Recalculating Route: What GPS Can Teach Us About Delivering Better Projects

Not very long ago, if you got stuck in bad traffic and wanted to find another route to your destination you either had to pull over to the side of the road and look at a map, rely on your sense of direction, or grin and bear it until you got where you were going. Thanks to the proliferation of GPS on cell phones, those situations are relics of the past. We all can hear that familiar voice in our head saying “recalculating route” as we sit in traffic. Finding a different way to your destination used to require a time-consuming analysis or a complete guess. Now, our phones do most of the work for us and we just have to make a decision about whether or not we want to take the advice.

There’s a good lesson here that carries over into managing capital projects. Real-time data was difficult to gather on projects as they were progressing unless we deployed a small army of project controls personnel that directly observed and reported. Cost pressures have severely limited this option meaning that improving efficiency was something that happened mostly in hindsight after a project was complete. If a project was going off track, there weren’t enough ways to get data about what was happening to course correct in the moment.

Today, we live in a world where technology and data analytics have changed the game. We can see potential pitfalls or challenges as they happen. Perhaps most importantly, we can share that information with all members of a project team instantaneously. Instead of only having a retrospective view of a project or a potentially inaccurate forecast, we can actually have a current view of issues.

Unfortunately, what the data still can’t do, and will probably never be able to do, is make decisions about what to do next. That’s where human judgement comes in. But making these real-time judgements and course corrections requires a few key cultural elements:

  • Embracing accurate, on-time reporting
  • Empowering informed decision making at every level of an organization
  • Embracing transparency and collaboration
  • Experienced owners and contractors having continuous, productive conversations versus conversations that are primarily focused on protecting our positions in case there are disputes

A report from Credit Suisse on the oil and gas industry found that 65% of capital projects fail because of issues related to people, organization and governance. Owner companies and contractors need to work on addressing these fundamental issues in order to take full advantage of modern day technology. This means taking a hard look at how they manage communication both internally within their organization and externally with contractors and partners.

When working on capital projects we don’t have the benefit of that voice actually saying “recalculating route.” But if we try to remember that little voice in our heads, we will be more likely to make better decisions with the most up to date information, leading to better results. All this being said, it’s still useful to know how to read a map.