The Digital Filing Cabinet
Mechanical contractors can have the most knowledgeable crew in the field, the most dedicated foremen, the most enviable safety record, the latest tools, the most dependable prefab shop, the most helpful office staff, the shiniest trucks and a solid gold reputation for producing results.
But even those strong qualifications don’t mean much if a project manager can’t provide a quick answer to “How much?” and “When?”
Actually, any nimble project manager can come up with a quick answer, but an accurate answer? Well, that’s another matter. A ballpark estimate might be forgiven these days, what with project schedules tighter than ever and both contractors and customers struggling to produce more work with less manpower. And what project doesn’t have a change order or two … or six?
Added up, it’s like putting together a jigsaw puzzle with pieces from three different puzzles dumped in the project manager’s lap. Meanwhile, the guy with the picture of the one puzzle the project manager is really supposed to complete is out sick.
Hanford Gross, president, Gross Mechanical Contractors Inc., St. Louis, figured there must be a better way to not only document the company’s work, but also coordinate all the changes that impact the project timeline, scheduling and budgets along the way to completion.
“We weren’t trying to create more paperwork,” he says, “but we did want to make the paperwork more meaningful.”
Contractors certainly have no shortage of software to help generate documentation and resolve changes within individual components of construction work, such as estimating and accounting.
“But there is no one package that integrates all the data generated by the various software programs into a logical structure that makes retrieval of just the right type of information easy for the project manager,” Gross explains.
To accomplish this, Gross Mechanical developed a project management system that defines a sequential series of steps or tasks to be implemented at specific times during the course of a project. This process starts during the preconstruction stage of a project and finishes after a project is closed out.
Recurring documentation, such as schedules and budgets, also are monitored at predetermined intervals to spot trends. These trends can be easily identified and reported internally to management - or to the client - in a timely manner.
Online DocumentsBut if all this documentation was put inside a three-ring binder, we wouldn’t be putting Gross on the cover and the company wouldn’t have won last year’s E. Robert Kent Award, which the Mechanical Contractors Association of America hands out each year for man-agement innovation.
The company’s project management system scores the winning points for where the informa-tion is stored. Gross has effectively digitized the filing cabinet, along with all the forms and file folders that would normally be used to document every one of its jobs.
A portion of the company’s Intranet serves as the main interface for the project management system. As a result, the system is easily called up inside the main office through its network and by way of the Internet for its field offices and other remote locations.
Even that description falls a bit short since it fails to account for just how “portable” this sys-tem becomes. By using Explorer, a common Internet browser, the system drills down further into the data by creating hyperlinks that, when clicked, open other software programs that contain pertinent information needed to manage the job.
The links, for example, open applications written in Microsoft Excel and Word, but the sys-tem also locates the following programs:
- Microsoft Outlook
- Primavera Ex-pedition Contractor Management
- Primavera Project Planner Scheduling Soft-ware
- Geac StarBuilder Accounting
- LaserFiche Document Manage-ment
- QuickPen Estimating and Tool Management Systems
“Our project management system has improved our relationships with existing clients and has been instrumental in securing new clients since we are able to accurately project costs and scheduling while proactively addressing problems inherent in any project,” Gross adds.
Educational ValueBefore our visit, Gross e-mailed us a made-up project manual, so that we could click some, but certainly not all, the hyperlinks embedded in the manual. Since readers won’t have this flexibility, allow us to jump ahead before we describe the basics to point out an important highlight that became evident once we grasped the process.
“Practically everything in my career comes down to education,” Gross says.
The commitment to educating his staff is apparent once you see how much like a “teacher” the computerized system operates. Who does what, how it’s done and when it should be completed, signed off on and distributed to others couldn’t be any clearer. And if a certain procedure isn’t required, the system points that out, too.
As much as possible, forms have been standardized to take the guesswork out of the process. If the project manager needs assistance, special “Help” pages are similar to any help section you’ll find on name-brand software.
