The Urgency for Industrial Project Delivery to Evolve

How often have you been approached by social or environment-minded folks about integrating sustainability into your projects, designs and systems?

Never? Only on particular projects? More and more? Or all the time?

If you were asked to do this, would you know where to start?

Would you understand how to educate and gain the most traction with your teams?

This article highlights the necessity of making positive changes to our PMO guidance, and to integrating sustainability into our practices.

Let's start with a major barrier.


A Stagnant Playing Field

The industrial world is a fairly heavily regulated environment, starting with a rigorous level of baseline and impact studies required before proposing a development, to specified operational ranges, monitoring and reporting requirements.  

In natural resources, there are additional requirements for plans and associated financial bonds to cover the costs of shut-downs, remediation and closure of a site in the longer term. Many people in the public realm are unaware of just how much work goes into assessing and managing risks for these types of developments before they can actually happen.  

While this oversight duly protects humans and the environment, it is often the language embedded in regulations that introduces a bit of, let’s say, barrier to innovation. A lot of risk is placed on the designer when introducing something that hasn’t been done before, or something that hasn’t been proven in a particular application.

As such, it seems designers and operators tend to primarily focus on meeting regulatory criteria, with an additional margin to allow for errors and upsets, as opposed to trying to target performance ‘above and beyond’ those regulations, and step changes are often avoided.

This doesn't need to be the case. 


The Drivers

There has been a strong push over the past decade from external stakeholders for ever-increasing improvements on performance. And noted - organizations are responding, with initiatives being driven down from the top.

According to the most recent State of Green Business report, the number of companies making public commitments for implementing a more holistic, business-focused view of their environmental and social impacts is up 71% from last year, and up 217% from 2014.

Should you investigate, you will find an explosion of performance improvement programs over the past 5 years, predominantly targeting operating facilities. The initiatives carry different names: CSR, sustainability, shared value, operational excellence, Lean … each have a spin on exactly what they are targeting, but most revolve around improving costs, environmental performance, and/or relations with local stakeholders, otherwise maintaining their social license to operate. Triple-bottom-line (TBL) aspects.

And this movement is rapidly ebbing into projects, as verified by a recent survey carried out in the project management community, by Baker, Kohl and Echeveria. (Did you take part?)

Overall, 86% of respondents indicating that their organizations engage in some kind of Sustainability activities, and 50% of organizations have their sustainability program to a point that is consistent with a TBL approach.

With respect to how such goals are impacting projects, the following views were offered:

  • 23% suggest goals are limited to sustainability projects,
  • 13% are experiencing current impacts to all projects, and
  • 28% feel an increasing impacting to all projects.

Unfortunately, actual positive results, step change in performance, still seems delayed. Strange that with so many initiatives, we aren’t seeing quicker results?


The Root of the Lag

The problem, as you might suspect, comes with implementation, and those responsible for said implementation. Those who:

  • derive the plans to achieve strategic targets,
  • develop and manage the projects that deliver improved results,
  • are investigating and designing alternative technologies or operational methodologies to produce those deliverables.

I hate to say this, but in other words,


the members of the program, portfolio and project management world.

 We are the problem. Or at least our processes are.


Now, before you go into denial, I’ll caveat that it’s not to say we don’t want to do it. In fact, many do want and try to support these initiatives.

But the issue comes down to what we know about it (or rather, lack thereof), our governing structures, our capability to allow for change, and our ability to lead change, that slows things down.


The Gaps & Barriers

 Looking at the data from the PM survey suggests that the greatest barriers to successful and rapid implementation of sustainability by program and project management professionals, is that there is:

  • a disconnect between corporate strategies and the training to support them, leading to...
  • a lack of understanding on how to integrate sustainability, combined with...
  • a lack of awareness of the channels for training, certification, and other support available to do so.

In fact, a full 79% of respondents felt that they are either only indirectly related or not related at all to sustainability, and only 21% had sustainability listed within their job description!

This is further exemplified in the findings for experiential level with respect to sustainability:  

  • 26% have no experience in this realm,
  • 56% of respondents are working as a novice or learner, and
  • others who consider themselves experienced, but by their own definition, not at an expert level.

