Friday, June 27, 2008

Collaboration as Competitive Advantage

The concept of a collaborative planning and design process is hardly novel. In fact, it sounds so common-sensical that it hardly seems worth promoting. But I would argue that the lack of true collaboration is epidemic in our business. Indeed, a genuine collaborative work process could be a strong point of differentiation. I'll try to prove that point:

Let's start with rework, which estimates suggest consumes 15-25% of project budgets. One large engineering and construction firm did an internal study to better understand the causes of rework. They found that the number one cause was the improper sequencing of work. For example: Since the electrical department is anxious to get started, the architectural department pushes work to that group before floor plans are finalized. When architects finish the layout, the electrical engineers have to redo their design to reflect the changes.

Another example from my time with environmental firms: Geologists plan and execute a remedial investigation of a contaminated site. Their findings are passed on to the risk assessment staff who determine they don't have all the data they need to do their work. The field crew goes back to the site to collect more data. Later, the engineers get involved and find they need still other site information to design the remediation system. More samples, more costs.

These are hardly isolated situations. I suggest they're more the norm. Inefficiency due to the lack of an interdisciplinary collaborative process is prevalent in our industry. More typical is a compartmentalized, sequential approach where work flows from discipline to discipline with coordination limited largely to the points of handoff. What's needed is an interdisciplinary team that together guides the work through planning, design, and construction.

Seamless Delivery Across Disciplines

Real collaboration starts with effective planning. All the relevant disciplines and stakeholders should participate in planning the work. Unfortunately, the work is often planned in stages (if at all!), with the different parties contributing only to the stage that directly involves them. No collective vision emerges, nor a shared understanding of precisely what each party needs. The more disciplines and stakeholders involved, the more opportunities for disconnects.

I once helped an engineering and construction firm map its work flow from sale to startup. Like most such firms, they had distinct departments to handle the various stages of the project: Sales, Design, Procurement, Construction, Operations. With the managers of each department participating in this joint workshop, I was amazed to see how little they understood the needs and work flow of the other departments. They were amazed as well.

As you might expect, we were able to identify many opportunities for improving the work flow—with a substantial boost to the bottom line. Yet when I've offered the same service to other clients, I've been routinely turned down. Could it be that we grossly underestimate the degree of dysfunction across departmental lines. I know this client did until we looked under the hood, through a process that itself was collaborative in nature.

The benefits of better collaboration are obvious:

  • Less rework
  • Lower costs
  • Shorter schedules
  • Better planning, decision making, problem solving
  • Better design--improved functionality, aesthetics, client focus
  • Stronger value proposition--a point of differentiation
  • Stronger working relationships
  • Better professional development, with experience and insight across disciplinary lines

So why aren't more A/E firms focusing on this? Could it be that the problem seems too simple to merit serious management attention? I mean, it's just common sense, isn't it? Well sometimes common sense isn't so common.

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