The Project Management Key to Success Is Simplicity. From Mega Project Management to Counting Pebbles.

Pouring a concrete slab is a perfect metaphor for all of the things we do in Project Management. It looks like a simple exercise, and the critical thing is – is the slab poured or not?

Everyone can agree on this.

One of the biggest challenges for Project Management is the complexity of measuring when you have multiple systems of measurement and data sets, and timeframes. So let’s go back to ‘the simple’.

Because it works.

Project Management, when you break it down, goes from big buckets to medium-sized buckets, to small buckets, and ultimately to pebbles. When we train project managers, we try and use real-world examples.

Pouring a concrete slab is something that everyone understands.

From the perspective of project controllers, pouring concrete has about seven steps. These include putting in the formwork and waterproofing, pouring the concrete. Then you let it cure for seven to 28 days, and then you come back and strip it.

One Project Management Problem. Two Sides

On the flip side, an estimator, or someone like that, does a job that also seems simple but includes a lot of steps. They come out to the site and calculate the cost of work and materials.

You have a volume of concrete, so many tons of steel and metres of formwork, as well as in-ground services. Then there are the labour and productivity rates, and other similar items.

There are many different ways to approach these calculations.

Often, on mega projects, a gap appears between what project managers expect and the way estimators calculate the costs.

Project Controls and Discrepancies

One thing that often happens on site is that, when you try to measure what percentage of the slab you’ve completed, you can’t agree on a number. If you can’t measure how much of the slab you’ve poured, or what you’ve installed, then you can’t agree on whether the task is done.

When you think about it, if you can’t measure one concrete slab accurately, imagine an infrastructure project that requires 10,000 pours? That’s what happens in mega-projects. Project Managers don’t spend enough up-front time planning and coordinating with their estimators.

From Estimating Slabs to Counting Pebbles

If you don’t coordinate your project controls with your estimators, ten people will look at a slab pouring and give ten different estimates of the percentage completed. You’re always going to get that diversity of professional opinions.

So, for pouring the concrete slab, like project management, the really interesting part is the planning phase.

It’s about aligning how the planner thinks about building the project with the work of the cost estimator.

The real skill in this phase is to look at it wholistically. You say, “Well, this is how I’m going to manage the job. This is how I’m going to run the contracts.” Then break it down to the point that you can measure each task consistently.

It takes front-end work.

You have to replace the unmeasurable parts of the process with clear, measurable outcomes and streamline the measurement process. You have to get everybody on board for those outcomes.

From Bigger Buckets to Smaller Buckets

Simplicity in project management, and especially in performance management, is about breaking it down to the most basic level. So, we start with the mega-project as a whole and break it down into buckets.

You measure the big buckets, then the smaller buckets, and the mesh that catches the pebbles and lets the finest grit fall away.

That’s where things fall over.

The question becomes how many of those pebbles do we capture in the end?

On large projects, managers lose sight of the pebbles. They try to figure out performance, but they are making guesses about the data set. At the lowest level, data isn’t captured and validated in a timely way. It’s like they chose the wrong grade of mesh.

The result for large projects is that performance reporting can be as much as ten days out of whack! That is a lot, especially when it’s time-critical work. On railroads, for example, you might only have access to an element of track for two to five days.

Agree on How You Count the Pebbles

The essential thing here is to take clients back to the fundamentals. Agree on what you are counting for each of these things. Simplicity is turning complexity into things that you can actually measure.

People wonder why there are disagreements in the performance rate of infrastructure projects and payment delays. When we talk about pouring concrete slabs, we ask, “Well, what’s the evidence?”

The traditional model estimates how much steel, concrete, and work went into a month’s work, which is where different estimators give you different answers.

The better performance measurement is checking that the slabs have been poured, which you can verify with a photo. That’s the simplest way that people can get paid: Is the slab poured or not?

Conclusion: Concrete and Project Management Take Front-End Work.

Pouring concrete and project management both take a bit of front-end work. You have to begin them with clear, measurable outcomes. Get everyone to agree on the outcomes, and streamline the measurement process.

Break down the job into its simplest parts.

When you can agree on how the pebbles add up, you don’t have to argue about the size of your buckets.