Configuring to succeed

Steven Riley, senior consultant, Hornagold and Hills, discusses the many advantages of using configuration management in the construction industry.

COMMENT, Business

How many construction projects have you been involved with which employ configuration management as a critical activity? And how many projects have you been involved with where the final building did not conform to the client's requirements, or were made to conform only with escalating costs, schedule over-runs and drawn-out contract negotiations with suppliers? You can probably quote more examples of the latter than the former.

Configuration management is an approach to managing business critical information for any project, starting at the very beginning with client requirements and managing the baseline throughout, ensuring these requirements are met in the as-built product. Configuration management is used successfully across many industries; in activities ranging from sending men to the moon to manufacturing medical equipment. Ever needed to replace a windscreen wiper on your car? By quoting the model and serial number, the exact part you need is identified, located and ordered. That's configuration management in action.

If desired, every single nut and bolt, every purchase order and every work instruction order could be tracked.

If you mention configuration management in the construction industry, the chances are you'll get a blank look in response; but configuration management is nothing new. It began in computing in the late 1950s as a response to the need to control first hardware production, then later, software development. Configuration management was soon adopted in other industries, and development of national and international standards in configuration management followed. This would suggest that many organisations find that configuration management adds value and the construction industry should be no exception.

How do we apply configuration management to construction? At its core, configuration management serves two primary purposes. The first is to ensure requirements are documented and delivered. This sounds like an easy task - simply ask your client what they want, then build it. But what happens when requirements change? Who confirms that what is being built meets the new requirements? Or when architect's drawings change to accommodate new legislation, who assesses the requirements for continued validity?

As the as-built building is delivered, configuration management will validate that the non-cost element of the original business case is still sound and will ultimately confirm delivery of those requirements against tangible assets.

The second purpose of configuration management is to provide a baseline against which change can be controlled. In this light, configuration management and change management are opposite sides of the same coin. If everyone is not working off the same drawings, specifications, schedule and quality plan, how does the project ensure the integrity of the final build - short of costly and time consuming rework? Configuration management controls the current documentation baseline, without which change management is constantly trying to catch up.

Configuration management adds much more value than simply documenting requirements. It represents a set of activities which dovetail with established disciplines such as scheduling, supplier management and risk management. For example, it can identify the documents and drawings which will be issued to contractors, ensuring that a controlled package of work is issued. It can identify the dependencies between all elements of a project, such that if a contractor raises a claim for variation of costs, the latest version of the contract is assessed against the package of work issued to ascertain whether there is any basis for the claim and whether it has any related risk or scope impacts which need to be taken into consideration.

As with any control activity, configuration management can be deployed to the degree which is useful for an individual project. If desired, every single nut and bolt, every single purchase order and every single work instruction could be tracked and managed. Configuration management can also be deployed at a strategic level, tracking key documents. This not only ensures that what is built is what was specified, but that it has been built to the standard required and is still desired by the client.

This article is intended to highlight the value configuration management can add within the construction industry. If there are any doubts remaining, consider this; the single largest cost associated with any construction project begins when construction ends. The lifespan of a single building can span centuries, and the associated operation and maintenance costs far outweigh the capital outlay. Correctly deployed and managed, configuration management will not only ensure that the necessary manuals and contracts are in place to reduce ongoing running costs, but that the original supplier organisation can be identified many years after completion of works.

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