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Retail Construction Goes Agile


By Don Wetherby

In the past 30 years, very little has changed for most small- to mid-sized general contractors and sub-contractors in terms of on-site project management. Generally speaking, it’s been a seat-of-pants approach to overseeing the building process. A superintendent’s role is much like a fireman’s – dousing out problems as they flare up. Ideally, we’d spend more time preventing issues before they become emergencies.

That’s where agile project management comes in. In 2001, a group of computer software developers who were tired of the complexity and ineffectiveness of traditional project management practices created The Manifesto for Agile Software Development. The agile methodology is a declaration of four values and 12 principles aimed to streamline the workflow process by increasing communication and collaboration throughout the scope of the project.

Agile continues to thrive in the software industry, where it’s applied to shorten the cycle from conceptual idea to product launch. Large construction companies working on complex projects such as skyscrapers and bridges also utilize the concept. However, only recently have smaller projects — such as one-off retail builds — seen the benefits agile can bring to the construction site.

Size Doesn’t Matter

Big construction firms that implement agile are seeing quicker completion dates, increased savings and fewer headaches. The philosophy can be just as impactful for small and mid-sized builders. Some believe so strongly in the benefits of agile that it’s now part of their general contractor selection process. During the interview phase they look for construction partners that are willing to try new methodologies inspired by agile. Their level of enthusiasm for embracing this kind of change can greatly impact the selection decision.

Scrum and Huddle

Agile doesn’t require a total overhaul of your site management practices— there are modest ways to transition into it. An agile principle called the scrum is a way of identifying the highest priority construction requirements on a regular basis then specifying which tasks are needed to fulfill those obligations. The jobsite super, or scrum master, is challenged with identifying and eliminating all immediate and future hindrances or roadblocks to the project.  

An effective way for the scrum master to uncover those roadblocks is in a daily stand up meeting. At the same time every morning on the job site, the scrum master stands with all the subs and goes through the work they did yesterday and work ahead of them for that day. Everyone has an opportunity and responsibility to communicate what issues are facing them immediately, before they become emergencies. This is the time to voice any critical barriers that may prevent the project from moving forward and keeping construction on schedule.

This simple, 15-minute daily exercise of group communication can shave off an enormous amount of wasted time, energy, and expense.

Keep it Simple

As the superintendent continues to manage the hands-on, day-to-day building process at the job site, the team back at the office draws on another agile practice to enhance project awareness called kanban, which is Japanese for “visual signal.” Relying on a kanban board for tracking the tasks, a visual and tactual representation of the construction progress is a very valuable practice. It’s simply a white board with three columns listed from left to right – “to do,” “doing” and “done.” Every task is written on a sticky note and then placed on the board. At the onset they all start in the “to do” column and gradually move to the right as they’re worked on and eventually completed. Seems simple, right? It is. And it’s very effective.

Of course, it is still important to track details of the entire building process with sophisticated project management software. But the kanban board allows contributors to grasp the scope of the project in a tangible, holistic way. Looking over the board team members can quickly anticipate bottlenecks and adapt as needed to improve the construction workflow.

No Pain, No Gain

Many GCs and superintendents are reluctant to embrace new ideas and changes. However, once implemented, construction partners quickly see the value of increased involvement, decreased uncertainty and improved risk management. In fact, many of them are starting to use agile across more of their on projects. It’s also been an effective way of differentiating themselves in the market to gain more jobs.

Don Wetherby is vice president at WD Partners.