Project management is at the heart of what makes a construction project flow. While it deals with the technical sides of budgeting and execution, it also requires a people component, where project managers have to work with the individual needs of the builders, stakeholders, and community.
There isn’t a great guide on construction project management methodologies… until now.
I reached out to eight experts and got their feedback on what makes construction project management work. Some of them have a construction management software background, some of them have a consulting background, some of them have a building background, and most of them have a mix of the above.
Without further ado: the ultimate review of construction project management methodologies. I encourage you to make use of the table of contents to find exactly what’s appropriate for your business.
- Waterfall, or Traditional Project Management
- Agile Construction Management
- Critical Chain
- Lean Construction Management
- Bonus: Construction Risk Management
- Bonus: Construction Work Breakdown Structure (WBS)
- Bonus: Construction Cost Estimating
Waterfall project management is the most common form of construction project management techniques. Alternatively known as traditional project management, this technique involves clear milestones between each task — there are set due dates, deliverables, and client expectations organized on a clear timeline. Waterfall takes a systematic approach; you can’t build a bathroom in a home without first building the home’s foundation. It can be summed up like this: if your project is sequential, consider traditional project management.
James Fisher, Jonas Construction
“Waterfall” is a term used most frequently in the IT world during software development, to describe a specific workflow process. It’s also known as “traditional” project management — and it’s widely used in the construction industry.
Much like an actual waterfall, the workflow process will move downhill towards completion; think of each stage or phase of completion as its own tier or level that the “water” or completion must completely flow over before dropping down to the next. For example, finding out what requirements you have for your building must be completed in its entirety before you can begin the design phase. The main tenant or defining feature of the waterfall methodology is that each phase must be complete prior to beginning any work on the next.
One of the main pros to the waterfall methodology is that it allows a team to focus the whole of their attention on each aspect allowing developers to ensure high quality development at each stage. It also helps prevent small details from being overlooked and can prevent compatibility issues later on in implementation.
This, however, can elongate the completion process, by preventing builders from moving ahead on certain items, while waiting for other independent ones to be finished. The waterfall methodology can also severely limit customer feedback and input throughout the completion process.
Agile construction management takes the flexibility of agile software development and applies it to construction. As I wrote over at About.com, because of construction’s sequential step-based nature, ought to be simple enough in practice, complexity can still creep in.
A contractor may need to use different materials for instance, because the ones specified by the architect are unavailable at that time. Access to a site or to resources may be blocked, adding to the problems. Construction tasks are then often handled using improvisation and as a result it becomes difficult to track project schedules and manage critical path activities. Agile construction management helps by:
- Breaking down the project delivery into smaller, more manageable parts that in this case are not necessarily available to be reordered, but that can be better managed and tracked to completion.
- Focusing on time management and regular, frequent reviews to improve project financial management, specifically in the areas of productivity and profitability.
- Opening the door to continual improvement by encouraging workers to team up and to give their input back to construction managers on how to do things better and faster.
James Fisher, Jonas Construction
At Jonas Construction Software we take an updated approach to the waterfall methodology known as the “agile” process. By compartmentalizing our development process, we are able to reduce the time to completion.
A great way to visualize this would be to think of a pool of water at the top of a hill, feeding several different waterfalls, each representing different aspects of a project, as one part finishes stage A in can move to stage B without having to wait for others aspects.
By using a multiple waterfall or “agile” method of development, we can be both active and reactive in our development methods, developing what our clients are asking for, as well as what we think they’ll need next; the whole while getting constant feedback to ensure a quality product.
The construction critical path method (CPM) is a tool that many project managers use, often with their construction management software, to help figure out the best steps to take to finish a job efficiently. This critical path method, otherwise known as critical path scheduling, is one of the most frequently used construction planning techniques. Critical chain, on the other hand, looks specifically at the longest chain considering task and resource dependencies.
Daniel Walsh, Exepron
Critical chain is defined as the longest chain considering task and resource dependencies.
This means that both the task and resources in a project are scheduled. It’s fundamentally different from the critical path that only considers task dependencies.
If a task dependency exists, a successor task can only start upon completion of the predecessor task, however this assumes that the required resources will be available.
Regrettably, this is seldom the case. This can be traced to ineffective scheduling of the resources in planning and the lack of accurate information in project execution. Critical chain recognizes the impact of variability in execution, providing metrics, dashboards, and actionable information, pinpointing precisely where action must be taken.
