Dealing with Changing Scope in Construction Project Management

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No matter how perfectly you plan your construction project; there will be instances when changes should be made. Inevitable issues like accidents, treacherous weather, unavailability of supplies, and so on can greatly affect your project schedule. But with a capable construction management software at hand, project managers can easily adjust. Read here about some more tips on how to deal with construction issues that might slow your project down.

If you run a construction company, or if you are involved in the day to day construction management of one, there are three things you run into daily regardless of the project you are working on: Budget. Scope. Time. 

How do you manage them? Is one easier than another? Is there a specific way or methodology that should be employed to maximize your effort, minimize the headache caused by dealing with these three tasks day in, day out? 

Let’s begin at the beginning, let’s all get on the same page. In our industry, as in most industries, we use jargon. When I say scope, that means things to different people. To some, it may mean “the size of a project.” To others, it may mean “project complexity.” 

At first glance, both of those definitions seem workable. They seem correct. But, depending on which one you choose, your approach towards them may vary markedly. 

So let’s clear up the confusion before we even begin. Let’s define our terminology and once we have done so, we can effectively tackle them.

In construction project management, the scope is defined as the work that must be accomplished to deliver a product or service with agreed-upon features.”

At first glance, you can see why people get confused when talking about scope. It’s not an easy definition that rolls happily off the tongue, is it? But it is specific. And the more you understand it, the easier a time you will have of managing it and managing your projects. 

Like it or not, if you work in construction, you work in the field of project management. So the more you understand and know about PM, the easier your life will be in the long run.

Let’s take a quick look at that definition, shall we?

construction project management

Starting from the end of the definition: a product or service with agreed-upon features

This is where most people understand the term scope, and unfortunately where most people stop in their understanding. But, this is a good place to start, and it leads us to a few initial conclusions. Firstly, the scope of a project depends on agreed-upon features and deliverables. As a matter of fact, the scope of a project depends on the final result. If you are a paving company, and you are doing a resurfacing project, it makes a huge difference if you are resurfacing a road versus say, an airport runway. It makes a difference in your choice of materials, your choice of techniques, and the way that you finish the actual surface. The jobs are similar, but the final deliverable determines the scope. This is an important sentence. It means, it is not by itself the scope of the project, but it determines the scope of the project? How?

Because the remainder of the definition states: the work that must be accomplished to deliver a product. Therefore, deliverable changes the work needed. If you are having triple bypass surgery, versus say, an appendectomy, the final deliverable drastically changes the amount of work required, even though in both cases, both are surgical procedures. This portion of the definition is driven by the first, the deliverable portion, but instead of focusing on what must be produced, this portion of the definition focuses on how it must be produced. This focuses on the work that must be done. Quite different in repaving a large driveway versus an airport taxiway. Or a runway versus a bridge. 

So, we have a definition. There are entire books written about project scope in business management, but for this article, to keep things simple, the definition depth we have achieved is sufficient. 

Dealing and managing scope is one of the most difficult tasks of a project manager. It can be challenging to control and define. Construction projects are done by people; objectives are defined by humans, humans who tend to change their minds because of doubts and indecision. So, before we even begin, before we get much further beyond the defining scope in construction project management, let’s add a corollary, an unwritten, unsaid rule to our definition. The deliverable, which drives the work required, will, because it is set by human beings, change. Accept that. That’s what makes project management a career rather than just a task. Changes are inevitable. And it is your job to adapt to those changes, to check, verify, test, monitor and control those changes to keep your project within budget, and on time. 

What Causes Changing Scope? And How Do You Deal with It?

1.Scope is not clear 

  • The worst case in construction project management is when people have differing expectations. You agree to a roofing project, but halfway through the job, the homeowner gives you a call, screaming that he wanted Spanish Tile, not Asphalt Shingles. Seems silly? It happens every day. The wall needed rebar, but no rebar was agreed to. The driveway needed hi-strength concrete because of its final use but that wasn’t specified. And on and on it goes. The more complex the project, the more important this becomes. The US Navy lost submarines because it failed to specify that seawater pipes needed to be welded rather than brazed. Details matter. This is a scope error. That is, the deliverable was not specific enough. Because of this, the work was incorrect, because while the pipes held fine at the surface, 1,000 feet beneath the waves, a brazed joint isn’t sufficient.

How to deal with it: Practice clarity. More importantly, practice detail. Make certain that the deliverable is clear and understood by everyone working on the project. Include your project team members in defining not just the final deliverable but in setting the tasks that must be accomplished to produce that deliverable. Be clear. Write things down. Make certain that what has been written down has been agreed to by all parties involved. This is easier done when you employ a construction project management software like Pro Crew in your project. It lets the project manager post details of the project and supporting documents to keep other members informed.

Also, having a kind of proof like documentation of the agreed points by all members when the project was just starting, then you avoid possible litigation later on.

2. Not agreeing with the client

  • Certain, as you work through making sure your scope is simple and clear that your client understands what you are saying. A large portion of project management is nothing but communications management. It’s not uncommon for disagreements to occur. Often these disagreements are less about materials or possibly paint colors than they are about the work required to achieve what the customer wants. The customer is a layperson. The customer does not need, and most likely does not have, the expertise required to know how much effort and how much manpower is needed to complete a task, much less a series of tasks to achieve a goal. Therefore, it is not uncommon for customers to get upset about the time required to complete projects or worse, costs involved, especially if difficulties are encountered that raise the number of man-hours required.

