When we talk about agile project management finding its way to industries other than software development, construction is not exactly the first one that comes to mind, and for good reasons.
For one, construction projects are among the worst suited for iterative, continuous delivery which is the essential part of agile. Agile’s just-in-time approach to planning is also not something that the construction industry can really adopt.
That being said, Agile and its principles have started to influence project management as a whole and there are already many examples of successful implementation in construction.
This is due to Agile’s inherent versatility and its emphasis on continuous improvement. The approach holds the power to alleviate problems such as poor communication and team coordination which are potentially a part of any project, regardless of the industry.
Read on to find out why agile project management in construction is not 100% impossible.
Accounting for Major Discrepancies
Before we get into points of convergence, you need to be aware of major friction points.
Agile is not a natural fit for a traditionally slow-moving industry. Some Agile principles just don’t translate particularly well. So, you cannot just copy-paste them and hope for the best. At the very least, you will have to put a twist on most Agile practices and tools.
While Agile embraces changes, the construction industry is leery of them. In fact, major changes are extremely difficult to pull off, especially in the later stages of the project. At this point, the costs have grown exponentially and buildings are erected.
Furthermore, most construction companies carry out projects in one uninterrupted flow. Incremental delivery of value simply isn’t how the work unravels.
There are only a few sequential steps: project initiation, designing, execution (construction), testing, and closeout. User and worker input are restricted to the planning and designing stages. There are multiple subcontractors working for one general contractor.
In addition to this, construction projects have to be planned and designed ahead of time in as much detail as possible. There is simply no other way to ensure that the end product will be complete and safe, as well as in adherence to laws and regulations.
Agile simply isn’t made for this kind of traditional project environment.
A New Blueprint for Project Success
While a textbook agile project management approach is not best suited to construction projects, Agile can still help deliver projects safely, on time, and under budget.
In a perfect world, you wouldn’t need it because the conventional system runs like clockwork.
Alas, practice tells a different story. Despite good planning, many project issues and delays arise. Similarly, costs increase and threaten to blow the budget.
Agile helps you tackle these situations, as it encourages you to carry out period re-planning and adjustment. It prevents setbacks and hiccups from running the whole project.
The Last Planner System is arguably the most agile approach to construction project management and it breaks down large projects into manageable bits that can be tackled iteratively. You may not be able to figure out the optimal iteration cadence because that takes some practice.
Nevertheless, once the overall design and master schedule are in place, you have milestones and mandated time frame to guide your efforts. In addition, you can specify handoffs between trades and activities.
One key difference from traditional methodology is that funding is available only in usability periods. But, the main objective of Agile is not to turn your operations upside down.
Agile PM aims to deliver functional systems (instead of contract deliverables) early on in the project.
Primacy of Teamwork and Collaboration
Another reason to consider agile project management in construction is the emphasis on individual contribution, ideas, and feedback.
Feedback loops occur across the project’s lifecycle and they pave the way for learning and improvement. For example, you have to closely monitor work plans and track progress. The purpose is to focus on priority chunks of work in a timely manner.
Here, weekly plans assume the same role Sprints have in Agile. These time-boxed periods have an assigned set of tasks, activities, and goals. In construction, they tend to last longer, typically for weeks. An alternative approach would be to set scheduled milestones for project portions (like the exterior of the building, for instance).
In between them or project Sprints, team members come together to discuss the next steps. This is done extensively in case schedule has not been planned in detail beforehand. While going about this planning activity, members can identify high-priority activities and adjust prior estimates.
But, there are some chief differences to be mindful of.
Instead of user stories (find an agile user story template here), which are an Agile requirement benchmark, you have work packages. Weekly review sessions resemble Agile retrospectives that take place after each Sprint.
Look-ahead planning takes the place of adaptive planning. Site inspection adds value in a similar way customer showcases do in software development.
Revamped Set of Roles and Responsibilities
Along similar lines, Agile roles look a bit different in the construction ecosystem.
Superintendent is basically the Scrum Master. This individual holds various employee meetings (including daily stand-ups) and coordinates work on the site. He/she is also tasked with removing impediments and sorting out implementation details with foremen.
Responsibilities of a Product Owner are shared by the Project Manager and Project Engineer. They have ownership over project artifacts and interpret design specifications, drawings, and contracts. These documents are made readily available to team members.
Moving on, these two roles facilitate tight collaboration between teams and stakeholders. Depending on project specifics, they may need to also communicate the vision to everyone involved. And when we say everyone we mean various engineers, architects, foremen, etc.
This cooperative effort may involve the alignment of internal business goals and external requirements. It gives rise to higher accountability on the part of the general contractor and all trades.
If you want to make this really work for your projects, there are a couple of things you need to do.
Firstly, ensure the foreman for each trade serves as a proxy for subcontractors. They also need to regularly report obstacles to superintendents in daily meetings. Cultivate the right culture to ensure these outcomes.
Secondly, establish a clear hierarchy of teams. In a way, they are handling their own mini-projects. But, at the same time, they have to manage resources across general projects as well. So, stimulate the exchange of site-specific and project knowledge.
This should help in running different operational parts like well-oiled machinery.
Build Success From the Ground Up
Agile gives you a potential edge in the market.
You have a chance to outperform deadline-missing and money-sapping companies out there.
The only problem is that the implementation isn’t really straightforward and frictionless. You cannot just come up with a plan and stick to it religiously. Instead, rely on the good planning before the shovel hits the dirt.
And once the project starts, let Agile way of project management be your lodestar. Lay the groundwork for collaborative planning and execution. Decide on how to best split up the workload. Empower the workforce and mitigate the cost and schedule risks.
Review your work at regular intervals and make changes where necessary. Try to resolve any issues and tension before they spiral out of control. Bolster efficiency and minimize wasted effort.