By JACOB STOLLERConstruction Software
A growing number of general contractors are experimenting with a collaborative scheduling and project management system that does not depend on digital devices.
The business case for construction management technology is often based on the drawbacks of handwritten notes, paper forms and hard copy drawings. These are time-consuming, cumbersome, and error-prone, the argument goes. Digitizing them is the obvious solution.
It may seem surprising, therefore, that one of the boldest approaches to collaborative scheduling and project management requires nothing more than a whiteboard, coloured marking pens and sticky notes.
Last Planner was developed in the 1990s. It was inspired by the Total Quality Management (TQM) movement in manufacturing that, thanks to the efforts of the Lean Construction Institute, is seeing gradual but steady growth in construction.
The system, in a nutshell, replaces the traditional top-down scheduling approach with a more collaborative system where the general contractor and subcontractors work peer-to-peer to determine the most efficient way to meet schedule milestones, and then keep things on track through frequent interactions.
“This is very different from the traditional command-and-control general contractor approach that everyone’s been so used to,” says Ashley Maxwell, senior project manager at EllisDon.
The key is that foremen and superintendents who supervise the day-to-day work take ownership of the project schedule, which is typically posted in timeline fashion on a large whiteboard in the jobsite trailer. Everybody commits to weekly one-hour planning meetings in which constraints that might jeopardize the schedule are discussed and resolved through direct collaboration. This is supplemented by 15-minute “daily huddles” where immediate issues are brought forward.
“Here’s where you have those conversations about who’s working in which quadrant so that people can stay out of each other’s way,” says Maxwell. “Instead of having your superintendent as the hub of communication, now you have foremen getting together every day so they can have those conversations directly. This makes communication a lot more efficient, and it builds better relationships.”
“There’s a lot of value in getting everybody in a room together,” says James Barrett, vice-president and chief innovation officer at Turner Construction, “and it’s really powerful when a contractor turns to another contractor face-to-face and says, ‘I’m committing to getting this done on this day so you can get your work done.’”
Last Planner also provides the opportunity for sharing specific concerns and requirements.
“One of the biggest things about Last Planner is that it gives us a forum for people to talk openly,” says Andrew Brennan, superintendent at PCL Construction.
Because Last Planner leaves scheduling details in the hands of the foremen in the field, the difficulty of reconciling an externally created schedule with day-to-day reality is avoided. “I think it’s just an outdated notion that a person or a handful people can possibly dictate every day over the course of three years,” says Barrett.
Contractors are also experimenting with online Last Planner tools, and the advantages, such as ease of sharing and updating, are obvious. Facing COVID-19 constraints, PCL used the virtual approach successfully in a recent hotel renovation. The key was ensuring that the people who controlled the work on site were present, and that all participants understood that they’d be committing their teams to specific timelines.
“You have to have the right people in the room,” says Sylvia Poon, operational support supervisor at PCL Construction, “and it can’t be something where people just log in during a weekly planning meeting. People are making commitments to each other, and the plan is going to be referred to throughout the week.”
PCL is also having success with a hybrid approach, where site personnel meet live and others, such as a material supplier whose delivery timing might affect jobsite workflows, are connected virtually.
TOWARDS A BROADER VISION
On the surface, Last Planner is an innovative tool for improving how jobsites are managed. More broadly, it transforms how general contractors interact with their trade partners.
“Construction has been doing things the same way for a long time,” says Maxwell, “but I do see a change in how some top tier contractors are trying to operate. And I believe Last Planner is one of those tools for becoming, to use our CEO Geoff Smith’s expression, fast, fluid, and flexible.”
“Last planner changes the work environment and the culture, and drives a lot of positive behaviours,” says Barrett. “That’s a hard thing to do in this industry, which is adversarial by tradition. We see Last Planner as a stepping-stone to a larger Lean approach, where we introduce the broader continuous improvement framework.”
“It’s a powerful tool,” adds Maxwell. “Guys who really get it, when it clicks, say they’ll never build any other way again.”
Jacob Stoller is principal of StollerStrategies. Send comments to email@example.com