Executing Small Capital Projects

RT-161 Topic Summary
RT 161


Successful small project execution is important as 40-50% of industry capital budgets are spent on small projects. The average CII company plant spends $25 to $30 million on small capital projects. 

Small projects, as defined by this research, are projects with a total installed cost range of $100,000 to $2,000,000. Small projects are typically focused on increasing production capacities, improving product quality, improving efficiencies, and maintaining plant functionality for continued operation and production.

Small project success can be achieved by:

  1. Front end planning that incorporates project checklists
  2. Core project teams that can improve schedule and decrease the funding approval cycle
  3. Standard written processes specifically geared to small projects
  4. Maintenance projects that are combined with a small capital projects program
  5. Alliances and preferred supplier agreements

Key Findings and Implementation Tools

1 : Executing Small Projects

This research found 6 items key for executing small projects: (RS161-1, p. 4)

  • Checklist used in Front End Planning
  • Teams with core management groups for small projects perform better
  • Perform concurrent maintenance work along with small project workload
  • Small project managers have career path opportunities similar to large project managers
  • Written standard processes improve schedule performance
  • Alliances or preferred contractor arrangements contribute to better project performance
Reference: (RS161-1)

2 : Large Project Processes Not Effective

Large project delivery processes cannot be scaled down to small projects delivery effectively. Factors that contribute include the following (RR161-11, p. 1):
  1. The compressed project life cycle reduces team effectiveness.
  2. Measures of large project success may not be appropriate.
  3. Small projects are likely to experience “expertise” gaps and not achieve optimal solutions due to smaller number of staff.
  4. Small projects often get placed into low organizational priority or “low visibility” positions. This effects staffing decisions, resource allocation, and the “participation” level of upper management.
  5. Small project documentation processes become excessive or cumbersome if they try to emulate large project processes or inadequate if no formal process is established.
Reference: (RR161-11)

3 : Small Project Characteristics

Small projects are typically characterized by (RR161-11, p. 2):

  1. Cost of administration as a proportion of the work is much greater than larger projects
  2. Complexity of a typical project (built work environment) is much lower
  3. Short duration (one to three months)
  4. Limited quantities of materials and labor but may be special in nature
  5. Higher uncertainty (unspecified or tentatively specified)
  6. Limited formal documentation
  7. Diversity in size, value and complexity
  8. Occurrence in active environments with require minimal disruption and have high hazard exposure
Reference: (RR161-11)

4 : Same Spend, Different Execution

Small projects are different when compared with large projects for same capital spend, essentially less dedicated resources for multiple small projects as illustrated in Table 2.2 (RR161-11, p. 9).

Reference: (RR161-11)

5 : Funding and Execution Time Comparisons

Project funding approval and execution time is significantly shorter for small projects versus large projects. Most projects, other than government projects, are executed in 300 days or less. (RR161-11, p. 51)
Reference: (RR161-11)

6 : Project Identification and Funding Differences

Project components, determination of need, selection of design team, procurement, construction and commissioning are developed differently in the small project environment. The key difference is the owner’s project identification and funding process. Small projects typically compete for funding with other small projects, while large projects are funded as single, stand-alone entities. (RR161-11, p. 56)
Reference: (RR161-11)

7 : HSE Still a Key Focus

Health, Safety, and Environment risks are the same for large and small projects.
(RR161-11, p. 26)
Reference: (RR161-11)

8 : Front End Planning Top Execution Priority

The objective of front end planning is the same regardless of the size of the project: to finalize, fix, and communicate project scope. Front end planning is the one category that generates the most small project issues in execution. (IR161-1, p. 1) 
Reference: (IR161-1)

9 : Key Success Factors

The top four success factors identified in the research survey are nearly identical to the top factors found in literature. (RR161-11, p. 74)

  • Cost or budget performance
  • Schedule performance
  • Functionality
  • Customer satisfaction/quality
Reference: (RR161-11)

10 : Specialized Project Checklists for Small Projects

Specialized project checklists are widely used, and effective. Typically viewed as a reminder list of major elements used in planning and executing a project including: (RR161-11, p. 27)

  1. Project Definition checklist (scope of work definition)
  2. Project Definition Rating Index (PDRI), a Construction Industry Institute tool, to rate the level of scope development prior to funding request
  3. Business Case Checklists describing the basic need and priority
  4. Checklist for Engineering and Construction Cost Estimate covering discipline-specific (mechanical, electrical, civil, etc.) site conditions, regulatory issues, and coordination issues
  5. Project Delivery Strategy Guideline that describes scope; environmental, safety and health issues; schedule; design; procurement requirements; resource considerations, construction requirements, communications requirements, startup; commissioning and project close out
  6. Project Initiation Checklist defining all the project details
Reference: (RR161-11)

11 : Implementation Tool #1

IR161-2, Small Projects Toolkit

This resource contains a wide variety of proven practical tools, and practices organized by project phases. The objective of the toolkit is to provide key differences between small and large project practices during each project phase:

  1. Front End Planning
  2. Design
  3. Procurement
  4. Construction
  5. Startup and Commissioning
  6. People
  7. Small Project Organizations
  8. Processes
  9. Small Project Control
  10. Contracting
  11. Safety, Health, and Environment
  12. Technology and Information Systems
Reference: (IR161-2)

Key Performance Indicators

Improved cost, Reduced project growth, Improved schedule, Improved quality, Improved performance/achieved success

Research Publications

Factors Impacting Small Capital Project Execution - RR161-11

Publication Date: 05/2002 Type: Research Report Pages: 182 Status: Reference

Small Project Execution - RS161-1

Publication Date: 11/2001 Type: Research Summary Pages: 14 Status: Tool

Small Projects Toolkit - IR161-2

Publication Date: 07/2001 Type: Implementation Resource Pages: 106 Status: Tool

Manual for Small (Special) Project Management - SP-13

Publication Date: 07/1991 Type: Special Publication Pages: 88 Status: Archived Tool

Supporting Resources

Education Materials

Executing Small Projects - Instructor's Guide - EM161-21

Publication Date: 08/2003 Type: Education Module Pages: 0 Status: Supporting Product

Executing Small Projects - Participant Handbook - EM161-21A

Publication Date: 08/2003 Type: Education Module Pages: 0 Status: Supporting Product

Presentations from CII Events

Session - Executing Small Capital Projects

Publication Date: 07/2001 Presenter: Gareth Williams Betchel Number of Slides: 25 Event Code: AC01

Session - Recent Small Project Benchmarking Data

Publication Date: Presenter: Number of Slides: 12 Event Code: PIW406

Session - Small Project Execution Owner Perspective

Publication Date: Presenter: Number of Slides: 13 Event Code: PIW406


Publication Date: Presenter: Number of Slides: 6 Event Code: PIW406

Session - Small Projects-Contractor

Publication Date: Presenter: Number of Slides: 9 Event Code: PIW406

Session - Small Projects-ACTIVE/ECI Study

Publication Date: Presenter: Number of Slides: 11 Event Code: PIW406

Session - Effective Small Project Execution

Publication Date: Presenter: Number of Slides: 18 Event Code: PIW1009