Macau – Understanding Construction Workers – Xu Wei


This being completely off topic… Understanding constructions works in Macau one has to understand how the workers think and act. One thing that surprised is me that accross my construction sites, workers had the tendency to listen to Xu Wei on their phones or portable MP3 devices! Wherever one would go, somewhere somehow Xu Wei would sing to you, especially from mainland Chinese workers’ devices.

As a note to any construction professional out there: If you want the workers to understand you, recognize Xu Wei and mention it to them. They will recognize you on site much faster after you have told them you know this rock musician from mainland China.


China – Huidong Mall Fire



There had been a mall fire in Guangdong Province, China, leaving at least 17 people dead. Given the above photo and the description offered in the news article, it seems to be a very typical mall as operating throughout the country.

From my own experiences in China, as well as in Macau, fire safety both in prevention and in suppression is lacking far by European standards. A few examples:

  • Fire exit doors closed, locked or barricaded.
  • Emergency staircases used as storage or carpentry store.
  • Contractors that try to save money by conciously trying to circumvent existing regulation and installing inferior materials.

One can only hope that regulations and especially the implementation and control of the same are being tightened after the event above. Otherwise we might see a repeat within a short time.

Project Management in Germany – A view to the inside from the outside by an insider

Cathedrale of Cologne in the evening sun

This is a repost of an article I have published at LinkedIn.

Having written about challenges encountered in India and in Macau, today’s post is about a country on which one usually does not read about in terms of problems with project management: Germany, my home country.

It is very easy to criticize and write about other countries when one tries to compare the ‘good’ things of one’s own work culture with the ‘bad’ things of another. The truth is that ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are very subjective terms and in the end every difference from what one is used to, is in the end nothing else than a challenge that can be overcome. Looking at Germany there are also a number of things coming to mind that I would regard as challenges that other countries’ employees have to overcome:

The need to be assured. The projects that I have worked on in Germany tended to be very detail-focused and especially in the planning phase during the initial project calculation it was usual to go into every detail in great depth. On a project calculation up to 25 million euro twenty minutes of discussion could be spent on 500 euro. And most likely there would be a risk assigned to it. A risk that needs to be quantified and qualified and entered into a list, assigned with a responsibility and presented to higher management for sign off.

The need to have every planned. In line with above mentioned risk management behavior, Germans tend to have plans in place. Plans for how things will work out, how they might work out and what happens if they do not work out as planned, preferably with option A, B and C. A typical question in meetings is “and what if that doesn’t work?” This means that a lot of time and effort is invested not in making sure that the initial idea works, but in trying out every possibility of failure and creation of alternative solutions. There are scenarios in which I highly regarded this process as helpful, e.g. in life safety applications in the railway segment, yet there are other situations in which I would have tried to eliminate these discussions in afterthought. E.g. in attribution of IT costing to service lifecycle phases of a product line.

The need to think in processes and procedures. In the same way that Germans like to have risks assessed, like to have plans in place, we also like to create standard ways of doing things. In my time in Germany it happened several times that we encountered a very specific situation that required us to create a specific solution. And then we created a process out of that specific solution to also suit other situations that might or might not occur. Whether that would really have been necessary or not is another question but the principle is that we like to think in rules and regulations and whenever we encounter a situation where our rules don’t apply, then we try to create some. This can be very helpful as for project management my former employer had created a dedicated project management life cycle process that catered for all standard situations, documentation and team interactions. However in other situation it can be blocking the overall work flow as someone is being set aside to create a new workflow or new standard document for a situation that might not arise again within the next 6 months.

Off is off. Labor laws in Germany are strict and much more social and family orientated as the typical Asian work contract would grant. As such it happened often to me that people are really off after their standard work time is over, i.e. their mobile is off, they will not react to any emails and generally the next time you can ask them for a question is the next morning. Sure there are people that work overtime and yes there are workaholics that are available 24/7, but if compared to the general availability of project management staff or contractors in Macau who can be called upon starting from 6am to midnight, this is a different scenario. This means that whatever question you have you better get solved during your work time as otherwise you will not have the solution to your problem. And don’t forget that some companies grant 30 days annual leave (in addition to government holidays) surplus extended maternity leaves, sick leaves and educational leaves. As a standard rule in my past project calculations we would never assume that a FTE (full time employee) is really working 100% of his or her time for the project but up to 30% of his time would be attributed to other matters (as said before, holidays, administrative issues, etc.).

