By Frank Hartley, P.E.
Assistant Director of Construction (Retired) New York State Department of Transportation
This paper is designed for companies and agencies that are looking to transition away from traditionally inefficient paper and spreadsheet based field reporting processes and utilize software to reduce delays and cost overruns on their projects.
About the author
Frank Hartley is a Professional Engineer who enjoyed a 33-year career with New York State where he served as the Assistant Director of Construction for the New York State Department of Transportation (NYSDOT) and the Director of Engineering for the Empire State Development Corporation.
During Mr. Hartley’s extensive career, he was responsible for automating NYSDOT’s
Construction Process, focusing on the migration from paper-based Construction Record Keeping to the implementation of an automated Record System. This transition included providing field uses with electronic Daily Work Reports, digital project designs and specifications, mobile forms and electronic photo logs. The field and main office also transitioned from spreadsheet reports, paper and email approvals to a complete electronic recordkeeping system which included approval of materials approvals and certification, plan revisions and approvals, CPM updates and review and approval of pay estimates.
Mr. Hartley was also responsible for the preparation of Environmental Impact Statements and the design of large highway and bridge projects. Additionally, he was responsible for Contractor claims and disputes filed with the Department relative to the Department’s annual $2 – $3 billion capital construction program. Mr. Hartley has been the Project Manager (“owner”) on numerous large-scale construction projects in the northeastern United States including the $300 million relocation of the Miller Highway Viaduct and the Comprehensive Port Improvement Plan
(CPIP) for the Port of New York & New Jersey. Mr. Hartley is a member of the New York State Society of Professional Engineers and the New York State Association of Transportation Engineers.
Key Challenges in the Field
Large-scale construction projects are fraught with a score of challenges for anyone working on or managing them, particularly for those working in the field. By their very nature large-scale construction projects are comprised of hundreds or even thousands of plan sheets, numerous contractors and sub-contractors, and other contributors such as architects, engineers and inspectors. Keeping the numerous parties on the same page is a constant challenge and the group most affected by lack of communication is the field employees out on the job site.
Job sites can be large and dispersed – such as highways that span across miles – or complex and contained – like a wastewater treatment plant in the middle of a busy urban area. In many cases, work is performed in locations far from the field office(s). Typically field employees must spend valuable time driving back and forth between the field office and the construction site to preform administrative tasks like submitting daily reports or securing new hardcopies of drawings.
In addition to the logistical complexities created by having current information located in one location – the field office and the team most in need of this information in another location – the construction site, today’s construction professionals are faced with increasing risk and challenges on several other fronts:
- Accelerated project delivery methods are delayed with a disconnected field team
- Compressed margins and budgets demand a reduction in administrative and redundant overhead
- Changes are occurring at an accelerated rate, and must be managed in real-time to avoid costly delays and errors
- Increasingly complex compliance and reporting obligations are the norm, not the exception
- A realization that paper-based field reporting systems are insufficient to meet these evolving needs
As a result, many construction professionals agree that the biggest problem they face is an inability to easily access, share and archive project documentation and communications when and where it’s needed.
The three most common root causes of this problem are:
- Lack of data in the field where it’s most valuable
- Information isn’t available when and where it’s needed by the office
- Project data is incomplete and out-of-date
This guide will identify ways to overcome these problems by addressing each of their root causes. This guide will share proven methods to improve project delivery by enabling greater data access and accuracy ensuring the whole team is always working with the most up to date information available.
Field personnel’s access to project information on the job site is critical to the success of the entire project. Without current information in the field, projects fall victim to numerous delays and errors. It is crucial that the field team is working from the latest drawings, specs and schedules, and that their reports are shared instantaneously to offer other team members insight into the events in the field.
All of these are even greater imperatives on large-scale construction projects because there are more variables on projects of this scale. For instance, it’s not uncommon for multiple contractors or inspectors to be working on various phases or segments of the project that ultimately need to be coordinated. Identifying issues early helps prevent large cost and time overruns from occurring.
Most construction professionals will readily admit that current systems do a less than satisfactory job of sharing this sort of information in the field and with the project team personnel who need it in a timely manner. As a result, field personnel often must resort to these rudimentary methods in an effort to do their jobs and stay informed:
- Before traveling to the project site each morning, accessing a shared drive/system and downloading files that they think they may need in the field that day
- Relying on mostly paper-based documentation and forms in the field
- Creating their own system to track deadlines and status, and to communicate critical project information to other project team members
These antiquated systems lead to ….
