improved model for agile construction project management
TAREQ A. AL BEHAIRI PMI-ACP, PMP
Construction Integrated Group Ltd. (CIG), KUWAIT
In modern smart buildings and construction projects, the explicit boundaries between construction industry management, with its waterfall methodology, and IT industry management, with its flexible lean agile methodologies, have become fuzzier, nested, and interlocked, which requires a magical mixture to bring some concepts together and interleave the methodologies. The complexity associated with construction execution suggests that the application of agile principles and practices may be helpful in improving productivity. Generally, identifying similarities and differences between agile and construction may enable the use of ideas across disciplines and provide a way of leveraging the practices developed in agile and applying them to construction. AGISTRUCT is an improved agile construction model by which we can analogize between agile and construction in terms of artefacts and practices. The value in these comparisons is to identify similarities and understand differences leading to improved sharing of practices between industry disciplines.
Keywords: construction, agile, hybrid projects
The term construction is defined as “the business of building things (such as houses or roads)” (Construction, n.d.).
It is typically characterized as a complex and labour-intensive industry. Construction projects create a well-understood final product through a number of different coordinated procurement and contracting strategies. Most construction projects take at least one year, in which they are significantly undertaken in a non-rapid change environment. Moreover, project documentation is a major consideration for any construction project due to the extensive design and construction contract requirements for managing the contemporaneous documentation produced during the course of the project. Further, for the construction project, the project team and primarily the project manager are the focal point of project communication, not just for distributing project-generated information but also for gathering, analysing, and responding to stakeholders-initiated information (feedback) (PMI, 2007, p. 83).
The construction industry as a process differs from both the manufacturing and information technology (IT) industries in that both manufacturing and (IT) predominantly involve mass production of similar items without a designated client, while construction is typically done on location for a known client.
After exploring some main characteristics of the construction industry from the management point of view, we always tend to consider any construction project as an explicit waterfall case or fully plan-driven in a predictive life cycle because the final product (facility, infrastructure, etc.) is required to be delivered in full to have value to the stakeholders (PMI, 2013, p. 48). On the other hand, we consider IT projects, especially in software development, as explicit agile cases or fully change-driven in an iterative and incremental life cycle because the final product is difficult to define as a whole in advance. Yet, it is possible to define small, incremental improvements that will deliver value to stakeholders (PMI, 2013, p. 46).
Although construction and IT as industries are embracing two alien methodologies in managing their projects, construction project managers are now making use of the information industry. For example, many projects now utilize project-specific websites for dissemination of meeting minutes and scheduling information (PMI, 2007). In particular, if we look at today's construction complexity and our great passion to build smarter and smarter structures, it is pretty logical that we find ourselves heading towards a new type of project, hybrid projects. In such projects as these, one can easily find different components from multiple industries, including construction, IT, and software development as well as artificial intelligence. By taking smart, modern building projects as an example, we could notice the explicit boundaries between managing construction projects with waterfall methodology and managing software development projects with lean and agile methodologies have become fuzzier, nested, and interlocked, which requires relentless pursuit to find a magical mixture to bring some concepts together and interleave the methodologies used in both construction, on one side, and lean and agile on the other side.
This paper aims to present AGISTRUCT as an empirical model that is verifiable by observation and experience rather than theory and logic, and by which we can analogize between agile and construction in terms of some of the most familiar artefacts and practices in order to improve our understanding about how waterfall and agile can work together. The value beyond this analogy is to identify similarities and understand differences leading to improved sharing of practices between the two methodologies.
On the surface, there are many obvious differences between large-scale construction and software development. However, the complexity associated with construction execution suggests that the application of agile principles and practices may be helpful in construction. For example, it can improve productivity and manage the construction risks effectively.
The components of the AGISTRUCT model are designed to reflect a mutual understanding of the main crucial aspects of both agile practices and artefacts used in software production and waterfall practices used in construction. The model components refer to:
- A: Adaptive planning is similar to look-ahead planning.
- G: Globalisation communication is similar to effective communication.
- I: Iterations are similar to weekly work plans.
- S: Story elaboration is similar to workface planning.
- T: Task boards are similar to bar charts.
- R: Retrospectives are similar to weekly progress review meetings.
- U: User story is similar to work package.
- C: Customer feedback is similar to validated deliverables.
