Simplifying Complex Linear Infrastructure Project Management Using Clear Communication

Linear infrastructure projects such as pipeline and bridge construction, highway and roadworks, tunnels and powerlines are some of the most complex types of infrastructure projects to control and manage.

What makes linear projects different than non-linear projects?

Complex linear Infrastructure projects are different from non-linear projects as they involve repetition of tasks along the right of way with many start-to-start and finish-to-finish interdependencies. The emphasis is on effective usage and productivity of resources, including movement of equipment, to reduce time in field without having clashes between activities or impacting environmental resources, while managing parameters and constraints. Due to the nature of executing linear projects, effective progression heavily relies on the sequencing of tasks to be executed as per the plan. Non-linear projects can often have other work areas where progress can be realized even if not as per the baseline plan.

What makes complex linear infrastructure projects so challenging?

At one time, there may be as many as 100 different crews with equipment actively working along the project execution path. Activities must proceed in a particular order (ie: earthworks must be completed prior to paving).

Ideally, all equipment and crews would move in an orderly fashion from Point A to Point B as per the plan, until the project is complete, however, delays caused by permitting, weather, land use regulations and other external factors can necessitate moving resources to achieve continuous progress. This is where tasks can start to overlap and make it extremely challenging for a project manager or scheduler to detect and prevent costly equipment clashes. Executing tasks out of sequence can also result in cost claims, huge inefficiencies, and incurring risks to the project meeting the schedule and cost objectives. It also negates the possibilities of taking advantage of any opportunities.

While managing the project’s budget and schedule are critical and can be challenging, internal communication factors can also pose further challenges.

Communication between the project owner company, the engineering company, the construction company and all involved stakeholders, crews, planners and managers must be flawless in order to unify against, and overcome the myriad of external obstacles present with a complex linear infrastructure project. It is critical to have buy-in to the approved execution plan and schedule by all stakeholders to ensure that the project will meet the established goals and objectives.

Common internal communication problems present with linear infrastructure projects

Historically, a linear project was planned, scheduled and managed using project management software like MS Project, Primavera P6, or ASTA PowerProject to name a few. The output, or report generation function of these tools produce GANTT charts. A complex linear infrastructure project may produce as many as 50 pages of reporting in GANTT chart format, which can be non-intuitive and overwhelming for those who only need specific pieces of information. Often this requires a scheduler to produce numerous layouts of schedules to deliver the requirements to the specifics outlined per work crew.

For example, onsite crews simply need to know the specific details of where they need to go to perform their work the next day. The details of the entire project aren’t necessary for them to view. Whereas stakeholders at owner companies need a macro view of what work has been done where, and how far progress is, measured against the baseline.

The missing piece of information in the GANTT charts is the distance axis. Progression of linear projects requires the position or location information to be evident. In the past, this information may have been managed by the project team externally from the GANTT chart schedule (e.g. in spreadsheets) and require laborious integration of information to support the project reporting requirements.

Complex text-based reports make it challenging to communicate project progress in a manner that is easy to understand, consistent, and actionable for every stakeholder, whose level of information and detail may vary. Using a planning tool that is specifically built for linear projects addresses many of the challenges identified.

How to solve the complex linear project management communication problem

  • Tailor Your Message To Your Audience

Whether you’re speaking to a field crew member or a Project Manager, tailor the information you’re providing based on what they need to know. If possible, leave out extraneous details and confusing multi-page reports.

  • Create your linear project plan based on the linear scheduling method

The linear scheduling method is widely thought to be the most effective way to manage linear projects. The linear scheduling method measures progress along a time – distance axis, which relates the physical project to the schedule. The output is a Time Distance Chart, which can display all the details of the project in a one page plan.

Shown below, a GANTT chart output vs a Time Distance Diagram:

 

  • Avoid manual updates:

Manual updates to the project progress may actually misinform those you are trying to communicate with. Each update on work necessitates the plan be updated, which means it will almost always be inaccurate. Additionally, manual updates increase the risk of human error and thereby communicating the wrong information.

Instead of manually updating Time Distance Diagrams with the daily progress of crews, consider using a project management software that can automatically calculate project progress based on the latest data, as well as receive inputs from multiple parties. Using software instead of manual updates allow for the most up to date information to be readily available to multiple parties.

  • Use visual supports to communicate:

Whether it’s a Google Earth image, a graphic overlay of the project’s progress or a Time Distance Diagram, don’t underestimate the value of visuals to communicate complex project details.

  • Use linear scheduling software:

There are linear scheduling software applications on the marketplace today that are specifically designed to address the challenges linear projects, by automating the Linear Scheduling Method and producing easy to understand Time Distance diagrams.  Consider using linear scheduling software to help you improve communication on a linear project.

The costs of poor communication on a linear infrastructure project

When each day behind schedule can cost 5 figures, it’s mission critical to create, execute and manage linear project schedules effectively – and then communicate them to various stakeholders.

Implement the tips discussed in this article to improve internal communication within complex linear infrastructure teams and ensure your project completes as close to the baseline as possible.

Lorne Duncan

Lorne Duncan

Lorne Duncan has 25 + years experience in the integration of project controls tools and planning for large infrastructure projects. Lorne is the President & CEO of Petroglyph Project Analytics and TILOS - a linear scheduling resource.

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