely driven by Y2K imperatives and we just had to be ready, and there was some concern that far out that some sites may have been in jeopardy." In fact, because of the Y2K issue a technology freeze was mandated from September through to the end of the year, so the network had to be completely bedded down and stable by September 1999.
With such concerns foremost in his mind, White's first step was to create and maintain a reliable project schedule. In keeping with Qantas' focus on standards, high levels for service and performance benchmarking were adopted at the outset of the project. All sites had to achieve milestones before handing over to the next group of contractors or engineers. Early on, White underpinned all agreed processes and flow-ons to the project with documentation. Only then, he knew, could the project team hope to put in place the means of realistically measuring its progress.
In fact, he says, the heart of the project's success was getting those agreed and documented processes and procedures in place. While that may sound easy, those processes weren't just the processes of a single company, but the processes of three or four companies that had behind them myriad other sub-contractors and suppliers. "Again without casting any aspersions, we were paying a little bit of catch-up in trying to get those processes and procedures in place," White says. "Ideally they all would have been in place on day one. They weren't; but we managed to get them put in place and really got the place organised in accordance with common, fairly well-understood project management principles.
"Having the documentation meant we could integrate the progress of each of the sites into a master program and be able to accurately formulate a view as to exactly where the project was," he says. "Once we achieved it, the project did stay on track and it achieved a very good result - on budget and within time. Certainly 12 months out it was questionable whether we would; but we did and we achieved it in a professional manner. We did it essentially by applying some of the well-understood principles of project management."
White also took urgent steps to better coordinate the activities of the separate parties involved. Unlike many commercial projects, Qantas' NRD was a true partnering affair where the principal partners were Qantas, Telstra (which looked after the national network) and Sita (which looked after the international side of the network.) That in itself put special demands on White as the central PCO, as he strove to coordinate the partners' efforts.
"Part of the requirement of the partnering was that in a candid and frank way, Telstra and Sita had to reveal to us exactly where they were at," he says. "Now that is not always the sort of thing partners will leap to do because clearly it could highlight some commercial inadequacies. But if they didn't, there was no way we could effectively maintain control. You know, there was no good saying, for example, that Qantas was in control [in timing] when some other party might not be. They all had to be working in a coordinated manner."
However, NRD also involved three different corporate cultures having to work together in a highly coordinated manner. The partners, White is pleased to report, uniformly rose to the challenge, establishing a level of trust and cooperation he describes as quite special. Senior management were also supportive, thanks in part to the inspired lead and imprimatur of Qantas project executive Paul Payne, whom White says fully backed all the goals the project team wanted to achieve.
Fear and Loathing
To help build cooperation and a merging of cultures, one early step was to organise a series of corporate bonding sessions where team members locked themselves away from the outside world for weekends at a time. These sessions helped them get to know each other, earn each other's respect and, more importantly, learn how to work together effectively as one single team.
"The sessions were organised by outside firms," White says. "One weekend we went away to Pittwater where we had to do role-playing and game-playing, which in many ways forced us to all work together. I think that went a long way towards building the bridges between the various organisations, which allowed an effective solution. Some of it was done on company time and some of it was done in private time; but people went about it in a professional and enthusiastic manner."
White says workshops also helped in forging the three corporate cultures into a single cohesive project team. From those workshops a team mission statement was developed: "Qantas, Telstra and Sita acting in partnership will deliver a managed network service on time, with superior customer service including responsiveness to changing business requirements". A series of "roadshow" audio-visual presentations kept all departments informed of the project's progress. White says this was particularly helpful in explaining the impact of the project. However, the roadshows also played a key role in managing expectations from the businesses, with every aspect of the Qantas business affected by the changes.
"Almost everybody has a computer on their desk these days within Qantas, and so rebuilding their network really had a ripple effect throughout the whole corporation," he says. "It was really important to effectively manage people's expectations as to what they were going to achieve - when they should expect the bunch of hairy engineers to be knocking on their door and tearing apart and rebuilding it."
