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Project Profitability: Project closeout

Project Profitability: Project closeout

By Howard Birnberg

For many project managers, by the time a project is substantially complete, little budget, time, or interest remains for the project closeout process. Unfortunately, this is a lost opportunity to compile important data, cement a relationship with a client, and tie up loose ends on a project’s scope.

Few firms emphasize the importance of effective project closeout to project managers and most devote little effort to developing complete procedures and records. As a result, client satisfaction may suffer, important data is lost, marketing opportunities are squandered, and useful information is not effectively assembled.

Why devote the effort to proper closeout?

Your client is the reason you have the project. They had/have a need and hire your firm to meet that need. It is their money, their project. It is your job to make sure they are satisfied with your work and that you have fulfilled their need.

Too often, engineers and architects assume their clients are satisfied with their performance, although this isn’t always the case. How do firms measure client satisfaction? If they hire you again for another job, then the assumption is made that they found your work at least acceptable. While this assumption may be true, it ignores the opportunity to improve your firm’s performance. Your reputation is everything and improvement is always possible. Seek out this opportunity.

After the punch lists have been completed and final actions taken, the design firm project manager remains an important part of ensuring client satisfaction. Regular follow-up with a telephone call or meeting will let the client know you are concerned about service and his or her satisfaction. Some firms request client completion of a report card form (see  Figure 1 for an example).

Time and expense spent giving attention to problems should be immediate, may not be billable, and may need to be charged to marketing. Clients should be kept informed of your firm’s activities and should receive all relevant material. Some design firms enter into a formal commissioning process to assist their clients in the operation and maintenance of sophisticated mechanical systems. It is important to follow up to ensure client satisfaction, learn from the experience, and obtain additional work if available.

Project data retention

Once a project has been completed, a decision must be made as to the fate of the vast amount of data and material collected during the project’s design and construction life. No firm can or should save everything. Many of the materials that accumulate are redundant, are working or draft versions, or are progress reports.

The pack rat firm that saves everything will soon be overwhelmed. A firm that discards nearly everything will soon find itself regretting the decision. Equally at risk is a firm that retains the wrong materials or one that fails to organize them in a useful form. Increasingly, firms are saving much of the needed data electronically. Not only does this save space, but also many clients are now requiring their own copy of this electronically stored information.

Some materials must be retained. As-built drawings should be kept for as long as the structure stands. Your firm may be the only source of these important documents. Future engineers, architects, and building owners will be saved much time and expense if they have these drawings available.

The project specifications are also vital to enable others to review the material and equipment used. For historically significant structures, additional information such as preliminary design drafts may be retained. This will allow future historians and preservationists to consult documents that indicate the designer’s thought processes.

However, the determination of historically significant is for the future to decide, not the ego of the designer. One clue though, is the original purpose of the building. Single-purpose buildings, especially for a branch of government or for a single corporate user, often have the greatest initial impact and the longest life span.

Legal concerns

Usually, the single overriding factor in determining the retention of data is concern over the possibility of future disputes and/or lawsuits. Most states have statutes of limitations for filing legal actions in construction projects. In general, these statutes will dictate how long you should retain certain information. In most cases, 10 years will be adequate. Check the statutes in the states where you work.

Typically, materials retained because of legal concerns include a final set of drawings at the completion of each project phase. The owner-designer contract and amendments (e.g., change orders) must be retained permanently. Correspondence that could be used to pinpoint responsibility or a standard of care must be saved. Many attorneys would advise keeping all correspondence at least until the statute of limitations expires. In addition, job notes, diaries, and field inspection reports must be retained. Consult your attorney and insurance professional for advice on information retention.

Management and marketing use

Aside from legal and historic uses, the most important reason for reviewing and organizing project material lies in its subsequent management and marketing applications. Many engineers and architects are contacted by owners years after the original project completion. This can be the source of much additional billable work and requires ready access to past project data. Obviously, it is essential to save and organize critical information to allow for timely response to client needs.

Project managers and marketers

In many design firms, the project managers have the most complete and accurate files. Often, essential data never make their way to the main files of the firm. Project managers may leave the company, taking irreplaceable records with them. Even when they remain with the same firm, the information they have is rarely available to other project managers or to the marketing staff. If the main files have gaps, then much time is wasted seeking material, records, and reports that should be readily available.

Your marketing staff has a continual need for historic data on projects. Not only must the appropriate information be retained, but it must be organized to allow for quick retrieval. Without this organization, a great deal of potentially productive time may be wasted searching for information on completed projects.

For example, many proposals require submission of information on past similar projects. This often includes fees, consultants used, owners’ names and addresses, contractors and subcontractors involved, and staff and project managers’ names. Some of this may be easily recalled on significant recent projects; however, this is often not the case.

In an effort to organize and ensure comprehensive records, some firms have established manual or electronic completed project files. These provide a checklist of required information and centralize all essential historical material. They are not a replacement for the firm’s main files. The completed project file serves as a supplement, containing key data of value to other project managers and marketers.

Howard Birnberg is executive director of the Association for Project Managers (https://www.apminfo.com). He may be reached at 312-664-2300 (office), 312-560-6651 (direct), or hbirnberg@gmail.com.