Overcoming Challenges on Industrial Megaprojects | Work Done Right™ with Geoff Smethills

For our very first episode of the Work Done Right™ podcast, host Wes Edmiston sits down with Geoff Smethills to discuss the highs and lows of his 30+ year journey at Shell from Maintenance Engineer to General Manager of Project Delivery Excellence and Global Discipline Head Project Engineering.

Additionally, Wes and Geoff discuss meaningful ways to bring digitalization to projects, how we can overcome the skilled labor shortage, and who should be responsible for driving the digital transformation: EPC or owner? 

About Geoff Smethills 

Geoff Smethills holds over 30 years of experience in international capital projects and maintenance with Shell. He started his career as a craft apprentice and left Shell as a Global Discipline Head for Project Engineering.  

During his career, Geoff held numerous positions in major capital project developments and multicultural environments where he gathered a level of experience that very few people in the world can boast.  

Because of this, Geoff now serves as project consultant and senior advisor to a number of companies providing digital solutions to construction project challenges.  

Connect with Geoff on LinkedIn. 

Episode Takeaways 

Geoff Smethills offered a wealth of knowledge based on his 30+ years of experience in the industry. Here are our top three episode takeaways that you can learn from Wes’ conversation with Geoff: 

  1. Any technology implementation process should always start by identifying a problem, then checking to see if there is a technology solution available that solves that specific problem. When attempting to solve field problems specifically, it’s important to get inside the mind of the craft and contractors to truly understand the problem and avoid bias.
  2. As our workforce ages and the shortage of skilled workers and tradespeople grows, technologies like AI can be especially valuable in shortening the learning curve and supplementing other areas of deficiency. It can help us capture the knowledge of our most valuable people and transfer that knowledge to new people.
  3. When determining whether the project owner or the contractor should be responsible for digitalization, Geoff favors an approach that places the responsibility on the owner. At the end of the day, it’s the owner that is responsible for supplying the right technology and systems that help to safely and effectively commission and start up their facility.

Episode Transcript 


Wes Edmiston: 

We’ve obviously talked several times on a couple of different issues. But reflecting back on that introduction, you started off as a craft apprentice and left your career with Shell as Global Discipline Head for Project Engineering. That is quite the accomplishment. Could you tell me a bit about how it is that you got into the industry and kind of how that career path took place?  


Geoff Smethills: 

Yeah, sure. So you have to go back a long way in time, but basically I grew up in the left school at 16 in 1980, and that was where my father came from, that generation that used to say, you know, son, you can go on and do lots of things, but you should get yourself a trade.  

Learn to do something with your hands, because you can always fall back on that. That was kind of how parents used to talk to you those days. Words of wisdom. And I did it, and I’ve never regretted that.  

I left school at 16, joined Shell at Carrington in Manchester and served a four year apprenticeship with them. Starting off generalists, doing everything in the first year and then kind of going into mechanical fitting was the was the trade that I kind of dropped into after that, which gave me a lot of insight into what it takes.  

Obviously, working in petrochemicals and working with all of the equipment, staff, addict, rotating everything else that you work with. And then some people say, unfortunate thing, Ham, but I think it’s the biggest favor that ever happened to me is that there was quite a depression in the early 1980s in the UK.  

Shell was kind of shrinking numbers or under pressure to shrink numbers and the easiest thing to do was not to take on the apprentices when you came to the end of your time and they just kind of said, sorry, but we’re going to have to let you go.  

And that prompted me. They said, we can either get you to finish your night school or you can go and learn to be a heavy goods vehicle driver. I didn’t fancy any of those options, so I went to university and I got myself a degree.  

It was the biggest favor, otherwise I’d probably still be there with my spanners, right? And anyway, I did a degree in mechanical engineering. Long story short, I ended up back with Shell, but this time, as as an engineer, and because of my experience as an apprentice, they put me straight out onto a site, straight as a maintenance engineer.  

