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What can the Construction Industry Learn from the US Military to More Effectively Deliver Results?

I recently read Team of Teams / New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World written by General Stanley McChrystal with Tantum Collins, David Silverman and Chris Fussell. I was struck by the similarities of the challenges the US Military faced in Iraq and with those we face in the construction industry. In essence they were challenged by highly optimized silos that were very good at what they did, but without integration and collaboration across these high-performing organizations could not achieve the overall mission goals. Essentially they were optimizing each piece rather than the whole. The challenge was how to break down these barriers to fully leverage the expertise of all members of the team and allow information to flow to those that needed it in a timely manner to make sound decisions within the context of the overall strategic goals and rules of engagement.

This sounds distinctly similar to our industry where we have evolved into specialists that are very good at what we do, but without integration do not understand how our decisions impact others that are involved in the process. The industry’s move over the past decade toward a more integrated, collaborative delivery of projects using Lean thinking and Lean enterprise concepts and tools is helping us to bridge these silos, improve our processes, and migrate to a more efficient way to design and construct.

Let’s look at the five big ideas of Lean project delivery developed to support the Sutter Health capital program implementation:

1) Optimize the whole (project), not the piece

2) Collaborate, really collaborate

3) Projects as networks of commitments

4) Increase relatedness

5) Tightly couple action and learning.

Reading Team of Teams, I noted all of these principles and ideas in action.

In 2004, General McChrystal and his command, the Joint Special Operations Task Force, were learning to deal with a new challenge against a new foe Al Qaeda in Iraq, an amorphous, highly networked, agile opponent that was deadly. Past practices and the finely honed efficiencies and training of each organization were not working effectively in achieving mission objectives because they had been developed to deal with a different type of threat. They needed to adapt in order to achieve their objectives. General McChrystal shares that the change was less about tactics or technology, but about internal architecture of the team and culture, in other words how to become a team of teams and optimize the whole, not the individual parts.

They started with a “Big Room” at Balad Air Base where Navy SEALS, Army Special Forces, Army Rangers and intelligence analysts were integrated into a single, large working space. Furthermore, they understood that they needed collaboration with the CIA, NSA, FBI and others in order to be effective and also invited them to participate in the Big Room. Their critical first step was to share their information widely and generously share their own resources as part of trust building. Without trust, true collaboration cannot occur. They conducted a daily (6 days a week) Operations and Intelligence briefing that integrated everything the command was doing with everything it knew that was broadcast live throughout the world to those supporting the Task Force. This meeting evolved into an interactive discussion where briefings were short and the remainder of scheduled time devoted to open-ended conversation. These interactions yielded much value to those participating by deepening their understanding of issues and observing real-time problem solving.

A similar approach to trust-building and information sharing is integrated into the use of a Big Room on Lean project sites where all members of the team are co-located. The use of Building Information Modeling, target value design, and the Last Planner® system in these big rooms mirrors similar behaviors when implemented properly. The Last Planner® daily huddles are short, focused on what did we get done yesterday, what is planned for today, what do you need for your work today, what else do we know that is impacting or will impact the project today? The Last Planner® weekly planning update meetings allow deeper reflection on the team’s performance, planning, problem solving and learning from missed commitments.

General McChrystal shares that Sandy Pentland’s research at MIT “suggests that the the collective intelligence of groups and communities has little to do with the intelligence of their individual members, and much more to do with the connections and idea flow between them.” The keys to idea flow are engagement within a small group and exploration between groups. This was the genesis of a Team of Teams concept.

To achieve shared consciousness of a team of teams, two elements were required.

1) Extreme, participatory transparency to develop a holistic awareness across the organization, and

2) Creation of strong internal connectivity across teams.

The challenge for many organizations is how to shift from a mind set of how best to control information to how best to share it. General McChrystal states “Functioning safely in an interdependent environment requires that every team possess a holistic understanding of the interaction between all the moving parts. Everyone has to see the system in its entirety for the plan to work.” The only way to achieve this is through efficient, timely and transparent information sharing.

So, how can we integrate this into our project planning and implementation? By using the same processes with Building Information Modeling and the Last Planner® System. Case studies of projects and portfolios show time and again that project performance is enhanced with the use of Building Information Modeling and the Last Planner® system. Why are we not doing this as our new industry norm?

There are repeated examples of Deming’s Plan-Do-Check-Act cycle in action in Team of Teams. They continued to learn and improve based on the results of their planning and operations cycles. This is also core to the Lean principle of continuous improvement.

General McChrystal devotes a chapter to leadership in this new paradigm of “Team of Teams”. A leader of a team of teams must be a gardener “nurturing the organization – its structure, processes and culture”, rather than one who commands and controls.

General McChrystal also shares that they benefited from coordinated operations and decentralized control. The lesson learned for us in the construction industry is that new leadership behaviors are required to foster collaboration and shared consciousness. The increasing complexity of projects is such that they are beyond the control of any one person. A command-and-control approach by the general contractor’s home office or superintendent will doom the project to repeat its past performance rather than leveraging the collective intelligence of the team to achieve a new definition of success.

General McChrystal shares that between 2004 and 2006 they were running 17 times faster with only minimal increases in resources and staffing by using the Team of Teams approach. With these metrics, there is much potential benefit for us in the construction industry if we can only endeavor to facilitate and lead a team of teams on every project.

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