- T: Tracking value is similar to S-curve.
CONSTRUCTION IN NEED OF AGILE AND LEAN
The term agile was coined in the Agile Manifesto and agile principles released in February 2001 by a number of software experts. Thereafter, the term agile was handled as a philosophy or a conceptual umbrella of developing software products based on people collaboration. While agile originally designated a scheme to deliver software products, in more recent years it has been broadened to refer to an avenue to deliver any product, not just software. Also, we can see that agile methods increasingly have gathered momentum to be used beyond the software industry. For instance, we can find the United States Department of Defense (DoD) constructing a new airplane using Scrum, and we might also find some Latin American companies applying the dynamic systems development method (DSDM) in some construction projects.
Michele Sliger (2011) explained that agile means that, “teams are working in ways that allow for change in order to better work together and provide a more useful and meaningful product to the customer. It's the ability to inspect and adapt, reflect and refine, and efficiently and effectively manage the changes that inevitably occur” (Sliger, 2011). As opposed to agile, the scope of work in construction projects is static or at least semi-static, the final product objectives are quite clear, and there are no dramatic changes happening, but the construction industry strongly needs to reduce waste in order to deliver more valuable products to its customers. Thus, construction needs to be lean in thinking by doing more with fewer resources and being agile in implementation by speeding up the workflow, being more human-centric, and taking into account customers’ needs and changes.
There are a number of different types of and reasons for waste in construction projects:
- It is likely that any piece of work will be executed incorrectly the first time, especially in extremely complex buildings, which will require either repair or rework. That's what lean calls waste of correction.
- The projects seek to procure and keep construction materials in excess of what is required to construct the current building. Sometimes this is the result of risk mitigation due to material price variations, but excess supplies could retain the resources and require additional handling and inventory space. That's what lean calls waste of inventory.
- The nature of construction projects requires performing numerous overlapping tasks or fast-tracking phases, and that means having a lot of work in progress that has not yet been validated. That represents potential rework and could mask efficiency issues. Lean also calls that waste of inventory.
- In many construction projects, the work sites occupy large patches of land, which require significant logistics planning to ensure smooth transportation of materials and resources from one jobsite to another. Some construction projects suffer from lack of site organisation necessary to decrease motion that does not directly support the project progress, which adds extra duration and damages resources. That's what lean calls waste of conveyance.
AGISTRUCT MODEL DISCUSSIONS
By exploring the multiple aspects and components of the AGISTRUCT model, we can identify similarities and differences between agile and construction projects. Consequently, that can enable us to discover ways of applying agile practices to construction projects to decrease waste and increase efficiency.
A: Adaptive planning is similar to look-ahead planning.
Agile methods look to minimize any valueless work, even the planning activity itself. Griffiths (2012) explained that planning could be considered waste since it doesn't directly add business functionality (Griffiths, 2012, p. 199). Therefore, agile methods include only adaptive planning, which is different from the upfront static or semi-static planning adopted by almost all construction projects. The high rate of change in the agile environment is the main reason to adopt adaptive planning. Although in construction projects, planning is typically done only in response to a few controlled change requests, progressive exploration techniques such as rolling wave are being used for planning throughout the project execution. Look-ahead planning in construction projects is planning in detail the work to be accomplished in the near term at a low level of work breakdown structure (WBS), while the work far in the future is planned at relatively high level of WBS.
G: Globalisation communication is similar to effective communication.
Agile methods focus on the people and the interactive communications between them, and this is one area where the construction industry could benefit from embracing agile. Furthermore, as communication options globally expand, agile tends to embrace face-to-face communications because:
a) It is the most comprehensive way to communicate effectively and transfer the most information in a given time period;
b) it has the highest bandwidth of all forms of communication (body language, emotions, tone of voice, etc.); and
c) it allows for prompt feedback and immediate questions and answers, whereas static methods like paper documentation do not.
However, while these other communication methods are indispensable in agile, paper documentation and emails are still needed to transfer information, especially over distance. Nowadays, it is a very normal for any project to hire team members from different continents or communicate with culturally diverse stakeholders. Since the products of software projects are invisible, agile methods rely primarily on effective communication to share and disseminate the information according to the stakeholders’ needs. Globalisation and cultural diversity could bring serious challenges, but at the same time they can bring good benefits to projects, as they ensure a global pool of resources.
