Web Exclusive! A Method to Success

December 4, 2001
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How project management proved rewarding for one firm.

Wendel Duchscherer Survey, Lockport, N.Y., was selected in the summer of 2000 to complete a complex and interesting boundary survey in Niagara Falls, N.Y. The complexity of the project was not due to the nature of the terrain or the nuances of the land title, but more because of the logistics involved in its completion. Wendel Duchscherer in the end received The New York Association of Consulting Engineers Inc. Diamond Award for Excellence in Surveying, a distinction that we could not have achieved without the preliminary planning, scheduling and management of our efforts.

Defining a Winning System

During that summer, an attorney for Cintra Concessionaires De Infrastructures De Transporte of Madrid Spain approached Wendel Duchscherer to complete a survey of the Niagara Falls International Airport, a facility of some 700 acres spanning the town line between the Towns of Niagara and Wheatfield in western New York. The survey was required as part of the preparation of documents for a planned 99-year lease to Cintra by the airport owners, the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority (NFTA). As well as being an active commercial airport, the facility is occupied by two different military installations, the 914th Tactical Air Group and the 107th Airforce Reserve. We soon learned that every move—that is every move—our survey crew made on the ground had to be planned and communicated with the NFTA, the control tower, the engineering divisions of both military installations and security groups from all four entities.

Wendel Duchscherer invested a significant effort in developing a Project Management Information System. The tools and skills developed in that effort proved invaluable for this project. A key aspect in the successful implementation of the system is the effort made in the preliminary planning of the project tasks.

The process began with a clear definition of the project scope, generally described as a boundary survey completed to the typical state standards. Details of the scope were described with the help of a work breakdown structure, critical path and task list. Next came the project fee estimate and task schedule. Once a full agreement was reached with the client and a contract executed, we began the detailed task of project planning.

Work Breakdown Structure

The entire project team, consisting of the project manager, field surveyors and office technical staff met for a short brainstorming session. The purpose of this meeting was simply to list every conceivable issue that could impact the project—with no holds barred. The team compiled an impressive list of issues, from the obvious aspects of title research and field control, to scheduling the various pieces of field equipment, to how and when to communicate, to defining back-up plans in the event of sickness, accident prevention and error detection. Each was written on a separate note and stuck on a conference room wall. If managed properly, this part of the process can be fun as well as providing the opportunity for each team member to interact with other team members, while learning a little about each other. Additionally, the information gathered through such a session will be relevant for many other project applications.

The project manager, with the help of the entire team, then rearranged the issues—on the wall—under the headings of project management, land title, fieldwork, computations and mapping. At this stage new notes were added or deleted as new issues were surfaced. Finally, each of the notes in the five columns was arranged into a priority order. Using a laptop computer, the wall data was transferred to a spreadsheet and the work breakdown structure was created.

Critical Path
The critical path is a practical tool to provide useful pieces of information for making management decisions, such as:

  • The scheduled start and completion date for each activity.
  • The activities in which completion must occur exactly as scheduled in order for the entire project to be kept on schedule.
  • The amount of delay that can be tolerated in non-critical path activities without causing a delay in the scheduled projects completion date.
  • Activities which resources might be diverted to critical path activities if the need arises.

    For example, in order to meet the overall project deadline, mapping had to be started by a specific date, but that start date did not rely on the completion of all the fieldwork. It was determined that the critical path was for the mapping to commence upon completion of control traversing and establishing the road rights of way.

    Task List
    From the data generated in the work breakdown structure, a task list was prepared and an individual identified for the completion of each task listed. Every task, including tasks such as “call control tower each morning” and “charge batteries daily” was assigned to a particular person. For example, that person was responsible for obtaining the phone number and name of the person to be called, for making the phone call and confirming the time of the daily call.

    Fee Estimate
    With the detailed task list finalized and responsible parties identified, the project manager moved onto the task of preparing the fee estimate, detailing each task, individuals involved, salaries, overhead, profit and anticipated expenses. This estimated fee was incorporated into our final contract.

    Task Schedule
    Working closely with our client to ensure the deadline was feasible, we prepared a preliminary schedule of activities for the project and other projects active at the same time. When we were satisfied with the planned schedule, we shared it with our client, the NFTA, control tower and both military installations to give them an approximate idea of how our work was expected to progress.

    During the life of the project, the project manager communicated on a daily basis with the field crew to monitor progress. At various points in the schedule, the project plan was adjusted and communicated to the client and others interested in our progress.

    Through the efforts of the preliminary planning our execution of the project was almost flawless. Each step was planned, communicated and executed as anticipated and the project was completed as efficiently as possible. The money saved in this project wass in re-work and minimal schedule delays. A general rule of thumb is that one hour spent in planning a project will result in a 10-hour savings in the execution of the project.

    Transferring the conference wall information to a computer proved to be the most tedious task in the planning. We experimented with digital photography but were unsuccessful in that venture. Ultimately, we chose to simply type the information into a laptop computer. Various software programs were at our disposal to complete the work breakdown structure, including Microsoft Excel, Project or PowerPoint, and Visio. Because of user preference, we selected Excel, although any of the above may have sufficed.

    The task list was created in Microsoft Excel, utilizing the automatic numbering function to sequentially number each task. This information was easily transferred to a pre-existing Microsoft Excel Project Estimating Sheet, developed by Wendel Duchscherer to calculate billing rates and estimated fees by inputting individual employee initials and expenses. Overhead and profit are included in this sheet and are set at the corporate goal level.

    The project schedule was developed though Microsoft Project. Once again, the Excel spreadsheet containing the task list was easily imported to this software.

    Through the efforts described above we have since developed several “templates” that can easily be adapted for use on other projects, enabling us to plan new projects with increased efficiency.

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