The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro) Phase 2 of the Exposition (Expo) Light Rail Line, at $1.5 billion, has been hailed as the light rail project that will finally connect downtown city of Los Angeles residents with the beaches of Santa Monica. A milestone design-build project in Los Angeles’s massive more than $40 billion transit program.

As with any large complex transit project, there are major challenges and key stakeholders that could derail the success of this endeavor. There are multiple municipalities involved, including the cities of Los Angeles and Santa Monica. Furthermore how does the project team coordinate the key utilities whose cooperation, input and involvement are critical? There are also numerous other county and regional agencies, not to mention a very sensitive and vocal public who need to be genuinely engaged with.

The Expo Phase 2 Team, led by Mike Aparicio, EVP Skanska and head of the the Skanska-Rados design-build JV, and Rick Thorpe, CEO of the Exposition Construction Authority, challenged one another to develop a process to engage with these stakeholders to achieve nothing less than extraordinary project success — for all.

The team began by implementing an iterative, highly inclusive and proactive teaming process, not only at multiple levels, but with multiple stakeholders. Thorpe and Aparicio committed to a partnering process that brought together key stakeholders at the outset of design to develop shared overall project goals that well exceeded contractual requirements. These sessions also created personal commitments to collaborative actions to achieve these goals.

From here, the team created breakout teaming sessions with key utilities and other critical stakeholders. For example, with Southern California Edison, both the JV and Expo Authority met with SCE’s senior management and project personnel to develop and commit to specific goals between those stakeholders that supported the overall project’s goals and were specific to SCE’s involvement. These teaming sessions have been termed ‘derivative partnering sessions.’ For example, “Pulling cable no later than November 11, 2012,” is an SCE, Expo Authority and JV common goal. This goal supports the overall project goal of “Project turned over to Expo for pre-revenue testing NLT August 14, 2015.”

“Adding the derivative partnering sessions to our normal partnering process has created a project wide collaborative process,” said Thorpe. “It has resulted in a multi-faceted project culture that brings more than just the contractor to the table. Other integral stakeholders are now engaged in helping achieve overall project success.”

The third-party stakeholders became integral team members. In fact, the term “third-party” has been dropped. Questions of schedule are discussed openly with utilities, key subs and city agencies acknowledging everyone’s concerns relative to cost and available resources. Invariably the solution is to put an intra-organizational task group on issues with measurable deliverables, date(s) and a “champion.” These half-day sessions, which have been sustained quarterly, include not only Thorpe and Aparicio, but also involve executives, middle managers and key technical staff of all stakeholders.

The goal? Review, as a team, how the project is doing against the goals using hard data. It’s not about Expo vs. SCE, city of Los Angeles or the JV. It’s about identifying well in advance challenges relative to the partnership goals; what’s needed to prevent or mitigate them in the way of collaborative action (small task groups); and, holding everyone accountable as a team to the commitments. It has also become a process of acknowledging success.

Aparicio said, “The teaming process on Expo 2 has enabled our design-build JV to move forward with the active support of not only the Expo Authority, but also the key utilities and major process teams such as track work and systems to realize project goals that go well beyond any stakeholder’s contractual obligations.”

Every team has adopted a communication protocol of no e-mails or letters except to confirm or memorialize a verbal conversation. Additionally, each team also came up with a protocol with respect to how they would deal with individuals who did not play as team members or follow through on their commitments. The result is They’re tough on one another.

They also acknowledged up front that there would be differences and conflicts along the way. To deal with conflicts, they developed conflict resolution ladders — unique to each team — that makes it OK to agree to disagree while maintaining both schedule and mutual trust.

The team is 80 percent toward its goal and every team member is expected not only to hold themselves accountable for their commitments, but one another. Said Aparicio, “The derivative workshops with Southern California Edison alone have saved us at least a year on our project schedule.” It’s an attitude and a dynamic process of active mutual support wherein the team, or multiple teams, truly own the game — with no excuses.

• Develop Overall Project Goals and Key Milestones — Large, complex projects are often more than 3 and even 4 to 5 years in duration. Consequently, project goals are too far out to be meaningful to influence today’s or tomorrow’s actions. Have your team start by developing overall project goals and then have the teams focus on developing key milestones or derivative goals and action plans that support these over the next 6 to 12 months.

• Adapt the Teaming Process as the Construction Project Requires — The teaming process should be built around key processes or stakeholder relationships. Key processes and the involvement of stakeholder groups will change on a construction project, for example, as a project moves from design to construction. The teaming process needs to adapt accordingly.

• Ensure Senior Management Participation from Key Stakeholders — Team participation should be dictated by who can contribute to the success of the phase of this project. Err on the side of being more inclusive and ensure senior management participation from each key stakeholder entity.

• Ensure Lateral Coordination and Alignment Between Teams — Have individuals from stakeholders participate on multiple teams. For example, if you have a “systems team” and a “commissioning team” have at least several individuals from each stakeholder participate on both teams.

• Develop Communication Protocols — Have each team develop its own conflict resolution and communication protocols, such as no e-mails except to memorialize a verbal communication. Also, have them talk about how they will deal with non team players.

• Acknowledge What’s Working — Working sessions should not only deal with challenges but also acknowledge and reinforce what’s working well with the team and who’s really playing as a team player.

• Senior Management’s Role Evolves — Senior management’s role should evolve from one of just making day-to-day decisions, to one of managing the teaming process.

The one prerequisite in developing a teaming process and collaborative mindset is not conditional. It does not require good plans; a collaborative project delivery method; good site conditions; or even, as we’ve seen, good people and cooperative third parties. What it does require is the genuine commitment of senior management to a sustained collaborative process that genuinely engages all project stakeholders. Committed teams do the rest.

Jim Eisenhart is president of the Ventura Consulting Group.

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