Digital collaboration: Optimizing construction site communications
If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that adaptation is critical for progress. From COVID-19 to exorbitant lumber prices to supply chain disruptions — construction professionals are dealing with significant challenges and uncertainty. We don’t have the leeway to ignore our industry’s long-standing productivity issues, which are exacerbated by misadventures in 2020 and the growing complexity of our projects. Inefficiency increases our vulnerability in the face of challenging circumstances. Digital solutions like Lean construction can help us to adapt to increase our resilience and minimize communication problems in construction projects.
Practitioners of Lean construction recognize how our team members closest to the work are in an ideal position to identify waste and opportunities to improve workflows. Each trade clearly sees the constraints that impede their work, and with a holistic view, we can see how constraints for one trade mean constraints for all. Implementing measures for effective communication in the construction industry is the path toward fostering a holistic perspective which enables us to resolve issues through collaboration and improve our productivity.
Soft skills with hard results
The problem of communication in the construction industry can’t be discussed without mentioning jobsite cultures. As we conduct our daily huddles, phase scheduling, and pull planning sessions, we’re more likely to achieve our objectives if our culture encourages soft skills. By carefully listening and observing as team members mention constraints, we’re letting them know that we value them, and we’re less likely to miss important details — even if they relate to an intangible like morale rather than a materials delivery. Additionally, field leaders can foster necessary transparency in construction projects by cultivating verbal communication and guiding discussions toward solving issues rather than assigning blame. We have different roles — superintendents, electricians, architects, plumbing engineers, and so on — but, ultimately, we are one team working from one master schedule. If we’ve implemented the Last Planner System® (LPS), for example, we need to recognize each other’s challenges and issues as connected to our own and find solutions together. Attending to soft skills sets the stage for success in our percent plan complete and in hard profitability numbers.
In the Big Room, we value all the voices among our team members and share our schedules, milestones, constraints, and other project information visually whenever possible. This will typically involve whiteboards, sheets of paper and sticky notes but may include digital and collaborative construction platforms on more progressive jobsites. Digital construction complements conventional methods for visual communication by making project information more accessible and more up-to-date for team members while empowering them to collaborate even when they can’t be in the same room (e.g., due to a global pandemic).
For most in construction, jobsite communications usually take place at the beginning of the workday and as needed, but always in-person. While frequent verbal communication in a construction project is great, it presents two issues: First, it reduces time for productivity and second, it creates room for confusion, particularly as changes emerge between meetings. Without documented, real-time status information, equipment tracking and defined deliverable schedules, “check-in” meetings with various team members can contribute to the workflow variability they’re meant to mitigate.
For example, if we have a trade waiting on a lumber delivery and the truck is delayed by a day, we need a backup plan for those team members. Without a digital platform, we must have several conversations to see what other trades and team members might be impacted and what the delay means for our master schedule. With digital platforms, team members can easily check their phones or tablets, overview the day, month or entire project timeline’s goals and get to work without waiting for formal communication. This eases the burden on the project manager and encourages team members to solve challenges together proactively.
Reduced resource waste
More than ever, companies in all industries are evaluating their expenses. Much of the waste in the construction industry is due to poor communication between people, resulting in unrealistic timelines and workflow variability. When setting a vision for a project, we’ll often set in buffer time to account for any issues that may arise. But without universally documented processes, there’s really no way to set an end date or budget limit. This is why so many projects move considerably beyond the expected end date, racking up expenses for both the building ownership and construction executives. Additionally, when it comes to different teams, tradespeople and subcontractors not communicating with each other, we find it more difficult to implement concepts like just-in-time delivery because our procurement and planning decisions aren’t grounded in the reality of the jobsite. Implementing software for Lean construction to connect our jobsites and team members beyond the Big Room increases our likelihood of preventing plan failures and successfully implementing waste reduction strategies with LPS.
Preparing for tomorrow
Implementing effective communication in a construction project by means of a digital collaboration platform not only helps us tackle the challenges we face today but helps us prepare for the future of construction. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many parts of the industry have had to pivot. For example, travel is way down (understandably), and as a result, many AEC firms and developers have had to pivot from hospitality projects to multifamily construction. Having documented, up-to-date project information accessible to team members from the construction site to the office can help us streamline communication and intelligently manage requirements and shared goals even if we’re working on a less familiar type of project. By improving productivity, morale, plan accuracy and profitability, communications optimized through a holistic view and digital collaboration better prepare us to adapt to new circumstances and increase our resilience.