As an outsider, White knew he also needed to establish his authority as project manager while reducing the "fear and loathing" of those resistant to the notion of an outsider being wheeled in to take charge. He says building personal relationships, demonstrating by example and taking all steps possible to build confidence became his personal priorities. It was also a continuing goal to make sure everyone affected appreciated the benefits of some of the project team's aims.
"Some people clearly saw it as just another layer of administration or just more paperwork that they had to fill out," he says. "I'd be less than honest if I said we won everybody over on day one and everybody saw the benefits up front. Certainly Paul Payne seemed understanding and appreciative of the aims and was supportive; without that support from both above and below we wouldn't have achieved what we wanted to."
To help control project risks, the team scheduled preplanned project audits and health checks to be conducted by IBM Global Services Australia. Management eagerly adopted all comments and recommendations emerging from those independent project audits under its requirement for best practice Above all else, White says, the team knew it must at all times be practical and pragmatic, reflecting Project Risk Management's culture and philosophy. "I think the name of our company says a lot about how we operate," he says. "We're always looking for risks and how to manage them."
PRM Group takes on plenty of construction work as well as IT work. White says the two are similar in many ways, both involving a "fast and furious endeavour to expend a lot of money". Together the four directors of PRM Group, who have worked together for the last 14 years, have a background as quantity surveyors. That makes them fairly prudent when it comes to financial matters, White says, and considered in what they do with their clients' funds. "I think a lot of the risk management practices come out of the financial sector rather than the project management sector; but we find those principles applicable."
To help keep a lid on those risks, one of the many procedural steps White put in place was to establish a risk register, where risks, issues and change management were tracked. Once established, an ongoing procedure for the recording of "issues management" facilitated a regime of continuous process improvement.
White's team also used Lotus Notes to develop and maintain a number of critical databases for the NRD project, allowing for the highest levels of communication efficiency including knowledge development and sharing, issues management and documentation and information management. The data was preserved on dedicated NRD project file servers and passed on to those responsible for the "business as usual", post-NRD phase. Included in this data was all of the ongoing facility management information, including design and "as-built" technical data required for the migration, management, monitoring and maintenance of the new Qantas Network.
"When we first came on board data was diverse over a number of servers and there weren't too many rules about what you could and couldn't do as far as moving information and data around," White says. "All too often when projects are finished, much of the intellectual information that has been built up is dissipated. We put procedures in place for all of that. As a result, at the end of the job, a lot of the information that we'd captured was retained."
That decision is providing an ongoing benefit. White was called back to Qantas to work on another project, a follow-on from NRD designed to take advantage of the major fibre-optic infrastructure and adequate levels of bandwidth now in place. He says the retained information is proving of enormous value.
"The guys that have ongoing responsibility for QIP Net are thankful that all of that data was retained. It certainly made their role that much easier," White says. He explains that while documentation management and data management are fairly mundane issues, in large IT projects they can play a vital role in helping an organisation maintain its corporate memory.
Of course, as White notes, the NRD project could only be deemed a success if it achieved the willing acceptance of those technically expert peers within Qantas, Telstra and Sita responsible for accepting, managing and maintaining the new QIP Net Network over the next five years. He says the high level of project management professionalism adopted throughout the NRD project has resulted in the efforts of the NRD Team being well regarded by the QIP Net managers.
"That's because of its ability to achieve timely outcomes, within budget, whilst establishing the highest standards of quality and fault tolerance," he says. "That was only achieved essentially by applying some of the well-understood principles of project management.
"It's one of the reasons we support the Institute of Project Management," White says. "Certainly the increased levels of professionalism that I think they've brought to the project management profession, whether it's IT or any of the other sectors, makes them one of the great unsung professional organisations."
Join the CIO Australia group on LinkedIn. The group is open to CIOs, IT Directors, COOs, CTOs and senior IT managers.