Rethinking Traditional Construction Project Management—Part 1 of 5


Editor’s Note: This is Part 1 of a five-part series on Construction Project Management

The lifeblood of any construction company is the construction project itself. How those projects are managed can make or break the company. That makes project managers (or in some companies, project sponsors who oversee teams of project managers) arguably the most important role in an organization. Whereas others may be responsible for particular tasks or defined roles on the project, project managers have to be somewhat of a “jack of all trades.”

They must know the project plans inside and out as well as all of the players, tasks, goals, budgeting and more—not to mention representing the company’s mission statements and reputation by producing a finished product that meets or exceeds expectations.

Project Management Versus Construction Project Management

To understand the challenges that a construction project manager faces, it’s important to understand what makes construction project management so different from other forms of project management. “Project management” is a loose business term. Projects in other industries can range from simple tasks taking a few hours to complex procedures with multiple steps and processes requiring input from many people or departments.

For instance, project management could mean facilitating a new way of collecting data for a financial firm to prepare annual reporting methods. It could also mean generating a marketing plan for a company. Anything deemed as a project within a company can be project managed. In many cases, these can be easily administered by a single person or a small team—with the bulk of work being done by that person or team. Projects can be tracked and managed efficiently using checklists, spreadsheets or simple off-the-shelf software.

In larger project management scenarios, say the development and manufacturing of a new product like a smartphone or a better-gripping car tire, the project management might include many people and processes. Still, these tend to be unique, one-of-a-kind projects.

Project management in construction, however, can be entirely different. Construction project managers often have to govern multiple, ongoing projects—perhaps similar in scope, but each with its unique challenges and countless moving pieces. There are the dozens, if not hundreds of people to keep informed and working, often at several different locations. Some aspects of the projects could be handled in pre-fab facilities, while others occur on the jobsite. Project managers have to account for the physical building, bridge or highway work, as well as water lines, sewer lines, electricity, rights of way and easements, drainage, environmental compliance and more.

Project managers have to be, or at least should be, involved with everything from labor and payroll issues to accurate accounting and job costing, to inventory and materials, to safety and compliance issues. Then there’s the project itself, which typically involves staying on top of multiple subcontractors, dealing with RFIs, change orders, submittals, transmittals and more, ensuring that ever-changing project plans remain up to date for everyone working on the project team.

To say that construction project managers have their work cut out for them is a definite understatement.

Overcoming Manual Construction Management Processes

Interestingly enough, despite all of the time-saving tools and advancements in software and technology that can help automate a lot of project managers’ work, many today are still reliant on outdated processes and systems. A September 2016 survey by Capterra, a service that connects buyers and sellers of software, noted that 97 percent of organizations viewed project management as critical to performance and organizational success, yet 44 percent of project managers use no form of software, and more than half of organizations have no project management training programs in place. Those still using manual project management tools rely heavily on spreadsheets, email and handwritten logs or checklists.

As Capterra noted in a March 2018 blog, 59 percent of U.S. workers say communication is their team’s biggest obstacle to success, followed by accountability (29 percent). Yet, most project managers—even many of those using software program—are using multiple systems or processes that lack integration, collaborative tools and accountability standards. Integrated enterprise resource planning (ERP) platforms that combine functionalities like accounting, project management, equipment management, and more along with dedicated collaborative software solutions are boosting productivity and mitigating project risks by providing one set of data to work from and the tools to effectively communicate that information across entire project teams in real time, in order to make real, actionable project decisions.

Darin Bailey, project sponsor for Gilbert, Ariz.-based heavy highway contractor, Hunter Contracting, said the approach of “this is how we’ve always done it,” is still, unfortunately, a common practice among project managers. His company, however, is one that has embraced leading-edge software to help streamline project managers’ work.

“Things are definitely better. Information, people—everything is more accessible, and available a lot quicker than it used to be,” Bailey said. “We are able to get up-to-he-minute information that helps us to be able to evaluate productions/cost. The trick is to know how to read the data and to know what to do with it, so we can benefit from it.”

While it is true that some project managers resist change, many are ready for technology’s helping hand—they just don’t know where to start. The best place might be to step out of the box of a million tasks and details and think about project management in its most basic sense: getting the right people on the project the right tools and information and the right place and time.

Check back next week for Part 2 of this series or download the full whitepaper here.