Monday, October 27, 2014

Collaboration as Competitive Advantage?

The concept of a collaborative planning and design process is hardly novel. In fact, it sounds so commonsensical that it hardly seems worth promoting. Except for the fact that it is so needed in our industry.

Fragmented is a popular adjective to describe the AEC industry. It's easy to point out the adversarial relationship that often exists between designer and contractor. But designers make their own substantial contribution to the lack of collaboration among project parties. This is true even when the different disciplines reside under one roof.

Consider some of the evidence: Half of construction change orders, according to RediCheck's Bill Nigro, are due to coordination errors in the design phase. His research found an average of five coordination errors per contract drawing! Anecdotal evidence suggests that rework consumes 10-20% of project design budgets, with improper sequencing of work between disciplines being the most common cause.

We've all witnessed that last one. For example, since the electrical department is anxious to get started (their workload being light), the architectural department pushes work to that group before floor plans are finalized. When the preliminary floor plans are revised, the electrical engineers have to redo their design to reflect the changes.

Another example from my time with environmental firms: Geologists plan and execute a remedial investigation of a contaminated site. Their findings are passed on to the risk assessment staff who determine that they don't have all the data they need to do their work. The field crew goes back to the site to collect more information. Later the engineers get involved and find they need still more site data to design the remediation system. More samples, more costs.

These are hardly isolated situations; in my experience, they're quite common. Inefficiency due to the lack of an interdisciplinary collaborative process is prevalent in our industry. More typical is a compartmentalized, sequential approach where work flows from discipline to discipline with coordination limited largely to the points of handoff. What's needed is an interdisciplinary team that together guides the work through planning, design, construction, and startup.

This need has been the driver for the emergence of Integrated Project Delivery, which involves the owner, designer, contractor, and potentially others entering into a single, multiparty contract that forces the parties to collaborate. But the onerous contract terms have scared most parties away from using IPD. Interesting, isn't it, that the goal of better cooperation—the need for which we can all agree upon—is thought to be attainable only through contractual coercion. 

Why can't your firm create and market its own collaborative process without having to resort to compelling parties to participate? Everyone is a winner when better collaboration is achieved, so it should be relatively easy to sell in concept. The difficulty comes in overcoming the culture of competition that has characterized the AEC industry for decades. What can you do? A few suggestions:

Start with mastering collaboration among your own staff. I've helped many firms address internal coordination issues over the years. The genesis of the problem is usually structural—how offices and departments are organized and incentivized. Look here for obstacles to collaboration. I've written about breaking down disciplinary silos previously, as well as removing competition among offices by going to a single profit center.

The secret to better collaboration is rethinking the usual sequential approach to planning and design, and getting parties engaged throughout. Designers can help strengthen planning. Planners can bring a valuable perspective to design. Architectural schematic design can be improved by early engineering input. Construction specialists can help designers reduce costs and improve constructability. And so on.

Commit to integrated project planning. All the relevant disciplines and stakeholders should have input into planning the work. Unfortunately, the work is often planned in stages (if at all!), with the different parties contributing only to the stage that directly involves them. No collective vision emerges, nor a shared understanding of precisely what each party needs to make the project successful. The more disciplines and stakeholders involved in the project, the more opportunities for disconnects when proper planning is neglected.

Strengthen collaboration with regular teaming partners. On several occasions, I've had the opportunity to help firms improve their working relationship with other firms—either with familiar teaming partners or members of a design-build team. The process always reveals some valuable, previously unknown insights about what each party needs from the other to be more successful. This happens even when the firms have extensive experience working together. They had simply never taken the time to explore how to make the working relationship even better.

Some areas to focus on: Aligned project goals, project planning, sequencing of work tasks, lines of communication, decision making, roles and responsibilities, interim deliverables, coordinated quality control, addressing problems, and delivering great client service.

Advocate for partnering sessions with design-build teams. Ideally, these should involve the owner and key members of the design and construction teams. The scope of discussion will be much the same as above, but make sure you start with goal alignment. I typically send the owners, designers, and builders to their respective corners and have them define success for the project. The goals emerging from each group are always different, sometimes in significant ways. Aligning these goals is critical to creating the environment for effective collaboration in other aspects of the project.

Sell clients on the benefits of your collaborative process. Most clients still favor the traditional project delivery model that promotes competition between partners. They seem to think it offers checks and balances that hold the parties more accountable. But the truth is that it dramatically reduces productivity—increasing costs, schedules, and headaches. Of course, the contractual relationship between planning, design, and construction partners may prevent you from extending your collaborative process over the full scope of the project.

But you can promote the advantages of that which you can control—if you have the evidence that it works. So it's vital that you compile data that demonstrate the benefits of collaboration. Start collecting this information now as a baseline, then compare it to the results that come from a more integrated project approach. Once you can demonstrate the advantages within your realm, you'll be in a stronger position to promote it from start to finish.

1 comment:

Jason Mlicki said...

This is a great article.