And I spent, you know, a good portion of of my career, ten years or so, working in maintenance, which meant I was doing a lot of large turnarounds and maintenance type projects where you were doing brownfield work, a lot of brownfield extension modifications, et cetera.  

And I think that kind of makes a difference. If, as an owner organization, if you’re into large capital projects, you don’t get near the workface. It’s all the big contractual element, and how do we keep things whole, which is all important, but you don’t get that feel for at a craft level, at a contractor level.  

What’s important to a contractor? Why do they not deliver? Why are they coming back with claims? And to understand walk a mile in their shoes kind of experience, whereas working in maintenance, working in turnarounds, et cetera?  

Brownfield you have to get close to the contract. You’re doing a lot more open book type of contracting, et cetera. So you’ve got to be smart. You’ve got to be on top of what these guys are doing. So I think that gave me an appreciation for construction, and since then, I went on to deliver those large projects, et cetera.  

But it meant that I could still say from top to bottom, if you like. That’s kind of what gave a certain uniqueness to my experience.  


Wes Edmiston:  

Yeah. Just having held the positions that you did at the level that you did while starting your career as a tradesman is something that not very many people can say.  

Obviously, there are plenty of people that have held senior level positions, but not many that have taken the route that you did. So kudos to you again. It’s one of those you never know if something is a blessing or a curse until it’s all over, right?  


Geoff Smethills: 

Yeah. At the time, I thought my world was ending because they wouldn’t take me on. I wasn’t going to be a foreman at some point. Right. You never know. But looking through the rear mirror as you do in your life, you go, actually, it was the biggest favor they ever did me.  

So there you go. 


Wes Edmiston: 

Geoff, one of the things that you’re really focused on now in many of your roles is reinforcing the digital transformation and advancing things like advanced work packages. With your experience that you have, can you tell me what it is about digitalization that caught your attention and how it became such a passion for you?  


Geoff Smethills: 

I was kind of reflecting on this the other day, and it all kind of goes back to I guess there was a point when I was starting to get introduced to this, and I went along to a conference from IPA, the benchmarking organization that a lot of oil and gas users, as well as pharmaceutical, et cetera.  

And there was a breakout session proposed, which is always supervised by IPA because they got to make sure there’s no conflict of interest and all that kind of stuff, or inappropriate collaborations, things like that.  

But they said, we wanted to have a discussion on digitalization. So I thought, well, that sounds really interesting. Let’s go and look at what we’re doing at the moment and what the problems are. And I was a real novice at that point and really didn’t really understand it.  

But what I went along with my question was, who should be doing this? Is this going to be the owner organization that I sit in, or is it the EPC who’s managing the projects, or is it the contractors?  

Where does it come, and who should be doing it, and therefore, who should drive it? And I got in there, and I kind of asked this question, and I got a lot of blank stairs from some very large and very well known companies, and one of them, and I won’t share the name said to me, the thing is, Geoff, he said, my boss says we’ve got to have this digitalization thing.  

And all these companies keep coming to talk to me, and I just don’t know how to deal with them. And I wanted some advice, and I thought, My God, this is interesting. We got some pretty senior people in the room.  

And I guess what it triggered with me was that and and I saw this in Shell, and I saw it elsewhere where people, they. Looked on digitalization like, I got to get some. That was a vitamin pill. If I just take some digitalization, things will be better.  

And my question was, what are we trying to fix here? What do we want to get out of it? Because so much the digitalization that I saw in the early days was, we’re going to give you a better dashboard, we’re going to give you insights, we’re going to show you on a dashboard.  

All these things will be moving around to tell you what’s happening. And I said, well, what is it actually going to do? Is it just going to tell me how bad I am quicker or what is actually going to improve?  

And I was very fortunate. I ended up in my position, end up heading up a global initiative for Shell called Future of Construction. I didn’t start it, but I certainly progressed with it. And Cumulus came out of that initiative within Shell, where we said, what’s our philosophy here?  

