• Optimizing project management at Boskalis NL

When the Dutch infrastructure division of Boskalis starts structuring its project forecasts, it also wants to continue taking advantage of the flexibility of the existing forecasts in Excel. In addition to SAP BPC, which is used for reporting to the group, the division is thus also setting up its own platform in Vena. This means the project reports will be faster and less prone to errors.

By Danielle Gruijs, February 2018
Rody van den Bosch, Erik van Deursen and Carlo van Noort

“Project management is our core business,” says Carlo van Noort, Chief Financial Officer of Boskalis NL. This division of Boskalis focuses on the construction of roads and waterways in the Netherlands. “We do all kinds of projects, from large to small. These infrastructure projects are always different, and each has its own budget-control report.”

More structure

The project controllers use Excel for these forecasts. “The process was not all that efficient,” says Erik van Deursen of Boskalis NL. “We kept running into a lot of duplicate procedures, and we wanted to improve the reliability of the reporting. In Excel, anyone can change anything, and that sometimes leads to errors in the formulae.” “And that’s not all,” adds Rody van den Bosch of Boskalis NL. “Our mailbox was our archive.”

That’s why the construction division started looking for an additional tool. “We wanted to embed the forecasts in a more fully structured environment. Excel is very user-friendly, and that’s why people started using all kinds of variants,” explains Carlo. “We also wanted to embed more fully the link between the project tool and our financial system, with a direct link to the basic data. This way, by looking at the reports, you can view the financial transactions that take place on the back end.”

The Boskalis Group is working with SAP BPC for the consolidation, and that includes the results of the project forecasts. “We were looking for the missing link between the source system, Excel and SAP BPC,” says Erik.

Flexibility within frameworks

Boskalis NL opted for Vena Solutions. “Vena gives us the structure we want,” explains Carlo. “Within the culture of a construction company, it is sometimes difficult to bring discipline into the organization, and Vena helps with this.”

“Vena unclutters the sometimes muddled picture you get with Excel.”

At the same time, the project controllers enjoy a lot of freedom. As Carlo notes, “The decision to go for Vena was made with the users in mind. They still get the Excel look and feel, but with a structure that indicates how we think we can best manage the projects. Within these frameworks, we allow some latitude in the work that is done on each project.”

Choices

A number of conscious choices were made in the design. “We were looking for a good balance between what Boskalis NL wanted and freedom for the project lead: how do they want to manage the project?” says Benno van Ingen. As a consultant at Finext, Benno was involved in the implementation of Vena. Previously, he was also involved in setting up the overarching SAP BPC software. “Organizing a data model in a flexible way—well, that can actually be a bit of a contradiction in terms,” he adds. “What helped enormously was that the users were involved from the start. In fact, they played a decisive role in selecting the packages.”

A lot of care went into the choices that were made regarding the integration of Vena into SAP BPC. For example, uploads from Vena to BPC are done through a flat file. “Technically, we could also automate this,” says Benno. However, the focus was on project control. Erik explains: “First we wanted to get the forecasts, the reports and the workflow right. After all, we do uploads to BPC just four times a year.”

Up and running fast

The additional platform is quickly yielding the results Boskalis wants. “Users were quick to accept the new way of working. The environment hardly changes, but you still get extra possibilities,” says Rody.

“The closing process is smoother; We don’t have to look for errors in the reports, but can look at what’s happening in the project.”

Use of the more than 100 budget-control reports is now structured through Vena. “We now have more insights into where we stand in the process,” says Erik. “As a result, I myself lost much less time than I used to during the closing process.” Rody agrees: “The errors in the forecasts are picked up on earlier. The closing process is smoother, and users already catch their own errors. This also allows us to take a different focus. We don’t have to look for errors in the reports, but can look at what’s happening in the project.”

Carlo, Erik and Rody are also upbeat about their work with Finext. “Our work together went really well,” says Carlo, “in part because of the knowledge that Finext already had. They pointed out a number of important factors to us, and got the tool up and running in no time. We’re also planning on working with them on the follow-up phase.”

Benno van Ingen, Erik van Deursen, Carlo van Noort and Rody van den Bosch

The role of project controller

The Vena platform helps fulfil the role of project controller well. “The role of project controller is changing. The environment in which we operate as Dutch civil-engineering companies is complex. We work with small margins of around three or four percent. The difference between profit and loss on a project is therefore small, and that means the project has to be managed with a focus on the details,” says Carlo. “The strength of this tool is that it unclutters the sometimes muddled picture you get with Excel, and this in turn means we can focus on managing projects the way we want to.”

Carlo is expecting even better things from Vena. “I’d even go so far as to say we’re just getting started with it. What we’re doing now is laying the groundwork. We have the financial figures in an environment in which we’re doing everything one way, consistently. In the follow-up phase, we also want to include qualitative information, so that Vena actually becomes a tool that belongs not just to the project controller, but also to the project team and the project managers. We want to move from a control report to qualitative information that project managers can use for project management, such as traffic-light reports for controlling the design process, safety, and contractual matters such as orders for extra work.”

Easy to use, and well structured

“There are no two ways about it: Excel is the most user-friendly and most-widely used tool in the world. It can do a lot, but it also gives people a lot of freedom. The strength of Vena is precisely that it makes it possible to work in a structured fashion within this user-friendly environment. That way, we can provide frameworks for how we want to work,” Carlo concludes.

 

Photography: MLBfoto

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