Construction projects contain many variables in terms of the different packages and components coming together. The requirement to manage all of these in challenging conditions can be a real test logistically. If you’re working on one project with a single site and precise programming sequence, this may seem manageable. However, if you upscale this to some of the country’s mega projects, an ability to manage, accurately report on, and have the real-time information upon which to make decisions is genuinely an industry within itself.
The level of resource used to report on progress and the tools made available at their disposal is scalable, dependent on the project size. There also remain the basics that every project should be capturing and reporting on each week, month, quarter etc., to guide the job to successful completion.
Notwithstanding using such information to inform decisions, once complete, we should use this data to analyse what went well and where lessons can be learned to drive continuous improvement as an organisation.
Progress Report Contents
Assuming the project is in the construction phase, as a minimum, the contractor should publish a monthly report, and a meeting called between stakeholders to review it. This meeting should be recorded with clear actions so that if the project is audited in the future, a clear decision log is available.
The report should reflect on what has happened, i.e., how the project is performing, with a clear understanding of any delay, and forward-looking with defined deliverables as to what we aim to achieve in the next period.
In summary, the report should contain:
- A summary of the project, including progress status against the main points of Time, Cost, Quality, Safety.
- Key metrics, e.g., cost to date, person-hours worked, health and safety statistics, critical issues.
- Performance on the programme to date, in period, forecast to outturn, but for both design and construction delivery.
- Commercial reporting, e.g., number of variations claimed, agreed, outstanding, value and decisions required.
- Reporting of any Key Performance Indicators (KPIs)
- For construction delivery, it’s good practice to include progress photos.
- Record last month’s progress meeting actions and if they have been closed or not.
- Any other project engagement e.g., community projects etc.
Those attending the meeting need to be able to make decisions on behalf of the party they are representing so that issues do not become protracted, which compounds the effect on time and cost.
Measuring Progress – Earned Value Management
Programmes can run into many pages with hundreds or thousands of activities, and considering the reality that the critical path could be re-sequenced to mitigate delays, your ability to look at a programme and gauge whether you are on programme or not can be challenging. This is especially the case if the project is due to run for a considerable period, or perhaps the projects are split over numerous locations. Therefore, your ability to inspect progress versus what is stated on the programme is again not without challenge.
Earned value analysis works whereby you measure both cost and programme performance to date against the original baseline to provide metrics that provide you with insight on performance to date and forecast the final position in terms of completion date and final cost.
The cost metrics may be less of a concern if you utilise a fixed price lump sum payment method. However, if the works are substantially behind the programme, it’s still good to be aware of the financial stress this will place on your supply chain so that you can ask them for their mitigation plans.
For programme performance, “Schedule Performance Index”, or SPI is the measure between the original baseline programme compared to actual progress to date. It’s calculated by providing the value of works that should have been achieved to a point in time on the baseline programme compared to the value of works actually completed to the same point, e.g. if the value of works was £12m and the forecast against baseline was to achieve £3m by month four, but you calculate the actual value of works constructed to the same point to be £2.5m the SPI would be 0.83 indicating that you are 17% behind the programme.
Using this information, you can extrapolate this out to work out that across the 12-month programme, if you do not take corrective actions, you will be approximately 61 days late. You can measure information at each period to determine if the situation is getting better or worse. However, the accuracy of the original baseline to measure performance is crucial in obtaining reliable data and identifying the root cause of the issues.
In terms of measuring financial performance or “Cost Performance Index” (CPI), the principle you are seeking to establish is that if you have achieved £2.5m of value as per the example above, what did it cost you to accomplish this? For example, if you have spent £2m to achieve £2.5m of the contract value, your CPI would also be 1.17, which would indicate that whilst you are behind the programme with an SPI of 0.83, you are at least not overspending to achieve this. The underlying position would suggest that you need to increase resource and spend more to execute the programme, i.e., a conclusion could be drawn that the works are proceeding too cautiously.
Planning Tools – Last Planner/Collaborative Planning
It may be that your programme is produced in isolation from the supply chain and that each package of works has individual, separately managed programmes, or you have stitched them together to form your overall programme. If executed in isolation, it can be challenging to coordinate the various packages of works. This is where collaborative planning or Last Planner is an excellent way of getting the multiple trades to use their insight and expertise to support each other in identifying constraints and finding ways to remove or resolve them to drive efficiency into programmes.
