The Pursuit of Operational Perfection - Part 2

Deploying a Project Production Management System

Click here to read Part 1 of this article.

Rather than persisting in routinely evaluating workers skills or effort in the hopes of improving the work at the crew level, the journey in the pursuit of daily crew production flow will be most effective by evaluating the quality of a project’s daily crew production assignments, the crews’ work zones and the crews’ assembly processes. (i.e., the conditions of the production environment).

There must be more than a vague vision of “quality” if quality crew assignments, work areas and assembly processes are to be produced. It’s important to understand how quality is defined, how to measure it and how to assure it is achieved. It is common practice in the construction industry to discuss quality, but interpret it only in terms of the owner-specified work product. Project team members nearly always have different interpretations and meanings of what “quality” means to them.

Quality Principles and a System of Prevention
How can the “quality” of the conditions of the production environment be measured? The concept of quality is often a vague image of something "good,” “expensive” or “elegant.” Clearly there must be more than this vague vision of “quality” if quality crew assignments, work areas and assembly processes are to be produced. In his landmark book, "Quality is Free; The Art of Making Quality Certain," Phillip Crosby convincingly described three quality absolutes:
  1. The definition of quality, in its simplest terms, is conformance to requirements, not elegance.
  2. Quality is achieved through a system of prevention (assuring requirements are being met throughout a process or system), not through "after-the-fact” inspection of the final products of that system.
  3. The performance standard of quality is zero defects.
Clearly the absolutes of quality, as defined by Crosby, are not limited to physical products; they also apply to things such as the quality of meetings, communication, planning processes, meeting facilities, and crew work assignments, work areas and assembly processes. Adopting Crosby’s description of quality and how it is achieved and measured within a project production environment will lead to an organization to:
  • clearly and specifically define an initial set of requirements that define the quality of the conditions of the production environment that, when achieved, will significantly move the organization toward its production vision;  
  • objectively evaluate the quality of the current condition of the project production environment on their projects using the above requirements as criteria; 
  • begin to incrementally develop and deploy a project production management and control system that, over time, assures (“makes certain”) every requirement that describes the conditions of the production environment are achieved as crew assignments are formulated and issued, as work areas are prepared, and as assembly processes are defined and implemented, thereby preventing defects within the conditions of the production environment; and
  • using a standard of zero defects as the measurement criteria of the condition of the production environment, continuously strive to incrementally improve the performance throughout the production system in the pursuit of a crew-centered construction production vision.
Thus, the achievement of daily crew production flow will be pursued through the installation of a project production management system that will routinely produce production conditions that meet a specific set of quality requirements. Such a project production management system will be incrementally implemented at the pace set by a project or construction organization. The first place to start is the “quality” of the production planning and control environment and the incremental improvement of the production planning and control process.

The general project production system development and deployment strategy is to first strive to create stable operations and reliable, controlled workflow, and then strive to continuously improve both the performance of individual operations while improving the throughput and predictability of the various value streams and crew parades and the overall project work flow, all while improving the effectiveness and efficiency of each operation within that workflow.

The requirements for the conditions of the production environment are incrementally made more challenging and thereby ensuring a more dependable system of “prevention and assurance” as opposed to the traditional “detect and correct” method of project control. Throughout this process, productivity will increase and both variability and excess capacity within the crews performing their work will be significantly reduced.

As this evolving and continuously improving project production management system becomes better at creating a high-quality project production environment, recovering excess workforce capacity becomes a reality. The development of such a production system on a project or within an organization requires changes in focus and the creation of a culture of continuous improvement and compounding learning. It starts with improvements to the production planning process.

A Quality Production Planning and Control Regimen

Fundamental to production planning and control is a quality meeting space. Truly effective planning involves thinking, concentration, reflection, conversation and disagreements (requiring quiet space), as well as sketches, pictures and video (requiring wall space, AV equipment and room to spread out). In a nutshell, quality planning meetings require a quality meeting space, keeping in mind some meetings may involve 12 people while others may involve just two or three. Typical meeting rooms should:
  • be dedicated to production planning and available to be used without interruption;
  • have adequate ventilation and a comfortable air temperature;
  • have plenty of light;
  • have lots of white board space;
  • have comfortable chairs and a table space to accommodate lots of papers and planning sheets; and
  • have AV projection equipment and a pull-down screen.
Anything less will nearly always result in an ineffective use of everyone’s time and, quite likely, a rushed and ineffective planning process. With a quality planning meeting environment in place, a quality production planning and control regimen can be incrementally implemented. Requirements for such a planning regimen follow.

Quality crew work assignments and reliable workflow, as well as quality crew work zones and assembly processes, are not possible without a high-quality production planning and control regimen. Production planning involves both the planning for individual operations as well as the synchronization of the work of many crews within a parade of crews. This is the planning that “prevents” defects in the quality of work assignments, work zones and assembly processes. Production control is the process of “assuring” work is performed as planned when planned. Controlling the flow of work as assignments are issued in such a way that reliable and predictable workflow is assured is likely the biggest challenge a team will face as weekly production plans are developed.

