I see different new project management software almost daily. Some of the systems on the market have potential to provide efficiencies and savings. These systems are often hailed as saviours for your next project. Companies often spend enormous amounts of money on implementing new systems and purchasing new equipment. Clients sometimes see these systems as the answer to delivering their project perfectly. Yet, despite using these systems many projects end up in failure.
When I started construction the fax was the latest technology. Drawings were still produced on drawing boards. We priced our tenders manually, handwriting all calculations. We were just starting to produce construction schedules/programmes on the computer.
Since then we have seen massive advancements and computers have taken over the design and drawing office and have become a way of life on construction sites. We receive instant communication, 24 hours of every day.
But is construction more efficient?
Are projects completed quicker?
Are there fewer problems on our projects than 20 years ago?
Is the extra cost companies incur really worth it?
Undoubtedly we are seeing new design solutions that are innovative, often pleasing to the eye and with more efficient use of materials than in the past. However, we still see design and drawing errors, problems with design constructability and clashes of structures, and services.
Construction projects are priced using innovative tendering software, often have schedules with thousands of linked tasks and are micromanaged by systems that log all communications, control drawings and record everything from safety statistics, costings, productivities and quality. Yet, we continue to see projects finished late, with poor quality and over budget or at a loss for the contractor.
Technology is finally moving onto the construction site and there’s equipment that can routinely produce precise setting out, automatically control machines, we have new innovative light weight and easy to install materials, and numerous tools and equipment to make projects easier. But we continue to see work being redone, poor productivity, projects losing money and projects being completed late.
In fact in some areas our problems almost appear to be worse. Why?
In all of this, no matter how good the equipment, systems or computers are we still need to rely on people. In fact, the problem is sometimes exacerbated, because people now often rely purely on their computers and project systems, trusting what their computer is telling them.
Where is the problem?
Is the fallibility of this new technology the fault of the technology developers?
The skills of the operator
I’m sure many of us have worked on projects that at face value had a wonderful schedule/programme with hundreds and even thousands of tasks linked together and often resourced. Yet, the schedule didn’t work. The logic was incorrect. Yes the schedule said we could do the tasks in that time and order – but, who decided the logic and sequencing? Unfortunately the operator, who in many instances understands the programming software, but doesn’t understand construction. Many project managers don’t understand the scheduling software and leave the preparation of the construction schedule entirely to a planner/scheduler.
All systems need to be programmed and operated by skilled staff. Unfortunately we often don’t train people properly, or rely on individuals who don’t have the knowledge or expertise.
Garbage in garbage out
Almost every project management tool and software system depends on the information entered. If this information is wrong the answer will be wrong. Incorrectly update your schedule and you aren’t going to know whether you are on program or not. Leave out some of your costs or incorrectly enter your revenue and your cost report is going to be meaningless – yet that same cost report will be treated as undeniable evidence that the project is making or losing money.
A quality checklist completed on a device doesn’t mean the quality is correct. The individual completing the checklist should have the necessary knowledge and experience and the diligence to physically check that the work complies with the drawings, specifications and quality requirements.
We receive that updated program every week, have a quick look and if it looks ok it gets filed. Our percentage complete aligns with our targets but have we looked at our progress on the critical path? Have we reviewed items that have slipped and analysed the reasons and the possible future knock-on effects?
We may have data showing we are completing the required number of punch-list or snag items every day, but if we aren’t analysing where these items are and which subcontractor is attending to their snag items we may find that certain subcontractors or areas are falling irretrievably behind.
Most data is open to misinterpretation, can be used incorrectly or explained away with the wrong reasons.
I’m sure we have all at some stage received information or an answer that was obviously incorrect. Yet some people blindly follow what they have been told even though common sense should tell them to stop and check.
Then there are systems that tell us there is a problem – the project’s losing money, we are behind schedule, but then project managers take the incorrect corrective actions – sometimes even making the problems worse.
We seem to generate endless strings of data on projects that we add to our monthly reports. Accidents, incidents, progress, invoices, claims, defects, audits, etc, etc. How much of this data is relevant, how much is analysed, how much is used? Yes, much of the data can be very useful, yet it is often ignored despite it taking valuable time to accumulate and document.
Understand the fallibility of the system
Many systems are fallible – I’m sure we have all heard stories of drivers blindly following their vehicle navigation systems into a lake or ocean. One needs to understand that roads change and update the system to take account of these changes. So too on a construction site things change and plans have to be adapted. But it is more than this, understand where errors can occur - which may be operator, system or input errors. By being alert to potential problems we are less likely to take the results at face value and should be able to put in extra checks and balances.
The art of denial
Of course there are some who will ignore what they are being told and carry on as normal regardless. How many times have you heard people say ‘we can’t be losing money’, ‘we aren’t behind schedule’, ‘I’m sure the GPS is wrong and we should turn here’. Well just because we don’t like or believe the answer doesn’t mean we should disregard what we don’t like. Sure take a closer look at the information and system but don’t disregard the answer just because you don’t like it.
Are they telling the full story?
There is a danger that we aren’t seeing the whole picture. Sure you might have a low accident rate but is your project safe – could there be a major accident around the corner? Drawings may be issued on time but are they correct and free of ‘hold points’?
Use the appropriate technology or system
Many systems aren’t designed for the construction industry. They either aren’t robust enough to be used in the field, include information or answers that have little relevance to construction companies, are difficult to operate with the skills levels in construction or can’t readily adapt to changing project conditions. Where possible use technology that has been specially developed and tested for the construction industry and technology that is supported by people who understand construction, and know what you need to achieve.
What are we trying to achieve?
Some construction companies jump in with new systems and software because they are the ‘flavour of the moment’, the ‘new buzz word’, they are conned by good sales talk, they feel they have to ‘move with the times’, or they are just desperate for a solution. Yet many companies haven’t thought through what they are trying to achieve, what they need to achieve and whether the system is appropriate. Do they need the information the system will spill out? Do they have people with the time and skills to operate the system? What other systems in the company will have to be changed and adapted to fit with the new one? Is the system build for the construction environment?
Sometimes management introduce new systems and equipment into the organisation without explaining the purpose and benefits of the system. Unfortunately many people are reluctant to change and some won’t use something they aren’t familiar with so we end up with useful systems and equipment being ignored, used in a half- hearted manner or being used incorrectly. Any new system needs employee and management buy-in to make it successful.
The best tools can’t make a poor project manager good
A carpenter can have the best woodworking tools, but if they don’t have the necessary skills they will still be a poor carpenter. Project managers are the same – the best tools and equipment won’t turn a poor project manager into a good one. Yet, many construction companies place extraordinary reliance on equipment and construction management software hoping that the project manager staring at data on a computer screen will suddenly have a ‘light-bulb moment’ and steer their project on the course to success. It’s simply not going to happen. In fact it’s less likely to happen because sitting behind a computer screen in my experience is not the way to manage a project.
Construction is slow to embrace technology. Talk to any provider and they’ll tell you the disinterest most contractors display to innovation. However, the right technology used correctly can be hugely beneficial to the construction industry, providing greater accuracy, more complex processes and more efficient use of resources. But technology cannot be relied on to replace common sense and project management skills – at least not yet.
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