You think you have a handle on the project. It’s not particularly big, and you know all the details. Communication with the client has been very good, and everyone knows where the project stands. Things are winding down, so it’s okay to slack off on the detailed documentation, right?

Unfortunately, wrong. In fact, the end of the project is when documentation may be most critical.

A true story
Our company was working on a substantial project, with several hundred workers on the job. The project was being run by a general contractor (GC), and we were serving as a subcontractor. Fairly late in the project, we were implementing a routine, albeit expensive, system. Some of the specific implementation details were suggested in the vendor’s documentation, although variations in the implementation of this particular system are common. The project specifications did not cover exact details, so our project manager asked the GC for clarification. The GC confirmed that the installation should occur according to the vendor’s documentation.

Several weeks later, the customer performed a routine inspection and discovered that this particular system had not been completed to their standards. They demanded that the GC correct the system and backed up their request with a copy of their Standards and Specifications binder, which had been given to the GC at project initiation. In turn, the GC demanded that we refit the system at our cost, which we estimated to be in the high five figures.

We reminded the GC that we had clarified the installation details before implementation, but they were less than sympathetic. Until, that is, we produced a document detailing the clarification signed by the GC’s project manager. Fortunately, we had a detail-oriented project manager who kept up with the details, even late in the project. That little clarification document was worth more than the project manager’s salary, which he obviously earned that week.

Get it done vs. complete as specified
It’s easy to get caught up in the inner workings of a project and skip the detailed documentation. I’m not talking about the standard week-to-week documentation, like status reports. But when something changes in the heat of the moment, it’s hard to have the discipline to stop and document the situation.

Some project managers believe that their job is to get the job done at any cost. That leads to a “cowboy” mentality, and they approach any problem or situation with guns blazing. The reality is that the project manager’s job is to execute the project according to the project plan, including appropriate documentation of all phases. A project that is completed with bodies strewn along the way is not a successful project, just a finished one.

Below is an example of a form you can use to clarify project specifications in situations like the one I just described. Note that the form is fairly simple, proving that you do not need complicated documentation.

How carefully do you document your projects? Have you ever been burned by a client or GC because you didn’t have the paperwork to back up your case? Share your experiences by posting a comment below or send us a note.