Agile project management in the construction industry

Agile methodologies have become the leading and one of the most influential approaches for managing projects nowadays, especially projects that require collaboration between multiple teams/stakeholders and the customer/end user.

Agile project management in the construction industry

Agile methodologies have become the leading, and one of the most influential, approaches for managing projects nowadays, especially those that require collaboration between multiple stakeholders and the customer/end user. Agile has been implemented in various industries, and can typically be found in IT and software development, as well as in finance, marketing and advertising. It is also gradually starting to be more common in almost every project-related sector.

But what about construction? Can a construction project be managed using Agile methodologies? Can a project that has a massive cost, such as a skyscraper, bridge or tunnel, that requires multiple stakeholders and in some cases governmental bodies, and that has particular requirements including the need to last for a lifetime, count simply on Agile project management?

EVOLUTION OF PROJECT MANAGEMENT

Let's take a step back and look at the inception of modern project management methodologies. The first form of modern project management came in the early 1900s with the development of Gantt charts; the 1950s saw the critical path method (CPM); and later came the program evaluation and review technique (PERT). In the 1960s, project management was largely based around Waterfall techniques, the predecessor of Agile methodologies.

The Waterfall method is a breakdown of project requirements and activities into linear sequential phases. Each and every requirement is gathered from the beginning of the project, with each subsequent phase depending on the deliverables of the previous one and corresponding to a specialization of tasks. This methodology originated in the manufacturing and construction industry, and until Agile made its appearance, the Waterfall was the most widely known and used to manage projects in almost every industry, especially the software sector.

IS THE WATERFALL APPROACH GOOD ENOUGH?

As software projects grew larger and more complex and some requirements became more ambiguous, the industry began to have doubts about the Waterfall approach. It came to be viewed as being among the less iterative and flexible approaches, as it is difficult to move back to make changes in previous phases. The testing process starts once the development of the project is over, and if the requirements are not clear from the beginning, this can lead to huge setbacks on the deliverables, delays, cost overruns and even project failure. Also, it left little room for continuous improvement or effective change management.

Taking into consideration the evolution of project management methodologies in the IT and software development industry, and the fact that the Waterfall method approach is a sequential method similar to that used in the construction industry, it could be argued that Agile can benefit the management of construction projects or at least prove more efficient in certain construction phases. Since construction is a huge market that contributes about 13% of global GDP and generates around $10 trillion each year, the potential benefits of improving project management are enormous, both financially and in terms of productivity.

KEY FEATURES OF AGILE

Here are a few key features of Agile Project Management, how they can apply and how they can affect construction project management:

  • Project breakdown: An Agile project is always broken down into chunks that are measurables, usable and add value. A chunk that is developed can be handed over to the client, which does not happen with the traditional work breakdown structure.
  • Product Approval: The client/product owner is much more involved when Agile is implemented and aligned throughout all phases, from design to construction and facility management. Approval of plants, oversight of construction and final acceptance is easier under this strategy.
  • Client Involvement: Since the client is involved with Agile, the clarity of the end product is ensured. This involvement adds more value to the product, reduces the workload and should meet client requirements and specifications.
  • Continuous Feedback: Agile is very adaptive in a way that all stakeholders work closely with continuous feedback which leads to constant improvement, an increase in the overall productivity of the team and minimizing mistakes.
  • Team building approach: Continuous feedback and client approval or suggestions for improvement within a time schedule promote team development and eliminate unnecessary stress and workload.
  • Fast project Development: With consistent reviews, planning and feedback, Agile allows productivity to increase and minimizes the number of revisions. This should mean a shorter development timescale, fewer errors or revisions and greater client satisfaction.

THE SIGNIFICANCE OF AGILE ON CONSTRUCTION PROJECTS

In a construction project, a small change of design can cause a postponement of the development schedule and a massive increase in cost in its later stages. Each task in a construction project is done one after the other or in a linear manner, and making any change will cause rollback to the tasks already addressed and to the development process in general. This can mean disaster in terms of cost, time, etc. and even project failure.

As mentioned earlier, Agile has been most successfully implemented in software development projects, where changes or rollbacks at any stage of a project are through coding and adjustments. The construction industry is more complicated, and implementing Agile may not be as easy or straightforward as some may think. However, Agile can still be tailored to several phases of the construction process:

Initiation and Planning phase:

  • Client/product owner involvement in this phase will mean clear and well-defined requirements and specifications, and consequently clarity of the end product.
  • With each stakeholder taking part in this phase and via their continuous feedback you ensure transparency among stakeholders, an improvement in productivity and fewer mistakes.
  • This process promotes team building, improves collaboration and removes unnecessary stress and workload from the team.
  • The combination of the above points will ultimately lead to a faster development timetable, fewer mistakes or revisions and better client satisfaction.

