Revisiting The Five Big Ideas Transforming the Design and Construction Industry: Optimize the Project as a Whole (Part 4)

Visualization creates the conditions for people to act with responsible autonomy to steer the project. Steering is the essence of project control.

Written by Hal Macomber | March 12, 2021

(Hal Macomber, EVP, Touchplan With Jeff Loeb, Project Coach, Lean and Integrated Delivery, Jacobs) People acting from local or workgroup concerns rarely take care of the project as a whole. We learned that buildings don’t perform as intended when engineers oversize elements of building systems on a discipline-by-discipline basis with concerns to minimize risk. We also learned that work gets out of sequence causing rework and delays when trades act independently of each other. These and other shortcomings detract from what we set out to accomplish for our clients when we design and build. Optimizing a whole takes attention and intentionality.

My Prior Guidance for Putting to work “Optimize the Project as a Whole”

AEC projects are contracted in ways that usually result in optimization at local or subcontract levels. Consulting engineers often manage their work to maximize engineering utilization. Plumbers do what is good for the plumbers. Other performers do the same. Some people say that if we do well with each of the parts, the whole will do well too. That is blatantly not true. And, people on the project know it. Sometimes it takes one group to go slow so that the project can proceed more effectively. However, the incentives are not set up to accomplish that.

Optimizing the whole requires on-going attention. Circumstances change. What appears to be good for the whole at one point in the project may not be so at other points. It takes a recurring conversation and assessment among the many project participants to continue to act for the general well-being of the whole project. Try asking just one question at each of your coordination meetings:

What is the best we can do for the project in the coming week?

Answer the question in the group setting. Be open to adjusting scope, fees, and plans accordingly. As a result, you’ll do better for your client and the team.

New Guidance: Start with the “Customer Mindset”

Why is it that there is something to be built? What is the purpose or business case for the project? What consequences does the Owner anticipate should the project not go forward? What constraint does the Owner mean to address with the project? The answers to these questions are not only important during design but throughout the whole project. Failing to keep these concerns present throughout the project life will lead to individuals acting from their own perspectives and perceptions. The client will suffer.

Operationally, the next person in line (production sequence) is my customer. The plumber is the customer of the framer. The electrician is the customer of the plumber. The framer installing bracing is the customer of the electrician. In design, it’s more like a network than it is linear. Disciplines must regularly interact with each other to coordinate the design. Failing to do so results in requests for information, change orders, and rework all of which result in sub-optimization for the client.

Adopt New Standard Practices

Production system design of all stages of design and construction is essential for delivering the most value for the money available. The “design” of the project is the first act for optimizing the whole. The design of systems for material and non-material (professional services) production follows proven production or process theory. One good reference is This Is Lean: Resolving the Efficiency Paradox, by Niklas Modig and Pär Åhlström. Follow these three laws:

  1. Small batch production results in quicker handoffs which mean shorter project durations.
  2. The production pace is set by the bottleneck activities.
  3. Variation of activity durations compounds with dependence. In other words, gains are lost and losses accumulate.

Good production system design will lead to better outcomes and speedier projects while reducing overall costs. We’ll take this up in more detail in a future production system blog series.

Concurrent set-based design coupled with Choosing By Advantages Decisionmaking is the current best practice to establish the “basis of design” at the client’s target cost. It alone will get the team far along to maximizing client value. Target Value Design is one example of this. Another is Jacob’s Collaborative Design and Scoping. In lean we place a lot of attention on reducing wasteful variation, and rightly so. However, in design, not all variation is bad. In fact, intentionally producing variety is essential for innovation.

We must always remember that the future is not just uncertain, it is unknowable. Therefore, we want to visualize the process to engage all project performers in the ongoing process of adjusting and redirecting action in the always unfolding project situation. The Last Planner System® of Production Control and the Kanban Method are two widely-used collaborative visualization approaches. Visualization creates the conditions for people to act with responsible autonomy to steer the project. Steering is the essence of project control.

One important principle of Lean design and construction is “Make commitments at the last responsible moment.” Jeff Loeb says its corollary is, “Collaborate at the earliest responsible moment.” That goes equally for designing the project, the practices, and the relationships among the project participants.

If you missed last week’s post be sure to read Tightly Couple Learning with Action. If you would like to learn more about the Last Planner System check out Hal Macomber’s post LPS Is a Kaizen Method—Here’s Why That Matters.

If you would like to revisit any of the posts from the Revisiting the Five Big Ideas series you can find all of them below.

Collaboration, Lean Construction, Remote Project Management

Hal Macomber Hal is part of the executive team at Touchplan, focusing on developing business partners and Lean consulting and coaching for architecture, engineering, and construction firms to help them sustain success. Hal is one of the foremost experts in Lean construction and "Last Planner® System of Production Control" with more than thirty-five years' experience and he first introduced Lean principles to architecture firms in 1996. He has authored numerous publications on Lean subjects, including The Pocket Sensei, Mastering Lean Leadership with 40 Katas, Volume I, and also developed several Learning programs.