Strong unions, strong public, strong opinions. If you are used to work in China then you are used to get things done quickly in regards to public infrastructure civil works. In Germany, similar to other Western countries, public groups and stakeholders have a very strong say in the project progress, as can be seen in such government undertakings as Stuttgart 21 and the new Berlin airport. At Stuttgart 21 public demonstrations had to be resolved using police force, resulting in private law suits, and for the Berlin airport newspapers are reporting on the ‘latest’ failures on a daily basis resulting in increased internal political pressure for quick results. Without taking into account of these stakeholders it is impossible to complete a project within the agreed scheduled time.

As said in the beginning, there are no ‘good’ or ‘bad’ situations one can encounter, only challenges that are to be overcome. I am a person that loves to dive head first into these challenges and find new exciting solutions to overcome them. Any questions?Contact me!

Project Management in India – Challenges in New Delhi


This is a repost of an article published at Linked.

Recently I wrote about project management in Macau and how different it is within its constraints of being in a tight labor market. Today I will highlight something completely opposite: Project Management in India and its challenges.

Transportation is a nightmare. In contrary to China, who is developing highways, railways and airports en masse, India’s transportation infrastructure is a nightmare. Delivering of goods from one city to another can take a considerable longer time than one is used to from Europe, the US or China. As an example a 400 kilometer drive from New Delhi along the National Highway towards the North took me 8 hours as the ‘National Highway’ was either a construction site or a heavily damaged two lane road full of trucks, cows and horse carriages. Also inner-city traffic is horrible with my daily commute from office to home taking up to an hour for a distance somewhere else covered within 20 minutes. Anyone who has visited Mumbai in recent years knows what I am talking about. In addition to the general traffic situation, customs and customs clearance will take longer than expected. During my own time over there I had to experience that imported goods were lost at airport and the local airport cargo manager requested for a special “expediting search fee” to find our cargo. Naturally we refused and as such were only able to get our cargo to customs clearance 4 days later.

Labor is readily available … India is one of the most populated countries in the world and as such there are millions of poor and unemployed labors on the streets that will take any job on a daily or hourly basis. The local economies are tailored towards this abundance of labor and you will see young men gathered around “chai wala” (tea street vendors) waiting for someone to approach them with a task. Minimum wages in New Delhi were low (as shown below) and as such every task that could be done by oneself, such as picking up copies from the printer or washing dishes or connecting a cable, is being outsourced to a cheaper labor. Field commissioning engineers would not touch cat 6 cables in my presence without their manual labor doing all the physical work for them. As such, quality and workmanship suffer.

… except if you need qualified ones. With abundance of labor an abundance of colleges and tertiary schools opened in India, calling themselves “Engineering Colleges” or “XXX of Technology”. Quality of education is poor at many of them, with teachers being employed on an hourly basis to deliver lectures and certificates in parts being faked. Henceforth with whomever you employ or with whomever you are working with in India, it is better to put forward a simple and brief test of qualifications. In my own time I experienced engineers who were not able to read simple drawings or administrative officials not knowing the principle rules of their area. As frustrating as it is, the important rule is to understand who has which skills and who has the potential in your team to be trained into the required position.

