11th February 2022

Book in Focus
Managing Engineering Processes in Large Infrastructure Projects

By Pascal Bohulu Mabelo

Managing Engineering Processes — Why Does It Matter?

Engineering is generally defined as the design, construction and operation of efficient and economical structures, equipment and systems. Thus, engineering design is an essential element of the system life cycle. No matter how good the manufacturing, production, sales and marketing might be, if a product or system is poorly designed, the end product will ultimately fail. Indeed, no project team can control time or costs once they fail to effectively manage the engineering endeavour—where time and money are actually spent.

Moreover, engineers are humans and, therefore, fallible in their endeavours. In fact, no product of engineering, being man-made, should assume qualities beyond that of humans, for not everything we have created has been successful. Thus, it is misplaced to expect that engineers will never make mistakes in their duties. The poor performance of individuals should not be the issue; rather, what is required is a set of procedures, processes and organisational arrangements that will prevent costly engineering errors from occurring in the first place.

Furthermore, engineering mistakes and inadvertences often result in massive overruns and poor operability. In the world of large infrastructure projects, engineering inadvertences (namely, “absence of attention or care; failure to carefully and prudently follow due process”) are prevalent and pernicious, and include the following:

  • Relying more on the engineers’ abilities than on effective processes;
  • Solving the wrong problem or misdiagnosis;
  • Using non-systemic methods to design complex adaptive systems;
  • Commencing construction before engineering design is complete;
  • Proceeding with engineering design without securing reliable specifications or a set of requirements;
  • Failing to align engineering with other project life cycle processes, rendering it a separate undertaking;
  • Failing to plan engineering activities at the same level of definition as any other project delivery activity.

For instance, one often comes across “designs” that proved inadequate owing to the engineering endeavour having focused purely on “what to build”, without due consideration of the corresponding “how to build”. Likewise, many other designs will fail since emphasis is placed on building a physical facility, not on the actual human needs to be met; further, many design engineers still fail to incorporate operations and maintenance insights as input to the design process. Indeed, maintenance failures generally result in safety issues, which should concern engineering design and development—they ought to have been prevented in the first place.

Errare humanum est, sed perseverare diabolicum” [Latin]; “to err is human, but to persevere (proceed in error) is diabolic or fatal”. Surely, this maxim applies to engineering too. In light of the foregoing discussions and considerations, most design engineers will benefit from a design method that is not only “structured”, but that also provides a means of detecting and preventing errors. A process is required that can transform a problem into a solution, or a dream into reality; this is about a process that determines what should be done, who could get involved, how much it might cost, and how long it would take and, most importantly, whether the envisaged system will be successfully delivered—design aspects and outputs that are often ignored by engineers. Such a process would be technical in its essence, at least in its final outcomes.

The US Department of Defence (DoD) published the Military Standard: Engineering Management [MIL-STD-499A (USAF)] to assist government and contractor personnel in defining the systems engineering effort in support of defence acquisition programmes. The fundamental concept of this standard was to present a single set of criteria against which all may propose their individual internal procedures as a means of satisfying engineering requirements. Therefore, the scope of this standard provides the engineering teams with: (1) the criteria for evaluating engineering planning and output; (2) a means for establishing an engineering effort and a systems engineering management plan; and (3) task statements that may be selectively applied to an acquisition program or to a large infrastructure project at the discretion of the appointed engineering manager. Hence, it is very encouraging that some tertiary institutions have developed and adopted a curriculum that mirrors these three critical aspects of engineering management.

However, even such a seminal work as this would need to be expanded (to better accommodate large or complex infrastructure projects) and be translated into a step-by-step elaboration that further provides the reader with its systems engineering rationale, as well as the most pertinent “systemic” methods that would support the practical applications of such an important standard.

This book, Managing Engineering Processes in Large Infrastructure Projects, is intended to fill this gap. It introduces and discusses engineering approaches that can guide engineers in their design and development efforts, particularly when it comes to large and complex infrastructure projects upon which our society depends.

However, the design and development of today’s infrastructure systems such as rail and road networks, power generation plants, water treatment plants, hospitals, and mega shopping malls would not be achieved without the processes and methods arising from systems thinking or systems engineering concepts and principles. Relationships with other systems and with the environment should be considered, for, unless we look at things as systems that are somewhat interconnected, we won’t perceive anything beyond their faint and fleeting shadows. It is hoped that the book sufficiently reconciles the traditional engineering process with relevant principles and practices arising from systems thinking or systems engineering.

Furthermore, systems are generally “created for humans” (namely, customers). This indeed applies to large and complex infrastructures that not only support the provision of essential services (such as water, energy and transport), but should also satisfy other “emotional” needs, including the appreciation of beauty and amour-propre. From that perspective, engineering design and development ought to rather adopt human-centric approaches that call for the blending of art and science. As succinctly discussed in a chapter, design thinking, the systems-way of “Thinking about Design”, caters for this, and completes the holistic outlook of this book.

We trust this book shall assist everyone involved, albeit indirectly, in engineering design and development. Thus, engineering management programmes could utilise this book and focus their curriculum on the critical issues of “creating a suitable solution to requirements” and a “proper approach to producing such solution (as a complex system)”, as well as the planning, monitoring and controls involved, rather than dwell on ancillary topics—which our book also considers.

Pascal Bohulu Mabelo has more than 20 years of professional experience and possesses a wide range of technical and managerial skills pertaining to large and complex infrastructure projects. He has previously worked as a design engineer, project manager, portfolio executive and project management consultant. He has served as the National Chairman of Project Management South Africa, and is the author of the books How to Manage Project Stakeholders and Operational Readiness – How to Achieve Successful System Deployment. 


Managing Engineering Processes in Large Infrastructure Projects is available now in Hardback at a 25% discount. Enter code PROMO25 at checkout to redeem.

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