The Illusion of Being in Control

Strategic Project Solutions, Inc.
21 October 2021

Many professionals in the engineering and construction industry operate under the illusion of being in control of their capital projects, until it is too late. For many, the recipe for being in control has a few key ingredients including, but not limited to, a baseline schedule so progress can be measured against the baseline, rules of credit that define the basis of progress calculations, earned value-based measurements that get updated weekly / monthly and recorded in progress reports, plus a myriad of associated meetings required to report and forecast project progress. If this recipe sounds familiar to you, there is a high chance that you may be already operating under the illusion of being in control.

The common belief is that more controls will result in more control, but unfortunately, this is far from being true. Billions of dollars are spent every year on just reporting and forecasting project progress, and nowadays, even digitalization and autonomous are being applied and used for what people call better ways of reporting and forecasting project progress (e.g., use of robots and drones to track the work being done).

More or better means of doing controls do not give us more control. In fact, and to the contrary of what many believe, the word controls is not the plural of control. This was highlighted by Peter Drucker who also established the main difference between controls and control. He explains that ‘controls’ are about measurements and information, and deals with facts (the past) while ‘control’ is about direction (the future). Yet, the engineering and construction industry remains enamored with looking for better ways of doing controls, hoping this will result in more control and then lead to better project performance. But that is just hope. To control, “the norm” needs to be understood, (i.e., the basis on which direction can be determined), with examples such as the target temperature for thermostats, target pressure for valves, or work-in-process (WIP) for production systems. Without it, there is no control and the remaining alternative is to rely on what was and what is being done.

While controls are more related to tracking project progress (e.g., cost and schedule), control is more related to how we do and improve work so that we influence the future (the outcome). Therefore, it is about production process design, sequence, inventory (including how raw materials and work-in-process are used) as well as how capacity is allocated. Furthermore, while controls relate to schedules, control relates to production systems and their behavior. While schedules relate to dates, production systems relate to rates, so control becomes how we ensure a production system delivers certain rates.

What many don’t understand is that controls is the output of decisions that are made related to how production systems are (or are not) controlled.

Are you still operating under the illusion of being in control?

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