Checking the Box in Front End Loading

From the Desk of: Dick Troell, P.E.

Sophisticated owner organizations have a well-documented and comprehensive Front End Loading work process.  This process includes Stage Gate Reviews, through which any capital investment opportunity must pass.  The Stage Gate definition most often includes a listing of the documentation required to obtain the funding and approval to move to the next step in the development process.

The Stage Gate or Front End Loading process is aimed at ensuring projects are well-thought out and thoroughly developed in every aspect so there are no surprises along the way or at the end.  In the past, projects were herded along as quickly as possible, with only the necessary development being performed.  Consequently, there were surprises during execution.  Costs rose and schedules extended.  It was common to not “have a clue” where either would eventually end up.  One just accepted the fact that the cost always goes up and the schedule always extends.  The obvious drivers for both bad news items was incomplete project definition and understanding.  Hence, the Stage Gate or Front End Loading (FEL) process was developed where definition is determined and unknowns are defined – before they become surprises.  As more is known and understood about the project, more is expected to be presented at subsequent Stage Gate Reviews.  Without the proper development, the project team will be sent back to define the missing parts so approval may be granted.

Today the issue is not the lack of a robust system for project definition and development.  The problem is that project teams have learned how to “work” the system and not really do the necessary work of definition and detail development.  Instead of spending the time, effort, and funds to adequately and properly wade through the “swamp filled with alligators” called FEL, teams have figured out how to circumvent or short cut the required deliverables and obtain the necessary rating or check marks in order to proceed.

The owner review team must delve into the details of packages presented for Stage Gate Review and approval in order to fully understand and evaluate the level of fact, development, and information contained therein to be absolutely certain the required work has actually been performed and the project is legitimately ready for progression to the next phase.  It has become quite common to just check the box for certain deliverables and not totally fulfill the intent and spirit of the requirements.

Without diligence on the part of the review team, there will continue to be surprises in cost, schedule, and quality through the remainder of the project.