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Fighting Scope Creep

Note: Due to the sensitivity of this topic—scope creep can develop into a source of conflict between the general contractor and the sub—no names or companies have been identified in this article.

It is probably safe to say that neither the owner nor the general contractor actually sits down at the beginning of a project to plan how best to creep the scope.

A much more likely scenario is that the owner, in an effort to save money, does not request a detailed scope from the architect—besides, you can always fix things on the fly, can’t you? Or, the owner changes his or her mind about certain details mid-project but cannot or does not want to fund the changes.

Another scenario is that the general contractor, in an effort to win the bid, cuts one corner here and another one there—in fact bidding low, hoping that he or his superintendent will be able to wing the project through somehow, should he win the bid.

The usual outcome in either case is scope creep.

Scope creep refers to uncontrolled changes or continuous (and sometimes very subtle) growth in a project’s scope. This can occur when the scope of a project is not properly defined, documented or controlled.

If, on the other hand, budget, resources and schedule are increased along with the scope, the change is considered an acceptable addition to the project, and the term “scope creep” is not used; rather, these are simply change orders.

Scope creep is usually the result of any or all of the following:

• Lack of proper initial identification of what is required to bring about the project objectives.

• Poor change control.

• Weak project management.

• Poor communication between parties.

Spotting Scope Creep

Scope creep does just that: It creeps up on you, usually subtly, bit by bit. So how do you spot it?

A Texas contractor observes, “It starts off as small changes or additions to the scope. Sometimes as a favor asked. If you don’t watch it, that favor then becomes a second one, and a third.”

“One clear sign that scope creep is just around the corner, a bright red flag,” offers a Vermont contractor, “is that you’re handed incomplete blueprints.”

A Michigan contractor says, “The scope begins to creep when change requests are made without a request for an additional bid or without a written (and signed) work order. If, at this point, the sub is afraid of causing a rift in the relationship with the general contractor, or if he blindly trusts him, the sub will usually live to regret carrying out those changes.

“Also beware of the general contractor who takes offense at being asked to sign a work order as he, most likely, does not plan to pay for this work. This has happened to us more than once: At the end of the project the super and the general sit across the table from us and refuse to pay any additional work done on the project because we don’t have signed work orders.”

Says another Texas contractor, “If your field supervisor understands the project scope well, scope creep should not be difficult to spot. At the first sign of a change, he should advise the project manager because it is the PM’s job to determine whether this is an official or unofficial change. If unofficial, it is then up to the PM to contact the client and discuss how the change affects the sub financially.”

Adds a Maryland contractor, “It’s quite black and white. If your crew has done work that was not in your bid, and without a signed work order, you’re looking at scope creep. Often, when I ask a foreman or worker why they did such-and-such work that wasn’t in our bid or on the drawings, I sometimes receive the answer, ‘Oh, the superintendent said that you had approved it.’ We run into this especially with old-time superintendents who know how to game the system and with the new breed of young college graduates who don’t know better.

“However, if my project managers and/or superintendents and foremen are not well informed, if they don’t have a full set of drawings and shop drawings and a clear scope description, then I am as culpable as the general contractor for the abuse. Unfortunately, the days of handshake agreements are mostly a thing of the past.”

A California contractor offers this perspective: “When added work consists of new walls, it’s easy to spot and price out accordingly. However, when scope creep takes the form of more time needed to complete the scope, spotting it becomes harder.

“Usually, this means we are asked to, say, do three walls of a four-wall room today and come back next week for the fourth wall. It’s that come-back-next-week that kills your budget. Unless you are tracking production rates on a daily basis, you really don’t notice the hours running over until it’s too late.”

Adds another California contractor, “You try to spot this during contract negotiations. It does take some experience to see it in a set of plans, but that doesn’t guarantee that you will catch it all.”

Adds another Texas contractor, “Generally I see scope creep in two forms: I’m asked to construct something not drawn in order to accommodate the “design intent.” This is identified best by the comment ‘Well, you should have had something in there for that.’

“Schedule changes made with no change to end date—identified best by the phrase ‘the schedule has not changed,’ which is stated when you are in a scheduling meeting discussing a revised schedule.”

Given a clear, detailed scope of work (not always a given), any deviation from it—even an insignificant favor—is the first sign. Be on your guard.

Pushing Back

So, you’ve spotted it. How do you push back?

Offers a California contractor: “You have to train your foreman to spot a job that’s running out of sequence. He has to understand that an hour here and another there quickly adds up to more than your profit margin if allowed to repeat throughout the project.

“At first sign, send the GC a request for change order, before you begin work in a messed-up area. Our clients may begin to think we are uncooperative by not doing three walls now and one later, but if you confront them with the true cost of coming back later, they begin to understand.”

An Ohio contractor found that “the further down the ladder you are, the more difficult pushing back becomes, and as a rule, the sub is the bottom rung. For us, the key is to document everything. While you may not be able to hold a microphone to the GC superintendent’s face during conversations—though that would not be a bad idea—you must document as much as you can afford within your project budget.