The principle with the Last Planner process is that it brings together those leading and delivering the works on the ground. The client states the milestones and trades work together to agree on the sequence and logic of works. This includes when they need to hand over and hand back between each other, the working patterns, and realistically how long they will need for each activity.
This process gets real buy-in from the supply chain and a better understanding of the need to coordinate the works if completion is to be achieved on time.
The level of input can be scalable also, for example:
- Used to set up a full collaborative programme (usually a moving target as the subcontractors are procured package by package in a sequence instead of all at once).
- Used in the build-up to completing and handing over a critical section of works.
- Can be broken down into weekly, daily or shift ‘Production Plans’, which are then monitored by a management plan.
The underlying principle of the Last Planner is that each programme is a forecast and therefore cannot be relied upon. As programmes can stretch some distance into the future, they are considered unreliable. Moreover, the more detail that goes into a forecast, the greater degree of inaccuracy and uncertainty. The Last Planner method will improve this situation by planning in greater detail as close to the work as possible, with such plans supported by those delivering the work.
Then, through ongoing monitoring, any deviations or downtime from the plan is learned from and built into programmes as we advance to improve accuracy.
Dangers of Optimism Bias
There is a tendency for optimism bias in all programmes where the sun shines every day and productivity remains constant no matter what time of the year. In more advanced programming software, it is possible to produce a programme and apply a blanket productivity ratchet, e.g., 80%, to recognise such bias.
When issues are reported through the monthly reporting cycle, the warning signs are often not highlighted enough. There is a tendency to veer away from writing bad news and focusing on the positive.
However, it is crucial to acknowledge the issues to avoid a situation escalating and then once the full effect is in place, the ability to influence it has already passed.
For example, Crossrail only announced in August 2018 that it would not be opening in December 2018, and they could not provide a date when they would be complete. Subsequently, the National Audit Office (NAO) report commissioned to review the position on the Crossrail projects has since published several findings that reflect on project reporting, such as:
- The works were split into 36 main contracts across stations, tracks, civils, etc. The lack of an integrated programme led to many clashes, which in turn led to a high volume of post-contract change and an inability to accurately forecast and plan the sequence of works.
- While milestones were in place, there was no detailed bottom-up plan that reflected the works that were logical and sequences such that it was the most efficient.
- The forecast of work remaining did not acknowledge the productivity levels achieved to date and therefore was overly optimistic.
It is accepted that managing a programme of works on this scale is not without significant challenge. Surprisingly, the level of change is proportionately low compared, historically, to other major infrastructure projects. However, driving towards milestones with no collaborative plan to close out the remaining works led to the situation whereby they did not understand the scale of works outstanding. The known activities had built up into a bow wave of work that was unachievable in the stated time available to complete the project leading to even higher levels of contingency required.
Final Report – Lessons Learned
It’s certainly good practice to document lessons learned reports so that you do not make the same mistakes again on the next project. As an organisation, you are mature enough to recognise that mistakes can be made and that you are prepared to acknowledge and learn from them.
If you can highlight areas for improvement, these can be captured in future invitations to tender to the supply chain so that you can base your decision on who to place contracts with on the basis that they are willing to make investments to avoid the cycle recurring.
The contents of a lessons learned report will typically include:
- Financial and commercial performance.
- Procurement strategy effectiveness.
- Communication plan effectiveness.
- Quality performance issues.
- Programme performance against the tendered baseline.
- Volume of post contract change and causes.
- Supply chain performance – including how this is recorded to influence future tender lists.
- Effectiveness of the project team.
- Technical issues in regards the development of design and on-site construction issues.
A scope to deliver with a start and end date is included in all construction contracts. However, the effectiveness to deliver efficiently is an art form due to the level of skilled resource required to produce meaningful data upon which you can make real-time decisions.
Also, it’s one thing reporting the data that enables decisions to be made and correct an underperforming project, but the team also needs to interpret the information, which can be a challenge. Investing in the right tools at the outset and then making appropriate decisions can be challenging. Still, there is undoubtedly a drive towards relying more on technology to inform progress now than ever before.
Feature Photo by Matt Bero on Unsplash
About Dean Suttling
A member of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, Dean has twenty years of experience in commercial management and quantity surveying, undertaking roles for contractors, clients, and consultants.