InfoComm: Project Changes: Manage Them or Just Make Them?

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By Bradley A. Malone, PMP

This article is reprinted with permission from InfoComm and originally appearedhere.

This is the 15th in an ongoing series of organizational project management maturity articles by InfoComm University senior instructor Brad Malone. To read the 14th installment, detailing the process of reporting status, progress and forecasts, click here. To read all the articles in the series, click here.

Project changes are inevitable. Even the most well-defined, cookie-cutter project will experience changes — for a number of reasons. One reason is that no matter how cookie-cutter, all projects have something that makes them unique, and that uniqueness creates uncertainty. Predictions (plans) attempt to make uncertainty more certain, but just as no one can predict the future (not even Nostradamus or The Farmer’s Almanac), no project ever goes exactly according to plan. Anyone who says their project matched their plan must have written and published the plan after the project was finished — something I’ve seen several people do when their performance metrics measured them on how well the project matched the plan.

Another reason change is inevitable is that clients often change their minds or gain a different understanding, especially when moving from a drawing or design document to a three-dimensional room. And a third reason for project changes: technology. Technology moves fast, and a solution that was designed with many technology components may include pieces that don’t integrate as seamlessly as promised or aren’t even available any more.

Still, there’s a myth that lingers in the minds of many owners and clients: A good project is one that doesn’t change. Bah.

So if change is inevitable, regardless of what some clients believe, the question you need to answer when managing change and measuring project success is, “Which is more important, managing the project and adjusting the plan, managing the plan and adjusting the project, or managing neither and saying, ‘It’s all good?’”  Because “change,” in the context of a project, is often regarded as a bad word and something we shouldn’t discuss, the strategy many people take is to either hide the change or play mix-and-match with other pieces of the project so that, in the end, they hopefully make everything look good. This works sometimes, but other times it can be disastrous. Clearly, not the best approach.

Debunk the Myth

Let’s deal with reality and debunk the myth. Say it together: “Projects will always experience change and this change must be managed in a disciplined and documented fashion.”

Because a project is a future-based occurrence, the best we can do is plan ahead based on our experience with similar projects. Those similarities become conditions upon which we make our estimates, resource plans, schedules, and budgets and pricing.

When we come across uniqueness (as opposed to similarities), we must document and communicate our assumptions. (And it just so happens I’ve got several thoughts about assumptions here).  That doesn’t necessarily mean our assumptions are correct, although we must base our plan on the belief that they are. When a project’s assumptions or conditions do not prove correct — which, again, is inevitable because projects change — the important thing is figuring out how to manage the change. And it has to be part of a communicated process.

First, the sales representative must include the project change-control process within thescope of work document and proactively discuss this process with the client as part of their sales and proposal activities.

Second, the project manager — or lead technician on a smaller installation — must communicate this change-control process to their counterpart at the start of the project during a structured kick-off meeting.

Third, the process needs at least two forms and associated steps: a Field Change Order form and a Contract Change Order form. The Field Change Order form must be readily available on the job site, easy to use, and provide a quick-and-rough estimate of the parts and labor needed to fulfill the change (seeing as the change may add labor and equipment to the project, subtract labor and equipment from the project, or some combination of the two). A project manager or lead technician must have the authority and responsibility to fill out the Field Change Order form and get it initialed by the client. Even if the change is something transparent to the client, if it’s different from what was planned, a Field Change Order should still be filled out to help correlate between the final job costs and the documents of record (as-built drawings).

Field Change Orders will almost always change the cost of the project, which is distinct from the price.  Remember: Cost is a project management function; price is a sales and business function.

A number of Field Change Orders (typically five to 10) may be combined into a single Contract Change Order. The Contract Change Order process is managed by a combination of the project manager, sales representative, and procurement specialist, depending on their specific roles and responsibilities in the AV integration company. A Contract Change Order details a total number of hours (plus or minus), changes to equipment and associated materials, the labor to modify the drawings (this is often left out), and any travel related charges.

Based upon the AV integration company’s management and sales conversations, a client may not be billed for all of the work required to fulfill the Field Change Orders. Again, this is a management decision, but you should always list the Field Change Orders’ impact on a project in its entirety. I’ve found that clients will understand and respect you more when you show them the effort and materials required to make the inevitable project changes, then show them that you will not be charging them for a portion of that effort (you may even decide to credit the client when a change causes a reduction in the total labor required for the project). I’m not saying give away the store, but it’s amazing how a client’s perception of value changes when you share factual information.

Overall, this change-control process communicates to the client that the project was well managed, the project manager actually had a change-control process in place, and your company values the business relationship it has with the client.

Unfortunately, this is very different from what I normally see. Too often:

  • The client makes a change, or the facility doesn’t match the drawing, or other subcontractors don’t complete their portion of the job.
  • There is no easy-to-use change-control process for the project manager or lead technician to follow and document.
  • Sales doesn’t find any value (monetarily, for themselves) in processing small (or sometimes even large) changes.
  • And the client (sometimes the general contractor) ends up learning that the AV integration company will make changes without any ramifications to the client.
  • This common scenario reduces profit potential, increases labor costs, and causes frustration across the installation and service departments. Because changes weren’t tracked, the final drawings don’t match reality, there’s no closed loop to correlate the variance between actual and estimated labor, and future estimates continue to be off.

Successful change control is a conversation about organizational maturity. It starts at the top of the organization and permeates outward. It begins with the shared belief that we manage a project as it changes instead of falsely making a project match the plan. Mature organizations deal in reality and reward truth. Project management is about managing changes as they occur — not just making changes.

Bradley A. Malone, PMP, is an InfoComm University senior instructor and president of Twin Star Consulting, an organizational excellence and program management consulting company serving multiple industries worldwide. He holds the Project Management Professional (PMP) designation from the Project Management Institute (PMI) and is one of PMI’s and InfoComm’s highest-rated instructors. Please share your thoughts with him at brad@twinstarconsulting.com.