Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Eliminating Tunnel Vision

One of the most overused sayings is "Don't miss the forest for the trees." While it may be an annoying cliche at this point, we in the construction industry would do well to remember it as we manage our projects. I say this because I've found that construction project managers, including myself, often get so caught up in the technical construction requirements that we miss the overall conditions that must be met before we can call our project a success. In other words, we focus too much on assembling buildings and not enough on managing projects.

Typical construction industry approach...

When you put a bunch of veteran construction managers and superintendents in a room to discuss an upcoming project, the focus of the conversation is almost always on the specifics of the construction work. Rarely is the focus on the project management activities that must occur in order to bring the project in on-time, under-budget, within scope, and with good quality. Construction folks are typically really good at envisioning the construction deliverables that are required to assemble a building; however, they're usually not so good at envisioning the administrative deliverables that are required to successfully complete a project. Why is this?

Well, many construction project managers have solid backgrounds in construction (as installers, superintendents, engineers, etc.), but oftentimes have much less knowledge of standard project management best practices, such as Scope Management. For this reason, a lot of administrative-type deliverables are unaccounted for on construction projects. This is a huge risk!

Failure to deliver on any project requirement can cause huge problems. For example, if we fail to plan for team-building activities, our project group will probably have difficulties becoming a high-functioning project team. If we fail to plan for stakeholder communication, we can have all sorts of misunderstandings and overreactions. If we fail to plan for collaborative scheduling sessions, we can have wildly inaccurate schedule updates. None of these activities are directly related to assembling a building, but are just as critical to the overall success of a project as pouring a level foundation, framing a square wall, or setting sturdy trusses.

So, how do we go about doing a better job of meeting all project deliverables?

The Lean approach...

First, we need to get good at hearing the Voice of the Customer (VOC). The VOC is a central element of Lean thinking, and hearing it is a talent than all Lean thinkers must acquire. One of the best commonsense strategies for hearing the VOC is to get out of the office and go talk to your project stakeholders. We shouldn't try to predict our stakeholders' needs; we should just ask them! We shouldn't try to be the know-it-all construction manager; we should be the facilitator for communication. We don't have all the answers, but we can get them easily by just listening to our stakeholders.

Second, we need to get good at performing Scope Management planning. This is a standard part of the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK), so it's nothing new to professional project managers; but, it may be somewhat foreign to traditional construction project managers. The good news is that Scope Management planning is not all that complicated. The PMBOK guides will take you through the details, but it boils down to defining the project scope, breaking it down into manageable pieces, and having a gameplan for adjusting the project scope as necessary throughout the course of a project. By going through these steps, we develop a Project Baseline that we can use to ensure that we're delivering on our stakeholder requirements.

So, hearing the VOC is the social skill that we must learn, while performing Scope Management planning is the technical skill we must learn in order to eliminate tunnel vision. By eliminating tunnel vision, we are no longer blind to all the project deliverables that we might otherwise ignore. Ignoring stakeholder requirements is a big reason why the construction industry is infamous for being unreliable and disagreeable to work with, and is a construction management practice that must end. If we as construction project managers can learn to hear our stakeholders and properly plan for managing the project scope, we can fulfill all the project deliverables, not just those related to slapping a building together.