12. Cost Control, Monitoring and Accounting
12.1 The Cost Control Problem
During the execution of a project, procedures for project control and record keeping become indispensable tools to managers and other participants in the construction process. These tools serve the dual purpose of recording the financial transactions that occur as well as giving managers an indication of the progress and problems associated with a project. The problems of project control are aptly summed up in an old definition of a project as "any collection of vaguely related activities that are ninety percent complete, over budget and late." The task of project control systems is to give a fair indication of the existence and the extent of such problems.
In this chapter, we consider the problems associated with resource utilization, accounting, monitoring and control during a project. In this discussion, we emphasize the project management uses of accounting information. Interpretation of project accounts is generally not straightforward until a project is completed, and then it is too late to influence project management. Even after completion of a project, the accounting results may be confusing. Hence, managers need to know how to interpret accounting information for the purpose of project management. In the process of considering management problems, however, we shall discuss some of the common accounting systems and conventions, although our purpose is not to provide a comprehensive survey of accounting procedures.
The limited objective of project control deserves emphasis. Project control procedures are primarily intended to identify deviations from the project plan rather than to suggest possible areas for cost savings. This characteristic reflects the advanced stage at which project control becomes important. The time at which major cost savings can be achieved is during planning and design for the project. During the actual construction, changes are likely to delay the project and lead to inordinate cost increases. As a result, the focus of project control is on fulfilling the original design plans or indicating deviations from these plans, rather than on searching for significant improvements and cost savings. It is only when a rescue operation is required that major changes will normally occur in the construction plan.
Finally, the issues associated with integration of information will require some discussion. Project management activities and functional concerns are intimately linked, yet the techniques used in many instances do not facilitate comprehensive or integrated consideration of project activities. For example, schedule information and cost accounts are usually kept separately. As a result, project managers themselves must synthesize a comprehensive view from the different reports on the project plus their own field observations. In particular, managers are often forced to infer the cost impacts of schedule changes, rather than being provided with aids for this process. Communication or integration of various types of information can serve a number of useful purposes, although it does require special attention in the establishment of project control procedures.
12.2 The Project Budget
For cost control on a project, the construction plan and the associated cash flow estimates can provide the baseline reference for subsequent project monitoring and control. For schedules, progress on individual activities and the achievement of milestone completions can be compared with the project schedule to monitor the progress of activities. Contract and job specifications provide the criteria by which to assess and assure the required quality of construction. The final or detailed cost estimate provides a baseline for the assessment of financial performance during the project. To the extent that costs are within the detailed cost estimate, then the project is thought to be under financial control. Overruns in particular cost categories signal the possibility of problems and give an indication of exactly what problems are being encountered. Expense oriented construction planning and control focuses upon the categories included in the final cost estimation. This focus is particular relevant for projects with few activities and considerable repetition such as grading and paving roadways.
For control and monitoring purposes, the original detailed cost estimate is typically converted to a project budget, and the project budget is used subsequently as a guide for management. Specific items in the detailed cost estimate become job cost elements. Expenses incurred during the course of a project are recorded in specific job cost accounts to be compared with the original cost estimates in each category. Thus, individual job cost accounts generally represent the basic unit for cost control. Alternatively, job cost accounts may be disaggregated or divided into work elements which are related both to particular scheduled activities and to particular cost accounts. Work element divisions will be described in Section 12.8.
In addition to cost amounts, information on material quantities and labor inputs within each job account is also typically retained in the project budget. With this information, actual materials usage and labor employed can be compared to the expected requirements. As a result, cost overruns or savings on particular items can be identified as due to changes in unit prices, labor productivity or in the amount of material consumed.
The number of cost accounts associated with a particular project can vary considerably. For constructors, on the order of four hundred separate cost accounts might be used on a small project. These accounts record all the transactions associated with a project. Thus, separate accounts might exist for different types of materials, equipment use, payroll, project office, etc. Both physical and non-physical resources are represented, including overhead items such as computer use or interest charges. Table 12-1 summarizes a typical set of cost accounts that might be used in building construction. Note that this set of accounts is organized hierarchically, with seven major divisions (accounts 201 to 207) and numerous sub-divisions under each division. This hierarchical structure facilitates aggregation of costs into pre-defined categories; for example, costs associated with the superstructure (account 204) would be the sum of the underlying subdivisions (ie. 204.1, 204.2, etc.) or finer levels of detail (204.61, 204.62, etc.). The sub-division accounts in Table 12-1 could be further divided into personnel, material and other resource costs for the purpose of financial accounting, as described in Section 12.4.
