Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Lessons from McKinley

Here's more grist for the "let's make sure they know how to spend it responsibly before giving them another billion" mill: the Post has a post mortem of the McKinley renovation and the budgets it blew through.

Assuming that the Post got the basic details of the story right its another example of the classic finger pointing that happens (way too often) after a major cockup involving the District government. On one side you have the school board and DC Council claiming that they were basically taken advantage of by the Army Corp of Engineers and the contractors who did the work. On the other side is the Corp claiming that they were saddled with inadequate plans and changing scope from the school system. So who's to right? Most likely both. Yet the ultimate blame has to be shouldered by DCPS.

The first rule of project management is know what the heck you should do before you do it. Spend the time and money up front to determine what your needs are, the options available to meet those needs and which option is the most cost effective. Its called front end loading and with large capital projects there is a correlation, backed by mountains of evidence, between front end loading and cost and schedule predictability. To put it another way, the more time and effort spent defining the needs of the project before commencing execution (i.e. the detailed design and construction) the higher the probability that the project will come in on time and on budget; the less due diligence you do up front the greater the probability that the project will require rework and blow through its budget and be delivered late. Guess which way DCPS went.
"Our concerns over issuing incomplete documents were expressed many times, but we were always told that the schedule was more important," Condit said in a written statement.

As a result, the Corps put the project out for construction bids when designs were far from complete. The joint venture of James G. Davis Construction Corp. and HRGM Corp. won the bid.
The article lists other project management no-nos.
In McKinley's case, the answer involves finger-pointing in every direction, including criticism that school officials paid too little attention to the project, that the design contained errors, that the project was poorly managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and that it was plagued by unrealistic cost estimates and timetables. [emphasis added]
How do you know if your contractors are ripping you off if you are not on top of the day-to-day running of a project? Is it possible that the Corp of Engineers and/or contractors mismanaged/over-charged the project? Its possible. But where the heck was DCPS's oversight? Why wasn't someone from DCPS monitoring the progress of the project, asking questions?

The problem is that it appears as if history is about to repeat itself. DCPS facilities are filled to about 1/3 capacity. But instead of waiting for Janey's facilities plan (due next year) to see what facilities are to be consolidated, thus determining at least the high level scope of facility repairs needed the DC Council, in a vote-whoring frenzy, are pushing ahead to approve funding for a problem that hasn't been adequately defined.

And then there's the issue of management and oversight.
Under Patterson's plan, a nine-member appointed advisory committee would oversee the efforts to improve the city's 147 schools. On a daily basis, the work would be managed by the school system, and officials said qualified staff members have been hired to do so. The D.C. Chamber of Commerce has proposed an alternative plan that calls for an independent entity to be in charge.
By qualified do you mean these staff members have large scale civil project management / construction management experience, or by qualified do you mean they're people who have made substantial contributions to various political campaigns? Snarky? Yes, but looking at even the most recent the history of contracting within the DC government "who you paid.. er.. contributed to" almost always trumps "what you know."

Then there's this bit of idiocy.
School officials say the work should be managed within the system. "It makes sense that you have educators' insight," said Thomas M. Brady, chief business operations officer for the schools.
Bull****! It makes about as much sense to have an educator's insight into the management of a large, complex capital project as it does to have construction manager's insight into creating the 12th grade English curriculum. An educator's insight on the needs of a teacher would be appropriate upfront when defining the scope / redesigning the facilities, but they should not be given either project management or oversight responsibilities. If you have educators sharing their "insight" during the actual construction phase of a project that's a pretty good sign that your project is going to experience some serious problems.

So, DCPS. Do you want to deliver world class facilities on time and on budget without breaking the bank?
  1. Wait until Janey delivers his facilities plan so you know exactly which facilities need improving
  2. Spend time figuring out the needs of DCPS and draw up preliminary plans for various options that meet these needs. Involve all the relevant stakeholders in determining "needs" (teachers, managers, maintenance personnel, etc.)
  3. Investigate each option for feasibility, cost, etc. Choose the option that best meets DCPS's needs and is contained within the budget and schedule constraints
  4. Once this option is decided on and the scope is air tight, only then do you put the detailed engineering and construction packages out to bid.
  5. Make sure you have experienced, competent project managers on staff to manage the project (and for god's sake keep the educators and their "insight" away from the actual management / oversight of the project).
  6. Once the detailed engineering and construction contracts have been signed do not allow any major scope changes. If Step 2 was performed correctly there should be no need for adding or deleting from the project scope once it has entered execution. Nothing, and I mean nothing blows a schedule and budget like late scope changes.
Its project managment 101.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Wow. I wish everyone read newspaper articles as carefully as you did. It was interesting to me that nobody pointed the finger at the Mayor and his administration. He was the guy that promised the voters a "high technology high school". The school was supposed to get support from a partnership business community. That was Archie Prilow's job - that the Post discovered was a boondoggle. It was the Mayor that was supposed to find a tenant for the other wing that was to complement the school. There are probably others who touched this project (being cynical, probably those two people the Post quoted from the 21st Century School group were involved but won't admit it now) who should get some of this blame also. I agree - it is silly to have educators trying to manage construction projects.