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Enhancing Agility in the Construction Industry

Is Agile applicable to the Construction industry? If so, how its practices can help the construction project management process? Find out in our guide below.

Agile has become one of the most famous approaches to managing projects nowadays. Various industries ranging from the development of digital solutions to even complex industrial products have started implementing its practices. 

What about construction management though? Can something as valuable as a building, bridge, oil pipeline, etc. that needs to last for a very long time, rely solely on Agile project management? In truth, it’s not very likely. 

However, that doesn’t mean that Agile can’t help the construction industry deliver projects more successfully. Bear with us and we will show you how this can happen.

Is Agile Applicable to Construction Project Management?

Before we answer this question, let’s first briefly look at the traditional construction process. 

The project lifecycle usually goes through the following phases: 

  • Design 
  • Pre-construction 
  • Procurement 
  • Development 
  • Post-construction

In addition, before the Design phase can begin, there is usually a shorter Conceptualization stage which includes the gathering of the requirements for the project.

stages of construction project managementImage Credit: https://merxcm.com/

As you can see, the process is very linear in its nature with no other stage beginning before the previous one is complete. After all, you can’t build the second floor of a house without first laying the foundations, can you? 

In reality, Agile is mostly applicable in the Planning (Design & Pre-construction) phase where the rough construction work has not started yet. There, the focus of Agile construction teams is to create a more iterative work process and frequently deliver value to the market. Through sketches, site plans, etc., they aim to collect initial customer feedback as fast as possible in order to ensure that requirements have been properly communicated. This allows them to adapt to changes early in the process, which in an industry such as construction, is a lot cheaper than any later ones.

Another technique that Lean/Agile construction teams use is to break down their plans on more manageable pieces and progressively elaborate them as they get closer to execution. This is known as the Last Planner System (LPS) where the final plans are prepared by those responsible for executing the work. Just like any Agile project management method, it promotes “systems thinking” rather than “local optimization”. The approach focuses on “pull planning” where only the most important work that can be done is considered. As a result, this contributes to the creation of an environment of shared leadership.

last planner system in constructionImage Credit: https://www.researchgate.net/

Why an Agile Approach to Construction?

As construction is one of the most complex industries that often creates products of great public importance, naturally the risk is extremely high. After all, it’s far from uncommon for construction projects to be delayed and go over budget. Due to that, there is a higher need for enhanced communication, process visibility and adaptability to emerging issues. 

Below, we are going to discuss some common challenges the construction industry faces and see how an Agile approach to project management can help solve them.

Low transparency in the construction process

A challenge that construction companies often face is the inability to properly track their processes from concept to execution, resulting in an environment of chaos. Often, there is a lot of “he said, she said” type of status updates with teams tracking their work in endless Excel sheets. This makes the already complex processes even more cumbersome.

To deal with this problem, Agile preaches visualization in every step of the workflow. In reality, this can be achieved with the integration of Kanban boards where Agile construction teams can visualize the stages (and substages) of their work process. Eventually, these boards will turn into value stream maps, providing teams with the ability to quickly discover constraints, eliminate waste and react to emerging issues in a timely manner.

construction kanban board

Furthermore, making the work process more transparent helps bridge gaps between planning and execution. As mentioned above, the Last Planner System brings forward the concept of creating plans on multiple levels which are then progressively elaborated. In order to bring that to practice, Agile construction teams can use multiple interconnected Kanban boards to connect the dots between setting up project milestones and the actual work-level execution.

For example, in Kanbanize, we do that by introducing both Strategic and Team Kanban boards. There, construction companies can break down their high-level plans into work packages and connect them with the teams responsible for their further elaboration and delivery. 

project management timeline and related boards in construction

Connect Strategic Planning and Project Execution

End-to-Еnd Organizational Visibility


This creates a system for easy project status communication between all concerned parties as well as tracking progress of the different work activities on the Kanban board.

