Plan the Work and Work the Plan
A breakdown of today’s project management and software tools
From the canals providing irrigation and transport for Mesopotamia and the Indus to the massive pyramids of Egypt, the architectural marvels of Greece, the roads and aqueducts of Rome, the dikes and locks that tamed the flooding rivers of China, and the Gothic cathedrals of medieval Europe, the best way to judge any civilization’s achievements is to study its ability to manage large-scale projects. These projects would last for years, decades, lifetimes, or even centuries, often being successfully completed long after their initiators passed away. These were complicated undertakings, requiring sophisticated logistics, manpower allocation, scheduling, budgeting, and material deliveries. Everything from the beer used to pay Egyptian artisans to the tile used to roof a cathedral spire had to be planned for.
Prior to the modern age, there is no evidence of formal planning systems. Charts, graphs, organizational tables, and accounting methods are all inventions of Renaissance merchants and Enlightenment mathematicians. Prior to these innovations, the planning of large-scale engineering projects was often haphazard or followed traditional norms and rules of thumb for human and animal productivity. Often projects would lie half done or abandoned due to lack of funds, war, or a change in rulers—only to be restarted again and finally finished. The planning of these projects, like their actual engineering and construction, was often “by guess and by God.”
With modern mathematical tools, beginning with the Cartesian coordinate system that could track and represent objects and events in time and space, formal project management based on a logical progression of events of anticipated duration and cost became possible. Symbolic planning using charts, graphs, and tables represents a mental break with the past and was something even the greatest ancient savant would have trouble comprehending. With these new planning tools and concepts, organizational efficiency became possible with timely deliveries of materials and manpower allocations based on predictable schedules. For the first time, planners could project data and predict the completion of tasks with the same mathematical tools that were used to predict the trajectories of cannonballs and the movements of planets. But most of these tools remained unused until the 19th century when engineering managers began using handwritten tables and paper charts to schedule the trains delivering workers, steel, cement, stone, and machinery to construction sites. And that was the state of project management until the World Wars, the Cold War, and the Space Race demanded greater precision and speed. Formal planning systems such as PERT Charts, Gantt Charts, and Critical Path were used to plan moon missions and automobile production.
With the invention of the computer and the widespread use of personal computers, project managers had a tool that could apply their planning methods with precision, speed, and flexibility. Software developers met this need by producing programs that would utilize these methods—without the need for an eraser.
What Is Project Management?
Literally dozens of definitions of project management are available in literature and online. My favorite is this one, which is short and to the point: approach used to manage work with the constraints of time, cost, and performance targets. While a project may have only one goal (put a man on the moon, build a bridge, etc.), it always has the three objectives of schedule, budget, and quality.
Project management is a method and discipline that analyzes the tasks and the chronological and categorical relationships between these tasks, as well as the allocation of the resources (manpower, materials, fuel, tools, machinery, and—most importantly—time) required to complete individual tasks. The planning tools used by project managers are different forms of the same thing: dependency schedules of the tasks that make up the project. These schedules allow for the projection of both task and project completion dates, as well as the tracking of the progress of ongoing tasks. Rescheduling is performed as needed based on this feedback.
The planning process begins with the definition of project goals and objectives. The process needed to achieve these goals is broken down into distinct tasks. Each task is analyzed according to its required manpower and material resources. Given known standards of work productivity and potential job conditions, the duration of each task can be estimated. Similar tasks are grouped together into a work breakdown structure. Similarities can be by physical unit (wall construction, laying a foundation, installing plumbing fixtures, etc.) or by type of work (welding, carpentry, landscaping, etc.). The tasks are then chronologically organized by logical dependencies. For example, window installation cannot begin until after exterior walls have been constructed.
The lines connecting the end of one task and the start of a subsequent dependent task along with duration of each task form a project network. The one sequence of dependency lines and project durations that results in the longest overall time is the project’s critical path. The time difference between the critical path and other project paths and individual tasks results in float that allows for flexibility in the overall schedule. With the projected start and end date of each task and the project itself established, resource allocation can be performed. Resource quantities, delivery dates, and the unit costs of each resource can be combined to result in the overall project cost, as well as the cash flows throughout the duration of the project.
