Future Forward Interview: Pulling Apart Construction Processes to Improve Practice
Informed Infrastructure met Dr. William J. O’Brien, professor in the Civil, Architectural and Environmental Engineering department at the University of Texas at Austin, during Bentley Systems’ Year in Infrastructure 2015 event. While O’Brien is involved in many advancements for model-based design, it was his work on Advanced Work Packaging (AWP) that struck us as an important area to focus on for our Future Forward profile.
I2: To kick things off, I’d like to talk about your organization and affiliations. You’re involved in quite a few things.
O’Brien: That’s true, and I think most academics are these day. The Modeling, Visualization and Evaluation Lab (MOVE) is my research group and laboratory that captures the variety of research that I’m involved in. Moving construction forward is the goal.
I started doing 3D and 4D CAD back in the late 1980s as an undergraduate, back before it became BIM. I’ve always been interested in systems and improving practice in a comprehensive way, rather than just modeling. When I went to grad school, I became interested in supply chains, and I was one of the early researchers focused on the supply chain in construction.
I worked for an Internet startup in the late 1990s, where I learned a lot about trying to improve practice with some of the early project websites—the early file cabinets on the Web. We had good ideas, but we were a little too early.
From there, I went back to academia and spent five years at the University of Florida and now 12 years at the University of Texas. I’ve always been interested in how to improve systems to make performance better—some of that we do through modeling, visualization and just evaluating the systems. I’ve taken on aspects of each of those from the broad theme of “how we can improve practices from a systems level in the construction industry.”
I2: What’s the means for interfacing with the construction industry?
O’Brien: Here at the University of Texas, we work closely with the Construction Industry Institute (CII). It’s a large, industry-founded center that began with an emeritus professor here more than 30 years ago. CII still works closely with the construction faculty at the University of Texas. In that context, a lot of what I’ve done for CII has been around how we better implement systems, whether that’s pure technology information integration systems or better processes to improve practices.
The biggest culmination of that has been Advanced Work Packaging (AWP), which we’ve worked on for six years. We did that hand-in-hand with industry with pathways and recommendations for doing effective planning from the front end of a project all the way through execution. We’ve demonstrated dramatic results when done maturely and competently, with a 25-percent improvement in field productivity and a 10-percent decrease in total install cost. We’ve had some instances reported of even better improvements to productivity.
That was an industry effort, and, as an academic, I’ve been involved in helping them “flesh out” the process as well as document the successes to validate the practice and demonstrate effectively that it does add value. Around all of that has been an infrastructure of education materials, consultants and industry-sponsored conferences. It’s been a good success story of taking a systems-evaluation approach and moving that forward to help industry better articulate and refine its practices and do some dramatic things to improve productivity.
I was at the Year in Infrastructure event to speak to the practice, because Bentley has an investment in the process with its ProjectWise Construction Work Package Server. They’ve embraced the Advanced Work Packaging philosophy, and they’re developing tools to advance it.
I2: Does software have a large role to play in AWP implementation?
O’Brien: There’s no such thing as off-the-shelf software for the construction industry. It’s all a consultative sale at some level, because you need to help a company that’s doing a lot of complex things figure out a way to make it work for them.
Unfortunately, there are a lot of different tools in use in construction, from spreadsheets to CAD software, contract management and more. All of these tools need some level of training and integration to help companies internalize the tools and process.
Bentley is doing that at a large scale for large clients implementing Advanced Work Packaging, mostly in the industrial sector (petrochemicals and power).
I2: In addition to the complexity of tools that each company employs, each project is different. Does that add to the overall complexity of implementation?
O’Brien: Every project does have its unique set of constraints. The message of AWP is that you have to embrace it entirely up front as a team, put together a comprehensive execution plan early on and stick with it all the way through execution. There’s so much emphasis on getting going that it’s a “ready, fire, aim” mentality on a lot of projects.
AWP puts the discipline back in a very structured way to do effective planning, get the right people involved up front, and get the right commitment from the owner, which is often difficult. Putting a consistent action plan in place in the field allows you to line up everything for success.
There are too many stories in all sectors of construction with things going wrong because there were last-minute changes, unknown conditions or people that weren’t aligned, so changes didn’t get communicated. What we find with more alignment and planning up front is that very good things can happen, and we can take advantage of all these improvements in technology that have taken hold over the years.
It’s difficult to put in place new methods if your planning is a mess. Larger projects have gotten so complicated that the traditional way of doing things isn’t enough. Putting in place a more-disciplined effort on planning what has to be done when and by whom is very important and central to success.
Of course, you want to plan things and have all the stakeholders involved, but the sad fact is that the industry doesn’t do this very well on a consistent basis, and it needs the impetus to do it better as well as a disciplined approach. AWP instills that discipline with a set of rules and pathways to accomplish process improvements.
I2: How important is the ability in BIM to do quantity takeoffs and factor costs fairly early in the process?
O’Brien: I’d say that the technology of visualization and model-based engineering is central to keeping things coordinated all the way through the project. For a large, complex project, if you’re not model-centric, it becomes difficult to efficiently keep everyone on the same page. The model-centric systems provide a paradigm and mechanism for linking and putting all the data in one place.
