This is the third in a series of articles based on the authors’ 70 years of combined project engineering and project management experience. Part 1 covered the steps to choosing a competent contractor. Part 2 discussed negotiating a useful contract. This article will cover construction management.
After the owner awards the construction contract, the project manager must closely monitor construction on site to ensure project success. As the owner’s representative, the project manager’s presence on the site helps to enforce contract provisions and maintain standards.
From contractor mobilization to completion of final cleanup and demobilization, the project manager’s focus determines the level of contractor attention. If the project manager fails to focus on quality control, safety or environmental compliance details, the contractor’s pursuit of high productivity and cost containment can erode commitment on these and other important project objectives.
In addition to quality and safety, completing projects on schedule is crucial. During construction, a project requires consistent outlays of money with little or no corresponding ability to generate income or utility. A project with a positive return on investment can turn negative if work takes significantly longer to complete than planned and/or incurs significant cost overruns. This can make the project financially dead-on-arrival.
One of the most common reasons why projects finish late is lower than anticipated labor productivity. In the case of time-and-materials construction contracts, the contractor has little, if any financial incentive to push for high labor productivity, as with fixed-price contracting. By contrast, the project manager always has an interest in maintaining high labor productivity since it is a key component to finishing on schedule.
Many factors can negatively influence labor productivity. If the project requires union labor, the contractor’s management and administration of the union will be critical to completing the project on time. In areas with strong unions, the project manager should never underestimate the importance of maintaining a positive contractor/union relationship. Other factors such as a congested project site, remote project location or extreme weather conditions can also negatively affect labor productivity. These factors should be addressed or accounted for.
The project manager must do everything possible to foster high worker morale and commitment. Construction offers more than its share of hard, tedious, tiring, dangerous and un-glamorous tasks. The project manager and contractors should work together to devise ways to demonstrate the owner’s appreciation for the workforce’s dedication to performing safe and high-quality work. Occasional lunches catered by the project manager on behalf of the owner and distribution of project shirts, hats or jackets as a token of appreciation for meeting projector safety milestones can help sustain workers’ morale.
It is the contractor’s responsibility to manage all of his or her workers and subcontractors, including disciplining or firing individual workers who violate site rules. The project manager should support the contractor in these matters and even may have to intervene and require removal of a contractor’s or subcontractor’s personnel from the site for serious cases such as drugs, alcohol or firearm possession; or for unsafe or disruptive behavior.
Scope creep is one of the most common reasons for project delays and cost overruns. As construction progresses, the project manager may become aware of items overlooked in the initial design that seem desirable to include now. Required field changes to add new details or reconcile unforeseen conflicts or incompatibilities with the initial design often prove more expensive than had they been included in the original scope. Such changes will slow construction progress.
It’s better to find these deficiencies or conflicts early, so it’s crucial for the project manager to make a thorough review of the contractor’s drawings, specifications and procurement documents. Any problems found before they are—literally—set in concrete will provide significant savings in time and money.
A detailed project schedule is required for monitoring actual work progress. A project schedule can aid in understanding if task completion rates are sufficient to result in on-time project completion. All significant development, design, permitting and construction tasks must be included and tracked on the project schedule. A review of the detailed construction schedule should be made by the project manager and the relevant contractors. This will help ensure that all required contract scope items are included in the schedule. Without task durations and task logic-flow correctly spelled out in the schedule, fewer tasks will be started and completed on time.
Frequent schedule review meetings between the project manager and contractors to compare actual progress against the project schedule are essential for project tracking. Such meetings should include a look-ahead for upcoming activities to ensure that all materials and any special provisions will be available on-site to support each task. A project manager who sets an example by being schedule-focused and consistently forward-looking will help contractors stay on track.
Unforeseen delays can result from the theft of materials, tools or equipment from the project site. Unfortunately, this can be a common occurrence. If full-time or night security guard services are deemed appropriate, the security service should be in place as soon as the first valuable item or equipment arrives at the site.
Detailed plans for emergency response and medical evacuation need to be agreed upon and tested. It is worthwhile for the project manager and contractor to make contact with local law enforcement, fire department, and city or county road departments to exchange contact information and to inform them what project work will be on-going in their area. Detailed plans for emergency response and medical evacuation need to be agreed upon and tested as soon as contractors mobilize.
A larger project will likely get the attention of government safety and environmental regulation enforcement agencies. The project manager should help to focus the contractor on the necessity to be ready for any inspection visits from the local fire marshal, occupational health, and safety inspectors, environmental regulators or code enforcement inspectors.
The project manager and any personnel under his or her charge should contribute positively to the site safety culture. All those on the site should be familiar with relevant regulations and wear all specified contractor-required personnel safety gear. The project manager and all supervisory personnel need to encourage and remind workers to remember their safety glasses, boots, fall protection, excavation shoring, confined space permits, lock-out-tag-out procedure details and all other required safety gears and safety procedures. It is essential to promote a worksite culture where everyone looks out for the safety of others and feels free to voice safety concerns.
The One Percent
As the project approaches completion, the project manager must focus attention on the final one percent of remaining activities and any lingering punch list or open items. Identifying these final completion items and completing them prior to contractor demobilization and final payment is always a challenge.
Maintaining a rational basis for resolving disputes between the project manager and each contractor is crucial. Current project negotiations will go better if both the project manager and the contractor remain engaged and interested in partnering on potential future projects.
The project manager owns the success or failure of a project. In even a highly complex undertaking, however, one person can make a difference. If you are the project manager, you need to be that person. Keys to success include planning, commitment, dedication and a calm and rational manner.
The project manager is the person most responsible for driving a project to on-time completion. However, even while striving to attain project goals, there is a constant need to remain diplomatic. Being tyrannical and alienating partners, peers or subordinates is a poor strategy.
At all times but particularly during periods of conflicts and setbacks, the project manager must remain upbeat and optimistic so others will be encouraged to maintain their professional attitude. Fostering relationships by emphasizing competency, honesty, integrity and calm, rational problem solving will positively influence a project’s outcome.
Dan Hebert, PE, and Kevin Fullerton, PE (Originally published by IHS)