When East & Westbrook works in a facility that has current operations, we treat the project as being guests in someone else’s home. We are working in their house, under their rules, and need to be as least intrusive as possible while providing our construction and maintenance service to the client. Only in these cases, we are not talking about making too much noise during nap time or too much dust while a homeowner is cooking. We are talking about managing a multi-million dollar construction project and allowing our client to continue their operations with minimal disruption. Through our 40 year history, here are some of the lessons we have learned that have helped us and customers increase uptime and limit interruptions.
Planning is not optional
It is cliché to say you have to have a plan for a construction project. However, many times, due to time constraints or multiple obligations, this step does not get the attention it deserves. We have learned two things about the planning process that have helped our customers maintain sanity, productivity and uptime during stressful construction projects.
The first is to plan as early as possible, even if that is the last minute. For many of the industries we support; power generation, petro-chemical, heavy manufacturing, food processing, often there are emergencies or projects that pop up unexpectedly. Nevertheless, before jumping head-first into a project, a meeting with all the stakeholders is essential to clearly understanding the scope and limits of the work— access, site rules, safety procedures and all aspects of on-going communication and coordination. Initial planning insures that work can happen safely, quickly and correctly—preventing delays due to unforeseen issues and obstacles.
Secondly, it is important for the construction team and facility team to plan together. Sometimes a client will put the planning requirement on us as a contractor. That is fine, we can plan and have experience doing so, but we may not always know every particular process or constraint in a work area. Conversely, if the facility makes a plan and dictates everything that can and cannot be done during the course of a project, it could lead to avoidable issues as well. For instance, certain restrictions could unnecessarily add time and cost to a project where our input in the planning phase could help seek more workable alternatives. Sometimes, a facility demand can simply be unrealistic and a contractor’s voice is needed to say “while we can’t do that, we could do this or this.”
Or, there have even been cases where clients have planned to shut down their operations for longer than needed or sectioned off more area than needed to work. We understand the goal for our clients is to maintain operations, and we have the ability to say early on, “if we put partitions here, we can stay in this area and you can continue operations over here.” Or we can provide more accurate construction durations and sequences based upon historical data we have. But for this teamwork and synergy to really blossom between contractor and facility to allow uptime, both need a seat at the initial planning table.
Communication is the job that never is finished
It does not do much good to have a well thought-out plan and not communicate it to the key people involved in the project. There really is no such thing as too much communication.
Has any of these things ever happened in a project you are involved with?
- After making a plan, the contractor showed up and began doing something different than discussed.
- After making a plan, the contractor showed up and began following the plan and had someone from the facility tell them they could not do that.
- After making the plan, you didn’t here from the individuals involved in the planning process, it was all new players, either from the contractor, the facility, or both.
- After making a plan and communicating it to all involved, there’s been an issue that arose because someone did not understand what the plan was
We have made those mistakes and had those experiences. Internally, we’ve put chain of command and communication processes in place to improve information sharing, project hand-offs, and feedback confirmation. But the job of communicating is never finished, because there is always more information, there is always opportunity for better understanding, and there are always new people being introduced to the project who need to be brought into the loop.
Here are some communication lessons we have learned for managing facility construction:
Communication is work. If communication were easy, you would never hear about organizations or families or spouses having issues. But it is hard. You have to work at it. Like any work, the way to improve is to find ways to be more efficient, and set limits so you can achieve your objectives. For instance, it would be untenable to hand write the work procedures for a year-long project customized to every person who worked at a facility and every tier contractor and vendor on the project. That’s too slow, too difficult, and too many people. Instead, during initial planning, we want to identify who Needs to Know. Those individuals need to be kept in the loop. On some projects, that may only be one or two people from our firm and one or two from the facility. In other cases, it’s dozens of people on each side. But we must identify who, or else someone important will get left out.
Then, we must identify the most efficient way to communicate to the team. Internally we use Work Order documents as a living document that define a lot of key information for our managers. This way, if there are personnel changes or information updates, everyone involved is updated the same way. Our managers have tablets in the field so updated information in the form of contacts, drawings, RFI’s, change orders etc. can be mobile.
For clients, they may want to be communicated with using our Construction Management software, e-mail, progress meetings, or phone calls. But selecting a realistic and efficient means of communication is going to make success more likely.
Things get awkward if you’re not coordinated
One of the mantras we have around our office is that “one of the few guarantees we can make is that something will change. But inevitable change is no reason to not have a plan.” So many things can change on a construction project. There can be unforeseen obstructions, design changes, changes in management personnel over the course of long projects, changes in weather, etc. But these inevitable issues are no reason to forego the planning process. Instead, we make a plan, then revisit it every day and coordinate the original plan with all changes and new information. This ongoing coordination is the only way to have a successful project that allows uptime. A good plan is like a fresh loaf of bread, at first it’s great, but after a while it’s stale and you have to make a new one.
“we figure out how each hazard and conflict will be mitigated for that day”
At East & Westbrook, we handle this in a number of ways. One of those is a daily briefing where our on-site team identify all the planned tasks for the day, and any potential hazards or conflicts with facility operations or other work. Then we figure out how each hazard and conflict will be mitigated for that day. This ensures safety. This ensures communication. And this forces the plan to stay fresh by revisiting it each morning. It does not prevent things from changing. It does not mean there are no issues. But it better equips us and everyone on the team with how to react to those. This establishes uptime.
Additionally, depending on the nature of the project, we have regular coordination meetings. We have had these daily, weekly and monthly, depending on the schedule and project. These work really well if all updates and questions that are not urgent are written down and shared between facility manager and construction manager at the meetings. It streamlines communication and gives everyone an expectation of when they will be updated, when questions can be answered, and allows them to plan and balance project communication with their other responsibilities.
“if meetings are structured, well-prepared and managed in a way that is professional and respectful of everyone’s time, they are as important as any tool on the jobsite”
However, if there is something urgent, we always think a special meeting, huddle or conference call to deal with the issue right away is best. No need to wait for a pre-scheduled meeting. Nobody likes to sit through another meeting. But if coordination meetings are structured, well-prepared, and managed in a way that is professional and respectful of everyone’s time, they are as important as any tool or equipment on the jobsite.
Finally, all of this happens by the efforts of people. For East & Westbrook, we are very fortunate to have a team of outstanding people who are both expert and passionate about what we do for our clients. We are even more fortunate to have some of the best customers who treat us as partners and friends and in many cases have worked with us for decades.
Each project is different, but putting the right people in place is key to the on-going coordination. In some cases, we only need a foreman and the client will have a manager who is around and available but mostly doing their own job. In other cases we have an on-site management team that includes a project manager, safety manager, superintendent, and crew foreman as needed. Our clients may also have a management team dedicated to the project to address operations issues and engineering questions as the work unfolds. If you are anticipating a major project in your facility, selecting the right people to be involved should be on the list of the many important choices you make as a manager.
“continue to coordinate until the last punch list item for the project is complete”
Everyone’s favorite part of a construction project inside an operational facility is when it’s over. But the process does not have to be as painful if you engage some of the lessons and experiences East & Westbrook and our clients have gained over the past 40 years. Make a plan no matter what, communicate and share it with the key people, and continue to coordinate until the last punch list item for the project is complete. We will never guarantee there won’t be problems or challenges, but East & Westbrook always guarantees to stand behind our work and to continuously improve. After all, we want to be considered great guests in our clients’ house so we are invited back soon.