by Dennis Sowards
One of the key steps in managing projects in a Lean way is called Pull Planning. It is also called Phase Planning and even Reverse Planning. Much like the blind man in India who encountered an elephant's tail and thought an elephant is like a rope, some contractors think pull planning is all there is to Lean project planning. Done well, pull planning will create a more effective schedule to manage each phase, but doing look ahead and weekly plans, plus constraints analysis is also essential to the whole Lean project management system.
Phase planning has been around awhile and with more contractors using it, many variations have come in to use. Some are best practices worth sharing to accelerate learning. Consider the following:
Who leads the session is important. There are several possibilities being employed today. The project superintendent leads some sessions. A more neutral employee of the general contractor (a project engineer/scheduler) not directly involved in the project leads some sessions. A third option is to have a consultant lead the session. While the 3rd party (in-house employee or consultant) offers a leader with little bias, the best practice is to have a superintendent lead the session because he/she knows the project best. It means the superintendent will need to act more as a facilitator during the session and not use the command and control approach. If the superintendent is unskilled and unwilling to try, the other options may be a better choice.
Use reverse planning. Pull planning sessions are sometimes called reverse planning sessions because the tasks are discussed in reverse. In interviews with superintendents of a number of contractors, I found that some have never even heard of doing this planning process in reverse. They are missing a valuable discussion that creates increased opportunities for collaborative understanding and commitments. Start with the last task in the milestone (phase) and discuss each previous task based on what is needed for the handoff from the previous task, so the task can be completed right the first time. This helps ensure a clearer understanding of both tasks. Many contractors call this defining the handoffs the "Get/Give" details of the sticky notes. What the task needs or will "Get" and what the task will do or "Give" to the next task.
All contractors plan forward when determining how a job/task will be completed. In doing so, many assumptions are made and often not discussed. Planning in reverse causes each trade to identify specifically what it needs to perform its tasks. This opens the discussion to more meaningful dialogue on how each trade thinks (assumes) the work will be done. Assumptions are challenged and sometimes modified to better execute the job.
Planning in reverse makes it is easier to identify the actual time to complete the phase by adding up the times of all tasks. Each task is to have the best estimate of time to complete it with no contingencies added. This facilitates identifying and managing float opportunities.
Prepare for the session. These best practices involve preparing for the phase planning session:
- The trades should participate in a brief Lean training, including the basics of value, the seven wastes, and how the Lean planning system works.
- Before the session, the superintendent should discuss with each trade any technical unresolved issues and any outstanding RFIs or submittals. By resolving these or identifying how they will be addressed outside of the meeting, it can save time in the meeting. It will avoid discussions that only the involved one trade and the superintendent. This wastes the time of all the other trades in the meeting.
- The trades should prepare the sticky notes (tasks to do for the milestone) before the pull planning session to save much time in the session. For this to work, the trades must be aware of the way the sticky notes are used in the pull planning session. By preparing the notes (or at least listing the tasks to be done) before the meeting, it ensures the foreman has reviewed the scope of work and developed the execution plan.
Use a Bin. Phase planning sessions can last from one to four hours. The length is based on the size of the milestone and the learning curve of the construction team. However, if the superintendent engages in a detailed discussion with only one trade regarding issues not relevant to the pull planning session, it extends the session length. Time may also be killed discussing something that no one in the meeting can answer. Avoid these energy-killing interruptions to the session by using the effective facilitator technique called a "Bin" or "Parking Lot." These non-relevant issues are noted or "parked" on a list to be addressed outside of the meeting or at a later date when more information can be gathered.
Require the right people in the meeting. One critical practice for effective pull planning sessions is to require the foreman for each trade to participate. The PM should also attend if possible, but never in place of the foreman. The foreman is the plan executioner and needs to be part of the decisions and commitments made in the planning session. Whenever another level of management participates in the planning without the foreman, a disconnect occurs in the follow-through in the weekly work plans.
If there are possible questions regarding owner priorities or expectations, a good practice is to have the owner and/or the architect or design people in the meeting. A lot of time can be saved, and this interaction also builds understanding among the trades of the customer's needs and wants.
Visuals help in planning. Have the plans available - and even better, show the plans on the computer screen. This will speed up understanding and resolve questions. One pull planning session used the BIM model to simulate the install sequence for a series of rooms. They then watched it in a different sequence and were able to have the trades decide on the most effective sequence. One caution is to use the technology to enhance the pull planning session and avoid turning the session into a clash resolution session.
Review phase plan as a draft. After the pull planning session is complete, a best practice is to record the collaborative plan into whatever scheduling technology (Excel, Suretrak, etc) and to then share it with all the involved trades as a draft for one last look before it is finalized.
Use KISS. When doing phase planning use the Keep it Sweet and Simple (KISS) approach. Do what works and keep experimenting to try better ways to effectively develop a collaborate plan. It is called PDCA or Plan Do Check Act in Lean.