4 moves toward a project-planning method that does more than check boxes
by Gregg M. Schoppman
May 10, 2019

Most organizations are busy. Even in the deepest recessionary market, rarely are construction firms sitting idle. Often, the feeling of elation on a successful bid/award day is quickly replaced with anxiety about how the project will be completed within budget.

Whether the time from award to mobilization is 2 days or 2 months, the ability to position an operational team for success should be of utmost priority. However, many organizations absentmindedly rush their way through the preconstruction process. Planning at this stage should be less about setting the world speed record for project strategy and more about devolving a plan for operating as a foundation of excellence. 

1. Ask the Tough Questions

There is no doubt that standardized agendas and processes are essential to any organization’s operations. Consistency in application of the plan provides fertile training ground for new associates. Further, it serves as a measurable component by which to create performance standards for all associates.

The first question a leader should ask is: Do we have an operational standard for preconstruction being used by every project manager, estimator and superintendent/foreman? If the answer is no, you have your first obstacle to overcome.

The second question: Is our preconstruction process stale and stagnant—too focused on checking boxes and less about constructive dialogue about project challenges? If the answer is yes, your process likely resembles more of a dictation rather than a collaboration. Leaders must address this albatross draped over the neck of their project teams. But the questions shouldn’t end here.

The following difficult inquiries should be posed to the project teams before they mobilize:

  • How will you address budget shortfalls?
  • What project aspect provides the most cause for concern?
  • How will you approach project roadblocks?
  • How will you increase profit margins during the project?
  • What innovative construction methods will this project use?
  • What crew blend maximizes utilization, productivity, efficiency, quality, etc.?
  • What is the project’s greatest risk (safety or otherwise), and how will that risk be addressed?
  • How will this customer become a promoter for the firm?
  • How will the team develop itself internally?

Often, preconstruction planning goes through the perfunctory elements related to scheduling, deliverables, submittals, permitting, contact information, etc. This is important information, but it merely skims the surface of the project and fails to garner the level of brainstorming required for a winning project approach. And it certainly fails to move construction organizations forward with an innovative approach to project delivery.

2. Plan Practically

Another disconnect that often arises is a firm’s inability to transfer knowledge into action. A plan is constructed in the conference room, but when it hits the jobsite trailer, it falls into a circular file. Lean construction advocates the concept of pull planning (in which all stakeholders plan collaboratively from the desired end result backward) along with a planning mechanism that drives the appropriate use of resources at the right time.

The effective use of this process begins at the preconstruction stage, whether in conjunction with a general contractor/construction manager, or within the confines of the trades. The first work plan of the project that defines the labor requirements, equipment, etc. should be done in the initial preconstruction meeting between the field leader and the project manager, which establishes the right cadence for the project from the outset but does not serve as the schedule.

Far too often, contractors rely on a schedule that may or may not reflect reality. Instead, the plan—set from day one—should be a reflection of how the team will accomplish said schedule.

3. Hit the Reset Button

There are times when personnel changes happen, even before a project breaks ground. When a project team changes, ask yourself: Did the change hit the reset button on the planning process? It’s foolish to place new players on an old project plan, as no one truly owns the end product. A new team calls for a new plan.

4. Challenge Assumptions

No one particularly likes having their ideas challenged. It creates perceived conflict and friction. Consider the estimator that has feverishly put together a substantial proposal with incredible time constraints. Now, think about how that estimator feels when they hear, “What were you thinking?” Even with an inquisitive rather than accusatory tone, the sentiment has a tinge of interrogation. Challenging an estimator’s assumptions is meant to serve as a vehicle to create constructive dialogue about how a firm will excel.

The concept of “red teaming,” as developed by author Bryce Hoffman, is a process that explores the use of a specialized internal team to challenge firm/project strategy as if it were an enemy force on the battlefield. This is a practical exercise to incorporate into the preconstruction process. Consider having a team that serves as the “enemy,” or plays devil’s advocate, poking holes in the project plan, or even posing as the customer or designer during a mock critical-decision-making process.

Studies positively correlate the amount of time spent planning and the return on investment. Haphazardly putting together a written plan simply to feel good about accomplishing a meeting is not an effective use of time, nor does it achieve the goal it was intended to in the first place. Checking the boxes or pencil whipping will only serve the pencil, and it will use a lot of lead.