In addition to the step-by-step documentation process, the system also includes predetermined goals regarding safety, scheduling, quality and budget. Above all, the system clearly defines the scope of any task so nothing is misunderstood and makes retrieving any information easy so that nothing is misplaced.
“If a project manager can’t get started right, he’s never going to have a good job,” Gross adds. “In other words, bad jobs don’t get any better after you start. You may be able to minimize the damage, but the company will never make any money.”
Over the years, Gross’ personal commitment to education has extended past his own company. He’s held a number of educational positions within MCAA, and he is currently teaching a course in project management at Washington University, St. Louis.
“Teaching the course has allowed our company to review the best practices of project management in other industries,” Gross adds, “and incorporate those features that can enhance the valued-added service we can provide.”
Project ManualEssentially, each project manual includes a project checklist that tracks the documentation process by allowing users to do the following:
- Select what sequential steps are applicable and required for the project.
- Provide detailed help to the project manager on how to complete each of the steps.
- Provide instruction on who is required to complete a particular step and when it is due.
- Document the status of each step by editing the document and filling in when steps have been completed.
“We have developed a series of batch file programs that actually open the specific application and files when you click on the document name,” Gross says. “This speeds up the process of implementation, since the user doesn’t need to exit the system to open other applications or try to spend time remembering which application actually contains which type of document.”
Another series of hyperlinks connects the project manager to special “Help” pages to let him know the following:
- Who is responsible for completing a step.
- Who needs to receive distribution of the documentation.
- What software is used to generate the documentation.
- How often each step/task is required.
- How to save the documentation on the computer.
- Where to save the documentation on the computer.
Also, Gross says this puts the company in a much better position to identify trends and make needed changes by scheduling these recurring tasks at predefined intervals.
“I’m not concerned about one small thing going wrong,” Gross adds. “But if there’s a pattern, we have always placed a high priority on solving construction problems using an engineering approach.”
Finally, forms documenting pertinent information found in contract documents are formatted the same way for each job. As a result, the electronic project manual allows quick resolution to questions that can only be answered by reviewing the contract documents.
“This quick flow of information is a prerequisite,” Gross continues, “for all our schedule work.”
John D. Maise, manager of the company’s preconstruction services, is the point man for all the initial data gathered before formally turning over the project to the project manager.
“It’s an organized way of setting up the information we build up for the project manager and the foremen in the field,” Maise says. He organizes the estimate, schedules, budgets, and more importantly, job cost variance reports, scope of work, even the minutes of the preconstruction meetings.
Before the online system, Maise and the others relied on the traditional three-ring binder. “You’d sit down with preprinted forms, type in all the information and then make copies for everyone,” he adds. “Then for changes, you’d have to type and copy everything again - and hope that everyone else updated the forms.”
Even a self-admitted computer illiterate like Kevin J. Murphy, Gross’s operations manager, understands the benefits of the new system.
“I’m able to look at a weekly report and quickly see the truth on how well we are doing,” he says. Murphy has 30 years of experience as a pipefitter - 22 of those years with Gross. Even with this gut-level knowledge, Murphy figures it would take days to really get the feel for how well a job was going.
“Mechanical contractors typically over-man a job to combat problems that would come up later,” Murphy explains. “With this system, we’ve completed several, multimillion-dollar contracts where everything went according to plan.”
There’s no doubt that Gross, with a degree in mechanical engineering, has taken a methodical, engineering approach to the often chaotic mechanical construction industry. It also helps when you learn that 40 percent of his office staff have engineering degrees, too. As a result of the system, communication between the project manager and upper management has dramatically improved.
“The project manager spends less time generating reports to upper management because documented activities are automatically updated on the company’s Intranet,” Gross says. “Upper management has access to all of this information at any time during a project.”
Changes that inevitably do come up with mechanical work also are dealt with efficiently. “The timely accumulation and distribution of the data,” Murphy says, “serve as an ‘early warning’ system that allows the company to take the action needed to secure the estimated margin.”