October 6, 2020
With so many moving parts on and around a construction site – deliveries, work crews, heavy equipment and more – there are opportunities everywhere for one aspect of work to affect every other part of operations. DPR Construction’s teams work closely to make sure it all goes off without a hitch. Even in normal times, delivering on-schedule, on-budget, top-quality work is no small job. With a variety of economic and societal pressures to consider as the COVID-19 pandemic continues, finding ways to increase certainty is a top consideration.
While there are things customers can consider before a shovel hits the ground, once work is under way, other factors can help ensure predictable outcomes and truly great results.
“We’ve done research that shows that the most successful projects are the ones with a highly-engaged owner throughout the project,” said Moawia Abdelkarim, one of DPR’s operations leaders. “We think there are questions customers can ask even as the team mobilizes and throughout the job that can contribute to the outcomes they’re hoping for, increase alignment and best position the construction team for success.”
Who’s Doing the Work and are they Involved in the Plan?
Often, customers want to get competitive bids for nearly every scope of work to ensure they’re getting the best deal.
“One thing we strive for is to show the value our self-perform work crews can bring,” says Angie Weyant, DPR's national craft people practices leader. “We rely on subcontracted trade partners on nearly every project for a variety of things. When it comes to critical path, though, we want our customers to know they have the opportunity to leverage DPR’s skilled workforce to perform the majority of work. Having those resources in-house helps us remove unknowns and potential disruptions.”
In an industry that already has a skilled labor shortage, DPR is able to manage available labor and bring workers into planning discussions earlier.
“On a recent project in a very busy Texas market, our team found ways to cut schedule because we were able to bring self-perform foremen to the table much earlier for a critical path element than if it had been put out to the market,” Weyant said. “Our employees can leverage their expertise on everything from phasing to durations earlier and be aligned with the full plan because they’re part of the master contract. It’s a tremendous efficiency.”
Moreover, for elements that are subcontracted, customers should consider when those partners can be brought to the table and make an effort to ensure that payments can be made for early work in a timely manner.
“When subcontractors, especially smaller or growing MWBE-certified businesses, commit resources to planning, they don’t have the capacity to wait for work to be put in place to receive payment,” Weyant noted. “Some customers might wonder what they’re paying for at earlier planning meetings and it’s important to see the value that is gained from them.”
Are We Aligned on Progress?
One of the great joys of working around construction sites is that, every day, the site looks different. “Progress” seems like something that can be intuitively seen. DPR’s Kevin Britt, who leads the firm’s planning, scheduling and production planning (PSPP) efforts, sees things in terms of a road trip.
“Suppose you want to take a road trip from San Diego to Boston,” he said. “It’s easy enough to say the plan is to drive from start to finish by a certain time, but are you going to stop anywhere? If so, where and when? What does that look like and what does it mean for your trip? The steps along the way are what make the journey, not just the destination.”
As such, Britt recommends getting aligned beyond milestones throughout the project and revisiting plans throughout. The larger focus should be alignment on the priorities, goals, risks, opportunities, and quality expectations that are associated with those milestones.
“Working together, project partners should start their work early, understanding the desired outcomes and letting those determine the right milestones, clearly identifying what they are and what they’re not. That way you can prioritize what needs to happen for all the key milestones, not just the ending ones,” Britt said. “It’s not just about putting together the initial schedule and a plan. Just like a sports team adjusting to how a game is unfolding, it’s important that designers, engineers, trade partners, and customers are proactively involved in ongoing discussions and be ready to collaboratively work together when the conditions that were initially assumed change during the life of the project.”
Britt sees that collaboration as key to creating a system for timely decision making by project teams.
“Making informed decisions quickly with the right people at the table, virtually and in the job site trailer, is as important as making sure quality work is then put in place in a safe and timely manner in the field,” Britt said. “Like the road trip, when you can refer to technology and data on a navigation app, you can quickly pivot and adjust. We have equivalent tools that aggregate data to forecast the plan and monitor progress that can serve a similar role.”
The good news is that, overall, there is starting to be enough quality data available to inform decisions at a variety of project stages and apply it in meaningful ways. DPR’s Colin Thrift recently worked with project partners to analyze schedule risks presented by the pandemic for a pharmaceutical facility in the Southeast.
“We were able to show where specific risks were, when we expected the most exposure to them and how the team could work together to mitigate them using our risk planner tool,” Thrift said. “The original plan was great. The risk planner exercise just helped us refine it and led to action we could take in the field immediately to lower exposure later.”
Are we Really Lean and Efficient?
DPR’s Cory Hackler is one of the firm’s Lean experts. He’s seen how easy it is for well-intentioned customers committed to reducing waste in the construction process to oversimplify the issue.
“There’s always a lot of focus on resource management, which basically means keeping every person fully utilized and busy,” Hackler said. “What has to happen first is flow management.”
Brilliantly illustrated in video, flow management is a perspective change Hackler believes the industry needs to shift to in order to see high performing teams.
“In construction, focusing on keeping every person at full capacity ultimately means people are putting fires out left and right,” Hackler said. “There’s an issue with this type of delivery as workers have no bandwidth to do anything but act as fire fighters every day. It affects other workflows on site and everyone ends up in reactive modes. What we need to do is shift to teams focused on efficiency in the entire workflow from design to completion.”
That means opportunities for every person on site, from project managers to superintendents to work crews. Similar to the cross-country road trip analogy, teams need to understand the details of steps along the way.
“For a road trip, our plan would need to include the tasks before leaving the house, packing and what we may need to bring,” Hackler said. “Then there are food stops, side trips along the way and, finally, an estimated time of arrival so people can plan on the time and day at which you will show up.”
Hackler sees the construction version of those stops as things like design management and preconstruction as preparations. Then, there is construction management that is agile enough to adapt to changes and milestones and, finally, completion. The ability to pivot resources when something doesn’t go as planned can bring collaborative problem solving to mitigate the issue without drastically impacting other areas of work.
“Right now, there are plenty of unforeseen factors that can throw a wrench into even the best plan,” Hackler says. “What if there’s a disruption at the end of the supply chain in terms of delivery or fabrication? The traditional system based on resource management breaks down quickly there. Flow management focuses on keeping work moving; having a team that can pivot to troubleshoot an issue that yields a faster outcome with fewer disruptions to the rest of work.”
Staying Engaged Is the Key
“Construction is never going to be ‘set it and forget it,’” Abdelkarim said. “Leveraging data, managing resources the right way and more aren’t just tools for pre-mobilization. These are things to do throughout the lifecycle of the project.”
By fostering a collaborative team culture, customers can set a tone for the life of the project and play a vital role in sharing project success.
“Everyone has an interest in the best outcome on site,” Abdelkarim said. “As a result, everyone should have an interest in collaborating throughout the project to ensure alignment that will enable the best outcome.”