Navigating through the uncertainties of a construction project is often a stressful experience for clients. Even for clients who build frequently, the challenges are enough to keep them up at night, maybe for many nights.
Why the agita? For one thing, construction means a big-budget commitment, high expectations, and the uncertainty of buying a product no one can see until it is built. A big part of our job at BOND is to reduce this stress and ambiguity.
When asked about their past experiences, the good and the bad, there is one universal characteristic clients cite about their successful projects – a positive, strong project start. I agree. Successful projects begin with everyone in agreement about what they need to accomplish, what each team member’s role is, and how the process for making decisions will work.
So, in hopes of all of us getting more sleep, here are a few ideas on improving the project start:
Creating a Shared Purpose: Everyone at the Table
With the enormous complexity that comes with building within a defined project budget and schedule, we need the wisdom and team problem solving of all parties at the table together early, including the owner. With this collective knowledge in place as early as possible, creative approaches to the project are discussed, and inherent problems anticipated and resolved.
What’s missing on too many projects is a genuinely open and honest dialogue, begun early on, where the client and their design and building team can put processes in place to manage conflict and deal with the scenarios likely to come up. ‘What is our process for dealing with change orders? How do we together handle things that may hold up the schedule such as a design miss or scope additions?’
Too often, there is an assumption that most issues in construction can easily be worked out by the CM as the project moves along. The flaw in this thinking is that our best opportunity to course correct is in the preconstruction stages. Once the project is underway, and cash is flowing, change can get expensive.
Applying Proven Tools and Methods
Lean design and construction principles offer a well-established framework for fostering team success. One example, aligned with the shared-purpose objective above, is for all team members to agree on a written set of project priorities, the project’s Conditions of Satisfaction. This tool guides decision making for the life of the project by clarifying expectations, documenting expected behaviors, and creating a detailed measuring point to refer to when consensus decisions are needed. To succeed, all stakeholders including the owner need to develop these expectations of each other.
Pull planning, another proven Lean practice, allows for the project schedule to be defined by those who execute the work. Instead of the CM creating the schedule and handing it off to subcontractors, the subcontractors participate, suggest improvements, and sign on as partners to the plan.
These methods and principles ultimately help clients navigate more easily by anticipating potential problems and being prepared to respond. A more thorough start helps clients secure internal buy-ins because they gain clarity around what the cost is, how long the project will take, and what the plan is when something changes or is added to the project.
Building the Off-Ramps
Everyone needs a contingency plan. Institutional clients are especially at risk without one, since there are multiple stakeholders involved in a university or healthcare project. We saw an example recently on a project where the cost estimates following design came in significantly higher than budgeted.
Should an unsettling surprise such as this happen, the client needs to have previously talked through and know their contingency strategy. I refer to this as knowing what and where the off-ramps are. ‘If you cannot afford this building as currently conceived, what are the options? Can you remove some floors without jeopardizing the program? Do you pause and look for additional funding instead? Are you prepared to reduce the quality of the materials in the design? How long will that take, and who is involved in making the decisions?’
Leading by Communicating
Everyone talks about improving communication, but have we lost sight of how to do it well? When you think about what makes a project executive, a project manager, an architect, or an engineer successful, it is his or her ability to communicate well. Their knowledge is only helpful when others can understand it, ask questions, and buy in. Early communication among the designers, construction professionals, clients, and owner’s representatives will go a long way in charting the course for project success.
Where I see helpful, human communication drift off course is when we all rely too much on technology as the crutch. Don’t get me wrong. We have incredible, game-changing technology in the industry and here at BOND. However, the technology should support the knowledge and experience of the professionals we call the master builders, not replace it.
The people who work with me know I’m big on getting back to basics. This means more time and attention on active listening with the client, the veteran experts, and the entire building team. Pause before writing that hundredth email of the day and pick up the phone and talk. Meet in person and walk the job together instead of relying on a drawing, the model, or a photo. Be human.
Improving these actions and behaviors will help advance the goal of a stronger start – and might help inch us towards another goal: a good night’s sleep.