Managing schedule risks and their ripple effects | Andrew Piland

Managing schedule risks and their ripple effects | Andrew Piland

With so many moving parts, mitigating schedule risk on projects can be a challenge for any contractor. Every project is unique and requires multiple independent companies working together, which adds to the challenge of maintaining a productive schedule. The best way to mitigate schedule risk is to be proactive and use historical data to repeat past successes and avoid future missteps. 

Last month, Lauren Lake, COO and Co-founder of Bridgit, spoke with Andrew Piland about minimizing the ripple effect of schedule risks. Andrew is a former superintendent and is currently the Strategic Partnerships Lead at Touchplan, a leader in risk management technology for construction. Lauren and Andrew discussed how using the right tools can help mitigate schedule risks, and help improve your bottom line.

Check out the full recording of our conversation with Piland, or take a look at the full transcript below.

Lauren Lake:

Today, we’re going to be talking about scheduling risks, how to manage the causes, and their ripple effects. I’m joined by Andrew Piland, the manager of strategic partnerships and alliances at Touchplan. I’m going to be picking Andrew’s brain on risk, everything that they’ve seen at Touchplan, and also from his previous career at Whiting-Turner as a superintendent and senior field engineer. 

I know that as I mentioned, you were at Whiting-Turner previously, but I know you’re also involved in the Marine Corps. Just curious to hear your background and how you got started with Touchplan.

Andrew Piland:

After college I went to the Marine Corps. I went through the Officer Candidate School (OCS). I spent a year on active duty and then worked in the reserves. So I was simultaneously pushing forward a civilian career and a military career. 

One thing that I learned pretty early on in the Marine Corps is that you would have to get the plan to the lowest level. You can come up with a great plan in your head, but you have to be able to build that out and communicate that in a very structured manner.

As I transitioned into construction and started thinking about how we plan, communicate, and work with our trade partners, I couldn’t help but think that there has to be a way to bring that structured communication to construction. And there has to be something out there that will help me be more effective in communication and help get the plan to the lowest level. 

We would have these meetings where we would talk about what needs to be happening and then maybe 10-15 minutes later, everyone would leave the meeting, but they probably couldn’t tell you exactly what they’re supposed to do just 15 minutes later.

If a frontline supervisor can’t tell you that, then there’s no way their crews can. I was fortunate enough to have had the opportunity to learn from some great superintendents at Whiting-Turner, some people who are just incredibly talented. One person in particular was with Jeff Betts who had this system of planning and communication.

The first time I went down and got to learn from him, it just stuck. So, I started applying that to my day-to-day work as a field engineer and superintendent at Whiting-Turner. And just recently I made the decision to go back to grad school. I had no plan. I said to my wife, “Hey, You’re just going to have to kind of support me for a while.” 

I went back to school, and Touchplan brought me on to help with the sales engineer team and help with partnerships. I’m really passionate about finding technology partners to work with and really help superintendents and project teams to build the ultimate tech stack. It’s been a lot of fun. So here we are with Touchplan.

Lauren Lake:

That’s amazing. Yeah, we started this Innovation Spotlight because we know it’s really difficult to stay on top of all of the current trends and new innovations. It’s so great to learn from what other people and other leaders are doing in space.

According to KPMG, only 25% of projects come within 10% of their original deadlines. With so many different elements and moving parts, there are so many things that can impact a project schedule. What can teams do on a daily or weekly basis to prevent scheduling risks from popping up?

Andrew Piland:

To answer the first part of that, only 25% of projects come in on time and 10% within their original deadlines. That comes back to, I think, understanding problems are happening early, and as they’re happening. 

What I’ve seen in my time at Touchplan is that teams often go to work and don’t have a lot of unstatused tickets, which is a first indicator of whether or not a team is actively looking at their plan, actively checking their schedule, and staying really disciplined and strict about how they do it.

I think those are the teams that are winning, that are getting ahead of things. For example, in 2020 Jacobson did not have a single project come in late. We’ve been working pretty closely with one of the vice presidents and he’s adamant about having a process to check in and to go through their schedules and their production designs on a daily basis. He wants to be really disciplined in that execution. I think that’s the first step.

Lauren Lake:

Another question on that topic, if you were to go back to your previous life in the construction world, what would you suggest to your company that they start doing on a regular basis to prevent some of these risks or changes from popping up?

