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Why Spend Time With Project Controls?

Tom Jodeit
Published Feb 1, 2024

Project success is never a sure thing. From schedule delays to miscommunication with stakeholders, there’s a lot that can derail even the simplest project. Because of the complexity behind every build, it’s important to spend time nailing down your project controls. Getting these details right can go a long way in not only ensuring a successful handover today, but facilitating smoother projects tomorrow. 

Here’s a quick overview of why you shouldn’t ignore project controls in construction:

Key Takeaways

  • Project controls are an extension of your project management plan. They outline the people, processes, and documentation needed to plan, manage, and monitor a project from beginning to end.
  • While project controls are important in breaking down silos and avoiding potential litigation, they also provide invaluable data that can inform future jobs.
  • At the end of the day, project controls are everyone’s responsibility. Empowering your team and project stakeholders with actionable insights can give them a sense of ownership over their contributions and incentivize them to collect more data.  

What are Project Controls in Construction?

In a previous blog, we covered how project management plans help you see beyond the four corners of your construction documents and map out how a job will progress. Beyond that, project controls are all of the tools and processes you’ll need to implement good project planning. From the reports you’re using to your change management processes, project controls allow you to leverage all the resources you as a project manager to manage your iron triangle and make better decisions on and off the job site. 

You can also look at project controls as simply good record-keeping and stakeholder communication on project status – both upstream and downstream. When executed well, these practices tie every project element together, ultimately helping you deliver on design intent while staying on schedule and budget. 

An Overview of Common Project Controls

While this isn’t an exhaustive list of project control processes by any means, these are the most common project control elements you’ll want to spend time on.

Cost Control Management

Transforming the original estimate into a clear, working budget is one of the most common tools at your disposal within cost management. And on top of your project budget, you’ll also integrate cost forecasting to anticipate profitability and prevent cost overruns.

Beyond internal tracking, project cost management also involves tracking subcontracts, change orders, and invoices to make sure you’ve got a healthy upstream and downstream cash flow. Budget variances will reveal how accurate your cost estimating was and should suggest some areas where you might need to tighten up on your spending.

Change Control

When it comes to change order management specifically, keeping a change order log is a must. These logs should include both formalized change orders, along with any observations, emails, or other documentation that could potentially indicate an incoming change order or deviations to the scope. A good change order log will help your team capture any additional cost and keep important dates in view for any notice provisions while also helping to account for any negative impacts to your schedule and project timeline. Careful consideration by project team members should go into the decision-making on changes to avoid too much scope creep during project execution.

Schedule Management

A thorough analysis of the sequence of work and the web of dependencies is a helpful practice of any project team, but even the best-laid plans change. As opposed to trying to create a super detailed schedule it’s generally a good idea to schedule based on key milestones to allow for some flexibility among the trades. Delays because of weather or material lead times can quickly cause a project closure and derail a schedule that is too detailed and ultimately work against the goal of tracking project progress. 

Good project schedule management means setting milestone targets but also staying adaptable throughout the life of a project. For example, we recommend working with the trades to build out 2-3 week look ahead schedules. Creating these can help you get ahead of what’s coming next, and ensure everyone has what they need to keep the job moving along. On top of that, a work breakdown structure (WBS) can help you segment projects into more manageable work packages, allowing you to pinpoint exactly what needs to be done, what materials you need, who needs to be involved and when each task should be completed to hit those key milestones.

👉🏼 Check out our guide on creating schedules that build profitable projects.

Another good scheduling tool is pull planning – a practice where you get input from the people who are actually doing the work on the job site. Their input can help inform dependencies and duration of tasks and will make it easier to avoid blind spots. This all ties back into the role of good downstream and upstream communication we mentioned earlier. While leadership may be responsible for setting up the initial schedule and milestones, the trades should ultimately inform how these milestones will be hit.

One last note on schedule management: Especially if your schedule is very detailed, it’s a good idea to pause and retool it to create a recovery schedule in case something goes off track. Instead of thinking of a recovery schedule as a plan B, the goal of a recovery plan is to get you back to plan A. This recovery schedule might involve resource management tactics like offering overtime hours, or making use of more readily available resources if the planned resources are in short supply. 

Quality Control

Good quality control starts with your drawings and specs, and submittals play an important role here. Put simply, submittals are requests for trades to submit documentation to prove their understanding of the project scope outlined in the drawings and specs. Along with making sure everyone is on the same page, submittals are a great way to encourage collaboration both up and down the line. Best practice is to create a submittal register at the beginning of a job where you’ll go through all of the drawings and specs to see all of the different products that are needed to complete the job. Once you’ve drafted this, you’ll then ask subcontractors to submit for any of their deliverables for the design team to review. This might include product data sheets, and shop drawings and samples.

Another element of quality control is RFIs. Anytime there is a conflict in the drawing or simply not enough information, you can submit a request for information. It’s important to note that RFIs are a more formal process, which means that on the day-to-day level, there needs to be a more informal flow of information between you and the architect. Ideally, an RFI is just the documentation to change or clarify the record. 

👉 Check out our guide to writing successful construction RFIs.

