Achieving warp speed with project delivery

Warp speed vaccine: 5 tips to deliver a COVID vaccine quicker

As part of a broad strategy to accelerate the response to the global pandemic of COVID-19, the government has been selecting the most promising manufacturing candidates and providing coordinated government support to scale up production capacity immediately—Operation Warp Speed (OWS).

On May 15, 2020, the federal government announced Operation Warp Speed (OWS)—a reference to Star Trek—as part of its response to the global pandemic of COVID-19. OWS is a partnership amongst the various components of the Department of Health and Human Services with the goal of delivering 300 million doses of a safe, effective COVID-19 vaccine by January 2021. 

What does Warp Speed mean for vaccine production?

As part of its broad strategy to accelerate the process, the government has been selecting the most promising manufacturing candidates and providing coordinated government support to scale up production capacity immediately. Building safe, state-of-the-art pharmaceutical facilities that are ready in time to manufacture a COVID-19 vaccine is a massively ambitious project with the potential to help billions of people. It’s a sobering responsibility and it comes with incredibly aggressive timelines. 

At its essence, getting to Warp Speed requires a new approach to design, engineering, construction, and client leadership. The pandemic has all but eliminated the luxury of time. It’s no longer logical to wait for every conceivable piece of information to be in your hands before taking a single step forward. All of the various project components—design, engineering, construction, and vendor coordination, as well as all of the owner concerns—have to move forward in a unit.

The global pandemic of COVID-19 is pushing the envelope on speed-to-market to the point that facility design and construction may be experiencing a paradigm shift. The tried-and-true approach to facility design and construction needs to be revisited as Warp Speed is demanding the pharmaceutical industry to navigate uncharted territory.

5 ways to get to a vaccine quicker

Here are five key concepts our design, engineering, and construction teams are using that can help any manufacturer in the race to a vaccine:

Identify key decision-makers

Designated individuals need to act as a point-of-contact and decision-making authorities. In collaboration with the project team, the facility owner needs to identify one or two people in each area of expertise who are tasked with making specific decisions to keep the project moving forward. This step is essential to address financial concerns promptly. For example, an unforeseen budgetary issue could put some aspect of the project on hold. Someone needs to be in charge to 1) question that decision and 2) approve or remove the roadblock—all within a single day!

These types of decisions and the rationale behind them should be shared with the entire group of stakeholders. Decisions tend to have a domino effect, so sharing information ensures that alternative plans can be made to keep the project moving forward. There must always be someone responsible to see the project from a higher level who can understand the consequences of even the smallest decisions. 

Rehashing decisions or making decisions-by-committee isn’t going to meet an expedited timeline. Instead, there needs to be singular focus and decisiveness to keep a facility moving forward regardless of obstacles. This is easier if every stakeholder is in daily communication with their counterparts, as we’ll discuss below.

Lock down design decisions early 

At the beginning of any project, it’s essential to define the ultimate goal of any project. Then comes the real work—not getting distracted from it! Most projects are susceptible to scope creep as new ideas are introduced once the project is underway. But Warp Speed projects cannot tolerate slowdowns and require an incredibly tight focus.

In order for our team to lock down the basis of design for any project, we do multiple design workshops with our client. This allows us to coax out all of the different design requirements from the very start. Thorough research and risk assessments at the beginning of a project allows for decisions to be made correctly the first time.

Collaboration is also an essential part of this process. Get your subject matter experts talking with the design manager and project director to make sure they’re covering all considerations. By having decision-makers tightly integrated across the project, it’s easier to address potential disruptions immediately. Also, having the owner as part of the team is massively important to getting things right. Owners are empowered from the beginning of the project to take part in the decision-making process, which greatly reduces the chances that changes will be requested later on in the project. We are also bringing trade partners into the process much earlier than usual, allowing us to leverage their knowledge and further expediting the decision-making process.

Experience shows that the design manager and the project director (who oversees construction and design) work very well in tandem to help lock down design decisions. Together, they can see the big picture and identify how a small decision or adjustment can throw off the schedule and/or budget. With a tight timeline, you cannot afford to go backward to rethink or rework anything. 

Focus on non-negotiable constraints

The bottom line is that a finished facility has to work, it has to be safe, and it has to meet regulatory scrutiny. Despite the expedited timeline, no shortcuts can be taken as far as code, safety, and regulatory issues. In fact, the speed of the project may merit increased scrutiny from project managers. That is why we do a rigorous risk assessment and prove out our approaches prior to proceeding any further into the project. 

Code, safety, and regulatory issues are the starting points for all decisions about facility design and construction. They are also the issues that can become critical factors in late changes. Decisions pertaining to these areas cannot be put off without risking the success of the entire project.

When changes are requested in a Warp Speed project, we ask: “Does it affect safety, code or regulatory?” If the answer is yes, then an alternative needs to be found quickly. These are the only factors that justify accommodating late-stage changes. In Warp Speed projects, budget is less of a consideration than sticking with the timeline, so spending to satisfy code, safety or regulatory issues is often justifiable.

Communicate consistently and openly from the start

Communication has always been a key element at CRB, but it has reached new levels during Warp Speed. In order to keep projects moving forward, we talk multiple times per day with our colleagues and clients. Constant, open communication starts at the very beginning of all projects by bringing the client in as a full team member. 

Making better use of communications technology is an important extension of this new normal. Many face-to-face interactions have been replaced with ones held via smartphone or tablet. At the same time, the design, engineering and architecture teams are doing less on paper and instead coordinating extremely closely with trade partners and installation crews. Consequently, construction can begin much sooner than in a traditional delivery method.

In this way of working, every day is actually a step forward. Understandably, this may be a dramatic change for some who might be used to weekly project management calls. By staying in daily contact, however, all trades can speak with their engineering lead to coordinate and manage activities as they happen and prevent issues from piling up. 

During Warp Speed, everyone must be in lockstep as changes are implemented. The entire team must stay one step ahead of where they think you need to be so that a problem never becomes an issue. Whether it’s a financial or regulatory concern, everything must be addressed head-on so that no moss grows on the project. 

Budget accordingly

Warp Speed is expensive. Shortening the duration of a project means adding personnel to a project and paying a premium to run construction around-the-clock, resulting in a significant increase in labor costs. There are also costs associated with worker precautions such as PPE and the installation of more handwashing stations. Getting building supplies from vendors may come at a premium. Supply chain disruptions are presenting new challenges, and some of these can only be overcome by spending more.

Getting things done more quickly is not a matter of doing the same thing you always do, only faster. If you just maintain a sped-up version of the status quo, you’ll find everyone working longer hours with an increased financial impact. Working faster—while maintaining quality—simply costs more, so it’s extremely important to prioritize needs versus wants. When addressing a budgetary concern, ask: Is this something that can be put off? Is it so important that it must be addressed, even if it costs more or throws off other schedules?

Keep in mind the project management triangle of three key points: good, fast, and cheap. Your project can be any two of these but never all three. Warp speed demands good and fast, so it will not come cheap. Looking past the sticker shock and towards the ultimate goal of a widely available vaccine at the earliest possible date will help you stay the course.

These are challenging and disruptive times with teams working to meet deadlines that would have once been thought impossible. Established practices are suddenly out-of-date and cannot keep pace with the accelerated timeline these times require.

The new approaches being undertaken in response to OWS are causing the engineering and construction sector of the pharmaceutical industry to boldly go where no one has gone before. Success can be achieved through decisiveness, laser focus, and excellent communication. The lessons learned during this period will serve us well in the future of project delivery. In the meantime, it is up to all of us to “give it all it’s got.”

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