The importance of data - sweat the small stuff on the big stuff

3 min read

Lee McDonagh, Operations Director Project Controls, talks about why major projects and programmes should always have a Project Management Office (PMO) in place and why you should always sweat the small stuff.

Before diving into the detail, it’s important to explain what a Project Management Office (PMO) is. A PMO is a team that sets, maintains and embeds standards across an organisation or project. The team ensure best practices, project status and direction, all in one place.

In my world of Project Controls and running a PMO, there is one thing that all successful projects have in common – all elements of control have worked in harmony with each other like cogs turning in a small intricate space, enabling the smooth running of a Project Delivery Management System.

The Project Delivery Management System creates one version of the truth, bringing together the project’s governance, process, people, tools and reports on how they best work together. This is a challenging thing to get right. Often on a project the general consensus is that a lot of these ‘elements of control’ are too simple to consider  people think that they will ‘just happen’ because it’s assumed that the contract admin is all in place and a cost management system is easy to use for example.

From my experience of working in the UK infrastructure sector for the last 25 years from digging trenches under the M25 to some of the largest infrastructure programmes in the UK, too often people think that Project Controls 'stuff' is too simple and will just magically happen.

But the effort that goes in to setting up the measurement and reporting is usually paid back in terms of on-site productivity. When Mace helped to deliver the extension of Heathrow's Terminal 1, site progress data was collected weekly and displayed right across the project so everyone knew how the project was performing. This approach was repeated for the London 2012 Aquatics Centre. Weekly reporting of material installed on site was used to focus on issues early to make sure that progress could be maintained.

Advances in technology and systems today mean that on any project the team should now be looking at daily measurement and reporting, enabling our clients to benefit from a production-style approach to delivering projects, resulting in project teams that are leaner and more efficient.

You have to be disciplined and collect data at the right time of a project’s life cycle – doing more than you think you need to. I think people often ask the wrong questions. When a project goes well, people always ask why project controls were in place – but not why did the project go so well in the first place?

A good example of this is Health and Safety. Measuring data doesn’t stop accidents happening, but once you start recording the data, the amount of accidents do go down. This is because people are being held to account and it's  human nature to want to do well in a test or assessment. An added advantage is that the data can be analysed for trends, so lessons can be learnt, mistakes recorded and performance improved. 

To keep control of a project you have to take a lot of data in, check if anything needs to happen any faster or better and then react to make changes. It’s similar to smart motorway detectors on the road checking numbers of cars and speed – working out the capacity of vehicles and managing the speed limits to get a certain number of cars through, as well as predicting journey times. It’s important to remember that we cannot predict what is going to go wrong, we need to measure a broad spectrum of indicators and be ready to react to what they are telling us.  

We also need repeatable data in the simplest form – collecting all the information to the right people at the right time to make proper comparisons and reduce any guess work. The reports should then be able to be drilled down by functions, across all systems and read quickly and easily. If this data is structured well, correlations can be identified and potentially cause and effect also seen.

This allows better decisions and interventions to be taken. All the data in the world won’t help unless you have an experienced and proactive team reviewing it. Mace has experts that can identify problems early on and know how to resolve them.

This allows better decisions and interventions to be taken. An example of this was on the Olympics Aquatics Centre when we found we were installing roughly 80% of the pipework planned for a number of weeks that was costing approximately 20% more than planned. When looking at the labour on-site, the right number of resources were being utilised, however, when looking at the detail, the pipe fitters were at the workface for eight hours a day when the plan was for a 10 hour shift. Only 80% of the available time was being used.

From this we were able to identify we either needed more pipe fitters or the same number of pipe fitters needed to work extended shifts, allowing the time to be recovered and the programme to be met. This was only possible because we were measuring all the relevant data; meters of pipe fitted, earned value, actual cost, labour on site and hours worked; and all the data could be directly compared easily.

The benefits of integrated data for a running PMO means predictable delivery which in turn leads to cost savings and a reduction of overhead cost. A mature PMO allows lower project costs while achieving better delivery, quality and fewer errors in production, a leaner organisation and a faster time to market.

Having confidence in the data means that the client and contractor, consultant and or delivery partner can spend more of their time proactively dealing with issues rather than questioning programme status.
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