Digital Strategy (the beginnings) – by Darrin Kinney

Project Controls is the heart of every major construction project. Our teams are the ones that typically wade through information that never stops and constantly changes. Although at the core, the fundamentals of our strategy are likely the same as what everyone who manages data will encounter.

Digital Strategy for project controls is a tricky beast. We are bombarded by systems that all promise nirvana (and many can deliver nirvana for some projects). However, at the core, before we even discuss systems, we need to understand what our strategy is, and what key concepts we want to push. Below are some ideals of mine. With everything, this is a straw-man discussion. Every project will have its own culture, its own focus, its own needs. Your strategic approach has to cater to what you want from your project. Not to mention that the major companies all have quite rigorous project control plans and detailed procedures. These are great documents that do spell out our scope of services.

Project Controls is the heart of every major construction project. Our teams are the ones that typically wade through information that never stops and constantly changes. Although at the core, the fundamentals of our strategy are likely the same as what everyone who manages data will encounter.

The issues are not related to our knowledge of project controls (and project management) fundamentals. We know how to build schedule, track progress, build baselines, budgets, and track costs parsed into 1000s of potentials contracts and POs. We know how to calculate and track Earned Value, CPI, and SPI. We know change management, trends, change orders, etc. We know how to compile all the information into weekly and monthly reporting. We have the procedures and management plans.

We are the technical experts of our discipline.

However, too often, we are not able to step back and understand that the way in which we work can change, needs to change – and more importantly – the technology that is available now can be utilized to seriously disrupt the way in which we apply our technical knowledge and skills.

Below are some ideas, some concepts we can consider in everything we do to perhaps bring a more digital and smart way of operating in the new world we live in. These are not innovative in themselves, we live with these ideas already. My intent is to try to capture these ideas and through the tactical implementation of these ideas bring real innovation.

Strategy – Strategy is not Keywords

Too often, we write our strategy or integration documents and load them up with keywords and slick powerpoint. We have to embrace that we touch real things. Don’t use stick figures and cartoons  – use real live examples, get your hands dirty using the systems on your job. Understand the details. Stop writing keywords on a white board and open the application!

Digital Strategy Keywords

The real idea is to be grounded in practical things, not abstract processes.

Open your schedule, look at the activity definition that exists. Open your material management system and see if the items can be tagged with schedule activities. Look into your progress measurement sheets and determine if you can insert scheduleID to smartly update the progress in your schedule (sound like a broken record!).

Strategy – Enter data once

This is talked about by everyone, although, we have all seen it – everyone has their own spreadsheet. Every group has their own systems: SAP, Contracts, Procurement, Engineering, Cost Control, Planning: I have illustrated in the past the issue with something as standard as “where is the master contract list”. Do we really have a strategy to enter data once? If so, really delve into the data people keep on their computers in their own spreadsheets. Try as best as we can to pull key reference data out of a source system

There exist systems that can facilitate this approach and allow for integration. Although be careful and understand that integration is not strategy. The implementations of strategy will likely require integration.

Data Integration vs Digital Strategy

Enter data once is integrated into the concept of data integration. Integration is not specifically the idea that “systems talk to each other”, integration is the ability to just smartly manage your job. Unless common keys exist between systems, you can’t hope to build that integration inside a black box your digital team will build.

A good example of this is the implementation of a web based cash flow

Web Based Cashflows – Sharepoint

Strategy – Be Visual

Project Controls teams are the masters of reporting. Being visual is not about (only) creating dashboards or complex databases the feed our dashboards. Being visual is doing exactly what we already do. Stay away from data tables – Long Live Death by S-Curves!

The tabular data presentation methods we use are antiquated. Looking at an engineering progress report with 50 rows and 20 columns of various EV metrics – too often that doesn’t answer me the question of whether or not I am on plan or not. That is what I meant to be visual. Look at the questions be want answers for, the core underlying questions and FOCUS. If the question is infact “I was to see the productivity factor for 50 different areas both weekly and cum”. Perhaps choose a dot-plot. Place the values all on a graph, perhaps scale the size of the dot on the budget hours, use a horizontal axis for % and the vertical axis to show the PF. That is what I mean to “Be Visual”.

