John Bouthillon, CEO of PO Construction, gives us 10 lean lessons in project management from the construction industry.
Time is of the essence in construction projects. Many deals are won on the promise of faster delivery dates, leaving project managers with the critical question of how to manage shorter workflows without compromising quality, safety or business relationships. The answer is not to squeeze effective work time but to trim the fat from conventional “buffer zones” – a strategy that requires precise project management from planning to completion. I will describe the lessons I have learned as the CEO of a construction company and build lasting success… on time!
Introduction: The importance of project management
My company builds flats on behalf of developers and investors. We win business through competitive bids in response to an architect’s design, which means that the building plans have already been defined. Our responsibility is to deliver overall construction and interior furbishing to the architect’s specifications. Day-to-day, we deal with engineering firms, suppliers and subcontractors, and report to an architect and building inspectors. Project management is crucial to avoid late delivery and the negative impact in terms of costs (contractual financial penalties and extra labour costs), customer satisfaction and loyalty, and a knock-on effect in delaying the start of the next project.
Many of the lessons shared will be from carefully observing the work of project managers both on- and offsite. However, three roles come under my responsibility: ensuring the company only takes on projects when it has the necessary resources; getting the project engineers to understand the whole picture and detect problems that could delay the project; and intervening if things go wrong.
The 10 key points to managing a construction project we will look at:
- Ensure adequate staffing through project levelling
- Understand the workflow: theory vs. reality
- Explain the project priorities and get everyone on board
- Stabilise your teams
- Trim the fat off “buffer zones”
- Confirm and reconfirm work schedules
- Anticipate problems
- Solve problems now, not later
- Call on a higher power
- Reschedule to learn
#1. Ensure adequate staffing through project levelling
Of all the resources a project will need, the most crucial is human: no project can succeed without the right people, both in terms of quantity and quality. In many other areas of the business, a little overload can be profitable, but a building site cannot succeed with too heavy a burden on the teams. Projects require stamina
A project manager’s most critical role is to ensure the team is adequately staffed, if necessary postponing or cancelling a project if the right team members are unavailable. This is where “project levelling” comes in: matching new projects to the company’s capacity to effectively start them and bring them to completion. It’s difficult and means being prepared to say “no” to certain clients that are incompatible with our staffing constraints. We approach business this way as opposed to adapting our human resources because it is so important to have the right people with the right technical skills and the right culture.
#2. Understanding workflow: theory vs. reality
There are several factors to take into account when planning projects. To reach a target delivery date, we need to find ways to save time without compromising safety or quality. We need to ask:
– How much time is required to perform a task? How many units can be completed in a day?
– What is the minimum surface area required to perform the task? (the construction equivalent of “What is the minimum batch size?”)
– Will the task follow the
usual” order, or will it need to be unique?
– Is any “drying time” necessary before the following task can be started?
In the manufacturing industry, it’s easy to imagine the workflow, when products move across conveyor belts while workers and machines remain in the same place. An important part of construction project management is defining this path.
Tasks must follow the
path whenever possible so that the project manager knows the project is progressing as planned. Their first role is therefore to ensure that every worker from every subcontractor knows the path and sticks to it. Workers have incentives to work in places that are not yet assigned to them; they may prefer to start work in a problem-free area than finish work in a complicated area, especially if they are being paid by the quantity of work.
Each work team should follow the preceding team on the path and never “overtake.” In an ideal world, workers would be in each room and they would all move at the same time to the next room. In reality, this is impractical for several reasons:
– Some tasks cannot follow the path: vertical pipes can only follow a vertical path (rather than level by level), while the roof does not concern every floor.
-Different tasks tak
e different lengths of time.
– Some tasks cannot be performed simultaneously.
– Some tasks may need to be reworked.
– Subcontractors rarely agree to start work at a specific time.
A project can therefore be viewed as two streams: one of rooms and the other of workers.
#3. Explain priorities and get everyone on board
Each team should leave the room in the right condition for the next team to work effectively. Meaning all tools, debris and excess materials should be removed and all tasks should be fully completed. In practice, completion is difficult because it requires all the necessary fixtures to be in place, along with the right methods for handling specific problems. Clear communications and trust play an important role.
One simple communication tool that has proven useful in ensuring quality in the construction process is a job sheet, which is filled in by the project manager and the team leader coordinating workers about to start a new task. This sheet is filled in the relevant room, and the project leader explains the specific rules of the site and the required standards for the task. The project leader reviews the sheet and checks with the team leader that the work meets expectations.
The job sheet helps not only to clarify expectations between the different parties and ensure everyone works toward the same goal, but also build the trust to identify and resolve problems. We want workers to tell us immediately if there are problems, downing tools if necessary, until a solution is found. This is difficult, for several reasons. First, to signal a problem, a worker has to stop and discuss the problem to find a solution. This means the worker loses out on the extra pay involved in redoing a task rather than getting it right first time. Second, the worker have to find the project manager, who might be anywhere on the site. Third, they might be concerned that the project manager would blame them for the problem.
To overcome this inertia, a project manager must build a solid relationship with workers. They must be available and approachable, clearly explain expectations, thank workers for signalling any problems and then find solutions quickly, reviewing the work schedule if necessary.
