Building a Strategic Construction Document Management Process for Shah Smith & Associates

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Conceptualizing, designing, and building structures requires extensive plans and documentation. With clients spanning higher education, healthcare, aviation and corporate industries, Shah Smith & Associates (SSA) could not afford to miss a deadline over a lost document.

Yet, despite their best efforts to stay on top of the high volume of Request for Information (RFIs) and contractor submittals coming in daily, SSA’s construction administration team still struggled with manual document processes.

Due to the collaborative nature of each project, staff members of the 95+ firm often had to work on the same documents at strategically planned times. This process was not only time consuming, but subject to version and human errors, and frequently led to hold ups in the construction process.

Shah Smith & Associates needed a more efficient way to receive, categorize, assign, share and review critical project documents, and they turned to Function4 for help.

About the Client

Established in 1994, Shah Smith & Associates, Inc. (SSA) is a 95+ person, Texas-based consulting engineering firm, with offices in Houston, Austin, and Dallas. SSA specializes in design, construction management, and commissioning of mechanical, electrical and plumbing (MEP) systems for healthcare, research, science & technology, higher education, corporate, government, public works, and aviation facilities.

To learn more about Shah Smith & Associates, Inc. (SSA), visit shahsmith.com

An Inefficient and Manual System for Documents

For Shah Smith & Associates, many of their documents were funneling in from outside sub-contractors that SSA collaborated with, which meant a missed response had the potential to greatly impact the completion of a job.

In addition, due to the extensive detail involved in the construction process, multiple engineers and staffers needed to collaborate on the same documents. To keep approvals in order, when one engineer completed their part, the project administrator had to first review their work, ensuring it was ready to move along to the next engineer in the process. This required more time, was manual and inefficient, and at the mercy of human error.

“The system was working, it was just labor intensive,” recalls the firm’s Senior Associate, Joseph R. Routhier, P.E., “We were using a combination of thousands of project folders on our server, email, Outlook tasks, and independent log files to organize everything manually.”

Administrators regularly resorted to emailing project engineers directly when time sensitive inquiries came in, frequently resulting in missed, and even lost, documents in the engineer’s inbox.

In an effort to keep projects on task, construction administrators resorted to creating multiple project logs in a single Excel file that they constantly monitored and updated with each project document’s status.

“Once our admin team received a document, everything had to be manually filed in their respective project folders. Next, they would create tasks in Outlook for the appropriate person on the project team. Documents then had to be constantly monitored so projects stayed on task,” recalls Routhier, “It was a little painful.”

JOSEPH R. ROUTHIER, P.E. | SENIOR ASSOCIATE, SHAH SMITH & ASSOCIATES, INC.

Designing a Superior Process for Project Management

Knowing they needed a more efficient way to manage their documents, Routhier reached out to Function4 about digitizing old project files.

“Ninety percent of our projects are from repeat clients, so we had boxes and boxes of documents in a storage facility that we were paying to store. We thought that digitizing them was where we needed to start,” says Routhier.

JOSEPH R. ROUTHIER, P.E. | SENIOR ASSOCIATE, SHAH SMITH & ASSOCIATES, INC.

After some initial conversations about archival and retrieval, SSA and Function4 quickly uncovered that the more pressing priority was to create a solution for managing submittals and RFIs. Together, they began a detailed discovery of the admin team’s document processes, and identified the firm’s top needs in a system:

• A streamlined process for contractor submittals and RFI inquiries
• An easier way to input and organize new documents
• An efficient way to track the status of a document in a project workflow
• A solution with minimal user intervention to prevent human errors

Function4 recommended M-Files® – an intelligent information management system with a platform easily configured for architecture, engineering and construction companies. With M-Files®, SSA could store a single, always up-to-date version of every project document in a centralized location, making collaboration easier.

Projects could also be processed faster by the administration team, with the ability to easily find and route RFI’s and submittals in seconds with a few keystrokes.


A Streamlined Workflow for Receiving and Sharing Information

To simplify SSA’s labor-intensive processes, Function4 developed an M-Files® workflow that automatically routed new project documents to the appropriate engineer based on the type of information requested. At any time, when action on a document is needed, engineers are automatically alerted, keeping everyone on track.

Project files are now stored in a central repository so that team members can always access what they need, when they need it. In addition, a secure Web portal was added so that team members can access documents and keep the process going even when they are not in the office.

“The fact that you can search the database for anything versus having to go find the folder on the server, open a file, and look through each document for what you are looking for is one of the system’s best features. It’s much easier to search the database for keywords, especially when you may not recall all of the details on a project,” says Routhier.

JOSEPH R. ROUTHIER, P.E. | SENIOR ASSOCIATE, SHAH SMITH & ASSOCIATES, INC.

Additionally, all steps of the workflow are tracked – eliminating the need to manually monitor things in a spreadsheet – and visible to team members so everyone knows where a document is in the process.

The fact that the construction administration team no longer had to constantly check the status of individual project documents in the process enabled them to significantly accomplish more on a daily basis.

These solutions not only eased the burden on project administrators, but also eliminated the need to use email for document sharing since files can be shared at a user-level with M-Files®.

The Change to Cloud Technology Was Advantageous

Routhier acknowledges that there was end-user resistance to change in the beginning. “There was always the ‘this is different’ and ‘I don’t like change’ mentality which caused some initial resistance until everyone got used to the new way,” says Routhier, “But that quickly passed.”

As an added bonus, the year after the installation, M-Files proved so efficient that SSA was able to handle an unexpected increase in project load, yet they were still able to put off hiring additional personnel in the contract administration department.

Previously, SSA had two people whose sole job was just to track the documents associated with a construction project. Now, administrators have more time to focus on the projects themselves, rather than just chasing documents.

“Even with increased workloads, there was no need to hire anyone else,” says Routhier, “The number of documents our admin team processes is in the hundreds per week. To enter a document in the old system took about 5-7 minutes, and now it’s less than a minute.”

JOSEPH R. ROUTHIER, P.E. | SENIOR ASSOCIATE, SHAH SMITH & ASSOCIATES, INC.

SSA admits that when they look at calculating a return on their investment, it isn’t so much about a dollar amount. “We look at it as is it making things happen faster, so we don’t have to hire an additional employee. If we don’t have to hire another person, that’s a salary plus benefits that we’re saving – things that cost way more than an investment in a document management system,” concluded Routhier, “That’s a huge benefit right there.”

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