And when considering the amount of training received,

  • nearly 40% are self-taught, and
  • another 45% have no education in sustainability.

Ultimately, what the survey is showing, is that there is a need for training on how to integrate sustainability into project management.


So What Can You Do?

There are a number of resources available for learning more about sustainability, but it takes some digging to find the ones that will guide on how and when to bring concepts and studies into projects.

Keavney wrote a great article introducing several tips to integrate sustainability into the PMO. Personally, I think all her tips are worth investigating, but some are of utmost importance over the others. These are:

  1. incorporate environmental criteria within project management templates
  2. review the project plan and objectives to identify any green opportunities
  3. add an environmental key performance indicator (KPI)
  4. consider environmental risks to your project
  5. map which stakeholders have or potentially have an environmental interest in the project
  6. identify and map any environmental and social project benefits


The first point sets the tone for the project, if you can gain approval to do so, and settle upon criteria that can be agreed upon for all projects within your organization. However, this may not always be an option.  

As an alternative that should accomplish the same goal, look externally to see where competing organizations are striving for better performance and ensure that those areas are assessed when you look at step 2, then establish the KPIs in step 3 to ensure you can measure progress against them.

For step 3, ensure you set leading indicators rather than lagging ones - such as the action of selecting technologies with better performance ranges, rather than actual environmental performance improvements (since lagging performance can only be measured after hand-off to the client or end-user).

If you do gain approval to alter PM templates, one must determine which criteria are most critical and applicable to your standard lineup of projects. Most companies or project teams will tend to work on the same categories of projects over time, and so with a little stakeholder engagement, it should become clear which criteria are most beneficial.

This is where the rest of the highlighted steps get incorporated, albeit in a different order. Take note that these steps can be done both for finding criteria to alter PM templates, OR just for finding appropriate requirements on a project by project basis.

Start out with development of a high-level draft of the general process requirements to deliver the desired product.

Next, I recommend you address steps 4 and 5, ensuring you gain a holistic view on the challenges by fully engaging your teams to brainstorm and add valuable perspectives. Consider the many causes of industrial project failure, and key influencing factors to consider in planning, which I have written about previously.

Determine what will cause your project to fail FIRST and ensure these are taken care of within the scope of the project. Ensure the requirements of these risks and interests are well defined in order to further develop the base scope.  

Next look at step 2 - review your overall draft sequence and look for improvement opportunities:

  • areas where a trade-off study might reveal better performance or efficiency for the project overall,
  • opportunities to streamline or optimize a process,
  • options to eliminate or significantly reduce waste streams and their management that could otherwise introduce environmental risks or impacts.  

This is not only good for the environment, it is also good for the pocket book - the fewer processes and byproducts to manage and monitor, the lower the cost of the overall project. And any client that can be shown the value of such improvements will buy into them without having previously set criteria or KPIs.

To convey the value of these options or additional studies clearly, particularly if you need to gain approval to carry the studies out, you would then apply step 6. Map out the benefits for now and for the future operation of the infrastructure being designed, and communicate that to your decision makers.

One of the key benefits I’ve often used is this: choosing better options earlier will most often reduce re-work that typically occurs in projects when external stakeholders’ expectations are greater than the performance of originally proposed plans.

This is a pain point that I’ve researched and written about before – having to repeat work due to new requirements being highlighted later on - sometimes very late in the design lifecycle. As this always impacts cost and schedule of a project, it is best to be avoided. 


When Should You Engage?

For greatest success, the best time to impact a project’s targets, options and final scope are right at the start. Ideally, this would mean during the conceptual or pre-feasibility assessment phases, when budgetary estimates are being assembled.  

It is then that there is the greatest opportunity to voice alternative concepts, technologies and performance standards to strive for, and the ability to impact scope and decisions. 

In closing, I hope that you have found some key takeaways, or “aha moments” to apply within your next project. Integrating sustainability doesn’t have to be viewed as an extra requirement. It can easily become part of the everyday project planning process. 

And getting project teams engaged and contributing their opinions, showing them the positive benefits for their work, as well as that passed on to others, helps move the needle for buy-in significantly. 

So take a positive step forward, and good luck with your future improvement initiatives!