Canadian Consulting Engineer

Staying on Track

August 1, 2004
By Elizabeth and Richard Larson

One of the critical factors for the success of any project is having a well-developed project plan. Here is a model six-step approach to creating such a plan, not only showing how it will provide a roadmap for consulting engineers to follow, but a...

One of the critical factors for the success of any project is having a well-developed project plan. Here is a model six-step approach to creating such a plan, not only showing how it will provide a roadmap for consulting engineers to follow, but also exploring why it can be your premier communications and control tool throughout the project.

Step 1: Explain the Project Plan to key stakeholders and discuss its key components.

One of the most misunderstood terms in project management, the project plan is a set of living documents that can be expected to change over the life of the project. Like a roadmap, it provides the direction for the project. And like the traveller, the consulting engineer needs to set the course, which in project management terms means creating the project plan. Just as a driver may encounter road construction or new routes to the final destination, the consulting engineer may need to correct the project course as well.

A common misconception is that the project plan equates to the project timeline, which is only one of the many components of the plan. The project plan is the major work product from the entire planning process, so it contains all the planning documents. For example, a project plan for constructing a new office building needs to include not only the specifications for the building, the budget, and the schedule, but also the risks, quality factors, etc.

Components of the project plan include:

Baselines. Baselines are sometimes called performance measures because the performance of the entire project is measured against them. They are the project’s three approved starting points and include the scope, schedule, and cost baselines. These provide the “stakes in the ground.” They are used to determine whether or not the project is on track during its execution.

Baseline management plans. These plans include documentation on how variances to the baselines will be handled throughout the project.

Other work products from the planning process. These include a risk management plan, a quality plan, a procurement plan, a staffing plan and a communications plan.

Step 2: Define roles and responsibilities

Identifying stakeholders, those who have a vested interest in the project outcome, is challenging and especially difficult on large, risky, high-impact projects. In addition, there are likely to be conflicting agendas and requirements among stakeholders, as well as different slants on who needs to be included. For example, the stakeholder list of the city council where a new office building is proposed would include the developer who wants to build it, citizens who would prefer a city park, the city council itself, etc. As engineers, your firm may have a more limited list. In any case, it is important to get clarity and agreement on what work needs to be done by whom, as well as which decisions each stakeholder will make.

Step 3: Develop a Scope Statement

The scope statement is arguably the most important document in the project plan. It is used to get common agreement about the project definition, for getting the buy-in and agreement from the sponsor and other stakeholders. It decreases the chances of miscommunication. This document will most likely grow and change with the life of the project. The scope statement should include,

Business objectives;

Project objectives;

Benefits of completing the project, as well as the project justification;

Project scope, stated as which deliverables will be included and excluded;

Key milestones, the approach, and other components as dictated by the size and nature of the project.

It can be treated like a contract between the consulting engineer and sponsor, one that can only be changed with sponsor approval.

Step 4: Develop the Project Baselines

Scope Baseline. Once the deliverables are confirmed in the scope statement, they need to be developed into a work breakdown structure. The scope baseline includes all the deliverables and therefore identifies all the work to be done. The deliverables should be inclusive. An office building project, for example, could include a variety of deliverables such as impact studies before the project can start, as well as the deliverables related to the building itself.

Schedule and Cost Baselines

– Identify activities and tasks needed to produce each of the deliverables in the scope baseline. How detailed the task list needs to be depends on many factors, including the experience of the consulting engineer and team, project risk and uncertainties, ambiguity of specifications, amount of buy-in expected, etc.

– Identify the human resources for each task, if known.

– Estimate how many hours it will take to complete each task.

– Estimate cost of each task, using an average hourly rate for each person.

– Consider resource constraints, or how much time each person can realistically devote to this one project.

– Determine which tasks are dependent on other tasks, and develop a critical path.

– Develop a schedule, using a calendar and setting out all the tasks and estimates. The schedule shows by chosen time period (week, month, quarter or year) which person or team is doing which tasks, how much time they are expected to spend on each task, and when each task should begin and end.

– Develop the cost baseline, which is a time-phased budget, or cost by time period.

The process is not a one-time effort. Throughout the project you will most likely be adding to or repeating some steps.

Step 5: Create Baseline Management Plans

Once the scope, schedule and cost baselines have been established, create the steps the team will take to manage variances to these plans. All these management plans usually include a review and approval process for modifying the baselines. Different approval levels are usually needed for different types of changes. In addition, not all new requests will result in changes to the scope, schedule, or budget, but a process is needed to study all new requests to determine their impact on the project.

Step 6: Communicate!

One important aspect of the project plan is the Communications Plan. This document states such things as:

Who on the project wants which reports, how often, in what format, and using what media;

How issues will be escalated and when;

Where project information will be stored and who can access it;

What new risks have surfaced and what the risk response will include;

What measures will be used to ensure a quality product is built;

What time and cost reserves have been used for which uncertainties.

Once the project plan is complete, it is important to relay its contents to key stakeholders. This communication should include such things as:

Review and approval of the project plan;

Process for changing the contents of the plan;

Next steps in executing and controlling the project plan and key stakeholder roles/responsibilities in the upcoming phases.

Destination Success

Developing a clear project plan certainly takes time and the consulting engineer will probably be tempted to skip the planning and jump straight into execution. However, the consulting engineer who takes time to create a clear project plan will follow a more direct route toward destination project success.

c. 2004. Elizabeth & Richard Larson are principals of Watermark Learning of Minnesota. The firm is a Gold Global Registered Education Provider with the Project Management Institute. E-mail:


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