Pull Planning for Construction Projects: A Beginner’s Guide

Achieving the best possible outcome from your pull planning program requires a solid process and team buy-in. Learn the basics of pull planning, and discover how to optimize program performance, in this brief overview.

The Problem with Traditional Project Delivery Models

Projects teams of all sizes face similar challenges. From logistics complexity to health and safety risks, organizations fight to mitigate performance issues and deliver best in class projects. Based on historical and current industry statistics, those efforts aren’t always successful.

One of the most significant project challenges is engaging the right stakeholders to properly plan and execute activities. Many organizations, often geographically dispersed, struggle to gain the input needed to optimize performance and improve overall project value. When stakeholders fail to plan and execute their project in a coordinated manner, chaos ensues. Schedule slip, cost overruns, and poor safety performance are common on projects where the right input wasn’t obtained during project planning activities.

If you've worked in the industry for a while, this challenge shouldn't come as a surprise to you. Regardless of contracting strategy or project structure, construction projects of all sizes are struggling to integrate and engage stakeholders in planning throughout the project life cycle. The larger the project, the more prevalent those problems become. Ask any construction field supervisor what their biggest challenge is. Commonly cited responses are out-of-sequence engineering and procurement deliverables. This is no surprise; when construction wasn’t involved in driving the execution strategy, it’s unlikely that predecessor activities will perfectly align with their needs.

But don’t be too quick to point the finger at our architecture/engineering and procurement teams. Front-end activities are often fast-tracked; pushed quickly through their paces without adequate input from the end-user of their product: construction. In any other industry, end-user feedback is critical. Imagine building a website for a client with no input on style or content. It probably wouldn’t meet their needs. Construction projects are no different. Yet each time a project kicks off, the right people are too often not at the table when they need to be.

There is a better way to plan and execute work. Silos are the norm, but they don’t have to be. To win as a team, project teams must plan and execute work as a team. To do this, we must break down the walls that commonly divide each stakeholder group. This is where pull planning comes in.

What is Pull Planning?

A Lean process, pull planning is a project planning system that is designed to pull tasks based on the needs of downstream stakeholders. In pull planning, activities are logically organized by identifying the final activity in a sequence and then sequencing predecessor activities to support it. Work is pulled as it's needed. Handoffs are clearly identified between project task owners; constraints such as documentation production or material delivery are managed effectively to reduce lead times and prevent delays.

But it's not just about sequencing work; pull planning is a methodology that requires continuous team collaboration to reduce waste and drive improved project performance. Pull planning sessions require a swathe of representation; plans should be created across multiple stakeholder groups including architecture/engineering, procurement, construction, and completions. With pull planning, the team develops, owns, and is accountable to the plan.

The Process

Key stakeholders assemble in a common environment (a Big Room or a War Room); they create swim lanes to signify resource groups or disciplines. Teams identify the final activity in the sequence, write it on a sticky note, and post it at the far right side of a large blank board (also known as a Kanban board). Working backward through the project timeline, the team identifies predecessor activities that they are responsible for and place them on the board. The team then links and sequences those tasks to successor tasks, based upon the logical relationships and optimization of resources. Logical relationships between activities can be drawn with whiteboard markers.

Each activity is assigned to a responsible party and an estimated task duration is included on the sticky note. Each responsible party is required to commit to the estimated durations of their tasks; they will be measured against these estimates as their tasks are executed. Activities are overlapped (scheduled concurrently) wherever possible to reduce total schedule duration. At the end of this exercise, the overall duration of the activity sequence may be calculated.

As the name implies, the final activity in the group pulls each predecessor activity; through this method, activities are pulled in the order that they are required, based on the needs of the end user. Different from push planning, which pushes activity sequencing beginning from the first task in the sequence, pull planning ensures that activity sequences optimize overall project delivery and are not simply driven by the activities of the earliest stakeholder groups.

