Project Management Strategies II: Is “parallel-path” right for your project?

"Nothing is less productive than to make more efficient what should not be done at all." – Peter Drucker, Management Consultant

In “parallel-path” projects, multiple steps happen simultaneously.

That, in turn, has the potential to speed up project schedules and flatten costs. Factory-Built Substations are a prime example here: while the substation is being assembled in the factory, workers on the jobsite can be digging, pouring, and curing the substation’s foundation.

However, parallel-path isn’t always the best approach. “Frequently, substation projects will be built at a speed that does not afford the opportunity for the balance of engineering that needs to be done to deliver a well-executed project,” says DIS-TRAN President, Joey Baker.

Some projects come bundled with specifications or requirements that push project owners and contractors to set “risky” schedules. Renewable energy projects make a good example. Many of these projects are marginally profitable at best, which exerts enormous pressure to deliver projects that can start generating revenue as soon as possible, as cheaply as possible. That drives the project owner to take multiple steps simultaneously that may include, for instance, studies happening simultaneously with manufacturing.

Such parallel-path projects can come bundled with serious pitfalls. Rather than speeding up schedules, these kinds of parallel-path projects can derail a schedule entirely. In order to account or remedy events occuring simultaneously in another phase of the project, multiple design cycles may be required.

“One substation that should have taken 200 to 300 hours to complete,” says Baker, “ended up taking 1500 hours. The parallel-path approach pushed us into redoing drawings and work over and over in order to account for variables that arose from parallel-path actions. Those variables could have been accounted for just once if the project had proceeded in linear, tip-to-tail fashion.”

Thankfully, project managers can employ a few tactics to help keep time-sensitive projects on track.

  • Just use linear, tip-to-tail project execution. This may seem counterintuitive (like it would inevitably take longer), but the time saved from not having to re-do drawings and other work can more than account for the difference.
  • Defer unclear or unready portions. Sometimes a parallel path approach is chosen so that work can begin even as system studies are underway. However, that makes the project more susceptible to changes later, and we suggest deferring such work until the time that the actual requirements are well known.