Management of Complex Projects: The Seikan Tunnel in Japan

Management of Complex Projects
Management of Complex Projects

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Management of Complex Projects: The Seikan Tunnel in Japan


Project management is one of the aspects that cannot be ignored whenever there is need to have a project. This may be for simple as well as complex projects.  Management of complex projects is demanding. This is because the complexity of the projects involves many requirements. This calls for dedication from those tasked with seeing a complex project to completion.

The completion should be within the expected standards. This essay is focusing on various aspects of mega projects. This is done through analyzing one of the complex projects that have been carried out across the globe. This essay will focus on the Seikan Tunnel in Japan.

The project

The Seikan Tunnel in Japan is a project that brought to birth a dual gauge railway line. This tunnel is 53.85 kilometers long. It is worth noting that part of this length is under water. The length of portion of this tunnel that is under water is 23 kilometers. It is interesting to learn that the portion that is immersed under water is found 302 feet below the sea level. It is worth noting that the Seikan Tunnel comes second in terms of tunnel lengths in the world. This means that it is beaten in length by the Channel Tunnel.

The project goal

Each project set for implementation should always have a goal (Huang 2010, p.28). The purpose of implementing this project was to offer transports solution to users in the location of this project. The Seikan Tunnel connects Honshi and Hokkaido Islands in Japan. The fact that it is dual carriage gives users an opportunity to maximize on efficiency. It is interesting to learn that the need to give people returning home after World War II contributed immensely in calling for a project like the Seikan Tunnel.

Additionally, the increased traffic witnessed in the route that eventually accommodates this tunnel pushed for implementation of this project to ease it. This project was meant to reduce the transport challenges facing users in this area such as ferry accidents. For example, sinking of 5 ferries ferrying about 1430 passengers increased the need for this project.

Type of project approach

The Seikan Tunnel project was implemented through the use of traditional project framework. This was through planning around the general processes of a project. The traditional approach concentrated on commencement, proper planning and design, construction, contrl and finishing of the project. This framework created ease in handling each task.

The project success measures

For a project to be successful, there are certain measures that have to be put in place (Weissenberger & Kotch 2007, p. 24). For that matter, this project had its success measures too. One of the success measures for this project was completion within the set time. This project had time set for all stages. Completion within the stipulated time would deem this project successful. As a matter of fact, it was completed within the expected time.

The other success measure for this project was continuous progress. The project was to be declared successful if all phases continued without stalling. The continuity was necessary since it means that the project would be completed within the set duration. Thirdly, acceptance of this project was the other success measure. In project management, acceptance from stakeholders is very crucial (Windapo & Goulding 2013, p.431).

This is because implementing a project that none of the targeted persons would not want to be associated with is useless. Luckily, this project received wide acceptance from stakeholders thus being declared successful.

The other vital success measure for this project was based on budgeting. This measure guided that the project’s completion within the set budget would deem it successful. The Seikan Tunnel was planned to operate with a budget of about $4.0 billion. Fortunately, it was completed with US $3.6 billion. This means that the budget was adhered to thus the project becoming successful as per this measure.

The project web

The implementation of this project saw the presence of a wide project web. This touched on the contractors, government, media, observers and multinationals among others. The Japan Railway Construction public was created to handle this project. Several suppliers were given tenders to supply the required materials. Most of these suppliers were multinational companies.

The media and observers ensured that information about the project trickled to the stakeholders. Zeng et al. (2009, p.19) say that the media is an important partner in project management. On the other hand, the government ensured that the project was properly secured and funded.

The Seikan Tunnel project organization

This project had project-based organization. This was evident from the fact that various functional sections were created during the project implementation. These departments had individuals assigned to them for the long periods of the implementation. This led to the project having defined authority from the project managers. Additionally, each and every individual in the project implementation group had tasks to handle thus need for upholding high levels of responsibility.

The Project life cycle of Seikan Tunnel

This project took a total of 43 years to be completed. Over the 43 years, the project went through several stages. Below is a matrix showing the stages and events over the 43 years of the project.

DateMain event
April 1946Surveying for the project commenced
March 1954The Japan Railway Construction public was established to oversee implementation of the Seikan Tunnel
September 1971The main tunnel construction kicked off
January 1983The Seikan Tunnel piloting was done
March 1985The Seikan main tunnel  was confirmed
March 1988The Seikan Tunnel was opened

Problem areas that had to be overcome during the project life cycle

Mega projects are known to have problems that have to be overcome for a project to be completed (Zolkos 2012, p. 21). For the Seikan Tunnel, the problem areas were found in;

  • Inadequate expertise

Expertise is one thing that each project should have (Sullivan 2001, p. 78). This means lack of adequate expertise becomes a problem that should be dealt with so that it does not disrupt a project. At some point during the implementation of this project, certain expertise became inadequate. This threatened the success of this project. In a bid to save the project from failure, the project managers moved with speed and acquired individuals who had the required expertise to drive this project to completion.