Similarly, in the construction industry, the Construction Extension to the PMBOK® Guide Third Edition has made it very clear that “Perhaps no process is more important in the design and Construction of a project because of the number and diversity of key players, and because it is vital to the success of the project that the communication of information be timely and accurate” (PMI, 2007, p. 83). As a result, the complex Construction project must plan for effective communication based on two crucial factors, accuracy and convenience. During the Construction phase of any building, the earlier you fix problems and issues, the more the project progresses. Gould and Joyce elucidated that “timely and precise communication can correct a problem before it becomes serious” (Gould & Joyce, 2009, p. 67), and occasional meetings may be not sufficient to ensure timely and precise communication during Construction. On this point, the Construction industry needs to improve communication effectiveness by learning from Agile how to properly hold and manage meetings. Segerfeldt (2002) mentioned that there are three prerequisites needed for meetings to serve their purpose:
a) They must be a part of the company business strategy.
b) They must be an approach integrated into the company operations.
c) They must show measurable results. (Segerfeldt, 2002)
If these prerequisites are not fulfilled, then it is a kind of waste and the outcome would not be worth the time it takes.
Construction management can promote more interactive face-to-face communication by welcoming daily meetings between the team members for each work package in order to get fast and efficient information on what has been done and what needs to be done, as well as to reveal any potential risks as soon as possible.
I: Iterations are similar to weekly work plans
Adrian Smith (2011) mentioned that the weekly work plan is similar in many ways to an iteration/sprint. It provides a framework for prioritising and planning work, measuring and monitoring progress, and capturing lessons learned for improvement. Within the weekly work plan, the key practices of daily stand-up meetings, customer review/site inspection, and retrospective/lessons learned are very similar (Smith, 2011).
S: Story elaboration is similar to workface planning.
Progress in an agile project is measured using completed user stories, similarly construction progress can be measured by completion of work packages. In workface planning practices, we can find that the work packages are elaborated in small, well defined, field installation called (FIWP); each typical FIWP is a dissection of the schedule and an element of the site superintendent's execution plan.
T: Task boards are similar to bar charts
Task boards (or Kanban, in the Japanese language) is a scheduling system for lean manufacturing. Kanban is an inventory-control system to control the supply chain. Kanban is one method to achieve just-in-time (JIT) methodology (Ohno, 1988, p. 29) We use this system to limit work in progress in the agile projects, in order to help identify issues, minimizing waste and decreasing cost associated with changes during development. Similarly, we use a certain type of bar chart called a Gantt chart in the construction projects. Gantt charts illustrate the start and finish dates of the terminal elements and summary elements of a project. Terminal elements and summary elements comprise the work breakdown structure of the project. Modern Gantt charts also show the dependency relationships between activities. They can be used to show current schedule status using precent-complete shadings and a vertical data date line, too. But there is an increasing need in construction projects to develop these charts to be utilized broadly in order to pull materials and parts through production systems on a just-in-time basis. So bar charts may be elaborated or replaced by a certain type of task board (Kanban) called supplier Kanban (developed from the lean approach) to serve in the construction industry to accomplish material management functions with the least waste (e.g., unnecessary inventories and processing time, waiting time, and physical waste). The Kanban strategy is being implemented in the construction of a major international transportation hub in the United Kingdom.
R: Retrospectives are similar to weekly progress review meetings.
The retrospective meetings are very common in all agile methods, are the primary event for gathering lessons learned and reflecting on the necessary readjustment in the next iteration. Additionally, the team members meet up to inspect and improve their methods and teamwork. In a like manner, we find weekly progress review meetings have the same role in construction projects.
But these meetings in the construction industry require focus on increasing the efficiency and effectiveness and are conducted during the project, where the lessons and improvements that result from them are applicable and pertinent to upcoming work. In other words, in construction projects we should learn how to offer immediate value to the current project from agile, rather than just documenting the current progress and record issues.
Mike Griffiths (2012) stated that “reviewing lessons learned throughout the project makes the issues and lessons very real and passing. Like getting bad news sooner, this is actually a good thing, even if the advantages can be hard to see at the time” (Griffiths, 2012, p. 295). So based on the benefits derived from the agile practices, any effective review meeting in the construction industry should offer a number of improvements:
- Productivity improvements: by applying the lessons learned and reducing rework.
