A Sensible List


The rumors are true. I am a crazy person. Anyone who knows our company knows that we are REALLY into training. And this training module, called "A Sensible List," has been included in more of our training programs than any other. BY FAR! And the reason is (as Charles Kettering said): "A problem well stated is a problem half-solved." And our job, above all else, is to solve problems. 


So yes; I am a crazy person. Any time someone brings me a collection of data that is not first organized into A Sensible List (or some sensible order), it makes me feel sad. So sad that people who won't stop bringing me "project piles" rather than sensible project files, are invited to work somewhere else, where they might better thrive. 

But people protest: "'Sensible' is SO subjective!" 

No it's not.

Organizing our world "sensibly" has been obvious since the dawn of civilization, and ultimately research psychologists figured out why. When you get bored or need a sleep aid, read "The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two." This is one of the most highly cited papers in psychology. It was published in 1956 and argues that the number of objects an average human can hold in working memory is 7 ± 2. This is why SO many things are arranged in groups of 5-9. It's not a miracle. It's just how humans think. 

So over time the folks who manage big, complex projects made some rules about making lists that conform with the way the human mind works, and they called their Sensible List a "Work Breakdown Structure." I highly recommend you study the subject, even further than I will go in this post. 


As it says on the slide above, I highly recommend you Google (search) each of these Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) terms. Until then, take my word for the following: 

  1. A Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) is a decomposition of a project into smaller components.

  2. 100% Rule: This means your list needs to add up to 100% of whatever it's summarizing. Not 99%. Not 101%.

  3. The magical number seven, plus or minus two: In general, each level of the WBS should be no more than 9 items long. In construction cost estimating, this rule gets broken. It's OK in this circumstance because most of the audience for construction cost estimates are people who deal with them often and can conceptualize these longer lists due to this familiarity. But any time we can't get the list on a single sheet of paper, we should usually "chunk" it down to size. At PFCS we usually arrange our WBSs using numbers at Level 1 (L1) and capital letters (A, B, C...) at Level 2 (L2). That way, if you get past Z at L2, you know you're in trouble and should consider re-thinking your list. 

  4. Mutually Exclusive Elements: In addition to the 100% rule, it's important that there is no overlap in scope definition between different elements of a work breakdown structure because this ambiguity could result in duplicated work. But sometimes an element of your list could fall naturally in two locations on the WBS, so from time to time we have a "zero value" item that refers to another element, just so everyone is clear. An example of this might be if we decided to sort documents first by "Who," then chronologically, where the name of the person or organization (Who) = L1 and the individual documents, that are listed in order by date, are each a L2 item (a common organizational scheme). If a document in this collection was authored by two parties we might list that document in both places (under both names), but refer from one of those items to the other so that we don't need to duplicate the document. 


So the only thing I don't like about the diagram above is that they call the entire bike "WBS Level 1". Bit it's NOT broken down yet! So I call their "WBS Level 2," a Level-1 WBS because it's the first level of breakdown. It's a sensible 100% list. That is: A Sensible List. 

The PFCS Standard WBS numbering-lettering scheme for this example would be: 

1. Frame Set

A. Frame

B. Handlebar

C. Fork

D. Seat

2. Crank Set


The numbering scheme used in the slide above is appropriate for highly technical documents, like codes and standards. But our work at PFCS needs to be consumed and understood by smart but NOT technical people. Literally, our job is to help our clients make smart, informed decisions about buildings and property, and we know that if they don't understand our work, then we have not served them well. My experience is that some people get confused when you refer to section 1403.2.2.4. So we prefer an approach that is as simple as possible (but no simpler), conforming with the way humans best understand things. 


If you've studied project management then you know "The Golden Triangle" includes the project "Scope, Budget, and Schedule." These are the big three aspects of getting a complex project planned and done.

In addition, if we layout our WBS just right, then we can manage all three aspects in lock-step, as depicted (in a simplified way) below. 


“No plan can be considered complete - or satisfactory - until it produces measurable outcomes and incorporates mechanisms that allow mid-course corrections based on results.” - Judith Rodin

That is my favorite management quote (well... I have lots of favorite quotes :). It's so true! Most people's plans are more "hopes" than plans. I have worked on many projects in litigation, where the owners had no idea how far over budget they were until they had already paid MORE than 100% of the original contract price, because the plan did not "incorporates mechanisms that allow mid-course corrections based on results." I had a mentor who used to say to me "Pete: Hope is not a strategy." I would always retort: Yes it is! It's just a terrible one!! I recommend you NOT use hope as a strategy in your planning. 

