Project management: basic principles

Work in progress

13 January 2017

Helen Brydson looks at some basic principles for programming and planning projects

Project management is essentially about delivering the right thing at the right cost on time. This seems simple, as there are just 3 factors to consider, but achieving all – or even just one – of these requirements can be complex.

Construction is often viewed as a sector that is poor at delivering on time. The Constructing Excellence 2015 key performance indicators identified that only 40% of projects were completed on time. While this statistic must be considered alongside wider economic challenges, it still creates a negative perception of the industry.

Detailed and frequent programme analysis and monitoring is sometimes considered necessary for large, complex projects alone due to the potential magnitude of any commercial issues arising from delay. However, smaller projects can have a tighter margin for error as the project timetable is often shorter and so more sensitive to delays affecting completion.

While the accurate production and effective management of a project programme or schedule is essential, the detail and frequency of programme production and review should be appropriate to the project’s characteristics, the particular phase or activity level and the relative importance of completing on time.

Step 1: develop a programme

Developing a realistic programme is the first step. Activities required to finalise a project should be listed and the relationships between them identified: what other activities need to have occurred for a particular task to commence or be considered complete? The individual tasks and their interdependencies form the outline plan or project strategy.

To translate this into a meaningful project programme, time and resources need to be considered: what is the duration of each activity, who is doing it and when? Ensure that non-working time is taken into account – typically bank holidays and Christmas – and that the working hours reflect those permitted on the project.

Project management is essentially about delivering the right thing at the right cost on time

Many types of software can be used to build and present a project schedule, from the manipulation of spreadsheets to specialist software capable of varying degrees of automation for programme development, analysis, review and management. The project programme is commonly presented as a bar chart or Gantt chart.

Whatever software is used, it is imperative that the relationships between all tasks are correctly identified by the logic links shown, as this informs the critical path. Specialist software will identify the critical path activities, but it can only analyse these on the basis of what is input. Any errors will mean a misleading output that will hinder the effectiveness of the programme as a tool to monitor and control progress. 

These items can also be used as a basic checklist for reviewing a programme:

  • Have all required works been recorded?
  • Are relationships between tasks correctly defined and bars linked?
  • Are reasonable time and resources allowed for each activity?
  • Is the resource available for the time the works are scheduled?

All of these determine whether a programme is realistic.

Step 2: monitor progress

Once there is an agreed project timetable in place, the second step is to monitor its fulfilment. This involves:

  • examining actual progress;
  • recording progress in the programme; and
  • comparing progress with the activities originally forecast.

Setting a baseline for the original project programme enables comparisons when there are deviations. 

Assessing progress can be done in many ways, depending on the level of accuracy or interrogation required and the phase of the project; for example, a site visit can be used to see whether activities with a forecast start or finish date have actually commenced or have been properly completed.

Step 3: understand the impact of changes

Updating the programme with progress made shows just that – the progress against forecast – and does not identify the impact of that progress on the project programme as whole. The third step, therefore, is to understand the impact on the remaining tasks, particularly any effect on the critical path and completion date.

Completing a project on time is a team effort

Rescheduling an updated programme will show how progress affects the schedule as a whole, bringing forward any activities that have been carried out ahead of forecast, pushing back any that are behind, and so on for each of the subsequent activities that depend on them.

If an activity on the critical path is affected, then the forecast completion date will alter. Specialist software can do this automatically, relying on the logic links discussed above. If tasks are not linked or less sophisticated software is used, every individual task must be altered manually.

Step 4: apply corrective measures

The fourth step is to apply corrective measures to any delay and mitigate adverse impacts on the programme. It is essential that the underlying issue of a delayed task is identified to ensure that the mitigation measures are treating the root cause rather than a symptom.

Steps 2 to 4 form a simple cycle that can be repeated on a regular basis to manage the programme throughout a project. If resequencing or mitigation measures fail to address a delay adequately, then reprogramming and a return to step 1 may be required.

A creative approach can be applied to these steps to tailor standard schedules and processes to suit what you are trying to communicate and achieve. It is crucial to understand:

  • your audience;
  • what you want them to know and why; and
  • how you will get your message across.

For example, at a meeting for a refurbishment project in an operational building, you may be communicating the programme to non-technical representatives whose understanding of it is essential to arrange access or facilitate the works, and who may more easily interpret phasing plans than a Gannt chart.

Displaying progress

Understanding what is the most important time constraint on a project and why is also crucial. For example, the Ministry of Justice identified the contractual practical completion date as a key requirement on a project, and used a buffer chart to focus on and protect this.

Figure 1 shows a buffer chart that is ahead of programme, and if actual progress is maintained as forecast then it would be completed early. Conversely, Figure 2 shows a buffer chart that is behind programme. Despite various successful mitigation measures being implemented for multiple delays, the practical completion date is still threatened. Even if the rate of progress is maintained in line with the forecast for the remainder of the works, the project will be completed late.

Project ahead of programme

Figure 1: Buffer chart showing a project ahead of programme

A project behind programme

Figure 2: Buffer chart showing a project behind programme

While the methodology behind this is not appropriate for all projects – as a result, for instance, of its complexity and contractual concerns surrounding float – the concept of the tool is simple, as traffic light colours provide an effective monitoring and communication method. The chart can be displayed on site noticeboards or in monthly client reports, and requires little commentary.


Completing a project on time is a team effort. Coordination is crucial to identify and mitigate risks to prevent delays before they occur, and/or factor time in to the programme upfront to enable proactive rather than reactive management.

A project manager depends on the right input at the right time from everyone from the subcontractor to the main contractor, the consultant team and the client. The project manager should also understand what needs to be done and when, identify whether or not activities are being carried out, understand potential risks, identify delays as well as their cause, and ensure that corrective measures are implemented.

Multiple parties are involved in the work and responding to delays, and this will sometimes involve changes to what they had originally planned. So, to ensure the project’s completion on time, the schedule must be communicated to and accepted by those responsible for each task, in a way they can understand. 

Helen Brydson is an associate director with Faithful+Gould

Further information

This article is taken from the RICS Construction journal (November/December 2016)