Work performed using old or inaccurate information
The collection and timely reporting of field data is essential to the successful management and completion of any construction project; it is the foundation on which decisions are made. If field personnel are relying on previously downloaded files because they don’t have access to those files in the field, they’re likely using out-of-date reference materials (e.g., sets of plans, specifications), or creating a second version of a plan sheet that may not be entirely accurate.
The result is that the project team will be using stale or inaccurate information to make decisions and, possibly, to perform work in a manner that’s inconsistent with new or updated plans.
Let’s say two inspectors download one plan sheet to their respective hard drives for use in the field on the same day, and then they each update the plan sheet and re-post it to a shared drive. As a result there may be as many as a total of three different versions of the plan sheet available to the project team on that same shared drive. How will members of the project team know which version is the most current and accurate, and which version is approved for use? Without automated notification and version control, the project team will run the risk of creating multiple competing versions by creating ‘new’ versions of information with each change. Reliance on a shared drive or a similar system creates confusion about which documentation is current, accurate and approved for use and can result in work being performed erroneously or unnecessarily.
Costly errors and waste are created, not prevented
Another all-too-common scenario involves field personnel relying on mostly paper-based documentation and forms in the field such as inspector’s reports. By using paper as the primary collection and reporting tool, costly errors and waste can occur, such as:
With paper forms, the wrong information can be written, calculations may be made incorrectly, or numbers can be transposed when data is entered into other systems. Data entry and filing of paper takes time, and creates an inefficient archive of information that cannot be easily searched.
Time spent driving paperwork to and from the office when it could be used more efficiently on the project itself is the most obvious and common waste of valuable resources. Additionally, the rising cost of gas to transport people and information back and forth between the field and office is an unnecessary waste of resources, and can have a negative impact on the environment.
Communication delays result in project delays
When field personnel resort to creating their own systems to track and share status and other important information because of a lack of data in the field, communication delays invariably result. If a field team member is using his/her own spreadsheet to track the status of RFIs, or if RFIs can only be submitted for approval once the team member gets back to the office, a required response can be stalled by hours, days or even weeks. This results in work interruptions that further delay the project and can create cost overruns.
A lack of critical, up-to-date data in the field where it’s most valuable may create challenges, but they can be addressed with a combination of proven processes and a system that standardizes those process.
Solutions: Standardize processes & systems to assure data access in the field
On most projects, one could technically say that a set of standardized processes are already in place for the purposes of uniform record-keeping and to meet the requirements of the project. But the truth is not so cut and dry. The fact is that most of the individual entities on a project – inspectors, contractors, sub-contractors, etc. utilize what they consider to be standard processes for their portion of the work amongst themselves. But for a true project status, or a cost or schedule update, a consolidated view is necessary. This often means navigating with a mash-up of disparate processes, terminologies and workflows. This mash-up then requires some translation and, often, re-entry, possibly several times, into a master system so project managers or owners can generate the required reports and make critical decisions.
Here are a few highly effective processes that will lay the foundation for overcoming the challenges created by a lack of access to data in the field:
- All field personnel use a centralized system wherein all field data is linked, only entered once and is instantly available to everyone regardless of their location
- Standardized forms are used by all team members and all forms fields are completed upon submission
- All documents follow an automated workflow with customizable notifications to ensure that data submitted is never stuck in the review and approval processes
Additionally, a lack of data access in the field means that many job site decisions are delayed “until it can be looked up in the office”, which creates delays for the contractors and disrupts the smooth flow of the overall project.
If all pertinent field team members utilize and have access to one centralized system that allows for automatic updating and routing of information based on the established project rules and workflows. Using a system that can be accessed in the field allows field personnel to work continuously and without interruption. They can also work with the confidence that they have access to the most current information possible and can easily update and share information with all applicable members of the project team.
The system should also support and enforce workflows to ensure that records and project documentation are properly completed and routed in a timely and uniform manner. This assures adherence to current specifications, plans or requirements by all parties and that necessary approvals are routed expeditiously. These kinds of safeguards help both the field and office personnel preform their jobs more efficiently.
