Learning from a Project “Post-mortem”

Context/background. . . .

Back in 2004 we (my husband and I) decided to renovate our house.  Our house was built in the 1950s and required a major infrastructure change so the remodeling effort was not just for aesthetic reasons. The renovation project entailed:

  • A complete renovation of two full bathrooms – gutting walls, insulation, electrical, the works
  • Tearing down a wall to install a sliding door
  • Replacing an existing sliding door with a bay window
  • Installation of wood flooring
  • A revamp of the plumbing infrastructure (below the floor, replacing galvanized pipes with PVC pipes, replacing rusted/leaky copper pipes)
  • Kitchen sink/fixtures replacement
  • Electrical work
  • Roofing (including gutters/downspout replacement)
  • Replacement of windows and entry doors
  • Building front and back patios

Rather than hiring one contractor that did everything, we hired separate contractors to work on their area of specialty.  It was less costly at the time, and allowed us to select the specific person(s) we liked and trusted to do the job. And so, the project team comprised of the master plumber and his apprentice, one electrician, two carpenters (subcontractors of a contractor), three roofers, a mason, windows/doors installers, floor/wall tiles installer, a painter (my husband), and the project manager (myself).


  • The contractors were committed to the project but if/when they got called for “emergency” jobs (burst pipes, collapsed roofs, etc.) it meant halting our renovation project.  And this had a ripple effect on the project since the activities in one area of the renovation (plumbing for example) affected and/or depended on the activities in another area of the renovation (floor/wall tile installation, electrical work); known as, successor and predecessor activities in project management terms, meaning that the successor activity depended on the completion of its predecessor activity in order to move forward with the work. (PMBOK Guide, 2008).
  • Budget – of course was a constraint throughout the project and we had to constantly re-assess and prioritize the work to be done.
  • Permits – certain permits took longer than expected which resulted in further delay.
  • Weather – this affected the roofing work, which in turn affected the starting of the patio work since the debris from the roof replacement had to be cleaned up before the patio work could begin, resulting additional delay.

Result. . . .

The end result was beautiful.  Getting there however, was not quite as beautiful.  The project lasted approximately nine months (way beyond what we had anticipated).  The major challenge for me was coordinating everyone’s schedule, primarily because most of the activities could not be completed independently.  The contractors had other clients as well so they had to do their own scheduling between our project and their other projects.  And so I had to try and coordinate the individual schedules to fit in with each other’s schedules as dictated by the activities.  It was not easy.  Additionally, we had to deal with several “unknown unknowns” (Portny, Mantel, Meredith, Shafer, Sutton, & Kramer, 2008, p. 41).  For example, much to the dismay of the tile installer and the plumber, the floor/wall tiles I selected for the bathrooms turned out to be quite sensitive (brittle) breaking easily during the cutting process and the installation of faucets/shower for the tubs.  It also resulted in additional purchasing of tiles to replace the broken pieces (above and beyond the allotted tile budget).  Another unknown unknown was a delay in the delivery of certain materials due to quantity shortage or items being discontinued, which meant more time spent (and more money on some materials) identifying and purchasing a replacement.

An interesting fact and a minor detail. . . .

I also want to mention that while all this renovation was taking place, I still had to operate my in-home daycare business.  I had seven children enrolled in my program at the time, ages ranging from 1 to 10 years old; which required me to carefully and creatively plan and schedule meals, clean up time, play time, reading time, and most importantly nap time (for the five little ones).  I also had to time when to use water and electricity since the plumber and the electrician had to cut off water supply and electricity frequently as part of their work.  Most importantly I had to ensure the children’s safety.  This was especially difficult since our house is small and practically every room had some type of construction debris. And so most of our activities had to be conducted outdoors (weather permitting).

Success factors. . . .

I think what contributed to the project’s success was the cooperation, understanding, and trust amongst the stakeholders.  The contractors didn’t know each other at the beginning but bonded well throughout the project and tried to resolve their schedule conflicts amongst themselves.  The patience and understanding of my daycare clients was a huge factor.  They trusted me enough to leave their children with me in a construction zone – luckily no construction related accidents occurred.  My own (my family’s) flexibility in terms of schedule accommodation also contributed to the success.  Since I (the project manager) was also the client, I had the authority to make decisions (with my husband of course).  If I were managing such a project for someone else, it may have been a whole different experience.  For me personally, I think holding on to the vision of the end result was the driving force for the patience and tolerance of all the construction chaos.  I also indicated my excitement to the workers, at each milestone, which boosted their confidence and satisfaction in their own work, fostering further cooperation and eagerness to complete the job.

Wish I could have. . . .

Ideally it would have been helpful if all the contractors had been able to meet during the define phase of the project and figure out their schedules (what they planned for other projects and what they can commit on our project) as well as, identify potential “emergency” getaways.  This would have allowed me to better anticipate and manage schedule delays; perhaps planned  weekend or evening work to expedite the project.  Furthermore, in the case of the brittle tiles for example, if we had all met at the same time, the tile installer and the plumber could have identified potential issues with certain tiles which would have helped me purchase more suitable tiles, thus spent less money.

All in all, the project was a success.  I was satisfied with all the contractors.  They continue to do work for us as needed and I have referred them to several clients that resulted in numerous contracts.  It was quite an experience for me.  I learned a great deal about home construction/renovation and actually enjoyed the process.  Of course, I had moments of utter panic when for example, in the middle of the roof replacement it rained for three days in a row.  Or when the plumber (who identified the majority of the unknown unknowns) would approach me and say “I just want to let you know…..” to which I would reply ”OMG, now what?”

Here is a picture of one of the bathroom wall tiles….still in good shape.


Here is a portion of the back patio…..


Here is the backyard/woods where most of our daycare activities took place…..




PMBOK Guide (2008).  A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide). 4th ed. Newton Square, PA: Project Management Institute, Inc.

Portny, S.E., Mantel, S. J., Meredith, J. R., Shafer, S. M., Sutton, M. M., & Kramer, B. E. (2008). (p. 41). Project Management: Planning, scheduling, and controlling projects. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.


4 thoughts on “Learning from a Project “Post-mortem”

  1. Marta,

    Great story. My husband is a general contractor so what you were saying was very familiar (expecpt the daycare) When he makes plans and contracts with his clients, he makes it a point to put in the contract that the timeline is dependent on all the subs being able to keep their timelines, but it is a very difficult balancing act.

    When you are dealing with so many different contractors who have their other clients, you need to be prepared. My husband tries to have more than one contractor working at a time so that there is always something going on, on the job. It is not always easy.

    I think the lesson here is to make sure that everyone on the team is continuing to move forward if at all possible and to try and schdule for possible set backs before they happen.

    Mary Ann

    • Thank you Joy. The teepee would have been very useful but it was acquired after the project was complete – we do use it frequently.


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