nFusion: Project management methodology

This article, originally published in InPark Magazine, sheds light into our proprietary process for successfully delivering destinations.

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nFusion asks the hard questions and guards the vision with a program management process designed for success

By: Rona Gindin

This is how it starts: a developer has land, money, and a vision. A team is formed; a theme park project is launched. What could go wrong?

As anyone with project experience in this industry knows all too well, many things can go wrong, and many worthy projects don’t make it to the finish line. When a project bubble pops, time and money are wasted. Expected economic benefits and tourism are lost. Companies lose financial footing, reputations are tarnished. Ultimately, such failures are bad for the whole industry. The larger the project scale, the greater the impact.

What goes wrong? The big-picture perspective, according to the team of project management specialists at nFusion, is that projects get out of alignment due to an imbalance in the development efforts. Armed with formidable expertise and a detailed methodology based on many years of experience in entertainment project management, they’re working to change that.

nFusion is one of three of The Companies of Nassal brands – Nassal has been a well established, Orlando-based firm serving the visitor attractions industry with fabrication and production. nFusion, which was born out of a series of project management services The Nassal Company was asked to perform in the mid-1990s, launched in 2014 as Nassal ACM (Attractions Construction Management). It is an independent program management (aka project management) consulting firm based in the Los Angeles area. Today, The Companies of Nassal umbrella also encompasses Lexington, a scenic fabricator focusing on museums, casinos and hospitality, complimenting Nassal’s specialization in theme parks, zoos and aquariums. nFusion operates independently, and in fact mostly works on projects with which its sister companies have no involvement.

Key members of the nFusion team are Martin Zurauskas, Managing Director, and Program Directors John Lindsay, Gina Yu, John Dreher, Daryl Parker, and Robert Wyatt. (See sidebar for details.) The relationships that led to the formation of Nassal ACM grew out of a fast-tracked LEGOLAND project in Germany, where Zurauskas, then Head of Development for LEGOLAND, brought Nassal on as construction manager.

The nFusion team represents substantial collective history developing attractions and entire parks for top developers and operators around the world (including Disney and Universal, as well as LEGOLAND, SeaWorld, and many others) and extensive knowledge of the myriad disciplines involved in creating such projects. Their nFusion codified process of “Project Gates” is designed to minimize avoidable risks and usher more projects to completion and success.

Asking the right questions

“We bring focus and efficiencies with the pragmatic side,” said Lindsay. “How will you build, operate and manage your entertainment destination? Is there a qualified market which makes economic sense? Is the team aligned with a common understanding of ‘why’ the project is appropriate (vision), as well as ‘what’ (scope), ‘how’ (delivery), and finally the ‘protocol’ of implementing the work?”

Building a multi-faceted attraction (on time and on budget, of course) involves thousands more elements than the average construction project. All the elements of designing and building an attraction are combined with the process of housing it – of permanent construction – and optimizing it for viable and lucrative operations. Planning and creating the attraction must be woven into the fabric of the construction process, from early concept development to schematics to budgets to turning on the electricity for the first time. Otherwise, it’s all too easy to fall into the kinds of costly mistakes that can send even the most promising concept into the theme park graveyard.

Dreher, nFusion’s Program Director over project controls, said, “Knowledge of all of the elements and their component parts is critical for success. Forecasting the capital required for the vision, dissecting the program and leveraging our database of historical costs enables us to provide the team a robust framework that we then use to monitor design to budget.”

“What we advocate is discipline,” said Zurauskas. “We balance all the areas involved to keep the project on track.”

Project Gates

Having spent many years developing successful attractions for the industry’s big players, nFusion’s executives decided to build upon best project management practices to formulate and formalize an industry-specific, program management plan based on what they’ve seen work in the field. Together they came up with a series of steps they call Project Gates. The point of Project Gates is to keep the project and the process on track and in sync, so each element is done correctly the first time in alignment with the development process, thus minimizing the number of costly re-do’s. Communication, scheduling and budgeting are all key. As a basis of best practices, Zurauskas cited a paper presented in 2000 at the Project Management Institute Annual Seminars & Symposium in Houston, TX, “Accelerating product developments via phase-gate processes,” by H.J. Thamhain.

Essentially, Project Gates are well-defined, incremental building blocks and checkpoints that maintain alignment of the flow of the development process. The procedure involves looking at all pertinent elements at once and keeping their costs in line. Otherwise, a project might derail because too much money is spent in one area before assessing what obstacles might demand that element be changed to make it viable.

nFusion outlines four major stages to a project: Definition, Master Plan, Design and Implementation. At the corresponding completion of each stage, before passing through the Gate to the next stage, key questions must be asked and answered: Is the project feasible, deliverable, buildable? And finally, is it operable?

   project management process

From one Gate to another are many steps to execute and checkpoints to fulfill before going to the next. “We continually revisit the big questions,” said Zurauskas. “When is the attraction buildable? Are things at the point of readiness for the client to spend the big money required to take it to opening day? Is the client ready to make the hard commitments necessary to get ride suppliers, technology experts and such on board? We make sure clients pace what they’re doing and when they’re doing it. We see the vision, the ambition, but also understand the economics involved. At a certain point, one can say with confidence, ‘This is a deliverable idea; now you can hit the big green GO button to go forward and execute the idea. Now we can move into more detailed design, including all the planning necessary to understand the procurement details.”

