Ice roads. Bears. Blizzards

In remote locations, project controls pull through

By Marie-Hélène Biffi | June 12, 2018

Project control is a rigorous, painstaking process. It’s the basis of the entire project plan, setting out how and when the many events and tasks must take place. Planners are the people who develop and manage the schedule. They’re the first line of action or defense when something happens on the project—good or bad—that affects timing or execution. They determine the downstream impacts any problems or changes may have. And when major disruptions occur, they help to adapt the plan and find ways to get the work done on time.

When I began my career 30 years ago, we planners had to keep a lot of the important details on paper and in our heads. Today, sophisticated digital tools perform calculations and track progress. But a project schedule starts coming together in our minds long before technology gets into the game.

It has to be that way. Good planners have an extra something that all the tools don’t: the benefit of personal experience. It’s that experience that lets them “see” the schedule and gives them a kind of sixth sense about how a change in one activity will impact others further down the line.

At a remote location, all the normal considerations are magnified. Consequences can be far more severe if problems, conditions, or issues are not addressed properly and quickly. In African deserts or the Canadian Arctic, the risks are sometimes dire, especially when access to materials or expertise can be weeks, even months, away.

On these complex undertakings, project controls help our clients and the project team make the right decisions at the right time. But first, we must understand the project well enough to see how activity can be tracked and controlled. Our job is to stay on top of the progress and get out in front of issues that might cause delays.

Gahcho Kué is the largest new diamond mine to be constructed in the world in 15 years. Owned jointly by De Beers Group of Companies and Mountain Province Diamonds, the project site is far from civilization in Canada’s Northwest Territories. Remote and isolated, the site had no local or regional infrastructure, like road access, navigable shipping routes and ports, and external utilities. Especially challenging is the region’s extremely cold climate and the fact that land access is a 420-kilometre drive on an “ice road” that can be used only during the coldest winter months.

The ice road was one of several serious risks that could have threatened the project with cost-incurring delays. The equipment and materials needed to construct the project site had to be transported over that route during the winter of 2015. Had the weather or ground conditions not been favorable, the ice road might not have been able to be built. That would have delayed construction and pushed the project schedule back a full year, adding significant cost to the plan.

At the end of 2014, when we were confident we would be able to meet the deadline for transporting on the 2015 ice road, we knew the project was on track. That season, more than 2,500 truckloads, including 24 million litres of fuel, travelled the hundreds of kilometres over frozen lakes and roads to get to the Gahcho Kué site.

There were other threats. Bears. Blizzards. Delays obtaining the permits needed to construct and operate the project’s airstrip, which was vital to transporting personnel and materials. And the general construction contractor who withdrew from the project just six months before construction began.

Still, Gahcho Kué recovered its first diamond a full two months ahead of schedule and wrapped up on budget—two huge achievements that are rare today with projects of this size. It won the 2016 Project of the Year award in the private industry category from the Project Management Institute’s Montreal Chapter and it was one of three finalists for the Project Management Institute’s International Project of the Year Award in 2017.

The entire team shares in this achievement and the recognition of their work. The project controls group is proud to have contributed two critical elements that helped position the Gahcho Kué project for success: a good, solid estimate of cost, and rigorous change control and management.