Game-changing CBE research will help project managers plan more effectively

Ashkan Zarghami

The history of modern project management is littered with incomplete projects, but Dr Ashkan Zarghami, from The Australian National University College of Business and Economics (CBE), is determined to turn the tide. His new research will help investors and project managers make failproof decisions in the construction sector, from houses to skyrises and beyond.

Project managers know the drill: setting a schedule is one thing, but sticking to it is a different challenge altogether.

Severe disruptions like natural disasters and global supply-chain shortages are usually what causes a project timeline to deviate, and Australia’s construction industry is no stranger to this. Bushfires, floods, and notably, the COVID-19 pandemic have all played a big role in derailing schedules in recent years.

Amidst this turbulent landscape, project managers are, more than ever, expected to design punctual schedules that minimise risk. The key to doing so is a unit of measure called ‘schedule robustness’, which gauges how well a project can handle disruptions without major changes.

“Checking a schedule’s robustness is essential to determine if a project needs to be rescheduled. If a schedule has low robustness, we might need to rethink and adjust it to make it more resilient to disruptions,” Ashkan explains.

Unfortunately, although there are a number of robustness indicators project managers can employ, their unrealistic assumptions mean they are unreliable at best.

“The traditional methods to measure robustness look at how much extra time or ‘slack’ there is between tasks, but this approach does not consider that some tasks rely on others being finished first, giving misleading or inaccurate results,” says Ashkan.

“In the construction sector particularly, tasks are highly interdependent. Think of it like a chain reaction. You can’t finish building the foundation of a high-rise building until you’ve gotten the necessary permits, done the digging, and set up the formwork.” 

Acknowledging the challenges and unique nature of construction work, Ashkan has used the real-life construction of a tramway system to test a new measure of schedule robustness. This innovative method tackles previous shortcomings, providing a clearer picture of a schedule’s ability to withstand unforeseen upheavals.

“My research is the first to combine different ways of measuring schedule robustness into one integrated measure, as well as including a baseline for comparison,” says Ashkan.

This integrated solution can help project managers and investors choose projects that are less likely to be affected by unexpected problems, reducing the chance of costly errors. It also guides project schedulers in setting aside enough extra time for each task.

“For example, if Project A promises good returns and fits the risk appetite, this measure can act as a guide to assess how sensitive the project is to changes by offering an easy-to-understand scale from zero to one.”

In addition, Ashkan’s study highlights that highly central, or interconnected, activities can make projects more vulnerable to disruption.

“To tackle this issue, project managers must ensure resources such as manpower and materials are evenly spread across tasks. Overloading one task while others wait can create bottlenecks, slowing down the entire project,” he says.

“Additionally, managers should try to run dependent tasks simultaneously whenever possible. This reduces wait times and keeps the project on track, even if some tasks experience delays.”

With his groundbreaking method, Ashkan is ready to revolutionise project effectiveness on all fronts.

“The new measure of schedule robustness is versatile and works well for any type or size of project, whether it’s a big city transportation system or building a stadium,” he explains.

“It can be applied not just in construction settings but also in defence and new development projects.”

When asked about the key to effective project management, Ashkan is resolute: readiness to change.

Project managers should expect the unexpected, ensuring their plans are capable of handling disruptions smoothly. It is crucial to keep schedules up-to-date by being ready to reschedule when necessary. That’s the only way to steer a project through challenges without major setbacks.

The College is always keen to explore research collaborations with the public and private sector and to reconnect with alumni. Please get in touch if you would like to know more about partnering with us.

Featured expert

Ashkan Zarghami

Dr Ashkan Zarghami

Ashkan Zarghami is a Senior Lecturer of Project Management. His research focuses on the development of applied mathematical models with applications to a broad range of fields, including project management, operations management, infrastructure networks, and supply chain management.