Lean Construction – Managing complex projects

The definition of a complex project, for this blog, will be a typical project fraught with indecisive client, design changes, many and long turnaround times for change orders and approvals, inconsistent sub-contractor performances and very challenging programmes.

There is no doubt that difficult and complex projects will usually be manned by the organisation’s best. Heuristically, the team will go about doing their utmost best to manage the “complex” situation. Most commonly, these teams will already have good practices from lessons learnt in place e.g.

  • Detailed design programmes
  • Detailed construction programmes produced by the planners over the past year on the project
  • Plans to conduct weekly site meetings
  • Multiple risk management spreadsheets
  • Audit trails of accountabilities e.g. RFIs

As discussed in an earlier blog, complex projects are characterised by the multitude of interrelating variables within a project system i.e. client organisation, project team, supply chain etc.

The chaos (read earlier blog on this) that ensues from managing complex project (managing interrelated variables, overriding and overwhelming amounts of information over time) most often stem from the unsystematic way, or “pick and choose” method of managing the project system, hence just good tools & techniques is secondary to following a robust framework if the goal is NOT to make waste more efficient.

Often the prescriptive process tools within a contracting organisation are not the best tools to effectively managing the flow of works or the project complexity. (More on this in a future blog)

Often the commercial procurement routes adopted are often given priority over the project planning, flow and quality which are seen as site issues to manage and in many organisations are divorced from the procurement route of the supply chain.

The lean approach

Understand the bigger picture, investigate the process in detail, use a team based approach to identify and eliminate wastes, then generate actions for sustainability.

Example application in a bigger picture (the whole project)

At the start of a project, before jumping into action haphazardly (gut feel, economic pressures or pressures from different stakeholders shouting loudest) prioritising and dealing with issues, the lean approach suggests understanding the bigger picture, as a team before jumping into problem solving mode as the industry tend to like doing. A good choice of tool, reflecting the lean approach, to use at this point may be Hoshin Kanri (Compass needle), or better known as a 1-page plan. This is like a business plan for a company. If a small business needs a business plan to show the way to achieve success, why would bigger projects not? Projects operate very much like a short term business with a single place of work having to discharge all the obligations of the company at a single short term place of work; such as legislative, contractual, procedural, social and commercial.

This activity rounds up all key stakeholders of the project to explore individual agendas, external and internal risks to the project and identify potential opportunities to achieving the common goal of achieving project success. The structured activity will provide information in a way to populate a 1-page plan inducing accountability, giving focus areas (key actions), area champions, programme of works for tackling areas and SMART measures for performance. This can act as an overall framework to be monitored against and regulated using strategic flexibility (see Dorner’s Logic of Failure). Focus areas e.g. change process, new construction technique, construction programme, 3rd party authorisations etc. will then decide on, and encompass the good practices already available, plus other tools and techniques available for use. A second tier Hoshin may be necessary dependent on the project.

Example application on a smaller picture (the construction programme)Hoshin Photo

Regardless of pre-existing or levels of uncertainties of the projects, once on site, the show must go on.

Using a team based approach, seeing the bigger picture in this case will be the construction programme.  There is now need for the team to diligently and aggressively identify constraints both in the bigger picture to give an overview. Potential suitable tools to adopt in this case may be FMEA on zonal/package analysis or any other Q, C, D risk analysis techniques.

hoshin-questionsAs importantly, and not to be skipped, investigate the details in a 4-8 weeks (dependent on the level of “complexity”) look-ahead programme, to give urgency to specific matters. Employing an activity, labour and resource-scheduling tool, such as collaborative planning, at this point will help give the look-ahead plan more accuracy.

The above two will give feedback and help prioritisation by the management team in making it “ready to build” down the line.

The identifying and eliminating waste phase involves rigid adherence to the “ready to build” principle. Most projects forego the ready to build step and focus just on the weekly plan in their “pick & choose” method. Rework is inevitable when a task commences without the premises being ready. This difficult step however, needs strength to follow through due to the tug for progress versus following the principle of only freeing work when ready. The ready to build protects the weekly plan. Hence, simultaneous and comprehensive communications throughout the team is essential.

Ready to build tools exist in some form in many organisations, such as Information Schedules, Procurement Schedules and RAMS Schedules, these often live with separate disciplines and are rarely all brought together in a single ready to build tracker and rarely interrogate the supply chain ready to build. (For example how often do contractors get visibility on the services contractor procurement status?)

Generating actions from all of the above in a long list is easy. But, for sustainability and for them to work means closing these actions. In this instance, adopting Covey’s circle of influence and concern may be prudent. Actions should be separated into things within the control of the team and things not within the control of the team and worked on separately.