Collaboration software provides basis for electronic data management, report development, scheduling, and communication for multiple-task, multiple-site project.
The Missouri Safe and Sound Project is a unique design, build, finance, and maintain contract that includes reconstruction and rehabilitation of Missouri’s 802 worst bridges. Terracon was selected to direct more than 550 geotechnical investigations in an 18-month period.
In a more traditional project, we would identify staff and resources from across the company, transition them to a co-located project office with the rest of the design team, and away we would go. But this project was different. We had assignments across the entire state of Missouri, and our client had designers in 10 offices from Florida to California.
Considering the cost in both dollars and time to fly people around, we needed a new approach that streamlined the use of personnel and resources while maintaining the efficiencies that allowed us to respond to the team as quickly as we have on other multiple-site projects. Terracon has a national account and portfolio program that manages multiple projects in multiple locations. We’ve been asked to perform as many as 500 tasks simultaneously for some of these clients.
After interviewing some of our national account managers, we discovered that much of the work was tracked through enormous spreadsheets that occasionally caused items to slip through the cracks. Even our client was using spreadsheets to track key project information. Then there were the files—hundreds and hundreds of paper and electronic files spread across multiple offices. A true logistical nightmare.
Terracon’s IT department had recently invested in Microsoft SharePoint software to use as a collaboration tool between offices and departments. It has become a major asset to us as a collaboration tool, helping meet the needs of our national account program. We felt that this product could be our ticket to a paperless project.
However, the first issue was managing nearly a terabyte of electronic, as-built files and photographs that would be part of the project. This was a unique challenge because the state of Missouri and the Federal Highway Administration each had a different bridge numbering system. The federal system would be used for the project, but the data was all on the state system. A spreadsheet would have been the traditional approach, but spreadsheets have their limitations and they were easily corrupted when too many individuals had access. The client provided its spreadsheet containing columns of data for the numbering systems, name of the county and district, location data, design schedules, construction schedules, traffic data, existing bridge types, contractor-preferred bridge types, design team-preferred bridge types, environmental considerations, right-of-way limitations, railroad restrictions, bridge loading restrictions, and 10 other columns of data.
Using a custom list tool within the collaboration software, we were able to import the client spreadsheet, add additional fields for tracking purposes, and transform the spreadsheet from one-dimensional data to an interactive library of tasks, links, schedules, and performance indices. This one list became the co-located office, the sole source of all information.
With a simple click of a mouse, a bridge could be located in seconds along with the as-built information and pictures. The status of each bridge could be easily identified by all. Invoices could be generated from the list and office performance could be managed.
We then needed to address the thousands of pages of reports and our quality control/quality assurance plan. The typical report would be written, printed, and reviewed several times before given to the client—not necessarily a green undertaking, considering the amount of paper that would be used.
The collaboration software provided an efficient means of developing an electronic filing system and the added benefit of controlling and tracking draft reports, reviewers, comments, and accessibility at each stage of the report-development process. A report could be drafted and posted on the site. An automatically generated workflow reminder would direct the reviewers to the document via an e-mail notification. The workflow process kept track of the documents’ progress in the review process, the status of completed tasks, added comments, the history of each version, and the previous versions. The tool limited accessibility to the document until it was approved and finalized.
Additionally, the document author, reviewers, and project manager were automatically reminded of outstanding tasks, deadlines, and approval status without a spreadsheet and without the project manager having to type or send a single e-mail.
By using existing tools in the software programs, we were able to document our review process completely and in accordance with existing quality procedures. In fact, we found that our compliance with the approved quality procedures was 100 percent with few opportunities for non-compliance.
With the data loaded and the report process outlined, it was time to address schedule and staffing. The schedule was the easy part. Using similar task tools as identified for the report-development process, we were able to create calendars, automated notifications, tracking methods, and real-time updates that were available to all team members. This was a significant adjustment to our traditional tracking methods as all staff had access to the schedule and were automatically notified of changes and problems if they fell behind. This allowed our project manager more time to manage the project with less worry about tracking and updating data.
As with any project of significant magnitude, team members from all levels of the organization represented three generations of values and ideals. Eight offices were engaged on a daily basis and six would be engaged for shorter periods of time throughout the project. As such, it was necessary to develop meeting structures and tools that met the needs of the team and provided an opportunity for personal interaction.
We started this process with a weekly update call, open to anyone with questions about any aspect of the project. During this call, an overview of the project was provided and key process updates were discussed. As time went on, some team members changed their schedules to attend every other week or less frequently. Depending upon the questions, individuals would be invited to other team meetings or a task-specific call was set up. Discussion boards were also used for specific questions for subgroups. Interactive web-based meeting sites were used for development of documents and training materials. Ideas were quickly captured on virtual documents that were visible to all attendees. Breakout sessions could be set up during the meeting to allow subsets to work on a specific task and then return to our meeting. Transcripts of the call were immediately available to the attendees and follow-up tasks were assigned.
The project was not without its challenges, including the fact that we did not fully understand the technology at our disposal. We spent a significant amount of time looking for solutions to challenges that had already been solved, but we did not have a team member who was versed in all of the tools within the various applications used on the project. We are still working on this as a company, but have made great strides.
Differences in experience also yielded some interesting challenges. Some employees were far more comfortable with remote interaction and use of technology to manage many of the tasks that were traditionally performed by the project manager. Other team members desired a more complete understanding of the processes and needed some assistance with the technology. These needs were addressed through mentoring: staff members assisting each other in their areas of expertise. A project administrator with strong interpersonal skills was able to devote time to training and coaching in project processes.
We also faced challenges with integration of traditional corporate services provided to our local operations and incorporation of those services and functions into a virtual office. Many of these issues were not easily resolved and new processes and procedures were developed to address our needs. With a flexible staff devoted to the success of the company, we were able to take a long-range view of our needs and develop solutions, not temporary fixes. Some of these solutions have direct application to local operations and will facilitate future transition to a more automated office.
The Missouri Safe and Sound Project is currently on hold by the state because of economic and funding issues, but the work we did and the lessons we learned are now part of Terracon’s story.
The most important lesson learned was that looking in the box at the tools we could use more efficiently paid off. By using the tools we already had, we were able to increase Terracon’s efficiency and reduce the personal cost to the lives of our team members. We are confident that the tools and processes we are developing today will shape the success of our firm tomorrow.
David D. Harwood, P.E., principal and sector manager for Terracon, focuses on transportation and infrastructure projects. Terracon is an employee-owned engineering consulting firm providing geotechnical, environmental, construction materials, and facilities services. The firm has nearly 100 offices nationwide and employs more than 3,000.