A SmartStart® Sets the Foundation for Your Entire Project

by Mark Konchar

We are constantly striving to meet the demands of our increasingly sophisticated clients and navigate an industry that keeps getting more complex, fast-paced and tightly integrated. Despite improved tools and technologies, our industry effectiveness is actually declining. The challenge is that much of the inefficiency we experience on projects is "invisible". It manifests itself as ambiguity related to goals/approach/roles, subtle personality conflicts, insufficient support mechanisms, and lack of awareness of underlying pervasive problems with team performance. These subtle factors are missed by most contractors, but are actually the foundation of healthy, high-performance teams – especially in an increasingly dynamic market.

Over the last four years, Balfour Beatty has conducted extensive analysis into the effectiveness of our projects. We’ve studied what has gone well on our best projects, and how we could have more proactively managed our most challenging projects. Our analysis does not simply stop at the surface issues that most people are familiar with (cost overruns, schedule delays, quality issues, unmet promises, etc.), but goes deeper into the underlying causes (such as poor planning, late decisions, unforeseen conditions, communication challenges, ineffective meetings, etc.) and yet deeper to the root causes (factors such as interpersonal conflicts, motivational challenges, misalignment, accountability, unclear process, etc.).

The following are the most impactful findings of our ongoing analysis:

  • Interpersonal dynamics are the single biggest factors affecting information sharing, information acceptance, collaboration, and subsequently the success of the project. 
  • Customizing and developing clarity around goals and a detailed understanding of processes are necessary to maximize team performance and direct the collective energy toward common project goals.
  • Tools, processes and contracts can influence successful behaviors, but are no guarantee of a successful project. Therefore, all teams need to continuously focus on and reinforce team health and productive behaviors.

We then developed a framework based on these insights, called SmartStart®, to serve as a guide for our project teams so they could set themselves up for the greatest success from the outset of the project.

At its most basic level, SmartStart® is a comprehensive framework for developing a high-performance team and a customized, but quickly-deployable project strategy. It represents the next evolution of what construction project teams and project strategy can be. SmartStart® is built on four foundational areas:

  1. Alignment – Our alignment process is very holistic and covers behavioral alignment (i.e., how the team is naturally wired and how to best leverage those strengths), values alignment (i.e., what is most important to the client regarding this project and their broader business case), governance alignment (i.e., meetings, decision making and information flow), and milestone planning (i.e., the major construction and procurement activities and how they are dependent on key owner decisions, consultant/trade engagement, and design level of detail).
  2. Collaborative Planning – Collaborative planning seeks to fully leverage the expertise and resources of the team.  Building on the behavioral strategies, value-focused strategies and technical risk management strategies identified in the alignment session, the team weaves those together into a comprehensive project strategy.
  3. Proactive Design – For projects where we are fortunate enough to be engaged early, there is significant value that we can add as partners in the design phase. Through Lean design strategies (e.g., target value design, set-based design), embedding safety, constructability, and lifecycle cost measures into the design, and proactively managing cost and schedule risk, we can become more than an after-the-fact estimator or procurement service, and really serve as a partner in the design phase.
  4. Support System – All great teams also need support structures in place. With the increasing complexity of our projects, this goes beyond simple file and process management. We need to think through the lifecycle of the information related to the project, and understand how to organize and translate meaningful information from design to construction to operations and maintenance. We also need to plan for customized facilitation and training so that we can effectively incorporate innovative ideas and get the most out of the collective expertise of the project team.

Although it is a comprehensive framework, Balfour Beatty's SmartStart® can be customized to the entire spectrum of delivery methods, including hard-bid, design assist, design-build and integrated project delivery. We’ve utilized aspects of SmartStart® on $1 billion-plus complex projects and smaller scale projects of a few million dollars. Regardless of delivery method or project type, our project teams and clients have found tremendous value in this process. 

One example took place recently with the start of a $24 million project in China Lake, CA. The Navy allowed us to use our SmartStart® framework instead of following their standard procedure which is to work with a consultant for their project kick-off. By using SmartStart®, the team was able to work with the client to consider the full spectrum of factors that go into a project build including:

  1. Behavioral alignment of the team members
  2. Optimizing value for the owners (including decision-making criteria and metrics)
  3. Establishing an agreed governance model to maintain accountability
  4. Assessing and addressing the technical requirements and potential challenges

The process paid off for all parties involved. After the session (facilitated by Justin Maletic and Craig Jory, based in the California Division), Navy representatives were so impressed with the experience they asked if we would be willing to provide SmartStart® facilitation for their other projects.

The secret behind SmartStart® is that where others focus on utilizing new tools, technologies and processes, we know that it is actually the behaviors those aspects enable that are the key to successful projects. By making an effort up front to get aligned, develop a comprehensive plan, ensure we are best leveraging our collective resources, and by supporting the team in the right way – we create the conditions for a high-performance team and a custom strategy that can really deliver an unprecedented experience for our clients and partners. This is the power and potential of SmartStart® and the next evolution of what every owner should demand of their project teams.