And what we decided was that, look, anything we do should have a sound basis in a problem that we know of, that if we resolved it would improve productivity or safety or quality on our projects. It’s got to start with the problem.  

Don’t start with the technology. Start with the problem and then look for is the technology that could actually help you take that problem away. And if it exists and it’s just out there, then just buy it.  

And if it isn’t, let’s invest some money and find some folks or use internal resources to help develop that technology so it can deliver that, but always have it targeted. And that truly excited me when I’ve got problems that I’d seen in the field my projects had suffered from.  

And all of a sudden I said, yeah, well, that’s the problem. Do we have yeah, we think this could actually take that away that I found exciting. Just sat around talking about blockchain or whatever, just didn’t yeah, sounds great, but.  

It’s the connection to the realities of delivering a better outcome on a project that excites me. And the fact that digital is such a broad church. What are we talking about here, AI? Are we talking about digitalization?  

What is it? But the use of technology, should we put it that way? To focus on delivering against known problems. That’s what excites me. There are plenty of people out there that whenever it first came out, were digitalizing for the sake of digitalization, right.  

And adopting these products that were solutions, looking for a problem. I really like how you gave the air quotes whenever you said it gives insights, because what does that even mean? That you’re telling me anything?  

Right? I don’t need data. I need information. Right. I need you to tell me what it is that I can be doing. Where am I failing or where am I succeeding? Right? It was almost like the new iphone thing.  

Why did you get the new iphone? Well, that’s cool, because it’s new. Does it help you make better phone calls? Do you send emails faster? Or are you more productive in your day? No, you’re not. You buy it because it all looks really nice.  

That it’s cool. So I understand it, and I think people genuinely came under pressure. All the industries, the McKinsey world, all said, digitalization is the future. So bosses said, okay, we better get us some of that.  

Pushed that down the line without really figuring out what are we trying to do here? I think there’s this space for blue sky research. There always is. Things will come out that you never expected. That’s how we advance as a civilization.  

I think for us engineers, it’s good to start from the practical standpoint of, okay, what’s my problem? Now let’s try to fix it. You touched on the fact that a lot of these companies out there, the Mckinsey’s of the world, which, I guess to backtrack real quick, hopefully Apple doesn’t end up shutting down this podcast because we’re saying that the new iPhone doesn’t make better calls.  

I own an iPhone just to make them feel better. I’m a big fan of Apple, has been for many years. Likewise, no offense to Android, but no, a lot of these companies out there, these major consulting firms, they are helping to advance the aspects of talking about the benefits of digitalization without giving a lot of pointed information, talking very much in generalities and generalizations.  


Wes Edmiston: 

Where is it that you from, your position as an owner, as somebody who’s led major capital projects? What do you see as the benefits of deploying digital technologies? And how do you kind of weigh that decision of going forward and advancing?  

Like you said, just go buy it, right? Just go do it to make those decisions.  


Geoff Smethills: 

Yeah, indeed. It’s an extremely broad church. When we talk about what the digital solutions are. For me, they just open up so many possibilities within the traditional delivery of a project to do things better.  

Not just to record the, as I said, record how bad we are faster, but actually give you the opportunity to do things differently and to utilize information more or less in real time to help good, experienced people focus on the things that matter and really deliver where they can deliver best benefit.  

I mean, that’s one of the real things that comes out of it for me. The other one, I mean, I work with companies that are in the AI space, as people will see if they look at my LinkedIn profile. And what they’re doing is they are helping by using deep learning.  

Is to remove bias as engineers, particularly when you’ve got gray hair like me. We all think we know everything, right? I walk into review and I’ll tell you what’s wrong with your project, and I can tell you what you should be doing.  

But I’m saying that because that’s what I remember from the last project I did, or because that’s my hate or it’s something I read about yesterday. And there’s lots of biases that we have. So digital technology, the use of option allows you to take that guesswork out, sort the wood from the trees, I would say, and take you to the nub of the problem and then say, okay, Geoff, forget about the fact you think we should be working on whatever.  