Finally, the system needs to be easy-to-use – meaning that its use is intuitive to use and easy to learn. The right system should reinforces the project’s rules and be configured to the projects and reports with which the project team is familiar. Ideally the system would do this by:
- Truly centralizing all manuals, specs, documentation, communication and forms in one searchable location
- Standardizing on the use of familiar forms and reports
- Pre-loading key project-specific information for easy “pick and choose” access such as the schedule of values, locations, and descriptions of work
In order to address issues in a timely manner, construction professionals must have up-to-date project information when and where it’s needed. The office staff is reliant on field information, and they need it to paint an accurate picture of what’s actually going on at the project site. Progress reports, issues discovered, field changes, photos and Daily Work Reports from a variety of individuals in the field, each of whom may be using different processes and systems to collect and share, are just some of the ways this information may be reported. And then the field information must be consolidated in order to effectively manage all elements of the project such as reporting progress, identifying risks, maintaining scope, and controlling costs and schedules.
This all-too-common situation results in the right information not being available when and where it’s needed by the construction professionals in the office. Without timely access to accurate information, the office personnel are operating from incomplete data, which makes it difficult to effectively and efficiently manage complex construction projects.
Challenges arise from a lack of available information:
‘Good’ information isn’t easy to find and use
Accurate, timely and reliable information is nirvana to construction professionals, who need to be able to easily find and use this ‘good’ information in order to effectively manage complex construction projects.
Requests sent to the field regarding progress, project status, payment information, material documentation, or dispute documentation may come at the most inconvenient times, such as during critical operations. In these situations, the field staff is required to stop what they are doing to search for the requested information, which causes field delays, delays in the reporting of the information back to the office, or both.
Finding this ‘good’ information isn’t easy if it has been collected using paper-based means or
with disparate systems that don’t communicate well with one another. Moreover, if some of the information is on sheets of paper or if it is stored on several computers, using it won’t be easy either.
The propagation of ‘bad’ information
Project data typically originates in one of two places: either from the original contract documents or in the field from the inspectors or contractors. Field data is used in many forms and combinations by the project team. The project dataset multiplies and morphs with the creation of shop drawings, field changes, the discovery of design errors, or the addition of progress and payment records. Additionally there are Requests for Information (RFIs) and Submittals that must be responded to in a timely manner in order to provide the necessary approvals, which adds another layer to the evolving project dataset.
With this constant evolution of project data, it’s imperative to track and archive all of the varied project data points and make them immediately available to the right people at the right time – otherwise major issues will arise because important detail invariably fall through the cracks, creating project delays and increasing costs.
For instance, a bridge project of a few years ago fell victim to the propagation of ‘bad’ data that takes place when there is a lack of available information in the office. In this example, the contractors in the field continued to build from the plans that they understood to be current. Meanwhile a change to the plans had been submitted for approval using conventional methods (paper and FedEx); review of and communication about the change was stalled because the request took three days to be delivered. By the time the approved change made its way to the right people, several weeks had gone by. In that time the field team had completed a significant portion of the build that then had to be demolished and re-constructed using the updated plans, and both the project schedule and budget took a big hit. The burning heartburn created by these types of delays and cost overruns is unnecessary. If the office personnel had timely access to the change request and if the field team had an immediate update this issue could have been avoided.
When field reporting is based on anything less than the latest and most accurate information, schedule and cost updates are compromised. This propagates the dissemination of ‘bad’ information exponentially, compounding the challenge and making the heartburn that much more painful, particularly for those in the office who are reliant on the field team to be their eyes and ears.
Solution: A centralized repository of up-to-date project information collected in the field
Many systems in use today attempt to address the symptoms of challenges in the field but fail
to remedy the root causes. This is because they are one-dimensional: they do not interact well with other systems in use on the project, and/or they do not communicate information in a standardized way. A front-end field data collection system that provides accessibility and bidirectional communication from a secure, Web-based portal goes a long way toward resolving these challenges at the root level.
So rather than operating from yet another simple electronic filing system, the team has the tools to share and evaluate project information without delay of input by having ready access from both the field and office locations. The optimal system creates a searchable, paperless archive in which data collected in the field can be shared, approved and archived and project information can be communicated and reported. A system of this kind improves conformance tracking and allows for more expeditious resolution of disputes or claims.
With this type of system, office personnel are empowered to search for up-to-the-minute status information without disrupting field operations, and they can obtain the required information in a timely manner. This means geography is no longer a barrier to office personnel having project status information at their fingertips. Additionally, the better front-end data collection systems interact well with other construction solutions in use on the project, making them a multi-dimensional tool that provides a broad range of benefits to the office.
Even if the field and the office both have access to the project information they need when they need it, the information is of no value to them unless it’s current and accurate.