As you can see from the slide above, with the right WBS (Sensible List) we can summarize the scope, budget and schedule, then we can compare actual performance compared to the plan throughout the life of the project, so that we can "incorporate mechanisms that allow mid-course corrections based on results." This is the promise of professional project management. And the foundation of project management is a well designed WBS. And a well designed WBS is the most Sensible List. 


In a construction project it's not only the scope, budget, and schedule that should be connected using A Sensible List (WBS). Most construction documents will either be organized or filed using the Sensible List (WBS). Often this is simply by Who, then When; that is, by party (name) and then chronologically (by date). That would be a 2-Level WBS (who-when). Other schemes go another level deep. 

An example 3-Level WBS for Construction Document Organization: 

1. Name 1

A. Contract Documents

1. YEAR-MO-DY Document 1

2. YEAR-MO-DY Document 2

3. YEAR-MO-DY Document 3 

B. RFIs and Change Orders

C. All Other

D. Correspondence

1. YEAR-MO-DY Document 1

2. YEAR-MO-DY Document 2

2. Name 2

By the way: If we adhere to this scheme electronically, with individual electronic files organized with the date first and the format of the date YEAR-MO-DY, or 2017-10-20 for today's date, then we always know the most current version of any electronic file is the one at the bottom. Any other scheme adds complexity, which adds the likelihood of error. Even if the file has lots of different files, you can easily scan from the bottom to find the most recent version of a file (Ex. 2017-10-20 Change Order 17). So I highly recommend this scheme. 


And the same goes for construction claim and litigation matters: A Sensible List often makes the difference between order and chaos. 


I said above that people protest that "'Sensible' is SO subjective!" And that I totally disagree. This is not to say there is only one way to be "sensible." There are lots of ways to be sensible... And even more ways to be NOT sensible. So suffice it to say: Use one of the sensible ways. Think about how your Sensible List might get used before you begin, and work backward. Planning backward from a successful end is the essence of excellent planning. 


When PFCS is making lists of building elements, we use Uniformat, unless there is a compelling reason to use some other scheme *. "UniFormat is a standard for classifying building specifications, cost estimating, and cost analysis in the U.S. and Canada. The elements are major components common to most buildings. The system can be used to provide consistency in the economic evaluation of building projects. It was developed through an industry and government consensus and has been widely accepted as an ASTM standard."

Lots of construction professionals use CSI Masterformat because most specifications manuals from architects are often written using this scheme, but since PFCS does so much building performance analysis, and we store building data (forever, for free) Uniformat is a better standard for us. 

* In claims and litigation, we need to be very careful about making our Sensible List(s) because so much of the work is about comparing and contrasting. If we are on the plaintiff side, then all the other parties will likely use our list to respond to our claims. When we are on the defense side, and someone else has created a reasonably sensible list, then it's usually better to adopt their's, rather than re-inventing the wheel. Unfortunately, the work of others is sometimes so poor that we have to create our own organizational scheme. But we only do this as a last resort. 


Unifromat's Level-1 structure is a simple, Sensible List that categorizes all aspects of any building project, using capitol letters at Level 1 (because there are WAY more than 26 Level 2 options, and they wisely switch from letters to numbers when going from L1 to L2): 

A. Substructure

B. Superstructure

C. Interiors

D. Services

E. Equipment & Furnishings

F. Special Construction & Demolition

G. Building Site work

H. Other (This is added by PFCS because lots of our projects are in litigation and the issues don't always fit into Uniformat's building element codes. 

The actual building elements nest comfortably at Level 2 under the respective L1 categories. 


In lots of what we do, we explain things by "working from large to small." I have explained this hundreds of times by asking people if they ever used Google Earth, where you start with an image of the entire Earth. You type in your address and the globe turns to orient toward your hemisphere, then it starts moving in toward your continent, then the your country, then your state, county, city, neighborhood, and ultimately your rooftop. And in going from large to small way we have been oriented perfectly to where in the world we are. First explain the forest we are in, then talk about trees. 

So buildings are, for the sake of consistency in naming, composed of "Elements" like foundations, walls and roofs. A "masonry wall" is a particular type of building element (at Level 2 in Uniformat). The bricks and mortar are "Components" of that building element, that would be at Level 3 or deeper. 


This project was a Property Condition Assessment for twin high-rise condominiums, so virtually all of the building elements were addressed in our report. 


This project was a construction defect litigation matter with discrete problems and repairs for all of those issues. 


Even our Core Values are laid out in a 2-Level Work Breakdown structure! 

And from there, so, so many of the things we do have to be arranged in a sensible list: