Refurbishment projects within the power generation (PG) industry are plagued by complexity, driven by scope uncertainty, leading to schedule overruns and significant commercial losses, writes Áine Greene.

A research study was conducted over three months in 2020 which explored the blending of agile project management (APM) and traditional project management (TPM) to improve project performance through APM adoption.

Refurbishment projects

PG utilities and industry-wide organisations who undertake refurbishment projects, in general, may find this study of interest. The study involved a literature review and an explorative case study using a qualitative approach with data collection using semi-structured interviews.

The ‘case’ in this study refers to a group of elite power generation professionals with refurbishment projects providing the specific scenario context.

The literature review results provided ample evidence to support the benefits of a blended approach and APM adoption to enable the flexibility to address scope uncertainty and consequently improve project performance.

Furthermore, the results highlighted key challenges to APM implementation. The results overall are encouraging for practitioners as the adoption of APM and blending with TPM is portrayed as a viable alternative approach to manage scope uncertainty and minimise schedule overrun.

The key benefit for readers of this article is to gain an appreciation for the success of APM adoption in other industries and the possibility of its application to refurbishment projects in PG, and its wider transferability to refurbishment projects across industries.

The article is presented in two parts. In Part 1, the purpose and strategy of the study are outlined. The content to follow in Part 2 forms a conclusion to Part 1.


Projects and business environments continue to grow in complexity and refurbishment projects within the PG industry are no exception. Refurbishment projects in this context occur during planned maintenance outages when the plant is shut down for a set duration and made safe for personnel access.

The objective of utility organisations is to complete the necessary refurbishment project, ensuring the continued safe and reliable operation of the plant with minimal schedule overrun. However, this is against a backdrop of refurbishment projects growing in complexity over recent years.

It is proposed that increasing complexity is one of the reasons for project failure, with the PG industry identified as a key example of suffering from increasing project complexity.

It is recognised that the respective age and operating regime of thermal plants, in particular, are key contributors to complexity. There has been a definitive change in the operation of thermal plants from continuous base load to a start/stop regime, ie a two-shifting regime, in response to accommodating an increase in sources of renewable PG on the electricity grid.

Ageing thermal plant

The operation of an ageing thermal plant in an aggressive two-shifting regime results in a significant increase in the damage accumulation of plant components. Consequently, the potential for ‘as founds’ during plant maintenance outages increases considerably.

‘As founds’ are damaged plant areas which are only identifiable during engineering inspections following internal plant access. They can comprise notable defects with the potential to prevent the plant from being declared ‘fit to return’ to service in compliance with Statutory Instrument S.I. No. 299, without significant repair.

Typical risk management processes are not entirely appropriate for dealing with ‘as founds’ because the unpredictability of the damage prevents the upfront preparation of a suitable repair to minimise schedule overrun.

In essence, ‘as founds’ must be individually assessed in compliance with engineering best practice. Uncertainty is considered as a key dimension of complexity, and it is scope uncertainty arising from ‘as founds’ that was of most relevance to this study.

Considerable commercial implications

The extension of a planned maintenance outage even by one day has considerable commercial implications for utilities. Recent trends during maintenance outages have resulted in schedule overruns due to the nature of ‘as founds’ damage and the time required to execute a suitable repair plan.

Furthermore, with increasing energy demand, the PG industry is under high pressure to improve project performance and increase plant availability to meet energy demand.

A recent report entitled ‘International Energy Outlook 2019’, by the US Energy Information Administration (EIA) with projections to 2050, confirms an increasing energy demand, as shown in Figure 1 above.

TPM is applied to refurbishment projects within the PG industry to manage a clearly defined scope of work with minimal ambiguity. However, the literature suggests that TPM approaches are unable to adequately reflect all the complexity and dynamics of today’s projects.

An alternative project management (PM) practice to TPM is APM. APM was developed from a requirement to manage projects affected by complexity and uncertainty with responsiveness and adaptability.

Since its introduction, it has revolutionised the software and IT sectors. As APM approaches its 20th anniversary, its success has been established beyond the software and IT sectors to other industries.

While it is not possible to control increasing project complexity due to scope uncertainty, it may be possible that the PM practice applied to address the resulting ‘as founds’ can be improved through APM adoption.

An APM framework that also equips project managers to adapt to more uncertain project situations is deemed warranted, and the investigation of blending APM with TPM to achieve this is considered worthy. A blended approach may hold the potential to provide a source of competitive advantage (CA) for competing power producers.

Research question

This study explored the possibility of blending APM with TPM to improve project performance as the adoption of a more agile approach may prove beneficial to minimise schedule overrun and commercial losses.

The purpose of the study was to ascertain if there was an alternative method for delivering refurbishment projects within the PG industry that took changing scope requirements in an increasingly complex environment into consideration. As such, the key research question was: could blending APM with TPM improve the performance of refurbishment projects within the PG industry?

Research aim and objectives

The following three supporting objectives outline a strategy to achieve the research aim and answer the overarching research question:

  1. Investigate the blending of APM and TPM frameworks.
  2. Assess any possible benefits from a blended approach to improve project performance.
  3. Identify any challenges to APM implementation.

In this study’s context, the definition of project performance relates to the specific criteria of schedule and quality, with the purpose being to minimise schedule overruns and deliver quality utilising a suitable repair plan for ‘as founds’.

Completion of refurbishment projects on time and to the appropriate quality requirements are paramount. Repair costs in the PG industry context are of lesser priority, as the potential for lost revenue due to plant unavailability takes precedence.

Fundamentally, the method to improve project performance may be through agile adoption and optimal response to uncertain scope requirements.

Part 2

Part 2 of this article outlines a summary of data collated through a literature review of the theory available concerning the overarching research question.

The conclusions from an analysis of data collected during semi-structured interviews are then presented with recommendations for future work. Notably, a call is made to practitioners in the PG industry who may be interested in facilitating further research through a pilot project.

Author: Áine Greene, BEng, MSc PPM, CEng MIEI, project manager, Atlantic Projects Company (APC), has17 years’ experience across the power generation industry in the key areas of project management, plant engineering, maintenance, operations and construction. E: Tel: +353 86 701 8727; + 44 7523 513121

Áine Greene: “APC sponsored me to complete a part-time master's in project and programme management recently. They gave me the push I needed to return to study and undertake this significant achievement. I am grateful for their support. The article is based on my research paper study. The power generation industry is changing to accommodate renewable sources. Consequently, this is leading to exciting opportunities for the construction of new plants. I joined APC to be at the forefront of the construction of new builds coming from a production background. Leading a team on a greenfield site is a challenging must-do experience. APC is poised to make a significant contribution to the future of the industry and upcoming projects.”