Project Management Tools
The term “project management” did not exist prior to the space race. Shortly after Sputnik, the US Navy created the PERT chart to track the development of its Polaris submarine-launched ballistic missile. PERT is an acronym that means program evaluation review technique. The PERT chart graphically illustrates the project tasks and their interrelationships by symbolically representing the tasks with “node” and showing their relationships with interconnecting lines with directional arrows known as “vectors” between the nodes. Tasks can be either “serial” (completed in a sequence with one dependent task starting after completion of the task, or tasks, immediately preceding it) or “concurrent” (tasks that occur independently and often simultaneously). The start and end dates of each task are called “events” with predecessor events being completed before the start of successor events. Each task is assigned anticipated completion times of various lengths for minimum (optimistic), maximum (pessimistic), most likely (best estimate based on project conditions), and expected (based on a weighted average of the other three) durations. The chronological relationships between the tasks are defined by lead time (the time required to complete predecessor events), lag time (the shortest duration between the end of a task and the start of a new one), and slack time (excess time given a task by concurrent tasks of greater duration that converge on the same successor task).
The main advantage of the PERT chart is that it clearly shows task dependencies. But the resultant chart may appear difficult to interpret, a complex spaghetti web of nodes and vectors. PERT emphasizes the durations of individual events instead of their start and completion dates. Yet it makes it possible to schedule the entire duration of the project without needing to know the durations of each individual task. In fact, the PERT chart makes it easy to insert additional tasks and subtasks into the overall project planning framework. It remains the method of choice for research and development projects where budget and cost are not as important as time and schedule, which includes almost any one-of-a-kind, first-time project. The network also makes it easy to spot the project’s critical path (see below).
Often used in conjunction with PERT is the Gantt chart. Invented by American engineer Henry Gantt in 1917, the Gantt chart is a series of horizontal bars representing individual tasks whose length represents the duration of each task. The bars are staggered or stepped, each occupying its own horizontal row as its length extends across columns representing time. If a Gantt chart was an x-y coordinate system, time would be the x axis and individual tasks would make up the y axis. Like PERT, Gantt has dependent and concurrent tasks. The bar of a dependent successor task will not begin until after the end of its predecessor task(s). Tasks are arranged sequentially along the left-hand side of the chart, with earlier tasks occupying the rows near the top of the chart and the final tasks at the bottom. Only one task may occupy a row.
Each column represents a given period of time. Typically this is a five-day or six-day workweek. At the top of each column is a calendar date designating the last day of the column’s time period. The current date is usually represented on Gantt chart software as a bold vertical line (usually called the “time now” line) that moves to the right with each new day of the schedule. As it moves, those portions of the horizontal bars representing completed or ongoing tasks are colored a darker shade to signify the portion that has been completed. The task bars can be annotated projected start and finish dates. Given the overall schedule and the number and duration of dependent tasks, each task may have optimistic early-start and early-finish dates, as well as pessimistic late-start and late-finish dates. Dependent task bars that are physically separated by one or more rows on the Gantt chart can have their connectivity represented by an arrow extending from the end (right side) of the predecessor task bar to the beginning (left side) of the successor task. Grouping like tasks together in adjacent rows allows the Gantt chart to easily display the project’s work breakdown structure. This emphasis on task bars instead of individual task nodes allows the Gantt chart to clearly illustrate project status at a glance, which is why the Gantt chart is very useful for tracking routine, regular work projects instead of unique, first-time research and development efforts. Less clear on a Gantt chart are task relationships. These are the opposites of the strengths and weaknesses of the PERT chart, and are the reason why both types of charts are often used to track the progress of the same project.