This is where we think the problem is going to come. Can you give us your experience about this situation? And then my experience becomes valuable. Otherwise, it’s just the ramblings of someone who has got experience of this, that and the other.  

So I think utilizing technology to make us much more efficient in what we do and point us towards the problems, and then using the technology to resolve those problems more effectively, that’s where the benefit is coming.  

And there’s lots of more detailed examples I could give of that. But that, for me, is the nub of that it we’re trying to get. To with AI going in the direction that it is, and also thinking about we talk oftentimes about an aging workforce, right, where we don’t have nearly as many tradespeople as what we need.  

And, yeah, some of these technologies are helping out in order to improve that learning curve or to supplement some of these areas where we’re deficient. I’m thinking about how AI can play into the space for managers and engineers.  


Wes Edmiston: 

Are we seeing kind of a similar gap where people like yourself, with 35 years of experience that were our leaders, are they retiring as well? And how do you see AI fitting into that space?  


Geoff Smethills: 

Yeah, you’re absolutely right.  

I mean, right now, everyone’s talking about the, you know, the big resignation, right, coming out of COVID There’s a whole cohort of people 50 plus who, who just, you know, decided, you know, this work thing not for me anymore.  

And they came out. And to be fair, the demographics on engineering have been moving against us for decades. Let’s not kid ourselves. We haven’t been filling the apprentice schools. We haven’t been training the engineers as much as we can in shell.  

We ended up doing a lot of effort to cultivate good, close relationships in India simply because they generate far more engineers than the traditional western world did, and they’re excellent in what they do.  

So we had to tap into that market. But certainly there’s been a lack of focus, a lack of push to get engineers and to improve the diversity, encouraging women to go into engineering, encouraging, as I say, people from Asia, et cetera, to be moved into that.  

It’s moving that way. But there’s going to be you can’t just generate this overnight. And in the meantime, the workload is going the other way. We need to be faster, quicker, more at the same time as we have not got the people to go do it.  

So you’ve got to square that somehow. And the answer, at least in part, lies in the utilization of technology and being smart about what we do. I mean, if you think of a typical project team and you say to them, what are you going to do to ensure.  

You manage the risk on your project? Oh, I’m going to do this and this and this. And they’ve got a million things that they want to do from their past experience, and you say to them, yeah, okay, but can you do all of that and is it going to deliver a result?  

Well, they think so from their experience. But wouldn’t it be great if we actually looked at the data, we actually looked at the project environment and were able to focus them on where their efforts were most needed.  

So increasing productivity and working on the things that really matter without bias, et cetera, is going to be hugely important if we’re going to succeed going forward.  


Wes Edmiston: 

Hey, real quick, this is Wes. 

I just wanted to let you know that if you have an idea for an episode topic or a great guest suggestion, we would love to hear from you. Just send us an email at WorkDoneRight@cumulusds.com. Now, back to the show.  

Now that makes sense. One of the things you just touched on is while the population of people here to do the work is declining, the workload is actually increasing. There’s a big demand right now in order to improve our infrastructure, increase our energy output in whichever country it is that we’re dealing with, while also decreasing our carbon output, making ourselves more green and efficient.  

So that’s going to take substantial capital investment, that’s going to take substantial amount of work. How do you see digitalization playing into the space and kind of helping to facilitate meeting some of these objectives?  


Geoff Smethills: 

I did some work on this a year or so ago for a conference, fortunate at the time. McKinsey always does great research and they, they dropped out a paper on this, just and, and I read it in detail and it’s quite shocking, their estimate of all projects, not just, you know, renewables, but you, you need to continue on with the non-renewables whilst one takes over from the other.  

But. If your aim is to get to net zero by 2050, which is outside of India, and China is pretty much the accepted target point coming out of the Paris agreement. And even China says 2060 and India says 2070.  

But okay, at least they agree there’s a trajectory they’re going on right in all of this. The estimate from McKinsey is the that we need to spend $5.7 trillion, which is worth saying, twice, $5.7 trillion every single year between now and 2050.  