Following is a list of quality requirements for an effective production planning and control regimen.
  • Required planning for critical operations and for the route, flow, rate and pace of selected crew parades are done far enough in advance as to identify and resolve constraints and coordination issues, as well as the MakeCertain! Tasks described in part one of this article.
  • A weekly team production planning meeting is held near the end of each week with all key stakeholders for the purpose of aligning to a look-ahead schedule of two to three weeks in duration and a weekly production plan describing the work to be done the following week.
  • The weekly production plan work assignments are expressed in daily crew production goals and each has been screened to assure they can be worked as planned when planned.
  • A brief end-of-shift meeting is held each day for the purpose of reporting completed work and making minor adjustments to the next day’s assignments to accommodate current progress.
  • Some form of reporting plan for failures and the reasons for such failures exists, and efforts are made to eliminate such reasons.
  • Each crew supervisor conducts a daily start-of-shift huddle in which the daily crew assignment and production goal is reviewed and all specific safety and quality issues are discussed and understood by all.
This planning regimen has the capacity to significantly and proactively improve the condition of the production environment. Following are the requirements that establish a quality production environment. As conformance to each of these requirements is achieved, workflow becomes more reliable and the effectiveness and efficiency of the work of each crew improves. The key going forward is to carefully select a few requirements and achieve conformance to them before taking on another small set of requirements. Doing so enables incremental, continuous improvement and compounded learning.

Each crew receives a high-quality work assignment and specific daily production target.
Following is a list of crew assignment target condition requirements that have proven to be applicable to nearly all construction operations. Each describes a specific condition that is fundamental to a quality crew assignment.
  • The crew’s supervisor has collaborated with project leadership and has received (and aligned to) the assignment the week before the work is to be completed.
  • The crew’s assignment details critical safety requirements.
  • The crew’s assignment defines task/activity, area and quantity expressed in a detailed production target.
  • The crew’s assignment details the manpower and equipment resources available.
  • The crew assignment details critical quality requirements.
  • Each crew member understand the day’s production target and their individual assignments.
Each crew mobilizes into a safe and well-prepared work zone.
An unsafe, crowded and poorly prepared work zone prohibits the best conceived work plan from being implemented. Following is a list of crew work zone target condition requirements that have proven to be applicable to nearly all construction operations.
  • All necessary prerequisite work by other crews is completed in a manner that allows the next crew to complete its work without interruption or disruption.
  • Special site preparation specific to this operation is completed as planned.
  • The work zone and surrounding work area has been made safe through the use of handrails, covers over openings, and other accident preventative measures.
  • Materials, equipment and special tools are onsite, stored, inspected and protected as necessary.
  • Assembly inputs (materials, tools and equipment) are prepared, staged and available as planned for a minimum of one shift’s work.
  • An operation plan is in place and understood by the crew.
  • The work area has minimal direct interference or interruptions from other crews or operations. 
The work of each crew shall be performed effectively and efficiently through the use of a quality assembly/conversion process.
Due to the complexity of understanding assembly/conversion processes, the list of crew assembly/conversion target condition requirements has been broken into five categories to account for specificity within different types of operations. 

Process Inputs
  • Assembly inputs are always within the work zone and systematically refreshed as required by the pace of the assembly process.
  • The supply of process inputs is organized in away that minimizes interruption to value-adding work.
Work Zone Management and Maintenance
  • Material handling is well organized and efficient (i.e., material is stacked, staged, palletized where possible and moved with minimal hand moves).
  • The cleanliness of the work zone is maintained throughout the day and trash is collected as it is created.
Process Resource Supply and Utilization
  • The makeup of the resource package (manpower, equipment and large tools) is as planned, in the work zone and being fully utilized.
  • Shared resources, such as cranes and forklifts,are coordinated with other crews in a way that minimizes delays or waiting.
Process Characteristics
  • The flow of the work and the sequence of assembly is as planned.
  • Crew members carry out their work as planned while striving to maximize value adding-work.
  • The work within each step of the process is safely and efficiently executed with minimal physical stress.
Process Outputs
  • The output of the process consistently meets the specific requirements of internal and external customers.
  • The work area is left protected and ready for follow-on crews.
  • The crew and assembly process consistently meets the daily production target.
All of these requirements provide the means with which to assess the existing production environment—the first step in the pursuit of daily crew production flow. Contractors should evaluate their operations against these requirements to establish the current condition of their organization’s production environment. Then, by comparing these findings to the vision of operational perfection described in part one, the gap between the current condition and the vision is defined. The next step is to figure out how to close that gap.

A Note About Adaptive Challenges
The vision of daily crew production flow and the achievement of it may seem like a mirage to some and a highly desired destination to others. Every company will have a customized approach to achieving it. But it is the gap between a company’s current state of production management and the vision of a desired future state of production management that defines both the path and the relative length of the journey to close that gap.