This is only possible because the critical chain, unlike the critical path, does not change in execution. Decisions and actions taken to protect the critical chain will always be valid. Leveraging the available information provided, assessing the impact variability is jeopardizing the contractual delivery date, is the key to bringing projects in on time and on budget.
Critical Chain methodology requires a more disciplined mindset in planning, scheduling and execution of your projects. Perhaps this can be more accurately described as challenging some of your long held beliefs on what practices lead to successful project management.
Critical chain methodology consists of two parts, one is technical, the recognition of the importance of resource dependencies while planning the project. And secondly, a willingness to challenge your current paradigms, embracing a new way of thinking. If you are committed to improving then you must accept that you must change. Otherwise the results you are experiencing today will be the same in the future.
Exepron is a state of art critical chain solution. Leveraging the newest technologies with power of the cloud, it is a user friendly and cost effective tool that will be up and running, providing value in a very short period of time. Informational dashboards provide real-time visibility of all the projects in a portfolio and with real-time dashboards that are designed to meet the needs of all levels of Management.
The cloud-based SaaS platform allows Exepron to scale with your project management demands allowing unlimited global collaboration with colleagues in real-time. We are confident the Exepron project management software solution will meet all your project management requirements for executives, project managers, and resource managers. Embedded intelligence, real time information, advanced risk management capabilities, extensive performance metrics are a few of many other tools that are available to the different levels of management.
Lean construction management is something that I’ve also written on before.
In order to increase flow on a construction site, lean construction emphasizes arranging the supply chain so there are no unnecessary breaks when working on production. Construction managers design the facility and the delivery process together—necessarily taking a top-down approach to evaluating and planning a project.
Instead of looking at a job microscopically to identify waste areas, they focus on improving the process of the entire project. And instead of relying on a calendar, construction managers balance pulls and pushes based on the demands of the project—doing away with the communication problems of centralized, far-off management.
All aspects of the project are monitored, measured, and improved upon, largely with the help of construction management software. Managers encourage face-to-face communication daily to eliminate communication problems. When figuring out the specifics of a job, they define value from the customer’s perspective and take an iterative approach to their work processes to continually eliminate waste.
Finally, all members of the construction team are equally accountable to the success or failure of the project—and receive a balanced share of the final project’s profits or liabilities.
Michael Sullivan, Lean Construction Expert, Touchplan
The biggest advantage to using lean construction management is reducing time and money spent on a project.
Lean project management is the means to save money through a reduction of waste and an increase of efficiency. It is the strategy by which we avoid making tradeoffs in time, cost, and quality. In using a lean project management style, we focus on the process used to create our project as much as we focus on the end product itself. By improving the process through which we finish a project, we are able to eliminate much of the time- and money-sucking inefficiencies that typically exist.
Lean construction management starts with identifying the task and the program value. The customer assigns value and we move forward, attempting to maximize their value as efficiently as possible. Knowing what outcome the customer wants allows us to map out the steps required to reach the customer’s goal.
We make sure that the work steps flow from one to another in a streamlined manner. Project planning is done backwards to make sure that goals will be met by the required due date. Lean encourages a continuous refinement of the planning process. Lean accomplishes this by making missed promises visible to everyone working on the project and by fixing those mistakes that are the biggest impediment to a smooth, reliable plan.
The first way is by avoiding work stoppages and delays through early identification of potential bottlenecks. The pull planning technique allows everyone to identify what they need to do their work and when they need it. Handoffs between trades/team members are clearly identified.
Second, we create the project plan by listening and incorporating the knowledge and experience of our trade contractors and other team leaders. Including these planners in our project management creates a culture of project ownership among team members. This team buy-in speeds up completion times and increases timeline accountability. Our hard working employees and trade contractors on the front line are our most important resource for identifying and fixing problems.
When we know where problems are likely to occur, we can plan ways to avoid those problems.
The hardest part about adopting a lean construction management style is that schedulers and project managers need to be comfortable with relinquishing their command and control power. It takes some adjustment to assume more of a facilitator role.
Touchplan is the best tool out there for moving lean construction management into the modern era. Traditional lean project planning involves trade crews writing tasks down on sticky notes and sequencing them on the wall. Project leaders then take a picture of the wall and enter the sequence into a spreadsheet.
