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Project controls in mining: Q&A with Richard Warner

A less is more approach to project controls helps miners focus on driving efficiency.
Richard Warner
Richard Warner
Senior Manager,
Capital Projects Lead Accenture
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What is project controls?
Project controls is about forecasting a project or program to help project managers focus effort in the areas where they need them to achieve project success. It involves data gathering, management, and the use of analytical processes to understand and influence the outcomes of a project. It is forward looking, as opposed to project accounting, which looks in the rearview mirror. Nearly all companies that embark in capital expansion projects will have a project controls group. For many years, these companies relied on either home-grown systems or spreadsheets to collate and manage their project data, as there were not many scalable and configurable off-the-shelf application options available. Today, many mining companies are focused on implementing project controls solutions that integrate with other project functions. However, there are still far too many projects that are managed entirely by spreadsheets in departmental silos, creating a large opportunity for efficiency improvements.

What should mining companies be doing today to improve their project controls capabilities?
Mining companies instinctively tend to dive deep into the details. However, more is not always better. Less can be more! Primary focus should be given to high value add activities such as managing scope, contracting strategies, scheduling, logistics and managing changes.

Many mining companies are having internal debates on what project controls functions they should undertake compared to that of the EPCM contractors. This is mainly driven by their appetite to have internal project controls capabilities that give them more insight into and control of the project. This is balanced by the fact that this may not be sustainable for the company if they do not execute the frequency of projects to support thiswhich is usually the case. At the onset of a project, they should thoroughly understand their EPCM contractor capabilities and the metrics that they should have in place to manage contractor performance. A thorough understanding of EPCM project controls capabilities, combined with a defined execution model between EPCM and owner, will allow the foundation of high performing project controls to be built.

What are the next steps in the project controls journey?
Getting off spreadsheets and into a system is generally the first step. As processes evolve and new systems stabilize, project teams can take advantage of integration opportunities between project team departments (such as between project controls and engineering). With consistent and well understood project controls processes and engineering processes, integration across departments becomes much more attainable. For example, adopting 4D planning, which is essentially integrating the schedule to the 3D engineering design, allows the project team to visualize how the design is constructed over time and identify constructability issues.

Are mining companies doing enough to innovate in project controls?
Mining companies are acknowledging the gap between their current state and where other comparable industries are at the moment. Combined with the cost pressures from low commodity prices, there is pressure to drive cost savings through the use of technology. There is tremendous opportunity, while current capital expenditure budgets are low, to revamp processes and implement new technology. There is also great opportunity to collaborate with EPCMs as they, too, look to newer technologies.

You graduated with an electrical engineering degree. How did you make the transition into project controls?
I was working as a field electrical engineering manager for a global EPCM company on a mining project in Zambia. We went through three project controls managers in about a month for various reasons. Instead of trying to find another, my VP asked if I minded entering the world of project controls to support the project. I agreed, jumped in, and haven’t looked back since!

When it comes to project controls, do you practice what you preach?
I’d like to think so, but my wife would probably disagree! When my wife and I were moving out of our respective condos and into our home, I created a very detailed project plan for the move, equipped with performance metrics and all. I probably spent more time “controlling” the move and less time moving the actual furniture (and influencing the outcome)! As noted above, sometimes less is more!

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