For example, the use of tunnel boring machines had to be stopped for sourcing of blasting expertise. This was brought about by discovery of hard rock that could not be bored successfully.

  • Design

The design of a project is very important in implementation. The design for this project had to be altered to make it more suitable for the project. It is worth noting that only small alterations were done.

  • Unforeseen Disruptions

The implementation of this project saw some minor disruptions. The weather and surroundings would get turbulent sometimes. The weather sometimes disrupts continuity of projects (Sharma 2009, p. 45). This would affect continuity of operations for this project. This was a major threat to the time that was set for completion of this project.

Areas of good practice in the Seikan Tunnel project implementation

In the implementation of this project, several areas witnessed good practices. These good practices led to successful completion of the Seikan Tunnel. These good practices include;

  • Environmental practices

The environment is one thing that many implementers of mega projects fail to respect (Ali et al. 2008, p.670). It is worth noting that taking care of the environment should be concern for everyone involved in implementation of complex projects (Loo 2009, p. 30). With this in mind, this project saw the environment taken care of. This was through the use of environment friendly technology. This project was implemented in a way that had efforts to see carbon emissions reduced. Additionally, the other habitats of the environment were not affected.

During the implementation of this project, eco-friendly materials were used. The project managers ensured that material selection was proper to avoid those unfriendly to environment. The suppliers were informed that they should adhere strictly to the specifications forwarded to them.

For example, water was not contaminated in any way. The soil was also prevented from effects of corrosive processes.

  • Human resource

Human capital is usually the backbone of a project (Pardo et al. 2009, p. 31). Human resource management during the implementation of The Seikan Tunnel project was excellent. It is worth noting that the best practices in the management of human capital were put into use. This made the project managers have the best of their time when implementing this project.

The working conditions for the employees for this project were made good. Each one of the employees was made to work under conditions that respect human dignity. Additionally, matters of employee safety were handled properly. This was through ensuring that standards related to safety of employees were adhered to. The procedures regarding the use of tools and machinery were put in a way that protected the employees better.

To make it better, the human resource function ensured that the employees felt appreciated. This was through recognizing exceptional performance during the implementation of this project. The employees were given attractive incentives. This boosted their morale thus increasing the level of output.

  • Accountability

This project was able to be declared full of accountability. The project managers were found to have taken care of the allocated resources. This means that after taking stock of what was allocated to them; auditors were satisfied with the use of all resources that were offered for use during implementation of this project. There were no cases of mass corruption reported as is the case when other major projects are being implemented. Proper records were available for any interested party to go through.

  • Innovation

The Seikan project was one of the projects where innovation is known to have played a major role. This project saw the project managers coming up with new ways of doing things. The processes and equipments used had creative aspects that led to increased efficiency.

User participation in the project

Users of a project are the stakeholders. These are the people who are beneficiaries of a project that is being implemented (Ling et al. 2015, p .45). During the execution of this project, the users had full participation. The project managers ensured that there was freedom for the users to interact with all stages of the project. This was arrived at for the purpose of reducing the negative impacts of criticism as a risk in project implementation. The users had full access to all information regarding the designs and progress of this project.

This brought about wide acceptance. The project managers would listen to the perspectives of the users. This was necessary for the purpose of building on the plan that the project was based on. From the fact that users participated well, the project management became more geared towards completing it. This is because the users became source of assurance that the project was necessary for them.

The users had a huge influence of standards set for the project. It is worth noting that many mega projects end up not fulfilling the expectations of users due to project managers who disregard the standards agreed for the project. This did not happen during execution of this project. The users were keen when looking at the design and other documented standards. This close monitoring put pressure on the project managers to a point of making the implementation of this project follow rules to the letter.

The users were able to succeed in getting the expected standards through arranging meetings. They would discuss deeply about the progress of this project. Each one of the users would give contributions for the benefit of the meeting. The fact that the meetings were consistent made the user participation strong.

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Core capabilities or competencies involved in implementation of the Seikan Tunnel

During the implementation of this project, there were evident core competencies. These competencies are always credited for the success of this project. One of the core competencies is the integration of technology into the project implementation process. Technology is known to increase efficiency in projects (Meyers 2013, p.65). Technology was widely used to drive most of the processes for the project.

Information was managed through the use of the best information handling technological platforms. This made it easy to use and execute the project from an informed perspective. Additionally, technology was integrated into the communication bit during the project. Technological involvement in the communication channels for the project was a major plus for the project.

The second core competence during the implementation of this project was proper project management. It is worth noting that the project managers were quite skillful. This led to proper execution of all aspects of the project.

Another core competence for this project was proper risk management. Risk management is a very important aspect to consider while handling projects (Sridhar 2011, p.63). During the execution of this project, risk management was done efficiently. This led to reduction of negative effects of risks that were identified. Qiao (2007, p. 14) says that proper risk management reduces project hardships.

