One step ahead with industrial and special buildings

Opportunities in the realization of international corporations’ major projects with a high degree of complexity

Cost and deadline pressures in the development and realization of large industrial facilities or special structures create a need for new strategies. Given the growing complexity, only they can enable a purposeful and successful fulfilment of quality requirements while meeting the realization’s need for speed and efficiency within the milestones.

That sounds better than it is, as the motto of most major projects appears to be: Describe what the user wants, fix the budget and timeframe, and then close your eyes and plunge in. The teams and departments are defined, while processes and workflows are busily fine-tuned. The workflows are increasingly refined in the process. This can often reach a stage where an unmanageable flood of regulations, processes and sub-processes can make it hard to see the actual issue and have it solved.

The dynamics, complexity and uncertainty of pending investments are growing apace. Realization periods are becoming shorter and shorter. Growing in parallel are the flexibility and adaptability requirements for production processes. Thus the planning for the building’s structure is to keep up with this fast rate of change.

Minor changes and uncertainties will often already suffice these days to force entire project staffs into the contemplation of ever new issues. What makes this even more troublesome is the fact that the realization deadline is meanwhile not to be adjusted to the changed framework.

Just having your eyes fixed on the goal is no longer enough for successful project realization. Setting too rigid a goal right from the start is only of limited use in a dynamic and complex environment because the focus will change.

The company has committed itself by entering into the contract with the planner and construction firm, changes become sluggish and devour resources. The individual organizational units force the implementation into their own fixed structures, thereby isolating themselves from the internal user.

Touching on a sore point will not necessarily make you popular right away. But what is the alternative?

All too often, the implementation and realization will fail, or at least fall short of the expectations. The key causes arise from a solution framework that is open and not yet resolved, from the complexity, the often too rigid top-down structures of the organizations, and the delayed use of up-to-date technologies in the design and construction process.

a.) Solution-oriented approach vs. rigid structures

Changes are perceived as threats. Which is also true for promising project forms with unaccustomed structures and processes.

The classic hierarchical structures still to be found to this day are characterized by rigid patterns. All that is a world away from a desirable, self-reliant, transparent and agile approach to work. Unlike self-reliant action, the still dominant focus on control is expensive and ties up resources.

A serious engagement with possible solutions is all too often replaced by political intrigues. Even absurd processes are kept alive. Everybody wants to keep their finger in the pie, no one wants to be excluded.  The communication and decisions only make sluggish progress. Everything is about responsibility and power.

The image of the sealed-off silo probably hits it best. Little to nothing will be exchanged when it comes to required information. A great portion of the conflict situations will arise from the fact that each department knows way too little about all the others and is hence unable or unwilling to muster up enough understanding for the reasons why they act in a specific manner. In some circumstances, this can even lead to a general opinion that other departments are intentionally acting in a manner that is damaging for one’s own.

Even while the changes wrought by digitalization call for other approaches, people still try to get ahead with the tools of line-oriented management. Although top-down control is already failing with the complexity of today – and that complexity is growing.

b.) Decisions

Typical guests at meetings serving a decision-making process are emissaries who may take part, but do not decide.  Being on the safe side unfortunately has a higher priority than making progress in this case.

To fuel the chaos, information is sent to imprudent distribution lists. Which is more often meant to serve one’s own protection than making headway. The sheer flooding with information will then additionally ensure that the important stuff will never reach the respective recipient.

c.) Realism

Sometimes reality does not match the desired targets, that is why more work goes into the situation’s presentation than its solution. Project results are spun until they cater to the wishful thinking of the management on the 2nd executive level.

Restricted by classic conditions, teams will drop out sooner or later, mentally and in content terms. A frequent phenomenon: The work one has delivered with great dedication is then softened up until there seem to be two versions of the project, the one that is being reported “up there”, and the other one that has actually been achieved.

Later, once the project has grown up a little and is going into the realization phase, the framework conditions are quickly forgotten again. The departments are meanwhile back to acting in their familiar manner. Without drawing on the overall picture, the project crumbles into the organizational units – in their mutually isolated silos. Even what got off to a good start will then be scuppered by tactical manoeuvres and supposed loyalties to own departments.

d.) Project management

The project management (PM) can point out challenges from the back seat, so to speak – and is generally also contractually required to do so. It can highlight the dilemma, but the framework conditions will unavoidably lead to a reduced effectiveness. The effectiveness of this “indecision” is highly restricted, however.

Only once everyone in the team pulls together will projects be successfully realizable in a lean, efficient and expeditious manner.

Professional project management represents the interests of the project. Those meant to exert an effective influence need backing. Which is why project management belongs on the front seat, to unfold all its benefits for the entire project and its parties.

Answers to complexity

Visible and functioning results are more quickly and efficiently achieved by processes that are as lean and flexible as possible, by fewer rules and less bureaucratic effort. The focus is on the result, and the processes also take human aspects into account that have too often been neglected in the past. Which is why the teamwork is paid the required attention, leading to better communication, more transparency, and greater trust.

The focus on self-reliant structures within the project teams enables the design of a framework to meet the challenges in the concrete project, and to detect and avoid disruptive conditions.

“Complexity is managed by developing the intelligence of the organization”, said the economist Anthony Stafford Beer. What is needed is a balance between autonomy and hierarchy. He already formulated a model for this in 1959, the Viable System Model. There he points out the need to strike a balance between hierarchy and self-organization. The questions to be answered for this include the following:

  • Which liberties need to be granted to help individuals unfold their maximum potential for the benefit of the project?
  • How can an error culture be lived?
  • How does a project address the fact that its structures deviate from those of the parent company or joint venture?

The best way to make information manageable is consistently consolidating the data. That will promote sustainable decisions and developments in the teams. Processes can be simulated and provide a feasible basis for decision-making. Alternatives and options can be integrated in the planning and realization process, reducing the risk of unpredictable changes in plans.

Comprehensive requirement planning will create the right conditions for supplying the parties involved in the planning with essential information at the required project depth right from the start of the project.

Sceptics maintain that integrative planning is not realizable yet, because there is no consistent process for it and/or the parties involved in the planning are still unable to use 3D, 4D or 5D together in the early planning stages of a design. This could be easier if they use BIM.

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Martin Otte

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