In the 25 years that I've
worked for general contractors, owners, and engineering
firms, I've recognized the Request for Information (RFI)
process as a huge source of wasted effort and needless
So what is an RFI? It was one of the first things I
learned about back when I started my project management
career with my first large construction firm. I learned
how to use these forms as a convenient and effective
means of documenting the many legitimate clarifications
needed on a major project. However, like most other
young engineers, I also learned to use the RFI as a
weapon in the ongoing battle between owners, or their
designer and the construction contractors. Recently,
our project team has done a few simple things to greatly
reduce the waste and frustration that comes from this
type of battle.
WHAT’S THE PROBLEM?
The RFI form can be a great tool if used properly,
and I certainly don’t recommend that they be eliminated
entirely. The RFI form was created to document the many
clarifications that are commonly required on projects.
Typically, the contractor uses the top half of the form
to clarify—or request permission to vary from—the
contract documents. The bottom half of the form is used
to record the answer. But this seemingly simple process
is plagued by a number of problems.
From the contractor’s perspective, RFIs are needed
to secure information that should have been in the contract
documents in the first place. The missing information
keeps their crews from working effectively, and it makes
hitting already demanding cost and schedule targets
even more difficult. Owners, or their design firms,
often view the RFI as a means of harassment. Both sides
of the issue have legitimate complaints, and both sides
cause most of their own pain.
Considering that year after year these problems appear
on countless projects across the country, the total
wasted effort involved is beyond comprehension. To make
matters worse, many of the problems (and many of the
RFIs) are completely unnecessary and represent waste
in its purest form.
WHAT WENT WRONG?
It is easy to understand how the RFI was transformed
from a convenient means of documentation into a weapon
of project administration. Just start with the owner/designer
side of the contract: tough-minded contract administrators
or field inspectors would require contractors to remove
and replace work that didn’t match the contract
documents—even if there was no functional reason
to require the re-work. Contractors quickly learned
to document even the slightest variation. But they also
learned to write as many RFIs as possible in order to
substantiate future claims. I recall a general contractor’s
manager explicitly instructing his staff to maximize
the number of RFIs in order to establish that the design
was flawed. And I’m sure experienced project managers
can cite many other examples of wasted effort.
LOOKING FOR ANSWERS
We have learned that life on the project does not need
to be as difficult as we make it. And there are some
ways that I’ve managed to avoid these difficulties
by focusing on communications skills and creating a
culture of collaboration.
I managed to do this on one of my recent projects,
a state-of-the-art facility constructed in the Pacific
Northwest for one of the world’s leading technology
companies. Our scope was to install and connect hundreds
of highly sophisticated machines in the shortest feasible
amount of time. Contractors worked on very competitive
fixed-price agreements and employed up to 1,000 craft
employees at the peak of construction. Although hundreds
of RFIs were generated, there were remarkably few complaints
(if any at all) about RFI turn-around time, which averaged
about three days.
OPEN YOUR MOUTH
The key to our good experience was recognizing the
difference between documentation and communication.
RFI forms are great for documentation, but they are
no substitute for conversations. Our simple rule was
that nobody should receive an unexpected RFI. The first
step in our RFI process was to discuss the issue with
the construction coordinator in charge of the work.
Many of the potential RFIs were answered before they
were ever written, and no effort was wasted getting
them through the system. The RFIs that were necessary
could be answered very quickly, because it simply documented
an agreement that had already been made.
REDUCING WASTE BY
Several other techniques were used to reduce the need
for RFIs, including thorough pre-construction job walks
and design reviews to make sure that everybody understood
the scope. We made sure that the construction management
and design teams had good access to one another and
provided many different forums for communication. When
RFIs were necessary, they were electronically routed
and tracked. We learned that an electronic RFI system
can be a good tool, but will certainly not eliminate
all of the friction in the RFI system. It’s easy
to imagine the computer-based RFI tracking programs
as simply more powerful weapons in the battle.
AND EVERYBODY’S HAPPY
Contractors were happy, because they got their answers
quickly. The designers were happy, because they got
far fewer poorly worded RFIs that were unnecessary in
the first place. The owner was happy, because there
were essentially no change orders due to the RFI process
to cause delays, disruption, or field coordination issues.
The entire project benefited from the effort to develop
a collaborative culture, and we set new benchmarks for
safety and schedule performance as well.
The real lesson I took from this experience was what
an amazing effect good communication can have on teamwork
and project performance. Much of the conflict and confrontation
that burdens the project team is largely unnecessary.
There are countless other opportunities on our projects—from
contracts to technical submittals—for improving
project performance, as well as the quality of life
for project team members. These opportunities stem from
establishing a collaborative culture, even on projects
with rigorous contractual requirements. One way I’ve
found to start effecting change is to take a look at
RFI processes, as well as other processes where communication
is the key.
JOHN STRICKLAND has led numerous major design/ build
and construction management projects within the microelectronics
industry. He has developed a strong track record for
completing projects ahead of schedule and under budget,
and has helped pioneer numerous strategies that have
dramatically improved “time to money” for
clients. He has expertise in all phases of construction
operations—including safety management, project
controls, contract management and field operations—as
well as the application of “Total Quality Management”
and “Lean Manufacturing” techniques to complex