Another key competence factor during the execution of this project was proper management of human capital. The human resource management function for the project is credited for having done its job properly. All the time that the project was continuing, all matters related to the affairs of the workforce were handled as expected. This reduced unrests and disruptions from the workers for the project. Strazewski (2009, p. 34) says that mitigation of employee related risks is very important since it makes project implementation successful.

Broader issues affecting megaprojects; The Seikan Tunnel in focus

Mega projects are usually faced by several broad issues. Theodore (2014, p. 88) says that broad issues affect projects are usually caused by the fact that numerous processes and operations take place. Generally, the complexity of mega projects brings rise to issues that have to be managed. These broad issues include;

  1. Risks

Risk is always present in all projects, whether minor or complex. However, the risk level in major projects is much higher. This calls for a very solid risk management function for complex projects. During the execution of this project, several risks were identified. One of the identified risks was about the project design. There was fear that the design would show some weaknesses towards the end of the project life cycle.

This made the project managers become apprehensive throughout the project. To mitigate this risk, the project handlers ensured that the designers of the project kept confirming the reliability of the project design. Additionally, the project managers made several consultations with experts in design to try and get assurance. At the end of the project, only immaterial alterations were made to make the project design a success.

The other risk that was identified by the risk function for this project was high labor turnover. Generally, complex projects are known to be full of work. Many a times workers tend to burn out or opt out due to poor conditions at work (Suriyamathi et al. 2013, p. 54). This identified risk did not affect the project since proper human resource management was done during the project.

To do away with this risk, all project employees for the project were treated as per the international labor standards. This was through ensuring that remuneration to the employees was as per the expected standards. Additionally, payments to the employees were disbursed on time to avoid workforce unrest. To ensure that the risk does not disrupt the project continuity, the project managers ensured that the conditions at work were up to the expected standards. This made employees work properly thus avoiding negative effects of high employee turnover risk.

  1. Decision making

For projects to be completed successfully, decision making should be done in an efficient way. This is because decisions that are made determine the level of achievement to be expected. Proper decision making in projects leads to continuity of projects in proper ways. On the other hand, if decision making for a project is poor, negative occurrences will affect the plan towards successful completion. For complex projects, decision making is usually very difficult.

During execution of this project, several challenges occurred during decision making. It is worth noting that complex projects call for many decision makers. Therefore, the process of decision making becomes very complicated and slow. The decision making process for this project was very hard since managers were many. The many decision makers took long time for decision making. This is because they had to consult each other. Opposed suggestions by some of the decision makers took more time for the purpose of discussions and explanations as to why certain opinions could not be upheld.

  1. Cultural

Cultural differences usually affect mega projects. This is because the many employees are required for complex projects are drawn from diverse cultures. This brings about cultural diversity within the workforce in a project. This was the case during the lifecycle of this project. The project managers brought in individuals from various cultures. This was caused by many reasons, need for expertise being one. With cultural differences, attitudes towards tasks approaches were different. This created some sort of sluggish participation from laborers. As a result, the project time was consumed in the process of harmonizing the cultures.

  1. Labor

Labor management is the other broad issue that affects mega projects. This happens to be a very sensitive issue since complex projects are usually labor intensive. Therefore, the project handlers should always ensure that labor matters are managed in a way that does create stability of the workforce. During the life cycle of this project, the workforce was well handled. This means that project was able to continue without alarming cases of workforce dissatisfaction. The minor cases of complains that were forwarded were amicably settled.

  1. Political

The politics prevailing in areas where complex projects are being held affects the continuity. It happens that in areas where there is political instability projects tend to stall or become abandoned completely. During the lifecycle of this project, the political waters were cool. This gave this project an opportunity to continue without disruptions. It is worth noting that the political leaders within the geographical location of the project did not want to interfere with the project. The instances that saw the political leaders enquire about the project were all friendly. This gave motivation to the managers of the project thus pushing for completion.

  1. Criticism

It is common practice for people to criticize projects. It is a global thing for people to spoil the image of mega projects (Riley 2013, p. 91). This is always through trashing those projects on basis of prioritization. During the execution of this project, criticism was identified as one of the risks.

The criticism directed towards this mega project was based on the fact that the amount of money used could be used for other projects that are better in terms of meeting the needs of the common citizens. To ensure that this did not affect this mega project, the project managers ensured that proper public participation was done. The project managers created a system that made all stakeholders aware of what the project was all about.


Management of complex projects is known to be quite demanding. Therefore, the people in charge of such kind of projects should ensure that proper planning is done. The goal of the project should be the guiding tool for all processes. To make it better, the life cycle of mega projects should be monitored to ensure that it does not get disrupted. The stakeholders should be managed well to ensure that the project continues with understanding. All challenges should be handled with sobriety and efficiency. It is worth noting that good practices should be priority when drawing the strategic plan for complex projects.

Risk management during project implementation should be done in a good way. This calls for the need to have a reliable risk function during the life cycle of a mega project. All risks should be identified and mitigated properly to ensure that the project does not become disrupted.


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