How to get more from your programme data

Andy Wheeler

Director

Gathering real-time data to understand a programme’s current status is good. But using it to predict the future and inform pre-emptive decisions is better. Using the right data effectively is key to transforming performance in construction.

Complex built asset programmes generate reams of data before they even break ground. But once the construction phase begins and carefully laid plans collide with reality, the flow of data increases exponentially.

Cost and progress updates will flow in from scores of separate packages of work, each of which may involve different contractors, materials and metrics. Modern construction sites typically bristle with autonomous sensors. As the amount of data that can be captured has surged, programme managers might be forgiven for regarding the collection of encyclopaedic volumes of data as an end in itself.

Data gathering and analysis are essential to understanding a project’s current position, and how it got there. But these functions should be seen as stepping stones to something even more valuable – a clear picture of where a project is heading, and the ability to control it.

Construction project data inputs

The ultimate purpose of data analysis should be to give clients the information and opportunity they need to take decisions now that will prevent problems down the line. Collected and used correctly, data enables project and cost managers to become controllers of the future, rather than just chroniclers of the past.

Just as early diagnosis of a health problem makes medical treatment more likely to succeed, so too with problems on a capital investment programme. A gentle course correction now, before a cost issue becomes serious, will invariably be less intrusive and more effective than firefighting six months down the line.

While data inputs may vary from project to project, their usefulness is typically defined by three factors:

1. Speed: The Internet of Things means on-site sensors, including 360-degree cameras, can beam constant, real-time updates to the data team. Their analysis of that data should be regular, rigorous and streamlined with the use of artificial intelligence (AI).

2. Specifics: Collecting data from day one across the entire supply chain will provide the most complete picture for the full lifecycle of a project, with an audit trail that will enable evidence-based decision-making in the future. By building on the 4D modelling used during the planning phase; layering real-world data onto pre-construction projections, programme confidence can be maintained with a clear and accurate record of progress overlaid against plans.

3. Similarities: Trends in key metrics, from lead indicators to delivery performance, become apparent over time so data points that are collected frequently and consistently become steadily more valuable. Having access to data from previous, similar projects enables costs and outcomes to be benchmarked.

Speed and specifics are applicable to any project, but where new ground is being broken, they are even more important in terms of setting a benchmark.

Leveraging real-time data to deliver project success

One such example of this is Project Jupiter, which entailed the delivery of the Leamington Spa Megalab, capable of processing 300,000 PCR tests a day as part of the response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The 225,000 sq ft facility comprised multiple modular elements and over 100 separate packages of work. What would typically have taken 30 months to deliver was successfully completed in less than a year. Working for the Department of Health and Social Care, we provided a programme management office as well as cost management and assurance services.

Our team set up and maintained robust project controls right from the start of this healthcare project, developing a clear digital strategy that laid out how the programme could be specified, procured and delivered most effectively.

We engaged early with the supply chain, making them commit to making digital part of the way they work and ensuring that project data was collected and analysed to a common standard.

While the uniquely high tempo of the programme made the benchmarking of some elements against past projects challenging, the capture of real-time data and the use of weekly, rather than monthly, reporting sessions enabled us to manage a dynamic and fast-moving process highly effectively.

Five ways to get more from programme cost data

The success with which a programme delivery team uses and manages its data determines the success of the programme as a whole. Five tried and tested tactics are to:

1. Apply robust project controls, right from the start. Good project controls serve a dual purpose, as both guarantor of efficiency and as an early warning system. In the current climate of rapid input cost escalation, supplier costs should be constantly compared to the project baseline.

Where problems are identified, corrective action can be taken. Where no problems are found, the client will enjoy a reassurance dividend that will trickle down the supply chain.

2. Manage data to a common standard. Data should be collected and stored in a standardised way. Consistency is essential to enable meaningful comparisons to be made between different packages of work.

Digital tools like our ground-breaking Cost Control App make this task easier. Rather than scrolling through endless disconnected spreadsheets, it allows programme management teams to analyse cost data from multiple sources at once – giving them an unmatched ability to control and interrogate numerous cost groupings, both together and individually.

It serves as a ‘single source of truth’ for cost managers, bringing far greater certainty and predictability to cost planning.

3. Benchmark against other comparable projects. The richer the data used to draw up the baseline, the more accurate and reliable it will be. Our Benchmarking App enables our staff and project teams to precisely compare each individual cost to those incurred on similar capital programmes elsewhere.

The app, which uses our bespoke artificial intelligence software to interrogate 160 data points, provides consistently detailed information that allows clients to distil and learn from best practice locally and nationally.

4. Record in real-time, revisit regularly. A constant flow of data is of limited value if it is not checked and analysed regularly. If they are to be more than a retrospective box-ticking exercise, cost control meetings should be held weekly rather than monthly. Team members should be trained to use data to identify operational and cost issues so they can be addressed before they become serious. Decision-makers must have instant access to trustworthy data they can rely on.

5. Make the leap from forecast to risk management. In a market that’s simultaneously enduring surging input costs and shortages of key materials, the twin threats of cost overruns and delays often overlap.

Risks should neither be forecast, nor managed, in isolation. Risk management strategies should take programme sequencing into account and be mindful of the interplay between cost and schedule.

Future obligation, opportunity now

The importance of data in project and cost management has been highlighted by the Government’s Construction Playbook, and more extensive data management is likely to become mandatory in coming years. But clients and their programme management teams shouldn’t wait to be forced to raise their game.

Capturing and analysing real-time cost data should be seen as an opportunity for today rather than an obligation for tomorrow. Project teams need to identify, quantify and manage risks before they become serious, and enable leaders to make better decisions now that will prevent problems in the future and lead directly to better outcomes.

For further information contact:

Andy Wheeler
Director