Thought Leadership

Five Steps to Adjust Your Project Plans to Reflect COVID Reality (Instead of COVID Blame)

Category: Thought Leadership
N. Ryan Smith • July 28, 2020

In 2009, a General Motors plant in my hometown of Oshawa, Ontario, closed an assembly plant, ending decades of production and eliminating more than 2,000 jobs.

At that time, the economy was in a freefall triggered by risky investments by U.S. banks in subprime mortgages. GM was one of many companies that used the backdrop of the economy to implement sweeping changes to their organizations that otherwise might have been difficult to do.

Similarly, we’re now facing another global event that is rippling through all sectors of our society. And again, it has the potential to serve as a pretext for business outcomes.

For project owners in particular, the pandemic could become the catchall reason project costs increase and schedule performance is delayed. Will the COVID lever be pulled on your project to re-negotiate? To revisit risk-sharing? In other words, will it cost you more than the legitimate administrative and safety impacts?

Unless you use project planning and control methods to proactively contain and characterize the impacts on the front end, it will be more difficult to argue when the inevitable change order comes along.

The pandemic has likely changed some planning assumptions. Enhanced health and safety protocols have changed the means and methods of executing work. And the risk of facing temporary shutdown if an outbreak is identified has increased.

But, depending on factors such as your workplace layout and the availability of secondary work crews, these might be little more than speed bumps. It’s critical now for owners to face the impact of COVID head-on and anticipate its impacts through updates to the project plan.

What is the true impact that COVID has had on your specific project? The following steps can help you answer that question:

  1. Baseline and document pre-COVID performance. It’s critical to have proper and rigorous documentation of the state of the project and any existing critical performance issues.
  2. Perform an assessment of your go-forward project plan. If the plan was poor to begin with, take the opportunity presented by the pandemic to build it properly. If it was already robust, assess the work-breakdown structure for scopes of work that are impacted by COVID. Field-related scopes such as construction, inspections, commissioning activities, and engineering walk-downs and field engineering are likely candidates.
  3. Clearly identify the means and methods that have changed and how those impact your planning assumptions for the scopes of work you have flagged. New administrative and health and safety barriers are likely to make the team less efficient. Perhaps heat breaks need to increase due to increased PPE requirements. There might be more frequent stand-downs for safety briefings. Or perhaps access to the work face is reduced or constrained. Identify the issues.
  4. Utilize your change control or phase gate processes as appropriate to integrate these impacts. This is a new reality; the risk has been realized. Your goal should be to get to the project plan and risk profile that accurately reflects the work in a world impacted by COVID. If that reality changes again – if all constraints are lifted because a vaccine is developed, for example – you can back out these changes the same way they were implemented.
  5. Update the risk register accordingly. Now that the planning assumptions have changed to integrate COVID impacts, the residual risks the pandemic presents should be as minimal as they were before it arrived. The risk should be characterized not as a COVID catchall, but discrete risks that new COVID waves could impact the work beyond what has already been integrated.

If you don’t already have a good project plan where you can delineate work packages impacted by COVID, there is no better time than now to build one. And if you don’t use your project controls to objectively plan for ways COVID affects your project, you will not be able to effectively measure it or argue it. Proactive planning is the only path to avoid subjective project impact arguments moving forward.