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Should we be rethinking how we plan and program projects?

“We clearly worked very hard to create this thing that no-one can understand or follow. Can we now get real?” This quote belongs to the Project Director of a Mega Clinic development in the Middle East, who was commenting on his team's program which contained 15,000 separate activities. He wasn't wrong.

by Alex Katsanos

Senior Associate

28 August 2017
road construction

Take a moment to reflect on every project program you have seen, and how it was created…

A team of planners from the general contractor's side - who are specialist users of a planning platform – respond to an owner's contract requirement to begin program development. They set out to build a document that will contain all the required activities to complete the project within a month of contract commencement.

Now remember the environment that these planning teams operate in:

  • The contractor's team has not been fully mobilized; only a few construction managers who are still finding their feet and as a result, will have little idea about constraints, temporary work locations and other issues
  • In the majority of instances, planners work in site or city locations, and often aren’t across all the practicalities and challenges of site-work sequencing
  • 90% of the subcontractors and suppliers have not yet been procured and thus cannot contribute details about their workflow, sequences and productivity rates, lead-times or other activities
  • The contract will typically stipulate the type of activity relationships and maximum activity durations
  • The contractor's leadership will push the planners to artificially front-end load the program with costly items to improve cash flow

This then leads to a multi-thousand activity program, whose only fact basis will be a broad trade productivity rate database. As a result:

  • The program will not be used on site as site supervisors and crews will not look at Gantt charts of this complexity
  • No one will know much about actualized delays or risks before the traditional end-of-month update
  • This document will become obsolete by month three of the project, but no-one will be able to do anything about it as it will be a contractually accepted and binding document with legal significance
  • The program will only be used for proof of invoicing while an incredible number of man-hours will be spent on maintaining and updating it all the way to project completion
  • Last but not least, this owner-approved program could expose the owner to a series of knock-on effect claims by the contractor if times get tough

The lean approach

Some of the best contractors and owners are starting to rethink project programing, and are moving to a rational lean approach of short-term quantity-based programing and progress tracking to actively manage projects on a day-to-day basis.

The key enablers to this shift include:

  • A broader trade and project-geography based program (e.g. one activity for paint coat per floor of a high-rise building)
  • Conversion of Gantt charts to color-coded easy-to-read plans that are communicated to crews in meetings and by appending them on key points on site
  • Daily quantity-based targets for crews, along with a set of incentives to drive success
  • A series of daily structured dialogues from the Project Manager to the Site Supervisor on quantities planned in the morning and quantities achieved by the end of day
  • An organizational design geared towards this process - the role and mindset of planning teams and construction managers will need a shift

This lean approach can help increase transparency and the ability to react to risks and delays quickly. Delay risks can be evaluated on a daily basis rather than every month, and the root causes of issues can be quickly evaluated and mitigated.

A lean time-compression situation that I was part of, decreased floor cycles of a high rise by 30% simply by doubling the productivity of welders; one sole trade at the center of the problem. Lean planning enabled this productivity issue to be easily identified, then quantified through stop-watch studies and interviews, and mitigated through a series of simple improvement levers. The impact of de-clogging one single bottleneck on the entire project was immense.

Simplicity - the hardest thing

Despite the absolute sense of the argument for lean planning, the Gordian Knot of massive Gantt charts is unlikely to be untied soon. It will require a paradigm shift in the practice of a number of project stakeholders, including owners and their contract lawyers, down to Project Management Consultants and Contractors, including their team structures and habits.

The recently deceased, legendary footballer and thinker Johan Cruyff has produced a quote on the merits of simplicity that I find fitting for this topic: “Playing football is simple; playing simple football is the hardest thing there is.”

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