Some of the ways in which outdated or inaccurate information creates challenges include:
Confusion about status and responsibility
Established workflows for the approval of key documents are customary on construction projects; workflows require that a predefined set of parties review and sign-off on documents in a particular sequence. At the same time, there is also a need to ensure that documents immediately move from one approver to the next without delay, to easily identify who has Ball in Court (BIC) responsibility, and to be alerted when something gets stuck. But without automated approval routing, managing this workflow process often emulates the well-known Abbott & Costello skit, Who’s on First? No one knows who has BIC responsibility, RFIs are routed to the wrong person or, even worse, RFIs get lost in a pile of other requests on the approver’s desk. These are just a few examples of the types of errors and delays that can occur.
Data integrity is compromised
The numbers of forms required on projects vary from job to job, but one thing is true of each and every job: there will be forms. The purpose of forms is to standardize the way project data is collected, shared and reported. But if forms are paper based they can be lost, illegible or incomplete, and they run the risk of being the mechanism for sharing erroneous data.
When it comes to the integrity of data collected in forms, a new twist on a well-known construction analogy applies: it’s best to measure twice…and enter data only once. That means using forms that only allow for the entry of accurate and complete data.
Solution: A system with built-in safeguards
While it’s important to establish processes to assure that only the most current and accurate
information is available to the project team, that effort is only half of the equation. It is equally important to also employ a reliable system that provides configurable workflows and safeguards to support those processes and to assure compliance with the project rules, such as:
- Automated approval routing
- Version control
- “Smart” Forms with data validation
Automated approval routing is the next step. A system that provides for automated approval routing makes it possible for someone in the field to submit a change request and, depending on the permission level of the field user and the nature of the request, route the request to the appropriate person or chain of people for proper approval and communication. For example, the contractor in the field may submit an RFI and work may be stalled until a response is received. Automated approval routing not only assures that requests like this one will be routed correctly, but it saves days or even weeks of miscommunication and waiting that occurs on projects using conventional means.
With version control built into the system, the team always has access to the most current and accurate information they need. Version control in and of itself isn’t a new concept. But being able to use one, standardized system that only makes the most current and accurate versions of project data available to users based on their access levels and automated routing is somewhat revolutionary. On a typical construction project any one document may be accessed, updated and shared several times in one day. In a system where both approval routing and version control is automated, however, it’s no longer difficult to determine which information is the most current, accurate and approved because it will be the only information available to the team.
All of the above is useless if the data entered into the system is incomplete or erroneous. Digital versions of standardized forms are recommended as a way to remedy this. Not only do these types of forms look exactly like the hard copy forms to which the project team is accustomed, but they also include invaluable safeguards. Readily available technology can easily make forms “smart” to include required fields and preset calculations. These built-in calculations prevent human error and expedite the process of accurately recording information. “Smart” forms can even be set up with validation so that the system will not accept them if there is any type of error, such as a missing signature or date. And, if these smart forms are part of a system that provides cross referencing, they can be linked to other transactions such as Daily Work Reports, RFIs and change order requests, thus providing a complete project documentation archive.
Not only do all of these safeguards assure that the project data is always current and accurate, but together they also save time and eliminate errors that can be costly on construction projects.
Working without essential information, with data that is outdated or inaccurate, or with data that’s housed in several disparate systems simply isn’t a sustainable practice. The risk of cost overruns and schedule delays is just too great. It’s time to stop the cycle. Today’s challenges require an approach that can scale across construction projects of different sizes and ultimately deliver complete and accurate project information when and where it’s needed.
By employing an automated field inspection and reporting system, critical data is accessible in the field and the office, accurate and timely information is available to the team, and everyone is able to stay on the same page.
About Field Automated Communication Systems (FACS)
Field Automated Communication Systems (FACS) is an industry leader in cloud-based construction management software. We offer an array of project management solutions helping construction project owners, project managers, field employees and contractors eliminate the constant delay in information and redundant work endured while using outdated field, cost and document management systems. FACS understands that every organization has a different workflow and we focus on learning how our clients operate to ensure we provide them with a cloud-based solution that satisfies all of their needs.
With headquarters in San Francisco, FACS has provided construction project management solutions since 2001. The company’s solution set includes FACS Project Controller™, FACS Project Inspector™ and FACS Project Recorder™.
Sponsored By: Field Automated Communication Systems, LLC
142 Sansome Street, Suite 610
San Francisco, CA 94104