Every industry has its inherent set of problems, and construction is no exception. As projects continue to increase in size and complexity with accelerated programmes for delivery, so do delays and disruptions.
The old adage, “Time is money,” is especially true in the construction arena where schedule overruns could lead to significant losses for developers and property owners, but also for contractors in the form of Liquidated Damages or penalties. As a result, disputes often arise and accusations fly both ways.
When the communication breaks down and legal proceedings are looming it is time to bring in a third party to help resolve the problem. Namely a forensic planning specialist. One such specialist is Terry Dawson, executive director at Qatar based Quantum Global Solutions, a company renowned for assisting their clients to successfully manage construction and engineering programmes and projects, as well as analysing and resolving the problems.
The term “forensic planning” is a bit of an oxymoron, don’t you think? With forensics being a method of gathering and examining information about the past, and planning dealing with the future…
To be honest, I was initially uncomfortable with this term when I was first introduced to it. However, the name is now recognised worldwide in the area of delay analysis. I suppose it is an attempt to join both worlds – the past and the future. We review the past to predict what could happen in the future.
Can you explain forensic planning in layman’s terms?
It is basically a detailed investigation of the events that happened and what they led to in terms of cost overruns and time delays on major construction projects. The projects undergoing a forensic analysis can be in progress or completed many years ago. We pinpoint issues, find the causes for them arising and assess the effects. For ongoing events we can also advise on how to resolve them.
What is a typical situation in which people/companies require your expertise?
Typically, companies will require our expertise when there is a general breakdown in communication between the contracted parties to resolve issues associated with extensions of time and additional costs. We provide a means to assess the issues on a factual basis, re-establish meaningful communication and facilitate a way forward for the parties to reach an amicable agreement.
Who are your clients?
Our clients are predominantly internationally renowned main contractors and sub-contractors for major civil engineering projects, such as airports, ports, dry-docks, stadiums, railways, high-rise buildings, highways, oil and gas facilities and all other major infrastructure projects. So it is usually investments worth hundreds of millions of dollars. We also work for the employer on similar types of projects.
How do you carry out your investigation? Is it mostly going through paperwork, contracts, plans etc., or do you also work on-site?
Our priority is to establish the facts, and this is where the forensic nature of the analysis comes into play. All project documentation is relevant and can provide pieces of the jigsaw, which we collate into a coherent representation of what actually occurred.
We talk to people involved in the project, examine the drawings, formal correspondence, the monthly/weekly/daily reports, the emails and any other types of relevant data that is available. We pay particular attention to changes that have been made to the project. The records are very important. The more records there are, the easier the analysis of identifying how, where and why the delay occurred.
The better the records, the better the chance of proving the case. The key to a successful case not only depends on the quality of the project records, but also on the passion and experience of the forensic investigator to fit the pieces of the jigsaw together and providing a clear picture of what actually happened.
We work on-site wherever possible, or where the documents are based. It is our objective to be seen as a specialist section of our client’s project team and we expect to fully integrate into and involve the existing project team.
What are the stages of the work you do?
We are involved in all phases of the project lifecycle; from the tender to final account resolution. The extent of our involvement takes various forms depending on the requirements of our clients. We develop bespoke solutions for each of our clients. This leads to our scope of work being defined in stages.
Stage one is generally seen as a ‘peer review’ to assess our client’s contractual position. A detailed document is produced that records our observations, highlights our recommendations and outlines the way forward; to be discussed and agreed with the client.
If the client wishes to continue we will move to a stage two which is usually a detailed analysis of the client’s contractual entitlement. This will determine the extension of time and prolongation costs and can include disruption in some cases.
Following submission of the stage two we would enter a stage three which involves the discussion of the submission with the other parties. Ideally the issues can be resolved within the stage three parameters, which we find is generally the case. In some circumstances a stage four can be required which involves presentation of the case in line with formal legal proceedings.
You said you have investigated projects that were finished years ago. But that must surely be an exception? In what stage of the project do you usually become involved?
Generally it will be somewhere in between 50 to 70 percent through the project, when the parties realise they are not going to be able to meet the contractual dates and the contractors are facing penalties, which can be very high. We can assess the issues behind the delays very quickly and prepare a position statement on behalf of our client.
Where do you most often find reasons for cost and schedule overruns?
There are many manifestations of schedule overruns and increased costs, but in my opinion these fall into the following main areas as the root cause of project delay: Deviation from the original project concept and scope of work; inexperienced and lack of key personnel (both client and contractor) leading to incorrect decisions being made; lack of suitably qualified and experienced labour resources (quality and time issues); inadequate plant and equipment; an unwillingness by both parties to resolve or identify issues as they arise; and inadequate coordination and communication between contracted and external parties.