Touchplan eliminates all the hassles of this process by allowing team members to simultaneously detail their individual tasks on tickets in a digital environment. Unlike the old way of planning where the schedule is stuck on a wall in a site trailer, plans are accessible by any member of the crew from anywhere through laptops or tablets. Touchplan allows for real-time updates of project status and immediate awareness of the long term effects of work delays.
I decided to dedicate a little more care to this subject because it’s so complicated. We have three experts weighing in. Let’s start with what risk management is.
Brad Harbaugh, VelocityEHS
First, let’s define risk for our purposes as the exposure to danger or the potential for a bad outcome.
Second, it’s important to recognize that, in the construction industry, risks come in a variety of flavors. For instance, there are health and safety risks, risks to the environment, operational risks, regulatory risks, and so on. So when we talk about risk management, what we’re really talking about are the steps a business can take to identify risks in the workplace and control them, or at least lessen the damage they can do to people and businesses should something go wrong.
In short, it’s about making visible the threat that already exists in the workplace and then taking steps to mitigate it.
Today, there are a number of tools and processes construction companies can use to reduce threats. Examples on the health and safety side of construction include job safety analysis, process hazard analysis, audits and inspections, and risk assessments.
Once a risk is identified, it can be abated following a system like the hierarchy of controls or other tools that not only help identify risks, but also help to rate and prioritize risks for abatement based on relative severity and likelihood of occurring. So again, risk management is the umbrella under which all of these activities occur. Managing risk is not just an EHS activity, it is fundamental to protecting investments and driving performance.
The construction industry faces a complex mix of EHS, operational, regulatory, financial, and other risks due to the nature and size of projects, the often large and evolving workforces that must be managed, and the quickly evolving job site and regulatory environment.
On a typical construction site you have numerous physical risks (e.g. slips, trips, and falls, crane safety, exposure to the elements, chemical exposure), but you also have a constant flow of workers and third-party contractors who need to be trained. Failure to train employees properly can lead to injuries and lost time, which can cause productivity losses and compliance issues (e.g. fines and work stoppages). Add to this strict deadlines, budget constraints, and external factors like skilled labor shortages, and the risks only become bigger and more burdensome to properly manage.
However, with the right system in place, managing risk becomes a less complicated task. Today’s EHS software solutions simplify the organization, deployment, tracking, and reporting of health, safety, environmental, compliance and other key area across worksites and throughout the org chart.
VelocityEHS helps companies in the construction industry go beyond regulatory requirements to create safe and productive worksites via its comprehensive EHS cloud solutions.
The VelocityEHS Platform includes modules for managing incidents, correcting actions, risk analysis, chemical management, training, audits and inspections, compliance management, and managing complex changes. The software is easy to use so employees are more likely to engage with it, and it’s inexpensive enough that it can be deployed throughout an organization to provide a true company-wide picture of EHS and sustainability.
This level of visibility helps ensure that all potential risks are being met and that nothing falls through the cracks. The VelocityEHS advantage is that it’s fast to implement (in as little as 2-4 weeks) and is backed by unparalleled customer support. By eliminating the day-to-day burdens associated with EHS and sustainability tasks, we help those in the construction industry focus on being more effective EHS leaders.
Ross Spivak, RES Consulting NYC, Inc
I work with risk management by managing expectations from the start. Using a three point estimate technique (best-case, most likely, worst-case, scenarios) to determine an appropriate course of action and the best possible likely outcome. With excellent communication, being open and honest at all times, and realizing that I might not be the smartest person in the room.
I also use software to help with risk management. I work with cloud-based project management software. With it, the owner can log in and see in real time where we are with RFI’s, submittals, shop drawings, updated drawings, and, most importantly, budget. This way we both can look at the same information at the same time and make smart decisions.
Ryan Hulland, Monman
As a project grows in size and complexity, managing it becomes exponentially more difficult. You have to set clear goals up front, and must understand the goals of the other parties.
Beyond that, there must be a system and a process in place to manage the project. The system needs to be powerful and able to provide deep insight to every aspect of the project, but it must be easy to use.
Large, complex projects create interesting situations: the team needs to communicate even more, but with a large team, communications can quickly become unmanageable.
Because there are many project management platforms, it can be challenging to work with them all. Everyone has their favorite. Sadly, many projects fall back on the basics: emails and spreadsheets.
We have to work with everyone’s comfort level, but we aren’t afraid to push the boundaries. If a vendor isn’t responding in time, politely call them out on it, and make it clear what needs to change. If the construction manager or owner can’t make a decision, let them know what is at stake and push for an answer.