- Processes improvements: by increasing the efficiency and eliminating the non-add value activities, which can improve the teams’ capacity to do the work.
- Quality improvements: by finding the defects and removing the root causes to prevent problems from resurfacing.
U: User story is similar to work package.
The primary unit of work that is used for defining scope and measuring progress is the user story used in agile projects and the work package being used in construction projects. Here, there are some differences in that a work package can be fully defined using workface planning practices, unlike a user story, that is typically used as the basis for a conversation between customer and team to clarify exact requirements.
Exhibit 1 shows that in workface planning we depend on highly detailed small plans by the creation of small, well defined, field installation work packages (FIWP) for the construction workforce, the typical (FIWP) supports one rotation from five to 10 days of a work crew and is based on activities that are extracted directly from the construction schedule. Therefore, it is possible to represent progress of a construction project in simple form like a burn down/up chart used in agile projects.
C: Customer feedback is similar to validated deliverables.
Getting feedback from the customer is crucial in all the agile methods. That is because the nature of agile projects, Exhibit 1 - Workface planning was developed as a set of practices to support the execution of a large, complex construction project.
which must respond quickly to imperative changes. The team in agile should get impressions of suitability early, fast failing here is very profitable, as we can get new information while we still have room to improve. In the Scrum agile method, a meeting is held after the end of each sprint to inspect the evolving product that was built and to get the necessary feedback from the customer (or product owner) in order to change the scope (the backlog) if necessary. There is a similarity here in construction projects for somewhat, where we seek to obtain the stakeholders’ formal acceptance of the completed project scope and associated deliverables, including review deliverables and work to ensure its customer satisfaction, that is, we always call in project management, validated deliverables (or scope) process.
T: Tracking value is similar to S-curve
Delivering value is a core component of all the agile methods. Griffiths (2012) praised that, saying “this concept is woven into the agile DNA” (p.61). In the agile environment, it is very important to monitor the rate at which value is being delivered to the customer to make sure we are on the right track to accomplish the product as agreed upon.
In agile projects, we use several tools and techniques to track and report the value, such as earned value, task boards and burndown graphs.
Similarly, in construction projects, S-Curves (Spending plan curve) are common tool to track project spending and quickly investigate the project status,whether the project is over budget or under budget. Also we can get benefit from Agile tools by adopting the task boards (Kanban) as tool to track and report value in the construction project. For example, we can track all the activities that needed to be carried out in two to four weeks, look ahead, and update it collaboratively every day. One of the benefits of the team meeting at the board and updating it daily is to get the sense of progress being made towards the project end. It also focuses everyone's attention on the few remaining issues and potential risks. Tools like Kanban are helpful in the construction industry in many aspects, essentially at tracking the progress and results are often shown on information radiators,which are large charts that are put in prominent places, like corridors or war rooms at the construction site.
Finally, I believe we have exceeded talking about whether we could use agile techniques in construction projects or not. And the reality that not all project managers associated with PMI are IT project managers impels us to move forward in order to interleave the methodologies. The given model, AGISTRUCT, is not a new methodology or a magic solution of the application of agile principles and practices in the construction industery. However, it is an empirical model verified by observation and experience in order to help analogize between agile and construction in terms of some of the most familiar artefacts and practices. With the model of AGISTRUCT, we customize and exercise some lean and agile practices, like:
Adaptive Planning - Globalisation Communication - Iterations - Story Elaboration - Task Boards - Retrospectives User Story - Customer Feedback
Tracking value to get benefits and used for the sake of improved management in complex construction projects, diminishes waste and boosts productivity.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Tareq A. Al Behairi has more than 18 years of practical experience consulting and developing business in several organisations, such as Kuwait Airways Co. and Construction Integrated Group Ltd., where he practiced planning and controlling projects and leading work teams. Further, he is serving at PMI-AGC (Arabian Gulf Chapter) as director of breakfast meetings. He has delivered numerous courses in project management effectiveness. Tareq has a bachelor's degree in civil engineering (Al-Mansoura University - Egypt, 1998), and he is a certified PMI Agile Certified Practitioner (PMI-ACP)® and Project Management Professional (PMP)® from PMI (2010 and 2013, respectively).
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© 2016, Tareq A. Al Behairi
Originally published as part of the 2016 PMI® Global Congress Proceedings – Barcelona, Spain