“Some GCs would love nothing more than to cycle through your project managers until there is no one left of the original project team to verify what you were actually asked and not asked to do.”

The advice of one Texas contractor is to push back fast and hard: “At the first sign of scope creep, we tend to ‘overreact’ to make our point—to kill it dead on the spot.”

A Tennessee contractor adds, “Be firm, and make sure you are within your rights. Choose your battles but keep score.”

“Insist on work authorization slips signed by the GC’s head superintendent,” suggests a Vermont contractor.

A Texas contractor also suggests immediate action: “At the first sign, your PM must take it up with the client and determine how the added work is to be handled. How you respond sets a precedent, and if you give an inch, you’ll end up giving a lot more.”

Adds an Ohio contractor, “The bottom line is that if you feel it will not damage your ongoing relationship with those involved, you need to be a bit of a bull and take a stand.

“Also, in my experience, I find that the larger the project, the more potential there is for creep. That said, I believe that if you stress communication and coordination from the beginning, you can minimize or avoid scope creep altogether.”

Adds another California contractor, “I try to define our scope as deliberately as I can and get this into our scope letter at the time of bid and then follow through during the contract negotiations. Sometimes I will include a marked-up set of drawings to better define those items that are difficult to put into words. Once awarded, I sit down with the general contractor and my foreman to define exactly what is in our scope so we can at least try and start the project off on the same page. This does help quite a bit.”

Adds another Texas contractor, “I have found it helpful to issue a confirming RFI and track the cost separate from the original budget, even when I don’t believe I will be reimbursed. I have found it helpful to do this on all projects from the beginning and not just after the sum of the changes become significant.”

The consensus is never to ignore even the smallest sign of scope creep. Open that door even a crack, and you’ll soon have a full-blown case of creep on your hands.

Preempting the Creep

What can you do to prevent the scope from shifting in the first place?

A California contractor stresses the basics: “Make sure you have a clear and detailed scope of work and maintain good communication.”
A different California contractor says, “You must make sure your own people have an acute understanding of the scope of work you have agreed to with the GC. To make sure, I try to go on-site quite a bit early on to make sure we are staying the course on our scope. This, at times, can require a couple of follow-up phone calls to the GC to reaffirm our agreement. If there is a change in scope, I submit that pricing as soon as I can to put the issue on the table very quickly and so resolve it faster.

“However, the biggest thing you can do to eliminate scope creep is communicate with all parties involved very early on before the price is set, because once the price is set, we all seem to have different views of what is included in the contract sum.”

Suggests a Texas contractor, “Push back as much as you can at the contract stage by writing as much into it as you can to prevent scope creep.”

Adds a Tennessee contractor, “Be very specific in your proposals, and read the contract carefully. If it is a large project, request a detailed, written scope of work from the GC. On smaller projects be firm, honest and up-front from the beginning.”

A Michigan contractor advises, “Spell out the scope of work during the bid process. And stating exclusions in your bid can be as important as what is included. With my preferred general contractors I will specify and price the job right down to wall type, ceiling type or any other minutia that I feel will qualify my bid.

“There needs to be an understanding with the general contractor from the very start that no work progresses without a work order. We have accepted many projects based on conceptual drawings/sketches alone, but before we actually do work, we detail the cost and specify the extent of the work to be done based upon the limited design given us. And we make sure that is signed.”

Says a Texas contractor, “Scope creep is pretty much impossible to prevent altogether; it’s an issue you have to manage. But as long as you set the right precedent as soon as it becomes an issue, you can more than likely negotiate a favorable outcome.”

Unless the scope of the project is agreed to, specific, detailed and in writing, each party may in effect operate on his or her own view of the objective and what the project entails. This is the recipe for scope creep (and conflicts).

A written, detailed, clearly stated scope, agreed to and signed by all parties, is the cure.

Schedule Creep

But Scope Creep has an evil brother. His name is Schedule Creep.

A Texas contractor brought up and stressed this issue: “Even if the scope does not change, if during the project the schedule slips while the completion date remains the same, you’re asked to add extra crew or to work around the clock toward the end of the project to meet the deadline. This takes a big bite out of your profits, but the general contractor has no interest in compensating you for it.

“Say you bid an eight-month project. We then work out the labor needs on a bell curve that starts at, say, four crew, then up to 20 at peak, then back to four as we wrap up. However, if the GC falls behind in other areas so that we now cannot come in and do our job per the schedule (while the final due date remains the same) this means we now have to bring in extra men, incur overtime costs, rub elbows with a lot of other trades now also in the picture—also in scramble mode, getting in each other’s way. This means loss in efficiency, and that means loss of profit.

“The bottom line is that we rarely push back enough on schedule. We all want to give our clients a great quality job at a good price, but we need the time to do a good job.

“It takes great diplomacy to push back on this, or to demand compensation for loss of efficiency because this normally highlights the general contractor’s ineptness in project management, and they never take too kindly to that.

“How valuable is your relationship with the general contractor? Can you afford to upset him? Can you afford not to challenge the schedule creep? You have to consider all the angles.”

