Thursday, May 11, 2017

Cost Management Series III - Cash flow

Feedback from cost management firms is that there is a dearth of software to support the cash flow forecasting requirements for developers and consultants. One of the reasons for this is the complexity in generating an algorithm that can handle with accuracy the permutations of projects that are run in the construction industry. One of our clients has 12 construction industry sectors (e.g. Health, Education, Commercial, Leisure etc). Across all sectors there are over 30 project types or sub sectors (e.g. oil and gas, solar for energy sector, defence and justice for government, Office short, medium and tall plus fitout for commercial etc) and against 30 project types there are literally hundreds of asset types (Halls, libraries, pools, stadia etc etc). Then you need to consider the work types for these projects (i.e. new build, refurb, extension etc). And finally size and complexity all need to be considered.

How can a software developer generate an accurate profile of how an estimate will be spent over time? Many project managers build up work breakdown structures with both effort and material allocated. This is then sequenced and durations determined for each piece of work. Then via the Gantt profile, scheduling software can spit out a cash profile.  However, this is an enormous amount of work to complete for an investment that may only be at feasibility stage or even right up to detailed design. What if there was a better way?

We believe that a simpler way is to leverage the past to predict the future. As projects are completed, an actual earned profile is developed for that project. Categorising that project with a selection for each of the meta data described below means that we can use this information on any future projects that match the meta data classification. So over time, your consultancy, development company or construction company can use past projects to predict the spend profile of future ones.

Read our blog post on the release of this cash flow algorithm here:

Or watch a demonstration of it in use on YouTube below:

Now this database of old projects can be an inhibitor to the success of such an algorithm, however, the expectation is that most organisations have strategic plans that result in them focused on only a small subset of the sectors, project types and asset types listed above. Therefore, it does not take long for cost data to exist in their key strategic niche to. Cost consultancies could look to sell actual phasing profiles of past jobs to companies in niche areas of work (so long as that company has UniPhi to take advantage of the data!). With a small amount of strategic activity, even a startup construction company or developer could obtain rich benchmark data for very little when compared to the risk of poor cash flow forecasting leading to funding issues and other financial stresses.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Cost Management Series II - Managing change

UniPhi's version 12 release saw the demise of the lonely change request system. This system was created in UniPhi's second release back in 2005. Since then, the documents, costs,  issues and risks modules have evolved to a point where all the functions contained in change requests were better managed via these other modules.

How is this so? Well, we realised that managing change is significantly more than document the description and reason why change occurred and then analysing the impacts. If you want manage change rather than react to it then it needs to be incorporated into the day to day management process of which, the first element is capturing the risk of change. By better identifying the risks of (or opportunities for) change to your project, you can then create specific tasks in UniPhi to mitigate the chances of the risk occurring and preparing for if it does.

Risk register across a portfolio of projects
As projects evolve, these risks sadly sometimes eventuate and other issues crop up that weren't identified in the risk analysis. By triggering contingency plans or logging, managing and if necessary escalating issues in a transparent and collaborative fashion through a web based tool that pulls in emails and allows for commentary with file sharing, these changes can be effectively closed out without impacting on budgets or delivery dates.

Of course, some issues morph into events that do requiring further funds and/or delay delivery of the project outputs (we won't even touch benefits as who manages these anyway). When this occurs, new budgets can be created in UniPhi's cost module, time delays via the project schedule function and then presented to management in accordance with the relevant delegation of authority via the the documents system. Once approved, this then becomes the new baseline to compare commitments and forecasts to complete.

And that is the interactive, evolutionary way we support managing change.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Cost Management Series I - Adding Value to the Value Management Conversation

Value management
Value management is a methodology mainly used in the construction industry to do what most commercial organisations would call benefits management. However, in my experience, much of the value management discussion conducted in workshops or in after workshop documentation doesn't really focus on the real final benefits of the building being designed. Most discussions look at precursor factors to value like number of desks per sqm, number of meeting rooms, green star and the like. This is mainly because these things are easy to value.

Best Practice
This is where the cost consultant can come into their own. By knowing the key benchmarks and by being able to quickly analyse where the variance occurs and how much things vary for every quantum or rate change then at worst they can input into the investment side of the debate. For example, a cost consultant being able to quickly advise that removing 10 workstations and adding two multi-media meeting rooms will cost an extra $50,000.