Most project plans are broken down by grouping similar tasks together in a work breakdown structure (WBS). The WBS illustrates the scope of a project but does not describe the project plan itself. It provides reductionism snapshots of parts of the project, not a holistic view of the entire project. This is considered a key project management tool and is mandatory for all federal government work projects. The WBS is a very detailed and thorough hierarchical structure of the resources and tasks required to complete a project. How similar tasks are organized and grouped together depend on a variety of factors. Tasks can be organized by job skill (welding, excavation, surveying, etc.), types of materials (concrete form work, asphalt paving, plumbing fixtures, etc.), project locations (parking lot, shopping center building, access roads), project systems (utilities, structural, transportation), and others.
Akin to the WBS is resource allocation. As the WBS breaks down the overall project, resource allocation analyzes the material, financial, equipment, and manpower needs of each task. Every task from earthmoving to painting to utility hookups and more have established manpower productivity standards based on previous similar work with similar equipment, along with a bill of materials for equipment fuel, parts, and building materials that go into the construction effort. Each of these will have costs assigned to it either as dollar-per-hour wages plus per-diem costs for workers, the cost per gallon of fuel, or the cost per foot (or square yard, or ton, etc.) of materials delivered to the job site. Each material item must be delivered to the site before the start of the task that will use the material (or usually a few days before to allow for onsite quality inspection of the material before its use). Allowance must be made for manufacturing, shipping, and transport of the material to the site. This is usually referred to as delivery lead time, and it requires that the material be ordered and purchased well before it arrives onsite. The cumulative purchases and disbursements of funds for wages and other costs allow for the estimate of payout cash flows for the duration of the project, usually on a dollars-per-workweek basis.
About the same time that the US Navy was developing the PERT chart, DuPont Corp. and Remington Rand Corp. were developing critical path methodology (CPM) for the private sector. CPM is applicable to all types of project planning and requires a list of all tasks and their durations and the network dependencies between the tasks. Once the projected starting dates of each activity are determined, the path through the project tasks that results in the longest duration can be determined. This is also the minimum duration of the project as a whole and is referred to as the “critical” path. A project can have more than one critical path. All other paths take less time, and the difference in duration between them and the critical path is called “float.” If the overall duration of the project is to be shortened, the duration of the tasks along the critical path has to be reduced. If a reduction in the duration of the current critical path is greater than the float of another path, then that previously shorter path becomes the new critical path.
An outgrowth of critical path is critical chain project management (CCPM). Invented by Eliyahu Goldratt in 1997, applications of CCPM have been found to significantly reduce project costs and durations compared to PERT or CPM. Users of CCPM have reported meeting their duration and budget goals 95% of the time. Unlike other project planning tools, CCPM examines implicit resource dependencies that don’t normally appear on a planning chart but can seriously impact the successful completion of a project, while not emphasizing the optimum possible solution. The first is important since the logistical chain that the tasks are dependent on is often more important than the actual work done for the task. The second is unimportant because it is impossible to accurately determine what the optimum is since the inherent uncertainty in predicting task durations is actually larger than the difference between theoretical optimum and sufficient solutions. To take into account these irreducible uncertainties, CCPM relies on duration buffers that are normally assumed to be part of the tasks themselves.
The most recent addition to the project manager’s arsenal is extreme project management (XPM). XPM addresses the potential chaos of huge, very complicated projects by embracing and utilizing that chaos. XPM does not utilize fixed projections and goals but instead relies on elastic, ad hoc planning. This requires the project team to be flexible and quick on their feet. Whereas all other planning methods resemble an orchestra working together in harmony to complete a planned symphony, XPM project teams resemble jazz riffs where the tempo and melody can change quickly. XPM teams are non-hierarchical with individual team members given the authority to alter the direction of the project and the relationships between its tasks. XPM is best suited for projects that result in the development of non-physical products and goals, such as advanced software.
Project Management Software
Like all software, project management software comes in several varieties: proprietary desktop applications, proprietary Web-based applications, and freeware (free software either downloaded from the Internet or available for use for free at the developer’s Web site). All of these provide graphical displays and automated updates of PERT charts, Gantt charts, critical paths, and other project management tools. What distinguishes them is their level of sophistication, user interfaces, and integration of project team members.
