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Project managers can learn from Hollywood

Feb. 1, 2011
Did you know that as a project manager you’re the mirror of a Hollywood movie director? Well, if not exactly a director then for certain an executive producer?

Did you know that as a project manager you’re the mirror of a Hollywood movie director? Well, if not exactly a director then for certain an executive producer?

Think about it: what does a producer do but shepherd all the preproduction details such as lining up sources of site/location support, craft services, equipment rental, office trailers, material acquisition and hiring safety professionals and similar consultants? And what does a director do but take the talent they've been assigned and using the backend resources offered to him by the producer to make sure everything is on-hand to be put into play for any given scene in the movie? And do you think this kind of hundreds-of-tentacles job is done the way we in the trades normally do it, with a simple bar chart and milestone Schedule of Values? Not hardly!

Let's do some simple math for a hypothetical movie. If this movie is going to cost $12,000,000 to make and is going to run 120 minutes in length, then it's going to cost $100,000 per minute of running time. If a typical mechanical portion of a $50 million job is going to be bought for $10 million and hopefully sold for a bit more than that, and the job is going to last start-to-punchout for 500 job days or just a little under two years, then you've bought that job at $20,000 per day. Granted it's not quite the same economic scale as doing a movie, but since it's the money you as project manager are responsible for shouldn't you do a rational equivalent in the preconstruction phase as most movie producers usually do in their preproduction phase?

It never ceases to amaze me when I talk with other project managers or consult with client companies how very little detail is actually written down and how large a percentage of preconstruction knowledge is inside their own heads. Granted, some sort of job plan contact list should be put together from past jobs incase these folks were to be hit by a bus. Without a list, a good portion of all the nuances, such as whom to trust and whom not to, who has what and where, who comes through in the clutch and who doesn't, etc., have a good chance of being lost for good, then the job would have a good chance of not being profitable. But when you're talking the next two or three pay grades above contractor-type money, as little is left to chance as can be.

For most movies, almost every sequence that involves the same set, the same cast of actors, the same production values, such as being shot on location or in a studio, and any one-time special effects are carefully drawn out as a storyboard, which is drawn from a camera's perspective with a standard set of notes and notations that at a glance give an instant reference to who should and should not be there, what equipment and support should be there, etc.

By using storyboards for the entire movie, obvious conflicts (kind of like BIM for film), are brought to attention and the needed corrections are made, as are opportunities for aggregation and consolidation, such as being able to shoot certain scenes out of timeline sequence to be edited in correctly later. This is similar to being able to run mechanical trunklines down a hall as soon as the steel goes up and then do the branches to the various rooms later, or being able to pre-order equipment way the heck of ahead of time to be able to bargain the best possible price and delivery schedule further down the road. Doesn't this make our usually somewhat primitive MS Project chart and Schedule of Values look rather pale in comparison?

I'm not saying we should start doing storyboards for any new construction job — that would be silly and wouldn't be cost efficient, and is done sort of by the plans and specs. However, we need to develop standards, procedures and protocols within our own companies, just as the movie studios do, that can be applied to virtually any job and are 100% traceable if anyone has to come in cold and figure out who does what, when, where and why. Given this economy, there are all sorts of reasons out there other than death why we might not be with a company to finish the job, and we owe to it to the person who might have to come in after us to give them as much information to finish the job as we possibly can.

Craig is a second-generation mechanical contractor with unlimited Master's licenses in boilers, air conditioning, heating and plumbing. You may contact him via e-mail at: [email protected].

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