Commissioning Project Management: Practical Advice from the Front Lines

by Jeff Yirak, P.E., CPMP, LEED AP BD+C, O+M

This article is part of Wood Harbinger’s newsletter series.

There’s nothing magical about a successful commissioning project. Like any other aspect of a design or construction project, good project management is essential to a successful outcome. Successful project delivery relies on early identification of issues, garnering prompt attention and resolution; waiting until the end of the job to start thinking about commissioning is never a good idea. Early problem solving requires collaboration and participation from the commissioning team. Good communication is the foundation of the whole endeavor. This article explores practical ways to implement good project management techniques on commissioning projects.

Effective Communication

Commissioning should be synonymous with communication, since the Commissioning Provider (CxP) relies on the combined efforts of the commissioning team to accomplish testing and demonstration, and achieve resolution of any identified issues. Any CxP can create endless tracking logs and lists, but better CxPs take the extra step of presenting these findings to the team in a collaborative environment as part of a productive discussion. Commissioning meetings create a great forum for this.

The best CxPs go even further by providing regular progress reports to their clients that go beyond the commissioning subject matter. These project managers keep their clients up to speed by communicating not only project progress but also input needed from the client or their team, trends of note in the project, or risks to the project. These progress reports should be provided weekly, and discuss accomplishments since the last report, the plan for the next week, any scope changes or value added, the status of the commissioning contract budget, invoice status, and schedule or deliverable status. These reports each take only a few minutes to complete or update each week, but the compilation of the reports tells the story of the commissioning process and maintains a regular communication of these items between the CxP and the client. The benefit to the client is reduced time to identify, explain, and correct issues. The benefit to the CxP mirrors this by having already established this communication portal.

Timely Schedule and Budget Tracking

Commissioning relies on tracking logs. Logs are created to show installation progress, functional testing progress, issues identified and resolved to date, and more. All of these logs, however, are rear-facing. An earned value analysis tracks progress against a forward-looking plan. Pieces of this plan already exist in most projects; the scope of work is defined in the commissioning contract and the schedule is provided by the contractor. These two ingredients define the commissioning program. Earned value analysis tracks progress against this plan.

The earned value graph can then indicate not just whether a project is ahead or behind schedule, but by how much, and what the budget impacts may be. If the earned value analysis indicates that progress is behind schedule, then a recovery plan can be crafted to restore alignment to the budget and schedule. This may include accelerating some installation or testing, or changing the start-up sequence to bring systems on-line sooner. Having this analysis provides information that can be used to proactively address the commissioning program’s progress.

earned value analysis

Over budget and behind schedule. This project is in trouble! This chart is representative of why it’s important to monitor earned value tracking. Otherwise you don’t see what’s happening!

Besides schedule, earned value analysis also compares progress to budget burn rate. This differential is an indicator of the CxP’s efficiency and may be a harbinger for the quality of the installation. A lack of efficiency during functional testing, for example, may be a product of numerous issues identified during testing. A copious issues log tells the team that issues exist and the earned value analysis shows what effect these issues have on the commissioning budget and schedule. Failure to monitor commissioning progress against a budget and schedule plan hides potential delays to project turnover and closeout.

Commissioning Plan + Project Management Plan = The Big Picture

Every commissioning project has a commissioning plan. It serves as the groundwork for communication among the commissioning team members and as an outline to the rest of the commissioning program to follow. A commissioning plan is usually very tactical, and describes the commissioning process, systems to be commissioned, the commissioning team, and the roles of responsibilities of the team members. What a commissioning plan typically doesn’t address is critical success factors, risk management, communication and document controls, quality assurance, health and safety, and change management. These items don’t belong in a commissioning plan; they, along with the commissioning plan, belong in a project management plan.

Upgrading the commissioning plan into a project management plan ups the sophistication of the commissioning program and moves the CxP into a position of more control in meeting the commissioning objectives. However, most commissioning projects don’t include a project management plan. I suspect this has a lot to do with knowledge and training on the part of the commissioning provider in how to develop one. The standards for commissioning prescribed by the Building Commissioning Association, ASHRAE, and others focus on how to develop effective commissioning plans; they don’t go into how to develop the commissioning plan into a full project management plan. This make sense; project management planning and execution is a distinct skill set, in the same way that commissioning is distinct from design. Organizations like the Project Management Institute and PSMJ Resources, Inc. specialize in project management education and training. Commissioning providers can benefit from this additional expertise to help improve the project delivery.

The CxP is often tasked with managing the commissioning process; a commissioning plan alone is not the best tool for this, as it does not address all aspects of full project management. Establishing the critical success factors for the project, such as a move-in milestone or documented energy performance, provides the framework for the commissioning program and may shape some nontraditional objectives.

For instance, imagine that completing testing prior to occupancy is a critical success factor because access restrictions will prevent the CxP from completing testing once users have moved into the building. If the CxP believes energy performance is the prime objective and spends time tuning a single system rather than completing testing prior to occupancy, then he or she will have a difficult time completing the scope of work, potentially affecting budget and schedule. These access restrictions should have been identified as risks to the commissioning process, where they could have been addressed proactively. Similarly, health and safety procedures, such as safety training or certification, should be identified early to prevent unexpected issues, such as site access restrictions that impact the testing schedule.

The “Enlightened” Commissioning Process

Proactive project management improves the commissioning process and overall project delivery. The best commissioning providers act as project managers and demonstrate mastery of the concepts listed above. Consider asking your commissioning provider for a project management plan and look for regular project reporting that shows earned value analysis. Your project will benefit from this more sophisticated methodology.


Follow Jeff on Twitter @JYirak_WH

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