/ Profile / Future Forward: Pulling Apart Construction Processes to Improve Practice

Future Forward: Pulling Apart Construction Processes to Improve Practice

Matt Ball on January 31, 2016 - in Profile

Dr. William J. O’Brien, PE, is a professor in the department of Civil, Architectural and Environmental Engineering in the Cockrell School of Engineering at the University of Texas at Austin. He directs the Modeling, Visualization and Evaluation Lab (MOVE) with a focus on moving construction forward.

O’Brien is an expert on construction supply chain management and electronic collaboration. His research has been funded by the National Science Foundation, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the Construction Industry Institute (CII), and the Texas Department of Transportation.


Sponsored research work at MOVE, which works closely with CII, has been in areas of supply chain management, project controls and resource management as well as supporting research in information management and decision support.

“I’ve always been interested in how to improve systems to make performance better,” says O’Brien. “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.’”

Packaged Process

Advanced Work Packaging (AWP) is a high-profile research project with CII that has been ongoing for the last six years and was designated a best practice by CII in summer 2015. The effort has been on effective planning from project start through execution, with rules and pathways that sequence the steps and assign responsibility with a focus on outcomes. when well implemented, AWP has been shown to dramatically incresase project productivity and decrease cost.

AWP works to align engineering, procurement and construction on an agreed budget and schedule. The overall project plan is parsed into Engineering Work Packages with drawing and specifications that, in turn, provide a foundation for Construction Work Packages and Installation Work Packages. The engineering plans feed the construction budget, schedule and requirements for materials, tools, resources and safety considerations, which then feed installation plans that contain detailed documentation for field workers to carry out the work. There also are mechanisms to monitor performance and adjust the plan if it’s falling short.

“AWP has 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,” notes O’Brien.

Overcoming Inertia

There are many stories about projects gone wrong that lead to delays and large cost overruns. AWP aims to combat that by aligning the team on a comprehensive execution plan.

“There’s so much emphasis on getting going, that it’s a ‘ready, fire, aim’ mentality on a lot of projects,” says O’Brien. “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. Putting a consistent action plan in place in the field allows you to line up everything for success.”

Today’s modeling technology has a large role to play in keeping things coordinated, because it puts all the data in one place and fosters collaboration.

“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, model-based engineering, databases and data-rich environments all support better execution,” he adds.

Realizing Results

According to CII research, teams that fully adopt AWP realized a 25-percent improvement in productivity and a 10-percent reduction in total installed cost while also improving safety and project quality. In addition, projects that effectively implemented AWP improved construction-worker efficiency and their tool time, going from 37 percent in a traditional project to 46 percent using AWP.

This improved efficiency is creating converts worldwide, but there’s a major barrier to entry given that implementation requires a comprehensive restructuring of project planning. There’s also the issue of this planning cost.

“We have a lot of evidence that better planning leads to better projects, but the cost of that planning is always very visible, and the benefits are often hidden,” says O’Brien. “A lot of clients are cost-centric on how they pick contractors, so they just go with what’s cheapest. We all suffer from that, because it leads to low productivity, cost and schedule overruns, and issues with quality and safety.”

Thankfully, many owners and organizations, particularly in the industrial sector, are embracing AWP by specifying its use in projects.

“Larger projects have gotten so complicated that the traditional way of doing things isn’t enough,” he adds. “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.”


Read the full interview here.

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About Matt Ball

Matt Ball is a former editor and publisher of V1 Media.

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