Process Mapping Capital Projects

When we map our processes—that is, when we document what we actually do step-by-step to complete our work—we can find out some surprising things and make some momentous improvements.

That’s what Wastewater Treatment Division (WTD) has been discovering over the past year as they’ve been mapping how their capital projects are developed, designed, and built.

As processes go, these are big and complicated. From initial planning to ribbon cutting, they take years to complete and each project—each building, each water treatment plant, each maintenance facility—is one of a kind, so trying new improvement ideas and applying lessons learned from one project to the next can be tricky.

Much of what WTD has learned from mapping and clarifying their processes could be applicable to many other processes in the county, large and small. Mapping the process has taken the big, complicated process and broken it into smaller, more manageable challenges to solve. By focusing on identifying waste in the current process and asking “Why?”—why do we do this thing in this way? why do we do that at all?—the WTD team has achieved some striking improvements and, perhaps more importantly, has developed better alignment of people and work for the future—a springboard to many more improvements.

Consider the work that WTD has done to map and improve the process for chartering a capital project.

The charter is supposed to be straightforward document stating the objectives, scope, and boundaries of the proposed project. It is one of the first steps in the whole journey of building a building. But as the team examined the chartering process, they saw that there were many different ways charters were being developed, often taking more than five months to complete. Even so, once the chartering was complete, the project teams weren’t necessarily available to work on the project.

the team maps the process The team maps the process.

Mapping the process, WTD discovered that the project manager had to research information that others already knew—such as the history of the project and the reasons why it had been sponsored—which took time. In addition, project managers sometimes included more information than was necessary for the chartering stage of the project; for example, technical solutions and design alternatives.

So the chartering process could involve unnecessary waiting (the project managers researching information others already knew) and overproduction (more information than needed at that stage of the process). On top of that, there were sometimes large gaps of time of no action after the charter had been completed waiting for staff availability to work on the capital project.

By carefully mapping the process, the team began to see those wastes (waiting, overproduction, and waiting again) and a way to improve on the “old way” of doing things. “It was an excellent learning experience,” says Laura Wharton, unit manager of the project planning, inspection, modeling, monitoring and mapping unit. “It was good to hear the different workgroup challenges and experiences because each group faces something different.”

In the old process, the project manager and project team were responsible for developing the charter. That was just the way things had developed over time.

The new standard work for the improved process.

The new standard work for the improved process.

As they developed the new standard work for chartering, everyone on the team agreed that project managers should actually be the recipients of the completed and approved charter. It is the job of the project manager to take a finished charter and figure out the best ways to deliver those objectives. They are not the ones who should be writing the charter in the first place. This is also a best practice according to the Project Management Institute.

The job of developing the charter, everyone agreed, should rest with the project sponsors—that is, people with the authority and organizational perspective to articulate the needs for the project, its history and the reasoning behind it. The new plan—also in accordance with best practices—is to have WTD’s Capital Systems Team be responsible for creating the charter. The Capital Systems Team is the governing body for WTD and well-situated organizationally to own chartering.

The new process will give the Capital Systems Team the ability to achieve better alignment of charters with team availability and capacity, so that approved charters can be worked on immediately.

Now when the project managers receive the charters they will be in a better position to quickly launch the project.

The new process will also shave an average of over 100 days off the project chartering timeline. What historically could take up to five months on average can now be done in less than 30 days!

The WTD team has already begun work on other major pieces of capital projects process in order to take advantage of those time savings and help the work flow through subsequent processes. After all, as Capital Projects Managing Supervisor Joe Barnett points out, “it wouldn’t really be a success if streamlining one piece of the process just piles up a backlog elsewhere in the process.”

This is the first of several process improvements that will be needed to meet WTD’s overall capital streamlining goal of reducing the time to deliver projects by 10% – 15%. That’s at least a year sooner for projects over $10 million! Because projects don’t offer any value to society until they are completed, that time savings would provide direct customer benefit—a huge win for the people of King County.

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