Here are some points that should be used to guide your pull planning sessions:

  • Tasks must be clear, concise, and specify a defined deliverable

  • Each responsible party should have their own sticky note color

  • Responsible parties include construction front-line field supervisors

  • Task durations should not include buffer or contingency when initially identified

  • Buffer or contingency time may be added to specific activities, by the team, based on risk or uncertainty

  • No team member can move another person's sticky

  • The planning process should be iterative - there are often ways to shorten durations that will be observable once the first plan draft is created

Work Breakdown

Typically a team doesn’t plan the entire project at once. The project may be broken down into groups and subgroups of tasks, thereby leveraging the project work breakdown structure. Early project pull plan sessions will focus on high-level project planning sequences, while later sessions will focus on more granular task execution.

For example, early in the project a team may hold a pull planning session to determine the early sequencing of site work area construction and design. In a commercial arena new build project, the final work area to be completed will be the series of connecting pedways to other existing infrastructure. This last task identified informs the design team that they shouldn’t be working on pedway engineering as an early deliverable. Through pull planning, the team identifies site prep for underground piping and telecommunications systems as the first work area for construction; this decision requires that engineering produce the design for this work area as their first deliverable as construction pulls these tasks first.

Alternatively, in a more granular session held later in the project, the team may focus specifically on the construction of a single pedway. Stakeholders will include a transportation coordinator, a civil construction contractor, a paving team, a structural contractor, a glass installer, and an inspection team. The session will focus on coordinating activities among multiple stakeholder groups to drive schedule reductions and improve contractor productivity.

Why Use Pull Planning?

Leveraged effectively, pull planning improves overall project performance and increases project value for the owner. Because activity sequences are optimized, pull planning reduces the total project duration, which in turn reduces the cost of project delivery. In short, projects can be delivered in less time and for less cost by teams that effectively implement pull planning programs.

Project productivity is improved as activities are completed in-sequence and task execution constraints are mitigated. Construction teams no longer wait on drawings or material to execute their work; predecessor tasks are closed out and completed in order, which in turn improves the ability to execute later tasks in the project. Further, improvements in coordination and decreases in out-of-sequence activities improve health and safety performance on construction project sites. Organized sites are safe sites, which in turn helps management teams keep their workers working in a safe environment and boosts morale.

Further, pull planning improves project predictability. By making commitments in front of their peers, team members develop ownership of the project schedule, and are held accountable for their performance. Percentages or promises complete (PPCs) are tracked throughout the project lifecycle; team members, and the project team overall, must achieve a minimum performance level that is defined at the outset of the project.

Lastly, the tracking of PPC metrics empowers management teams to identify and mitigate project performance issues before they have a negative impact on the project. By tracking, aggregating, and analyzing performance data, teams may uncover performance problems quickly and delve into root causes. This visibility enables leadership teams to make better decisions that are driven by real-time data.

Going Digital

Pull Planning is being effectively deployed on projects globally. Teams across a variety of industry sectors routinely share Pull Planning success stories as they demonstrate value in improved project performance outcomes. The process of Pull Planning is well used and has been proven by a plethora of project teams.

However, Pull Planning sessions are traditionally paper-based. Teams create plans using sticky notes and white boards. That approach works well for the creation of plans, but not for execution. Construction projects are dynamic; tasks may be completed ahead or behind schedule. Other tasks may be moved to realize improvement opportunities. Managing a plan with sticky notes on a whiteboard is no small feat. On large projects, it’s nearly impossible.

Pull Plan digitizes the Pull Planning process by creating a digital environment within which teams can create and manage their plans. Focusing on empowering collaboration, Pull Plan is a cloud-based application that may be accessed by anyone on the project team with access permissions. Rather than planning and executing a project by phone and email, teams can plan, progress, and close out activities, as well as communicate directly, right in the Pull Plan app.

With a simple and easy to navigate interface, once the plan is input, a Gantt chart is automatically created and may be exported to Excel, Microsoft Project, or Primavera. No more complex scheduling tools needed. Now teams can visually create project plans and automate the scheduling process to fulfill client deliverables.

Further, by digitizing their plans, teams may gain insight into real-time project performance. Leadership teams may better predict outcomes through the use of machine learning algorithms and artificial intelligence that leverages project data to generate predictive insight. The only thing you can visualize with your paper sticky notes is how dirty the floor is when those notes continue to ‘lose their stick’

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