How to deal with it: Make sure the client is involved in defining the deliverable and understands the work required. Make sure they understand what they are asking for so that they are not shocked by the amount of labor that will be involved. This is to avoid the issue of clients changing their minds during the project or accusing you of cost overruns. Make certain, before anyone gets to work, that you agree on paper, and that all parties understand what they are agreeing to. Make sure that the client has a clear understanding of what is and what isn’t in scope. If you can, avoid just sending a document listing the deliverables. Instead, talk to them personally and properly. You can also ask them straight-to-the-point questions, such as asking them if they’re clear on what the deliverable is and what they’ll get. Have them tell you what they expect. If their ideas differ at this stage, those differences will only get worse as the project progresses.

3.The client is not involved throughout

  • It is not ideal or smart to work for a month or two without showing the progression of a project to the client as you go along. Just sending the final results for feedback at the end of a project is asking for trouble. Invariably failing to constantly communicate and waiting until the end will cause surprises, which in turn will cause the finished work to be changed or redone. If you’ve been in construction for a while, you know what I’m talking about. You’ve been here, probably more often than you’d care to admit.

How to deal with it: Involve and collaborate with your client. Actively show them how the project is going, the progress and process, and involve them throughout the project. Yes, it adds to the daily effort expended.

Add the client to your work board in your construction management software so you can send updates regularly. You can even give the client an access to progress reports and other relevant documents to foster transparency.

Yes, it adds time and if you are dealing with multiple clients and projects at the same time, this time can be considerable. But, doing this will lessen the chances of the work having to be redone. It will create a reputation of precision, concern, and expertise, rather than one where you are known for having to redo work and blown budgets. The choice is yours.

4. Not raising problems or issues

  • You must accept that not all communication with a client will be positive. Problems happen. Things go wrong. These must be communicated. It is not advisable to hide behind problems, not raise issues, or to not be transparent with your client. Doing so will be something that you will regret in the future. Reputations take effort to build, hiding behind mistakes will destroy any positive reputation you have, and all of the effort it took to build that reputation.

How to deal with it: If there are issues or problems, raise the issues immediately. Talk about any problems encountered. Not tomorrow, not in a week, but as the problems happen. By doing so, you can have more time to think of solutions. Or, depending on the problem uncovered, the client may choose to change the deliverable. 

5. Unforeseen Conditions

  • No matter how well you prepare, sometimes, things just go wrong. You discover that those old blueprints you based your work on aren’t accurate. Or you discover that the ground is unstable and requires remediation before you can even begin. How’s the saying go? Does stuff happen? Yeah. Something like that. 

How to deal with it: The correct way to approach this one is to inform the project owner. Your contract should have a clause that specifies reasons for allowing you to opt-out of a project or to change the final price or scope of the project. If need be, you can trigger this clause and walk away. Or, you can adjust the work required and renegotiate the contract price due to any remediation that must be done before your actual project can begin.

6. Pricing Methods

  • Inconsistency in pricing, both labor and material are one of the most common sticking points in construction. At the end of the day, it’s all about the Benjamins, and this proves it. You’ve dealt with this issue. You know you have. All of us have.

How to deal with it: It is essential here to be clear and concise. Make sure that your client understands fully the units you are using, both in terms of manpower and materiel. Make sure they fully understand how you calculate man-hours, how you calculate materiel purchasing. Do not allow inconsistency. Here, you must be precise. Speak out. Everyone must agree before ink touches the contract paper. A good contractor should pay attention to detail, be knowledgeable, be understanding. Make sure you are all of these. It will pay dividends.

7. Time Extension

  • Time is important. If you say it will take two months to complete a project, and it takes you two years, it doesn’t matter if your final work is absolute perfection… you’ve failed. Part of this is knowing how to be realistic during the planning and contracting phase of your project. Make sure you don’t paint yourself into a corner. A customer is not going to care if your crews are overworked. They’ll only know that it is annoying that they aren’t working on their project when you said they would. Worse, it’s you who are not meeting your defined work goals and the client begins asking for financial remediation. 

How to deal with it: Consider using construction project management software like Pro Crew Schedule. In this day and age, there is no reason not to.

Construction project management software contains time management and construction scheduling apps built-in. There is no rationale for not being able to track when tasks are due, accurately estimate how much time you need to complete a project or to make certain changes and make sure that you are up to date. Powerful laptops are available for small prices. There’s just no excuse to get trapped by this one. 

8. Material Delays

  • Material or equipment delays are something to consider when it comes to project management. Over time, you’ll get to know your suppliers, your subcontractors, and this issue shouldn’t raise its head too often. But… just in case:

How to deal with it: A project’s scope should contain alternatives. If you aren’t able to obtain certain materials, will the customer allow substitutions? On a residential driveway? Sure. On an airport runway, probably not. But, make sure that this is ironed out before it becomes an issue. Prepare a couple of options beforehand and make sure they are agreed to in the contracting phase. How’s the saying go? The one about prevention being worth more than a cure? The same thing applies here. 

A Final Thought

All construction projects will have to face changes. It’s the nature of the beast. Instead of seeing it as a problem, start thinking of it in a different light. Change is inevitable. But instead of thinking of it as an enemy, think of it as what it really is: an opportunity. An opportunity to rise up to the challenge. An opportunity to do better. To tackle adversity. This is what reputations are built on. Not on easy projects but on the hard ones. That’s where your professionalism shines. 

In every change coming to your project, note them down on your construction project management software. Doing so prevents confusion that may happen in the future or conflict with other crews or your client when they question why the original plan changed.

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