Ian Heptinstall
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Back to the Future

I recently ran a webinar for the Association for Project Management (APM).  I called it Back to the Future because in today's world of big data, 3D printing and the Internet of Things, it is easy to forget that the fundamentals of project management are not dependent on technology.  You can watch the recording below.

On the webinar I used one of my favourite case studies, to demonstrate this point - the Empire State Building.


The above image shows some project KPI's. Back in 1929 when the Empire State Building was started, there were no computers to host a 3D model, no fast printing of drawings and other documents, no email of PDF's for review.

But it was still completed in less than 20% of the time it took to build One World Trade Centre between 2006 and 2013.  And I don't believe the changes to construction safety standards explains the difference (see footnote).  It was also completed at some 25% of the cost, though of course extrapolating cost data over 90 years involves a bit of subjectivity.

The Empire State Building project achieved it's lightening fast duration in a number of different ways, including using techniques that are often called today "Modern Methods of Construction"! 

When I boil down what they did that was fundamental and transferable, it comes down to FLOW.  They made the project flow. 

The Empire State Building project did a number of things that helped the project to flow better.  For example ...

  • The main project supply chain was selected very quickly (2 weeks for the general contractor).
  • The team was selected mainly on their skills and competence.  Yes cost was important, but it was secondary.
  • They involved the contractor(s) early (the main contractor was selected 2 weeks after the architect).
  • They worked as a singe integrated team, focused on a single clear common goal.
  • They maximised the use of off-site pre-assembly and standardisation.
  • They designed for construction (rather than 'design for tender').

If you have read my book, you know that I think the major inhibitors to project flow on projects today are procurement, planning and controls. 

We seem to have put too much focus on being "on-time and on-budget", and not enough on "in less time, and at a lower cost".  Almost all other fields of business have developed significantly in the past century, but construction seems to have been going backwards.

50% improvement will not get us even to the starting line.  Remember the Empire State Building was build in 410 days back in 1930.

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Applying modern developments in construction technology, to our broken processes for procuring and managing progress will only make marginal improvements.

410 days to build a 100+ storey building might seem fast, but just think how fast it could have been built if they had access to today's technologies like 3D design, virtual reality, big data analytics, and 3D printing.  Maybe the benchmark should be 300 days?

Projects are inherently uncertain.  If you use methods that acknowledge and manage this uncertainty (rather than ignore it), you will help your project to flow, which in turn will reduce cost and reduce duration.  Today's common approaches to project procurement and project control don't help the project to flow - quite the opposite.

If you haven't come across my preferred approaches to maximising project flow - Critical Chain Project Management, and Project Alliance contracting - then you might find the webinar interesting.  You can watch the recording below.

Webinar Questions & Answers

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Click here for a PDF of the full Q&A from the webinar.

This includes answers to questions that time didn't allow to be answered live, and further information on some of those that were.

PS:  Safety Standards:

It seems safety in construction is also not a modern invention either.  

According to this article, the Eiffel Tower, Empire State Building and Chrysler Building - all projects from 90+ years ago, killed 5 times fewer workers than the original WTC project in the 1970's.  

Whilst the replacement World Trade Centre project was an improvement on the 1970's original, it was not a world class performer either.  This article on the New York Daily News website, claims that many serious injuries went unreported on the project.

About the Author Ian

Ian is an academic and consultant who helps improve the performance of capital projects and programmes. Hi early career experience included 15 years working as a project manager on capex projects, 10 years in procurement, including being chief procurement officer for a large construction company, and 10 years management consulting with niche consultancies in supply chain and procurement.

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