Project managers are often the jacks of all trades on a construction project. They are tasked with the responsibility of keeping the entire project running like a well-oiled machine. And we don’t have to tell you how difficult that can be. Because of this, some of the best lessons come from the experiences and the knowledge of those in the field. The project leaders listed at left are from five of the top United States construction companies. We asked them about trends that are altering their daily processes in 2018, advice for new project leaders and more. Read their insights below.
CBO: What industry trends have had a major effect on your company’s project management processes in 2017 and 2018?
Wiehe: This is more of a market condition rather than a trend, but we are experiencing a booming market in the Pacific Northwest. With that, we are also experiencing a shortage of skilled labor, like everyone else in the industry. We can’t grow at the pace that developers would like us to because of this challenge. To try to combat that, we’ve started using business analytics to glean information and streamline our processes. As for industry trends, PCL has put a big emphasis on applying lean construction and production techniques across all of its divisions. PCL recently began hiring lean production managers, specifically to observe and identify issues and increase productivity in our offices and on our jobsites.
Welton: In the past, trends seemed to be just that—a trend—and we didn’t necessarily investigate every trend or technology on the market. Today is different. To stay competitive, you have to investigate all trends, even at their infancy, to determine what and where the potential value might be. The advantage is how you integrate new building trends into your ecosystem that brings the most value to the client. We have changed our approach to building innovation by including it as a key initiative in our strategic plan. We have invested in resources that change the way we execute work. I would say this is a complete shift in philosophy from the past, when technology had to prove its value before we integrated it in our workflow. Now, we take a lead position on innovation and integration.
Thayer: Most notably, availability of skilled labor continues to have a major impact. We have also seen a positive impact from utilizing lean daily management, which enables issues to be addressed proactively and at the project site. As issues are solved, the data can be analyzed at a high level to look for trouble areas across regions and bring resources to assist.
Shaw: Recently, the industry has seen an explosion in how technology is utilized on a daily basis. The use of iPads, building modeling, robotic surveying equipment and online file sharing and collaboration continue to reshape how information is transmitted. In the past, projects were constructed solely with paper drawings, fax machines and overnight carriers. Now, we are using electronic document transfer regularly. The ability to digitally transfer information and then access it through management platforms has increased the flow of information.
CBO: What technology has transformed your processes over the past year?
Wiehe: It’s actually an entire category of technology: reality capture. We have been using reality capture in several forms to improve our processes for a while. But now, instead of having to outsource that work, it’s possible through different tools and software to complete those tasks in house. We can confirm existing conditions through complete 3-D processing and scanning, and use those models all the way through design, construction and operations and maintenance. Having 3-D printing capabilities in house has allowed us to print models that we can share with project owners and other partners to understand concepts and challenges more easily. All in all, having the ability to self-perform a lot of the virtual construction work has made a massive difference in our productivity and it has made us a stronger project partner.
Hedlund: Overall, 360-degree camera technology and drone capabilities have been the biggest drivers in moving our virtual construction efforts to new levels in the field. Virtual quality control and digital record documents are more sophisticated and useful than ever.
Welton: Wearables, drones, 3-D printing, mobile access and the growing number of devices all are just table stakes for the big prize—data insights that have never before been possible. JE Dunn has focused on investing in tech with the primary goal of harvesting, analyzing and publishing data in a manner that enables these “never-before-possible insights.” For this to be possible, you must have an internal data infrastructure that allows for data aggregation that becomes your single source of truth. We are just scratching the surface of how valuable it is and will be to our company.
Thayer: Laser scanning has changed how we field measure and how as-builts are created. The ability to accurately and precisely model existing conditions in a timely manner is not possible using traditional techniques. Taking that data and communicating it to owners, designers and subcontractors gives all stakeholders the best information they can get to ensure a high-quality project.
CBO: Do you see any regulations, trends or other factors that could be a challenge in 2018?
Wiehe: A busy market means everyone has a high volume of work and is strained to meet demands. For our particular region, we are looking at significant code upgrades that will be happening in the near future—specifically energy and seismic codes—so there’s a bit of a rush for developers to design projects and submit them for permit before the code changes go into effect. Recently, in Portland, Oregon, there was a change in affordable housing requirements, and it’s changed how developers are thinking about residential towers. It’s certainly had an immediate effect on the progression of that project type locally.
Hedlund: As an industry, we continue to keep an eye on any legislation that modifies alternate procurement delivery methods (APDM), as well as payment or taxation issues for construction projects.
Thayer: Getting all subcontractors on project sites up to speed and enforcing the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) final silica standard will be a
challenge for 2018.
Shaw: Access to qualified workers and the retention of qualified project management and field staff is always a concern. The construction industry has exploded since the recession a few years ago. People have a lot of options as to who they want to work for and where. Figuring out how to manage remote projects, while maintaining a healthy, work-life balance, is a significant measure to having a strong company. If we can find the lever that makes this a reality, we will retain key people and develop those coming in behind them.
CBO: What advice, that has helped you do your job better, can you offer to other project managers in the industry?
Wiehe: I’ve had an opportunity to work on a number of different project types, and PCL has always done a great job of letting me design my own career path. During the job search process, look for a position where you will have the opportunity to work on projects that excite you, so you remain highly engaged. Construction is built on long-term relationships; it’s a marathon, not a sprint. Sometimes project partners make mistakes, and usually, it’s in your best interest to help clean up. Always err on the side of over-communication. Be transparent about the team’s goals. As a team, clearly define what the contract requires, the owner’s goals and the end user’s needs to pave the way for overall project success. When everyone has an understanding of what is valued, then each stakeholder can make decisions based on what they have to add to the conversation. Encourage project owners to be straightforward and consistent in what they expect. Get the end user involved early on in the process. They will have insight into what the project needs that you may not ever consider.
Hedlund: Keep your eye on the ball. When things get busy, those who pay attention to the basics of our business, like putting work in place safely, productively and on schedule,will make the most of a solid construction market.
Welton: Understand that you are not simply in charge of managing a project. You might not explicitly have “customer service” or “marketing” in your title, but that doesn’t mean you aren’t representing your company to your client every day. You have to provide the highest level of customer service, be constantly trying to prove and add value and be solutions-oriented for your client at all times. Next, be sure to train your next generation. We need talented and experienced people to support sophisticated building types and clients. We simply cannot expect our nation’s college institutions to provide every skill necessary for project managers, so we need to take it upon ourselves to provide on-the-job training, mentorship and guidance. The more you help grow your people, the more support and ideas you have to draw from as you move forward with new client challenges. Last but not least, never stop learning. The project managers who have the greatest success at JE Dunn are the ones who aren’t afraid to try out a new technology or a new approach to building. I tell everyone to be open-minded about finding new, innovative solutions to age-old construction problems.
Thayer: Get into the details. There are times to stay at a high level, but frequently at the project site, items can be missed, unless time is taken to get into the details. Make sure to communicate. Communication among the project stakeholders and internally within project team is critical. Know your people in order to grow and keep the best people.
Shaw: The construction industry is one that is based on relationships and effective communication. Learning and expanding on these skills was key for me. In today’s world, we gravitate toward text messaging and email. While important, there are many times where face-to-face conversations solve more problems and open new doors. My best advice is to develop the skill to communicate effectively. Recently, I have noticed employees move between companies now with greater frequency than at any other time in my career. I have watched people leave companies and projects without any regard to the potential damage they cause to the company that employs them, the staff they are leaving behind or the owner with whom they are involved. Life happens, and at times, it cannot be controlled. However, we can control the decisions we make. If we strive to practice patience and make decisions with others considered, everyone benefits.