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Project Management, Systems Thinking

The construction project process is broken, but it can be fixed

Ali Mafi BIM article

This week, I attended a breakfast briefing by my colleague Ali Mafi, a colleague who has 35 years’ experience in the construction sector and with whom I have worked to help clients improve the way they run their projects.

He shared the results of his data collection from many projects:

  • 80% of projects run late and over budget
  • 20% complete on time but require costly measures such as overtime

All this is despite “new ways of working” such as BIM, offsite construction and new forms of contract. Often, build-offsite benefits get lost or squandered in delays and BIM simply adds costs.

There have been lots of reports over the years (Egan, Farmer, McKinsey), all saying basically the same things: work collaboratively, better planning plus other high-level motherhood and apple pie aspirations. In practice, what’s actually changed? One of the attendees said, “Maybe construction is not broken, it’s just not very well and not very good at getting better”.

Ali challenged the joint government and industry target of delivering projects 50% faster as fantasy when current performance is so poor. He said the opportunity is there to deliver in half the time (from conception to end). The challenge is how to transform from 80% late to 90% on time.

The solution he proposed is a daily system that:

  • Calculates accurately and scientifically the time to completion
  • Monitors and highlights performance effectiveness and efficiency
  • Continuously highlights failings and learning

It is possible to transform project delivery but, among the obstacles are:

  • The way we think
  • Practices and habits

All too often, we use intuition inappropriately. Our brains prefer not to think or to engage in data collection and analysis. We judge things, make assumptions and decisions based on the path of least resistance:

  • Past experience
  • Emotions
  • Impulse – Fight, Flight, Freeze

Not gathering data means: “The world of business is awash with ill-considered solutions to ill-defined problems.” (Goldratt)

Practices and habits to overcome, include

  • Lack of deep thinking and questioning (“How’s it going?” just doesn’t cut it!)
  • The most common solution is to add things to processes! – This just adds cost and reduces productivity
  • Damaging practices and habits cost projects on average 2.5 days of delay each week according to Ali’s data

Systems determine the outcome and not the quality of people. Most failures are system failures, not people failures. Projects need to focus on Total Time Compression because time accounts for 80% of project cost and 90% of project risk. This requires a change of focus from the product to the process.

A project approach based on time compression requires:

  • A collectively validated plan – with the team doing the work (not adding yet more “planners”)
  • All the time risk allowance (typically 50%) should be stripped out and put into a buffer (or buffers)
  • Weekly reviews of data
  • A prioritised weekly task list

The amount of risk time built into many plans usually includes things like:

  • Padding for things to go wrong; work then expands to fill the time and Student Syndrome or Murphy’s Law kicks in
  • Batching, supposedly to reduce cost but which, in reality, slows things down and costs more, in total
  • Monday starts – why should every activity have to start on a Monday?
  • The effect of multi-tasking which adds 40% to end date, typically

A daily system is needed: this equates to a hospital ward round with multi-disciplinary teams. It is a meticulous collective visit to high priority tasks to check 1-piece flow, efficiency and how many days are left until completion (elapsed time). On most days there will only be a few tasks that actually HAVE to be done to protect the end-date. These are the ones to focus on. Overall, this systematic approach results in:

  • Short feedback loops
  • Accountability for the whole project
  • A safe environment in which people can surface all risks and failures
  • Elimination of the impacts of egos and toxic behaviour – more failures are due to clashes of personalities than clashes of tasks
  • Briefing and debriefing to keep focused on the end-date and to learn from failure

Ali summarised the approach as being similar to the way we use a SatNav when driving. We set a destination, identify a predicted arrival time and, on the journey, we constantly get updates on progress. We can see if and by how much the arrival time is changing. We zoom in for turn-by-turn directions to make sure we don’t take the wrong route. Occasionally, we may need to zoom out to see the whole route and identify potential delays but usually, zooming-in is more useful than zooming-out.

For many projects, this requires a complete re-think of the project process and that requires real leadership. It really is all about the system. You can read more about Ali’s approach here (PDF).

I’ve been helping clients outside the construction sector to use some of these Lean Thinking principles on their projects. It’s not magic but it does require inspired leadership.

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