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10 May 2024 • Tom Haley

Quantity surveying fundamentals: change control

We continue our QS fundamentals mini-series, this time with a focus on change control.

This is another area of quantity surveying processes that could be enhanced if we innovated our methods with a data science approach. Arguably, given technological progress in the last 10-20 years, it is no longer viable to control change using a trained quantity surveyors eye logging issues on a spreadsheet.

That may have been possible when design and programme control was staged and linear but, in the technological age where changes are more dynamic and occurring every minute of every day, the old approaches are just not workable anymore.

I am really pushing myself to cover the wide area of change control in a 5-minute bitesize article. As my previous articles, I will try and give you some top tips without taking up too much of your day.

Why do we need to control change?

The one thing that is certain about construction projects is that they will change: from day one!

It is impossible to eliminate change given the way construction projects are designed, procured, and delivered. It is inevitable that change will occur so accepting that fact is a good start and, from there, you can think about how change can be effectively tracked and managed so that the time and cost implications are controlled.

For me, one of the key benefits of good change control is enhancing the service you give to your client. Nobody wants to be told, at the end of the project, that the bill has increased and, because the money has been spent, there is nothing you can do to influence that situation. It is much more effective if you are picking up issues progressively, notifying these for discussion, and working with your client to resolve the issues to achieve optimum outcomes.

What does good change control look like?

It is a common misconception that change control is limited to logging client and subcontract instructions, progressing the valuation agreement of the instructions, and tracking the actions. This is only one part of the process and normally represents the end of the process: the recording and documenting of change.

For me, change control procedures start with putting in place effective controls at the inputs to the construction process where change is most likely to occur, including development of the design, development of the programme, procurement activity, and value engineering etc. By establishing controls at the inputs, project teams can make considered, informed and proactive decisions when change occurs.

If you commercially lead a project team, you cannot be too prescriptive about how change is managed and / or seek to over control the process. If a person is managing the design, the programme or the on-site delivery, then they need decision making latitude to manage their part of the process.

Personally, I am not a fan of an approach where every change is rooted back through the commercial team before it is implemented. I just think that puts a constraint on your programme that can adversely affect the commercial position, without knowing it. I prefer a process where project personnel are educated about the baseline, they understand the contract risk profile, they know to flag issues with you when decisions are made, and they know to bring you into the process when there is a material or significant change arising.

Spreading the ownership and accountability reduces the burden on the commercial, places ownership in the right areas by empowering project team members and, generally, leads to better quality outcomes and decision making.

This, for me, is commercial management excellence.

“Why are you being so contractual”

Those famous words.

You sign a contract, based on your client’s preferred terms, they immediately make changes to the scope and programme etc, and when you raise the issues through the contract you get push back for being “too contractual".

Do not fall for this line. All team members must understand the contract process and follow it. The number of times I have heard the words, “we stopped following the process because the client said we were being contractual” is worrying. That situation will almost inevitably end in tears with the business who employs you out of pocket.

Another common mistake is proceeding with verbal instructions because your client needs the work completing asap. The written instruction does not arrive or, if it does, it is caveated so as to instruct you at no cost. You find yourself in a situation where you have proceeded in good faith, but you cannot be paid because the contract says you need a written instruction to get paid.

The obvious advice in both scenarios is just don’t do it. You lose your leverage as soon as you do something that is in your client’s interests and not yours, and memories fade (sometimes conveniently). Be strong and stand up for your rights; the sad reality is, if you don’t, nobody else will.

Commercial top tips

A few things I always try and do?

Put in place a change control protocol document. It should be a combination of the contract procedures and business procedures but, at the same time be specific and relevant to the project's risks and challenges. The whole team need to know this protocol and adhere to it. I find that putting it all down on a piece of paper from the start helps you tease out issues and put in place procedures to overcome these.

Always keep your forecasts (both internally to your business and externally to your client) fully up to date, and make sure these reflect the current scope and programme. Your “cause and effect” reporting needs to be tight, don’t find yourself in a situation where the forecast increases when you are nearly at the point of overspending.

Understand the root cause of change. Log this and keep it for future reference. Often changes are a consequence of an ultimate root cause. You may have made a change to something, but you did it because of something your client changed (e.g. you increased resource because access was late, and you have not been granted an EoT). This golden thread back to the root cause will be invaluable when it comes to those testing entitlement discussions.

Final reflections

Where confusion reigns, opportunity knocks?

It used to be the case that change led to opportunity however, because working practices have changed and visibility of change is not as easy to obtain, project change is now something to be concerned about because it is fraught with financial risk. Arguably this may be because contract forms and procurement routes have changed and now transfer all the risk through the supply chain, but I can’t help but think that better change control might also be a solution to the problem.

The prospect of revolutionising change control approaches feels daunting because it is such a big beast but think about where you can make some improvements, not just in performance but in process. How can tech tools help flag change issues as they are occurring?

Next week’s article will focus on a very specific quantity surveying area of change control, valuing variations.

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We publish insights through our LinkedIn newsletter, titled “The science of Quantik”, which are light bites of information covering news and insights relating to the construction industry and quantity surveying.