Execution phase:

This phase is more difficult when it comes to applying pure Agile, but some basic Agile concepts can still help for continual improvement, making things easy to complete faster and efficiently, and decreasing costly mistakes.

Much research exists on how changes, mistakes and/or bad communication during construction can exponentially increase the cost of a project. For instance, research has shown that quality failure can mean a cost in construction of up to 20% of a project's original contract’s value (OCV). Another paper has shown that the lack of communication and technology costs the construction industry $177 billion annually in the United States alone. This is almost 14% of the market size in the US.

With some basic Agile approaches to the management of a construction project, the team can plan, implement, adjust and monitor decisions faster and more efficiently. Of course, it is not easy to implement pure Agile at this phase, but some basic concepts can lead to reduced costs in terms of materials, resources and overtime, better collaboration with minimum confusion, fewer project delays, and happier clients who are well-informed and involved in the process.

Project Management Stages from 1-7, Designed by Parametricos
Project Management Stages from 1-7, Designed by Parametricos

AGILE METHODOLOGY IN CONSTRUCTION | LIMITATIONS

Implementing an Agile framework in all phases of a construction project is not as easy as in software development, but it can still produce major benefits where it is applicable. Some major issues/pitfalls need to be addressed in order for Agile methodology to be implemented in every phase of a construction project:

  • From the execution phase and onward, many changes cannot be implemented, or if implemented will cause a considerable increase in project cost. - Suggested solution: Mindful and accurate work during the planning phase is necessary in order not to cause changes in the execution phase.
  • Meetings cannot be minimized as in software development projects. Integrated meetings with multiple stakeholders and on different phases of the project are required. - Suggested solution: More organised and centralized systems for all stakeholders are needed for collaboration and data exchange, in order to better communicate and decrease the time spent in meetings.
  • By definition, Agile deliverables for software development are not piece by piece, but incremental pieces that add value to the project and consequently to the customer/product owner. In the case of a construction project, an incremental piece cannot be handed over to the customer. - Suggested solution: Deliverables must be well-defined and explained in a way that customer can understand their value without being handed over. Representation in a visual way and an overview dashboard can be helpful for better understanding.  
  • Agile for construction management requires incredible organizing, administering and the correct implementation of the methodology, as construction projects are far more complicated than other industries that use the methodology. Such complexity can cause delays which increase the cost of the project exponentially. - Suggested solution: Agile must be implemented well, or not at all.

It has become clear that implementing pure Agile in all phases of a construction project is not possible because of the limitations mentioned above. However, an Agile approach in the initiation and planning phase can be implemented and can make this process more efficient. To some extent it can also be helpful in the subsequent phases of a project.

Agile can help to prioritize and plan tasks, measure and monitor progress, and improve and enhance collaboration, leading to continual improvement. It allows an organisation to perform more efficiently by allocating well-defined tasks to employees, reducing unnecessary stress, promoting collaboration and avoiding missed deadlines and an unnecessary workload – all factors that can cause a project to fail or paralyze an organisation.

I hope you enjoyed this article and as always I'm open to debate the methodologies. You can find me on Linkedin or by emailing me directly at al@parametricos.com

Find out more on the methodology we use in this article 'Mission, Vision, Values and what we believe in at Parametricos'

References:

Love, Peter ED, Pauline Teo, and John Morrison. "Revisiting quality failure costs in construction." Journal of construction engineering and management 144, no. 2 (2018): 05017020.

"LACK OF COMMUNICATION AND TECHNOLOGY COSTS CONSTRUCTION INDUSTRY $177 BILLION ANNUALLY" Source: https://www.concreteconstruction.net/business/management/lack-of-communication-and-technology-costs-construction-industry-177-billion-annually_o (2018)

Strȧusser, Glenn. "Agile project management concepts applied to construction and other non-IT fields." Project Management Institute, (2015).

"Enhancing Agility in the Construction Industry", Kanbanize, Source: https://kanbanize.com/agile/industries/agile-construction

Fred Wilson, "Agile Construction Project Management – how to be an Agile construction team?", nTask Manager, Source: https://www.ntaskmanager.com/blog/agile-construction-project-management/
(2018).