TABLE 12-1 Illustrative Set of Project Cost Accounts
In developing or implementing a system of cost accounts, an appropriate numbering or coding system is essential to facilitate communication of information and proper aggregation of cost information. Particular cost accounts are used to indicate the expenditures associated with specific projects and to indicate the expenditures on particular items throughout an organization. These are examples of different perspectives on the same information, in which the same information may be summarized in different ways for specific purposes. Thus, more than one aggregation of the cost information and more than one application program can use a particular cost account. Separate identifiers of the type of cost account and the specific project must be provided for project cost accounts or for financial transactions. As a result, a standard set of cost codes such as the MASTERFORMAT codes described in Chapter 9 may be adopted to identify cost accounts along with project identifiers and extensions to indicate organization or job specific needs. Similarly the use of databases or, at a minimum, inter-communicating applications programs facilitate access to cost information, as described in Chapter 14.
Converting a final cost estimate into a project budget compatible with an organization's cost accounts is not always a straightforward task. As described in Chapter 5, cost estimates are generally disaggregated into appropriate functional or resource based project categories. For example, labor and material quantities might be included for each of several physical components of a project. For cost accounting purposes, labor and material quantities are aggregated by type no matter for which physical component they are employed. For example, particular types of workers or materials might be used on numerous different physical components of a facility. Moreover, the categories of cost accounts established within an organization may bear little resemblance to the quantities included in a final cost estimate. This is particularly true when final cost estimates are prepared in accordance with an external reporting requirement rather than in view of the existing cost accounts within an organization.
One particular problem in forming a project budget in terms of cost accounts is the treatment of contingency amounts. These allowances are included in project cost estimates to accommodate unforeseen events and the resulting costs. However, in advance of project completion, the source of contingency expenses is not known. Realistically, a budget accounting item for contingency allowance should be established whenever a contingency amount was included in the final cost estimate.
A second problem in forming a project budget is the treatment of inflation. Typically, final cost estimates are formed in terms of real dollars and an item reflecting inflation costs is added on as a percentage or lump sum. This inflation allowance would then be allocated to individual cost items in relation to the actual expected inflation over the period for which costs will be incurred.
Example 12-1: Project Budget for a Design Office
An example of a small project budget is shown in Table 12-2. This budget might be used by a design firm for a specific design project. While this budget might represent all the work for this firm on the project, numerous other organizations would be involved with their own budgets. In Table 12-2, a summary budget is shown as well as a detailed listing of costs for individuals in the Engineering Division. For the purpose of consistency with cost accounts and managerial control, labor costs are aggregated into three groups: the engineering, architectural and environmental divisions. The detailed budget shown in Table 12-2 applies only to the engineering division labor; other detailed budgets amounts for categories such as supplies and the other work divisions would also be prepared. Note that the salary costs associated with individuals are aggregated to obtain the total labor costs in the engineering group for the project. To perform this aggregation, some means of identifying individuals within organizational groups is required. Accompanying a budget of this nature, some estimate of the actual man-hours of labor required by project task would also be prepared. Finally, this budget might be used for internal purposes alone. In submitting financial bills and reports to the client, overhead and contingency amounts might be combined with the direct labor costs to establish an aggregate billing rate per hour. In this case, the overhead, contingency and profit would represent allocated costs based on the direct labor costs.
TABLE 12-2 Example of a Small Project Budget for a Design Firm
Example 12-2: Project Budget for a Constructor
Table 12-3 illustrates a summary budget for a constructor. This budget is developed from a project to construct a wharf. As with the example design office budget above, costs are divided into direct and indirect expenses. Within direct costs, expenses are divided into material, subcontract, temporary work and machinery costs. This budget indicates aggregate amounts for the various categories. Cost details associated with particular cost accounts would supplement and support the aggregate budget shown in Table 12-3. A profit and a contingency amount might be added to the basic budget of $1,715,147 shown in Table 12-3 for completeness.