Andrew Piland:

I don’t know that I would even make a suggestion. I would start running this system knowing it works, and lead from the front. I would hope to have enough success on a particular project by sticking to a system and staying disciplined that other people look at me and see and say, “Hey, he’s got something going on over there. He’s kind of got this figured out. He may not be the most talented builder in the world, but he’s got a process and he’s really contributing to his job because of that.”

I may try to get a meeting with the operations manager or the vice president, and tell them my story when I’m coming on board and talk about the system that I want to start using as a superintendent. That’s the approach I would take.

Lauren Lake:

A lot of project schedule delays or changes are really out of a contractor’s hands, but what you can do is manage all of the ripple effects that come from that. That can be really the difference between a successful, profitable project and one that is not. Have you seen any specific examples regarding the ripple effects of schedule risks and possibly how it spun out of control?

Andrew Piland:

You’re right, risk can come from external factors. They can also be self-inflicted from not planning properly. Not everyone’s going to get it right the first time, even with a collaborative system like Last Planner. When we’re right, we’re right together and when we’re wrong, we’re wrong together, but you need to dive in, fix it, and talk openly about it.

There are too many ripple effects to even just pull one out of the hat. I think a pretty significant one was when I was building a security entrance at a job site. I felt like I was constantly having to battle the handoff between two trades and constantly feeling like I had to keep one trade from demobilizing to go away.

It eventually just came down to getting them in a room together and talking it through. I’m making it sound easier than it was. The room and that meeting had to be laid out very specifically.

First, I had to get the collaboration buy-in. I got them to agree to come in and collaborate. As a superintendent, as the facilitator, I had to have the room set up properly, have drawings up that specifically pertain to the scopes that we were talking about so two people can get shoulder-to-shoulder and talk about how we bring this back in. I had to ask the right questions and really deal with people in the right way.

I mean, you’re not shutting anyone down. You’re not telling anyone, “No, that’s crazy. We’re not doing that.” You just have a point where you start really handling the room, or the situation, more so than the technical details. Understandably, trades can’t stand when you try to be the expert for them, but sometimes they need some help, they absolutely do. Sometimes it may not be “being the expert”, but you’ve done it in the past and you can help them out. But you need to let them understand that they’re the expert and facilitate that with him. That’s where the meeting is huge, but really it’s just getting everyone together in a structured way and talking about how we bring in the schedule.

Lauren Lake:

How have you impacted that in the past through culture and making sure that you have that collaborative environment where people do feel like they are empowered to be the expert in their area? Is there anything that you’ve done in particular to make sure that when you do bring everyone into that room, it’s set up in the right way where it’s productive and you can actually make progress?

Andrew Piland:

Yeah, totally. I’ll preface this with saying that I’ve 100% done it the absolute wrong way in the past, but I was fortunate enough to have been given the opportunity to step back and think about how I can improve. I took principles from the Last Planner, I even pulled some ideas from when I was in the military about visualization. 

I think some of the more hidden things that can shut down a conversation are subtle human factors that come through in a meeting. So, if we’re in a meeting and we’re talking about something and someone breaks out a breakfast burrito and starts chomping on it, no one is paying attention to who’s pointing to something on the wall, right? They’re all thinking, “Man, that looks good. Where’d you get that?” You need to set expectations upfront to avoid those kinds of distractions.

One thing I did that might have been the right move, might’ve not been, I just said, “No chairs. I need all the chairs out of here. We’re not sitting down. This isn’t a break room. It’s not a hammock.” Maybe for an hour-long meeting tops, but I think if we had longer meetings we would bring chairs in. I think those are two hidden things that you don’t necessarily think about that can help for sure.

One more thing to add to that, is making sure that communication is concise. Letting people understand that, “Hey, I get it, you’re frustrated, you’re hot. You’ve been out there struggling with things that I don’t have to deal with on a daily basis. I’m just trying to kind of get this collaboration out of you. I know you had two people call in sick. I know you had your materials not showing up on time. You’re dealing with a lot of stress right now.”

You’re providing a way to validate that outside the meeting and addressing it with that person before they show up. That way, when you’re in the meeting, one, you have the expectation set that communication needs to be concise, and two, you’re going to focus on operations instead of finger-pointing.

I see it, conceptualize it. I can’t say I totally mastered it, but it’s tough. We’re dealing with human beings here, but I do see that as one way to continue to practice and just stay diligent.

Lauren Lake:

What are the benefits, in your opinion, of adopting technology and using technology to help mitigate potential risks, and give our viewers a couple examples of that?

