Megaproject CPM Scheduling Strategies: Avoiding Too Big to Fail

Megaprojects still muddle along as teraprojects threaten to eclipse even their excesses

The notion “too big to fail” is a phrase generally reserved for entities undertaking large-scale/high-risk enterprises, such as the FDIC scandal of 1984, and the Lehman Brothers Ponzi scheme of 2007 that triggered a global financial crisis. Some of the same theory applies to large-scale and megaproject CPM scheduling that must be propped up, no matter what degree of accuracy, if for nothing else but to save face, or to give it the appearance that it is something better than it really is.

In the Financial Crisis “too big to fail” meant that the immediate and ancillary effects of the collapse of a major banking or lending institution would be too catastrophic to let befall. The government would then step in and prop-up the institution, which may or may not pay the government back. Had proper regulations been set in place before 2007, the Wall Street collapse would- without question, have been avoided. In the same way, if megaproject schedules were properly baselined and maintained, then ubiquitous ineptitude and politics could be replaced with common-sense and vigilance.

Resuscitating deprecated megaproject baselines, or keeping them on life support is like throwing money out the window.

Megaproject CPM scheduling is a volatile enterprise –

subject to wild fluctuations in budget and megaproject CPM scheduling timelines.  An estimator can fathom any number of reasons for cost-escalation. The larger and more complicated a project is, the higher its risk-assessment rating and likelihood of schedule deprecation. For example, the Second Avenue Subway tunneling project, in New York City, met several budget and schedule encumbrances, such as slow-going tunnel boring work, in lieu of cut-and-cover, right-of-way, underpinnings, dewatering, blast moratoriums, and so forth.

Megaproject CPM scheduling – is a little trickier.

Firstly, anyone new to megaproject CPM scheduling won’t grasp the basic concepts necessary quickly enough to contribute constructively to the schedule. Nonetheless; public work still assigns untrained people to attend schedule meetings, and otherwise interfere with the scheduler’s work.  Trouble is, people understand dollars and cents but the phenomenon of time is an abstraction few can visualize or see as relative to megaproject CPM scheduling.

– how convenient is it that a culpable stakeholder pleads ignorance in the face of a detailed disruption claim?

There are some basic principles that must be observed when approaching megaproject CPM scheduling that will help stakeholders organize and better maintain their schedules.  As an oversight scheduling consultant with experience on some dozen megaprojects, I can say with a fairly high degree of certitude, that ignorance of these basic principles is in wide practice, and shows little promise of changing any time soon. This is because:

  1. Megaprojects are highly political. Schedule reporting is spin-based, and rarely represents what is known by the scheduler. Stakeholders are so high up the food-chain that they may never see (or want to see) your Holy Grail reports that you spent weeks preparing. Besides, they won’t understand them anyway. If you’re lucky, they will ask you for the “bottom-line,” as if that was possible to impart in a sound byte.
  2. Planners fail in the early structuring stage by organizing complex projects with one schedule or database that is too unwieldy and cumbersome to make any sense. Simply put, it becomes to large and cumbersome, that it can’t get out of its own way. If one part fails, so does the remainder, whereas with compartmentalized CPMs, paths can be isolated and manipulated independent of the rest of the database, corrected, and reintegrated.
  3. Planners fail to involve all the players in setting baselines. They also frequently dictate duration and sequenceing, rather than let the contractor decide. Contractors who are not bound to such criteria will progress as best they can regardless of an engineer’s guess-work.
  4. Conversely, when schedulers try the compartmentalized approach advocated by many leading megaproject planners, the result is a fragmented jumble of bar charts.
  5. Getting accurate information and establishing checks and balances happens way too late, in the same way that up to date information is never presented to the oversight consultant.
  6. The concept of rebaselining is rarely, if ever, employed on a megaproject. The complexity of such an undertaking is too much to consider; which is one reason why a megaproject schedule is too big to fail. Another reason is that some see rebaselining as conceding defeat, as opposed to doing the right thing. Thus do they cling to their fragmented, deprecated, databases –for better or worse.
  7. Mitigation and recovery strategies are rarely studied or examined undertakings. For example, it’s easy to cut the systems integrator’s duration, as their work is always at the tail-end. A savvy contractor knows that, and knows that it’s highly unlikely that the integrator will be asked for any input. This despite the integrator’s work residing on the longest-path.
  8. Big agencies building megaprojects are dinosaurs when it comes to scheduling. They must put all of their trust in their in-house schedulers and construction managers, neither of which show any semblance of coordination in their works.

The agencies may have an army of engineering graduates with absolutely no construction experience maintaining these projects. They are merely data-entry people, whom agencies pay only parsimoniously.  Sometimes I see their advertisements offering below market salaries. Normally, I might just think “gee, that’s tough,” but then again some are so cheap that I just have to laugh.

Yet I am beginning to see the construction industry take more notice of chronic problems arising on public megaprojects. If a contractor is disrupted in his work through no fault of his own, but by an encumbrance –usually design information, or waiting for access, he is going to lose productivity, and run out overhead and general conditions. Too often stakeholders stare back blankly at the notion of reimbursing for time lost. They certainly take notice when the contractor waves his disruption claim, with forensic backup.

Stakeholders see their lost-time as money, but do not respect the same theory for the contractor: his dollar is somehow worth less than their dollar.

Contractors are waking up now, as are many subcontractors I work with – who also lose on poorly planned projects. They realize that their claims for general conditions will be worth little without a properly tracked schedule.  As a megaproject masterplan deprecates, it will not represent a contractor’s claims. For that, he must create his own schedule, and not rely on the status quo, or the master schedule.