Poor communication

Ineffective communication is given as one of the main reasons for many failed projects regardless of the industry. No wonder that Agile teams put forward “Individuals and Interactions” before “Processes and Tools”. However, due to the high complexity of the work process in the construction industry, there is often inadequate communication and lack of accountability.  

Agile aims to solve that by integrating regular feedback loops for syncing progress and discussing problems. For example, Agile construction teams engage in daily meetings where they present what work has been completed, what they are planning to get done and discuss if there is anything standing in their way to accomplish that.

This keeps everyone on the same page and ensures that any blockers are revealed as quickly as possible. Team members are also encouraged to get into follow-up conversations after the meeting and help each other in case somebody is stuck. 

kanban cadences

Another Agile best practice that construction teams can successfully adopt is the integration of regular Service Delivery Reviews. Following the completion of their weekly, bi-weekly or monthly plans (preference to the shorter time frame), they can engage in lessons learned sessions bringing up issues and suggesting improvements. The idea here is to discuss more general problems in the work management process while they are still relevant to the project. 

Team members are also encouraged to provide input to construction managers and collaboratively decide how to make work processes better and faster. This contributes to an endless cycle of continuous improvement and a safe environment where people can freely voice their opinions.

Project delays

Regular delays in construction projects are not a big phenomenon nowadays. In fact, a study from Mckinsey shows that large projects typically take 20% longer to finish which results in 80% cost overruns. In contrast, another study shows that only 25% of projects came within 10% of their original deadlines.

Of course, the reasons for those delays can range from inaccurate budgets to problems with contractors. However another cause lies within unstable and cumbersome processes that lead to less predictability and this is where Agile has a solution to offer. 

For example, construction teams can use different Lean/Agile metrics to record how long their work activities take to flow through their entire process (lead time) as well as different parts of it (cycle time). Furthermore, throughput data shows how much work is getting done in a particular reporting interval, which helps with producing better forecasts of what can be completed on average in the future.

The addition of visual charts such as Cumulative Flow Diagrams can also help Agile construction teams track the stability of their workflow and see where too much work gets cluttered. This can help them reveal bottlenecks and optimize their process efficiency. 

cumulative flow diagramAnother reason for extensive project delays and cost overruns in the construction industry is the accumulation of constant rework. For example, a study shows that around 30% of the work performed by construction companies is actually reworking. 

One way that Lean/Agile techniques aim to deal with that is by introducing regular and short quality assurance steps in the project lifecycle. Usually, the goal is to remove the big Quality Control stage of a given output. However, when managing construction projects, that might not be possible. Still, by visualizing and implementing frequent monitoring steps to ensure quality is continuously built-in, you will be able to react to issues faster and reduce the amount of excessive rework that causes overspendings and project delays.

quality assurance on a construction kanban board

Real-Life Example of Implementing Kanban in the Construction Industry

The theory is a nice first step but when it comes to implementing Lean/Agile practices in the construction industry, you need to see how things happen in practice too. That’s why it’s time we back up everything said with a real-life case study of a construction company that improved its process efficiency and project delivery with the help of Kanban. 

Suffering from problems such as ineffective communication, lack of process transparency, troubles communication issues between different teams, struggles with revealing waste in the system, etc., the management at the organization turned to Kanban for solutions. 

The adoption of its practices provided the company  with some immediate benefits including:

  • Improved efficiency through better visualization
  • Easily breaking down projects and tracking completed versus remaining work flowing through all construction phases
  • Managing dependencies between different teams and enhancing communication
  • Measuring metrics to improve predictability and optimize workflow efficiency
  • Including many more…

Get to Know All the Benefits

of Using Kanban in the Construction industry.

 

In Summary

Even though the construction industry is highly sequential and complex, Agile finds its way even here. Some of the major problems that an Agile approach to project management helps construction companies solve include:

  • Low transparency - through the introduction of interconnected Kanban boards
  • Poor communication - through regular daily and weekly cadences for syncing progress and discussing better ways of managing the work process
  • Project Delays - through aiming to reduce rework and measuring relevant lean/agile metrics to optimize workflow efficiency

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