Why is delivering on time so hard? Is it that architecture, engineering and time management don’t mix?

Time Jumper by h.koppdelaney, on FlickrThis week I’m struggling to find the motivation to write – not because I don’t have anything to say, or even that I don’t have time – but because my brain is currently in a state of post tender lethargy. I’m sure you are all familiar with it – the stress and extra hours leading up to issuing architecture, interior design or engineering documentation for tender seems to be a routine part of working on the consulting side of construction. Design programs seem to get ever shorter, staff numbers always reducing and the complexity of projects increasing, it is a scenario that just seems to get worse and worse. Personally, for me, I find it’s not actually the hours that get to me – even if I don’t work really long hours in the lead up to a tender – it’s more the stress of will be on time? Will all the team deliver on time? Does being late impact the end date for the project? How annoyed will the client be if we are late? Will we be able to issue an addendum?  It’s worrying about these things that gets to me. I care about being on time – whether that’s arriving for a meeting or delivering something on the date I’ve promised – and for me when this becomes impossible or outside my own direct  control this is the biggest cause of stress.  And I don’t think this is just me, I know a lot of colleagues agree (and many former colleagues who went over to the client side to avoid it!)

Why does it seem to be impossible? Is this deadline driven stress something we just have to accept as being part of our industry?  I’d like to think not. But I’m not sure how we change this. One loyal reader (Thanks Jase – he also asked me to make this post controversial) suggested that its a lack of planning and felt that no post on the last minute nature of delivery in architecture and engineering could be complete without the 5 Ps – “Proper Planning Prevents Poor Performance”. I agree there is a lot of poor planning goes on by all parties involved in construction – and it all begins with the client and the fee proposal.

At proposal stage (where ironically we usually have to be on time or we are disqualified), the client typically sets out some sort of milestones that they have in mind for their project. Sometime these are ‘real’ and fixed milestones such as a lease end, a university teaching holiday period or a certain date on which staff are returning from off site locations. At other times the milestones are not so much functional fixed requirements and may be based on internal performance measures or arbitrary dates (or just plain silly things like government money that somehow evaporates come end of financial year).

Often the dates set at this stage are crazy – the client has left it too late (due to poor planning or process at their end, or even simply not understanding the time these things take) and suddenly they need a new office for 200 staff in less than 6 months (I mean seriously – you did have a 10 year lease…). But of course we architects and interior designers can sort this out – we will do anything to win your project. And the bigger the project is the sillier we are likely to become.

So we have agreed to your program –  actually at that point it shouldn’t be too bad should it? We will have planned for this right? Allocated extra resources, thought through the minimum time frames things will take, the interactions that need to take place with the engineers, when and who would be doing design reviews, what software and technology could help us and we would maximize our efficiencies at every step of the way. Maybe we have…and maybe we haven’t.

But to compound the situation we then allowed you the client just 1 or 2 days to review and make decisions. And you forgot to tell us that there is a certain person who must be consulted, a board meeting the design must be presented to, or someone in IT who needs 2 weeks to provide feedback. But of course that’s only a small area of the building isn’t it? That need not delay the whole program right? Wrong. All of a sudden we have lost some of our efficiency in how we work and the order in which decisions are made and parts if the project documented.

Its even worse the project goes on hold and staff are reallocated to other projects – it can be difficult to get them back when suddenly the client says (without warning of course), here is that feedback and signoff – so when can the tender documents be ready – next week as planned? No, we can’t usually do 4 weeks if work in 1. I’m sure all my readers know, it gets to the point where throwing more people at the project just isn’t enough. Things still have to be done in a certain order, particularly if the client would actually like the engineering to consider the architecture and vice versa. (and it would be a strange project if this wasn’t a client requirement, much easier though!). It would also be nice for us to have time so that the documentation can be checked, and cross checked properly, so we can minimise errors which inevitably result in extra costs (and potentially time) on site.

Of course this isn’t every project and clients aren’t the only people to blame. Jason’s comment on proper planning is a big issue. We need to better plan reviews – doing them at the right time by the right people. We need to better understand what is a review and what is a design change. We need to respect the work of other members of the team, be they architects, engineers or interior designers. We need to incorporate buildabilty, engineering and cost earlier in the process of design to help reduce last minute changes (and clients need to understand some of these things too). We need to spend enough time and resources at the briefing and concept stages to better think through the design solutions at the point when we do have the time and we are not making quick decisions without thinking through the implications. We need to better understand and leverage off the technology and the process of automation. We need to embrace BIM for the productivity gains it brings, so our reviews can focus on construction and coordination instead of detail reference checking. Autodesk needs to make Revit less buggy and prone to doing strange things on the day tender docs are due (much as I love Revit – somehow it knows and conspires against you).

Revit (or other BIM software) changes this design and checking process in other ways too. For those that don’t understand the process of modeling, early drawings can seem rubbish and not worth checking. For those of us who use scheduling, the temptation is there to think the schedule is just being generated as things are modeled, without any checking. The process of checking changes and the worst thing is to throw too many people on the job in the last week. Final checking should move forward and all sorts of coordination, clash detection and checking should be ongoing throughout the process. It’s not really any different to what should have happened using CAD, it’s just that BIM highlights process deficiencies.

Maybe some days we just need to admit we can’t do it. That this tender won’t be on time.  But not the day after it was due. Nothing annoys me more than when team members haven’t delivered on time and I am calling the next day to ask what is going on. Then I have to start building contingencies into their delivery dates, further reducing the time they have – and I know that the project managers and clients are often doing this to me too. But because we are all late way to often, I can understand why they do.  Maybe if we could reliably deliver fully coordinated documents on the planned day the builders could afford have a few days less tendering or on site building, giving us a few more days working?