Red tape and paperwork. I just would like to highlight two sentences I heard in India during either meetings or discussions with officials: “you can only kill a paper with paper” and “we don’t trust in words, we trust in paper”. The basic meaning behind these statements is that the written word has a lot of power and contracts are often read word-by-word and followed word-by-word. With the advent of sophisticated rail and metro systems in India, whole contracts were imported and adapted to the local requirements, e.g. from Hongkong, yet the way they are being executed is a totally different one from the way the contracts were intended to. This can lead to ridiculous long amounts of time wasted to fulfill requirements for the requirements sake without actual benefit to either contractual party. A classic example I encountered is that a number of British or American standards and norms were copied into a particular contract, either out of convenience or to satisfy the need to have “state of the art” requirements. These standards however were not applicable in the least to the works to be executed. Instead of a simple disregard, e.g. via formal letter or informal meeting, a lengthy process had to be undertaken involving several consultants and experts to ensure that enough “paper” had been produced to “kill” the contract requirement, i.e. to somehow be able to say that “yes, this requirement has been fulfilled”. A lengthy process wasting man hours for both engineering and managerial staff.

Pollution, dust and lack of understanding. Having worked in an electronic industry, the need for a clean and dust-free environment is a necessity that often enough decides about the lifetime of expensive equipment. India’s ecological record is not the best and whereas China is often in the news on their PM 2.5 levels, New Delhi or other parts of India could have made the headlines at least as often. I have seen data centers with centimeters of dust on equipment racks, dead rats inside of fiber optic equipment housings, animals freely running around in operation centers, household air condition units (with overflowing condensate drains) above 100 thousand euro computer units and computers dying within a year or two of operation due to clogging and lack of filter cleaning. Provision of heavy duty equipment is definitely a wise choice, yet from own experience counterproductive in this highly price-sensitive market. Better invest in two or three additional site supervisors with cameras that take records of all non-compliant situations at site as basis of warranty voidance and claim for additional money against faulty equipment.

Intercultural understanding. With the above constraints taken into account, one of the biggest challenges in India is the intercultural misunderstandings that will happen between Western (or Eastern) and Indian mentalities. With the caste system being a very strong subconscious force, high poverty and un-education levels, multiple religions and sects as well as an upbringing totally different from other countries, one needs tolerance and patience to succeed in this area of the world. Asking the right question in the right way has proven very successful for me. Example given, instead of asking “Have you completed this list?” one should say “Yesterday I asked you to make a list, please show it to me now”. In the first instance the initial reaction most likely would be a “yes” whereas in the second instance, the answer is forced to be either a “here it is” or “I haven’t done that yet” (in which case you can give an immediate new deadline).

As said in the beginning and in my last post, I probably could write a whole book about the challenges one encounters and how to tackle them. I invite everyone who would like to know more to either leave me a comment here or contact me at MLVONSCHAPER AT YAHOO DOT DE.

Project Management in Macau – A review with hints and tips

On the bridge to Macau side

This is a repost of an article I just published at LinkedIn.

Having been in Macau for the past 2 and a half years, I am being told that I should start to write a book with all the ups and downs I experienced as project manager in Macau. A very similar idea was given to me after 2 years in India and somehow the same sentence was mentioned to me in Beijing after the highspeed project finished. Maybe I will one day but until then… a few things about project management in Macau I would like to share:

The labour and human resources market is very tight and small. More often than not you will see the same workers and same project managers across properties and projects. At most of my projects I have seen the same two painters following me across properties, clients and companies. Trying to change work force or getting a different crew of workers is possible but cumbersome. With a total unemployment of 1.9% in Macau, worker gangs are usually busy and it is extremely difficult to get short time labor in large quantities, e.g. for a sudden rush job or acceleration. In most cases, contractors seem to rely on double shifts for their main worker crew.

Qualified personnel is lacking left and right. In Macau, a tertiary education is only held by around 30% of the workforce and most of these are not engineers but have graduated in Business Administration or e.g. Tourism Management. Building services engineers, electrical engineers, railway commissioning engineers or even qualified plumbers are rare and usually absent from standard projects. Knowledge of norms, standards and regulations is mostly reduced to a rough understanding of Hongkong common practice of installation, yet lacking the profound followup in paperwork. Whereas in Germany it requires several years of apprenticeship and studying before one can call oneself a carpenter, in Macau I have seen once that one’s own understanding of qualification is that one has replaced a door once in his life. True this being exaggerated but unfortunately it is common that one cannot trust any workers designation at a project without a profound background check to make sure that the respective worker is up for the task.

