Capital projects are complicated — and it’s all too easy for complicated processes to get out-of-control. Maintaining control needs to be a team-wide priority from early planning and preconstruction through to handover and closeout. In the context of building projects, “controls” consist of documents and checkpoints that flag scope creep and prevent small problems from snowballing into larger — and more costly — ones.
There’s a perception that site teams and other project members will be able to recognize the significance of small challenges, whether those are schedule delays, unexpected costs, scope or work changes, or even interpersonal difficulties. The reality is that it’s difficult to achieve a high-level view of where small difficulties might lead and impact projects. Capital projects benefit from having a dedicated project control process to accomplish tracking and analysis of project benchmarks because there can be a ripple effect even from small changes. A careful control process will help ensure that those effects are foreseen and mitigated. Project controls play a supporting role in project management, as defined by the Construction Industry Institute (CII), “in a number of activities including planning, estimating, scheduling, budgeting, forecasting, and performance measurement, evaluation, and correction…[spanning] across all project phases.”
Capital projects benefit from having a dedicated project control process to accomplish tracking and analysis of project benchmarks because there can be a ripple effect even from small changes.
Project controls are particularly critical now that supply chain interruptions, not to mention price fluctuations on many common construction materials, are causing an unusually high amount of uncertainty on projects nationwide. Some manufacturers of steel building components, for example, have recently experienced lead times as long as 11 months. Plastic fittings, electrical gear, and other components have also suffered long lead times. As for prices, according to AGC, by late 2021 rising construction materials prices appeared to be starting to drive up the price of construction projects. The association’s analysis of government data showed that “the producer price index for new nonresidential construction…jumped 7.1 percent from September to October and 12.6 percent over the past 12 months. But an index of input prices — the prices that goods producers and service providers such as distributors and transportation firms charged for inputs for nonresidential construction — climbed by an even steeper 21.1 percent compared to October 2020, including a 1.3 percent increase since September.”
Project Controls Across All Project Phases
Project controls, as a concept, are compatible with many current project delivery and project management approaches, such as Advanced Work Packaging (AWP) and lean. With any management method, the basis for controls are project planning documents. These should be created before construction begins and lay out the details of how work will unfold, including the schedule or timeline.
For example, with Advanced Work Packaging (AWP), the Path of Construction (PoC) document is the high-level, construction sequencing document that guides project execution. The PoC remains the point of reference throughout the entire project. Since AWP is construction-driven, identifying the desired project completion date and working backward from that date prevents the compounding delays that can occur with conventional, critical-path, left-to-right planning. Fundamental elements of AWP are engineering work packages (which include drawings, procurement deliverables, specifications, and vendor support), construction work packages (divisions of work within the construction scope), and installation work packages (small, executable “packages” of work that can be completed by a single-foreman team, typically in a one- or two-week time frame).
Project controls are particularly critical now that supply chain interruptions, not to mention price fluctuations on many common construction materials, are causing an unusually high amount of uncertainty on projects nationwide.
To make effective use of project controls, all high-level planning documents are used throughout the execution phase, with field progress tracked as construction occurs. Additional documents, such as materials and equipment checklists, can be used to ensure efficiency, prioritize safety considerations, and address potential risks. To keep team members aligned, especially when a project requires complex decision-making, a RACI chart can be helpful. RACI charts list project stakeholders and assign them a level of involvement for each project task, indicated as either responsible (R), accountable (A), consulted (C), or informed (I). Job responsibilities can also be managed by creating new organizational roles with unique job descriptions, such as audit manager, turnover manager, database administrator, etc. It’s important to note that many of these job descriptions do not need to be new positions within the organization, although some may require additional training. The goal is to outline essential duties and have a clear point of responsibility for important aspects of the project.
A good control process not only anticipates potential problems but can identify deviations in schedule or quality almost as soon as they happen, for example, through the use of quality assurance checklists, change order tracking and/or status reports. Standardized reports on project status, costs, and more should be comprehensive, containing all current information about whether the project meets budget, schedule, and risk benchmarks. These reports are as valuable to the owner as to the construction team.
Digital and cloud-based tools, including Building Information Modeling (BIM) and project management software, support the ongoing tracking of field progress against planning documents. They give owners access to contractor plans and outputs in real time. They can support sophisticated modeling, such as digital twins (digital replicas of the facility being built), capturing as-built and not just as-designed conditions. Data collection is standardized, and as reports are generated, any issues that need attention are identified. Whether these issues are due to resources, material, weather, or changing conditions, project stakeholders get immediate feedback and data they can use to make decisions, offsetting negative impacts and keeping the project moving as planned. However, just as risks can’t always be noticed and fully understood by teams on the ground, neither can problems be solved by data collection alone. While data capture is increasingly simple, properly monitoring and utilizing that data is still a matter of careful management.
With current market disruptions and fluctuations making it harder to rely on historical data and predictive models, it is more critical than ever for team members to achieve seamless communication.
There’s never been a better time for owners and construction teams to enhance their project controls methodologies. With current market disruptions and fluctuations making it harder to rely on historical data and predictive models, it is more critical than ever for team members to achieve seamless communication. In addition to offering a suite of management tools and clearly delineating roles and responsibilities, a good project controls methodology will include a detailed communications plan. This plan should outline appropriate communication channels as well as create “rules’ regarding how and when communications should occur.
Capital projects are beset with uncertainties and conflicting priorities. Add in supply chain issues and unpredictable pricing and it becomes clear that there is no longer any room for run-of-the-mill inefficiencies. Experienced construction teams can reduce risks through early planning — and through rigorous follow-up throughout project execution.