James M. McKay, AIA, P.E.
Former MDC Systems® Project Manager
Construction is, to a great extent, a paper business. In addition to a completed building project, an end result of the construction process is reams of documents. From initial project concept through completion, an extensive paper trail is generated.
Despite such voluminous records, there are usually information gaps that prevent effective project management, proper accounting and payment, and the post-completion accounting of liability and claims. Most documentation problems stem from, three basic conditions: 1) getting the proper amount and type of information (content), 2) getting this information to the appropriate individual (recipient), and 3) delivering it while it is timely (currency).
When these considerations are addressed properly, those responsible for problem resolution will be able to respond more effectively as project challenges arise. However, it is not unusual for project documentation to fall short of these basic requirements, especially concerning project schedules, cost reports, change orders and follow-up records.
Construction schedules are often plagued with both content and currency problems. One common failure in project management is reliance on excessively detailed but inaccurate schedule reports. For example, few field managers are able to use a 10,000-activity Critical Path Method (CPM) schedule effectively to manage a project —it is too much information (content). Yet without an adequately detailed plan of major activities, an understanding of key interrelationships and critical external time constraints, project managers will be hampered in managing construction.
Even if a reasonable schedule was developed at project inception, it must be updated periodically to reflect the realities of the actual progress — an example of the currency problem that may interfere with management effectiveness.
Construction cost reports often suffer from problems with poor organization (content), late delivery (currency), and inappropriate distribution (recipients). It is crucial that the contractor’s project managers have an accurate picture of current project costs to successfully manage the on-site work. Activities that are projected to incur cost overruns require immediate management attention and action. Without this critical problem indicator, field managers often struggle through contract performance unable to identify and respond to problems that may later reappear as claims when cast overruns are finally recognized. Accurate and up-to-date cost reports are commonly not available to field managers, and, in some cases; the field managers are not even on the distribution list.
Another problem demonstrating the need for timely information concerns contract scope changes. Owners and contractors both suffer when the change order process fails to keep pace with the progress of the work. It is unrealistic for owners to hope that, change orders deferred until the end of the project will simply “go away”. Owners looking for free work or savings on the cost of money for requested changes are often unpleasantly surprised by change orders that appear at the end of the job. Such changes are often overpriced and make contract close out difficult. As owners are likely to request changes to the finishes and layout during the final stages of a project, these end-of-the-job changes may be priced by the contractor to recover earlier losses or uncompensated extra work.
Contractors also suffer by, deferring agreement on change orders. Extra work items may have been given away to placate the owner during the early stages of construction But as it becomes painfully obvious that the contract balance is inadequate, a bitter battle over change orders may mar completion of the project, alienating a potential long-term client.
Project managers often do not receive useful information on the status of change orders, requests for information (RFI) and shop drawings. Project record keeping systems often suffer from problems of too much detail, inappropriate distribution, and untimeliness, making it difficult for the project managers to control these items.
A simple, yet effective method to provide managers with crucial follow-up information is a control log summarizing the activities; status, action date and responsible parties. For example, a change order log (Figure 1) will provide a quick overview of pending items, additional funding requirements, and personnel responsible for follow-up. Another key management challenge involves shop drawings and submittals, that are often ignored because they involve off-site procurement. These are common elements in delay claims, and project managers should take action to expedite and document these issues through the use of a similar control log.
Effective management of construction projects is contingent upon these basic, yet crucial elements that are readily documented, managed, and expedited by project management staff if they are provided accurate and meaningful information in a timely manner.