September 20, 2023 | Articles
Hill International Senior Program Manager Audrey Brook, PE, brings a unique skillset to a unique role in her work for the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA). Her experience in public transportation includes projects for the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA), Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART), the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (PANYNJ), among others, and her skills beyond project management include financial planning and analysis (FP&A) including labor analysis and project management reporting, systems design and development, productivity analysis, resource utilization, risk mitigation, and establishing Health, Safety, Security, and Environment (HSSE) processes. Audrey leverages her experience to oversee quality and safety on VTA’s multi-billion-dollar construction program, and recently discussed how her depth and breadth of expertise benefits her projects and keeps her, as she says, “pushing for perfection.”
Quality Assurance as Cost-Savings
“My current assignment combines my project management experience with my quality and safety experience,” Audrey explains. “The role is FTA-inspired, in that FTA recognized that having someone on the team with project management experience responsible for safety and quality can help reach the desired outcomes upstream, rather than emphasizing these functions during the delivery process.” She notes that her safety oversight role tends to come in first during a project assignment, helping to make certain the team has an approved safety plan in place and that the plan is followed on site. Quality matters at the project start as well, she adds, but quality oversight also helps drive better results later in the execution process.
“Quality applies from start to finish on a project, but the cost and schedule benefits are often not apparent until farther along in the project process,” she says. As an example of how quality helps to control costs, she cites her work on SFMTA’s Central Subway Union/Market Street Station project: “A strong change management process is key on any large program, sure. But driving quality during construction, rather than only emphasizing it during close out or a phase change, helps to avoid those changes altogether. I tell my clients, you can pay for quality now, or you can pay for it after the project is already operational. There’s no avoiding the cost in the end—it’s just that addressing quality during construction is a lot cheaper than addressing it when you’re into operations and maintenance.”
A Culture of Collaboration
Audrey explains that her work with transit and transportation across the U.S. gives her a first-hand understanding of agency needs, constraints, and goals, but only to a point. “It’s not apples to apples. Some agencies value consensus, and collaboration among all project parties is a key measure of success. Other agencies make their expectations known and your job is to meet those expectations, period.”
Audrey explains that her background in FP&A, somewhat counterintuitively, helps in making sure she has a complete understanding of an agency’s culture and how they expect their organization to function. “I worked in mergers and acquisitions in the A/E/C industry, and to do that job well you really have to understand the entire company you’re working for. Soft skills matter as much as ‘getting it done,’ good communication leads to good outcomes, and long-term relationships deliver long-term success.”
Leadership: Pushing for Perfection
In her role, Audrey’s direct reports are other consultants, her interface reports are Client employees, and Audrey herself reports to a Client supervisor. While this arrangement might seem strange, in fact the group has a long history of working together and bring an integrated culture of working collaboratively. “This is almost the same team that delivered the Central Subway Central Subway Union/Market Street Station,” says Audrey. “Whether we’re working for Hill or for the Client we’re all on the same page.
“Really, we work for the program, and our goal is always pushing towards perfection. We may never get there, but we won’t stop trying.” She explains her own leadership style is based on a true team concept. “We grow and learn together, and as a leader I want to lead the team to success,” she says.
Delicious Delivery Flavors
When discussing the evolution of her career, Audrey says the industry’s embrace of alternative delivery methods is one of the things that makes her current role so interesting. The use of design-build delivery for transit projects means Audrey’s work is more interactive, and more risk is borne by the designer and contracting team than traditional delivery methods. On a design-bid-build (DBB) project, safety would largely be the contractor’s responsibility. But, says Audrey, this is not the case for a design-build project. “Design-build is an interesting flavor,” she says. “For example, right now we have an OCIP [Owner-Controlled Insurance Program] for a $6.9 billion project. For the OCIP to work as intended and help control costs, safety has to be front and center in every task.”
Audrey says the quality function similarly shifts during design-build delivery. “The incentives for good quality on a design-build project are different than DBB,” she explains. “For transportation design-build projects, the agency has less control over the day-to-day details of the process than with DBB. So, my current design-build projects require a thorough and well-thought-out approach—for example, on our organizational charts for quality control function in design-build projects, we make sure the quality control team reports to the quality assurance function which reports directly to the executive team.”
Solutions that Move You
Audrey says the goal for the team comes back to pushing for perfection. She explains that VTA has a broad-based mission: countywide transportation planning, including congestion management, design and construction of highway, pedestrian, and bike improvement projects, and promotion of transit-oriented development. “VTA says they deliver ‘solutions that move you,’” Audrey concludes. “That’s what we’re after.”
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