Eng12

Strategy – Push processes and data ownership to the person actually responsible, not the “function” that is responsible

Payment certificates, progress measurement reports, monthly reports: the list is never ending. We have data that originates with contractors and a multitude of sources. However, too often, the sources of information do not have access to the real database  or word/excel file used by the project. If possible, structure your data sources such that owner can manage their data.

I will likely post a few case studies about this to get people thinking of possibilities.

 

Strategy – Use Agile management

  • Focus on Output not Documentation
  • Respond to Change as opposed to fixation on Original Plan
  • Focus on interactions between people, not underlying systems or tools

These topics can be very disruptive: Tell a company like Fluor or Bechtel to NOT focus on plans or procedures? Good luck. However, this is a disruptive day and age and we do need to take this approach. I have worked in this business for over 20 years and honestly, in general, project controls already (generally) follows these agile fundamentals. We have plans and systems and reams of documentation, but in the end, we do (informally) have to follow these simple strategic cultural elements

What is needed here is the firm support from the management team that a proactive view of the

“what is going to happen tomorrow”

is way more valuable that the concept of

“what was planned to happen tomorrow”

The concept that

“I need this new report now”

is more relevant than

“This is the report that is defined in the PPM”

AGILE management is not able sprints or standups. Its a culture to embrace a stance that while we have general goals and objectives, the focus needs to be on what are we doing today. The reason to have daily stand ups is to have clarity on what we are doing today. The reason to have sprints is to outline near term goals. The reason we have restrospectives is to analyze the difference between what we thought we were going to do, and what we did (and more importantly how to improve the next period). This is just good project management 101! The fact someone calls it AGILE, is not relevant.

JIRA in Construction

Strategy – Allow users to LINK to key fundamental data

This is aligned with “enter data once”. But, this is a core strategic ideal that needs to be championed. We will have data housed in source systems, but have we enabled the wider project team to access this information. That is the primary idea here.

Is information shared by way of excel exports that are distributed via email to various people at various times? Or, do we have a project where information is open and accessible. The latter is what our strategic approach to everything should be.

 

Strategy – Facilitate live real time data

Ultimately you will need some sort of approach to cadence and integration. Will we be using real time data, will we instead focus on cutoffs.

This can if we really delve deeper into what this really means, be very disruptive. With real time data, the need for monthly reporting is useless, the need for weekly reporting – is useless. Reporting is a natural output 24/7 from the way we operate. This cultural approach to construction management is where I think we need to go to be hyper reactive to change.

 

Strategy – Be Hyper Reactive

As I mention above, we want to have a core ideal that allows us to change course immediately when required. We have submitted the same schedule and cost reports every month – WHY? Do not be afraid to change things up, support a workplace where the team can be hyper reactive to respond to everything.

For schedule management, this requires the approach to insert activities into the schedule with daily vigor to reflect what is happening today.

For cost management this requires detailed ticket management approach to our tasks to allow visibility into everything we do 24/7

 

Conclusion – Do not be afraid to push boundaries

This list above is again just a beginning of a discussion. These are discussion topics that are occurring in every company around the world.

As we head into the future, we have an entire generation of new employees who are not afraid of technology. Quite the contrary, the newer generations of people will feel more comfortable updating a web form vs updating a word file. They will feel more comfortable posting progress updates to a social media site vs writing a daily report. They will be more comfortable making mistakes, and fixing them.

The dashboard craze is here to stay. The use of dashboards and the approach needed to create PowerBI or other application based analytics tick many of the strategic elements I have outlined here.

In the end – do not be afraid to push boundaries with your approach to construction management.

How to Build a Level 5 schedule using PowerPivot

Download the file Here, keep reading, if you want to see how it works

There is no industrial standard that define rigorously the levels of schedules, every company has it is own definition, but for the purpose of this post, the level 5 is at the tag level.

From working in different projects, I reach the conclusion that regardless of how much you details your schedule, you will have always some stakeholders that wants to see a more detailed schedule, or wants a different view, some examples:

  • The commissioning guys wants to see the construction schedule by subsystem.
  • The field supervisor, want his own scope by tag with physical quantity to install.
  • PM wants a level 2 by SP and phase ( construction, Precom & Com )

a planning software can easily accommodate those requirement using activities code, you can always make new layout and groups by activity code, but some request are impossible to satisfy unless you start breaking down your activities to the lowest level possible, which I think is counterproductive and may lower the schedule quality if not done properly, and put a lot of pressure on the planners that need to maintain this level of details.

