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Optimizing Project Outcomes Through Advanced Project Planning

Advanced Project Planning (APP) has evolved to address many of the challenges related to the fast pace of design and construction that is increasingly common.

Q3 2020
For the Erie Insurance Headquarters expansion, coordination and timing for the design process was critical. 
Courtesy: Albert Kahn Associates, Inc.
For the Erie Insurance Headquarters expansion, coordination and timing for the design process was critical. Courtesy: Albert Kahn Associates, Inc.
While APP involves a modest amount of additional upfront time for planning, the investment pays significant dividends throughout the project — and at the most critical times. Detailed planning is executed in advance, enabling the project team and stakeholders to discuss project objectives, prioritize needs, and examine costs from the very outset. This relieves some of the reactive urgency surrounding these decisions, when such issues are addressed amid the thin margins associated with not only time but also the cost of business today. Using APP, facilities that have inevitable downtime related to modifications can plan more effic

Here are key steps in the process, savvy solutions to challenges, and insights into optimizing APP to lead projects to success:

The Process
• Identify and isolate key drivers and components. The APP process starts with identifying key project drivers: information needs, issuances, and stakeholder identification. Stakeholders are identified by leaders as the representatives who can make decisions without second-guessing or “loopbacks,” avoiding changes downstream that can be disruptive to the process.

Once the key pieces of information are identified, stakeholders and project team leaders determine collaboration, especially organizing how stakeholders plan to respond to information requests from the project team to make the design process flow smoothly.

• Collaborate to create a savvy schedule. Once project drivers and key decision-makers are established, the next step is to create a meaningful and thoughtful schedule. In this step, the team works together to develop criteria for successful project execution.

The next step is a meeting with other key leaders — owner, construction manager, contractor — adding their input to the schedule and aligning to identify promises. Promises in the APP are commitments from various team members to provide information or drawings by a certain date. Progress on those tasks and commitments are tracked via recurring project meetings.

>Delta Dental Insurance headquarters
Delta Dental Insurance headquarters expansion required significant building and site phasing. © Beth Singer
• Sequence decisions. A clear understanding of implications and assigning a designated person on the client side to make and communicate decisions adds clarity to the decision-making process. When stakeholders know what decisions are required at each stage of the project, it becomes very manageable and palatable.

Too many requests for answers at one time often understandably overwhelm decision-makers. A focus on discussion and consensus in decision-making also gives the project legitimacy through validation. When too many choices are put forth from project team leaders, it may be difficult for stakeholders to navigate all of the implications. Yet, when project team leaders understand the sequencing of decisions, the stakeholders don’t have to decide everything at once and can work through the most critical decisions first and save lower-priority items for the appropriate time. This is often a relief to busy stakeholders.

• Optimize equipment planning. Advanced planning helps alleviate some common issues, such as team members — particularly mechanical, electrical, systems, and even structural engineers — who want to know all the equipment details at the beginning of the project.

Project teams often do not identify that level of detail at the project outset, as equipment may be changing, and stakeholders want to ensure they get the latest versions. Providing specific equipment lists too early leads to inaccuracies later when equipment changes and the associated data needs updating, resulting in a cascade of changes downstream — more IT, more connections, more power, etc.

However, generally outlining the type of equipment during the early phases of the project, and finalizing details later, focuses stakeholders and gives them time to capture hard data from purchasing as well as negotiate the best prices for equipment and add-ons.

• Solidify plans while allowing for agile spaces. Along with appropriately timing certain decisions, defining spaces in a way that specifically supports the facility and its defined purpose is a central benefit of APP. Stakeholders have decisions to make regarding office sizes, amenities, and public spaces, as well as establishing priorities. While agility is a key quality to space, stakeholders find real advantages to having a plan that is solidified, as finalized plans also give decision-makers time to develop standards in the front end of the project.

• Proactive contractor involvement is vital. As seamlessly as this process is designed, proactive attention to construction detailing with the contractor partner is vital. While a team can thoroughly plan a project, its constructability may be different in theory versus practice.

This is especially true if the contractor comes to the project later and has different ideas of how to sequence construction or deal with specific detailing issues with the project. Early involvement of key players avoids the delays and additional costs that inevitably occur when new ideas and approaches are applied to an ongoing project.

Proactive attention to construction detailing with the contractor partner is vital. Solutions
• Spearheading leadership is essential. The importance of spearheading leadership becomes especially valuable in cases where broad organizational insights are essential to planning. Without the guidance of centralized leadership, team members may unintentionally make less than optimal decisions without consulting the appropriate leaders, simply to make a decision in the absence of a clear path. Such “best estimations” only come to light much later when challenges emerge downstream.

While the team members making these decisions are acting in the best interest of the project with the information they have, the outcome can later derail the project. Therefore, the vital necessity of leaders becomes truly consequential where macro-organizational insights are essential to planning.

• Plan sequencing linked to key leadership. Meticulous advanced planning ensures that project planning, design, and construction happen in the correct sequence and respective team members have what they need from others. To avoid disorganized discussions and mixed messages, the advanced planning conversation begins with upper management, followed by key representatives from other areas as they come into focus. It is essential to define when each voice should enter the discussion, so the project doesn’t lag or run off course, again underscoring the important role of leaders.

• Effective, dynamic involvement of engineering resources. Mechanical and electrical engineers can be advantageous long before beginning construction documents by providing input to the team. They are an important part of the construction document process. During even the earliest advanced planning, they can provide very specific information about equipment, loads, and diversity.

If engineers can participate in a consulting role early in the project to answer questions, the team can wait to involve them in their full capacity until they are needed, avoiding the wasted time and cost of having engineers sitting idle if they are brought in at full capacity prematurely.

• Vet and sequence decisions.
Proactive leaders agree on the desire to expedite project planning; but taking the time to thoroughly vet all the options results in better decisions. The pitfalls of hasty decision-making are often overlooked as project teams are adaptive and will learn to work around less-than-ideal plans — but could a better decision have been made?

When planning is prioritized, the environment becomes more functional for users. Sequencing decision-making allows teams to approach each issue with the greatest insight possible, as circumstances change throughout the project, impacting outcomes, costs, and schedules.

• Achieve better results, higher quality, at the same cost. Sequenced decision-making fosters a more human-centered result. With more opportunities to collect feedback as the design solidifies, the users will end up with a better result for the same cost.

When planning is prioritized, the environment becomes more functional for users. This could manifest itself in a LEAN approach with fewer steps, or in the ergonomic and psychological considerations that make the facility enjoyable to inhabit and use.

• A human-centered approach optimizes quality. Creating this environmental quality goes well beyond asking users what they would like to see; interviews and questionnaires are the first step. A truly human-centered building accounts for all the different types of people and situations the building will house and uses the built environment to facilitate an environment where people are encouraged to share what will make the facility productive and comfortable.

If that same theme echoes throughout all levels of the organization, the final product will be better, and leaders will optimize their skills in consensus-building and intuitive planning. Deliberately following the APP process on the front end saves money and time, reduces surprises, and ultimately results in high quality and solid satisfaction.

The APP Advantage
• Clarity + Decisiveness.
Seeing the entire project and understanding what will be required to complete it within schedule and on budget is essential to preparing decision-makers to take on a project and offer successful participation.

If leaders have a coherent and detailed project plan with a timeline, they clearly see through the APP approach when certain decisions and actions are necessary, ensuring that decisions are not unintentionally overlooked.

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