Whilst for many of us its true that deadlines can motivate and drive us, we function better when we are not stressed and tired. No matter how much we love our jobs most of us have lives outside of work – partners, kids, hobbies, the need for sleep and exercise. Maybe if we all accepted this of each other then our documents would actually be more accurate…and maybe we’d all have the time and inclination to do other things – blog more! Or teach and mentor more, or contribute to our industry more – and maybe this would help improve the quality of what we do, how we are treated by our clients and the inefficiency of the construction industry generally. Now that is revolutionary – could we improve our productivity by taking more time off? (Controversial enough?)

I certainly noticed when I was not working and was pretty relaxed,  when I sat down to do anything ‘work’ (like write a blog post or prepare Revit models for conference papers) that I did it a lot more efficiently than I’d expected, and with less mistakes.  I’ve always noticed this on a smaller scale in relation to my stress levels/working hours in the office too.

What do you think? Can we make on time stress free quality delivery a reality for architecture, interior design and engineering? What do you think we need to do to achieve it? How can our industry change? And does time off make you more productive?

Image credits:  “Timejumper”

13 thoughts on “Why is delivering on time so hard? Is it that architecture, engineering and time management don’t mix?

  1. I think that stress is self-made. We all expect too much of ourselves and others and are unrealistic when setting those expectations. It can’t be changed; it’s a personality trait that is or is not there. A vacation helps but its effects or only temporary. Your personality will always win out.

  2. Great post Ceilidh,

    Personally I find more time off makes it harder to get back into the swing of things, Extended breaks may produce more ideas and clarity, but this doesn’t necessary translate into better work.

    Projects gather momentum and after an extended break it can be hard to find that drive. Setting a number of tasks and slowly building up some form of momentum may be the key.

    • Justin – thanks I’m glad you enjoyed reading. Whilst I refer to having a longer period of time off, I am just as much thinking that perhaps we all need shorter more regular hours or days off. You can get so busy that all you are doing is producing or responding to fires and have no time to grow or think. I recently read a book that suggested that we should all work 4 days a week and on the extra day we should meditate, exercise and learn a new hobby. I like the idea!

  3. I would provide thoughtful insights and have the client more involved in the process. Communicate with them regarding every milestone of the project. If something comes up that may potentially alter the delivery date, COMMUNICATE with the client, the client may actually have some input that could either speed up the process or they may extend the deadline.

    • Thad – you are right that communication is really important. And I think sometime we are too nervous or scared to communicate openly and honestly (and perhaps I should say bluntly). I recently told a client there had been delays due to lack of feedback from them. What I should have said was that we had suspended work while we waited for the feedback. They had taken “delays” to mean that the final deadline might be a day or two late – not that we had stopped work and expected the whole period of their delay to be added to the program.

  4. Albert E. was right…it’s all relative.

    Stress is largely related to several factors: uncertainty, poor communication/collaboration, time factors, etc., and thus can only be mitigated. Some us actually are cursed to love these challenges and thrive on the unknown.

    Can undue stress be minimized? Absolutely! Here’s a “short list” of some items for consideration;
    1. The construction project delivery is the single most important aspect that impacts the tone and ultimate success/failure. Focus within our industry must be shifted to business processes that encourage collaboration and upfront planning/information sharing such as integrated project delivery – IPD, job order contracting – JOC, public private partnerships – PPC, etc.
    2. Technology is an enabler, not a solution. Benefit is maximized by embedding robust business process into technology…. not enabling poor processes!!!! (see ERP – enterprise resource planning for a primer on the failure associated with spending millions on automatic poor business practices – “garbage in = garbage out”. That said, cloud computing (vs. cloud-washing) is a disruptive technology that will act as a catalyst to accelerate change in our industry and general business/social environment.
    3. Revit, Archicad et al… are NOT BIM, but rather 3D visualization components of BIM. BIM is the life-cycle management of the built environment supported by digital technology. Again, an instance of technology supporting a robust process. Don’t even THINK about implementing BIM without an understanding of robust life-cycle management / total cost of ownership processes, ontology, metrics, etc.
    4. Our educational system as well as our industry is at the threshold of fundamental change. Focus upon individual domains or silos of information/work will shift to integration and collaborative techniques. Adapt or fail.

    • Thanks for reading and commenting Peter. Collaboration and methods of procurement are certainly the biggest impact, a lot of discussions out this post on linkedin has touched on IPD, lea construction and other less adversarial contract types. In the end this comes back to collaboration, as does your points about technology and education. The more we can work together the better and more efficiently we should be able to deliver – thereby reducing stress around many if the issues I talked about in my post.

  5. If this can be useful to you, Ceilidh, just know that in Italy is quite the same. I am a design manager working for a costruction company, a contractors involved in PFI and Concessions. I read your post. You you really wrote “…the best description of the way work gets done”! Maybe all over the world is the same. And i must add that for some of my collegues that is the rigth way! I don’t agree. I believe that a time stress free quality delivery would be better even i don’t think that frequent time off would be so useful.

    • Thanks Aroldo, It is interesting to know that this problem is the same in so many countries. One of my reasons for suggesting time off, is that perhaps is people were less busy and stressed every day they would have some time to think about and discuss as an industry how we can solve these kind of problems.

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