Forget about project planning; it just doesn't work

Forget about project planning; it just doesn't work

Forget about project planning-it just doesn't work
Forget about project planning-it just doesn't work

We clearly worked very hard to create this thing that no-one can understand or follow. Can we now get real?

The quote above belongs to the Project Director of a Mega Clinic project in the Middle East, who was commenting on his team's 15,000 activity programme. He wasn't wrong. Take a moment to reflect on how every project programme that you have seen has been created: 

A team of planners from the general contractor's side, who are specialist users of a planning platform are responding to an owner's contract requirement on programme development and set out to build a monster document with thousands of activities within a month from the commencement of the contract. Now remember the environment that these planning teams operate in:

  • The planners, 9 times out of 10, are the people who know the least about the practicalities of site-work sequence challenges. Most of them have never left site offices
  •  90% of the subcontractors  and suppliers have not yet been procured and thus cannot contribute details about their workflow, sequences and productivity rates, lead-times etc. 
  • The contract, typically will stipulate the type of activity relationships and maximum activity durations
  • The contractor's leadership will push the planners to artificially front-end load the programme with costly items to improve cashflow 
This cluster of errors by every party involved will lead to a multi-thousand activity programme, whose only fact basis will be a broad trade productivity rate database. As a result
  • The programme will not be used on site as site supervisors and crews will not look at Gantt charts of this complexity
  • No-one will know much about actualised delays or risks before the traditional end-of-month update
  • This document will become obsolete by month 3 of the project but no-one will be able to do anything about it as it will be a contractually accepted and binding document with legal significance
  • The programme will only be used for proof of invoicing while an incredible number of man-hours will be spent on maintaining it and updating it all the way to project completion
  • Last but not least, this owner-approved programme, will expose the owner to a series of knock-on effect claims by the contractor, when times get tough
Some of the best contractors and owners are rethinking project programming, and moving to a rational lean approach, of  short term quantity-based programming and progress tracking, to actively manage projects on a  day to day basis. The key enablers to this shift include :

  • A broader trade and project-geography based programme, e.g., one activity for paint coat per floor of a high-rise building
  • Conversion of Gantt charts to colour-coded easy-to-read plans that are communicated to crews in meetings and by appending them on key points on site
  • Daily quantity based targets for crews along with a set of incentives to drive success
  • A series of daily structured dialogues from PM to site supervisor on quantities planned in the morning and quantities achieved by end of day
  • An organisational design geared towards this process. The role and mindset of planning teams and construction managers will need a shift
This lean approach will increase transparency and the ability to react to risks and delays quickly. Delay risks will be evaluated on a daily basis rather than every month and the root causes of issues can be quickly evaluated and mitigated.

A lean time-compression situation that I was part of, decreased floor cycles of a high rise  by 30%, simply by doubling the productivity of welders; one sole trade at the centre of the problem. Lean planning enabled this productivity issue to be easily identified, then quantified through stop-watch studies and through interviews, and mitigated through a series of simple improvement levers. The impact of de-clogging one single bottleneck, on the entire project was immense.

Despite the absolute sense of the argument for lean planning, the Gordian Knot of massive Gantt charts is unlikely to be untied soon. It will require a paradigm shift in the practice of a number of project stakeholders, including owners and  their contract lawyers, down to PMCs and Contractors and their team structures and habits.

The recently deceased, legendary footballer and thinker Johan Cruyff has produced a quote on the merits of simplicity that I find fitting:

Playing football is simple; playing simple football is the hardest thing there is
The Author : Alex Katsanos

About :
Alex is a management consultant and advisor on policy, with 22+ years of experience, in the Infrastructure and Operations space and is the Head of Business Advisory for Arcadis Hong Kong & Macau.

Alex's service offering focuses on public sector policy, operational improvement, capital planning, data strategy and procurement excellence. He has worked across most infrastructure sub-sectors, both for government and private clients in East Asia, Europe, Latin America, Middle East and Africa.

Alex holds a PhD from the University of Surrey and his work has been published in several international conferences and journals. Data strategy | smart cities | procurement excellence | asset optimisation

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