All the modeling technologies individually add value, but you need some paradigm for how you’re going to run your project. AWP is a paradigm for getting people together and running projects successfully.
I expect your readers are interested in aspects in the commercial and infrastructure sectors. There are other paradigms for putting things together, such as Integrated Project Delivery (IPD) that has received a lot of attention and is very important from a contractual point of view. To me, AWP is very complementary in theme for putting people together on the same page up front, but AWP doesn’t start from a contracting point of view, it starts from a process point of view.
I2: Does AWP address some of those issues of risk, maybe not liability, but responsibility?
O’Brien: It talks about setting out responsibilities very clearly up front. The owner needs to specify very clearly in its procurement and contracts about what it wants to have happen so that it creates an even ground for bidding and a clear expectation of performance.
AWP fills in a lot of blanks that broad calls for collaboration don’t accomplish. Including AWP in contracts has become important in much the same way that you’re starting to see BIM specified in contracts.
If you want to use BIM on a project, you have to specify the level of detail, the deliverables, handovers and other specifications that go into the contracts. BIM has a parallel in AWP with specifications for the types of deliverables for assembling work packages, tracking performance and expectations for information handover and more.
I2: How do sensors and the Internet of Things factor into knowing where things stand in terms of workers, work and materials, and maintaining schedules?
O’Brien: I’ve done some work in that area. AWP doesn’t speak specifically to sensors, but it is the process that helps dictate what needs to be done, which drives information needs. Information needs are supported by sensors and RFID tags.
Better data are important, but you need to understand what you want to do with them. AWP as a management paradigm and set of procedures drives what needs to be done, and the better data availability that you get from sensors and model-based engineering, databases and data-rich environments all support better execution. You can make changes to plans and better ensure that the plan will be met. If it looks like the plan isn’t progressing, you can make changes to the plan.
I2: How is AWP progressing?
O’Brien: There is a lot of buzz, particularly after CII designated AWP as a best practice this summer. It’s gone through the Knowledge Management Committee, and it’s been validated as something that adds significant and meaningful value for projects.
Some of the great success stories of AWP have come from different scales. We have successs on small projects and mega projects. We have projects with dramatic productivity and cost improvements, but their safety improved dramatically as well. On one project, they went from previously one recordable a month to a million man hours with no recordables after implementing AWP.
When you have better planning, things tend to be safer. It’s not necessarily the first benefit people look for, but it’s an important benefit.
I2: How difficult has it been to get larger buy-in?
O’Brien: It’s very difficult to overcome inertia. That’s probably one of the biggest problems for AWP adoption, because it requires a comprehensive realignment of the process, so the need for champions is very strong. We have gathered stories from adopters championing the approach inside and outside their company.
What we’ve really found is that you can’t implement this in-flight on a project. You really need to start with a new project and build small successes. Once you have believers and advocates within an organization, then you can expand.
We’ve also found that the role of the client or owner is very important. It’s important that they are onboard and support this through their contracts and make decisions in a responsible and timely manner that sticks to the plan. For a lot of owners/clients, that can be challenging, because their internal processes may not be that disciplined.
I2: Is AWP being pushed from the design and construction sides?
O’Brien: One of the major oil-and-gas owner organizations realized that a lot of its principal contractors already have in their procedures a lot of things that are AWP-friendly. Many of them didn’t put these in the bid, because if there were more costs early on, they might be looked at as noncompetitive in the bidding process. To level the playing field,the owner had to specify AWP in the contract with language that expressed the understanding that it would cost more to have more planning up front.
By doing that, it created a playing field where all the contractors could take advantage of their internal procedures that they may have been holding back on, because they didn’t want to be penalized by something that was more expensive on the front end.
We have a lot of evidence that better planning leads to better projects, and that’s not all just AWP. The cost of that planning is always very visible, but the benefits are often hidden. Early planning means that you’re spending the same amount of money, but are moving the expenses earlier in the project. Because that’s very visible, and a lot of clients are cost-centric on how they pick contractors, they just go with what’s cheapest, and we all suffer from that. It leads to low productivity; cost overruns; and schedule, cost, quality and safety issues.
By specifying for early planning, you empower your key suppliers and contractors to deliver their best efforts without hindering themselves by hiding costs or kicking costs out of the front end of the project.
I2: I should ask you about your personal motivations. I like your history, where you tried out a startup and then came back to academia. Was the move because you felt it was where you could make the biggest impact?
O’Brien: I left Stanford in 1996 and was working in Boston for three years. Having a Ph.D. in Boston isn’t exactly a differentiator, so I took stock of what I really care about and where I could make an impact in the construction industry. I chose to come back to academia to do research that I felt very strongly has the opportunity to make an impact on practice.
My success metric is what am I doing that’s going to change the way that people work. The work that we’ve done on AWP for the last several years is one of the biggest success stories of what we’ve done. It is now helping to transform parts of the broader AEC industry, and I think that it has lessons for all the construction industry in terms of more-disciplined planning and carrying that into the field.
If you start with what you want to accomplish, often technology can play a big role in supporting that. The modern data-centric models of practice give us a lot more visibility into what’s going on and a better ability to make decisions. We can support the human decision maker, so we are using humans to make effective decisions as opposed to spending a lot of human time running around and trying to get the data.