What Ants Teach Us About Mitigating Project Risks

By David Keane, Sales Manager of Trimble MEP

The risks that mechanical contractors face on projects just seem to grow every year, and this past year, there were some new curveballs added to the mix. All of a sudden we are contending with issues like how to be productive during a work stoppage, trying to move projects forward while social distancing, and of course working from home. The overall craft labor shortage, continual compression of project schedules, and the commoditization of mechanical contractors by construction management firms also remain a constant threat to efficiency and profitability. Team members have to be more vigilant than ever to navigate projects through these minefields.  

So how can you mitigate risk and equip your teams to make good choices that protect both your margin and your reputation? Act like ants. Seriously. Let me explain.

In an ant colony, a single ant operates moment to moment guided purely by stimulus-response. Yet, as a colony, ants are a remarkably successful and sophisticated collective. Each ant has a specialized role such as soldier, sentry, builder, gatherer, farmer, nurse, breeder or scout. They can quickly communicate information far and wide across the group thanks to the highly effective use of pheromones, and individual ants can even switch roles temporarily when a threat or advantage to the colony is detected so the response is proportionate to the issue.

The colony is, therefore, incredibly adaptive and thrives because it can efficiently build and maintain complex housing structures, food systems, sanitation, and defense systems. This is a classic example of Emergence, which in biology and social sciences is considered the greater intelligence that a collective group displays, and which is not evident in its individual members. So how does this relate to a mechanical contractor? 

For construction projects, let’s consider Emergence as the phenomena that  equips a project team to send feedback events throughout the life of a project. These feedback events drive decisions and workaround solutions allowing for optimal project delivery in terms of quality, cost, and schedule involving the efforts of architects, engineers, managers, craft labor and the supply chain. The greater intelligence––and effective communication––of the group and its sub-components leads to efficient work, reliable margins, and repeat business.

So surely the way to achieve Emergent Intelligence is to hurl more data points at everyone and then hope that once equipped with all that data, good decisions result? Right? I’m a sales leader for a construction technology firm that specializes in data, and even I know this cannot possibly be the answer. There is no doubt that technology is adding relevant data at every turn in construction processes, but without connective tissues relating data points to the most important decisions, your outcomes will likely be impaired. Data points are certainly one of the three pillars of Emergent Intelligence in your organization, but without two others, namely context and action triggers, you won’t get the rapid feedback loops that are needed to produce the desired outcome.

Let’s first look at context. A 2018 study by Plangrid and FMI found that, “construction workers lose almost two full working days each week solving avoidable issues and searching for project information.” This is a staggering obstacle to productivity, but not too hard to imagine given the flood of data sources that our estimators, detailers, operations managers, project managers, accounting and procurement personnel, field supervisors, and shop supervisors interact with every day.

To illustrate this, let’s consider a situation where the owner of a project is considering alternative equipment that isn’t procured yet, and needs to change the scope by adding isolation valves, and removing the original scope equipment. The change to the mechanical is pretty minor, just install isolation valves to services supplying that project area, and credit back the work to connect the original equipment. This will require the collaboration of several project team members to calculate the impact, prepare a change proposal for the value added or credited to the contract, and once approved, implement the revised plan to internal and external team members. 

Even for simple changes like this, there is a lot of data to retrieve and synthesize like evaluating the change to the coordinated model, determining what is already procured, fabricated or installed, and what the new work does to the field labor allocation, the shop schedule, the testing plan and financial forecast. I come up with no less than 16 updates or data entries to account for and execute on this change. Ouch.

The valves and the work are just like the hundreds of other valves on the project, but they now carry context like what  piping system they belong to, tag numbers, drawing revision number and revision date, a change order number, a new cost code, new purchase orders, resultant revised spool sheets, and new billing lines, just to name a few. For the rest of the project life, if your systems don’t make these connections, your team will  waste valuable  energy chasing this  context, instead of spending their time on higher value efforts managing the project outcomes.

It’s not hard to imagine why even a modest amount of issues on a job quickly compound the complexity of the original plan, and why so many cross-checks and snap judgements are imposed on your team every day. This brings us to the third requirement for Emergent Intelligence, action triggers. 

Historically, processes such as quantifying, seeking approval and executing on a change order like the example above requires interaction with several systems and tools within your company. When these systems and tools are siloed, it requires many redundant efforts of data entry, evaluating results, and porting information over to the next step in the chain. When your systems talk to each other, or bring contextual data into the next step, your team will have fewer steps to execute, and less chances for human error to enter into the process. For instance, if your VDC models are cost loaded, or can interact with your estimating program, and your estimating program is connected to your supply chain, this workflow is profoundly improved. The project manager can derive the quantities and logistics from the VDC model, which will change the fabrication downstream at the shop or jobsite, while the same exact data set gets pushed to estimating software, eliminating any takeoff or data entry so it can have indirect cost like rentals, subs, general conditions and allowable markups added to it. Purchasing the material and scheduling the delivery can also be automated, still from the same data set, and still from the result of a preceding step in the chain like the VDC model or estimate.

Processes like these are not the future, they are what you should expect of your teams now. This is the kind of connectivity between team members that provides feedback loops, and like a pheromone trail between the different roles of ants, Emergent Intelligence invisibly guides your team towards the healthiest outcomes on your projects. 

How do you begin installing this kind of behavior on your team? The best way to institute these principles and any underlying solutions is to pick the right technology partner. Most construction technology companies address a single aspect of construction like CAD, Estimating, Project Management, ERP, layout equipment, or mobile apps and they solve one problem in the chain effectively, but hardly any have the breadth or industry DNA to address the workflows and quick decisions that data doesn’t solve on its own, which is providing context to the data and making it intuitive to act on––enabling your workforce to operate together as a single meta-organism, instead of role players that do the tasks in front of them until the job is over. One of the key observations of Emergence at work in ant colonies is that the constant feedback loops (pheromones) drive a steady stream of micro-decisions that seem intuitive (food is to the left). For project teams with the same kind of feedback loops (contextual, actionable project dataflows) they are similarly empowered to make sustaining micro-decisions so the project thrives and stays on course. The alternative is decision points that occur less frequently, carry much heavier consequences, and often they are too late to right the ship if it is off course.

Look for construction technology firms that have themselves emerged as an industry leader because they understand these challenges and continue to invest heavily in software solutions that thoughtfully consider how the people and roles of a mechanical contractor actually work together. With the right technology in your hands (like ants responding to pheromones) Emergent Intelligence will kick in and focus your people’s energy on actions that ensure the project and the company thrive and become an efficient and resilient mechanical construction cooperative.

Dave Keane is a mechanical construction industry veteran with over 18 years of experience in leadership roles at mechanical and process piping contractors. For the past 8 years, he has brought his passion for operational excellence in prefabrication, estimating, project management, and construction financials to help Trimble MEP clients achieve field-office synergy and transform their business operations.

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