In regards to project accounting and billing, I have seen in Macau that contractors are not very keen in getting a proper project closure in time. Whereas Chinese New Year is an important milestone for contractors to pay their subcontractors, the overall attitude for billing and account settling is that that has time. If one, either as a project manager or client is pushing for closure it can happen that accounts are staying unsettled for several years.

Macau being a Special Administrative Zone of China and being an islet with adjacent islands, do not expect any stockpile of construction material or special equipment of any kind. Dry wall needs to be ordered with 2 to 3 weeks lead time for China-made ones, HVAC duct requires factory production in the Pearl River Delta area with up to 3 weeks lead time and larger amounts of anything (say, bulbs, sockets, switches, lights, door closers, etc.) can be as far away as 5 to 10 weeks. A profound, well in advance thought off, procurement strategy is your best tool!

Forget warehouses in Macau, and don’t rely on contractor storage facilities. Space is limited in Macau with real estate prices rocketing, and warehouse space is dead money for most landlords. There are a number of facilities both in Coloane, Pak On and Macau, yet these are usually not climatized, without proper access and small in size. Obvious choices are Zhuhai and Hongkong, yet do they require an additional border crossing (incl. customs) prior goods being available on site. Hence many contractors resort to site storage (if available) or just-in-time deliveries of materials.


ASEAN – A comment on McKinsey’s “Seven things you need to know”

Monorail System in Kuala Lumpur

As mentioned in my reply on Xing on McKinsey’s Understanding ASEAN: Seven things you need to know, I can’t repeat it often enough: ASEAN countries as well as other Asian countries are extremely diverse and require a completely unique and individual approach to tap into the market. For someone who has never been in Asia or in any of the ASEAN countries one’s opinion on either ASIA or ASEAN is often formed by media and the general impression that Asians are somehow similar. Countries that are not featured daily in e.g. German news, such as Indonesia, Phillipines and Laos are unknown components in a manager’s knowledge.

Hence the best way to approach these countries is to get the required knowledge inhouse, either by hiring an expatriate who has lived in both your own home country and the target market country, or by acquiring the help of locals that have worked / studied / spent considerable time in your home country and understand your culture. Because without a basic understanding of the similarities and differences between e.g. Germany and China or Germany and Hongkong (yes, China and Hongkong are VERY different), one will loose money. Money is being lost in misunderstandings, miscommunications, wrongly set up business deals and just lost in time spent in training personnel.

Just imagine that you sent a young manager of 35 years along with his family for the first time to Malaysia on an assignment. If he or she has never spent any time in that country, all mistakes someone can make who never came in contact with Malaysian culture, will be made. That will cost this particular manager at least a few months in effective working time inside Malaysia. Surplus depending on the mistakes he or she is making, local employees might feel frustrated (reduced productivity), sabotage or leave the company. Do you think that is exaggerated? Just think back on your own first days in a new environment and how efficient you would have been if you would have known what you do know now.

Hence, I repeat my final comment on the article linked to above: ASEAN / Asia is a very diverse continent with animosities between individual nations, histories that have NOT been taught in your high school and of which you have no knowledge whatsoever. Get yourself the required knowledge to survive in these markets, because one of your competitors is certainly doing it. Want to know more? Contact me.

Maybe the most important project in the world – ITER

Anjuna Beach

Being in the project management industry, one is always on the lookout for prestigious and interesting projects happening around the world. There are bad examples out there, but there are also benefiting ones. For me, one of the most prestigious if not the most prestigious projects in the world is ITER. The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, currently built in France, and meant to be a solution for one of the biggest challenges mankind faces: energy generation.

It being a scientific experimental reactor project it is not often reported of in the mass media, yet there is a valuable insight article by the New Yorker about the current state of the project, its structure, difficulties and challenges. For everyone who has ever worked in a difficult project environment, this is a must read, as there are familiar situations, yet in a much more complex environment. The project stretching out for several decades (including its experimental operation phase), this is an achievement of a lifetime once it goes online and produces (what we all hope), energy!

And yes, they are hiring