With all the new-found rivalry between US President Donald Trump and North Korean premier Kim Jong-Un, it’s easy to forget that North Korean nuclear ambitions stretch back to his father, Kim Jong-Il (if not earlier), with Kim-senior disrupting one of my projects in the process of gaining a spot on the nuclear stage.
In 2009, I was a project manager working for Transport for London, part of the Greater London Authority and responsible for strategic oversight of public transport in London such as the London Underground, buses, trams and river buses.
I had a critical project to deliver the procurement and installation of over 100 Wide Area Gates across London Underground stations. These are electronic barriers, like the ones used on Underground stations, but with especially wide openings to cope with passengers with large items of luggage or accompanying small children. Given Transport for London’s love of Three Letter Abbreviations (TLAs), Wide Aisle Gates are commonly known in the trade as WAGs.
At the same time however, there was a big scare about North Korea’s Yongbyon nuclear reactor. Britain, the US and other Western countries were scared the North Koreans were upgrading it in order to produce a nuclear bomb and imposed greater controls on the movement of technology, lest in end up in North Korea and be used to make a nuclear weapon.
Meanwhile, back in London…
I was up against it. My bosses had already committed to senior management that the WAG installations would be complete by the end of the financial year. I could just about make this date, but a critical phase that could screw things up was the transporting of the WAG gates from their factory in the USA to the UK. Transportation was done by ship, taking 2 weeks. If anything went wrong here, my deadline would be thrown into jeopardy.
At this point, you should now be able to guess which phase of my project ‘went south’.
The project manager in the supplier’s organisation was equally aware the of the political deadline and of the risk posed by the two-week long shipping period. In an act of initiative and perhaps giving credence to the statement that ‘no good deed goes unpunished’, he decided to transport the equipment by air. Instead of taking weeks to get to Britain, it would now take hours.
This is where the North Korean factor came in.
If the WAGs had been transported by sea, Customs officers based at the seaport, would have recognised the equipment for what it was. They had seen the same kit being delivered countless times before for similar projects across London Underground. For the Customs officers at the airport however, it was a different matter. Electronic gates like the WAGs had never arrived there before. Suddenly being presented with large quantities of electronic hardware they couldn’t recognise against the backdrop of greater sanctions on North Korea made them suspicious of what the equipment was going to be used for. As a result, they impounded the WAG gates until they carried out enquiries.
Now I was faced with a crisis. No-one knew when the gates would be released and that threw my completion date out. What was I going to do?
As much as I was in dire straits, I was fortunate to have built up over time, a stock of satisfied customers and project managers I had worked with, and delivered for, in the past. Whether that was refitting the Tube station at Wimbledon tennis ground in time for the tournament, carrying out critical enabling works to support the construction of Crossrail or installing several hundred thousand pounds worth of equipment in a new central London station, I was able to draw on a set of good relationships who were now to prove invaluable.
By now, these people had moved onto new projects and had they own holdings of gates including WAGs, reserved for their own use. I contacted them, asking where possible to use their existing holdings, until the impounded WAGs were released. These could then use backfill their own stores they had passed onto me. I wasn’t trying to replace everything that was impounded; I just needed enough to allow the installation teams to start work and maintain the project’s momentum. When eventually, Customs released the hardware, I could replace the kit ‘borrowed’ from elsewhere.
The people I contacted for help were all good men and women who by rights, didn’t have to help me but, where possible, they contributed what they could, while holding back the bare minimum they needed to keep their own projects going. Some even made changes to their deadlines, pushing them back. Those that couldn’t help had critical issues and priorities of their own – all perfectly understandable.
What was the result of this? Well, as I said my critical issue was maintenance of momentum. I gained enough hardware to allow installations of the WAGs to start across the Tube. Customs were finally satisfied that my impounded gates weren’t going to North Korea to make a nuclear bomb. They released the hardware and I was able to pay back those who supported me.
There’s always talk in project management circle about the critical factors in project success, such as senior management buy-in, realistic deadlines, risk management and understanding the critical path.
However, all that means naught in times like this. Ultimately, it boils down to people.