Computerized Organization and Use of Information
Numerous formal methods and possible organizations exist for the information required for project management. Before discussing the details of computations and information representation, it will be useful to describe a record keeping implementation, including some of the practical concerns in design and implementation. In this section, we shall describe a computer based system to provide construction yard and warehouse management information from the point of view of the system users. In the process, the usefulness of computerized databases can be illustrated.
A yard or warehouse is used by most construction firms to store equipment and to provide an inventory of materials and parts needed for projects. Large firms may have several warehouses at different locations so as to reduce transit time between project sites and materials supplies. In addition, local "yards" or "equipment sheds" are commonly provided on the job site. Examples of equipment in a yard would be drills, saws, office trailers, graders, back hoes, concrete pumps and cranes. Material items might include nails, plywood, wire mesh, forming lumber, etc.
In typical construction warehouses, written records are kept by warehouse clerks to record transfer or return of equipment to job sites, dispatch of material to jobs, and maintenance histories of particular pieces of equipment. In turn, these records are used as the basis for billing projects for the use of equipment and materials. For example, a daily charge would be made to a project for using a concrete pump. During the course of a month, the concrete pump might spend several days at different job sites, so each project would be charged for its use. The record keeping system is also used to monitor materials and equipment movements between sites so that equipment can be located.
One common mechanism to organize record keeping is to fill out cards recording the transfer of
items to or from a job site. Table 5-1 illustrates one possible transfer record. In this case, seven items were requested for the Carnegie-Mellon job site (project number 83-1557). These seven items would be loaded on a delivery truck, along with a copy of the transfer record. Shown in Table 14-1 is a code number identifying each item (0609.02, 0609.03, etc.), the quantity of each item requested, an item description and a unit price. For equipment items, an equipment number identifying the individual piece of equipment used is also recorded, such as grinder No. 4517 in Table 14-1; a unit price is not specified for equipment but a daily rental charge might be imposed.
Transfer sheets are numbered (such as No. 100311 in Table 14-1), dated and the preparer identified to facilitate control of the record keeping process. During the course of a month, numerous transfer records of this type are accumulated. At the end of a month, each of the transfer records is examined to compile the various items or equipment used at a project and the appropriate charges. Constructing these bills would be a tedious manual task. Equipment movements would have to be tracked individually, days at each site counted, and the daily charge accumulated for each project. For example, Table 5-1 records the transfer of grinder No. 4517 to a job site. This project would be charged a daily rental rate until the grinder was returned. Hundreds or thousands of individual item transfers would have to be examined, and the process of preparing bills could easily require a week or two of effort.
In addition to generating billing information, a variety of reports would be useful in the process of managing a company's equipment and individual projects. Records of the history of use of particular pieces of equipment are useful for planning maintenance and deciding on the sale or scrapping of equipment. Reports on the cumulative amount of materials and equipment delivered to a job site would be of obvious benefit to project managers. Composite reports on the amount, location, and use of pieces of equipment of particular types are also useful in making decisions about the purchase of new equipment, inventory control, or for project planning. Unfortunately, producing each of these reports requires manually sifting through a large number of transfer cards. Alternatively, record keeping for these specific projects could have to proceed by keeping multiple records of the same information. For example, equipment transfers might be recorded on (1) a file for a particular piece of equipment and
(2) a file for a particular project, in addition to the basic transfer form illustrated in Table 5-1. Even with these redundant records, producing the various desired reports would be time consuming.
Organizing this inventory information in a computer program is a practical and desirable innovation. In addition to speeding up billing (and thereby reducing borrowing costs), application programs can readily provide various reports or views of the basic inventory information described above. Information can be entered directly to the computer program as needed. For example, the transfer record shown in Table 14-1 is based upon an input screen to a computer program which, in turn, had been designed to duplicate the manual form used prior to computerization. Use of the computer also allows some interactive aids in preparing the transfer form. This type of aid follows a simple rule: "Don't make the user provide information that the system already knows." In using the form shown in Table 14-1, a clerk need only enter the code and quantity for an item; the verbal description and unit cost of the item then appear automatically. A copy of the transfer form can be printed locally, while the data is stored in the computer for subsequent processing. As a result, preparing transfer forms and record keeping are rapidly and effectively performed.
More dramatically, the computerized information allows warehouse personnel both to ask questions about equipment management and to readily generate the requisite data for answering such questions. The records of transfers can be readily processed by computer programs to develop bills and other reports. For example, proposals to purchase new pieces of equipment can be rapidly and critically reviewed after summarizing the actual usage of existing equipment. Ultimately, good organization of information will typically lead to the desire to store new types of data and to provide new views of this information as standard managerial tools.
Of course, implementing an information system such as the warehouse inventory database requires considerable care to insure that the resulting program is capable of accomplishing the desired task. In the warehouse inventory system, a variety of details are required to make the computerized system an acceptable alternative to a long standing manual record keeping procedure. Coping with these details makes a big difference in the system's usefulness. For example, changes to the status of equipment are generally made by recording transfers as illustrated in Table 14-1. However, a few status changes are not accomplished by physical movement. One example is a charge for
air conditioning in field trailers: even though the air conditioners may be left in the field, the construction project should not be charged for the air conditioner after it has been turned off during the cold weather months. A special status change report may be required for such details. Other details of record keeping require similar special controls.
Even with a capable program, simplicity of design for users is a critical factor affecting the successful implementation of a system. In the warehouse inventory system described above, input forms and initial reports were designed to duplicate the existing manual, paper-based records. As a result, warehouse clerks could readily understand what information was required and its ultimate use. A good rule to follow is the Principle of Least Astonishment: make communications with users as consistent and predictable as possible in designing programs.
Finally, flexibility of systems for changes is an important design and implementation concern. New reports or views of the data is a common requirement as the system is used. For example, the introduction of a new accounting system would require changes in the communications procedure from the warehouse inventory system to record changes and other cost items.
In sum, computerizing the warehouse inventory system could save considerable labor, speed up billing, and facilitate better management control. Against these advantages must be placed the cost of introducing computer hardware and software in the warehouse.