It is the gap that creates the spark, the excitement that lifts an organization out of the mundane. The creation of a shared vision among company and project leaders fosters risk taking and experimentation; even if they don’t know how to do it, they keep experimenting until they succeed because it’s perfectly clear why they are doing it. The speed with which any organization closes the gap between current reality and the vision of a future state is defined by the extent to which senior operational leadership understands the vision and then truly commits to the process, whereby it comes to be shared by all the critical project leaders, supervisors and engineers. The origin of the vision is much less important than it being a “shared vision,” and it is not a truly “shared”vision until key people throughout the organization share it. Additionally, the speed with which an organization closes the gap often depends on the rate at which outside learning and expertise is injected into the organization. Achieving the vision of operation excellence will take visionary leadership and a relentlessly managed strategy with regular reflection and course corrections.

A document produced by the Kansas Leadership Center helps put the challenges of the gap into context via. The center’s three-page description of “adaptive challenges” explores the nature of the challenge of successfully launching and adopting a strategic initiative such as the pursuit of operational perfection.

“Technical problems live in people’s heads and logic systems. They are susceptible to facts and authoritative expertise. Adaptive challenges live in people’s hearts and stomachs. They are about values, loyalties and beliefs. Progress on them requires the people with the problem to do the work, and the work involves refashioning those deeply held beliefs, habits and behaviors.

An adaptive challenge consists of a gap between the aspiration of achieving a future state (vision) and the current state reality. The adaptive challenge is to close the gap and that demands responses outside the repertoire of nearly all the members of the organization—those challenged with leading the effort to close the gap are likely the same people that created the current state. They must first realize they are a major reason for the gap and that the strategy and protocol they currently follow is sustaining the gap, not closing it. Addressing an adaptive challenge requires moving people from the status quo by engaging and challenging both their hearts and minds. Without the realization that they must be some of the first to adopt new behavior, habits, beliefs and performance expectations (that is, understand they must change; not just make sure someone else does), those senior leaders most comfortable with the current state are the least likely group to lead the charge to the envisioned future state.

Technical problems are easy to recognize, and you either know how to solve them or can access the expertise in order to make progress. Adaptive challenges are different; they are not clearly defined and require new programmed learning to understand what is going on. The solutions also require experiential learning to develop new tools, methodologies and practices."

As a company or project decides to pursue the vision of operation excellence and the promise of daily crew production flow, it needs to move beyond simply getting the job done. Getting the job done is no longer the goal. The achievement of daily crew production flow while getting the job done is the new challenge.

A Note About Perspective
Achieving daily crew production flow is not a technical problem to be quickly solved,like upgrading Microsoft Office. It is an adaptive challenge, meaning it will take time and require a critical mass of project personnel and company leaders to individually and collectively adapt their habits, behavior and skill sets. The first challenge for any company pursuing operational perfection is to objectively define the gap that exists between the current condition of its production management system and its production vision. Then, by defining and achieving a series of challenges and target conditions, each company can begin the process of striving on a daily basis to move closer to their production vision.

The pathway to operational perfection will always be unique depending on where a company is positioned in the hierarchy of the projects on which they work. As stated earlier, it should always start with an assessment of the current condition. Ideally, a general upgrading of planning facilities and processes will be the next step, but then the pathway changes depending on the organization’s role on its projects.

For a general contractor, the first step should be to incrementally assure the conformance to the requirements for a project-wide planning regimen. The goal is to create an environment of collaboration and cooperation and a weekly production plan that eventually creates much more reliable and predictable workflow. Subcontractors working within this type of environment can begin to transition to daily crew work assignments and ultimately much better work zones and assembly processes.However,the reality is that many projects are under the direction of general contractors or construction managers that provide little coordination, and the project environment emphasizes competition over cooperation. In that case, first- and second-tier subcontractors have little hope of ever achieving daily crew production flow because of the constant variability injected into their work due to the uncertainties of unreliable and unpredictable workflow that plague these frustrating projects.

However, they can start by striving to incrementally improve the quality of their crew work assignments, work zones and assembly processes and, in the process, discover new, adaptive ways of significantly improving their overall performance within this environment. Over time, they likely will find ways to better shape their destiny within a highly variable project environment and, possibly help others on their projects become more reliable and predictable.

Construction organizations that aggressively strive to incrementally improve the quality of the conditions of their production environment while in the pursuit of daily crew production flow will soon differentiate themselves from their competitors. They will enjoy significantly improved productivity as they get closer to their vision of zero incidents and zero defects. By shifting from relying nearly exclusively on a “detect and correct” project management mindset to a “prevent and assure” production management system, these organizations will discover exciting new ways to get excess capacity out of their operations.

Then, as others struggle to find the craft professionals they need to do their work, these contractors will get more done with fewer workers and be a company that can recruit, grow and retain new hires in ways that will ensure a culture of continuous improvement, compounding learning and adaptability. Crew-centered construction and the pursuit of operational perfection ultimately lead to radically improved performance at the crew level. That is good for craft professionals, customers, company owners and the construction industry as whole.And it is good for the economy as the nation faces growing demand for upgrades to infrastructure, power generation and manufacturing facilities, and residential and commercial space. 


Michael H. Casten is founder of Construction Concepts, Greensboro, N.C. For more information, email mcasten@constructionconcepts.org. Much of this article is proprietary and has been permissibly reprinted from Casten’s copyrighted material.