Among the proprietary desktop applications for managing construction and engineering projects is Primavera Contractor published by Primavera Systems Inc. of Bala Cynwyd, PA. Founded in 1983, Primavera has been developing project management software solutions, built specifically for the construction and engineering industries, for over 20 years. Primavera offers desktop solutions, including Primavera Contractor, Primavera SureTrak Project Manager, P3, and a companywide solution simply called Primavera for visibility into multiple projects across an organization.
Primavera comprises modules that are customizable by user role. For example, cost management functionality helps cost managers predict cash flows and estimate overall project costs. Additional role-based functionality is available for schedulers, project managers, project control managers, and other members of a project team. The greatest benefit of this system is that it enables each member of a project team, regardless of geography or project role, to update and access critical information needed to move projects forward. This interconnectivity between regional and site programs and a centrally located master schedule are critical if team members are to manage change while keeping one or many projects on schedule and budget. For example, field managers use Primavera to track and manage projects while away from their office.
Uniquely, Primavera offers role-based “dashboards” that customize view screens for each participant in the project management process. For example, project managers get simplified communication capabilities that allow them to direct and oversee a project without additional paperwork and reports—everything is done from one centralized system. Project managers are also given access to Web-based project management functions such as WBS, issue and risk management functions that allow for the examination of various scenarios, resource scheduling and allocation, customized project work spaces (for contracts, e-mail threads, etc.), the ability to track and audit project document changes, and detailed real-time reporting of expenses and budgets.
For those in the trenches working the project tasks, such as field superintendents, Primavera provides the daily status of construction activities, reviews of project performance (as measured by the contractor work, budget, and schedule), and visual displays of current site photos recording the work as it is being accomplished. Primavera also integrates reports with such project partners as clients, contractors, and engineers. Engineers get a centralized database that stores drawings, details, and plans. Contractors get to highlight their progress, identify next month’s tasks, and manage change orders. Clients can also easily access project data to review progress, make decisions, and address potential problems.
Originally developed by an external contractor that was later acquired by Microsoft, Microsoft Project (MSP) for Windows is the company’s entry into the field of project management software. MSP creates critical paths and allows for critical chain project management with third-party add-on modules. With critical paths illustrated on Gantt charts, resources can be allocated and leveled to achieve budget optimization by eliminating unnecessary buildups of material inventories while avoiding material delivery shortfalls. The program allows for different views and levels of access to project data for differing classes of users. With Web Access, MSP is accessible to designated users via the Internet. By combining task durations with resource utilization rates for each task, MSP allows for accurate estimations of costs at the task, project, and resource pool (whose data can be used by multiple projects). Being Windows compatible, MPS easily integrates into other Microsoft office management software (Word, Excel, PowerPoint, etc.).
The latest, MSP 2003, comes in two software packages: Project Standard 2003 and Enterprise Project Management (EPM) solutions. As its name suggests, Project Standard is the MSP standard project management system. It allows for quick and accurate project setup utilizing resource assignments, guided planning, and management; pre-written planning templates; existing data that can be customized to a particular project; and dynamic scheduling. While assigning resources, Project Standard alerts the manager to resource conflicts such as the simultaneous scheduling of key personnel or equipment. Guided planning provides an internal tutorial that directs the planner to the optimum planning configuration. The ability to modify existing data from past projects and standardized planning templates saves considerable time in the planning process. Dynamic scheduling allows a project manager to view and assess different task dependencies and planning assumptions, allowing for a quick determination of the optimum overall plan. EPM, on the other hand, is designed for entrepreneurial endeavors such as bringing a new product to market. As such, EPM emphasizes communication between development teams to reduce the time-to-market duration.
