How to overcome field disconnect in construction planning?
Do you also feel that sometimes project scheduling is a theoretical exercise that has little to no connection with the actual field work on site? Many site managers and field workers currently have this feeling and show low commitment to whatever a planning engineer produces.
As planning professionals, we surprisingly agree with this premise. Being self-critical, this situation, which we will call field disconnect, is arguably the biggest issue we face in construction planning nowadays.
In this blog post, we will analyze how we ended up in this situation, but more importantly how we believe it should be fixed.
Evolution of planners
Project planning has evolved quite a lot during the last decades. Planners of the 20th century had years of site experience, knowledge of various construction methods, and a good vision on the projects they were planning. In fact, their in-depth knowledge allowed them to independently plan schedules that were realistic and in general accepted by the people on site.
Gradually, the profession of planning engineers evolved. Driven by strict contractual requirements, schedules became complex computer models with more focus on schedule quality and contractual compliance. Nowadays planning engineers are often young, academic and analytical. They produce impressive schedules, KPI’s, visualizations and dashboards to report to management and clients.
We certainly see the value in this evolution.
What’s the problem then?
Many current schedules are of high-quality and value-adding in a certain way, however they clearly have several challenges to cope with:
- Schedules have low realism and are overly optimistic due to the lack of field experience of the planning engineers building them.
- As the site team is (almost) not involved in the planning process, they don’t take ownership of the planning and show very low commitment to follow the resulting schedule.
- The schedule is a contractual vehicle that is not used to steer the project execution.
- During execution, the feedback from the field towards planning is insufficient. As a result, real progress is often not shown in the schedule.
Schedules seem to exist in a parallel digital or contractual universe without having a true connection to the project execution. This is clearly not the real purpose of scheduling, and hence we believe that field disconnect is an alarming situation that needs to be solved.
Back to the past then?
Well no, the construction industry evolves and so do its people. We are living a very different reality today compared to 20 years ago. Digitalization and academicization have only just started and are here to stay. In fact, project controls models will only get more integrated and more advanced. Hence, new generations of project controls professionals will not resemble those of the past.
However, for project controls to reach its full potential, field disconnect needs to be resolved and of course going back to the past is not the solution. Consequently, other solutions need to be found.
We observe some recent trends in project controls that recognize and could potentially solve this disconnect as well as provide an answer to the four challenges described above. Many of those trends, start from the premise that the way we develop detailed CPM schedules in tools such as Primavera P6, might not be optimal. Indeed, scheduling tools might be great to manage the overall project flow and interfaces, however they are not the best reference to steer & control the project execution.
Here are some techniques we believe in:
- Organize planning sessions. Nothing new here, but it is very important in our quest to build realistic schedules (challenge 1) that collaborative sessions are organized where schedule input is given by key team members. Note that by providing their input, their commitment will also increase (challenge 2).
- Accept the limitations of CPM scheduling and leave the detailed activities out of your schedule. Establish a formal work authorization process The central idea behind such a process is that planning engineers are scheduling high-level work packages rather than detailed activities. These work packages are then formally authorized to work package managers who receive the mandate to plan and execute the work within given boundaries based on their experience. Formal work authorization will increase the team’s commitment (challenge 2), while ensuring that the schedule is used to steer execution (challenge 3).
- Lean or short interval scheduling These are in fact an extension to the above and a way to schedule without CPM. By applying those techniques, planning sessions would then include the critical interaction and participation of the execution team. Consequently, commitment of the site to the planning (challenge 2) will drastically increase, as well as the realism of the planning (challenge 1). For more information about this technique and what it entails, you can check this elaborated blog post.
- Better scope control. We have written a blog post about this topic before, but it is still dazzling to see how many schedules are progressed by simple guesses as if the work being done is not Every work package should have a clear technique to measure scope % complete. Moreover, the systems that measure and register this progress should preferably be integrated with the scheduling tool. This feedback loop solves challenge 4 and allows for a much more valuable analysis.
- Artificial intelligence. Some state-of-the-art project management tools include artificial intelligence. Rather than relying on the experience of the planner, these tools function by mining databases with historical data and self-learning algorithms to provide estimates and predictions for your new projects. The reliability of estimates will increase drastically, and hence our first challenge will be solved. Consequently, schedules will no longer be based on individual intelligence, but rather on collective intelligence. That is even better, right?
We at Primaned Belgium support many leading project owners and contractors. Hence, we are in a position to state that field disconnect currently is a big issue for many projects and we don’t feel good about it. Bottom line, we strive to deliver insight to make projects successful and not only to make nice models or reports.
We are aware of the criticality of field disconnect and are already taking actions to mitigate its impact on our active projects. Awareness of this problem is just the start, since to truly solve field disconnect and to reach the full potential of project controls, more will be needed. We have to rethink how we plan, which brings up the need for new techniques and innovative tools.
Stay tuned for much more about this.