When one of PCL Constructors Inc. superintendents wrongly insisted that his project was running on schedule, his boss didn’t have to argue the point with him – they just pointed to the facts made clear by the data on their new real-time analytics dashboard.
“It’s not to penalize the poor guy,” says Brian Kmet, manager of business data optimization in PCL’s senior technology group. “But to show the data doesn’t show that he’s on schedule and then talk about how to get back on schedule. The benefit of this is that conversations are happening on the job site that never used to happen.”
It was economist and author W. Edwards Deming that first said “In God we trust; all others bring data.” The executive team at Edmonton-based PCL is happy to adopt that principle. And they now have the tools to apply it too, thanks to a cloud-based analytics solution powered by Microsoft’s Power BI software and its Azure public cloud infrastructure. The project is the winner of the Information Technology Association of Canada’s Ingenious Award in the Large Private Businesss category for 2017. ITWC is the award program’s media partner.
Running upwards of 800 active construction projects at the same time, PCL was challenged to keep its documentation data up to date. Filing paperwork to track small changes to the project specifications or work requirements on site is a major aspect of any construction contract. But PCL found that information from these forms made it to the project decision makers as many as 30-40 days from the time it was recorded. By then, it was too late and choices were made ‘from the gut’ rather than based on facts.
PCL’s approach is to collect data that are organized into four different buckets, explains CIO Mark Bryant – quality, safety, schedule, and cost. It’s still collected by people, but now its surfaced as soon as it’s recorded and made visible to the key decision makers.
“The data is put on a single pane of glass to help the entire field worker staff understand where they’re at,” he says. “The clients love it because it allows them to understand the work that’s being done at the site.”
A major airport client with a $1.3 billion renewal project involving PCL precipitated the analytics solution. It required that a project analytics dashboard combine data from three of its own applications with three different PCL applications tracking data related to the construction. It also had to:
- ensure data security and access control
- maintain data control for each organization while displaying information to all stakeholders
- reside within PCL’s trusted infrastructure (Microsoft Azure)
- be up and running in 50 days
At first, many PCL executives thought it an impossible demand. But 48 days later – two days before deadline – the solution was done. An established familiarity with Microsoft’s Power BI tool and Azure cloud service helped get things moving quickly.
“Our partnership with Microsoft was helping us do that,” Kmet says. “We needed their assistance to get up and running.”
Now instead of filling out paper-based forms, PCL employees are recording information directly into iPads, onto mobile phones, and into laptops. The data from those applications is fed into an extract, transform, and load process to aggregate it into the dashboard. Leaning on the in-memory capability of Power BI, that data was rendered in visuals to construction field staff, project managers, and executives alike. Bar graphs and pie charts flash across the screen, ranging from red to orange to green in colour to indicate overall health.
“It creates a harmonious communication path from the bottom up,” Bryant says. “There’s hundreds of people on that job site so you can imagine the complexity of what’s happening there.”
Not only was PCL able to deliver the analytics solution for its airport client, but it now has that capability to use for all of its future projects as well. So far, PCL has onboarded another one of its main clients to the same solution. But it expects it to grow quickly out to the rest of its project base.
“We want to provide the same value to every client we have,” Kmet says. “It makes sense to build it out with larger clients for those strategic relationships.”
PCL is counting on many benefits as a result. The dashboard could help identify sub-contractors delivering poor quality work, or help safety professions target training to workers that are more accident prone, or for accidents that are actually happening more often. It’s estimated that more than 9,000 hours of manual effort will be saved per project just because of the eliminated manual data entry, adding up to $1.35 million in cost savings. Now, it will be placing an Ingenious award in the office trophy case.
Best of all, the solution has changed the conversations being held on PCL construction sites for the better.
“The data hold people accountable and gives people pride in their work,” Bryant says.
And since PCL can’t be God, it’s a good thing that it’s now bringing the data.