Key to this best practice is the development of volume and rate variances. Each time a cost plan is updated, the cost consultant needs to be able to quickly identify the volume change, the rate change and the monetary impact of those changes and this needs to be done on a functional and elemental level. Again, an example of a change in design and type of windows leads to an increase in costs of $2m but this is driven by a $3m increase in the price of the windows offset by a $1m saving in scope. Now it might be that this design reduces heating and cooling requirements that leads to a 4 star Green Star rating but the reduction in size and number leads to reduced natural lighting. The investor may then review the value in keeping the original design but just change the quality of windows as it is only a $1m saving for a reduction in potential comfort of the space.

A sample view of this type of data can be seen in the screenshot below:

Variance analysis at the elemental level - download image for original size.

Variance analysis displayed graphically

Equally, it is essential that the cost consultant has the knowledge and time to complete extensive sense checks on these value management estimates as they're often time constrained, are not completed from first principles and can rely on benchmark data to create.

Software can provide significant value to this by automating the calculation of volume and rate variances including the monetary valuation of these changes (not merely the quantum) and by auto calculating the sense checks that verify the veracity of the estimate. As per previous blogs, benchmarking, leveraging the data captured on previous projects and using this to validate the estimate is essential.

Future disruption
As can be seen here, the variance analysis needs to be centred around whether the extra benefit is worth the extra investment, not just what the design parameter changes cost. There needs to be a higher level conversation that matches the goals of the investor. For example, in a fit out example, what's the staff profile and growth prospects of the business? What is their hot desk policy? How are they expecting this new fit out to change staff retention rates and what is the $ value saved in terms of re-training and knowledge loss? As a cost modelling expert, it should be possible for consultants to extend their capabilities into the benefit side of the equation and use their modelling skills to provide input into the value management conversation.

Again, software can help here by quickly aggregating the bottom level benefit drivers into the overall $ value assessment and linking the net benefit/deficit of a change in one design over another. Perhaps the future will see the Cost Manager become the Value Manager when benefits are factored into their cost modelling!  

Monday, July 04, 2016

UniPhi 12 - Upgraded cash flow phasing

Key to the successful deployment at a recent client of ours was the upgrading of our cash flow capabilities. We have already referenced some of these including the only known software product on the market that can phase cash flows based off the earned value profile of a collection of similar projects. However, there is much more just in time for our 12 release including:

  • More user friendly navigation of cash flow forecasts with more filters and an excel grid look and feel
  • Linking the start of one cost or revenue codes phasing based off the end of another
  • Linking the phasing of a cost or revenue code to the start and/or finish date of a lifecycle phase
  • Applying a non-benchmarked "S" curve algorithm
  • Productivity adjustments for auto phasing
  • Ability to shift the start date of a project which already has a cash flow

We will now go through each new feature one by one:

When entering the phasing screen the default start month is either the first month that already has a value or the start date of the project. You are then presented with a 12 month period and Previous/Next navigation options. You can jump to a date in the future by selecting the start date.
The real key is the presentation of all data on one screen (including children projects within the parent and contracts phasing in the same screen). Filtering then allows the user to remove the noise including a levels filter to display the relevant level of codes/contract deliverables that you wish to phase against and focusing on either forecasts or budget. Of course there's still the "All" view that shows budget versus actual and variance for analysis purposes.

The new cash flow phasing screen with contracts displayed against their relevant code.

The key to the next two features is to streamline the adjustment of cash flow phasing as things change. An example of this is the fact that settlement of units sold during construction phase will always occur after a certain period (e.g. 2 weeks) that the certificate of occupancy is obtained. There are two ways to link these two events in UniPhi, 1) link the construction cost code to the revenue code or 2) link the construction lifecycle phase to the revenue code. In both events, changing the end date of construction will automatically push out the start date for sales settlements.

Linking dates for automated cash flow phasing
Added to the automated phasing methods are our unique "Benchmark" method and a standard construction 'S' Curve algorithm. These methods can be chosen per cost code or for the project as a whole with the relationship maintained for any changes to dates and durations. Also included is the simple "adjust start" function which allows you to shift the phasing profile forward or backwards in time to allow for changes to planning decisions and internal approvals (as are wont to occur).