TABLE 12-3 An Example of a Project Budget for a Wharf Project (Amounts in Thousands of Dollars)
12.3 Forecasting for Activity Cost Control
For the purpose of project management and control, it is not sufficient to consider only the past record of costs and revenues incurred in a project. Good managers should focus upon future revenues, future costs and technical problems. For this purpose, traditional financial accounting schemes are not adequate to reflect the dynamic nature of a project. Accounts typically focus on recording routine costs and past expenditures associated with activities. Generally, past expenditures represent sunk costs that cannot be altered in the future and may or may not be relevant in the future. For example, after the completion of some activity, it may be discovered that some quality flaw renders the work useless. Unfortunately, the resources expended on the flawed construction will generally be sunk and cannot be recovered for re-construction (although it may be possible to change the burden of who pays for these resources by financial withholding or charges; owners will typically attempt to have constructors or designers pay for changes due to quality flaws). Since financial accounts are historical in nature, some means of forecasting or projecting the future course of a project is essential for management control. In this section, some methods for cost control and simple forecasts are described.
An example of forecasting used to assess the project status is shown in Table 12-4. In this example, costs are reported in five categories, representing the sum of all the various cost accounts associated with each category:
The current status of the project is a forecast budget overrun of $5,950. with 23 percent of the budgeted project costs incurred to date.
TABLE 12-4 Illustration of a Job Status Report
For project control, managers would focus particular attention on items indicating substantial deviation from budgeted amounts. In particular, the cost overruns in the labor and in the "other expense category would be worthy of attention by a project manager in Table 12-4. A next step would be to look in greater detail at the various components of these categories. Overruns in cost might be due to lower than expected productivity, higher than expected wage rates, higher than expected material costs, or other factors. Even further, low productivity might be caused by inadequate training, lack of required resources such as equipment or tools, or inordinate amounts of re-work to correct quality problems. Review of a job status report is only the first step in project control.
The job status report illustrated in Table 12-4 employs explicit estimates of ultimate cost in each category of expense. These estimates are used to identify the actual progress and status of a expense category. Estimates might be made from simple linear extrapolations of the productivity or cost of the work to date on each project item. Algebraically, a linear estimation formula is generally one of two forms. Using a linear extrapolation of costs, the forecast total cost, Cf , is:
where Ct is the cost incurred to time t and pt is the proportion of the activity completed at time t. For example, an activity which is 50 percent complete with a cost of $40,000 would be estimated to have a total cost of $40,000/0.5 = $80,000. More elaborate methods of forecasting costs would disaggregate costs into different categories, with the total cost the sum of the forecast costs in each category.
Alternatively, the use of measured unit cost amounts can be used for forecasting total cost. The basic formula for forecasting cost from unit costs is:
where Cf is the forecast total cost, W is the total units of work, and ct is the average cost per unit of work experienced up to time t. If the average unit cost is $50 per unit of work on a particular activity and 1,600 units of work exist, then the expected cost is (1,600)(50) = $80,000 for completion.
The unit cost in Equation (12.2) may be replaced with the hourly productivity and the unit cost per hour (or other appropriate time period), resulting in the equation:
where the cost per work unit (ct) is replaced by the time per unit, ht, divided by the cost per unit of time, ut.
More elaborate forecasting systems might recognize peculiar problems associated with work on particular items and modify these simple proportional cost estimates. For example, if productivity is improving as workers and managers become more familiar with the project activities, the estimate of total costs for an item might be revised downward. In this case, the estimating equation would become:
where forecast total cost, Cf, is the sum of cost incurred to date, Ct, and the cost resulting from the remaining work (W - Wt) multiplied by the expected cost per unit time period for the remainder of the activity, ct.
As a numerical example, suppose that the average unit cost has been $50 per unit of work, but the most recent figure during a project is $45 per unit of work. If the project manager was assured that the improved productivity could be maintained for the remainder of the project (consisting of 800 units of work out of a total of 1600 units of work), the cost estimate would be (50)(800) + (45)(800) = $76,000 for completion of the activity. Note that this forecast uses the actual average productivity achieved on the first 800 units and uses a forecast of productivity for the remaining work. Historical changes in productivity might also be used to represent this type of non-linear changes in work productivity on particular activities over time.
