Mis-managing a Project

Project Management

The term Project Management conjures up different meanings to different people.

In its own right, it can be a multi-discipline, complex affair using a range of sophisticated computer programmes by skilled and experienced personnel.

For most domestic projects that I get involved in the process is less complicated but can be no less demanding.

I think the one thing that never ceases to amaze me is the belief that many people have is that they can project manage building projects without having some experience in the construction industry.

Let me explain further by outlining a situation that is all too common.

Here is the scenario. The client is going to ‘project manage’ the build. They are organising materials and labour. We’ll keep it relatively simple and hypothetical and base the scenario on a traditionally built two storey rear extension for a new kitchen and bedroom. Let’s say the groundworker is a good guy, most that I have dealt with have been good and he agrees to set out the trenches after which he excavates and pours the foundations. The weather has been good and nothing unexpected found. Not too much mess and the groundworker has cleared up after himself. All good so far.

The bricklayer is going to bring the substructure up to ground level, construct the floor and take the external walls up to plate level.

The ‘project manager’ is all keen and has worked out the number of blocks needed for the whole job and decides he/ she can save a little money by getting all the blocks delivered as one load the same day as the bricklayers are due to start.  Sensible?

On the face of it yes, but when the blocks arrive the grab lorry can only reach so far and the driveway is too narrow for the large lorry to back up the drive. The lorry driver does the best he can, stacking one pallet on top of the other. Unfortunately, the lorry has a full load of blocks and cannot bring the sand and cement.

“It’s coming on the next load,” says the lorry driver. The bricklayers expecting to start laying blocks, decide the next best thing is to muck in and bump out some blocks while waiting for some sand and cement. They have an early tea break.

The ‘project manager’ phones the builder’s yard and asks when the next delivery will be. “Your’s is the next load, it will be there before lunch,” says the guy in the builder’s yard. He doesn’t know the ‘project manager’ and sometime between one and two o’clock would be his best estimate. The bricklayers get on with some other tasks, really just busying themselves.

Around a quarter to two, the sand and cement arrive. It’s still got to be unloaded, the mixer probably set up and the mortar mixed. The bricklayers are keen to get on as they know that if they don’t get the blockwork up to ground level there will be a delay starting on the floor.

They work hard and fast and manage to get enough done in order that the floor can be started in the morning. The materials are being delivered first thing in the morning!

The ‘project manager’ decides that he better have a talk with the bricklayers regarding the floor materials that he has ordered. He has read the Building Regulation notes on the drawing and relayed that information to the Builders Merchant without really understanding what the materials that he is ordering are.

The bricklayers turn up early in the morning and have to get the floor laid ready for the oversite concrete to be cast the next day and also finish the blockwork from yesterday. They get started and soon enough the floor materials arrive. However, the builders’ merchant doesn’t stock the insulation that has been specified and as sent a similar product.

The bricklayers have been in this situation many times before and check with the ‘project manager’ that this insulation is correct.

“They said it does the same thing” the ‘project manager’ says,

“It’s a similar material” the bricklayer replies “are you happy to use this as it’s not what has been specified on the drawing and by the way, the perimeter upstand insulation is not on the order”

“What does that do? enquiries the ‘project manager’ “Don’t worry” says the bricklayer I’ll get some ready for the morning. The bricklayer knows it won’t be delivered in time for the morning so rather than lose more time is prepared to pick it up himself.

The ’project manager’ now realises that he is out of his depth and decides that he will find out what is needed for the next stage of building. He will ask the bricklayer to write out a list of the materials needed and when he needs them by.

The ‘project manager’ has no experience of the sequence of events in order to programme the works. He has already arranged a carpenter to lay the floor joists but a date hasn’t been set.

“When will you be ready for the floor joists” the ‘project manager’ asks the bricklayers.

“ On Thursday” comes the reply

“OK I’ll let the carpenter know”

The carpenter is on another job when the ‘project manager’ calls.

“Can you come on Thursday?”

“ Sorry, I can’t, but I do have a slot on Wednesday afternoon”

“That’s great” cheers the ‘project manager’ “See you then, I’ll let the brickies know”. The ‘project manager has picked up a little of the lingo and now refers to the bricklayers as ‘brickies’ and carpenter as a ‘chippy’

“Great news” the ‘project manager’ exclaims to the bricklayers “ the chippy can come Wednesday afternoon”

“No good, we won’t be ready for him until Thursday” replies the bricklayers.

‘Project Manager’ goes back to the carpenter to rearrange.

“ It won’t be ready until Thursday”

“Sorry, I can’t get there on Thursday and my next available slot is Monday”

‘Project Manager’ goes back to the bricklayers to break the bad news.

“OK, we’ll finish on Wednesday and be back on the following Tuesday then to carry on. Is the scaffolder all arranged?” asks the bricklayer. The bricklayer has given the name of a good and reliable scaffolder as his first choice but knows he is likely to be busy.

“I’m just waiting for a call back from him, to give me a price”

The bricklayers look at each other with that knowing look, that things are going to get delayed.

The phone call comes from the scaffolder and the price is higher than the client/ ‘project manager’ anticipated so he calls another company that gives a cheaper price.

“That price seems ok, when can you come?”

“Next Tuesday”

“That might not be quick enough, I’ll check with the brickies and get back to you”

“It will take them a day to put the scaffold up” explains the bricklayer. “ Then we have another day to get to first-floor level ready for the joists to go on. Best delay the chippy”

The ‘project manager’ has to now rearrange again with the carpenter and hopes that he can slot in when ready.

This scenario shows how quickly delays can occur in even a relatively straightforward project and is compounded by a client who wants to act as a ‘project manager’ who will quickly realise that he will need to rely on knowledge and experience of the tradesmen and women that he/she should be managing. In reality, the ‘project manager’ can easily become an organiser on behalf of the trades with little or no control over what is happening.

Does this happen to professional ‘project managers’? Of course, delays occur and things change but someone who has experience in project management can at least take actions to get a project back on the programme. Generally programmes of work are fluid and subject to changes, in fact, they must be changed and updated regularly to reflect real-time. Let’s face it, as the scenario above has shown, a trade will arrive on site at the correct time or late, rarely will a follow-on trade be able to start early e.g. plasterers can’t put plaster on the walls if they haven’t been built!

Computerised programming software is available, but the knowledge is still needed to input the correct information. So if you are thinking of ‘project managing’ your own small, simple building project and you are not experienced in the building trade then my advice would be to be careful and expect the work to take longer than expected, work with a good, reputable builder/ tradesmen that know your shortcomings and are willing to hold your hand through the process. Failing that, employ a professional that can give you good advice and help guide you through the process. There will be a need to budget for their costs but may be cost-effective in the end.