Five steps to saving a late project

Completion date looming with seemingly little chance of meeting it? Dave Stitt FCIOB offers some tips.

1. Get some perspective

You’re the project director so you’re accountable, but it’s not your fault. You picked up the job after it was won. Someone before you optimistically predicted the predictable. It’s not their fault either – if they’d been realistic your company may not have won the job.

So here we are. The project is late against some arbitrary date due to a combination of occurrences and no one party is solely to blame. Still, they’re counting on you to turn it round. Go to step 2.

2. Convene the leadership

There is a small group of people who are responsible for the big decisions. You, your second-in-command, your commercial director, the client’s representative, one or two of their consultants and the directors of a few key subcontractors. Probably eight of you in all.

This small group creates the environment in which everyone else succeeds or fails. The fish rots from the head: this is the head and it needs to be in good shape so the other 600 people stand a chance.

Good shape means you’re all pulling in the same direction. You’re clear on where you’re going and you’re having candid, constructive discussions about how to get there. Information flows to where it’s needed, when it’s needed. You’re supporting and challenging each other, not blaming and backstabbing. Go to step 3.

3. Shift from “can-do” to “can-think”

The eight of you all have brilliant, can-do attitudes. That’s how you got to where you are. It’s not enough.

‘If you have more than one priority, you have none. If you’re eight weeks behind, you need one priority.’

Dave Stitt FCIOB

The trouble with can-doers is that they do more than they think. Frantic busyness is usually automatic-pilot stuff, doing what we’ve always done but harder and faster. It won’t gain you back the eight vanished weeks. It might save two, but blow the budget in doing so.

So, you have to think differently and get your people thinking differently because old thinking leads to more of the same. Develop a psychologically safe space so the top team can think and share ideas and insights without fear of retribution or embarrassment. Cascade that safe space, then go to step 4.

4. What’s the priority?

If you have more than one priority, you have none. If you’re eight weeks behind, you need one priority.

What’s yours? Is it to win this or that particular skirmish? Is it the community open day? Is it looking busy and determined?

Is it time, because the Queen is cutting the ribbon and her diary is booked solid for the next two years?

Is it cost, because this is all the money you’ve got?

Is it quality, because once this facility opens there is no access for repairs?

Together, agree and articulate the priority and think about mobilising the workforce. Go to step 5.

5. Engage the workforce

When I was a contracts manager, I was handed the most ridiculous fast-track project ever. By week 18 the project management team was working 24/7, but it was clear we were not going to make it. I asked the project manager to get his site staff and key subcontract supervisors in the conference room. An hour later I had 19 people assembled.

“We’re not going to make it,” I said. They were shocked. Of course, they knew we weren’t going to make it, but it wasn’t the sort of thing you admitted in the conference room with the contracts manager present.

“Let’s be candid,” I said. Some were in denial. Then the M+E supervisor blurted out that it was chaos on site. The trades weren’t coordinated. He gave several examples, such as painters working in a room with a circular saw spewing sawdust. He went on to say, ‘We don’t even know the completion date.’

Crestfallen, the project manager asked: “What do you think we should do?”

That afternoon they stopped the job and got everybody in one place. The PM declared that completing on time was priority. He announced the date with weeks and days remaining and then held open conversations and gathered ideas. Subsequently a plan was hatched and… they all did it –

250 people working together, rather than a handful of managers working crazy hours.

Dave Stitt FCIOB is a leadership team coach and founder of DSA Building Performance. His DeliverSprint2Finish programme helps teams facing a medium-term challenge.

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  1. I would add, make a very clean and tidy site. If necessary bring in cleaners to maintain an orderly site. It’s much easier to focus in an orderly environment. Unfortunately delayed sites can end in a mess. Get it cleaned up.

  2. I love the bit about re-think. If you do what you’ve always done you’ll get what you’ve always had

  3. This sums up the crazy way construction in uk works!
    Site teams need to take FULL ownership of the project via a formal handover from tender stage.
    Full means all aspects from programme, cost, supply chain, client and designers etc other wise the scenario noted in the article keeps repeating itself.

  4. There is only one correct way to stop a project going wrong that is to have the right staff and subcontractors who know how to build it right the first time and understand the quality as per the project specification
    Site staff should be trained in line with the previous roles of an RE and Clerk of Works

    The majority of Construction / Site Managers how I have met over the past 10 years are ALL suffering from the lack of proper training

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