Punch lists are also a big piece of quality control, with the goal being to avoid things on the list. Both building mockups and bringing in the end user of the space/building via augmented/virtual reality can be helpful in this regard – especially if you’re working on a project where you’re building the same space multiple times. Regular walkthroughs and photos to review completed work prior to inviting a more formal review by the architect or the authorities having jurisdiction can save a lot of headaches.

In the end, some of the best advice we can give is to stay open and communicative with the design team and try to get ahead of potential clashes upfront by using constructability review checklists on drawings. Think of it this way: go heavy on quality control during design to ease the burden of quality assurance in the field.

Risk Management

Just as it sounds like, risk management means thinking through all possible risks well in advance and making an action plan to address them. Some of the most common risks on the job include weather delays, labor or materials shortages, and safety incidents on the jobsite. At the beginning of every contract, it’s worth creating a risk ‘scorecard’ that rates potential risks based on both the probability they’ll happen and the severity of their impact. 

For example, weather delays are highly probable but highly manageable. Labor strikes, on the other hand, are less probable but much less manageable. Either way, risk management makes sure you’ve got the appropriate protections and control systems in place, regardless of probability or impact so that you can respond with care.

Document Control

With the rise of digital file storage, this is something that has (hopefully) gotten easier and more impactful for project teams. Essentially, doc control means making sure you have an organized system of records, hopefully within a dedicated software to serve as both the official project record and as a means for collaboration. The official project record could include photos, logs and documents in varying file formats and storage methods.

If it has to be a shared Google Drive with folders, so be it, but we recommend trying to work with software that will allow you to not only share and store documents and photos for legal reasons, but also gain data that can be converted to insights to grow your business. The key to growth is learning from each opportunity, so documenting a project in a way that’s easy to look back on is crucial, especially in a field still bogged down by paper. Embracing a digital approach not only tidies up the data but also paves the way for analyzing past projects, enabling businesses to identify trends and opportunities that can drive future success.

We also can’t talk about doc control without mentioning daily logs. These offer a place to track and monitor schedule, cost, risk, and pretty much everything else tied to the job. There’s a reason daily logs are the tried and true tool for documenting consistent updates. With daily logs as with any other of these controls, the key is consistency. The purpose of project controls in general is to set a reliable baseline for delivering predictable project outcomes.

Benefits of Project Controls

Project controls span the project lifecycle and cover the full area of the project triangle. With such a broad array of tools, how can you make sure you’re getting the most benefit from implementing them? Let’s break it down by Project Phase:

Planning and Preconstruction

In this phase, the focus is on setting the project up for success toward well-defined project objectives. Beyond the obvious benefits of preparing a budget and schedule, project controls include tools like long-lead item lists to safeguard the schedule from unexpected delays. Cross-discipline constructability reviews and submittal registers are also crucial to help in anticipating potential issues which in turn helps in avoiding disruptive change orders that are probably not worth the markup.

Execution of the Work

During this phase, project controls are vital in making sure the plan is being followed effectively. This includes tracking key performance indicators (KPIs) like progress against the schedule, monitoring budget expenditure, and managing on-site activities through tools like daily logs. Lookahead schedules, timely RFIs and regular quality control checks help in maintaining project momentum, ensuring alignment with the initial plan, and facilitating real-time adjustments as needed. They also enhance team collaboration, giving everyone access to up-to-date information so they can coordinate efforts more efficiently.

Closeout and Beyond

As the project nears completion, project controls focus on ensuring all contractual obligations are met and that the project is delivered to the client’s satisfaction. This includes final inspections, punch lists, and warranty management. Beyond closeout, project controls aid in capturing lessons learned and project performance data that will reveal key metrics for the project. This historical data becomes invaluable for future projects, enabling teams to refine their processes, anticipate potential challenges, and make more informed decisions in planning and executing new projects.

Who is Responsible for Project Controls?

When it comes to project controls, the onus is ultimately on leadership as the head and the tail to the feedback loop – both to prioritize the importance of project controls, training on implementing project controls properly and to show that the data being collected is being reviewed and acted on. While larger companies might have a dedicated project control team, smaller companies split responsibilities among those on the job site and those working in the main office. Still, all team members will have some involvement in project controls, whether that’s reviewing documentation or simply taking photos on the job site. Because everyone’s involved, it’s important to give people a sense of ownership over their involvement. For example, when people are recognized for their contributions, they’ll be incentivized to continue collecting more data.

While they may feel like a chore, project controls aren’t just processes to follow for process’s sake. Instead, they’re important preventative measures and performance management tools that will actively help you learn from previous mistakes and prevent them in the future. 

Two of the most important elements behind any successful project are visibility and control. When you spend time on project controls, you’re able to get a bird’s eye view of all the moving pieces pushing a project forward (or backward). With this data in hand, you’ll be able to make smarter, faster decisions – and ultimately protect your bottom line. 

Further Reading: Foundations of Construction Project Management for SMBs

Tom Jodeit

Tom is a seasoned innovator dedicated to leveling up the construction industry. With a robust background in project management at Turner and Skanska, and experience in owner’s representation, he now focuses on developing software tools to address the industry’s most pressing challenges.

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