In addition to changes in productivities, other components of the estimating formula can be adjusted or more detailed estimates substituted. For example, the change in unit prices due to new labor contracts or material supplier's prices might be reflected in estimating future expenditures. In essence, the same problems encountered in preparing the detailed cost estimate are faced in the process of preparing exposure estimates, although the number and extent of uncertainties in the project environment decline as work progresses. The only exception to this rule is the danger of quality problems in completed work which would require re-construction.
Each of the estimating methods described above require current information on the state of work accomplishment for particular activities. There are several possible methods to develop such estimates, including:
Systematic application of these different estimating methods to the various project activities enables calculation of the percentage complete or the productivity estimates used in preparing job status reports.
In some cases, automated data acquisition for work accomplishments might be instituted. For example, transponders might be moved to the new work limits after each day's activity and the new locations automatically computed and compared with project plans. These measurements of actual progress should be stored in a central database and then processed for updating the project schedule. The use of database management systems in this fashion is described in Chapter 14.
Example 12-3: Estimated Total Cost to Complete an Activity
Suppose that we wish to estimate the total cost to complete piping construction activities on a project. The piping construction involves 1,000 linear feet of piping which has been divided into 50 sections for management convenience. At this time, 400 linear feet of piping has been installed at a cost of $40,000 and 500 man-hours of labor. The original budget estimate was $90,000 with a productivity of one foot per man-hour, a unit cost of $60 per man hour and a total material cost of $ 30,000. Firm commitments of material delivery for the $30,000 estimated cost have been received.
The first task is to estimate the proportion of work completed. Two estimates are readily available. First, 400 linear feet of pipe is in place out of a total of 1000 linear feet, so the proportion of work completed is 400/1000 = 0.4 or 40%. This is the "units of work completed" estimation method. Second, the cost ratio method would estimate the work complete as the cost-to-date divided by the cost estimate or $40,000/$ 90,000 = 0.44 or 44%. Third, the "incremental milestones" method would be applied by examining each pipe section and estimating a percentage complete and then aggregating to determine the total percentage complete. For example, suppose the following quantities of piping fell into four categories of completeness:
hangars and trim complete (90%)
ends welded (60%)
spool in place (20%)
Then using the incremental milestones shown above, the estimate of completed work would be 380 + (20)(0.9) + (5)(0.6) + 0 = 401 ft and the proportion complete would be 401 ft/1,000 ft = 0.401 or 40% after rounding.
Once an estimate of work completed is available, then the estimated cost to complete the activity can be calculated. First, a simple linear extrapolation of cost results in an estimate of $40,000/0.4 = $100,000. for the piping construction using the 40% estimate of work completed. This estimate projects a cost overrun of 100,000 - 90,000 = $10,000.
Second, a linear extrapolation of productivity results in an estimate of (1000 ft.)(500 hrs/400 ft.)($60/hr) + 30,000 = $105,000. for completion of the piping construction. This estimate suggests a variance of 105,000 - 90,000 = $15,000 above the activity estimate. In making this estimate, labor and material costs entered separately, whereas the two were implicitly combined in the simple linear cost forecast above. The source of the variance can also be identified in this calculation: compared to the original estimate, the labor productivity is 1.25 hours per foot or 25% higher than the original estimate.
Example 12-4: Estimated Total Cost for Completion
The forecasting procedures described above assumed linear extrapolations of future costs, based either on the complete experience on the activity or the recent experience. For activities with good historical records, it can be the case that a typically non-linear profile of cost expenditures and completion proportions can be estimated. Figure 12-1 illustrates one possible non-linear relationships derived from experience in some particular activity. The progress on a new job can be compared to this historical record. For example, point A in Figure 12-1 suggests a higher expenditure than is normal for the completion proportion. This point represents 40% of work completed with an expenditure of 60% of the budget. Since the historical record suggests only 50% of the budget should be expended at time of 40% completion, a 60 - 50 = 10% overrun in cost is expected even if work efficiency can be increased to historical averages. If comparable cost overruns continue to accumulate, then the cost-to-complete will be even higher.
Figure 12-1 Illustration of Proportion Completion versus Expenditure for an Activity