Now, I don’t know about you. I’ve worked on a billion dollar project, so I know what a billion dollars looks like, and that’s a huge amount of money. I’ve seen projects which are in the kind of ten, $15 billion range, and they are enormous.  

They’re cities. I have not one clue and can’t fit into my head what $5.7 trillion looks like. I really have no idea. I can’t get it in there. So to do that every single year, and you think about that now, you say, well, what are the barriers to that?  

The barriers to achieving that? One is the politics in place. And politics is never perfect, and it’s up and down, and we’re not playing nice with the Chinese just right now and whatever, but trajectory, it’s taken us there, and we get closer and closer to it as we go through the various stages.  

And I think recent events are even starting to accelerate the program from a political standpoint. Thing is finance. Can we get the money? Well, from what I read and what I see, yeah, we can get the money to go do this.  

So what’s left is and this is where I normally turn to my audience of project people and say, you, you’re the problem, because you’ve got to. Deliver 5.7 trillion per year. And and if we do, if we do what we’ve always done, the way we’ve always done it, we will fail to do so we’ll be the ones that lets the world down.  

Because, you know, you look at the track record of projects and they’re on their delivery. You look at the productivity within a project. It sits there round about the level of agriculture. And I don’t mean to be disrespectful to my agricultural friends, but it’s pretty low.  

We used to say if you took one of the guys that built the pyramids in Egypt and you were magically bringing forward and put him in the middle of a construction site, barring a few bits of machinery running around, he’d be feeling pretty much at home with scaffolding and people pulling stuff around.  

We’ve got to be smart about it. And add into that the subject we’ve just been talking about, which is the demographics going against us, the adoption of new technology, the embracing of it is not an optional thing.  

It’s not an added extra. It’s not a vitamin pill. It’s the essence of what we need to do. There’s no way of getting around it. I talk about contracting. Everyone loves three bids and a buy in the project world.  

We always love that. Put in a lump sum, put all the risk on the contractor, put it in a box, three bids and a buy, you’re golden. Right? Well, don’t even get me going on how wrong that is. But if you want to become much more efficient, if you’re going to deliver all of this, we can’t afford to have adverse contracting methodologies.  

We’ve got to have collaboration. We’ve got to open everything up and make it visible. The whole point of data is it makes the whole thing transparent. You work out loud and you’ve got to support the contractor and say, well, how are we going to make you more efficient?  

I mean, a contractor. As you well know, where’s from your background, you’re interested in two things cash flow and profit. Right. And there’s nothing wrong with that, don’t be ashamed of it. But it’s cash flow and profit.  

And that’s quite right that you should do so. So as an owner organization, I need to say, well, how do I get what I need, which is much higher productivity. I need to get a lot more projects delivered with a lot fewer people in a lot faster time period how do I do that whilst keeping the contractor in the space where he makes profit and he gets good cash flow?  

And I think there are opportunities in digitalization where you can win up and down the line on this. But you have to understand that. You need to understand what drives those different parts of the supply chain and ensure that you approach projects in a way.  

And three bids and a buy is not the way to do it. And there isn’t enough people out there to competitively bid every single job that we’ve got, because there’s more jobs than there are people, organizations and everything else.  

We better think about collaborations, longer term relationships, more embedded in the way we work together and how do we keep those things transparent and honest so that as owners, we get value and as contractors, you get paid what you deserve?  


Wes Edmiston: 

No, absolutely. There’s an aspect to it that whatever I took to switch from working within a contractor organization to working within Shell, I was very surprised about that. Just the narrative from both sides.  

Everybody has their own perspective on this. But once you’ve seen both ends of this, you can start to identify the fact that we really are all working for the same thing. Right?  


Geoff Smethills: 

Yeah, absolutely. The contractor wants profitability.  


Wes Edmiston: 

They want to get paid for the work that they’re doing, and the owner wants to start making money off of the project that they’re being built. Right. They want project delivery. Well, where do these two things converge?  

At project delivery. We both want to get the job done. That’s what everybody we have a common objective. The contractor succeeds when we succeed, we succeed when the contractor succeeds. And it needs to really be viewed in and much more as a partnership throughout the build process.  

Some people are better at it than others. A lot of people are starting to better understand it now than 15 years ago. Whenever I first got into it, it but still, there’s a lot of room to go. And I like your perspective as far as having digitalization play a role in kind of improving that relationship just through transparency and being on the same page.  


Geoff Smethills: 

Totally. You think about it as an owner organization looking to a contractor. Every contractor I’m talking about major projects, international projects. Now, they bet the farm every time they accept a bid.  

And we squeeze and squeeze and squeeze and say, okay, let’s get it for the less and less and less and less money. So their whole thing is, I’m working on narrow profit margins and got cash flow issues of how do I keep because it’s all cash flow for them.  

They’ve got to keep all these people paid, and they’ve got to keep the money rolling around, and they’re paying for expensive loans to keep their business going, all that kind of thing. And we as owners then expect them to do things better in more digitally advanced ways to deliver on that.  

Do you think that’s really going to happen? I think the only way it can work is when you develop longer term relationships, say, look, how are we going to work together? What do we need to adopt top to bottom?  

I need transparency so I trust what you’re doing. I need you to adopt different ways of working, and you need to see an opportunity funnel in front of you that allows you to recoup your investment coming back.  

You’ve got to break the paradigm. And I think smart companies are doing that. I know because I’m biased. The shell looking to do that, right? To get longer term relationships and to see them take it forward.  

But still it’s hard. Still it’s hard because there’s an inherent distrust between contractor organizations, owner organizations. I think it was Ed Merrill. There’s a quote from Ed Merrill, the boss of IPA, which I always like some of Ed’s quotations.  

He said you know what? He said. What you’ll find is that our survey tells us that bad projects have poor performing contractors and great projects have really good performing contractors. Now, which came first?  

Is it the contractor that does that, or is it the project and the way it’s set up? Right, yeah. I’m sure we’ve had plenty of examples where contractors have done things wrong. But I think as owners, we quite often get what we deserve in the way that we set about it and manage it.  

And that, again, goes back to, I guess, to my days in maintenance in Brownfield, et cetera, where you have more open, more collaborative arrangements. And I’ve been working in those environments for years and years and years.  

I know if you get it right, if you pick the right partner, if they are motivated to do so and see the opportunity and you work at this, you can achieve amazing things. Very early on, when I was working at Stanlow, I was given the job of managing the term contracts.  

And I asked my predecessor, what happens here? He says, well, it’s easy. He said, Every four years, we rebid our term contracts and we go out to this all these different contractors, and the bid comes back in and you accept it.  

The prices go up by 10%, and we move on. I’m saying, well, that’s what we do. Yeah. So I said, well, why don’t we try something different? We went to the incumbent and we said to them, let’s look at all the things that make you unproductive.  

What do we as an owner do? What would you like to see different? And we kind of listed them out, and it was all about permit arrangements, access to the site, all this kind of stuff. And long story short, we wrote a memorandum of understanding and said, okay, we’ll do this if you’ll do that.  

Now, I need you to go into our schedule of rates, and I want to take 20% out. We did. We took 20% out simply because we had an honest conversation about what we want and what did they need from us to have that happen.  

We got some collaboration going, and I think digital can take you a lot further down that path, and it can open you up to the point where it is transparent. I mean, look at things like real time progress.  

We can go in right now and establish status on a project in real time.  


Wes Edmiston:  

Geoff, one of the things that kind of circling back to what it was you were saying earlier about this first conversation that you were in about talking about digitalization and asking the very simple question in my mind, that is still a question that I don’t think anybody really answers is who’s going to do it?  

Right? Who is going to own this digital transformation or the adoption of these digital technologies? Who’s driving this? Is another way of putting it. Where do you see the owner’s responsibility in this as opposed to the contractor responsibility?  

