What can the commissioning industry gain from ‘lessons learned’ on projects?

Commissioning Specialists' Association, commissioning
Benefiting positively from experience — Tony Anderson.

Tony Anderson of the Commissioning Specialists’ Association highlights the important and often overlooked issue of using previous problem-solving solutions to address challenges in new projects.

How many times have the same problems occurred over and over during the commissioning of a new project, and how many times has a project been compared to ‘that one special project’ where everything seemed to run smoothly?

It seems strange that despite advances in technology and installation, lessons learned are continually and widely overlooked. Used wisely, ‘lessons learned’ can be invaluable with any repetitive undertaking. But with the critical part of a building’s completion being the finalisation, commissioning and integration of the MEP systems and services, any help, guidance, assistance or previous experience gained should be broadcast to all those involved in the commissioning process.

I’ve often found that this was a pivotal part of the overall commissioning process as it offered a continual way of analysing issues and rectifying them as they appeared and far enough in advance that they made no significant impact on the project’s critical path. This is especially helpful in ‘first of a kind’ testing.

Gathering information from all those involved in the process and finding out the real reason why a process didn’t work first time ensured everything was put in place for the next similar system to maximise the chances it would work first time. No fingers were pointed, just a review of the facts and resolution of issues before the next system.

The added advantage was that these systems and processes were also then taken to the next project and offered as lessons learned during peer reviews, noting that it was as important to discuss the ‘positives’ taken from commissioning as it was the ‘negatives’. Knowing why things worked first time was treated just as importantly as when things went wrong.

Despite being a popular misconception, it’s worth noting that lessons learned isn’t simply a list of comments of ‘what not to do next time’ collated at handover date. A comprehensive ‘lessons learned’ should highlight the following, which are then elaborated on below.

• Previous projects ‘lessons learned’

• Current project commissioning ‘lessons learned’ — positives

• Post-commissioning ‘lessons learned’

Elaborating on lessons learned from previous projects, the most important step, wherever possible, is to schedule in time for focused commissioning from peer reviews (lessons learned from other projects) before commissioning or even system installation begins.

Peer reviews bring their experience of similar systems or processes from other projects to the table at the earliest opportunity.

They also everyone to understand what processes ran smoothly, with the reasoning why, and what processes or systems caused issues, again with reasons why, and corrective actions taken wherever applicable.

Commissioning Specialists' Association, commissioning
The benefits of sharing experience — both positive and negative experiences.

Finally, peer reviews allow for real-time questions and answers to queries the current team may have before commissioning commences, which is especially helpful for complex systems or components.

When considering the positive lessons learned from the current commissioning project, it is helpful to ask what operation or approaches ran smoothly and why. The documentation and reasoning/logic behind this is important.

• Wide reaching and ranging. At each stage of the MEP systems installation and commissioning process there should be a record kept of ‘minor milestones’, recording what went well and what could be improved upon. This should be an open and informal engagement between the onsite installation and the project management teams.

• Encouragement of honesty. Although feedback should be sought from all site team members, the details should be recorded anonymously, so as to avoid any possible incrimination, especially if the actions (or inactions) of others are cited as being part of the problem. All the information offered should be clearly noted to ensure the content is as ‘valuable’ as possible, but not necessarily attributed to specific individuals.

• Information transfer. Across the board, from the project director to the site cleaner, all views and opinions should be treated ‘openly’. The use of an ‘an open-door policy’, in much the same way as with health-and-safety matters is essential.

At the post-commissioning stage, the overall commissioning ‘lessons learned’ should be reviewed and then become peer-review material for next project.

To summarise, it’s important to have ‘lessons learned’ interviews at each stage of the system installation, right through to post commissioning. As referenced above, these interviews can be on or off site and should be ‘informal’ with the focus being on making improvements on areas that have not been successful (no-blame culture) or repeating a process that has been fully successful. Correcting or improving the undertaking is the only important point.

Although this process is informal, the information gathered from these interviews should be used and actively and regularly reviewed. The outcomes from these reviews can be used to form part of regular commissioning meeting agendas to address areas of concern, but also to highlight those areas that are progressing smoothly — and that should continue, with the focus always being on the positive.

With critical pieces of equipment, such as generators, chillers and boilers, it is wise that this process is performed before, during and after factory acceptance testing (FAT) and site acceptance testing (SAT).

Performing wide ranging and detailed ‘lessons learned’ reviews on site is extremely beneficial. They can contribute at the project practical-completion stage to assess how the overall commissioning operated. This can be done ‘in-house’ within the commissioning team; however, to gather the most value, this assessment should be opened up to the whole project-management team, as commissioning should form a large part of the overall project ‘lessons learned’ process.

Tony Anderson is a member of the Commissioning Specialists’ Association.

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