Finally, the 'S' curve algorithm's can be adjusted via a simple productivity percentage applied to financial months that are typical of down time in your industry or geographic location. As an example, you might apply a 50% reduction adjustment for December January in Australia to allow for the fact that the construction industry shuts down for four weeks over the Christmas and New Year period.

UniPhi 12 - No more change requests!

Sayonara Change Requests!

UniPhi 12 now brings a new way of implementing change request through delegations of authority enhancements, expansion of our budget template control and a re-design of the budget snapshot process. So how does it all work?

Once a budget, either Cost or Revenue - it works the same for both sides, is entered and ready to be approved, a document containing the budget control needs to be signed off. When creating the document, you're given status options for your budget, either mark it as Original, Approved or both.

Once signed-off, the status of the budget will be updated accordingly. In the case below, the budget was marked as Original and Approved. Subsequent changes can be made to the budget without affecting the approved budget.

Combined with our document sign-off role feature strengthens security over budget control compared to the existing change request functionality. Additionally, thanks to our document management, there is now a clear audit trail of budget changes. As always we are now proud to implement this new feature in UniPhi 12 to push the boundary's of budget and financial management control.

UniPhi 12 - Advanced document search

The use of UniPhi for independent verification work is unique to off the shelf software. Independent verification of construction and infrastructure projects is in growing demand due to the increase in infrastructure spending in eastern Australia with governments utilising strong tax receipts generated from growing house prices and low interest rates to invest in new transport and other infrastructure.

UniPhi's issues, document template and custom list capability added to its OnSite mobile apps provides unlimited capacity to tailor the capture of audit information right there at the site of the audit . However, like many database driven structures, UniPhi provided great data capture capability but limited output capability. Listening to our end users, UniPhi 12 comes with an advanced search feature that means your search capability grows with the custom lists you create to conduct your audits.

There are two types of custom lists that UniPhi allows you to create and embed in documents; Checklists and single select drop downs. When a user enters advanced document search, if all templates have been selected, all custom lists that have been included in a template are dynamically displayed in the search screen. Selecting an option in the drop downs returns a list of all documents where that particular option has been selected. An example in the independent verification world would be all "Hold Point" surveillance's. If the user selects a template to filter on, then only the custom lists used in that template are shown.

This functionality has led to new template structures that have solved another problem in the UniPhi documents module. Using UniPhi to share and collaborate with drawings often meant the creation of various discipline templates that were the same as each other but were used to differentiate the discipline (e.g. Engineering versus Architectural drawings). Now the discipline can be selected as part of the document and advanced search can be used to list all the specific disciplines drawings. By reducing the number of templates, end user experience is improved and the simplicity of the system increased.

The advanced search feature has also improved the ability to utilise custom checklists. A user can find all documents where a specific checklist item was ticked by pasting the name of one checklist item into the free text search.

These new features dramatically increase a users ability to get the outputs they wish and have fed similar filtering capability in reports. Thanks to the OH2K team at AECOM for much of the input into this new feature. We love the fact that our clients will let us work with them to mutually benefit not just each other but the broader UniPhi community,

UniPhi 12 - Notes for resources

Until UniPhi 12, nearly all data captured in UniPhi was captured against a project. This included all CRM information. Organisations would set up sales lead projects and add issues for contacts that they are engaging with. Then all the communication features of UniPhi would come to live to track all correspondence across the entire target organisation, it's various locations and the people within that location.

However, feedback from our customers was that sometimes you just want to log a comment against a person. It may be a coffee catch up, a phone call that doesn't relate to the sales lead issue or a thought bubble. So, UniPhi 12 comes with comments made directly against the resource. This is the first bit of formal functionality that is not project based.

To add a comment a user clicks on the target contacts name or searches for them (using the new advanced resource search functionality if necessary) and there between the basic contact details of the resource and the custom fields created is a comments panel.

And just like the issues system, it is threaded with the ability to filter for who made the comment in the thread so if you have a collaborative approach you can filter out all other comments other than your own (or the BDMs or other filtered resource).

With the expansion of custom field functionality and the adding of assets to the resource module, the UniPhi 12 release comes with a range of non-project based data. I'm sure UniPhi 13 will see us leverage these steps into the non-project based world.