Project Management: Combat Scope Creep

April 6, 2018
Items added to a project can undermine its success.

The budget already was blown when I got the project. The money allocated was adequate for the original scope — replacement of a tank coupled with installation of a larger molasses centrifuge. Now, though, the project included improvements in the steam network and cleaning tank as well as some dumb experiments corporate requested. This is a perfect example of scope creep triumphing over common sense.

Fortunately, I was able to save this project — and my career — by taking several specific steps. I slowed down construction. I ignored corporate’s ideas. I used non-union contract labor and pitched in myself. I personally did all the design and purchasing. Yet, even with all that, the project was on the verge of failure. So, I introduced several minor improvements and begged for more money based on them. We squeaked by.


Anyone responsible for a project should fight project scope creep.

First, let’s consider tactics for avoiding such creep. The best defense is an explanation to corporate management about how an “adder,” i.e., an item appended to the scope, will blow up the rate of return (ROR) on the project. Present your reasons as delicately as possible so you don’t offend the individual promoting it. I suggest a phone call to ask permission after you’ve gotten a cost estimate. If you’re uncomfortable doing an estimate, use “RS Mean’s Facilities Construction Cost Data” and focus on the time needed to perform a construction activity, then apply local labor rates and current material costs. Depending upon the interest level, you may need a quotation rather than just an estimate.

Some adders are sensible and should be included in a scope. However, many aren’t. Often, it’s because they’re not technically feasible — which gives you a strong defense. A somewhat related defense applies when the technology itself is feasible but demands high-price-tag labor. For example, suppose the adder involves new instruments and controls requiring sophisticated support: bingo!

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The next best defense is showing how an adder will delay implementation of the project. This actually can be the best defense if the holdup could push back product delivery. It’s also powerful if you don’t have time to spare because a leaking tank, failing pump, etc., demands immediate attention.

Lastly, consider a potent, if usually unspoken, deterrent to scope creep: inconvenience. If an adder comes along after the process hazard analysis or constructability review, you must restart the review process from scratch. Most companies don’t want to go through that again. Other inconveniences include: retraining, additional tie-points, downtime, safety issues like relocating a sprinkler system, a capacity expansion requiring first a “permit to operate” and later a “permit to install.”

Now, let’s consider what you can do when scope creep is unavoidable. If you lose the fight, it may be less about completing the project and more about the aftermath. See: “Take the Right Approach to Projects.” 

Your first problem is cash. If you were smart, you used the highest bids for your estimates (“Pad Your Cost Estimate”). Now, go low bidder. Next, look for construction shortcuts to reduce costs. Get rid of any spares proposed for the job. Eliminate as-built drawings. However, first, you must create some space between project approval and kickoff. You’ll need some time to squeeze every dime out of the project scope, schedule and budget — remember, they’re all connected.

If even after doing all that you can’t fully absorb the adders, look for ways they can help you improve the project’s ROR. Most adders provide some value if you delve deeply enough.

Safety improvements get short shrift when it comes to projects. Yes, I know many plants display highly visible banners that proclaim “Safety First”— but you know what I mean. I don’t want to sound cynical but there’s real money in safety, as I’ve stressed before: “Worker Safety: Forget Political Correctness.

And, of course, maintenance improvements do provide savings, often significant ones. For example, one plant was suffering over $1 million/y in downtime because a key pump had to be taken offline for an hour at least four times a week; installing a simple strainer at the discharge of the previous pump eliminated the downtime. Roll that into your project and you’re saved.

If none of this works, then you’d better prepare a good explanation for the failure for your next job interview.

DIRK WILLARD is a Chemical Processing contributing editor. He recently won recognition for his Field Notes column from theASBPE. Chemical Processing is proud to have him on board. You can e-mail him at [email protected]
About the Author

Dirk Willard | Contributing Editor

DIRK WILLARD is a Chemical Processing Contributing Editor.

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