Leveraging Data to Design More Effective Transportation Programs...
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Leveraging Data to Design More Effective Transportation Programs and Drive Project Productivity

By Rob Tieman, PE, PMP, Director, Project Management Office, Virginia Department of Transportation

Rob Tieman, PE, PMP, Director, Project Management Office, Virginia Department of Transportation

As leaders, we are to identify opportunities and find innovative ways that leverage enterprise-wide data and emerging technologies to increase efficiency and productivity

The Big Picture

America has more transportation needs than available resources. Aging infrastructure. Increased urban densities. Growing multi-modal and stakeholder expectations. All in an environment where transportation systems and projects are increasingly viewed as a critical part of the solution to community challenges and social injustices, as well as an essential component to economic growth and prosperity.  

Transportation system owners play what should be a relatively simple game. Select the projects, fund the program, and then execute the program. So why do so many organizations struggle with the development and delivery of their projects and program? How can we make it better?  

Most transportation organizations have an abundance of data that varies widely in accuracy and historical significance, much of which is siloed in stand-alone systems. Grasping the value of creating enterprise-wide data sets, in order to realize the resulting synergistic insights can be overwhelming. Consequently, many remain data-rich, but information poor. 

Others, however, are embracing a strategic, data-driven approach that drives efficiency and increases their return on investment.  

Project Selection

Forward-leaning organizations are leveraging data to transition away from subjective considerations in project selection. 

Funding programs are increasingly emphasizing objective criteria established to address focused goals more effectively. These can span from congestion relief in urban corridors to economic development in rural areas to critical safety improvements to incorporating a wide range of local or regional concerns. Potential projects are scored using the weighted criteria. This score, often summarized in a benefit-cost calculation, then becomes the basis for project selection decisions.  

Meaningful benefit-cost comparisons rely on consistent and accurate data. The project’s triple constraint of budget, scope, and schedule all must be considered. 

The days of hand-picking projects and then blindly applying standard solutions are fading due to current economic realities. The problem should be clearly defined, and then matched with a focused, performance-based design solution. This tailored scope enables a more realistic schedule and estimate. All of which can be reflected in the benefit-cost analysis to ensure the right projects and solutions are being selected to optimize the impact of limited resources. Organizations embracing this risk-based project selection approach are experiencing reduced scope creep and more efficient project development.  

Assembling the Multi-Year Improvement Plan

Once the right projects are chosen, the transportation organization makes its multi-year improvement plan. Public transportation agencies are not banks or private companies. Surpluses and deficits are to be avoided. The goal is to promptly spend the money, as planned, in the most efficient way to ensure safety and improve the overall quality of life.

Dynamic, logic-based scheduling software combined with proven project templates and supporting processes, provides predictability and consistency in project schedules across programs and portfolios. 

Reliable schedules are foundational to the formation of an accurate multi-year improvement plan that strives to ensure each project has the right amount of the right type of money for the right phase at the right time. The program’s improvement plan’s precision is directly dependent upon the accuracy of the individual projects’ schedules and budgets.

Executing the Program

Once the improvement plan is approved, the organization must execute the program by developing and delivering the projects. Effective scheduling and estimating of projects across programs and portfolios requires a robust project management framework of systems and processes to generate and track essential data. The established project development process should be reflected in the workflow and integrated into the systems and data flow to streamline the end-user experience. Solid engineering and strong project management practices remain the backbone of any successful project. However, program and project data can be strategically used to increase productivity. Critical Path Method scheduling software enables more proactive project management and grants unprecedented insights into project and program performance that can increase focus and improve results.   

Strong, quality data sets enable meaningful dashboard options. Choosing the right Key Performance Indicators (KPI) is critical. Often the right metrics are either critical tasks crucial to development that reflect the health of a project or effective workflow triggers that allow for proactive schedule or budget recovery if needed. The technical maturity and risk tolerance of the organization often determines what is reported on a Dashboard. The degree to which an organization values transparency, or legislative requirements, often guide what performance metrics are public-facing.

Final Thoughts

One’s confidence in data-driven decisions is only as strong as one’s confidence in the underlying data. Foundational to any successful data-informed approach is an implicit reliance on the data itself. As such, data must be initially, and then regularly, cleansed, even as data integrity is vigilantly pursued. In parallel, an organization should strive to ensure that consumed data is being analyzed and presented in the proper context. The ability to mine and evaluate large data sets in the appropriate business context is a rare and valuable skill set.  

Most organizations struggle at the interfaces between people, processes, and technology. This may be especially true in government transportation organizations where these three distinct resource groups may fall under different leadership, follow diverse guidance, and pursue conflicting success criteria. However, there is tremendous potential when all agree the goals are not to create data or processes, but to use these tools and systems to add value to the organization, make better decisions, and more efficiently execute the program. As leaders, we are to identify opportunities and find innovative ways that leverage enterprise-wide data and emerging technologies to increase efficiency and productivity. It is exciting to see this approach being embraced and advanced in the Transportation industry.

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