#4. Stabilise your teams
Building trust requires teams who know and understand each other. Yet a common plague of any project is staff turnover. Workers can change at any time: temps come and go. To stabilise teams, two efforts are important:
- Insisting on specific teams. When preparing a new task on the site, the project leader will talk with the subcontractor’s manager to start estimating materials, equipment and labour. And people are not interchangeable. We expect more than technical skills from subcontractors’ team leaders and should therefore ask: Can they develop a trusting relationship with the project manager? Can they prioritise effectively? Will they ask for help and share concerns?
- Resisting the urge to hire extra hands. When a project is behind, most project managers automatically call for back-up. This can prove risky. Although the decision can help if the second team catches up the delay, it follows that the workflow can be squeezed. Further, the back-up team will not have the same knowledge of the site or the level of trust with the first team and will not be able deliver the same quality.
#5. Trim the fat off “buffer zones”
When contractors are asked how long a specific task will take, they know by experience that workers will need x weeks. Their calculations are based on the average time required per room under average working conditions, allowing time for setting up, solving any problems, clean up, and any unexpected issues.
Subcontractors may create a “buffer zone” by requiring an entire floor or building to be empty of other workers before sending a team in, to avoid running into the previous team if work progresses faster than planned. Subcontractors take these precautions because of:
– Being asked to start work before a room has been vacated by the previous team
– Being asked to jump from room to room (e.g., room #1 to room #3 instead of #2) because the previous team needs to fix problems
Each situation affects a team’s ability to work efficiently through the site and makes a direct impact on their costs. A “buffer zone” protects their bottom line at the expense of the project schedule. This buffer therefore is a natural target for project managers looking for ways to keep schedules tight. A schedule that reflects the true duration of each task and reduces the time between tasks to the bare minimum. This means avoiding the various problems that can delay work: undetected quality problems, shortages of tools or materials, imprecise plans and subcontractors, who protect themselves at the expense of the project. This calls for more precision in the way most project managers work.
#6. Confirm and reconfirm work schedules
There always seem to be more reasons for subcontractors to delay a new task than to start work on schedule. Yet, one day lost can never be reclaimed. The project manager must be clear that most of the new tasks are on the critical path and to double check that each team will start and carry out the work when expected.
The main challenge is to gain the trust of subcontractors and provide reassurance that their profit margins are not at risk. Subcontractors will not be keen to send a team tomorrow if they are not sure that the rooms are freed up today. They will require reassurance in the form of confirmation and several reconfirmations.
The project manager can also build trust by sharing subcontractors’ goals, understanding how their teams work and ensuring that the site offers the best possible conditions for efficient, profitable work. That means knowing what tools and materials are needed and making sure they are ready before work is due to start.
#7. Anticipate every little problem
If the buffer zone between tasks is removed, any failure to deliver will quickly bring work to a halt. The key is to anticipate problems, right from the task planning stage up to the time of completion.
For a team to start work on a given day, they need to be on site with the required equipment and materials and have everything they need throughout the task. Here, an understanding of how the team works and what the task entails can help the project manager to work with the team leader in anticipating problems. Events may seem unpredictable but they can often by anticipated, reducing the impact on the project.
#8. Solve problems now, not later
Even the best plans can fail when a project runs into unexpected trouble. And one of the main problems is seemingly minor problems being ignored.
We tend to think small problems will be resolved in time. Every project leader will try to convince the project manager that a problem is minor and can be fixed at the end of the project. Meaning that production becomes more important than quality, and problems can be lived with and solutions will be found at the end. This can be disastrous.
Addressing a problem immediately, no matter how small, is always more effective than putting it off. I apply the rule that if the cost of correcting the problem now is less than 10 times the cost of correcting it later, spend the money now.
#9. Call on a higher power
What happens if the project manager gets stuck on a particular problem? Standard solutions have failed and the project is stuck in a vicious circle? If this happens, it is the duty of the CEO to step in, get the project manager to stop, and call for help.
This usually involves calling on an expert who will be able to help the project with clarity and authority. Someone who can change the problem so it can be understood and who will be respected.
#10. Reschedule to learn
Another role of senior management is to ensure that project managers keep learning. A good way is to ask project managers to regularly reschedule their project.
The project managers usually monitor project progress using a Gantt chart, which breaks down the tasks in terms of target dates and percentage completion. As these provide only an indication, project managers need to fill in the gaps and make any necessary changes. Say a team has performed 90 percent of a task in 9 days, does that mean it will finish in one more day? What if the team is stuck at 90 percent and cannot proceed with the remaining 10 percent? Out of the hundreds of tasks on a large schedule, it can be useful to select the 20 most significant and ask: When will each task be finished? Will it be on time? If it’s delayed, by how long? Why?
Conducting this exercise helps to develop the vital ability to simulate a project from start to finish. With regular practice, they gain a deeper understanding of the risks of each project. When ne task in the main stream of a project is late, others will arrive before they are needed. Conversely, when we are ahead of schedule, we can lose our head start by failing to bring forward other tasks. Rescheduling helps the project manager to plan better, keep hold of any saved time and anticipate risks before they become inevitable.
Conclusion: smarter, not faster!
Delivering ahead of schedule is every project manager’s dream. These are professionals who have been creating the right conditions for the work to progress seamlessly, explaining the stakes of the project, slowly building the success of their project from day one.
Effective construction project management is not being faster, but being smarter. If the project never regresses, and tasks are prepared efficiently, in sequence with a minimum gap between them, and if we manage to solve problems as they arise, then our goal is within reach.