Phoenix Project Manager (PPM), developed by Poulsen Construction Management Inc., is a Windows-compatible critical path planning tool. Its interface utilizes network diagram tools, Gantt charts, and precedence diagrams. With the ability to import project plans from both MSP and P3, Phoenix saves project plans in single project files. It supports multiple project layouts, allowing for snapshot comparisons with past projects at similar stages of development. Its filter system allows for the isolated viewing and evaluation of single tasks or groups of tasks (along with their costs) organized by any coding format, including WBS activity codes. It allows for customized configurations of the user interface, allowing for personalized project planning and accurate report preparation with a built-in spell checker and critical path evaluator.
Construction Simulator (CONSIM) is one of the few project management software systems specifically designed for the management of construction projects. Its special feature is its ability to let the project manager track the progress of his construction effort with a 3D interface environment. Utilizing CADD designs for the building, road, bridge, or earthwork project being constructed, the 3D interface actually shows the reviewer which elements have been constructed while designating currently constructed elements in a flashing style. It can also graphically represent the complete percentage of a particular task (if 75% of a foundation has been excavated, the display shows only 75% of the excavation). The current direction of a construction activity’s progress can be shown graphically by animations that indicate the direction of roadway development, wall construction, sewer pipe installation, etc. Physical objects being constructed can be displayed in wire frame, hidden line, and shaded surface formats. CONSIM represents a unique departure from standard chart and table planning tools.
Not a project planning tool per se, Mind Manager published by the MindJet Corp. graphically displays “mind maps.” A mind map is a way of graphically illustrating not just project tasks but brainstorms, words, and ideas. It serves as a graphical aide to decision making as well as project planning. MindJet’s latest version is Mind Manger Pro 6. As a project planning tool, it establishes cope, assigns resources, and identifies issues and risks. Not only can it be used to plan a project, it is useful for the planning process itself. It also diagrams the interactions of individuals and groups during the planning process. All of these features make Mind Manager suitable for use in extreme program management.
Planisware’s software package OPX2 is specifically designed for research and development projects as well as new product development. As a standard project planning tool, OPX2 is compatible with MSP and allows for file sharing between the two programs. Since it is a Web-based application, the user can access all the project files from a Web browser. Its work-flow engine allows for simple and accurate allocation of resources and resource leveling. The module can be customized, allowing for resource tracking by organization, individual, function, or task. Project information is integrated from the project level up to the portfolio level. This allows for real-time reviews and “what if” analyses of multiple scenarios.
SharpeSoft produces two programs for contractors: the Estimator estimating software and the Field Reporter project management software. The SharpeSoft Estimator is designed to be a complete estimating and bidding solution for contractors. Its Item Master subprogram is the backbone of the system, allowing estimators to store entire bid-items, not just traditional assemblies or crews, for future use. Item Master saves production rates and quantities that are automatically prorated to the new bid-item quantity, eliminating the need to rebuild each bid-item for any new job.
The program also uses Labor Areas, which allow multiple labor rates that can be selected by the type of job, such as open-shop, prevailing wage areas, or union areas. The subcontractor and material comparison sheets provide the user with a way to compare quotes from subcontractors or material suppliers and select one of these vendors to be used in the bid. These comparison sheets take into account not only the initial quote but also any last-minute cuts and adds, or any exclusions that might add additional costs. A specialized sub-program, Trench Profiler, is used by underground utility contractors, automatically calculating fill quantities for any trench configuration.
Estimator also includes features such as automated haul calculations, multiple equipment rates, an equipment rate calculator, pre-built assemblies, pre-built crews, “what if” scenarios, grouped bid-items, an audit trail, a rounding sheet, a close-out/summary sheet, MS Project and Primavera exports, accounting system exports, and multiple reporting options.
The Field Reporter utilizes the initial estimate created in Estimator as the budget for awarded jobs. Field Reporter will track daily progress and job costs. This gives the contractor daily feedback on the actual cost versus the original estimate, allowing immediate correction of any cost overruns. Field Reporter will also track daily time and materials for change orders and provide multiple foreman/project performance reports.
Author's Bio: Daniel P. Duffy, PE, writes frequently on the topics of landfills and the environment.