By deviation from the original project you mean the changes made by the client? Does it happen a lot?
Yes, employers often change original concepts. It is not uncommon for the employer to decide he wants something else in the middle of the project. And maybe it is two years since the original tender was issued and there is a genuine need to change something. For example, specifications and regulations can change and have to be implemented in the project. Another major issue are the approvals that the employer needs to commence the works but has not obtained them from the authorities and this causes delays even before the project has begun.
You also mentioned inadequate communication between the parties.
Many times we find the employer and the contractor have both failed to address the possible issues when they started arising. It all starts with small issues and small conflicts which, in some scenarios can escalate to a very aggressive and disruptive level.
Then communication consists mainly of accusations and finger pointing and the situation becomes worse and worse. When it gets to this stage, it is very difficult to step out of the repeating circle of events. This is where we provide the catalyst to re-establish positive communication between the parties and move things forward in a positive way.
Is your analysis usually done for presentation to a court of law or before the dispute has escalated so far?
We are usually involved in the analysis before legal proceedings have commenced. Our early involvement usually leads to the avoidance of the legal process. On some occasions we will continue through to the presentation for legal proceedings or be brought in at a stage when legal proceedings have commenced to provide expert services to support the claimant’s or defendant’s statement of case.
Quantum also offers dispute resolution. How do you approach mediation between the parties and how often is it successful?
Sometimes you need a third party to get out of the loop. This is one of our key strengths; to facilitate a means for the disputing parties to present their cases and arrive at an amicable solution. It is our aim to avoid our client’s having to pursue legal proceedings. Only a small percentage of our cases go to legal proceedings.
It is in everybody’s interest to avoid the expense and further delay the legal process leads to. Additionally, although the issues can be many and very complex resulting in thousands of report pages, we will present our findings in a concise and condensed document, and often use multi-media presentations to facilitate this, from which the parties find it much easier to agree on the causes that lead to the delays.
In my opinion the key is to establish meaningful progressive discussion with a thorough understanding of the issues based on as much factual detail as possible. From our point of view we have found this to be a very successful process.
We have several cases where legal proceedings have been threatened or looked likely but subsequently avoided due to our efforts to develop and present a compelling case.
How long does your analysis take?
It usually depends on the size of the claim and the size of the project. Sometimes we finish in a couple of weeks, sometimes it takes months. I have just finished an analysis that took eighteen months to complete, but this type of analysis is not often encountered and a major case can normally be evaluated in six to eight weeks.
How much demand is there for forensic planning in Qatar and the GCC compared to other regions?
There is a great demand for quality forensic planning in Qatar and the GCC as a whole. There is probably a higher demand in Qatar and the GCC compared to regions outside the GCC due to the rapid expansion schemes that are currently underway in these high profile GCC areas. For example, there are a massive amount of construction projects in Qatar, driven by the overall development of Qatar and specific events like the FIFA World Cup 2022.
Recruitment is quite a problem in the region as there are not enough skilled people and the workload is intense, so it takes a lot of time before they become available for the next project. There is a definite shortage of suitably qualified and experienced project planners and forensic planners in Qatar and the GCC region. We have recognised this shortfall and have introduced training programmes for engineers wanting to pursue a career in planning.
Are there other reasons for such great demand for forensic planning expertise besides the number of the projects? You mentioned the sometimes inexperienced key personnel and the lack of thereof.
Mostly it is the sheer volume of construction going on and the massive scale of the projects, but this can also result in lack of experienced project planners, so probably not all that are hired are best qualified. It is a very specialised area and you can’t just pick people off the shelf.
And with so many projects going on it can be difficult to get really good people for all of them. And even if you have the best, there are bound to be changes to the project and not everything is going to go according to plan. Everything could have been planned well, but maybe the employer wants to make drastic changes or turn the project into something completely different and it has to be incorporated in the original plans and there must be understanding that the costs will rise as well.
A planner’s comment from an online forum: “Planners generally are seen as a breed of people who are in the halfway house of construction either going somewhere else or clinging on in the industry having failed somewhere else or a necessary evil because the contract says so.” Do you agree?
I totally disagree with this statement. Generally, project planners and forensic planners have a passion and enjoyment for the profession they are in. They will have extensive experience in construction, usually spending many years on site directly involved in construction. They possess an attention to detail and enjoy routing out and interpreting the facts and details required to produce a detailed project schedule or entitlement submission.
What would be your advice to potential clients?
That’s easy. We always say there are three important things to managing the project – records, records and records. Letters, reports, emails, recordings, drawings… If you have weak records, you have a weak case, and even if you are entitled to something, you might not be able to prove it.
I would recommend taking a specialist’s advice early in the project in order to be prepared for any change that may occur in the project as it progresses.