Throughout all steps, Zurauskas noted, it is critical to keep the vision consistent, and to maintain the respect of all the professionals involved. A common pitfall to be avoided is spending too much money in one area and compensating by pulling from another. “That ultimately results in chiseling away at ideas,” he said. “We are deliberate, and conscious, throughout the process of staying true to the vision. We do that by being respectful of and collaborative with all the players, whether the design company, a ride maker, a contractor, an architect or an operations group.”

Solid foundations

The nFusion team advocates implementing their system at the very beginning of the attraction-development process for it to be most effective. “It’s all about the foundation,” said Lindsay. “If the beginning of a project is weak, the execution is weak. We make sure that as a project goes through each of the gates, from inception on, we’re building on progressively and always tying back to the foundation: the goals, strategies, economic model and creative visions, as well as what the intellectual property vision is against that. We keep on top of the means and methods the client needs to think about. Each step has to be considered holistically as you pass through each gate.”

Specifically, nFusion incorporates the vast array of elements into each gate. “What makes the realm of what we do different is that in addition to traditional and wellunderstood disciplines, we look at areas like infrastructure, traffic, procurement and construction,” said Zurauskas. “We consider additional elements such as ‘Can I get the land? Are there entitlements there? What does the schematic design say? How will the specialty work be produced? Are there competitors?’ We believe we are unique in being discipline-agnostic. We focus on what needs to happen, in the right order, to ensure that clients have a balanced and complete view of the elements that need to be in place to move from one stage to the next without excessive risk.”

Equality is part of the equation. “We keep everybody in lockstep as we move through the process,” Lindsay emphasized. “The operator sits shoulder to shoulder with the economist, with the land planner who figures out how the land works with adjacent land, with the infrastructure people to make sure highways, roads and rails are aligned, as well as architects and the creative vision. We ask if the utilities are a monopoly, and if the developer has negotiated rates at the same time as government subsidies. Power is very expensive and needs to be dealt with at that point in the process. All move in lockstep through completion.”

Global, impartial “guardians”

Ultimately nFusion needs its experts on the ground wherever in the world a project is being built, yet the process begins in the Los Angeles area, which is a hub of industry expertise including designers, concept architects, land use planners, show designers, animators and others. While a new attraction is still simply an idea, those behind it talk with the nFusion team. “Early stages of attraction design – in particular, show and ride design – happens stateside, while local team members provide the code and statutory requirements inputs that are specific to the region,” said Yu. “We lead the integration of art and science of show and facility design to create an unforgettable guest experience.” As planning progresses toward constructing, the geographic circle starts to widen. “Then we have workshops here and on the client’s site, as necessary. That works until we reach the strategic point where we hand off the project to the production team, understanding that they’ll use local labor. That’s where the pendulum swings.”

nFusion mavens are sent to the construction site, building begins, and ultimately a thoughtfully planned, knowledgeably budgeted attraction starts to evolve, infused with nFusion pragmatism.

Just as it functions separately from Nassal’s other arms, nFusion has no allegiance to any one subcontractor during any given project. “We are independent of all the people that are doing all the other things on the project, and that’s the incentive for a client to bring us to the table,” said Zurauskas. “We don’t design the project. We don’t provide the money. We’re not the fabricator. We’re not providing the intellectual property and we’re not providing the construction.”

nFusion’s specialties are fourfold: In addition to program management, the firm offers cost management, design management and specialty construction management, usually all at once. The offerings serve to make nFusion what Zurauskas and the team call “guardians of the vision.” Said Zurauskas, “That means we’re there to try and guide this development process to better successful outcomes. The word ‘fusion’ speaks to being a catalyst, to bringing diverse disciplines together to reach a successful project conclusion.” 

Project Management Q&A with nFusion

How would you summarize the practice of program management?

Programs may be one or multiple projects. Program managers maintain alignment of the project(s) team(s) through a pragmatic process that grounds the team while addressing the development challenges against the baseline.

What are some of the important ways that destination entertainment program management is unique?

Traditional development projects have 30+ divisions of work. Destination entertainment projects have 100+ divisions of work. Our program managers span both traditional and specialty disciplines and are alert to the interfaces between these divisions of work.

Is a program manager the same thing as an owner’s rep?

Owner’s rep acts on behalf of the Owner, whereby the program management consultancy facilitates the work in place of the Owner. The Owner’s Rep is in contrast to a Program Management Office approach which is a blended team of the Owner and the Program Manager to holistically manage the project delivery.

How does the overall program manager interface with the individual project managers of the different disciplines?

The overall program manager is the Program Director responsible for the integration of the project managers.

The project managers are responsible for delivering specific scopes with the overall program.

Why is program management an essential role in entertainment development? Don’t some projects go forward without a project manager?

The Program Director is responsible for aggregation and integration of the work streams and resources. When projects move forward without such overall leadership an area of expertise / scope of work will be developed ahead of the balance of the project. This introduces significant risk into the development, often requiring rework of design or construction scope which wastes time and money.

Should a project owner look for a program manager first, before assembling the design team?

Yes. The Program Manager listens to the Owner, developing the brief against which the talent to perform the work is cast. Casting without a brief will lead to misaligned resources and potential for work which is not needed. 

This article was originally written and published by InPark Magazine

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