Because as you said earlier, right, most of the time we get into this mindset where it’s just we’re. Push all of the risk onto the contractor, push everything that we can onto the contractor, and then we’ll, as owners, kind of keep our hands out of it and just look from on high and dictate where people need to be moving.  

From my perspective, I think that owners need to have a bigger stake in this as far as being the ones to really drive this, this level of adoption of digitalization that we need to see. But from your perspective, where do you see this?  


Geoff Smethills: 

I would say absolutely, there’s a theory out there, and I’ve sat in contract boards in my career where people have said, come on, Geoff, we get a competitive field out there. Whoever wins the bid with the lowest price is going to win the work.  

Therefore, they will go away and adopt new ways of working and technology and what have you to make them more competitive than the guy next door, and they’ll win more work. And as a result of that, they’ll be more successful.  

So all we have to do is put a transparent bid process in place and the market will improve productivity. And I said, well, that’s that’s a very, very nice theory, but it just hasn’t worked like that for the past 50 years.  

It just hasn’t happened. And if it was going to happen, it would have happened by now. If you looked at, as I said, the the level of performance within our construction world, it’s probably ripe for disruption.  

And you almost wonder whether there’s going to be a Google or an Apple of this world or suddenly think, you know what, why don’t we take construction on, do it differently? And I said, probably someone will do that at some point.  

So right now, as owners and as contractors, it’s in our interest to say, well, what do we need to do put in place to actually disrupt ourselves and to get an improvement? And that’s not going to happen through a traditional contracting process.  

It’s going to take a willingness to have an open discussion and get to it, and it’s having that understanding of what drives people. I’ll give you one example from Shell. We produced a digitalized project system within Shell, and we wanted it to be it was basically dying in all the engineering bits and pieces together and making more efficient the way that we worked and more transparent, et cetera.  

And we wanted contractors to work in that environment and adopt it and be slicker in what they did. And part of that we said to them is, well, you need to deliver the data and the data quality to support that.  

And right now we see you’re not doing that. It’s poor, it’s not happening, and all the rest of it. And I got taken aside because I got all the senior leaders come in. We gave all the EPCs a hard time and we wiped things at them.  

You luddites. You need to get out there and be better with your data management like owners do. They’ve been a good owner. Yeah, that’s right. Yeah. We told the contractors where they’re all going wrong, but they kind of pulled me one side.  

They said, what you got to realize, Geoff, is that we’re run by our finance departments and they set targets for us in the year and we’re driven by cash flow. I said, yeah, I’m aware of that from my background.  

He said, well, what gets us cash flow right now, it’s delivery of drawings. You look in your contracts today and it’s, have you got the ga? Have you got the construction ISO out? So we’re driven by pumping drawings out.  

We’re not driven by data. Is the quality of data right? Have you built the data up correctly so you’re able to make the right decisions, you’re able to effectively manage your awp and your completions process?  

We’re not driven by that at all. If anything, and I’ve seen this examples in other projects, if there is something in the contract, it’s all about what does the owner need at the end of the project? How am I going to populate my digital twin?  

Well, what about doing the work? We just don’t have the right drivers in place. We’re still operating in mindset. So the problem is, I think that we tend to think of digitalization. We put it in this little technology bucket, and we assume that if we drink from the kool aid of this technology bucket, everything will be well.  

But it affects everything that we do. If your contracting doesn’t support that, if the relationship with your contractor is not there, if there isn’t a push to be more collaborative going forward, it’s not going to happen.  

If you don’t embrace change and make sure that not just the It manager on your project, but the whole project team embraces a change a different way of working, then you’re not going to get the outcome.  

So my problem with digitalization is it tends to get given to people who get excited about new digital technology. And everyone needs to get excited. The project manager needs to get excited, the business owners need to get excited, and they need to change the whole process in order to deliver.  

So back to your original point of where do owners come in all of this? It’s crucial that we say this is what we want and that we think about how we can bring our contractors on the journey with us and not just.  

