The 3 Most Common Capital Project Planning Problems, And How To Solve Them

How to stop a reactive, fractured schedule and unclear accountabilities from sabotaging your project


Capital projects are complex and risky. Depending on your execution strategy, you’ll have multiple layers of contracting companies and organizational cultures. You’ll encounter economic, social, religious and political issues. Intellectual property and technology concerns will inevitably arise. All of these factors are well-known contributors to the risk profile of a capital project, and they’re routinely assessed as such.

What’s missing from this list? Planning.

The quality of planning is a critical risk factor that is almost always ignored in conventional risk assessments. From staffing and scope management to scheduling and contracting practices, project planning is among the riskiest aspects of the early-stage capital project process. Initiating a project with weak planning and scheduling protocols is like driving a car with a dashboard that tells you what’s going on after it happens — you’ll run out of gas and stop, and you won’t find out why until much later.

Mitigate this risk by transforming your planning and scheduling systems into a powerful tool that will support real-time decision-making and create predictability in the field. Here are the three problems we encounter most often, and a straightforward guide to solving them.


PROBLEM 1: The reactive schedule


The Problem: Projects conflate planning and scheduling

How do you know if you’ve confused planning with scheduling? The most obvious red flag is a reactive schedule. You know you have a reactive schedule if your controllers spend most of their time updating the schedule to reflect what the field is reporting. If the central schedule is lagging in this way, it cannot effectively drive (or even support) decision-making. This means the project manager must rely on secondary sources or outside schedules to determine the next steps, a problem that is compounded if reporting protocols are unclear or non-existent (See Problem 3, below).


The Solution: Clarify the difference between planning and scheduling, and plan first

Planning is not scheduling. Planning is the logic behind the execution, it is the sequence of the activities leading up to the installation and the sequence of the installation itself. The Path of Construction (PoC) is the keystone plan for a capital project that is using Advanced Work Packaging methodology; it should come first. Use your POC to build your Project Execution Plan (PEP). Only then should you start work on the schedule. When the schedule reflects both the PoC and the PEP, it becomes a proactive schedule, a powerful tool that drives decision-making and establishes predictability in the field. The team can see key milestones and constraints from the outset.


PROBLEM 2: Unclear roles and responsibilities


The Problem: Blurred boundaries between project managers and project controllers

We often see projects where these two key constituencies are at odds with one another. Signs that boundaries are blurry range from general confusion and poor productivity all the way to a full-blown turf war that poisons the work environment. The conflict is typically rooted in fundamental control issues: schedulers understand and direct the complex spreadsheets/schedules that form the nerve center of extraordinarily complex projects, while project managers are responsible for execution. They are both integral players in project success, and a disjuncture between the two can have serious negative consequences. 


The Solution: Clarify roles and responsibilities to ensure consistent messaging

The project manager and the project controller (or scheduler) must have a strong relationship so they are sending clear, consistent messages to the team as a whole. To achieve this, start by clarifying roles and responsibilities. Then create the PoC and PEP, translate them into the schedule, and establish a proactive, effective plan to communicate with the project team. Be sure to have an integration plan to implement in the event that you end up with multiple schedules, as often happens on large megaprojects.

Pro tip: In some cases, we see situations where project control is viewed as a support function, a collection of lagging indicators that don’t mirror what is happening in the field in real-time. If this is the case on your project, shift your paradigm and position project control as a centerpiece in project execution. This will resolve conflict and send a clear message to the project team about who makes decisions.


The quality of planning is a critical risk factor that is almost always ignored in conventional risk assessments.


PROBLEM 3: A fractured scheduling process


The Problem: The contracting strategy is dictating the scheduling process

On some projects, the contracting strategy comes to have an outsize impact on the schedule. This is almost always inadvertent. There may be schedules and a project control team in place, but on a day-to-day basis, the general contractor drives the schedule by dictating when and how subcontractors fit in. This splintering of responsibility predictably gives rise to multiple schedules, each of which is owned and maintained by contracting companies outside the control and direction of the Owner or EPC company. The main schedule ceases to be authoritative and instead becomes a repository of old updates from these more current and influential. 


The Solution: The Owner or EPC company owns the schedule

The Owner or EPC company can prevent the contracting strategy from dictating the schedule by taking full, meaningful control of the schedule from Day 1. The general contractor and all subcontractors must be contractually required to seek direction from project controllers and to report progress back to them in a standardized way. It is normal and necessary for contractors to develop their own internal schedules, but by taking control of the process from the outset, the Owner or EPC company facilitates proactive integration of these schedules in service of a single, authoritative schedule that supports the efforts of project managers to set the direction of the project and achieve results.

One advantage of Advanced Work Packaging is that it enhances communication, translating the complex schedule into accessible tasks that can be used collaboratively by people across the project organization, throughout the project lifecycle. It’s a dynamic, agile way to manage day-to-day collaboration, while the larger, long-term scheduling is done in a more traditional fashion.

What problems have you encountered in your capital project planning? How have you solved them?

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