Andrew Piland:

So actually, in grad school I wrote something down the other day and it stuck with me. “It’s the person who has the data and can do things with it that wins”. It’s just that simple. That’s really what software enables. It enables us to have data. It enables us to not just tell the story of where we’ve been, but it helps tell a story of where we’re going.

But that’s a byproduct. It’s a huge component of our future potential capability, but it’s a byproduct of something that helps us do our everyday job, really. For example, on a job site, if you can go to a superintendent who hasn’t used much technology and has the whole thing built in their head and can tell every single person on a job site… tell you what every single person on a job site should be doing at a particular moment, that data is there, right?

They’re constantly doing data outputs throughout the entire day. Capturing it in a daily report is one thing, but it’s not really formatted. It’s not structured in a way that we can use it for the future. So using software like Touchplan, it’s like, “Look, I’m walking a job. I’m looking at this scope. I know it’s done, or I know it’s about to be done by the end of the day. Let me status it real quick.”

In that status I’ve captured that data point. That way I can zoom out and look at, and assess, risk from a higher level. That’s one of the biggest benefits that we have – the ability to capture structure and use data. The second, to help drive a process by planning and communicating.

Our software is built around the Last Planner system and takes a level through schedule and breaks it down into something that we can use and go execute following that process. It is what it facilitates. There’s a great question to ask – do you adjust process to technology or do you adjust the technology to process? I think maybe it’s a bit of both, but we’ve certainly built the technology for the process.

Lauren Lake:

I like that quote that you shared, “Whoever has the data and can use it is going to win,” but there’s a lot of talk about data right now. I think it’s sometimes overwhelming because it’s talked about in the sense that you just need more and more data, which is not always the case because you need to have good data.

More is not necessarily better. Can you share just some specifics? When you talk about data, what kind of data are you talking about? What have you seen in particular actually be helpful and meaningful?

Andrew Piland:

So, I think identifying trends within a project. For example, we just did a poll of our variance codes, just across all of Touchplan and asked why are things missing? Getting a lay down of that and then trying to get some understanding as to what’s going on in the construction world right now. Is it materials that are falling short that’s causing activities to miss? What is it?

That’s pretty powerful. Collecting all those data points and having them structured in a way that helps people to use it. So that’s one example of our variance codes. Another one is using those variance codes on an individual project to go back and show an owner or an architect, “Hey, we’re missing a lot of activities. Here’s some analytics to show that most of our missed activities are because of design change or engineering. We’re having to come back for RFIs on a lot of things, so maybe can we get someone else to come in here and detail this out a bit more?”

I think that’s from a more tactical level-type example, but for a big company to go through an operations manager or vice president, or even the CEO of a construction company, to be able to pull that data and look at it and understand why projects are or are not coming in on time is huge.

Lauren Lake:

Do you have any advice for a company that’s not tracking any data currently around some of these things that you’ve talked about? In your opinion, what’s the best way to actually put this into practice for a company that is starting out with not much of a foundation.

Andrew Piland:

Yeah, totally. I think you start around what’s most critical to you and that being, the easy answer there is the critical path. I think every GC is using some sort of scheduling software, maybe not necessarily a planning communication platform, but they’re certainly using a scheduling platform that will tell you your critical path. So as you start to get to these handoffs within your critical path, you can establish some pretty clear conditions of satisfaction for that handoff and build activities around that to identify if there’s risk coming around.

So you don’t have to capture the whole project. You don’t have to cast a big data net, whatever that might be, but just get really focused and start small and work your way up, but I would say the biggest source of the project is that outline of your critical path, so that’s a good place to start.

Lauren Lake:

What impact do you see construction planning software like what you have at Touchplan having on the industry over the next five years? How do you think companies will be managing five years from now, given the tools that are out there today like yours at Touchplan?

Andrew Piland:

I think it goes back to that data analytics piece and my hope for what we’re able to do through some of our tech integrations as we continue to tell the story of Touchplan and how we can get out and help people run jobs. I remember a lot of days leaving the job site pretty late and getting home just wiped out. My hope is that we can help contractors do things more effectively, more efficiently, and help that superintendent be the best manager, most efficient manager they can so they can go home at four o’clock. That’s really, that’s my hope. Let’s go home at 4:30 and be done with work and talk about it again when we show up to open up the job site. So helping capture meaningful data and then using that to improve the efficiency of our superintendents and project managers.