Sunday, June 19, 2011

Spreadsheets, Lists, and Words: Data in the Project Management Process

Consider a typical project process:

You start by listing your requirements in an e-mail or Word, and then you send them to your engineering contractor or department. This is the project’s Scope of Work, also known as the Requirements.

The design work, if needed, is done in a digital environment that is appropriate for the project. For example, steel structure design, landscape design, software design, or railroad design are each done in software packages that are dedicated to those processes. The result of the design process is a product (such as a building, garden, or software solution) that needs to be built using people’s time (resources), together with equipment (such as cranes, welding machines, ditching machines, computers) and materials (such as steel, mulch). The Project Estimate is the result of determining the amount of resources, equipment and materials that will be required to complete the project. The most common and intuitive way for performing the estimate is by using a spreadsheet tool such as Excel.

If the estimated cost of the project is acceptable, the project proceeds and funding is allocated to ensure that it can progress. A Project Budget is developed based on the work breakdown structure (WBS). The WBS ensures that the project has a consistent baseline for budgeting costs for specific WBS accounts and provides a tracking tool as the work progresses through the contracting, execution and start-up processes. Again, as with Estimating, the Budgeting process is often done in a spreadsheet.

The scope of work is now ready to be parceled into work packages that are designed for bidding by contractors that will complete the building or construction. These packages may be functional (electrical, HVAC), discipline (civil, structural, mechanical), or physical (pipeline spreads, terminals, pump-stations).  They must be logical for the project being managed. Most projects are split into work packages by adding a tab for each work package to a spreadsheet. The process for work package creation is Project Planning. As details are added to each work package, the tabs begin to be different from each other. The project planner consolidates the plan on to a summary tab using a set of pretty complex tab-straddling formulas.

One or more work package plans are configured into contract packages. These contract packages include specification and terms and conditions for executing the contract. Contracting companies that are interested in doing the work are vetted and placed on an Approved Bidders List. Approved Bidders are issued contract packages along with a deadline for their bids to be received. The bids that are returned are reviewed and analyzed and a winning bidder is selected for each contract. Some bid clarification takes place, following which, the contractor and the owner (your company) sign a contract that awards the work to the contractor. The contract becomes the guiding baseline for tracking the execution of the work to completion. Much of the contract execution work is modeled in Excel spreadsheets. These complex spreadsheets are used for daily tracking of progress, recording of time spent (incurred costs), reporting to field management, reporting to project management and tracking changes.

During the execution of the work, the contractor provides (daily, weekly, bi-weekly or monthly) a pro-forma invoice that includes incurred costs for the period. The owner (you) validates this invoice and pays the contractor in a timely manner as specified by the contract’s terms. This is a manual process. The invoices are entered into an accounts payable system. Typically this resides within a larger ERP or Accounting system.

Projects are typically scheduled using a scheduling tool such as Primavera or MS Project. This means that WBS-related data and work packages must be exported or re-entered into these tools from their source in spreadsheets.

When the project’s contracts are complete, the project team, in collaboration with the customer’s staff, performs a process that is called, predictably, different things in different industries; Commissioning, Hand-over, Go Live are some of the terms in various industries.

Smart companies then perform another vital step––they conduct an audit of the project in order to determine how the project team performed against how they had expected to perform. Did they do better or worse? More importantly, they examine the root causes of the successes or failures. This process can use the contractors, contract packages, the work packages, WBS or assets as a basis for their comparisons and analyses. As all of the data thus far has been in Excel, it is not unusual for this process to link of those existing spreadsheets.

As you can see a project’s scope evolves quickly from a relatively simple set of requirements into  complex and interwoven data sets that are required in order to ensure that the project completes safely on time and under budget with no surprises. You can see that the process is currently an intricate one that requires significant spreadsheeting, scheduling, and communication skills in order to keep things on track.

Experience has shown that the use of an integrated project management solution, that can handle a variety of different project types and complexities, is an effective way to ensure that projects will not be left with a need for armies of staff to maintain complex spreadsheets and schedules. Instead the integrated system would enable fewer people to leverage their data non-redundantly and faster than is possible with the prevailing approach.

This is the basis for the integrated project solutions that TeamWork Group (TWG) provides for managing projects in a number of different contexts and industries. Future posts will discuss how TWG handles each of the business needs required in a project management process.

Note: All referenced products and product names are the property of their respective owners. These names are used here for clarity of the discussion.

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