You Can't Win Running a Foot Race Against a Rocket

Today, construction teams that haven't invested in technology are lining up at the starting blocks to race rockets. It's pretty obvious who will be last to the finish line.

There are no shortage of news headlines highlighting construction project failures. From poor safety performance to cost and schedule overruns, construction project teams are struggling to pull off big wins. Despite a plethora of best practices and industry innovations, the industry is still fighting to push the success meter forward.

If you have attended any recent industry conferences, you are no stranger to the frustrations of teams that are trying to maintain control of projects and programs. Attendees often complain about lack of predictability, tight margins, and lofty and unreasonable project expectations. There are no shortage of 'horror stories' that seasoned professionals will share with you at a networking reception or over a cocktail hour.

As an industry, we are well aware of the problem. Project performance is not keeping pace with other industries. We get to the finish line, but often in last place. At this point, comparing average construction performance with that of manufacturing is like comparing the speed of an average runner to that of a Mercedes. Low productivity, schedule and cost overruns, and quality issues are common on construction projects. And with project sizes ballooning into billions of dollars, this is a problem that can't be ignored. Low productivity on a $15B USD project can cost a company in excess of $1B USD. That's digging into more than just the coffee fund...

Many claim to have a silver bullet that will address the problem, whether it is a new process or better trained workforce. But those claims are often without merit. Many innovations only scratch the surface of these deeply rooted issues, or address surface symptoms. They clean the track or repaint the lines. If you aren't identifying and mitigating the performance problems we are facing as an industry, you can't reasonably expect to see drastic improvements. And trust me, your ability to reach the finish line has nothing to do with how bright those lines are...

Failing to Adequately Prepare

Any engineering, procurement, or construction professional can tell you that moving too fast through the front-end of a project is a recipe for failure. Yet, we continue to do it. We drive engineering to produce as many documents, as quickly as possible, that will enable construction to mobilize and begin building, or to start their race. Concurrent engineering and construction activities are common on large projects; rarely does construction go to the field 100% designed these days.

From a scheduling standpoint, this approach looks great on paper. You can reduce the overall duration of the schedule, and therefore significantly drive down indirect expenses and incidentals. But if the engineering, and subsequent procurement, deliverables are not aligned with construction needs, one of two things will happen; you will see construction crews standing around at the starting line, waiting for something that they can work on, or crews will start the race running in the wrong direction. Either way, it's going to cost you. You can't forego preparation and expect to run a faster lap.

Beginning with the end in mind is key to driving project success. Figuring out what your completion strategy is and driving that backward through the project to determine your optimal build sequence will inform your engineering priorities. Pull planning based on the finish line needs is the only way that you can ensure front-end activities support the needs of the end user.

Game of Cones

We are the masters of hitting roadblocks throughout construction execution, or running into traffic cones. We plan an activity out, only for the construction team to find out that it can't be completed. Sometimes the equipment isn't available, sometimes you don't have the material. But each time, someone has placed a series of cones on the race track, preventing you from moving forward.

As a project team, we must work to eliminate the cones rather than re-positioning them somewhere else on the track. If I need a piece of steel, borrowing it from another crew only re-positions the roadblock in front of that team. This mutual benefit approach requires us to overcome the concept of a zero-sum game, or the principle that 'for me to win, you must lose'. For the project to win, collaborative problem solving is key. Rather than re-positioning the cones, we need to work together to remove them completely.

Moving Fast While Turning Mountains into Molehills

Every project team in the industry faces the challenge of getting from the start line to the finish line as quickly as possible. But here's where the difference lies; in an actual running race, your competitive advantage is derived only from training and innate skills. There are rules against the use of performance-enhancing add-ons. But we aren't running a foot race anymore; those same rules don't apply. We are executing projects in a time where you can use any technology you want to get to the finish line faster than your competition. So we now see old-school runners lined up against high-powered rockets on the same line. Who do you think is going to win?

Technology platforms help teams move from descriptive analytics to predictive insight, but project teams too often avoid investing in advanced technology that can support successful project delivery. They continue to run the foot race, even when their competitors are taking a marked lead. Many legacy scheduling and reporting platforms are dated; they help you see where you have been, but not where you are going. It doesn't help me to know that we were missing material for the last 3 days and are now behind schedule. It helps to know that we are missing material for our work next week, as I can take action to make the best of the situation and mitigate risk. Predictive insight trumps historical reporting. If your project planning tools can't do that, it's time to rethink your technology strategy.

But teams aren't just using technology to move faster and make better decisions; they are leveraging technology to reduce the size of the hurdles they must navigate on the project track. Those that fail to invest in technology not only have a speed deficiency, but must also manually navigate mountains of data throughout the race.

But others have made the leap, investing in platforms that harness the power of artificial intelligence and machine learning; some of your competitors are using technology to turn those mountains into molehills. They have reduced those mountains to mere bumps in the track; while you're still climbing the first one, they are halfway through the race.

Scrubbing the Lanes

The construction industry is relatively traditional in organizational structure. Small sub-teams have a leader appointed to represent the group. Whether a foreman, a supervisor, a lead, or a director, organizational structure prevails in project planning, problem-solving, and decision making. We often see teams walking single file down their lane of the track.

The challenge with rigid organizational structures is that each team sticks to their own lane, sometimes oblivious to what is going on around them. Traditional decision making models often fail to harness the collective insight and intelligence of all stakeholders. While teams may provide some input, the communication channel is filtered through the group lead. This structure limits the potential for ad hoc collaboration.

Further, common scheduling platforms are complicated; access is restricted to those individuals that are highly trained in their use. These individuals become a gatekeeper to the project schedule, thereby limiting the engagement, ownership, and accountability of project team members. Project planning becomes a scheduling exercise led by a single team member rather than an aggregate process that engages the entire group in developing an optimized plan.

So why stick to the lines? There is no rule in the project race that dictates teams having to stay to their own lane; those lanes may have been there for decades, but they make communication more difficult. Effective collaboration necessitates that those lines be blurred, or removed entirely. Team members must be able to connect, discuss, and ideate in an ad hoc manner.

Technology platforms that engage the team as a whole, provide a platform to share ideas, and empower project team communities to solve problems, are driving exponential increases in project performance outcomes. Cloud-based planning solutions are changing the way projects are planned and delivered. Get rid of the lanes and let the runners move freely through the track.


Trying to run a foot race against a rocket will consistently yield the same outcome. In a market where there are no limitations to the use of performance enhancing technology, organizations investing in platforms that empower their teams to move faster and navigate rocky terrain are reaping the greatest rewards.

If you line up at the starting blocks with a rocket, the power of collaborative support, and proper preparation, you will outpace and outlast your competition. If you continue to line up at the starting line to run a footrace against a rocket, don't be surprised when you end up crossing the line in last place.

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