Paving the Path to Operational Excellence

by John Tarpey

These days, you can’t enter a room where construction professionals are gathered without hearing the phrase, “Operational Excellence.” Though it is by no means a new concept, dating back to the early days of the Industrial Revolution, economic conditions of the past decade have renewed our focus on sustained and disciplined execution.

And that is a great thing. We need to be evaluating our performance openly and honestly, and we must strive always for continued progress no matter if we’re performing renovations to a 1,200-square-foot restaurant or building a 1.2 million-square-foot high rise. There are a couple iterations of this motto, but I’ve heard it said, “The day you stop learning is the day you stop living.” I may have scoffed at that notion in my 20s, but after devoting nearly four decades to this industry, I can absolutely testify to its truth. One of the reasons I’m particularly excited about the direction of Balfour Beatty Construction and the greater industry is because we have at last committed ourselves to eliminating the inefficiencies that have for so long plagued the building sector.

When I look back on the work we’ve executed over the years at Balfour Beatty, there is no doubt in my mind that among our ranks are the most skilled, knowledgeable, and passionate people in this business. My teammates have proven to me that people are the heartbeat of construction. More specifically, people are the key to Operational Excellence. To be sure, processes are vital, especially when it comes to topics like risk, cash flow, and documentation. But in order to flawlessly execute the fundamentals, we have to become a learning organization to first understand and secondly embrace the key principles and behaviors that position us for success.

Communication + Information Flow

The outcome of any construction project greatly depends on the actions (or inactions) of others over whom we, as the general contractor partner, have limited control and influence. On any given project, think just for a minute about the number of people who not only have to work collaboratively but whose roles and responsibilities impact those of another trade, company, or even government agency. To harness a legal term, the ‘chain of custody’ and the sheer amount of moving parts and pieces on any given area of any one building almost makes my head spin. That’s why it is absolutely essential to understand that information flow is the life blood of every construction project. We must share information openly, timely, and with integrity.

If you’ve ever been in the unfortunate situation of having to conduct an audit on a project with subpar performance, financial or otherwise, I can almost guarantee there were missteps in information management. Establishing a clear chain of command as well as the proper channels for the input and distribution of project data can mean the difference between a profitable project and one that makes the headlines – and not for an inspiring reason. Harnessing the power of cloud-based technologies like BIM 360 Field will certainly move the needle towards that goal.  Another caveat when developing your project communications plan is making sure to not simply ask questions but knowing the right questions to ask. We all know what they say about making assumptions, but because of the highly custom nature of our work, that proverb packs a powerful punch.

Team Health + Performance

This may seem like it goes without saying when you’re talking about managing multi-million dollar projects that employ hundreds and perhaps thousands of people, but leadership is indispensable. Let me be more specific. You may have heard of the catchy group dynamic model called “form, storm, norm, perform.” It was created several decades ago by psychology thought leader, Bruck Tuckman, and I have long considered it an incredibly useful archetype. The storm and norm stages, where groups experience and subsequently resolve disagreements and personality clashes, are seen as potentially destructive yet inevitable according to this model. In our industry, however, I’d like to argue that project teams must go directly from form to perform. Frequently, the contract is awarded, the flag drops, and the clock starts ticking. This, of course, it is easier said than done, because it requires an individual or individuals to emerge as leader(s) and for the remaining team members to set aside agendas and egos while uniting around an understood, common goal and behaviors. Going back to the importance of fostering a learning organization, I believe investing in training and development tools such as our SmartStart® program will ensure that everyone across the Balfour Beatty enterprise is empowered to form teams known as much for their accomplishments as their character.

Issue Resolution

If you’ve been taught that “the customer is always right,” I’m here to tell you that in our business, that adage simply doesn’t always hold water. If a client, for example, is reviewing key decisions from the perspective of short-term financial gains, it’s easy to imagine a scenario in which that particular choice could adversely affect building performance or incur additional costs in years to come. As a general contractor partner committed to providing our clients with a superior construction experience, we must commit to making decisions that are always in the best interests of the project. By putting the needs of the project first, we will always be putting the customer first – the two are synonymous.

The journey to achieve Operational Excellence is a marathon, not a sprint, but as with any business initiative, it will succeed or fail based on our willingness to listen, commitment to learn, and courage to lead.