By MC Botha, Programme Director: Project Management for USB-ED
In the past, there were a few projects which captured media attention on a global level. The rescuing of 33 Chilean mine workers who were trapped underground in 2010, and the rescuing of the football team in the Tham Luang caves in 2018. The construction of the Huoshenshan Hospital in Wuhan, falls in the same category, calling for a strong project plan.
In projects such as those mentioned above, project management takes on dimensions where the cost constraints are totally subordinate to the primary drivers of performance and time management. Costs actually become irrelevant, with the result that these types of projects usually fall within the domain of the central government.
It is important to note that the Huoshenshan Hospital is not a typical hospital, but rather a purpose-built modular structure to solely deal with the COVID-19 virus. With no time for consultations for a custom hospital design, Wuhan officials used blueprints from the Xiaotangshan Hospital, a 1,000-bed facility in the outskirts of Beijing assembled in a week during the SARS epidemic in 2003.
The fact is therefore that the Huoshenshan Hospital was “assembled” in Lego style with modular units that were manufactured off-site, rather than being constructed. This does not negate the tremendous project management effort that was required to operationalise the hospital within 10 days.
Dealing with such an endeavor required specific project management techniques. I believe the project management team was a collection of highly qualified and focused individuals who were absolutely committed to the task at hand, but also totally mandated to complete their function specific roles.
It would have been impossible for a single project manager to plan, control and monitor a project of this magnitude for 24 hours for each of the 10 productive days. As such, I think that primary project management roles rotated during the construction period.
The singular most important attribute that one will find in the project management team is high technical skills and the ability to co-ordinate, delegate and integrate. In 2003, more than 4 000 people worked on the Xiaotangshan Hospital, and I can imagine that the labour force was substantially larger for the Huoshenshan Hospital. One also has to understand that China does not allow trade unionism and that vast numbers of rural migrant workers would have been appointed.
What are the most important considerations in project planning?
The question beckons how the project team will communicate the integrated effort to the lowest level of resourcing. I believe that three managerial approaches were relevant, namely
- Prior mandating and delegations to middle management;
- Super specialisation, where teams focused on small unique tasks, and
- Production line mind-set, where specific resources moved progressively through the site doing the same repetitive task. Obviously, this reduced the possibility of error.
On any regular project, the project manager often has to manage different stakeholder expectations and ‘project politics’. In the example of the Huoshenshan Hospital, I think that the imperative to complete the project within the time constraint, given the gravity of the prevalence of infections with the COVID-19 virus, focused the team, project managers and sponsors entirely on the task at hand.
Notwithstanding the obvious successful execution of the Huoshenshan Hospital that captured world-wide admiration, I am sure that numerous lessons were learned by the project executive that will be implemented in the Leishenshan hospital which is presently under construction. It will be another example of what can be achieved with a purpose-led project plan and highly specialised team.
It takes a strong foundation of knowledge and expertise as well as strong leadership to manage an ambitious project on the scale of Huoshenshan. Consider doing USB-ED’s acclaimed project management course to kickstart your journey to learn to analyse, draw up a project plan, manage and execute projects of any kind and size, in any industry.