Wag fingers at them because it doesn’t magically happen. I like what you’re saying with basically the incentives that we put into the contract at every stage of the process as well. It’s really a combination of giving the right incentives for delivery and having that other barrier on the other side, saying, well, this is the consequence if you don’t deliver right.  

The contract is the framework for the relationship with the contractor, and if you don’t have that established in the right way from the get go, then the relationship is flawed from the start. So I 100% agree.  

I think that looking at the contract to kind of facilitate the implementation of Digitalization and the enablement of that digitalization, I think, is really where everything needs to start. And that really lies on the owner.  

Yeah, I think it does. We need to think about the possibilities. Again, this comes back to relating real problems and looking for technical solutions rather than the other way around. You think about, what do we want on a project?  

I want a contractor to come in, and I want them to work the path of construction. I want to work in a planned and sequenced manner in order to deliver these systems in the right order that I can safely and effectively commission and start up my facility.  

That’s what the name of the game is in oil and gas. That’s it. What do contractors do? Well, they don’t move in systems until you force them to. Why? Because they’re chasing products, productivity numbers.  

Because we’ve bashed them over the head about productivity. And welding big pipes gets them better productivity than welding little bitty ones. So completing systems in the right order and all those kind of things doesn’t happen.  

Now, wouldn’t it be great if we were using, for example, real time measurement? To say, I’m going to need no more quantity surveyors on my, on my project. You won’t have to report to me what your progress is anymore because the technology is going to tell us.  

And by the way, I’m going to link that in the contract through blockchain so that the moment you finish something, you get paid for it. So your cash flow is going to be great. Well, the contract is going to say, that’s fantastic, I said.  

But there’s a catch. You only get paid if it was supposed to be done at that point in time on the schedule. So you got to work the right sequence to get paid. If not, you’ll get paid when it should have been done, not when you did it.  

Well, now the incentives might actually get them to think maybe we should stay with the plan and we should work this in the way that it was because we get good cash. You know what I mean? It’s a combination of the possibilities of technology, which I think can take a lot of cost out of things, make things much more efficient, but you’ve got to align it with the realities of what drives and motivates people at the end of the day.  

Because no matter how much digitization you put in the end of the day projects is a people thing. You still got to weld the pipe, you’ve still got to pay someone for their services. So it’s got to all come together.  

It can’t just be that little bucket of technology. As I said, it’s going to solve all your problems. You got to think of it in context. I think that is beautifully worded. The fact of the game is that it is all about people, right?  

We oftentimes talk about the contractor like a monolith, like it’s just this living, breathing being that’s out there that’s terrorizing the project. But it’s at every level of it, it’s just a person trying to do the best they can with the incentives that they’re given and we need to treat it as such.  


Rapid Fire Questions 

Wes Edmiston:  

Geoff, I think we’re running up on time. We’re going to take these last minute or so in order to get to know Geoff the person, not just Geoff the professional.  

So, Geoff, first question what is your favorite book?  


Geoff Smethills: 

I read an awful lot of nonfiction, but I would say if I have to recall books by back my favorites, they’re always in the fiction space. So there’s a book called Engelby out there, which is one of my favorites.  


Wes Edmiston:  

Where’s your favorite place that you’ve traveled to?  


Geoff Smethills: 

I love traveling, and I’ve had the great good fortune in my career to be sent places by Shell, but I think in terms of the one that made the most impact on me, it was probably Cambodia.  


Wes Edmiston:  

Cats or dogs.  


Geoff Smethills:  

Yeah, we used to be cats people, and then my daughters came along, and now we do dogs because my daughter’s one of them. I’ve got to say dogs. Now my own dog will never talk to me again.  


Wes Edmiston:  

What’s your favorite sports team?  


Geoff Smethills: 

Yeah. So Manchester United. It has to be if you’re born where I was born, it gets stamped on your birth certificate. There’s no choice. That’s right. Or you get chased out of town. 


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