Goal

Taking the “pressure” from P6, but produce multiple Gantt chart report with different granularity to satisfy our customers 😦 Management, client, the guy in the field etc.)

Solution  

the solution involve using Excel to mashup the data from Primavera P6 and Cobra and generate Gantt chart and S curve by any grouping possible, notice here how the conversation shifted from ” it will take a lot of work in P6″ to ” tell me how do you want your Gantt chart”.

P6 and Cobra are used as an example, it can be used with any other tools, the data transfer is using Excel files, so anything works as long the proper codes are used, as a matter of fact I don’t have access to cobra at all,all I need is an export.

architectures

How it works

Export Resource spread from P6

Export the remaining labor units from P6 per day, the reason to use days, so can group later using different calendar ( week, financial period, calendar month etc.).

export_p6

Make the export database friendly

P6 spread the data horizontally by default, this format cannot be used as a source for a database, we need to make the date as list.

export_p6_unpivot

Now the date are “vertical”, next step generate Forecast_%

Forecast_% = (remaining labor units by day)/ (total remaining labor units)

Here we go

export_p6_unpivot_normalized

Notice here, the sum of all the forecast % per activity id is always 100%

(1.2 means the field’s data type is decimal)

Now we have a proper Table that we can load to the data model, I used to do a lot of crazy tricks to have the same results using the tradition Excel approach (VBA, formula) but now with powerquery it is one click J

Import the MTO from COBRA

You need the detailed breakdown, no aggregation, with all the dimensions (tags, pay code, subsystems, separable portion, PCWBS L1,L2,L3, weight, etc.), the point is:  the MTO will be always more details than P6 and that’s the way it should be. Don’t try to replicate the same level of details in P6, it does not work. (at least that was my experience),

Here is a sample format (dummy data for presentation only, in big project, it can be millions of lines)

mto

Mapping between COBRA and P6

Ok that’s the hardest part, and will not be covered in this post, in Cobra for every line item you need to assign a P6 activity ID, no compromise here, it has to be 100 % done.

Link the MTO to P6 Spread

We use P6 activity ID as the lookup code between the two tables, and again with one click in PowerQuery it is done (try doing a vlookup with a 300 000 line item MTO)

merge_1

merge_2

We have now a table that have the level of details of the MTO and the spread from P6

mto_spread_tables

Unfortunately many people still think it is Excel, they miss the fact we are talking about a real database working behind the scene, here an example from an actual project

mto_spread

Generate the dimensions tables

The dimension table is how you want to slice your pivot table (BI people will cry at this explanation), in our case we want a Gantt by tag, subsystem, wbs, drawing etc.

It is trivial to get a dimension table in Powerquery, select a column, remove the rest, and remove duplicate, the key should be unique

Here an example for tag, the rest is the same method.

 dimension

Link the data in the PowerPivot Data model

Load everything into the data model, and link using the common keys

A simple straightforward star schema

data_model

Add measures

Let’s add two basic measures here, forecast qty and forecast hours

measure_rem_qty

The beauty of the measure is that they automatically change, when you add new dimensions to the pivot table, in this case, the formula here is the same as using sum product in Excel (please google the difference between sum and sumx)

Generate the chart In Excel

The Gantt chart will be generated In Excel using Pivot Tables, with conditional formatting to simulate a Gantt chart, the end users can slice and dice as they wish, you can add many combination as you want, and trust me, people will ask for some combination that you never thought about before, the way a field supervisor want to see his Gantt, is not necessary the same as the planner expect a schedule to be organized,

A supervisor want to filter his Gantt by drawing number, go do that in P6?

gantt_chart

Just for fun, Construction Gantt chart by subsystem

gantt_chart_subsystem

Conclusion

Using PowerPivot as a reporting tool can offload a lot of pressure from P6, and keep the different stakeholders engaged with the schedule as they get customized views.

Keep P6 for what P6 is good at, critical path, date, spend that time on making the logic sounds, the duration that reflect reality and let reporting be done in a better suited tools.

Edit 27-04-2017 : if you don’t have the spread from P6 and all you have is activities start and finish, you can use this approach