Adds another Texas contractor, “I have found it helpful to provide the GC with a weekly ‘project constraints list’ extended out several weeks. This will hold the contractor responsible for removing obstacles that hinder the flow of work. It also answers the ‘why’ if overtime is required.”

When it comes to schedule creep, keep a close eye on workflow and polish your negotiation skills.

Who’s to Blame?

It seems that scope creep (or attempted scope or schedule creep) is part and parcel of a contractor’s life these days. Who’s to blame for this?

In an Ohio contractor’s view, “the one to blame is the party with the most at stake: the owner. He wants results, not excuses. Just get it done. But here’s the kicker: Get it done for the same cost.”

According to a Tennessee contractor, “This starts at the top and can run through the whole team.”

A Vermont contractor says, “This usually falls on the owners as they attempt to save money by cutting the architect’s budget.”

A Michigan contractors offers this sobering view: “The final villain is the contractor who is afraid to jeopardize his relationship with a customer by clearly defining the exact extent of the bid.”

Here’s the viewpoint of a Texas contractor: “The architect may forget to include a change in the final revision. The GC may run a job that is not properly sequenced/coordinated causing a loss of production. Other subs may cause substantial damage and leave-outs. All of this will impact your scope of work.”

Adds a California contractor, “A bad set of drawings that does not clearly define the scope of work at hand will start the scope creep process. And if too much is left to interpretation, then it will be interpreted differently by all the bidders and the general contractor.

“Sometimes other subs have an effect on scope creep by the way they perform their work. For example, a bad concrete slab can make installing hollow metal door frames more time consuming than it originally should have been. And when framing the exterior walls, if the slab edges are not installed properly, this can cause us grief that can be difficult, if not impossible, to be compensated for.

Adds another California contractor, “Scope creep can be caused by anyone ahead of you in the flow of the project. However, while we might think an electrician is to blame, he might in turn be waiting on a delayed owner directive.

“Our job isn’t to blame anyone, but to identify, price, and to be remunerated for the actual cost incurred from scope or schedule creep.”

Assigning blame is similar to (but still different from) determining cause. The smart contractor establishes cause, fixes it, makes sure he is paid for it, then does the project.

Words of Wisdom

When it comes to experience speaking, a California contractor stresses, “Never sign a contract where the scope of work includes any version of owner’s or architect’s intent.”

Another California contractor offers this advice: “Essentially, communication is the key. You have to talk to the respective parties involved to establish the contract scope as best as all of you can to avoid too much scope creep. Keeping the creep insignificant makes it much easier for everyone to resolve. Should the scope creep become excessive, there is almost no way you will come out financially whole as you attempt to resolve it.”

An Ohio contractor shares this: “All in all, we have not been hit by the creep too much, and I think it’s due to the fact that we have some really quality general contractors that treat us well and vice versa. However, when the projects and people involved increase, that’s when your guard goes up, as does the potential for the creep.”

Here is some advice from a Tennessee contractor: “Be firm, be honest, choose your battles and keep score.”

And from Vermont: “So there is no confusion, let the owner and general contractor be very clear up front about how you intend to proceed with change orders. Then stick to your guns.”

“The clearer your bid is,” says a Michigan contractor, the less chance of assumptions being made. You know what is covered in your bid as well as what is not. Spell it out. A construction project is a team effort. If everyone goes in with a me-me-me attitude, the project will likely suffer.”

And, lastly, from Texas, “The most important advice I can give is to communicate with your client right away when this issue arises. Hoping the creep will go away by itself will only allow it to grow bigger down the road. If faced and handled head-on and immediately, by communicating with your client, you can usually negotiate a solution favorable to both parties.”

A Thought on BIM

When correctly implemented, Building Information Modeling may prove the perfect antidote to scope creep because the significant disciplines such as architectural, structural and MEP designs have to be well coordinated. BIM aids in collision detection at the initial stage, identifying the exact location of discrepancies even before ground is broken.

In order to reduce uncertainty, improve safety, work out problems, and simulate and analyze potential impacts, the BIM concept envisages virtual construction of a facility prior to its actual physical construction.

If subcontractors are part of the BIM process from the outset, subs from every trade can contribute critical information into this model. On-site waste can be minimized, and material can be delivered on a just-in-time basis rather than being stock-piled on-site.

Quantities and shared properties of materials can be extracted easily. Scopes of work can be isolated and defined. Systems, assemblies and sequences can be shown in a relative scale with the entire facility or group of facilities.

BIM also prevents errors by showing you where the conflicts or clash detections are as the job progresses.

All this in an ideal BIM world. At this point, however, the wall and ceiling subcontractor is rarely invited to the BIM table during the design phase, and so he has not been able to provide the input to ensure the scope is accurate from his perspective. (AWCI is working on this.)

One contractor who works with BIM regularly takes this view: “BIM is certainly capable of pulling back scope creep, but only if you are in on the design from the beginning.”

The intent of BIM is for all trades to provide input to the complete model where all conflicts are worked out before ground is broken.

The day BIM is fully implemented according to its intent, scope creep should be a creature of the past.

Until then, however, stay alert and push back.

California-based Ulf Wolf is the senior writer at Words & Images.

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