It can be painful at first, but if you’re in this industry for your own benefit, and not the good of the entire team, you’re going to end up on the outside of that brand new building, looking in.
Whether it’s the risk of going over budget, late delivery or not meeting project requirements, none of those match the horror of what can happen if your team doesn’t communicate. If owners, designers, contractors, and vendors don’t communicate, the project WILL go sideways; the only question is, “How bad will it get?”
Tell everyone the project goals, and expect open lines of communications. Put your faith in the people you work with; they will amaze you every time!
Tiberiu Ghioca, RationalPlan
The best definition of WBS is the one given by the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK): “A deliverable-oriented hierarchical decomposition of the work to be executed by the project team.” More exactly, a hierarchical structure where each descending level represents an increasingly detailed definition of the project work.
In certain domains, and especially in construction, it is mandatory to have a well-defined and detailed project plan. But, to obtain that, you need to start from the project scope, and create a WBS, which is the central piece that needs to be presented to stakeholders or sponsors. They need to see what will be executed and not bother with how the work will be done.
A good WBS presents just the deliverables within the boundaries of the project scope. It does not include activities. A good project manager should leave listing activities to the Project Schedule. Bottom line: keep it simple!
After a WBS is structured correctly, a project schedule can be established. From each deliverable in the WBS the project manager with his team members can list the required activities to build each component. Time, resources, and cost are then allocated to each activity of the component after which a project schedule is generated and a schedule baseline is then set.
RationalPlan follows the PMBOK guidelines and even offers users an embedded project guide that takes them through the whole process of project planning. This is very useful! After the initial step where the project manager writes the project scope he is taken to the WBS step. Here he can create a hierarchical structure with just the names of the deliverables and with the possibility to add some notes for each deliverable. Nothing else! Remember: just keep it simple!
At the next step RationalPlan will automatically generate a project schedule and the project manager can continue to detail each deliverable by adding the list of activities, setting durations and creating dependencies.
Avidahn Levin, Avicado
The key to a good WBS, especially when it comes to managing it with software, is to agree as a project management team on the level of detail across all phases of your program. If your WBS has the same level of detail as your project schedule, budget codes, cash flow, etc., then it makes sure all teams collaborating on each work package have a very clear understanding of the status to cost, schedule, and EVM.
On paper, it seems easy to achieve this level of WBS synergy, however, when implementing software with my clients, this is often the most contentious topic, especially when the owners of the project have a say. It’s important to find a balance on the level of detail you are reporting on, but whatever you decide, consistency across all major project management components is by far the most effective. Make sure you are having these conversations early with your team, and with the project stakeholders, and you have configured your software to report consistently.
Mark Flanders, Co-construct
The foundation of any well-run construction project is a good estimate, but creating one is no simple task. It starts with detailed and accurate specifications.
Next, you build out the framework of your estimate making sure that you cover everything in the plans and specs, plus options or allowances for any choices your clients still need to make.
Finally, you populate the estimate with pricing you compile from various sources.
For some items you may use square foot pricing data from past projects, for others you may do a detailed takeoff and then get sticker pricing from a trusted supplier. For many items, you will have to gather and compare multiple subcontractor bids.
The trick is to keep all the documents you are juggling — the spec sheet, estimate, selection sheet, bid requests, proposal — in sync. This only gets more difficult once the project starts and you add change orders into the equation.
Co-construct simplifies this process with our fully integrated, single-entry estimating and project management system. Enter information once and it flows automatically through your estimate, specifications, selections, bid requests, proposal, change orders, budget and to and from QuickBooks. No double entry is required, saving you time and helping you avoid costly mistakes.
We bring all the aspects of successfully managing your construction projects together into one system—estimating, bidding, client selections, change orders, budgets, scheduling, subcontractor management, file sharing, job logs, and warranty. Co-construct also tracks and organizes all the communication for the project from your employees, subcontractors, and clients, so you never lose track of important information. One integrated, organized system means you can spend less time managing paperwork, run your projects more effectively, and make more money.
Regardless of if you’re just starting out in construction or in your 40th year in the industry, these experts have lots of little nuggets of advice to make any seasoned construction manager better at his or her job.
Was there something fundamental that we missed? What else should we have included? What construction management software has made project management easier for you? Let us know in the comments below!